Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sermon: 17 Pentecost (7 September 2008)

Sermon: 17 Pentecost (7 September 2008)
(Exodus 1:8-2:10/Psalm 124/Romans 12:1-8/Matthew 16:13-20)
Uncommon Grace

Both here and in all your churches throughout the whole world,
we adore you, O Christ, and we bless you,
because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world. Amen

I sometimes imagine that if I could find a quite place outdoors just before dawn, and could listen intently enough, I just might hear the still, small voice of God whisper, “Let there be light,” as the sun’s first rays break the horizon. It may be a foolish notion, but it reminds me that every sunrise – every new day – is a gift of God’s grace, a gift freely given to us and to all mankind. It reminds me that God’s compassions never fail; they are new every morning and great is his faithfulness (Lam 3:22,23). It reminds me to sing with the Psalmist and give voice to all creation: This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it (Ps 118:24).

Let us give thanks to God for the common graces, for all his gifts so freely bestowed upon us.

For the beauty of creation, in earth and sky and sea,
We thank you, Lord.

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women,
revealing the image of Christ,
We thank you, Lord.

For our daily food and drink, our homes and families,
and our friends,
We thank you, Lord.

For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,
We thank you, Lord.

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,
We thank you, Lord.

Common graces all –common, not because they are ordinary or to be taken for granted, but common because by God’s providence they are the common, shared property of all humankind. In these common graces God shows no partiality. As our Lord Jesus himself said, the Father “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Mt 5:45b, NAS). The Lord’s brother, James, goes even further: “Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow” (James 1:17, NAS).

Common physical and emotional graces are ours – sunrise and sunset, work and rest, food and drink, love and joy and beauty. But there are common spiritual graces, too, which bear external and internal witness to the presence and character of God.

Never has God left men and women – of any language or nation – without knowledge of himself. No less than the Jews, all cultures have received the common spiritual graces that make God universally known and, just perhaps, worshipped.

Let man look beyond himself, to the skies and to the stars. Creation bears eloquent witness to God.

19 Cæli enarrant

1 The heavens declare the glory of God, *
and the firmament shows his handiwork.

2 One day tells its tale to another, *
and one night imparts knowledge to another.

3 Although they have no words or language, *
and their voices are not heard,

4 Their sound has gone out into all lands, *
and their message to the ends of the world (BCP).

And Paul reminds the Roman church that “ever since the creation of the world his [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20, NRSV). Creation is a common grace that reveals God to all people – to all cultures.

Let man look within himself, to the thoughts which accuse or defend him, to the longings which haunt him. The gentiles, who had no knowledge of the Jewish Law and the covenants, nevertheless knew of justice and righteousness and mercy instinctively, because God had placed this knowledge within them as a common grace.

14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. 15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them 16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all (Rom 2:14-16, NRSV).

And St. Augustine knew that man’s great longings for transcendence, for meaning, for truth and beauty and joy, for immortality point toward the God who gave man these impulses.

Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you – we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you 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 (Augustine, Confessions).

The thoughts of our hearts – our conscience and our longings – are common graces that reveal God to all.

And then there are stories – good dreams C. S. Lewis calls them in Mere Christianity– that, too, are common graces: myths, legends, songs, poems that tell stories of heroes and sacrifice, of gods and incarnation, of death and rising again.

He [God] sent the human race what I call good dreams: I mean those queer stories scattered all through the heathen religions about a God who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given men new life (Mere Christianity).

So many stories – ancient epics and moderns films – turn on the common themes of sin, sacrifice, and redemption. Stories reflect God’s common grace.

Paul gives voice to all these common graces when he speaks to the pagan philosophers on Mars’ Hill in Athens.

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor* he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God* and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,“For we too are his offspring” (Acts 17:22-28, NRSV).

We are God’s offspring – all of us – and we all have a knowledge of God through his common grace. So, we should expect – and we find – the truth of God woven into the fabric of many cultures, many religions. When the Buddha teaches us that life is transitory and filled with suffering, that suffering is caused by our cravings and attachments, and that we can transcend these attachments through wisdom and ethical conduct and mental discipline, he is sharing truth revealed to all men through the common grace of God. When the Hindu Brahmins – priests – tell of the human soul seeking union with the Divine, of man being held accountable for his actions, and of the need to distinguish between reality and illusion, they are sharing truth revealed to all men through the common grace of God. When the atheist models justice and compassion and mercy and righteousness he is acting on truth revealed to all men through the common grace of God.

We all walk together on the common path of common grace toward God: Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, atheists, and Christians. All that is good and true and holy in every culture and every religion is a good and perfect gift of God, a common grace bestowed on us all – perfect gifts imperfectly received.

Do all paths then lead to God after all? No. The path of common grace leads us all toward God, but not to God. We can walk the common path together only so far. There is, at the end of the path of common grace, a stumbling block. That stumbling block is Jesus. At that stumbling block the path forks. We who have traveled the common path of common grace together must now choose. The choice is even now what it was then, then in Caesarea Philippi: the answer to a single question.

13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ 14And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’ (Mt 16:13-14, NRSV).

Who is Jesus: a good man, a superb ethical teacher, a great moral philosopher, a true prophet? Or, perhaps he is more myth than man, more fool than sage, more construct of the church than concrete historical reality?

15He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ 16Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ 17And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven (Mt 16:15-17, NRSV).

Who is Jesus?

[He is the] one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
For us and our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end (Nicene Creed).

That’s who. And that’s where the common path of common grace forks into the many paths toward God and the one path to God. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus says of himself, “and no one comes to the Father, but through me” (John 14:6, NAS). And Peter, the very one who confessed Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, the very rock upon whom the church was built, took his stand upon the stumbling block of Jesus and called men to choose. Who do you say Jesus is?

[I say that] He is the stone which was rejected by you, the builders, but which became the very corner stone. And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved (Acts 4:11-12, NAS).

Common grace has brought us to this juncture, to this point of choice, but common grace is no longer sufficient – not in these last days.

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs (Heb 1:1-4, NRSV).

When we leave the path of common grace and set off in the direction marked out for us by Peter’s confession of Jesus, when we walk the way blazed for us by the one who is the way, the truth, and the life, we

come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant (Heb 12:22-24a, NRSV).

And while this is not yet the path of common grace, it can become so. By God’s common grace the common call goes forth to all – to every tribe and language and people and nation: Come to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. Come to Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Come to Jesus, the first and the last, the living one who was dead and is now alive forever. Come to Jesus.

This invitation comes as a question posed by the one who loves us and who gave himself for us, even Jesus: Who do you say that I am? And what of those who have not and perhaps will not answer rightly? What of those who have walked with us the path of common grace: the Buddhist, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Jew, the atheist? What about them? We simply do not know: we are not God that we should sit in judgment. God’s common grace is beyond our comprehension, his common love beyond our imagination. And he is determined, through Jesus, to redeem that which is his own, to put all creation to rights, and to be finally all in all. But we do know this: to gaze upon Jesus – to look fully and intently at his love, mercy, and holiness – and yet to say, I find him lacking, is to turn from life toward death. To gaze upon the cross – to look fully at the freely offered, priceless, atoning sacrifice of the Lamb of God – and yet to say, No thank you, is to turn from forgiveness toward judgment. To gaze upon the One who was dead but who is now alive – Jesus seated on the right hand of God in power and glory – and to say, I will not bend the knee, is to turn from reconciliation toward rebellion. And in these conscious decisions the path of common grace toward God just might become the path away from God.

God’s plan to restore creation and to redeem man is Jesus. There is no alternate, no other way. Any person who truly knows God, knows God in and through the incarnation of Jesus. Any person reconciled to God is reconciled in and through the redemptive work of Jesus. Any person born to new and eternal life is born anew in and through the birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. There simply is no other name given under heaven by which men and women and children must be saved; it is Jesus.

And so we pray that we may know Jesus and may yet come to know him more perfectly. We pray that we may confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, not only with our lips, but with our lives, by giving up ourselves to his service and by walking before him in holiness and righteousness all our days. We pray for those with faith, for those with no faith, and for those whose faith is known only to God, that Jesus may be for us all the way, the truth, and the life, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, our Lord and our God.



Father Robert Lyons said...

What an oustanding reflection on Common Grace and the Gospel! Thank you so very much for providing it. This is one of the most eloquent and passionate calls I have ever read for respecting people of all beliefs while still holding fast to our Christian faith that, in the end, only Christ will bring us to God.

John Roop + said...

Father Lyons,

Thanks be to God for your kind words.

Peace of Christ,