holy cross sermon for the seventh sunday after pentecost, year c, july 7, 2013

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.”

All three of today’s readings speak of the blessing and peace that come from the Lord.

The reading from Isaiah speaks of the extension of “prosperity… like a river” (66.12) and of the comfort and rejoicing of those “in Jerusalem” (66.13).

Similarly, St. Paul, in the epistle to the Galatians, speaks of glorying in the cross of Christ by which he has become dead to the world and its powers, and by which they have become dead to him (6.14). And he blesses with “peace and mercy” all his hearers who “walk by this rule”, namely the “Israel of God”.

So too in today’s Gospel, Jesus appoints seventy of his disciples and sends them out with instructions, “into every town and place where he himself was to come” (10.1). And he tells them that when they enter a house, they are to say “Peace be to this house!” And he says, somewhat mysteriously, “If a son of peace is there, your peace shall rest on him; but if not, it shall return to you” (10.6). And he tells them not to go from house to house, but to remain in one place, preaching to those in the town, “eating and drinking what they provide” (10.7), healing the sick, and proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near (10.9).

All of these passages of Scripture have to do with the blessings of mercy and peace that come from God. But it may not be obvious, on the surface of the text, how these blessings of mercy and peace accrue to an individual. How can WE receive these blessings?

All three readings indicate the PLACE – the spiritual place – where God’s blessing of peace, mercy, and prosperity is operative, and that place is the bosom of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. The Prophet Isaiah, writing before the full dawn of the coming messiah, writes of the Church under the figure of Jerusalem, whom he exhorts us to love, and with whom he exhorts us to rejoice so that, as he says, “you may suck and be satisfied with her consoling breasts; [and] that you may drink deeply with delight from the abundance of her glory” (66.11). And in the next verses, we learn that it is to her that the Lord means to extend prosperity and the wealth of the nations, and says that “you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (66.13).

A general principle of Biblical interpretation in the history of Christianity is that the meaning of everything in the Old Testament is illuminated by the light of Christ, who is the heir of David, and in whom the law and the prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled. Those therefore who have their life – their being – “in Christ” – through baptism and faith in him – find themselves incorporated into Israel, and heirs of all of the promises God made to Abraham and his descendents. This is what it means to be a member of the Body of Christ, to be a part of the communion of the Catholic Church.

It is therefore in the communion of the Catholic Church that we receive the blessings of peace, mercy, and prosperity of which today’s readings speak. As St. Paul says, “Peace and mercy be upon all who walk by this rule, upon the Israel of God.” “The Rule” of which Paul speaks is the rule of conformity to Christ in his Body, which is the Catholic Church (Ephesians 1.22-23). This is what Paul means when he refers to “a new creation” (Galatians 6.15) in today’s Epistle reading.

If we receive God’s blessings of peace, mercy, and prosperity through our conformity to Christ in his Body, which is the Catholic Church, this nevertheless raises a further question: HOW are we conformed to Christ in his Body? I have said that it is through the sacrament of baptism and through faith in Jesus, but what does this mean? And how is it worked out?

Isaiah uses maternal imagery with respect to the individual’s relationship to the Church. And it is no coincidence that the Church is often called our “Holy Mother”. Isaiah says that we are to “suck and be satisfied with her consoling breasts”, drinking “deeply with delight from the abundance of her glory” (66.11); that we are to be “carried upon her hip, and dandled upon her knees” (v. 12). And the Lord speaks through Isaiah saying, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (v. 13). And he says: “You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bones shall flourish like the grass; and it shall be known that the hand of the Lord is with his servants…” (v. 14).

To understand what this means for us as individuals, we should turn to the Gospel. St. Augustine read this passage from Luke about the Lord’s appointment of the seventy to refer to the order of priests – that just as the bishops of the Church are the heirs and successors of the twelve apostles, so the priests, who minister with and under the bishops, are the heirs and successors of these “seventy” whom the Lord sends out to bless with peace and healing all whose hearts are disposed to receive Christ himself – because the Gospel says that Jesus sent the seventy to every place “where he himself was about to come” (Luke 10.1). To quote Augustine: “Now as no one doubts that the twelve Apostles foreshadowed the order of Bishops, so also we must know that these [seventy] represented the presbytery, (that is, the second order of priests.)”

To sum up: God promises to give blessings of peace, mercy, and prosperity, to “Jerusalem”, to the “Israel of God” – that is to all who have been incorporated into the Body of Jesus Christ, which is the Catholic Church. And he has sent men to minister peace and healing in his name to the members of his Body – he has sent, namely, first the twelve apostles, and then their heirs and successors, the bishops and priests of the Catholic Church.

Drawing these strands together, St. Cyril of Alexandria notices the relationship of the seventy disciples, whom Jesus commissions in today’s reading, and the twelve apostles. And St. Cyril notices another place in the Old Testament where these two numbers are juxtaposed, in book of Numbers, chapter 33, where the people of Israel were refreshed at a place called Elim, where there are twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. St. Cyril says:

In the book of numbers also it was written of the children of Israel, that they came to Elim, which is by interpretation “ascent,” and there were there twelve fountains of water, and seventy palm trees. For when we fly to spiritual refreshment, we shall find twelve fountains, namely the holy Apostles, from whom we imbibe the knowledge of salvation as from the well-springs of the Saviour; and seventy palms, that is, those who were now appointed by Christ. For the palm is a tree of sound core, striking deep root and fruitful, always growing by the water side, yet at the same time putting forth its leaves upwards.

Therefore for us, as individual members of the Body of Christ, we should expect to grow into Christ by holding fast to the teaching of the Apostles (which is recorded handily in the writings of the New Testament), and we should give ourselves to the worship and ministration of our Holy Mother, the Church – and, indeed, to the heirs and successors of the Apostles, the bishops and priests of the Church, who keep themselves close to the “twelve fountains of water” – that is, to the Apostolic teaching, and who draw sustenance thereby to minister in the name of Christ his truth, and his blessings of mercy and peace. This is how we will grow and thrive. This is how we will be kept safe from all harm, how we will tread on serpents and scorpions without fear, and how we will come to know that our names are written in the book of life, and that the Kingdom of God has come near.

Lastly, it is important to say that this nearness of the Kingdom of God is indeed an unspeakable blessing to the “sons of peace” – to those whose hearts are susceptive to Gospel of peace, the good news of redemption in Christ. But for those who are not, the nearness of the Kingdom means judgment, and torment. We should always remember that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, that the love of God is a consuming fire, and that our willingness and our love will determine whether we experience God’s nearness as blessing or as judgment. But blessing and judgment are the same thing; the difference is in our heart. As the reading from Isaiah says, while “the hand of the Lord is with his servants… his indignation is against his enemies. For behold, the Lord will come in fire, and his chariots like the storm wind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the Lord execute judgment, and by his sword, upon all flesh; and those slain by the Lord shall be many.” Echoing the words of the Lord from today’s Gospel, St. Theophylact of Ohrid says, “as they who receive the Apostles are said to have the Kingdom of God come nigh unto them as a blessing, so those who do not receive them are said to have it nigh unto them as a curse.”

So let us give ourselves to Christ, and find refreshment in the bosom the Catholic Church. Let us find nourishment in the apostolic teaching, and life in Christ, who gives himself to us in his Bride, our Holy Mother Church, whom our Lord endows with all that he has and all that he is. It is by giving ourselves to her without reservation, deferring to her teaching and living her life as fully as we are able, that we experience the nearness of the Kingdom of God as a blessing of peace and mercy.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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About Fr Will

Fr Will Brown is rector of Holy Cross Dallas
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