"Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved,
bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering;
Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel
against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye" (Colossians
I rarely disagree with the editors of our Book of Common Prayer, but
I do think that they over-reached themselves in substituting "a heart of
compassion" for "bowels of mercy" in this morningís Gospel. "Bowels of
mercy," after all, is the literal translation of the original Greek New
Testament, and while "a heart of compassion" is an effort to provide an
example of what that strange expression means, it hides more than it reveals.
For us, in modern English, except in the practice of medicine, "the
heart" is more of a metaphor, a kind of poetic expression that indicates
"love," as in "I love you with all of my heart." And in a week or so, simplified,
stylized "hearts" will appear everywhere as decorations for St. Valentineís
But for the ancient people of the Bible, "love" was more than mental,
more than emotional or psychological, and certainly more than sexual. Moses
or St. Paul probably wouldnít have known what to make of our willingness
to separate the mind or the soul from the body, since they believed, under
the guidance of the rest of the Scriptures and the Holy Ghost, that human
beings were created by God as a united whole of body, mind, and spirit.
When one tried to break a human being into his "parts," say separating
"the mind" from "the body," all one would get was a corpse.
What we have to face this morning is that these ancient Biblical people
were right, and certainly understood human nature better than we do. They
had more than the observations of this world from within this world that
guide modern science. They had divine revelation on their side. We insist
that we must "understand" something before we can "know" it. They, on the
other hand, from their congress with the Living God, would have insisted
that we must "know" something first, trusting in the God who reveals it,
before we can even begin to understand it.
Not that Biblical people were against the evidence of their own experience.
The mighty acts of God in history were part of their experience. So, too,
were what they felt inside themselves when they experienced the range of
human emotions. They didnít say "my mind feels this" or "my body feels
this." They said, "I feel this." And modern science has proved them right.
A person really can die from "a broken heart" and the stresses of life
do affect the body as much as the mind. Battle fatigue, for example, isnít
"mental" or "physical." Itís human.
Thus, St. Paul approaches the mystery of human life, body and soul,
on this earth, when we says, "Put on bowels of mercies." He means more
even than "love" and more even that "a heart of compassion." He expects
us to call up every kind of mercy, even for those that we do not approve
of or for those who have made themselves our enemies, from our "guts"ófrom
everything that is in us, from everything that makes us who we are. He
expects us to become the living examples of mercy, and not merely to think
about it, and especially when some other person doesnít deserve mercy in
our ordinary human calculations.
But why should St. Paul, speaking with and for the Holy Ghost, demand
such a thing? The "bottom line," as we like to call it today, the simplest
and still complete answer is this: "Even as Christ forgave you, so also
do ye." We were not worthy of Godís forgiveness, and we certainly did not
(and could not) be worthy of God the Sonís becoming a man to die for us
upon a cross. We had no right to the nails that pierced Jesus Christís
hands and feet. We had no right to the crown of thorns. We had no right
to the lance that pierced the side of the Word-made-flesh.
We will never deserve such infinite mercies made so physically real
in our fallen world. And if we think about it for a while, we will realize
that the mercy of Christ, who is, of course, our Creator (with his Father
and the Holy Ghost) takes us farther back in time to considering our creation
and the creation of the world. Even before our fall into sin, creation
itself was a mercy of God. We never had a "right" to exist, the sort of
thing that could require God to create us from nothing, especially since
he knew in his infinite knowledge that almost the first thing we would
do with our existence was to rebel against him and sin. We sinned, and
God paid the price for our sin, dying in agony the death of a convicted
criminal on the cross.
That glorious Body of the Son of God on the cross is our only link to
God in heaven, as he ratifies the will of his Father and the truth of revelation
by the offering of his own Divine Person. But God, who is a pure, eternal,
spiritual being (and the source of all being), did not have a body until
God the Son became man. What Jesus Christ did, when he became man, when
he became "incarnate" or "in the flesh," was to "put on bowels of mercies."
Jesus Christ demonstrated by a perfect human life that human nature
restored to its created dignity as the image and likeness of God could
manifest the character of God. And what he showed us of Godís character
was precisely what St. Paul demands of us this morning. He showed us, by
the human life of the Son of God made man, "kindness, humbleness of mind,
meekness, and long-suffering," forbearing his rights as the Eternal God
to forgive us and to die for us.
God is, of course, all-powerful; but when we think of power in our fallenness,
we almost inevitably think of brutality, tyranny, and lording it over others.
Jesus Christ is God, and he is all-powerful. He is also the "brightness
of his [Fatherís] glory" and "the express image of his Person" (Hebrews
1:3). And yet, what does Jesus Christ show us? ó"kindness, humbleness of
mind, meekness, and long-suffering." These are the very character of God,
and the essence of the infinite power of God. The true Lord of all is all
mercy, even as he is all just, without any conflict, without any tyranny,
without any brutality.
When God became man, his divine character was expressed in human flesh
by the "putting on of bowels of mercies." We can say, "Well, thatís easy
for God," but then we would also have to say that the lash was easy, the
nails were easy, and the cross was easy. If we are ever tempted to say
such a thing, by the grace of God, the words will stick in our throats.
Our calling as Christians, as what St. Paul calls "the elect of God,"
those chosen to live eternally with God and called out of the midst of
a sinful world and a sinful human race, is to be exactly what Jesus Christ
is. This calling and the fulfillment of it are not within our power, but
they are within the power of Godís grace. We are called to be "sons of
God" by adoption and grace. We are called back to what God created us to
beóhis image and likeness in human flesh, just as our Lord Jesus Christ
is the perfect expression of Godís character and being in the same human
flesh that he shares with us. We are called to become what Jesus Christ
is, by grace and sanctification, that we might share in the glorification
of his Body at Easter, and receive the perfection of Godís image in us,
by our own rising from the dead on the Last Day.
To become like God in Christ, we must become kind, humble, meek, long-suffering,
"forbearing one another and forgiving one another" as Christ came among
us and forgave us. We cannot do this, and we will not do it, until we seek
the grace of God to "put on bowels of mercies." Mercy must fill us spiritually
and physically. Mercy must become as central to our nature as blood, bone,
or sinew. Every organ of our bodies must become an organ of Godís mercy,
so that the love of our Father in heaven becomes our very heart and soul.
And then we will really be "Christians" in the most precise meaning of
that word, and we will truly be the faithful children who have been empowered
by grace to say, "Our Father" and "thy will be done on earth as it is in