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The Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Fr. David Curry

Christ Church, Windsor Nova Scotia, AD 2004

Holy Baptism and Holy Communion


“Friend, go up higher”


It is one of those wonderful biblical phrases that can act like a maxim, an ordering principle, for how we proceed with our lives.  In this case, this phrase, along with “set love in order” from the Song of Songs,  provides the biblical maxims governing my understanding and approach to the pastoral and priestly ministry.  It is about “set[ting] love in order” and constantly raising the bar, challenging each of you as “friend[s]” in the Gospel of Christ to “go up higher”.  You see, Jesus wants more for us; he wants the very best for us and he expects the very best from us.  Against the easy complacency and acceptance of mediocrity in our world and day, and, especially, in our churches stands this challenging statement; “Friend, go up higher”


We may not like to be challenged.  We may not like the implication of such a call.  It means accepting, after all, that things are not altogether excellent, right or good with us in our lives.  We may prefer instead to expect God to take us as we are, “to bless our mess”, as it were, and to leave us where we are and to make no demands of us.  But that is not the Christian religion.  That is neither true mercy nor genuine charity.  It is fundamentally false.  It denies the transforming power of God’s grace in human lives. 


And if we are hostile to this teaching, then we are exactly like those before whom Jesus speaks and acts.  There was a healing done on the Sabbath under the watchful eyes of hostility.  There was a parable spoken in the face of resentful silence; a parable told to counter our arrogance and our hypocrisy, a parable told to challenge us.  Jesus speaks and acts.  He teaches.  At issue, then and now, is whether we will be teachable.  Only so can we ever hope to “walk worthy of the vocation wherewith [we] are called”


Make no mistake; we are called.  There is the inescapable and challenging fact of our common vocation.  We have heard the Gospel.  We may be in some doubt or uncertainty about how to understand certain things and how exactly to act in certain circumstances but for the most part there is little ambiguity about the call to love and service in Jesus’ name, to the loving worship of God with the whole of our being.  Our uncertainties often mask something much more serious, namely, our willing unwillingness; in short, our despair, our denial and our disobedience.  The problem really isn’t that we don’t know better.  The problem is whether we are willing to press on with the upward call of our faith. 


We are called out of ourselves and we are called to God.  We are called to the service of God in our life together with one another in the body of Christ. It is really the purpose of our being here today, a purpose which must extend into every aspect of our lives.  We cannot just be Sunday Christians.  Nor can we pretend that we are Christians in our week-day lives if we are not worshipping God in his Church on Sundays.  The struggle is to be faithful to Christ in all aspects of our lives.  That means the constant struggle to allow God’s grace to “set [our] love[s] in order”.  That means the constant struggle to “go up higher”, to seek our perfection in the grace of Christ with humility and in charity, without presuming ourselves to be better than others or, and, this is our contemporary problem in the churches especially, without yielding to the tyranny of mediocrity, as if to say, that the second-rate and the left-over is good enough, particularly for the church. 


St. Paul reminds us to the qualities of that vocation, about how we should seek to be, about how we should act, namely “with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forebearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”.  These qualities arise from the doctrine, the teaching, which has been given to us and without which these qualities cannot live in us.  “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all and in you all”


It is a high calling, to be sure.  And it would be impossible except for this.  The means whereby it is accomplished in us is the same as what has been shown to us.  Jesus himself is the teaching.  He is what he says.  In other words, it is grace – what comes from God to us.  Grace goes before us and follows after us, as the Collect puts it.  “Prevent” in its older and fuller sense does not mean hinder but a “going” or a “coming before”.  Our grace-ordered lives are about the teaching, the doctrine, of Christ living in us.  Our being teachable is about whether we will allow the teaching to live in us.  You see, it is given to be known and lived. 


“Friend, go up higher” is not about our presumption but our calling.  Christ has come to where we are but not to leave us there.  He wants something better for us.  He has come to us and we find our vocation in him, in what he says to us and in what he does for us.  Our vocation is about the quality of our being with him. 


Christ is not simply the visitor who comes in and out of our lives.  He is the Ultimate Other, or stranger who has become the intimate neighbour in our midst to communicate to us his abiding love for us.  We live in that love.  As love it is not something static and unmoving.  It is dynamic and challenging.  It calls us to something more.  “Friend, go up higher” signals the dynamic and transforming quality of the grace of Christ in our lives.  We are on a journey, a pilgrimage in which there is to be a deepening of our understanding of the faith. 


The comings and goings of Christ as he makes his way through the entire landscape of creation, having “set his face to go to Jerusalem”, does not mean that Jesus is merely the visitor in our midst, here today and gone tomorrow.  No, by his incarnate presence he encounters all and every place and aspect of our humanity to bring us into his abiding love, the love in which we find our highest good and the perfection of our being.  The story of the raising of the only son of the widow of Nain, for instance, shows us that God not only comes near but that he enters into the very fabric of our lives.  Such is the Incarnation.  Jesus is the Father’s Word and Son who has identified himself with us as “the Word made flesh”.  He has come down to us so as to raise us up into higher understanding of God and ourselves.  He has identified himself with us only so as to bring us into his essential identity as the Son of the Father in the bond of the Holy Spirit, the communion of the Trinity.  Such is his grace.  We are raised up by the love of God and into the love of God.  “Friend, go up higher”


Christ is not simply collapsed into the world to be taken captive by the culture, to become another casualty on the highway of life, another mediocrity in the triumph of mediocrity that defeats us all.  Such is not the meaning of the Incarnation.  A proper incarnational theology seeks to be in the midst of the world’s confusions but with the clarity of Christ’s teaching and in the quiet confidence of the Gospel.  Our constant struggle is to be teachable so as to let that teaching live in us.  It isn’t a question of our intellectual capacities.  Those vary from one person to another, for there are varieties of gifts, including different gifts of understanding.  No.  What is at issue is always our willingness, our willingness to learn each “according to the capacity of the beholder to behold”.  What stands in the way is our pride, our hostilities, our envyings and our resentments; in short, our wills.  Indeed, even our claim to mediocrity, endlessly crying ‘the poor-me’s’ and ‘I can’t do that’ are but the protestations of pride.  The antidote is humility.


Humility is not about putting ourselves down which is not to say that it means putting ourselves up! Rather, it is about our being open to God’s raising us up.  It is about our being open to the motions of God’s grace in our lives, to what, in fact, is proclaimed and set before us here in our liturgy and service.  The true and proper note of humility is sung by Mary; “be it unto me according to thy word”.  Through her Christ comes to us who calls out to us, “Friend, go up higher”. 


That call is present here in our liturgy.  “Lift up your hearts” so that the whole of your life can be lifted up into the presence of Christ.  No doubt we shall stumble and stutter but what we seek is always the triumph of his grace in our lives, the triumph of grace that lifts us up out of ourselves and into the vocation to which he has called us.  In him we are lifted up, if we will be teachable. 


“Friend, go up higher”