From His position in Heaven Jesus continues to exercise his magnetic power on all creatures; all feel deep within themselves His summons, His injunction to ascend. (Paul Claudel, ‘I Believe…’)
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. In this season our Collects, Epistles, and Gospels help us to acquire this Grace. Grace is essential and 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. Christians desire now is to be so moved and defined exclusively by God’s love in a magnetic way that knits the human heart to God through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.
Again, none of this will come to pass unless we begin to embrace the Grace of God in the here and now. This is why we pray in 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 we should have a conscious awareness 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 inspire us, and a love whose concern and care alone can sanctify us. God is before us to draw us forward into communion with Himself.
We pray also that this Grace might follow us. God’s Grace preventing us or coming before us seems safes enough; it is an aspiration that we follow as we move forward. Aristotle says that God is the final end that draws all things back to Himself. God causes all movement through love and draws created beings 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, we believe that God comes before us in Jesus Christ and gives us the Grace to follow Him to the Kingdom. 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 the idea that God’s Grace may always…follow us, or get behind and beneath our sinful selves 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 forward logically, step by step, into His Grace. We prefer to be doing the following rather than being followed. 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 alone can transform and save our souls. What I would like to suggest to you today is that we should not only follow God’s Grace but must be followed always by God in Jesus Christ so that He might reveal to us the true nature of our spiritual lives in relation to Himself.
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 changing their direction. He knows what the judgmental and censorious religious elders of the day are up to and so He reveals how He follows them. 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 strictly in an outward and visible way but they do not allow its substance and meaning to turn back on them, to address them, to follow them, and thus confront and provoke them into holiness. So, they follow Jesus hoping that His behavior might fall short of following their 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, a condition in which the body is full of excessive fluids that could lead to congestive heart failure. Dropsy is a severe handicap that prevents a man from functioning in any normal ambulatory way. So, on the celebration of the Lord’s Day, prior to the normative feasting, we find a man who follows Jesus in order to be found. 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 following the directives of the Lord’s Day. Yet, while they follow the Law, and while they have time to show mercy upon the brute beasts, they will not extend God’s compassion to their fellow men.
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 God’s mercy can bestow upon him. And, from the other side, Jesus follows him, gets beneath and behind his condition, and heals him with the power that reveals the Sabbath’s real meaning! Ironically enough, these Pharisees and lawyers are full a worse disease than the dropsical man. 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) Jesus Christ not only follows and understands the predicament of the sick man, but He follows the spiritual sickness 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 how He follows and comprehends the sins of most of us. 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 Jesus to follow them, find them and get beneath and behind their spiritual sickness to administer His cure. Jesus exhorts us all to sit in the lowest room with all humility and meekness. He urges 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 sinful nature.
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 longs to exercise His magnetic power over 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. We should all feel deep within themselves His summons, His injunction to ascend. (Idem) With St. Anthony Abbott, we must beware of Pharisaical pride: Because of pride of heart the fiery chariots were made, the torment of burning flames, the coals of living fire. Because of pride of heart all things are troubled and thrown into disorder, and men war against each other, and from this came tyranny. (On Humility and Deceit: Anthony Abbott) 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.