SERMON FOR THE 4TH SUNDAY AFTER EASTER, MAY 14, 2017
“O Almighty God, who alone canst order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men; Grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the sundry and manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found…”
THE BRIDE in an English wedding, up until about 1980, was asked to make her vow before the altar in these terms: “I, Jennifer, take thee, Phillip, to be my wedded Husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and to obey, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.” In our 1928 Prayer Book and subsequent revisions, the words “to obey” have fallen out of use. One reason, it seems, for that omission was that it was not, and really could not be, reciprocal. They couldn’t obey each other. For each it is now “to love and to cherish.” No man today is going to insist on marital obedience from his wife.
What was lost in that alteration was an understanding of what marital authority was ever about and what it was there to do. And since an abuse of authority is likely to happen in a typical, and unspiritual top-down marriage, it probably is just as well. But we go further.
Obedience is a lost value throughout our society. You observe only those laws you can’t break and still get away with it. You are honest if there’s there’s pain in your lying, and you are dishonest if there’s pain in being honest. That’s not honesty. We don’t obey God because we don’t fear God. ‘He’s nice, He’s not mean. He didn’t really mean all those things he prohibited. That was for then, anyway—not nowadays. Nobody really obeys anymore: we just comply with the rules that keep us from immediately hurting each other.’ That’s the common value that’s held today.
But Integrity is doing the right thing, even when there’s nobody there to see it but yourself. It’s been called the gift you give to yourself, because in the end of the day, only you know if you followed the rules or not. Of course God knows as well, and so you have to believe God exists and that He rewards those who seek Him and His righteousness. These are not just Bible verses; they are rules of life. Living in the light as He is in the light. We have integrity when our thoughts and actions match the values we’ve espoused, and we don’t have to worry what may be said about us, for we know we can stand up to our actions. Even when we make a mistake, and even when we do wrong, we stand up to it, and ask forgiveness, and offer the same to others. We’re all human. But that’s not an excuse. God has no interest in your excuses.
I said that obedience in marriage went away, but that was only a practical avoidance of abuse. Since we don’t understand authority, we can’t construct authority structures until we do. The model for this is God the Holy Trinity.
Is there abuse in the relationship between the Father and the Son of God? Or between them and the Holy Spirit? Yet, there is a harshness in what the Father asked the Son to do, being born down here and offering Himself up as a sacrifice for our sins. It was a miserable assignment, and at the cross, the Father turned His face away from His Son, covered in our sins, while Jesus cried out, “My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me?” In His dying, however, Jesus sighs, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” And the reunion at His Ascension had to be glorious. There never was a break in the love of that relationship. It was a horrible assignment, but the love was never broken. The Father had to leave the Son to work the cure of sin. “Not my will, but thine be done,” said Jesus.
The Father and Son send the Spirit to dwell in us, purifying us, making us wise and giving us spiritual strength to do right and live lives of purity. The Spirit obeys the Father and Son and He comes, speaks to our spirits, makes us come alive. He gives us the power to obey God, and in His presence we hold our integrity in our own hands.
Human relations are no different. God is perfect, though we are not. Yet St. Paul says, “be filled with the Spirit… making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things … submitting to one another in the fear of God.” Eph 5 And there in that word ‘submitting’ is a mystery. We find there are reasons to submit, and to each other, and circumstances govern how and when and to whom. To a uniformed police officer, I submit my car’s path to drive around an accident. To your husband, you submit a decision about how certain funds are secured. To your wife, you submit the password to your internet account, and she may look at what you’ve been looking at, so she knows you’ve been accountable. Integrity. It’s not worrying about your shadow because you’re not ashamed of yourself.
But what about the passage that follows in Ephesians. “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” Eph 5:21-24 When I teach this, I insist that we read its companion piece. “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her… So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies…” It goes on, but the point is made. Love your wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. How did Christ love us? He died to save us. This command is not only harder and more difficult to master, but it has to be first, fully intended and acted upon, before a man’s wife is asked to submit, obey, and come under her husband’s godly requests. If she knows that He is Jesus for her, fully sacrificing his life to make hers a heaven on earth, then she can agree with the things God shows him that together they need.
But it isn’t like that in most marriages. Incomplete people make selfish demands on one another. And spousal abuse doesn’t only happen from the male. We live in a fallen world. But we are going to a perfect one. The goal is to live as much like the Kingdom of Heaven while we are here on earth. It’s our pattern. It’s our path. It’s how we measure our progress.
Jesus didn’t give a lot of commandments, but He had a special relationship to such commands. He is the Lawgiver. In the Sermon on the Mount, He famously extended the Ten Commandments beyond just prohibiting murder, to condemn hating, begrudging and demeaning others. He extended adultery from the physical act of taking a mistress, to lusting for another woman than your wife. He shows us that our sins commence in our minds, and that God sees the root causes of outer sins. We all need the Saviour.
He gave few direct commands, but He does insist that we love one another, hugely, as He loves us, making that love as serious as His when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He commanded the Holy Eucharist, and Baptism. He commanded us to bring the gospel to the world, including every race and culture, with instructions to observe His commandments. He commanded we pick up our crosses and follow Him.
His commands can be daunting. Sell all you have and give it away, was the admonition He gave to a man truly seeking God’s approval. The possessions that rich man held were distracting him from his true path to God, so Jesus’ command was specifically for him. There are times when God’s command of you is only for you, and not another. My call to the priesthood, and now the episcopacy, were for me, not for you. He may be calling you to something I can’t do—in fact, I’m sure He is. We each have our calling. You might seek Him out for your own. You’ll never be fulfilled until you know it and can act accordingly.
So, someone objects: “I thought it wasn’t about works, but about faith! I believe, so isn’t that all I must do?” St. James says, “Show me your faith by your works.” But we need not rely on James. Ask Jesus. “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” “Whoever knows and obeys my commandments is the person who loves me. Those who love me will have my Father’s love, and I, too, will love them and show myself to them… Those who love me will do what I say… A person who doesn’t love me doesn’t do what I say.” Jn 14:15, 21, 23-24 The Apostle John, who wrote Jesus’ words here, also said it: “To love God means that we obey his commandments.” 1 Jn 5:3
To love Him is to obey Him. Obedience shows God we mean it. It means that our steps are measured according to the path of righteousness He laid out for us, not a rulebook, but how we ought to live in the Golden Rule, to do for others, always for others, as we would have them do for us. We get it wrong when we’re always seeking something to do for ourselves, feel entitled, insist on our way, and blame others for our dissatisfaction with everything. And in all things, thank God.
Today’s collect is one of the best prayers in our prayer book. It sets a key and a tone for our daily walk. Let’s look at it.
It addresses God, who is all mighty, and who is the only one that can straighten out the wayward and sinful wills and affections of people. We can’t make ourselves good. Only he does that. So, we know why we’re praying to Him. He is our answer. We are the problem.
So we ask that He provide the grace to cause us to love what He commands us. That’s hard for us. We chafe at commandments, but if we knew what God’s ways give us, and what disobedience creates for ourselves and others in the long run, we’d feel better in obeying.
We also ask for the desire He can instill in us to want what He promises. That may seem unnecessary, that we could be bound for Heaven and obtain His forgiveness, but it’s a real struggle for us to seek righteousness, integrity, goodness, purity, a life without sin—right now. As St. Augustine of Hippo once said of his former prayers, it had been, “O God, make me chaste… but not yet.” We need to want goodness. And the world is selling us anything but.
The prayer concludes that among the sundry and manifold changes of the world—this distraction of offers and promises that don’t fulfill us and aren’t what they advertise, our hearts might surely be fixed to the place where true joys are found. In God. In Christ. In His church. In truth and integrity, honesty, living right, making peace with God and our fellow creatures. Joy is there. Not on TV. Not in Vegas. Not a bottle, a cigarette, a magazine, an internet site, a cheap encounter, a flashy car, or any of a thousand empty promises. True joys are to be found in true joy—the author of which is our maker. Every good gift and perfect give is from above, not below. Filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness we must lay apart. The engrafted word can save our souls.
The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, is sent to us to make this possible. Without Him I am only kidding myself. He was truly sent to make us smarter, better, more loving and more obedient creatures. He causes our spirits to come alive, so that by water and the spirit we are born again. Then only can this message make any sense. And then alone are we faced with the question, once more, this morning, how we will lead our lives. If we love Him, what then do we do? What shall we do?