He hath first bestowed mercy

Monday in the third week of Advent
Numbers 24:2-7,15-17a; Psalm 25:3-8; Matthew 21:23-27

Psalm 25:7
Gracious and upright is the LORD; *
  therefore he teaches sinners in his way.

Bapistry in Duomo FlorenceFrom St. Augustine’s Exposition on the Book of Psalms (Psalm XXV)
The Lord is gracious, since even sinners and the ungodly he so pitied, as to forgive all that is past; but the Lord is upright too, who after the mercy of vocation and pardon, which is of grace without merit, will require merits meet for the last judgment. “Wherefore he will establish a law for them that fail in the way.” For he hath first bestowed mercy to bring them into the way.

Reflection
We Protestants may squirm a bit at the way St. Augustine suggests that we will need to produce merit fitting for Judgement Day, after having received God’s grace. Incredibly faithful, intelligent people have been battling this out for millennia: does our salvation come through grace or works? We’ve mostly come down on the side of grace, and I think that rings true with the scriptures. I’m grateful for this reading.

That said, we can also acknowledge, I hope, that a grace-filled life bears fruit in good works. That is, the good works do not produce righteousness, but rather emerge from it. Anglicans have sorted this out nicely in the doctrine of sanctification, or holiness of living. But I should say very little here: it’s all a bit above my pay grade.

What I will say is this: we need to preach both God’s boundless grace of love, freely bestowed on all people, and the need for discipleship. Preaching one without the other leads to a distorted faith that is not healthy. In the Episcopal Church church today, we often preaching about God’s love for all people, but we don’t set high expectations for the cost of discipleship. God loves me, I trust, and out of gratitude for that love, I will naturally want to worship God, to serve the world in his name, and to share the Good News with others.

But above all, no matter what, let us remember that God indeed is gracious, especially to sinners. We should try to be likewise merciful.

Photo by yours truly from the Baptistry at the Duomo, Florence, Italy.

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