Monday, January 26, 2015

Are men accountable to God, even if they have never heard of Him?


DOES that title sound familiar?  If you worship here frequently, you have definitely heard it before because it comes from a form of the General Prayer.  In our hymnal it is on page 110.  It was written in the 16th century by Thomas Cranmer, a reformer of the English Church, an Archbishop of Canterbury, martyred under Queen Mary.  In today's Gospel we can see Jesus answering that petition, granting the mercies of God to a gentile.  As He did so, He surprised everyone around Him.  That was one "sort and condition of men" that nobody seemed to think the Messiah would care about.  They were wrong.

The Epiphany season begins with the lesson of the Magi, who were certainly gentiles.  God called them with a sign in the stars, which they could not miss since they were astrologers.  They understood that they had to follow the call, and thus were led to the Incarnate Word.  Occasionally Jesus served Samaritans, who were half-gentile.  Only very rarely do we see Him interacting with 100% gentiles.  There was the Canaanite woman whose daughter was possessed.  During Holy Week there were some Greeks who wanted to see Him, and there was this centurion.  After His resurrection Jesus gave clear instructions to make disciples of all nations.  Many people today wonder why.  One popular notion is that if people do not know God's Law they are not accountable for keeping it.  Likewise, the same notion holds that one who does not know the Gospel cannot be expected to have faith.  Never think such things!  Anyone who is a sinner is accountable, and everyone is born is a sinner.  There is no one in this world who does not need God's saving health, no one who does not need to be born again and thus to have a more proper role in Christ's kingdom.  Don't think that this proves God to be unjust.  We know little of His ways, thus He may seem to be what He is not, but He certainly has given us commandments and consequences for breaking them.  Everyone is accountable.  Yes, even the Muslims who believe in a barbaric god who rewards suicides and murderers, a god who appears to be Satan, are accountable to our God.

Reason teaches us a lot about God.  For example, dumb beasts do not give birth to rational creatures.  If we can talk, that bears witness to a Creator who can talk.  The same is true about knowing right from wrong.  Creatures with a conscience could not come from those who lack it.  Thus the existence of morality bears witness to a moral Creator.  We may say the same about having purposes.  So nearly everyone knows enough to worship something.  There are very few true atheists.  Some call themselves atheists because they deny traditional gods -- like Communists who worship the great future society, or Humanists who worship what mankind will become, or materialists who worship the things they own.  Genuine atheists, like Albert Camus, usually kill themselves.  So St. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that truth concerning God ought to be clear from the things He has made.  There is no excuse for those who deny Him.

Obviously, everyone doesn't believe the truth.  God's enemy deceives them.  Even though the Creator has left His messages all over our world, Satan has perverted them so they call our attention elsewhere.  He sabotages souls.  He makes you discontent with your status as a human creature.  He comes from both sides, making you wish you were a beast, or an angel.  If only I could be irresponsible and grabbing, or on the other hand, disgusted with my fellow men because I am so far above them.  If these tricks don't work, Satan trots out his three greatest idols - the drive for power, the drive for escape, or the drive for pleasures and delights.  In Paradise Lost, John Milton personified them as Moloch, Belial, and Mammon, three lieutenants of the Deceiver.  God's saving health turns us from them to the Word made flesh.

The centurion was a Roman.  the people in the Gospel were amazed that Jesus showed him mercy, but what amazed Jesus was His own disciples' unbelief.  This gentile had real faith.  He humbled himself, telling the Lord that he was unworthy to have Him come under His roof.  He believed that Jesus would give him some blessing, some small portion of His saving health.  He had come to the right Person.  As Jesus pointed out shortly afterward what really matters is not who your parents were, or what you remember, or what you did.  To get a reserved seat at the table with the Patriarchs, what matters is who you know.  Even as this event was taking place, the carnal Israel was rejecting Jesus the Messiah, and He was gathering a new community, an Israel of believers.  To give life to that community He died and rose again, and after His resurrection He commanded His disciples to preach the Gospel everywhere, baptizing people in the name of the Triune God, so that they might be born again of water and the Spirit.  That's how God's saving health came to me; that's how it comes to you, and that's how it must come to all sorts and conditions of men.  That faith is the true faith, because it is faith in the true God.

Just as everyone is poisoned by sin, so everyone can be detoxed by forgiveness.  Whatever Satan wants us to forget, the Holy Spirit helps us remember.  We must indeed look to the cross to see the real horror of our sins, to be truly sorry for them, and to see the depth and height of God's redeeming love, stronger than our sin, willing to offer His own blood.  As we then behold the resurrection, we see that Jesus was serious about living forever with the Patriarchs.  That gives us all hope.  Even as He is risen, so He will raise the Israel of faith from all ages and places, to be blessed at the beatific board.  That is what God's saving health does.

He could do it without our help, even without our prayers, but He wants us to pray and to work, to want what He wants, to accomplish His will through us rather than in spite of us.  He wants our companionship in this noble work, to share His victory with His soldiers.  We tell Him by prayer of our success and failure, that He might rejoice with us in the one and cover the other.  Most people don't think they need this, but they do.  Without God's saving health, all is lost.  To work for it without prayer is vanity.  To pray for it without working is hypocrisy.  We are children of the Light, the disciples of the one true religion, not just in church, but wherever we ply our vocation.  It is our privilege to bring this saving health to all sorts and conditions of men.  Amen.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

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