The Spirit is Holy
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2023
“For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit.”
WE DO NOT presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.
It’s the prayer before we receive Communion, a Prayer of Humble Access. This high falutin’ high English was first heard in Gothic churches, with lords and ladies and powdered wigs and lace finery, the English aristocracy and nobles needed - above anything else - a reminder of who they really were before approaching their marble altars and having the nerve to eat and drink the Body and Blood of a Semitic Saviour. In the beauty of ceremony, royalty of vestments, soaring architecture, armies of boys in red and white, vergers with wands: our high Anglican ritual can get lost in its grandeur, and we come to think ourselves worthy. Not worthy, are we. Not to have Him come under this roof. Yet He does. Neither are we worthy to gather crumbs under His table, and eat what He discards. Remember what we are. Thomas Cranmer wrote that prayer. And in it, he remembered the Syrophoenician woman.
Her daughter was demonized, but you’d have expected that. The Satanic rites that citizens of Tyre and Sidon practiced with their children should have had them all possessed of devils. The girl might be grooming for their temples, as a medium, to cavort with spirits, with men who pay, as her living. Jesus knew the woman who now shouted at His back. Part of Him had to cringe at how this girl got so spiritually sick, and how her mother had lived until this crisis that made her call after a Jewish holy man. The disciples knew enough to discourage her. How many had clamored after Jesus. He’d come to this land of strangers to escape the crowds in Galilee who left Him no time to Himself, and no time to spend with them. They wanted to be alone with Jesus. Now this.
“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is horribly demonized!” Jesus kept walking. “Lord! Won’t you help us?” Silence. “For my daughter! Have mercy!” The disciples pushed her back, but still she came on, sobbing. They asked Jesus to say something, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” He finally stopped, and broke His silence, talking to no one in particular. “I am only sent to the lost sheep of Israel.”
They agreed. His assignment didn’t include Gentiles. He was sent for Jews! Ah! They knew it. They were the chosen ones. God’s favorites. His words vindicated the apostles in their disdain of the woman in the colors and garb of Canaanite tribes. She heard, too. She’d heard it before from her southern neighbors. It was a moment of truth: how much did she want her daughter’s deliverance, and how much could she take of this old Hebrew superiority? Her love and desperation won out. She broke through to Jesus and fell at His knees, sobbing. “Master! Help me!”
Knowing her as no one else could, Jesus probed for her to recognize how far her religion was from His holiness, how wicked the worship of Baal and Ashtoreth, fertility idols, in their drug cult temples, their spiritual orgies compared with the God I AM, who lovingly created all things and would bear no competition. “How am I to take the children's bread and throw it to dogs?” He asked, finally speaking directly to her, looking her in the face when He used the familiar insult ‘dog’.
Something in His eyes must have clued her in, that this was not only a rebuke, not a final argument, sending her away rejected. There had to be a glint in them, or a slight broadening of His mouth, the beginning of a smile, for her to realize this was the test. Are you humble enough to know what you’re asking, and of Whom you’re asking this favor? Are you ready to stop this evil way to really save your daughter from yet another encounter with the demons?
Instead of getting hurt and turning away at His words, she answered, “Yes, Lord, yet even puppies eat the crumbs fallen from their masters’ table.” Now Jesus fully showed His love for this fallen woman, as He had unexpectedly shown love to the Jewish harlots, possessed girls and adulteresses. His mercy was unbounded. His smile broadened further, and compassion filled His face, as He comforted her, reached over to her, and said, “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be for you just as you desire.” And they stayed in the city long enough that she returned to them, full of faith and hope and love and encouragement. Her daughter was healed that very hour, just as Jesus had assured her.
The man appointed as the Archbishop of Canterbury at the hour Henry VIII severed ties with Rome was a great liturgist. He understood how the language of worship works and how to use English to mean what the Latin once meant to worshipers in that island kingdom. The Sarum Missal Mass had addressed God at the point of taking the Blessed Sacrament, with prayers for the worthiness of the priest to receive. Nothing was said of the laity who might also receive, and this was not surprising. Often the people did not take Communion, but were left in the nave to watch the holy priests and other ministers take their Eucharist far up in the chancel. The clergy had for centuries considered the crowds altogether unworthy of the wine, and seldom gave them the bread. All this changed when Thomas Cranmer clothed the worship in the language of the people. For Communion, Thomas Cranmer needed to forge a new prayer.
Any prayer offered just before receiving a Sacrament defines what we do and how we understand it. This masterful prayer first insists we be not presumptuous, coming rudely to the Lord’s Table thinking ourselves righteous. We are not. We trust only in His many and mighty mercies. The Canaanite woman is recalled, who set herself among the dogs who clamor to eat scraps fallen beneath the high table where the children of the kingdom are feasting. And Cranmer sets us even one step lower than she. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table.” Not even dogs are we. We are worse. We’re less. It’s a great way to come to Communion, remembering that we do so only by His mercy, and in that spirit to eat His Body and drink His blood, not congratulate ourselves at this honor, but to see that His Body cleanses our dirty bodies, and His Blood washes our sin-sick souls. If He might only enter us this holy way, the way that He devised, we would be glad for Him it remain inside us forever. Amen.
We are called to holiness. Our standard is His righteousness. Being just a man like any one of you, I ache at this sometimes. How can I be holy? Just when I think I’m doing okay, I’m not. Something reminds me of my weakness, my tepid faith, my lackluster prayers, my feeble knees.
God proclaimed to Israel, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Lev 19:2 King David sang that we should “know that the Lord has set apart for Himself him who is godly.” Psalm 4:3
Godly? Holy? Are we? I’m not worthy to eat crumbs. This is an apparent conflict, and we hope He is merciful, understanding, forgiving, kind. He gives us His Spirit, to dwell inside of us, and His Spirit, in this proximity, has to know we are not so good as we pretend. Who’s fooling whom? Nobody. How can we come forward and receive Him?
And here it is. We’re not worthy. We’ve never been truly holy. Our performance has been, at best, mediocre. And that, my friends, puts us squarely in the company of everyone Jesus came to save. It’s not for the healthy that the doctor opens his bag. It’s not the righteous who need a Savior. It isn’t the safe 99 in the sheepfold that need the shepherd to go out searching. And if we wander over to see what those holy, righteous, safe people are up to, we find the mirage evaporate and all humanity winds up just as we are: greatly in need of transformation and desperately in need of Jesus Christ.
St. Paul cried out, “There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one.” Romans 3:10-12
We do not presume to come to thy Table trusting in our own righteousness. The Spirit is holy. God’s will is our sanctification, our being made holy, set apart, dedicated only to Him, and cleansed, changed, sick of our idols, rid of the world, subjugating our flesh, kicking out the devil.
God calls us and God is pure. We can’t stand in His presence, but let that not deter you from coming here. For if our God is holy, He is also loving, merciful, and longing to see you in His halls, not grubbing off the floor to catch up mere crumbs, not as dogs beneath His dining set, but as honored guests at long last, invited and welcome as friends seated with high honor, made new by the blood of the lamb, cleansed by Him who has redeemed you, in your personally reserved seat to feast at His holy Table at the marriage supper of the Lamb.
The Holy Spirit He has given you shall make you so.