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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Flip the Coin

Flip the Coin: Pharisee or Publican?

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
11th Sunday after Trinity, 2012

In today’s Gospel, Our Lord draws a perfect contrast “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others” by drawing a wonderful word picture of a Pharisee and a Publican. This parable is a short, but pithy picture of human nature.  It might even be said that it represents two sides of one coin.

Here we see two diametrically opposed classes of society; the Pharisees and the Publican. We know that the Pharisees were often the objects of Christ’s scorn and usually were the example of what “not” to be.  There were also notable examples of righteous Pharisees, such as Nicodemus and certain unnamed others, who secretly believed on Christ.  Yet, recall the origin of the Pharisees, how they arose to defend Judah and Israel from the gross idolatry that had brought so much suffering.  Remember how the Jews fell into such a state of “mixed” belief that even their pagan statues populated the very Temple itself.  Recall how God, in His longsuffering and mercy, sent prophet after prophet to call His People back into repentance, yet they would not. After literally hundreds of years of warning, God finally executed judgment on Judah, when the Jews rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar, as we discussed last week.  Recall that even in this last state, Jeremiah warned the people to submit to the yoke of Babylon and live, even if it meant a state of servitude.  Had Judah done this, even Nebuchadnezzar would have turned his fierce wrath and accepted their repentance.  Instead the Jews under Zedekiah refused, even trying to flee the siege of Jerusalem through a break in the city wall.  This, of course, failed, and Zedekiah saw his sons slain before him.  He was blinded and taken to Babylon as one of many captive kings.  The Babylonians then proceeded to destroy Jerusalem, including the fabulous Temple of Solomon, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. 
God, however, was not done with His People.  Far from it.  Much later, under the reign of Artaxerxes the Persian and then Darius the Mede, Jerusalem’s wall and Temple would be rebuilt, as related in the books of Nehemiah and Ezra.  Although it was indeed glorious to have the Temple in Jerusalem again, it had nowhere near the grandeur of the former temple, nor could it be.  Many of the ‘old hands’, those who had seen the original Temple, actually wept openly when they saw the “new” one.   Later, Jerusalem would be savaged again by the Greeks, until Judas Maccabeus and his sons led a successful revolt against the Hellenization of Judah.  It was during this period that the Pharisees arose, men so zealous for the Law and for the purity of Jewish belief.  Their calling was to safeguard Jewish society from the evils of heterodoxy, so that the suffering brought on by idolatry could never happen again.

This was a most worthy goal.  Yet, like all things human, absent the guiding Spirit of God, Phariseeism virtually became its own religion.  It became twisted and self-centered. They Jews sought righteousness through their own deeds and their interpretation of the Law, thus ensuring, even requiring God’s favor towards the nation of Israel. Their religion became show without substance, mere mechanistic practice without faith or belief.  Hypocrisy and outward show became the norm, to a large extent.

That brings us to the Gospel selection for the day. Christ clearly draws a contrast between the self-righteous Pharisee and the humble, penitent publican. Thus, Our Lord draws a fascinating parallel between appearances versus reality.  Those of you who took college-level English literature courses will recall that as a major theme in literature, and in life.

Imagine the scene.  Here is the Temple, glorious, large and impressive.  It must have seemed like acres of smooth stone.  Now we see the Pharisee, dressed in his long robe, no doubt with flowing phylacteries and all, standing and praying to himself.  It is highly likely that he presented himself to be received by the Temple, as one who truly belonged there. In short, he probably walked in like he owned the place.

 Now, considering his “prayer”, some commentators have observed that this “prayer” is not really a prayer at all, but rather an “address” to God[1]  The Pharisee proceeds to list his righteous acts and behavior before God, rehearsing them, if you will, almost to demand God’s favor and justification. He gives tithes of all that he possesses, he fasts twice weekly; he is, by all accounts, a righteous man.  There is a problem, however; he knows it. Just as a person who is aware of their good looks, nothing “poisons the well” more than self-knowledge about one’s own virtues. While he does do good deeds, actions worthy of praise, his attitude of self-righteousness undoes all his good deeds. Thus, he parades his righteousness before man and God, fully confident that he is seen as such before both.
Our Lord then tells us of the publican.  Here is a man who was universally despised as both a tool of the Roman occupiers and as an extortioner.  Recall that publicans, or tax collectors, as the NKJ version translates it, were Jews employed the Roman state to levy and collect Roman taxes.  Often, they asked for and received more than what was due, in a fraudulent manner.  No wonder they were hated, not only as symbols of the occupation, but also as taking advantage of their position to wring as much money as possible out of the population.  

This may be why another Publican, ”short of stature” Zacchaeus, in Luke 19:8, said that he would restore four-fold to anyone from whom he had over-collected when Christ told him that He must stay with him that day. This act of repentance on Zacchaeus’ part prompted this wonderful statement from Jesus: Luke 19:9-10   9 And Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; "for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost."   
Similarly, let’s examine the publican’s behavior in the temple from today’s Gospel.  He stood “afar off”, not even daring to lift up his eyes to heaven.  Instead, he looked down and “smote upon his breast, saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”  The contrast couldn’t be clearer.

What really drives home the point of the parable is Christ’s last statement: (Luke 18:14) “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."  We know this by conventional wisdom, in sayings such as “Pride goeth before a fall”, which is actually taken from Proverbs 16:18-19: ”Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.  19 Better it is to be of an humble spirit with the lowly, than to divide the spoil with the proud.”

Thus, the humble publican was justified before God, while the Pharisee was rejected. His supposed righteousness meant nothing, while the penitent publican, despised by men, was favored by God. Of course, there is a great lesson in this for us. 

We think that it is not far-fetched to think that this picture, both the Pharisee and the Publican, reflects all of us from time to time.  Certainly not in these extremes, but it essence this may be very accurate.

For example, there are days that all of us, in some degree or another, play the part of the Pharisee.  Not that we dress up in long robes and seek the greetings in the marketplace, as Christ once said, but rather that we might get a bit of self-righteousness.  Something has gone well, or we have exalted ourselves in some manner because of some event.  Or, we have read some Scripture and think, “Yea, that might be me!”  In short, we enjoy some sort of self-exaltation that is not godly.
On the other hand, at other times, we get a truer sense of our own self-worth.  That is, we realize that we are what we are: sinners desperately in need of a Savior. Like the publican, we hardly dare to lift up our eyes to heaven. 
It is at this point that we are the closest to our salvation, in this priest’s humble opinion.  That is, rather than trying to fly on the rotten wings of supposed self-worth, we realize that we need the wings of the angelic host to carry us to Heaven.  Not that angels can save us, but they can carry out the commands of Jesus, their Lord, and bring us into His presence.  This is salvation, and not the other.

The lesson to us is plain: we rely, not on our own righteousness, but that of Jesus Christ.  As Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”

When we, like the Pharisee, depend on our own works for justification, or feel pride in our goodness, or indulge in self-righteousness, we run the risk of being rejected by God.  Yet, when like the publican, we approach God in a lowly and humble spirit, relying only on the merits of Jesus Christ, we have eternal justification and redemption.

Yes, it may be that we are like two sides of one coin: Pharisee one day and Publican the next.  Yet, as we grow in Christ, the Pharisee will fade and the Publican will flower.  That is, our dependence on self will lessen and our need for God will grow stronger every day.  It is at this point that our salvation is closer than we thought. 
Thanks be to God!

Luke 18:14  4 "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." AMEN.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. 

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on Luke, BW 7.0

Friday, August 10, 2012

Gifts and Giving

10th Sunday after Trinity, 2012

Rev. Stephen E. Stults
St. Barnabas Anglican Church
August 12, 2012

1Co 12: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.”

Good morning, dearly beloved in the Lord.  This morning we are indeed privileged to hear the Word of God, freely in a free country.  We are indeed privileged to hear this from the pen of St. Paul, as he begins teaching us with a very characteristic phrase: “…brethren, I would not have you ignorant.” When the Apostle Paul begins one of his epistle segments thus, we know that we about to receive some orthodox doctrine of Christianity. 

While this sermon is not about the Apostle Paul, but rather the message he brings us from God, we Christians owe an inestimable debt of gratitude to this Apostle.  Without St. Paul’s selfless ministry, would Christianity be what it is today? Without St. Paul’s prodigious labors, Christianity might not be the worldwide force that it is, because Paul could be considered the greatest evangelist and teacher in Christian history, aside from Christ Himself. Thus, we are extremely thankful for him. We are thankful that God did raise up Saul, later Paul, for our edification and instruction in righteousness. Thank God that He did.

The epistle begins with a statement recalling the Corinthians’ former state, that of Gentiles (the Goyim), separated from God, drawn away to pagan idols and to a religion made from the imagination of man’s mind. The classical world, that of Rome and Greece, had beauty, nobility and high ideals.  It was, in many ways, the highest aspiration of human endeavor.  Personally, having had the undeserved benefit of a classical liberal arts education and having been downright lucky enough to walk in Rome and in Greece, I had been enamored with Classical civilization for some time. Even the ruins of the Parthenon and the Forum inspire awe; imagine what they must have been like in their heyday!  It must have been wonderful, at least on the surface.

On the surface, I say, because the reality of Classical life was far more violent and brutal.  A book on evangelism, called Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? , by the Rev. Roland Allen, helped me to see the reality of ancient life.  The reality of ancient life, even in the Classical period was this:  it was a tough society based basically on hate. It’s an unfortunate fact that class hated class and group hated group.  To begin with, virtually all of the work done in those societies was by slaves, who hated their masters, for the most part.  There always exceptions of course, especially in the case of the educated Greek tutor-slave.  He or she was a high-class doulos (slave) who taught the younger members of the patrician Roman family, and was considered almost a member of the family. Then, on the other hand, consider the lot of the kitchen slave or field slave, who may not have been so blessed.

The slaves’ masters, in turn, hated those above them, had envy for those in higher places of authority and constantly plotted against them.   Soldiers in general, often hated their pay and their postings, the artisan class hated the Patrician class, and so on through every level of society. Again, beneath it all were the slaves, who made it all run, the hidden “machinery”, so to speak, of the ancient world.  In general, except as noted, they were seen as mere property and without humanity. In general, it was a dark picture, indeed.

Into this dark picture came a man, a Jew, who brought a message of love. He spoke about one God, who looked on men with love and not contempt.  He spoke of a God who offered up His only Son in order that all mankind might enjoy eternal life and fellowship with Him.  He brought a message that said God loves mankind.  Is it any wonder, then, that St. Paul’s message about hope and light and life took hold?  Here was a man preaching “Christ, and Him crucified”[1]. Here was a man preaching forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God, and the free gracious gift of eternal life.  He told people to come to God as they were; for example, were they called as slaves?  Seek not to be freed.  Were they called as freedmen?  Look kindly on their slaves. Were they called as soldiers?  Be content with their pay.  In short, come to God as you are and receive the Good News. 

What is this good news?  Recall 1 John 1:5: “This is the message which we have heard from Him and declare to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.”  That is, through Paul’s preaching, the light of Christ had come to a very dark world.  For many, many people, this was very good news indeed. Rather than spend a lifetime toiling and fighting, only to end up in some shadowy land over the river Styx, now one could look forward to a land of light, peace, plenty and joy.  What a difference! 

The church at Corinth evidently had received the Good News with gusto. As we learn in St. Paul’s second Corinthian epistle, the church had grown so much that it threatened to split into factions.  In short, it had growth problems.

It also had spiritual gifts in abundance.  This is why St. Paul wrote, 1Co 12: “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant.” After he reminds his readers of their former state, he makes an amazing statement,
Corinthians 12:3:  Therefore I make known to you that no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed, and no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”  This statement appears simple on the surface, yet when considered thoughtfully, is actually quite profound.  First, “no one speaking by the Spirit of God calls Jesus accursed”; well, personally, I’ve never heard anyone call Jesus “accursed”, but I sure have heard plenty use his Name taken in vain. Haven’t you? Most people admire Jesus, even pagans; they just won’t (or can’t) affirm his Lordship.  They certainly can blaspheme quite easily as well, using the Name of Christ as a mere exclamation.  On the other hand, no one can say, “Jesus is Lord!” without the Holy Spirit. Saying it another way, on the one hand, an absence of the Holy Spirit allows one to use Jesus’ name as a curse or a violent exclamation, whereas the presence of the Holy Spirit allows one to affirm Jesus’ true state, that of the Son of God, our King and Lord; thus, “… one can’t say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

There was a time in my own spiritual journey when I really wondered if the Holy Spirit was with me, especially when I was much younger. I asked, did I “have” the Holy Spirit?  What did it “feel like” to have the Holy Ghost?  How come I don’t “feel” differently if I supposed to be a dwelling place of the Spirit and how come I wasn’t holy all at once; other such questions occurred to me as well. Well, I confess that this verse gave me a great deal of comfort; when I first read that “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” Just the fact that we can affirm this simple Christian truth means that the Spirit is striving within us as a gift giving us grace to affirm and accept Christ.

After all, faith is not about feelings.  Faith is about knowing.  Faith knows. Thus, through faith, we know that we have a loving God who gave His only Son to redeem us from an otherwise utterly hideous eternity.  Of course, I am talking about an eternity without God, with is too unthinkable to consider.  Faith also knows that, despite our own innate sinfulness, we are saved through Christ, and only by Him.  Finally, faith knows that we have a God that gives us gifts, even undeserving as we are….

Gifts are exactly what St. Paul is speaking about in this epistle selection.  He tells that there are 1 Corinthians 12:4-5 “There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit.  5 There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord.”  That is, the Holy Spirit grants various types of spiritual gifts, but the Spirit who grants them is the common source. Also, there are various ways to offer service to God, i.e. ministry, but it is always the same God.  While this may seem patently obvious, St. Paul brings the point to a close by saying, Corinthians 12:6-7 6”And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all.  7 But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all:”  

Here then, is the point.  God the Holy Spirit grants us spiritual gifts to bring edification to the Body, not glory to the individual Christian.  Thus, if one is blessed with a specific gift, it is not a cause for self-exultation, but rather of thanksgiving.  The real question becomes, how can I offer my spiritual gift to the Body, and thus to God in such a way as to magnify Him?  How can I glorify God by offering back to Him the gift He has so freely given me?

To help us in this question, St. Paul lists several spiritual gifts: the word of wisdom, the word of knowledge, the gift of faith, the gift of healing, the working of miracles, the utterance of prophecy, the discernment of spirits, the gift of tongues, and finally, the interpretation of tongues.  All of these gifts are still extant, to some degree or another, in different parts of the Church.  It must be noted that in lesser “civilized” parts of the world, we may see more spiritual gifts. Evidently, when man becomes more civilized, he also reasons himself into a less spiritual state. I think it must also be noted that some gifts were given to the early Church for its edification and growth.

If we are indeed committed Christians, as this group certainly is, demonstrated by our desire to preserve the orthodox faith once delivered to the saints, we all should have a desire to grow in Christ.

Let us see Christianity as a “religion of growth.”  The most important growth I can think of concerns grace and our personal journey in sanctification.  This is exactly what St. Paul is speaking about, that we are not ignorant of our spiritual gifts. 

Thus, I would ask you to consider these spiritual “steps for growth”.  First, pray for discernment of your own personal spiritual gift.  We who love Christ all have them.  Thus, I humbly urge you to pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal your gift to you, if you don’t already know.  Knowledge is the first step towards spiritual “self-actualization”. Next, consider, meditate, ponder, and cogitate, etc., as to how you can offer your gift to the Church and to the world.  Pray earnestly that God open opportunities for you in this regard.  Finally, just use it.  Use your spiritual gift to edify us, the Church, and to bring joy to you, the giver.  Greater joy is impossible when one knows that he or she is truly serving the Lord.

Earnest prayer, leading to discernment, leading to knowledge, leading to action is the key to a joyful Christian life. I humbly pray that all of us may grow in Christ to such an extent that we, too, may discern, know and do, thus making our cup of joy full to overflowing.

In the words of Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, “Freely you have received, freely give.”[2]

 In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. 

[1] 1Co 2:2
[2] Matt 10:8