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from A Sermon for the Third Sunday after Trinity

Fr. Robert Crouse

St. John the Evangelist, Montreal, June 17 AD 1994

“All of you be subject to one another, and be clothed with humility:

for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble”


In the cycle of the Christian year, in the ancient lectionary – that cycle of Epistle and Gospel which has served the Church for well over a millennium and will survives in our Book of Common Prayer, the essential message of Holy Scripture – God’s word to us – is set before us on an orderly and supremely logical way. As we follow the lessons appointed for the Sundays and great festivals, as we meditate upon them, as we open our minds and hearts to understand the pattern and meaning of them, we are led step by step into an ever deeper and clearer perception of Christian truth and the essentials of Christian life.


In the first half of the year, from Advent to Trinity Sunday, the cycle of Lessons sets before us in due succession those great works wherein the mind and heart of God are manifest in Jesus Christ, those great works whereby our redemption and reconciliation are accomplished, and we are called to new life in the Spirit.  All the teaching, all that revelation and illumination is magnificently summed up in our adoring contemplation of God the Holy Trinity.  A door is opened in heaven and our souls are caught up in worship, with angels and archangels.  We “rise to adore the mystery of love”.  Our conversation is indeed in heaven.  We are children of God and heirs of eternal life. 


The logic of the lectionary for this long season of Sundays after Trinity is perhaps not so immediately apparent.  But the logic is there, and I think it is important that we understand it, because what is involved is a pattern, or a spiritual system, a design for our sanctification, our growth in holiness, our coming to maturity in Christian life.  For half the year, we have celebrated the manifestation of God’s love, and now, in this Trinity season, we draw certain practical conclusions from all that.  The basis, the starting-point of this programme of practical spirituality is set out in the very first lesson for the season, from the First Epistle of St. John:


            Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.


You see, it is the manifestation of God’s love which is the basis of Christian spiritual life.  The starting-point is the divine love:


Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son to be the propitiation of our sins.


That is the basis and starting-point, and therefore the lessons for the first few Sundays after Trinity concentrate upon various aspects of the manifest love of God, and draw out the practical implications for us.  Thus, on the first Sunday, the theme is the self-giving charity of God; and the necessity of emulating that as the ground of our spiritual life is practically illuminated in the parable of Dives and Lazarus.  Thus, on the second Sunday, the theme is the infinite generosity of God’s charity, with the practical lesson illustrated in the parable of the great supper and the reluctant guests.  On this third Sunday, the theme is the humility of God's charity, and that's what we must think about especially this morning.


In the Gospel lesson, the story begins with the publicans and sinners gathered around Jesus to hear him.  The publicans were the tax-collectors, and were not very highly regarded, for various reasons.  In the first place they were seen as collaborationists, or lackeys of the foreign Roman overlords; but beyond that, they were in a very dubious position morally: the Roman government farmed out the tax-collection to local agents, and gave each a quota to raise as best he could.  The agent's own income would depend upon whatever extra he could squeeze out of his unwilling victims.  To speak of a publican was to speak of the most despicable sinner imaginable - Not at all the sort of person with whom a teacher of religion should associate!


That's what the Pharisees and Scribes complained about - "murmured" about: "This man receiveth sinners and eateth with them."  These Scribes and Pharisees were notoriously righteous; they were the scrupulous interpreters, and observers of the law, and they thought that Jesus ought to pay attention to them, instead of cavorting with unworthy publicans.


Jesus told them two stories: the story of the lost sheep, and the story of the lost coin.  And the point of those stories is surely very simple: salvation is for those who need salvation, for those who are lost: "joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth more than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance."  Certainly, the Scribes and Pharisees also needed repentance and salvation, but they did not think so; they stood proudly upon their worthiness, their righteousness as observers of the law.  Their sin did not consist in their keeping of the law, of course - the law is holy and just and good - their sin consisted rather in the pride wherein they despised the Publicans.


The lesson, then, is this: the self-giving and infinitely generous charity of God cares for all with watchful providence: and it is a humble charity, which descends and condescends to the lowest: "God resisteth the proud and giveth grace unto the humble," says our Epistle.  And once again, the manifest love of God, now manifest in humility, is to be emulated: "All of you be subject to one another, and be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble."


To put this in more theological terms: what we have here is a lesson about the absolute priority of God's grace in the work of salvation: grace which is not according to any human merit or worthiness, but God's free and infinitely generous gift.  And therefore there is no place for human pride.  As our Collect indicates, even our desire to pray is God's grace.  So pride, you see, is just a vicious deceit; it is the work of the devil, who, "as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour."  Therefore, "be sober, be vigilant."


The intent of these lessons, and the lessons for the following Sundays, is to show how the virtues and graces of Christian life are based upon and derived from the manifest charity of God, God's free grace, the mystery of love; and thus, the lectionary for the Trinity season offers us a systematic, logically ordered, biblical, moral and spiritual theology.  The character of this ancient Eucharistic lectionary is often misunderstood and misconstrued.  It's not and was never intended to be a substitute for Bible reading and Bible study; that can be done much more completely and thoroughly in other contexts: in the Daily Offices, in Bible study groups, in private study, with the help of commentaries, and so on.


The Eucharistic lectionary offers, instead, a systematic doctrinal, moral and spiritual teaching, by way of Biblical texts; and none of the many recent alternative lectionaries even begin to serve that purpose.  It's an important - really, a basic part of our Christian heritage, ancient and ecumenical, which it seems to me we must receive thankfully, cherish devoutly, and ponder in our minds and hearts week by week.  May God's grace support us in that undertaking.