O Merciful God, who hast made all men, and hatest nothing
that thou hast made, nor desirest the death of a sinner, but rather that
he should be converted and live; Have mercy upon all who know thee not
as thou art revealed in the Gospel of thy Son. Take from them all ignorance,
hardness of heart, and contempt of they Word; and so fetch them home, blessed
Lord, to thy fold, that they may be made one flock under one shepherd,
Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit,
one God, world without end. (Third Collect of Good Friday)
This prayer, written in 1549, combines a number of much older prayers
used on Good Friday during the Middle Ages. It is a prayer for the lost
sheep of God, made up of all those who do not know God as he reveals himself
in the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, and who therefore know God imperfectly
at best or know him not at all. The oldest English version of this prayer
was even more specific, offering a list of lost sheep in particular, which
included "Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Hereticks."
Our modern squeamishness about such a blatant "naming of names" may
obscure for us an important observation about the time in which this prayer
was written, as well as inhibiting an important admission about our own
world. In 1549, the scattered sheep of God fell easily into one of those
four categories of "Jews, Turks, Infidels, and Hereticks." Even though
the Reformation was a time of religious turmoil, most people who called
themselves "Christians" really were Christians, except for the outright
heretics who publicly denied some crucial doctrine of God.
Throughout the Christian world on Good Friday, and despite the religious
controversies of the age, all work would stop in honor of the crucifixion
of Jesus Christ. The flock of Christ would gather in his churches and make
it their primary duty on that day to get down on their knees to thank their
Father in heaven for the remission of their sins in the Blood of the Eternal
Son, who became incarnate to die for us as our Savior and our Lord.
Not so today. Many who call themselves "Christians" will approach Good
Friday and the death of Jesus Christ with the same mind as the "Jews, Turks,
Infidels, and Hereticks" of 1549, having become indistinguishable from
them in the year 2000. They will judge the crucifixion of Jesus as merely
an unfortunate political accident in ancient Palestineóbad luck for him,
but not affecting the rest of the world very much. They will separate the
fact that God does not hate anything that he has made, and the fact that
God does not desire the death of a sinner, from the fact that God likewise
wills that no human being should remain in the sinful, fallen life that
he was born with.
Whether from ignorance, hardness of heart, or contempt for the Word
of God given by the Holy Ghost in the Holy Scriptures, these modern lost
sheep, no matter how many church affiliations they claim, will believe
anything but the truth that every life which is not joined to Jesus Christís
death and resurrection by grace and a spiritual conversion must end in
We must not romanticize the past, or even the Christians of the past.
On the contrary, it may have been the very awfulness of the past that helped
earlier generations of Christians to understand how Godís desire that sinners
should live was no sort of bland, generalized good will that left every
man to do as he wished according to his own private conscience or personalized
Physical death in all of its forms was a constant companion in their
daily lives. Husbands buried wives, wives buried husbands, and parents
buried sons and daughters. They knew what it meant to watch the death of
someone they loved, and they could imagine what it meant for God the Father
to watch the death of his Son Jesus Christ on the cross, and even to will
the death of his Son so that their lives could be radically changed and
saved. Such a will is not the token of a sloppy, casual mercy, but the
most concrete statement possible of the hatefulness of sin and of Godís
desire that mankind should be rescued from it.
Those people knew battle, murder, and sudden death (as the Litany still
witnesses), and they knew public executions. They knew the viciousness
of the taunting and spitting of the crowds that assembled to watch a man
die. They knew that a whip tore a man to shreds, so that he could barely
hold himself together with both hands, and so they knew why Simon of Cyrene
had to carry Jesusí cross. They knew the sights and sounds of metal hammered
through human flesh, the sudden rush of blood, and the muscles tensed unbearably
against the pain. They knew what it meant for the man on the scaffold to
strangle slowly, to suffocate as every function of his body is made his
enemy and his executioner. And they knew that the Son of God had gone through
all of this, had suffered all of this, for them.
As late as the year 1900, when the average life expectancy in this country
was still only 40 or 45 years, most Americans were still able to understand
the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This same sort of closeness to the awful
realities of life, which are the concrete manifestations of the results
of sin, still pertains in many developing countries, where the Church is
growing rapidly because most of their people are still able to say "Jesus
suffered all these terrible things that I know too well, and he suffered
the very worst of them, for me."
We live in a more comfortable world, insulated from a great many of
the physical terrors of fallen earthly life, although our newspaper headlines
testify to the continued depravity of the unredeemed heart. There is no
sin in being well fed, well housed, or well taken care of medically, although
it is sinful to despise those who are not and never to consider what it
would mean to find ourselves in their place.
But we have stopped thinking of these blessings as blessings, or as
the products of centuries of Christian civilization, but only as our due.
Our sense of entitlement makes us despise or ignore the source of our blessings,
whether it is Godís good will, the death of his Son for our redemption,
or all of the human labor that has produced the physical benefits we enjoy.
We act as if we will live forever by virtue of our technology and wealth,
and we pretend that no matter what happens we are entitled to salvation
on our own terms.
Our sense of entitlement and material satisfaction make us our own worst
enemies and the pawns of Satan, and rather like the simple-minded "natives"
in an old adventure story, willing to sell our birth-right for a handful
of shiny beads. Gratitude, after all, is the first and most powerful weapon
against Satan and his works. If we would just see ourselves as ordinary
human beings with the same problems and challenges that have confronted
human life throughout history, we would learn to be more grateful for what
we have, and our gratitude would necessarily lead us closer to God.
We would, for example, be able to put ourselves in Abrahamís place and
to understand his fear and trembling before God. We could learn to share
Abrahamís joy that God would not take his son Isaac as a sacrifice for
sin, but provide a lamb of his own for a sin offering. We would understand
what an earthshaking blessing it was, and is, that God will not take any
of our children as a sacrifice for sin, but has offered his own Son in
all their places. And by learning to be grateful for our childrenís lives,
we would learn to be grateful for our own.
If we would practice gratitude, we would understand what it means to
call Jesus Christ the holy Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the
world. We could enter into the anticipation of Isaiah the Prophet for the
coming of this Lamb of God, We could recite Isaiahís words with the same
wonder and humility that have moved the hundred generations of Christians
who have preceded us:
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did
esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded
for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement
of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like
sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the
LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).
The central fact of every human life is thisóthe Son of God has endured
these agonies and shed his Blood for us. The farther we move from the Cross
of Jesus Christ, the more lost we become, and the less human we make ourselves,
because the essence of true humanity (as well as of true divinity) hangs
before us on the cross.
The prayer for Godís lost sheep with which we began is a prayer for
conversion, which means literally "with a turning." The turn that every
one of us must make to be found, saved, and complete in our humanity, is
to turn to the cross of Jesus Christ. Whatever brings us closer to Christ
is a blessing, and whatever keeps us away from him is a curse. Good Friday
is a day to shed our curses as freely and as fully as Jesus Christ shed
his Blood for us.
Please note: These sermons are offered for your meditation.
If you wish to use them for some other purpose or republish them, please
credit St. Andrewís Church and Dr. Tarsitano.