Rejoice with me
“The deepest impulse of the human soul is for that which is greater than herself,” the great 3rd century (AD) pagan philosopher, Plotinus observes. His statement looks back to the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle and has its resonances in Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, and a host of others in the spiritual imaginary of the philosophical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It counters the narcissisms and obsessions with the self that are part of contemporary culture: ‘look at me looking at you looking at me,’ as it were. The point is that everything is not about you, about the sovereign self in its splendid isolation. You are not the centre.
What Plotinus highlights is intellectual humility signaled in the Epistle and illustrated in the Gospel. Humility is the condition of grace, our openness to what is greater than ourselves, the condition of being exalted in due time, “after that ye have suffered a while.”
Without this insight, we misunderstand the Gospel. The 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel presents us with three parables, two of which we heard today: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and then there is the concluding parable of the prodigal or lost son. All three are about repentance, metanoia, a thinking after the things of God, the things that are greater than ourselves. The word metanoia is used several times here. It has very much to do with our being lost and found, being lost from God and the company of our humanity with God and then being found and restored to that company. The parables are told to convict the judgmentalism of “the Pharisees and Scribes” who murmur against Jesus because of the company he keeps with “the publicans and sinners.” Yet they are those who “drew near for to hear him.” They are seeking what is greater than themselves as opposed to the smug self-righteousness and conceit of the Pharisees and Scribes. What is a common complaint and failing of religion is now a defining feature of our culture in its obsessions with its “assurance of certain certainties” (T.S. Eliot, The Preludes IV) about self-identity which create endless division and enmity.
Metanoia or repentance is about our being turned back to what is greater than ourselves in which we find the deeper truth about ourselves. It is found in communion. The Church is not simply a human construct; it is, divinely speaking, an article of Faith, “the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church,” as we profess in the Creed. The lost sheep and the lost coin are returned to the company of others. The most profound image for the Church is that of the body of Christ. Rejoice with me means to rejoice in “the blessed company of all faithful people” as our liturgy puts it (BCP, p.85), reminding us that salvation or being whole is not simply about the individual self but about our incorporation into the mystical body of Christ.
It is through the images of Scripture and liturgy and their embodied expression in the very fabric of our churches that we participate in what is greater than ourselves. We cannot forsake the images and their expression in the churches without a great loss, a loss of meaning and purpose. Repentance is about our thinking upon the things of God and it is never simply a solitary affair. We are part of a company, the company of those who rejoice rather than condemn the repentant sinner, lost souls which we all are.
The parables show us the divine principle which seeks out the lost sheep and the lost coin not because they matter more than others but because they belong equally to the whole community. We are companions with one another in our companionship with God who is greater than ourselves by definition. We are not our own ends. We do not live simply for ourselves. This is the great teaching that belongs to philosophy and religion. The Church is not a virtual community, disembodied and abstract on some digital platform in cyberspace. At best such things can only remind us of what it truly means to be the Church. It is about being found together in the mystery of God, gathered by his Word and Sacrament.
To reclaim this sense of the Church as the body of Christ in the Christian understanding is to rejoice in our being found in what is greater than ourselves. The Third Sunday after Trinity falls this year within the Octave of the Nativity of John the Baptist. His birth and his death frame our summer sojournings, at least here in the Maritimes. His Nativity falls near the summer solstice; his death at the closing down of summer in later August.
The Collect for his Nativity  captures beautifully the significance of John the Baptist. It is all about his living for what is greater than himself right from the moment of his being “wonderfully born” to his preaching of repentance, from his “doctrine and life” to his “constantly speak[ing] the truth, boldly rebuk[ing] vice, and patiently suffer[ing] for the truth’s sake.” His whole life points us to Christ, the one who comes after him who is greater than him. “He must increase, but I must decrease,” he says. At once a prophet – one who speaks on behalf of a god – he is, as Jesus says, “more than a prophet” because he shows us what it means to abide in what is greater than ourselves. Such is the mystery of Christ and our incorporation into that mystery. It is not found in our self-affirmations and certainties. We rejoice in what is greater than ourselves. We do so together in the body of Christ, learning to die to ourselves in order to live for God and for one another. Such are the lessons of our abiding in the constant love of God towards us, the God who seeks us out and finds us, gathering us into his love.
It may seem that we are merely passive in relation to God’s grace but the point of the Gospel parables is that something is required of us, namely, repentance or metanoia. We have to be where the things of God are proclaimed and celebrated. We have to know ourselves as sinners in need of repentance always, recognizing the deep irony of Christ’s statement that there is “joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance,” the point being that there are no such persons for we are all in need of that which is greater than ourselves. Such are the strong lessons that counter our current confusions and obsessions. Here is our true joy.
Rejoice with me
Fr. David Curry
Trinity 3 in the Octave of the Nativity of John the Baptist
June 28th, 2020