Thursday after Ascension Sunday
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We have seen that Cranmer’s new collect for the Sunday after the Ascension goes to great lengths to emphasize that the Holy Spirit brings comfort to God’s people, including the ultimate comfort, the assurance of eternal salvation because of God’s promise in Jesus. Associating comfort with Christ’s saving work was so important to Cranmer that he embedded four scriptures at the heart of his 1552 service of Holy Communion to make this point crystal clear. Collectively, these biblical passages are called Cranmer’s Comfortable Words. Yesterday, we looked at the first verse, Matt. 11:28. Cranmer used Jesus’ own words to acknowledge the depth of human longing for good news. His second Comfortable Word now turns again to Jesus to establish the depth of God’s own longing to respond.
God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son to the end that all that believe in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.
The divine desire and initiative to save his people is at the very heart of Cranmer’s theology. John 3:16 makes clear that God the Father, moved by the love which is his very being, sent God the Son into this world to become the visible embodiment of the divine Good Shepherd. Jesus came to seek out the lost, gently freeing lambs caught in the thicket of sin. He laid down his own life so that in the end he could bear his wandering creatures safely back to the flock on his own wounded shoulders. God the Holy Spirit opens the eyes of sinners to the free gift of salvation available in Christ. In the face of such alluring love, Cranmer and the English Reformers were convinced that humanity could not but be drawn out of their deeply entrenched soul-sickness back to their Creator by the stirring up of their own inner longings.
Of course, the medieval church read John 3:16 as well. In fact, the typical English depiction of Jesus as coming Judge had him displaying his wounds and the instruments of the torture he suffered on their behalf. Yet this depiction of divine love was not intended to be a means of wooing humanity back to the fold. Rather, the reminder of Christ’s passion was to render them without excuse if they had failed to repent. In effect, the medieval church said to Christians, ‘Here, look at what Jesus did for you. What have you done for him lately?’ Because of that ‘moralistic strain’ noted by Eamon Duffy, the medieval church expected Christians to sweat to prove themselves worthy of the divine love that had been so costly lavished on them.
Nothing could have been further from the reformers’ understanding. Here is the truly revolutionary nature of the Gospel they found in Scripture. The red thread that runs throughout Cranmer’s writings is this simple truth: The glory of God is to love the unworthy. For the early English Protestants, nothing established that principle as clearly as God’s decision not to base salvation on personal merit, and especially not on personal self-punishment, whether emotional, physical or both. No, personal belief brought about salvation, as John 3:16 plainly stated, rather than personal accomplishment. Eternal life with God came through simply trusting his saving acts on humanity’s behalf, rather than our own. In short, by faith sinners were adopted into God’s family forever. We no longer have to fear that they are merely foster children who have to live under the constant threat of being disowned as the Devil’s in the face of every fresh case of our disobedience.
What about us? Do we see ourselves as biblical Christians, but react to our failures like fearful foster children? Faced with the reality of our disobedience, are we scared that God will now abandon us until we prove ourselves good enough to be his children again? It’s an important question for two reasons.
Firstly, hiding from God until we change our ways never ends well. Apart from him, can we do nothing. Apart from him, we have no spiritual health. How can we in our own strength become more like God without God working change in us? As Phil. 2: 13 reminds us: “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Hiding from God until we think we are good enough for him just leads to more failure, more despair and eventual total burn out.
Secondly, if God is not our source of comfort when we fail, we will be even more tempted to find comfort again in our sinful habits. My father always used to say, “Jesus will deliver you from your enemies, but not your friends.” Sin comes to us as a friend, offering to comfort us by making us feel good when our consciences make us feel bad. Our false friend always offers to give us a positive physical sensation or at least numb us to our negative emotions. Think about it. Teen-agers who feel misunderstood and rejected can really enjoy a massive adrenaline rush when they do something to rebel against authority. The allure of drugs and alcohol is that they can help you forget your sorrows, if only momentarily. If we, as children of God, still respond to our sins with shame and self-loathing, we only make the false comfort of sin even more enticing. After all, it is not a strategy for success to make ourselves feel bad so we will not want to make ourselves feel good. But Jesus came to break sin’s grip on our hearts and minds. He came so he can be our one true comfort, in all our circumstances, both good and bad, in the face of all our decisions, both good and bad, in all things, now and forever.
Therefore, let us renew our hearts and minds by praying Cranmer’s collect that reminds us that our God is the God of all comfort:
O God, the king of glory, which hast exalted thine only son Jesus Christ, with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven; we beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send to us thine holy ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our savior Christ is gone before; who liveth and reigneth with thee, and the holy Ghost, one God world without end. Amen.
Pray with us today's prayer request:
Following a successful evangelistic dialogue with Muslims in March, the Diocese of Goma in DR Congo is organising more dialogue events, May 24 -31. Pray for God's provision for the events and for God to touch the lives of Muslims in the area.
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