I’m using a particular collect to frame this message. From the start, it acknowledges both the mercy of God and our need for that mercy, because we have not just gone but are going astray from his ways.
You see, if I as a believer in Jesus am somewhere “out there,” away from God, more often than not, I have found some way to justify my position, to be at peace. This includes lying to myself in an attempt to make it OK to continue living astray.
Otherwise, I’d be in hell inside, doing whatever I could to claw my way back into a place of grace.
‘O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways’
So, if I’m out there, if I’m astray, it’s because I’ve created a path inside myself to be able to justify my actions. And this is really the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit. Remember the line: Eve “saw that it was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eye” and therefore, she ate (Gen. 3:6a-b). She offered it to Adam, and then they both ate.
In other words, they didn’t just say, “What a great idea, serpent.” They had to go through some mental pathway that justified their reason for getting there.
So it is with us. If we’re astray, it’s because we’ve worked out some kind of inner justification to get there. If temptation literally dragged us away, we can find a way to stay there, to justify our being out there.
“and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith”
And notice the next part of the prayer: “Bring them again.” In other words, it’s not “Hey you, get over here.” It’s instead God’s action to come and take us close. Not just outwardly, but with evidence of a real change of heart: “penitent,” the Scripture says.
In other words, we’re not just asking God to come and to bring us, but to literally create in us a change of heart. A part of the nature of faith is acknowledging that God’s ways are better. And, even though I have ferocious desires to stay astray, by the mercy of God, I acknowledge that I need to come back.
Our Lord explains this with what, if you’ve grown up in church, is a familiar story: the rich man and Lazarus. “Lazarus” is a literal derivation of Eliazar, which means “God helps.” Lazarus is by the gate in abject poverty, in physical infirmity so great that he cannot even move—not even when the dogs come to lick his wounds.
So judgment comes. It’s the big reversal. We just know the rich man as “the rich man”—no name attached. But where does he end up? In Hades. And why? Because of an entirely self-centered approach to life, symbolized by his inability to acknowledge his obligation to help Lazarus.
Yes, he knows Lazarus, which is why he can call him by name. He just doesn’t feel like he has any reason to stop and help him. And later, he looks across the gulf to see Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom, a place full of comfort. The rich man, by contrast, is now in a place full of torment.
And of course, the ironic, piercing ending: No, even if someone comes back from the dead, they will not be convinced. In other words, this story still applies.
That’s really the end of self-deception, when I’ve convinced myself that, as a Christian, it’s actually meet and right to sin. I need God to break in, carry me back and change my heart. I need God to release in me the faith to say that the price of getting from here to there, though paid by Jesus, is not an easy road, but it is worth it.
“to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
In other words, this is not “I’m saved by faith and therefore it doesn’t matter what I do with my money.” If Jesus is at work in my life, I will give away what I have. And if I don’t, then somehow, I’m over there, astray, and I need to be brought here, with God.
I need Jesus to break through and show me that to be out there spending what I have on myself is ungodly, and that I need to be brought back so I agree with the unchangeable truth. This is the end of the collect, of God’s Word: Jesus Christ, who is telling me through the Bible, “You can’t be ‘out there’ unless you really want to end up like the rich man.”
I can think of all kinds of reasons why that parable doesn’t apply to me. And they’re good ones, theologically well thought-out. But there’s this terrible line in the book of Proverbs that says, “There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 17:23).
All of that applies to this story that Jesus wanted included in the Gospel of Luke. For the sake of his body, the church, that we might be known as people who care profoundly for the Lazaruses of this word, and do so not just in sentiment but in truth—because we show up. And we are known to the world as a people who care for the least and for the lost.
All that is a part of our witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Because at the resurrection, believe me, I wouldn’t want to be “out there,” away from God.
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(This post is an adaption of Bishop Brewer’s sermon on March 16, 2017, in the Bishop’s Oratory of the Diocesan Office, Orlando.)
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.