Heal me O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved:
For thou art my praise.
(Jer. xvii. 14)
Trinity tide is all about the flow of God’s Grace into the hearts of faithful souls who desire to ascend ultimately back to God the Father. And in this season our Collects, Epistles, and Gospels instruct us in the acquisition of this Grace. Grace is absolutely necessary for our salvation and it is given to be embraced here and now that we might always be moving towards the Kingdom in our earthly lives. Grace is not only about a benefit or gift that will be bestowed upon us in some future then, but it is the very means by which we are moved now as God’s love for us becomes the usual and familiar motivation of our every intention. What Christians desire now is to be so moved and defined exclusively by God’s will or love, that in the end their reception and capacity for the Divine love will be rewarded with perfect joy in the vision of God.
But if we are going to begin to embrace the Grace of God in the here and now, we must pray in the words of this morning’s Collect that God’s Grace may always prevent and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works…(Collect Trinity XVII) The word prevent here is used in the old English sense of to come before. So we ask that the Grace of God should come or stand before us. Before us then should entail a vision and consciousness of God’s antecedent desire to lead, guide, and direct us in all good works. Before us we should see and perceive that power whose strength and might alone can embolden us, a wisdom whose brightness and illumination alone can direct us, and a love whose compassion and mercy alone can sanctify us. God is before us to draw us forward and upward towards Himself.
We pray also in the words of the Collect that this Grace might follow us. Not only do we desire that Grace should come down from Heaven before us, but also beneath and behind us. And this is where we tend to have trouble. God’s preventing us or coming before us doesn’t seem difficult. Aristotle says that God is the final purpose, end, and termination of all things. God causes all movement through love, and God draws things to Himself by being loved. (Met; 1072b4) So a man looks out into nature and as he searches for the causes of all being and meaning, he is moved finally to rest in God the First Cause. God comes before man and draws him back to Himself. Or, in the case of God’s fullest and final revelation and manifestation of himself, we believe that God in Jesus Christ has come before us in history long ago and comes before and into us now through His body and blood by the operation of the Holy Spirit. And so the author of Hebrews writes: Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of Grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebr. iv. 16)
But this business of God’s Grace following us, or being behind and beneath doesn’t seem as easy to grasp. Getting behind and beneath the human condition seems strange to us. Like Aristotle we tend to want God to present Himself to us in a straightforward way, by drawing us logically forward, step by step, into His Grace. We should prefer to be the ones who are doing the following. And yet if we do not allow God’s Grace, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ, to follow us, I fear that we shall never let ourselves be found and then healed by the Grace that He alone can apply to our souls. So what I would like to suggest to you today is that we are not only following God’s Grace, but we are being followed always by God in Jesus Christ, and that this Divine pursuit is essential to our sanctification and salvation.
We have a nice illustration of the reality I describe in today’s Gospel Lesson. In it we read that as Jesus went into the house of one of the chief Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath day, that they watched Him. (St. Luke xiv. 1) At the outset we seem to have an example of God in Jesus Christ coming before us. Far from being followed by Jesus, it would appear that the Pharisees are following Jesus’ every move and word, for they watched Him. (Idem) But Jesus doesn’t waste any time in clarifying the situation. He knows what the judgmental and censorious religious elders of the day are up to and so He takes command of the situation. They think that man is made for the Sabbath and not the Sabbath day for man. Jesus knows that they believe that the rules and laws that govern the Lord’s Day are non-negotiable, binding, and inviolable. They follow the form of worship so strictly that they have evicted and expelled its substance and meaning. And so they follow Jesus hoping that He may be caught in violation of the Law.
But what do we read next? And, behold, there was a certain man before him which had the dropsy. And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath day? And they held their peace. (Ibid, 2-4) It just so happens that there is a man who had been following Jesus and who is sick with the dropsy. Dropsy is what we would call edema, or a case of excessive fluids in the body which could lead to congestive heart failure. Dropsy makes one unable to function in any normal ambulatory way and is a severe handicap. So on the celebration of the Lord’s Day, prior to the normative feasting, we find an auspicious interruption. Jesus takes the man, heals him, and lets him go. (Ibid, 4) Then He asks the assembled guests, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the Sabbath day? And they could not answer him again to these things. (Ibid, 5) The Pharisees and lawyers are rigorous and uncompromising when it comes to their observance of the Lord’s Day. But while they will withhold mercy and kindness to their fellow men, they will nevertheless show compassion on their pets and beasts of burden. Their silence conceals an inner rage at their hypocrisy’s uncovering and an envy which will pursue vengeance at a later date.
Before them is a man whose body is full of excessive fluids that threaten immanent cardiac arrest. He knows that he is sick and diseased and so follows Jesus in pursuit of what love and mercy alone can effect. Jesus follows this sick man, gets beneath and behind his sorry state and does what God desires to do on every Sabbath Day – heal! Ironically enough, these Pharisees and lawyers are so full of excessive spiritual fluids that their souls have hardened into an arrogance that prevents them from admitting that they are wrong. They have contracted spiritual dropsy! St. Augustine interprets Christ’s condemnation of these hypocritical Jews. You grudge that I should deliver this man on such a day from the water that is choking [his heart]; yet if the same danger from water threatened one of your asses or oxen you would make no scruple of extricating [or saving] it on the Sabbath day. Why then do you not love your neighbor as yourselves? Why are you unwilling that this sick man should receive the help which you would not refuse to your own brute beasts? (Quaest. Evang. ii. 29) So Christ not only follows the sick man and heals him, but He follows the sinful fraudulence of the Pharisees. With the Jeremiah this morning He says, I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings. (Jer. xvii. 10)
But Jesus tells a parable to reveal more fully the sin of the Pharisees. When thou art bidden of any man to a wedding, sit not down in the highest room; lest a more honourable man than thou be bidden of him; and he that bade thee and him come and say to thee, Give this man place; and thou begin with shame to take the lowest room. But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. (Ibid, 7-10) Our Lord Jesus here rebukes not only the behavior of the Pharisees but that of all religious people who will not allow Him to follow them, find them, and get beneath and behind their spiritual sickness in order to provoke a need for a cure. So Jesus exhorts all men to sit in the lowest room. What He means is that we should practice a humility and meekness that leads us to identify with the dropsical man. With him we should know our sickness and that the Sabbath Day is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath day. (St. Mark ii. 27) Jesus is following us to trigger the need for His merciful healing of our sin-soaked condition. As St. John Chrysostom says, with the Pharisees we should identify with that sinful tendency to be conscious…of innumerable virtuous actions…and that this will be of no profit unless we look upon ourselves as the lowest of men. For this is humility; when someone who has reason to be honored, remains obscure and unknown… (J.Chry: Moral Exhortation to Humility)
Today we come to church with the knowledge that Christ is following us and that He knows us better than we know ourselves. Today we come to pray for the humility that will open our hearts to His healing mercy. We should never run away because God in Jesus Christ is following us. He does this because He loves us. And as we humbly confess that we have not been open to what He reveals to us about ourselves, we should not fear His correction. For though, as St. Augustine says, we have often thought to escape God when we lifted our heads in pride, [we should] humble them and fly to Him…For He is good when He spares [us] and when He chastises [us]; for everywhere He is truly merciful. (Meditation on the Humility of Christ) And then because whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted (Ibid, 11), with Jeremiah we shall earnestly pray, Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved: for thou art my praise. (Jer. xvii. 14) Amen.