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Sermons Table of Contents spacer Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Romans 13:1-7

St. Matthew 8:1-13

“For I am a man under authority”

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

None of us need any reminder of what time of year it is.  Our winter weariness has begun to show, and who could blame us after the spat of cold weather we have been having.  Winter can be a more reflective time of year and I’ve had occasion to think about my childhood recently.  You see, as a child the shoveling fell to me.  After each snow storm I was sent out into the cold to begin what seemed to be an interminable chore with assurances that I was building great character.  It did not pass my notice that each time I was out there “building character” my Dad was inside, saving some big bucks on a snow blower.   But we do choose to live where winters can be harsh, and I suspect that many choose to for the same reasons that I do. I love the flow of the seasons, those markers of time passing, and the good hard reality of a cold winter. 

The Church of course has her own seasons.  It is helpful for us, slow learners that we are, to concentrate on a theme for more than one Sunday.  During Epiphanytide we concentrate on the many manifestations of the glory of God in Jesus Christ.  Flip through the Propers some time and you will see that the Gospel readings there flow with a quick chronology: the Magi’s journey, the finding of Jesus in the Temple, the Baptism of Our Lord, the Wedding Feast at Cana, and today, the healing of a Centurion’s servant (or son in John’s Gospel).  The Church calls out to us: “Look at the signs; from the humble to the cosmic, there were signs that God was with us.”  The Epistles too carry a detectable trend.  The Church in her wisdom couples the manifestations of the Christ with the standards of our Christian duty.  As Erskine of Linlathen famously quipped “In the New Testament religion is grace and ethics is gratitude.”  Grace and gratitude are inextricably linked, and it is incumbent upon us to identify the sources of grace in our lives, so that we can develop the proper sense of gratitude for them.

During Epiphanytide we really focus on the signs that point to the divinity of Jesus.  But there is another Epiphany.  Not just the Epiphany encapsulated by the past, but the epiphany palpable in the present.  So often when we speak of present grace we are referring to the sacraments, which are after all the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.  One can certainly find that motif running through the Epiphanytide Gospels.  But we need to be cautious not to be too narrow-minded in our understanding of grace.  Other physical objects can be signs and sources of grace, a Book of Common Prayer or a Bible, for example.  We would refer to these as sacramentals – things that have a sacrament-like function, and we will often have them blessed to further set them apart and to provide spiritual edification.  The Lessons this morning point out an often overlooked source of grace, namely, Authority.

There are several different senses of authority.  When we think of authority we most readily think of the civil authorities.  This is the sense that St. Paul addresses in the Epistle and the centurion refers to in the Gospel. For St. Paul our relationship with God is not limited to the religious sphere, and thus, our obedience to civil authorities is a form of obedience to God himself.  Knowing, as we do, the history of the Christians in Rome we might be tempted to see Paul as a bit naïve.  It was state power after all that would later condemn the lionly saint and remove his head.   We must first remember that St. Paul is addressing the relationship of the individual to the state, not its reciprocal.  He is not concerned with whether civil authorities are acting justly or whether they contribute to the well-being of their subjects; he takes it as an assumed premise that they do.  Secondly, St. Paul does not engage in any of the politics of his day.  He keeps his comments limited to general principles.  The principle for St. Paul is simple: “Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves condemnation.”   St. Peter went even further to make the same point.  He advised, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake…For so is the will of God, that with well doing, ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.”

How strange these words seem to us as Americans, bred as we are on individualism and other enlightenment values.  Our rhetoric is entrenched in the exaltation of the individual, and self-reliance seems our highest moral aim.  What possible value could there be in voluntary followership?

Certainly I would never suggest that St. Paul or St. Peter mean that a Christian’s highest duty is to simply follow the laws of whichever state in which he happens to reside.  After all “the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.”   Also such an interpretation would fly in the face of Tradition and besmirch the heroic reputations of the martyrs who refused to submit to the ordinances of men.  But instead there is an attitude that produces proper spiritual alignment and it is to this that the apostles speak.

Resisting authority brings condemnation – that is it produces a toxic  environment for the soul.  Was it not after all resistance to authority that began the Enemy’s rebellion?  St. Peter advocates submission.  We have then the dos and the don’ts.  Our orientation then should be clear.  We need to be open to God acting in the world through the structures of man (and many times in spite of the structures of man).  Have we prepared our souls to hear (by the way the verb to hear is the root of obedience), are we prepared to really listen for the Word of God at work in the world? 

There is a higher authority than that of the civil in the world, the Church.  The Church is very much an institution by which God communicates His will to us.  Submission to the authority of the Church is certainly a higher obligation for Christians.   Yes there is a hierarchy of obligation.  And this shows God’s deep love and understanding of man.  We can use our submission to state authorities as training or to better condition us for our submission to the Church and her administrators – the bishops.  The same reason that we submit to civil authority applies to ecclesial authority.  Church authority is ordained by God.  Our submission is not required because individual rulers or bishops are more holy than you or I.  After all a beggar may be holier than the president, or a layman more holy than a bishop, but it does not follow that the beggar should be president or the layman bishop. Obviously both president and beggar are called to holiness, but the president and bishop are simply called to exercise a more specific kind of virtue.  And they are owed the respect that the office entails because they have been called to exercise their office by God.  There is a value and certainly a necessity “ for the Christian to recognize that he has betters.”   We do not mean by betters those who are in fact better, or more precisely those more deserving of favor, but rather we mean those who by their position are owed our respect.

In each of these cases it is our orientation that matters the most.  Are we aligned to hear God or aligned to reject Him?  Our reception of authority provides us with a good gauge to check this orientation.   The proper alignment of our souls is best maintained by an attitude of submission, which we generally term obedience.  On this there is great testimony from the saints, those teachers of holiness.  Following another’s will over your own is the first of four things recommended by Thomas a Kempis in The Imitation of Christ to achieve inner peace.   St. Benedict calls obedience the first step toward humility and notes that it comes easily to those who cherish Christ above all.   Every Christian religious order demands from its pupils a vow of obedience – a precondition of spiritual training.  This should not surprise us because love and obedience are as inseparable as grace and gratitude.  “Love is shown by obedience because obedience is the outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual love.”   Love after all is not real until it constrains us to fulfill the will of the beloved.  And who is more beloved by the true Christian soul than God?  This is what St. Paul wants us to see.  Obedience when taken as a principal of human life has the power to open the eyes and ears of our heart to the workings of God in the world.

But if love is but lip service without obedience, obedience is stifling without love.  Christian obedience does not consist in doing certain actions and abstaining from others…True obedience can only be paid by a spirit which rejoices.”   An obedient soul rejoices in the requirements placed upon it because in them it recognizes the works and plans of a loving Father.  An obedient soul receives the grace and lives the gratitude.  An obedient soul has faith that no matter how long the sidewalk or driveway, no matter how deep the snow, or how cold the wind, there is something in the task to learn, there is something of value in the doing, and there is something strengthened in the process.

 

Let us pray:  O heavenly Father, who hast filled the world with beauty; Open, we beseech thee, our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve thee with gladness; for the sake of him by whom all things were made, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

Rom. 13:2.

I Peter 2: 13-15.

II Cor 3:6

Desmond Fitzgerald, Preface to Statecraft, (New York: Sheed&Ward, 1939).

G.D. Carleton, The King’s Highway, (Croydon, Surrey:  Tufton Books, 1940), 216.

Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J. (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), 111.

St. Benedict of Nursia, The Rule of St. Benedict, ed. Timothy Fry, O.S.B. (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1981),  15.

Carleton, 209.

Thomas Erskine, The Unconditional Freeness of the Gospel (Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1828) 28-9.

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