I grow weak, my Lord, before Thy wonders and, at a loss, I long to take refuge in silence. Yet I do not know what to do. For if I keep silence, amazement overwhelms me; but if I dare to say something, I am struck dumb and rapt away. I regard myself as unworthy of heaven and earth, and as deserving every punishment, not simply because of the sins I have committed, but much more because of the blessings I have received without my showing any gratitude, contemptible as I am. For Thou, Lord, who dost transcend all goodness, hast filled my soul with every blessing. I dimly perceive Thy works and my mind is amazed. Merely to look on what is Thine reduces me to nothing. Yet the knowledge is not mine, nor the endeavour, for it is Thy grace. Therefore I will lay my hand on my mouth, as Job once did (cf. Job 40.4), and will take refuge in Thy saints, for I am bewildered. …” (The Eight Stages of Contemplation)
We begin our sermon on this Good Shepherd Sunday with the words of the twelfth century Syrian Saint Peter of Damascus. And at the outset we are confronted by awe-stricken wonder and speechless rapture. The contemplative is, as it were, convulsed and shaken, bewildered and then dumb-stricken. He is overwhelmed by the wonders of God’s forgiving Being and cut down by his failure to make good returns in thanksgiving and praise. He is struck dumb and rapt away in the presence of the all-loving God who towers over his selfish and ungrateful nature in piercing contradistinction. His conscience is shame-riddled and at the very precipice of response, he fails. His failure is natural. God is all love and St. Peter of Damascus is far from Him. The good saint thinks it best to put his hand over his mouth…and take refuge in the saints.
Such is the kind of response that we might imagine filling the hearts of the Apostles at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Amazement, wonder, bewilderment; confusion, uncertainty, ignorance; shame, guilt, remorse; silence, stillness, and then the stirring of some small hope. Indeed, we might imagine it. But have we ever felt it? Has it ever occurred to us that it might be necessary to seek out and find this experience for ourselves? Has it ever crossed our minds that this kind of spiritual encounter is precisely what coming to know Jesus Christ is all about, and that without it we have little hope of salvation? Prayer, after all, is not about assaulting God with a Christmas list of wants and desires. Prayer is not about thanking God for our godless suffocation in money and mammon. Prayer is about getting to know God, and responding to the nature of His being. Prayer is about a relationship with God that establishes our unity with Him through the fulfillment of His will.
And, for Christians, the only way to it is through Jesus Christ. You might say that Jesus Christ is Prayer made flesh –the pure and perfect posture of prayerful Man united to God the Father. Christ alone as human flesh sees and knows His Father and can then respond to Him perfectly in knowledge and love. We pray this morning that we may endeavor ourselves to follow the blessed footsteps of Christ’s most holy life.(Collect Easter 2) And we do this because this is the only way in which we can be reconciled to God the Father and so fulfill and perfect our God-given human nature. But, as the Collect continues, we cannot do this until we have most thankfully received the inestimable benefit of His love and care for us, shown in Christ’s sacrifice for sin and His invitation into the new life of His Resurrection. (Ibid)
Eastertide is all about a radical encounter with God that generates true prayer –prayer for the right thing and in the right way. And if we open our eyes in prayer onto what God has done in Jesus Christ, we shall find that God is Love. (1 St. John iv. 8) The Love that we find, if we meditate upon it, is of a type that confounds all of our rational expectations. We find a Love that creates and sustains all of creation. We find a Love that orders, governs, leads, guides, divides and unites an infinite number of elements into an harmoniously beautiful whole that no man can alter. I grow weak, my Lord, before thy wonders….We find a Love that makes and molds the human person from conception until death, and speaks to him through nature to reason and by revelation to faith. We find the Love that makes God man, a Virgin a mother, a man God, and even the creature into God’s instrument for salvation and perfection. I grow weak, my Lord, before thy wonders…We find too a Love that responds to hatred, cruelty, injustice, rejection, and death with nothing less than an incessant benevolence, tenderness, compassion, pity, and mercy that longs to heal all sickness, overcome all pain, and annihilate all sin. The man who prays finds himself, in other words, in the presence of a God who longs to unite all of creation with Himself through the death and resurrection of His Son. I grow weak, my Lord, before thy wonders…
And yet it is perhaps in the realm of desire itself that we are most astounded and unsettled. For it is here that St. Peter of Damascus felt a love so passionately intense that he could not speak. Here God’s love for man is felt so acutely that man begins to enter into his own spiritual suffering and death. It is the kind of suffering and death that alone can move a man to follow in the blessed steps of His most holy life because he begins to be touched by the inestimable benefit of Christ’s love. Another St. Peter, this time the blessed Apostle himself, reveals the nature of this same love to us. He invites us to respond to it by cleaving not only to the vision of Christ but by embracing the real presence of His Holy Spirit in the heart. He writes,
For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth: who when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered he threatened not; but committed himself to Him that judgeth righteously: who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.(I Peter ii. 21-24)
St. Peter invites us to study and contemplate what Love in the flesh has done for us first by seeing how He responds to man’s rejection of Himself. Love does not render evil for evil, does not threaten, but rather commits Himself to the insistent expression God’s desire for all men’s salvation. He does so because God’s desire in Christ’s human flesh will conquer sin and evil with love and goodness. Nothing alters God’s intention, passion, yearning, and longing in the heart of Jesus Christ. Nothing, not even unjust suffering and wrongful death, can frustrate the expression of this desire. In fact, in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, this love will rise up as glorified and perfected desire in Man– the form and matter, the very substance of Man’s new life, in and through which all men can become a part of God’s desire for them. I grow weak, my Lord, before thy wonders…
And yet there is more. St. Peter the Apostle claims that this Jesus Christ is Love in the flesh that has sought out and found men who were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls.(1 Peter ii. 25) This Love in the flesh is so persistently itself from eternity and into time, that it will call and summon men from time back into eternity. In the face of man’s Fall and his many falls, the original intention for man’s created nature becomes the fodder of God’s ongoing desire for the same man’s redemption. This Love in the flesh is resolutely determined to seek out, find, and carry those who are HIs lost sheep back into the fold of their intended destiny.
Jesus Christ, the Resurrected Saviour says to us this morning, I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep.(St. John x. 11, 14-15) God the Father knows the sheep. Christ the Son, who bears about within Himself the prayerful knowledge and desire of the Father, knows the sheep. He will lay down His life for the sheep. The sheep know Him as the Good Shepherd, the Son of the Father who will shepherd His sheep to the kingdom. [He] will lay down His life for the sheep now through the Holy Spirit. His Holy Spirit will take them into spiritual death, will bury their sins once and for all, and will lead them out of the grave and into the new and sanctified reality of Jesus Christ’s Risen Life. The Father’s desire for man’s salvation, the Son’s desire as what Love bears and shoulders in order to affect it, comprise the Gift of the Holy Spirit that is offered to sinful men who are now being made members of Christ’s Risen Body.
St. Peter of Damascus became keenly aware of God’s love and desire made flesh in Christ the Good Shepherd. According to St. Thomas, Christ the Good Shepherd desires to defend the sheep from all attacks of the evil one, to lead and feed them in good pastures, and to restore those who wander. (Sermon: Easter I) So let us return, with St. Peter and the Saints to the shepherd and bishop of our souls (1 St. Peter ii 25), to the Good Shepherd who longs to lift us onto those shoulders, which alone can carry us into His Kingdom. And remember this, that when Christ rose and ascended back to the Father, He bore the wounds of glorified Love, the scars of Divine Desire. The wounds and scars of our rejection of God are understood mercifully in the heart of Jesus who patiently awaits our conversion and turning. These wounds and scars remind us that even at our worst, before we turn, there is a place reserved in God’s heart for our future. So let us, with St. Peter and the Saints, place our souls into the wounded hands of our Good Shepherd who longs to carry us home, to that place from which He has always known us, and where we shall know Him even as we are known. (1 Cor. xiii. 12) I grow weak, my Lord, before thy wonders….Amen.