True Glory and True Prayer (Trinity XI sermon)

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1 Corinthians 15:1-11       St Luke 18:9-14

 

His grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain.
[1 Cor 15:10]

 

In this Trinity season, we are beginning to learn about something new that happens in us, as our passions, the expression of our love outwardly, are ordered.

Last Sunday, our Gospel was Christ cleansing the Temple.  Prayer is being awakened in us and at the same time we are discovering there are many busy voices within us.  Jesus promises to quiet them down in time – he will cleanse the temple that we are made to be.  He is willing to teach us daily, inwardly, as we listen for his voice.

And this is a new way of being Christian.  As our lives are being founded upon Jesus in a more solid way, we begin to taste and enjoy heavenly treasure inwardly.  Last week some of those treasures were described by St Paul – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues and the interpretation of tongues.  This is the first fruits of the resurrection life in us even now.

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Today we are being asked by Jesus to reflect on what can happen in the spiritual life as we become more able, by grace, to order our lives outwardly, that is, as we become, by grace, more righteous.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.

The Pharisee tells us about himself: he is not an extortioner (meaning that in business, he does not obtain things by violence or intimidation); he is just in his dealings with others (that is, he’s honest); he is not an adulterer (he’s faithful to his wife); and he fasts twice in the week (he’s taking seriously the call to order his desire for food and drink); and he gives tithes of all he possesses (that he might overcome covetousness in his soul)Here is an example of someone who is following in every way outwardly the precepts of the commandments.  No one could complain about his dealings with other people: he’s not murdering, committing adultery, stealing, bearing false witness, coveting.  He’s also following outwardly other commandments – worshipping the one God in the Temple, not idols, he is, as far as we know, observing the Sabbath, honouring his parents, and not using the Lord’s name in vain (or is he?).

And this could be each one of us, when our lives become more ordered outwardly through our faith in Christ.  A regular pattern of worship, not bowing before anything but God, doing our duties outwardly, generally honest and faithful, and relating to the good things in creation in a temperate way.

And yet Jesus says that the Pharisee in his prayer will not go down to his house justified – that means, he will not be right with God, he is not living in truth, he does not know deep peace, he is not obtaining God’s gracious promises nor partaking of God’s heavenly treasure (as we prayed for this morning in the Collect).

Here’s the astounding thing about the Christian faith.  It is possible to do everything right outwardly and still fail to obtain the true desire of our hearts – to be filled with Christ, filled with his Spirit, and lifted even in this life into the heights of heaven – to live the resurrection life.

It is a matter vital for us to understand:  We are to turn the focus of our attention now, not just to what we do outwardly, but to what’s going on in our minds, in our thoughts, inwardly, to our inner motivations.  Why are we seeking to be righteous?  Is it so that we look good in other peoples’ eyes?  Is it for acceptance?  Is it for their praises?  Or are we being righteous out of a love for God who calls us to holiness and makes us righteous?

Jesus says today that there is a test that we can give ourselves to see if our growth in holiness outwardly is accompanied by a new heart.

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt…And here is the key…and treated others with contempt.

He’s not saying we should not aim to be righteous outwardly – he wants that!  He’s come to make us holy!  But what is going on in our hearts, in our minds inwardly, when we are confronted by our fellow Christians?  Do we despise repentant sinners in our midst?  Are we involved inwardly in a kind of game of placing ourselves above others in our mind in a hierarchy of holiness?

Here are a couple of reasons why this is so wrong:

  • For one thing, it’s not true.  Whatever goodness that is being revealed in our life as Christian believers – it’s by grace that this is happening, not by something we are to take pride in. It is as if we’ve suddenly forgotten it’s God’s work in us.  Suddenly we’ve stolen the credit and all is lost.  We’ve chased Jesus out of the Temple, and our inner beauty in Christ is lost.
  • For another thing, we are remarkably poor judges of our achievements, and the achievements of others in the spiritual life – we have an incomplete idea of what other people are struggling with as they seek to grow in grace. The Pharisee despised the Tax Collector, because he was seen by Jews as a traitor doing work for the Romans, collecting their taxes.  But can he really judge the man’s inner life or worth?  (joke told by Eugene Vodolazkin, author of Laurus – a priest and bus driver…we are notoriously bad and judging the spiritual worth of our work.)

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In the Epistle this morning we have the example of St. Paul put before us.  And this is a great example when we remember who St. Paul was before he met Christ and who he became in Christ.  Before St. Paul became a Christian he was Saul, the self-righteous Pharisee.  In Philippians he says of himself,

Circumcised the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;… as to righteousness under the law, blameless.  But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (not just faith in Jesus, but real knowing).  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things (his reputation in that whole world, probably his wealth), and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (trusting in the blood of Jesus to wash him inwardly): that I may know him (faith leading to real knowing), and the power of his resurrection (not just in the life to come but even in this life, that inward renewal, leading us to action in the world).  [Php. 3:5-10]

In this morning’s reading, St. Paul speaks about having seen Jesus risen, and how that knowledge has not been received by him in vain.  He tells us he worked harder than all the other disciples, yet acknowledges it was not him, but the grace of God working in him.

Jesus didn’t die for us that we might become self-righteous Pharisees, satisfied with a certain outward orderliness of life and thinking we did it, aren’t we great.  Rather, Jesus died and rose again that we might continue in the journey towards God inwardly – not just believing in Jesus, but knowing him inwardly, and experiencing his resurrection in our life now.

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There are a few antidotes to becoming vain in the spiritual life and undermining all our growth in Christ.

First, we keep one eye fixed on Jesus, and the other eye turned not on our outward achievements, which are by grace, but inwardly, on ourselves and how we are doing in comparison with Jesus – then we will always recognize of our need of grace.

As we grow in the Christian life we begin to see ourselves and those around us more plainly for who we all truly are – sinners in need of grace.  For each one of us it is always the case that some are less mature than we are and some are more mature than we are.  We don’t look at those who are less mature and think ourselves better.  Rather, we recognize every one of us as covered in the same righteous blood of Jesus and so we are accounted righteous in God’s eyes and are also being made righteous by God.

We are all caught up, together, in a movement of ascension towards or into the life of God.  We are deepening in holiness and ever deepening in our love of God and neighbour.  We don’t despise those who are failing and repenting in our midst, because we are all failing and in need of repentance… continually.  We say the confession…together, we hear the words of God’s mercy towards us…together!  Instead of treating others with contempt, we find ourselves reaching out with a loving hand to those whom we can help and ever in need of those above us who reach out to us – more mature Christians and, in fact, for the help of the saints and the whole angelic realm sent by God to help us on our journey.

Have a look at the second image on your service sheet – it comes from an illuminator of a 12th century manuscript of the gospels – he put this image beside this Gospel story.  It shows a different relation to one another – we are to be priests, in a sense, for one another, rather than despising, we are interceding, lifting one another up.

It’s not Jesus’ way to treat us with contempt who are unrighteous, so why would we treat with contempt those who are unrighteous in our midst?

And in this state we can go to our homes justified.  Humble, in amazement that we are all living and growing in faith and wisdom and knowledge and love because we are under the same mercy of God.

Finally, the tax collector uses a prayer – God, be merciful to me, a sinner.  Do you recognize this?  It is the basis of the Jesus Prayer:  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Some might be concerned that saying this prayer over and over in our minds, is about pressing our noses into the dirt, keeping us down.  But it is not about remembering past sins – they have been forgiven…perfectly.  Instead it is about our ongoing life, it is about being honest – with the incredible gifts God gives us, with the missed opportunities to use them, the missed opportunities to witness to him, and our ongoing failures to perfection because of our inner motivations, surely there is not a saint on earth who could not see vast room for growth.

It is a prayer that Jesus says, is a humbling of ourselves, that will lead to our being exalted.

Let us prepare ourselves now, together, through repentance and faith, together, to be counted and made righteous, together, as we receive the Body and Blood of the Lamb.

Amen +

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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2