Merits and Mediation
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Trinity, August 22, 2021
“Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy; forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ.”
AMONG MY FAVORITE PRAYERS in our Book of Common Prayer, the 12th Sunday speaks to me the greatest comfort and highest challenge. Let me take it apart, piece by piece, and let’s all understand it better. And like the New King James translation, let me retell it now slightly altered to ring more clearly on our ears and minds.
All powerful, eternal God, who is forever more prepared to hear us than we are prepared to pray to you, and who is far more motivated to give us much more than we desire or can ever deserve; abundantly pour down your mercy; forgive every sin that makes us guilty and ashamed, and give us the good things we’re not worthy to ask, except that Jesus Christ, your son, and our Lord’s merits and mediation make it so. Amen.
It’s a prayer about largesse. God is abundantly generous. We use the word Grace to mean mercy at need, oil for our rusted gears, that helping hand when we can’t quite do it ourselves. But Grace only comes in one size: God-size. It’s too big for us to see, like the entire earth from any vantage point, like the entire night sky all the way around. It’s too big, so shrinking it down to size, we grow more comfortable with it and can even become complacent. God my helper, God my friend, my convenience, my vendor, my pet. Pagans made pint-sized golden gods for themselves for much the same reason: gods are good, like fire, when they stay in the fireplace, but not when they get all over the house.
All powerful means God can and does do all that is required to make a universe come into being and stay spinning in it’s almost infinite mass and energy, order and beauty, His continuous handiwork. There is simply nothing impossible for Him. And as He is eternal, this abundant power always has been and always shall be, the same, nothing less. This vast Being is not so busy with all His concerns that He can’t hear you say to Him, ‘God, I’m unhappy about something,’ or ‘God, show me something.’ In fact, we are always a little gun shy of opening channels and letting God in on our thoughts or questions, but He isn’t. He stands ready and willing, happy to know what we’re thinking. And of course, He already knows. What He wants is a conversation with His favorite creatures, us. The frequency is always open and available, on His end. We need only to trigger the mic and say, ‘Are you out there, God?’
How wrong we can be about God. But He understands why. Since we can’t see the entire ocean at one view, and only see the surf and a grey expanse that goes out a mile or two. We have to drive to the sea. It’s impersonal, and pulses and crashes its waves, indifferent to who is watching. It kicks up the occasional shell or seaweed, but its richness is mostly hidden from our eyes, its food, its treasure, its life underwater.
So also, God’s abundance goes unnoticed. We eat every day, perhaps say a perfunctory grace at meals, but food comes from Safeway and is paid by our charge card—what does He really have to do with that? Plenty, yet we forget our life is His first and last, this earth and its abundance a constant miracle. And He is ready to do far more, far more if only we’d ask. If He isn’t giving it, He’s smarter than we are and He knows it’s not what we really need.
Why should He give us anything? Do we deserve it? We are His image and likeness, His highest living creature, so far as we know. That doesn’t merit anything, but it does set a stage for more drama. If He makes a sentient being on two legs with big brains, He has something in mind, more than pond scum or tree moss. He’s going to supply our lives with stuff we need, and more. We don’t deserve it, but it makes sense.
And He wants to give us more than we desire. Now, that may not ring true. You’ve asked for many things that never came. Your desires are not always met with the genie’s ‘Your wish is my command!’ And thank God for that! What we wish for, all too often, is the low road. God wants to retrain our desires for the high road. And that desire comes by having the conversation we’re still resisting.
Once the collect establishes God’s ability and willingness beyond our capacity to seek Him for it, the request is made. Pour down from on high abundant mercy that forgives us everything that makes us squeamish to approach you and ashamed to speak to you. And give us the good life, the abundant wonders, most of them invisible. What we really need, beyond food, shelter and some furniture, is mental and spiritual peace. We need friends. We need an ordered society. We need inspiration, wisdom, fortitude, self-control, personal integrity. We need joy. We need to feel that image and likeness to God working its way throughout our lives. We need beauty. We need salvation.
Salvation is, first of all, a healing of soul. We have been sick. We have caught that dreaded disease more deadly than Covid—in fact, it is always fatal. We may not have noticed how horrible it is, but it’s been killing us since we were born. It’s the toxic waste of our race and, like lepers we’ve needed a healing from it all our lives. Salvation is a cure for original sin. It comes only through one means, a blood transfusion. Without that blood, we are dying. That blood is what He meant when He said, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” John 6:53 and “This is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of your sins.” He forgives us by shedding that blood, and by our taking it to ourselves spiritually, and as an act of remembrance. Thus, we drink the cup.
Then the prayer has us ask for good things, as many of the collects do, but it makes the observation that these are those good things we’re not worthy to ask for. We, of ourselves, even as members of His clan, can’t claim them by right or by our own merit. When we use that term Grace, we mean unmerited favor: loving abundant generosity that cannot be earned. So, these good things are a gift from a generous Father to inferior subjects. And still, we ask for them.
We’re not worthy to ask these things, even if we are called saints, even if we’re heads of religious orders, even if we pray daily, even if all men think well of us. Not worthy. Then the word ‘but.’ But through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord. We may not start all our prayers with Jesus, but we almost always end them with Him. Like the waxen seal on a special letter, sealed with the signet ring of the Prince Himself, to be recognized when received by the King, so it will be opened swiftly, and read carefully, because this letter comes by the Hand of His divine Son. So we claim the Name of Jesus Christ and sign our prayers with His name, written in His Blood. Do we dare? He says, yes. Do it. “Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” Jn 14:13
And what makes the Son’s Name so powerful that it makes up for all our deficiency? The prayer cites His merits and mediation. What are those?
Think of a diamond, the most valuable of minerals and hardest substance on earth. When cut, its facets create a brilliance and throws fantastic colors, sparkling before us. Diamonds are rated by color and clarity, in addition to size or carat weight. A diamond’s color is defined by a scale of D to Z. It starts at D because that is the clearest, most colorless stone we find in nature. It is as white or clear as we can find. A to C are not found on earth, but God is looking for an A diamond. After D, the stones go to grey or yellow, and finally brown. A color is impossible. God wants A. In clarity, FL is flawless, which means no inclusions, pits or fractures. Less than 1% of all diamonds are FL, then IF for internally flawless, then VVS for very, very small flaws, then VS, and then S for slight inclusions, and then I, which are not so good. A gem that is A color and IF is wanted. No one has ever seen such a stone. The largest diamond, since you’re asking, when still uncut was over 3,000 carats, almost 22 ounces.
If Jesus merits the things we ask and need, He is of value beyond price. His A color, flawless diamond is the size of the sun. Bigger. He is priceless. And a proud gaggle of priests paid 30 pieces of silver for Him. This human treasure beyond buying shed His precious blood on this earth, every drop more valuable than all the world. He merits this prayer and all that can be derived by it.
And He is our mediator. We say the word. Let’s understand it.
Websters says mediation is an intervention between conflicting parties for reconciling and settling a difference. It is generally outside of the official court system, and in our lives means both parties volunteer to negotiate, presenting their cases before a mediator who they both trust. How does that describe our situation?
The parties are God and us. God claims that we have sinned and fallen short of His promises and commandments, despite many voices given to guide us, and graces bestowed to help us. We refused and we fell. His claims are valid. We haven’t a rag to cover ourselves. The arguments that some poor souls make to justify themselves, claims against the Most High of unfairness, of cruelty, of favoritism, of their not getting their way, are heart-breaking. We’ve all made such complaints, if we are honest. Useless. God in this hearing is stern, but not cruel. He has been hurt by our thanklessness, our unfaithfulness, and our lies. What good are any counter-arguments?
But God has agreed that a mediator may hear this case and judge it. The judge is His Son, forever with Him, forever His Logos, His Word, His Second Person in God’s triune nature. He became man, born of a virgin, and was killed by our hands. He looks at us and says, “You are guilty as charged. But by my death and resurrection, you are covered. This guilt is washed by my blood. By faith in me you may be saved. Do you accept the terms?” If we say, “Amen,” everything in this prayer is ours.
Do you say Amen?