The First Sunday After Trinity
June 23, 2019
In the name of...
The well-known Latin phrase ‘Lex Orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi’ describes a truth of our Christian journey: the way in which we pray is the way we will believe and live. The daily office we say twice a day, the Eucharistic mass we join in on Sunday, and our own personal devotions throughout the week - all prayer is a formative discipline: it aligns our mind to God’s truth even while it keeps us grounded in His presence.
This is why as Anglicans we take our prayer book so seriously, because beneath all the beautiful and reverent words lies catholic Christian orthodoxy: authentic and accurate belief which has been time-tested over thousands of years and that the church has fought long and hard for. If we get it wrong then we risk coming to believe and behave in error. Consequently, we should always be cautious about the call to modernize or alter our liturgies. There is more at stake than just old-fashioned words we’ve all grown used to. The long history of how Christian theology has developed and been clarified by the doctors of the church over the millennia can be found in just a few lines of a collect for the day. And as we pray these words together we are taking part in what the one, holy, and apostolic church has kept safe for us throughout the ages.
This morning’s collect is a prime example of this, and it warrants some meditation upon. Listen again: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without thee, grant us the help of thy grace, that in keeping thy commandments we may please thee, both in will and deed.
“We can do no good thing without thee”. The collect then states that in order to keep God’s commandments we need God’s help because our mortal nature is weak. The reading here then is that God’s grace is not just effective, it is essential for our obedience because our human nature prevents us from pleasing God and keeping his commandments. According to this prayer, no one can do what God wants if God doesn’t grant them the power to do so.
How does this idea sit with you? Do you feel you need God’s help to do what He wants you to do? When it’s put this way, you might have a few different reactions. Those who have been formed by daily scripture reading and prayers of our tradition and put in a contrite stance towards God, hopefully wholeheartedly say, “Yes, of course! We rely wholly on his ‘manifold and great mercies’ because we are ‘miserable offenders’ and ‘there is no health in us’, to use some classic Anglican phrasing. Or as St. Paul put it, “I know that nothing good dwells in me...For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out”, Romans 7.
This position, this hunch that God must be behind any good deed or decision we make was best described by St. Augustine, one of the church’s greatest thinkers and certainly one of the most influential in the West. And if, like me, you get confused about how to say his name just remember that St AWW-gus-teen is in Florida and St Au-GUS-tin is in Heaven, and you don’t want to mix up those two places. And apologies to Bob Dylan.
St. Augustine wrote in his book Confessions the famous line, “Give us what You command, and command what You will”. Augustine was convinced that we are incapable of pleasing God alone and must rely on God’s active and transformative grace in our lives because of our fallen nature, what in the western church we hold to be the result of Original Sin. This was Augustine’s reading of the Bible regarding the state of human nature but also what he understood the grace of God to be.
Others throughout history and up to today, however, have seen this as a difficult idea to accept: Why would God require something of us that we cannot actually do? It wouldn’t be fair for me to ask my young son to drive to the store for me and then punish him when he crashed the car, so how can it be fair for God to tell us to follow the Ten Commandments if that were completely outside our ability to do so. And also - why can’t we do any “good thing” on our own? Don’t we have the free will to choose righteousness? Aren’t we the captains of our own souls? Don’t even unbelievers give to charity, stand up to injustice, tell the truth from time to time, pay their taxes, and brush their teeth twice a day? Sometimes, you must admit, they do these “good things” even better than their Christian neighbors.
After reading Augustine’s treatise, a British monk named Pelagius was outraged and wrote in response, “God has not willed to command anything impossible, for God is righteous; and will not condemn anyone for something they can’t help.” Pelagius was a monk and his number one agenda was to reform what he saw as a morally lax Christianity near the end of the Roman empire. Pelagius wanted to spur on moral reform and ascetic discipline in his fellow Christians. His ideas caught on. Pelagius and his colleagues began to teach a popular set of beliefs known as Pelagianism and Augustine, a bishop way out in Africa who came to the faith relatively late in life, was their chief opponent.
In brief, the argument that threatened to split the church had to do with how we understand human nature on the one hand and God’s grace on the other. Pelagius did not subscribe to the idea of our nature being fallen because of original sin, and he saw God’s grace simply as God’s decision to provide us with the Law and Jesus’s moral example -- providing us the goal post as it were - external and passive. Augustine, however, held that human nature is incapable of good. Our natural state is only to disobey, and though we have free will our bias is always towards sin. It is only by the grace of God, which is present and active internally in every baptized Christian, that we regain the ability to please God. For Augustine Jesus is not just the divine example of what we should strive for, he is the divine physician who heals us and makes us whole. We are all the lame man Jesus encountered in the marketplace who first must be healed by Jesus’s word ‘Arise!’ before we can follow his command to take up our mat and go our way.
Eventually the Church sided with Augustine and rejected Pelagianism. They recognized that however well-intended Pelagius was, the belief that we can do it on our own did not line up scripture and would result in a religion not unlike Judaism in which the focus is on one’s own observance of the rules and not on the endless grace of God. One of the Canons agreed upon and adopted at the Synod of Carthage is worded as: “Without the grace of God we can do no good thing”, which is very similar to our collect this morning.
And what are these good things that God wants us to do? Jesus said that all Mosaic Law and the exhortation of the prophets came down to loving God and loving our neighbor. The question for the Pelagius and Augustine would be then, are we capable of loving God and one another on our own? Remember that the Pelagians believed Moses and the prophets were what God’s grace was all about. So is simply telling us we should love one another and pointing at the example of Jesus enough?
The Bible seems clearly to say no. God does infinitely more for us. St. John writes in our epistle lesson this morning that “love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God...We know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit”. John also writes that for us even to confess faith in Jesus, God must abide in us and we in Him. John’s choice of words here: born of God, abide in us, be perfected in his love - all these make it clear that God’s grace is not just an external, passive goal post as the Pelagians held. It is the intimate and transformative work of the Holy Spirit.
One of the verses in the Bible that most often gets misconstrued and misinterpreted is found in this chapter of John’s epistle: “God is love”. I’ve lost count of how many times I have seen this on t-shirts, signs, slogans, and used to justify some unjustifiable practices in the church today. The problem is that, like Pelagius, we still seem to think we are capable of knowing what love is and how to love and therefore we can deduce who God is and what would please him. But if we read the whole chapter here we see that John is saying exactly the opposite: we don’t know what love is or how to do it, but we can know God because he has revealed himself in his Son in order to “make manifest” his love to us. In this God is love equation, then, we must first know God in order to understand the love that he asks of us. We must define love - the real kind of love that pleases God - by what we know about God, and not define God by what we think we know about love.
“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son…” True love, says St. John, originates with God and not in the human heart. The Father, who loved his creation, sent his Son to be the way back into that eternal love. John writes, “as he is so also are we in this world”. God is love and by his spirit we now make the love of God visible to the fallen world. How could anyone think we could accomplish something so miraculous on our own?
The rich man in the gospel lesson today certainly did not love his neighbor as himself. Both the Law and the Prophets have stern warnings about neglecting the poor. Concerned for his family, the rich man begged for Lazarus to return and tell them to mend their ways. Abraham points out that they have the Law and the Prophets. But the rich man knew that this wasn’t enough; it certainly hadn’t been for him. The rich man knew that the help his family needed had to be more than just an external, passive Pelagian goal post. Surely a wondrous sign, a miraculous resurrection - that would be the help his family needed. But Abraham tells him that none of these would be enough.
What the rich man needed, what we all need, is what God has promised in the words of Ezekiel, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone...and give you a heart of flesh”. St. Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away...the new has come” and in Romans, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin”. The grace of God is at work in your life, renewing your mind and giving you a new heart capable of loving God and your neighbor. The profoundness of this truth is humbling. It is why St. Paul writes that as we live out the Christian life it should be with “fear and trembling”.
A final quote from St. Augustine, to whom the church owes much. “We carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you, God, thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.”
Brothers and sisters, in this Trinity season as we are directed to focus on our spiritual growth, let us pay special attention to the prayers we say together. Keep an ear out for how our worship helps us realize just how much we rely on what God has given us to do all that he asks of us.
In the Name...