Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
"Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering; Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye" (Colossians 3:12-13).
I rarely disagree with the editors of our Book of Common Prayer, but I do think that they over-reached themselves in substituting "a heart of compassion" for "bowels of mercy" in this morning’s Gospel. "Bowels of mercy," after all, is the literal translation of the original Greek New Testament, and while "a heart of compassion" is an effort to provide an example of what that strange expression means, it hides more than it reveals.
For us, in modern English, except in the practice of medicine, "the heart" is more of a metaphor, a kind of poetic expression that indicates "love," as in "I love you with all of my heart." And in a week or so, simplified, stylized "hearts" will appear everywhere as decorations for St. Valentine’s Day.
But for the ancient people of the Bible, "love" was more than mental, more than emotional or psychological, and certainly more than sexual. Moses or St. Paul probably wouldn’t have known what to make of our willingness to separate the mind or the soul from the body, since they believed, under the guidance of the rest of the Scriptures and the Holy Ghost, that human beings were created by God as a united whole of body, mind, and spirit. When one tried to break a human being into his "parts," say separating "the mind" from "the body," all one would get was a corpse.
What we have to face this morning is that these ancient Biblical people were right, and certainly understood human nature better than we do. They had more than the observations of this world from within this world that guide modern science. They had divine revelation on their side. We insist that we must "understand" something before we can "know" it. They, on the other hand, from their congress with the Living God, would have insisted that we must "know" something first, trusting in the God who reveals it, before we can even begin to understand it.
Not that Biblical people were against the evidence of their own experience. The mighty acts of God in history were part of their experience. So, too, were what they felt inside themselves when they experienced the range of human emotions. They didn’t say "my mind feels this" or "my body feels this." They said, "I feel this." And modern science has proved them right. A person really can die from "a broken heart" and the stresses of life do affect the body as much as the mind. Battle fatigue, for example, isn’t "mental" or "physical." It’s human.
Thus, St. Paul approaches the mystery of human life, body and soul, on this earth, when we says, "Put on bowels of mercies." He means more even than "love" and more even that "a heart of compassion." He expects us to call up every kind of mercy, even for those that we do not approve of or for those who have made themselves our enemies, from our "guts"—from everything that is in us, from everything that makes us who we are. He expects us to become the living examples of mercy, and not merely to think about it, and especially when some other person doesn’t deserve mercy in our ordinary human calculations.
But why should St. Paul, speaking with and for the Holy Ghost, demand such a thing? The "bottom line," as we like to call it today, the simplest and still complete answer is this: "Even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye." We were not worthy of God’s forgiveness, and we certainly did not (and could not) be worthy of God the Son’s becoming a man to die for us upon a cross. We had no right to the nails that pierced Jesus Christ’s hands and feet. We had no right to the crown of thorns. We had no right to the lance that pierced the side of the Word-made-flesh.
We will never deserve such infinite mercies made so physically real in our fallen world. And if we think about it for a while, we will realize that the mercy of Christ, who is, of course, our Creator (with his Father and the Holy Ghost) takes us farther back in time to considering our creation and the creation of the world. Even before our fall into sin, creation itself was a mercy of God. We never had a "right" to exist, the sort of thing that could require God to create us from nothing, especially since he knew in his infinite knowledge that almost the first thing we would do with our existence was to rebel against him and sin. We sinned, and God paid the price for our sin, dying in agony the death of a convicted criminal on the cross.
That glorious Body of the Son of God on the cross is our only link to God in heaven, as he ratifies the will of his Father and the truth of revelation by the offering of his own Divine Person. But God, who is a pure, eternal, spiritual being (and the source of all being), did not have a body until God the Son became man. What Jesus Christ did, when he became man, when he became "incarnate" or "in the flesh," was to "put on bowels of mercies."
Jesus Christ demonstrated by a perfect human life that human nature restored to its created dignity as the image and likeness of God could manifest the character of God. And what he showed us of God’s character was precisely what St. Paul demands of us this morning. He showed us, by the human life of the Son of God made man, "kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and long-suffering," forbearing his rights as the Eternal God to forgive us and to die for us.
God is, of course, all-powerful; but when we think of power in our fallenness, we almost inevitably think of brutality, tyranny, and lording it over others. Jesus Christ is God, and he is all-powerful. He is also the "brightness of his [Father’s] glory" and "the express image of his Person" (Hebrews 1:3). And yet, what does Jesus Christ show us? —"kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, and long-suffering." These are the very character of God, and the essence of the infinite power of God. The true Lord of all is all mercy, even as he is all just, without any conflict, without any tyranny, without any brutality.
When God became man, his divine character was expressed in human flesh by the "putting on of bowels of mercies." We can say, "Well, that’s easy for God," but then we would also have to say that the lash was easy, the nails were easy, and the cross was easy. If we are ever tempted to say such a thing, by the grace of God, the words will stick in our throats.
Our calling as Christians, as what St. Paul calls "the elect of God," those chosen to live eternally with God and called out of the midst of a sinful world and a sinful human race, is to be exactly what Jesus Christ is. This calling and the fulfillment of it are not within our power, but they are within the power of God’s grace. We are called to be "sons of God" by adoption and grace. We are called back to what God created us to be—his image and likeness in human flesh, just as our Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect expression of God’s character and being in the same human flesh that he shares with us. We are called to become what Jesus Christ is, by grace and sanctification, that we might share in the glorification of his Body at Easter, and receive the perfection of God’s image in us, by our own rising from the dead on the Last Day.
To become like God in Christ, we must become kind, humble, meek, long-suffering, "forbearing one another and forgiving one another" as Christ came among us and forgave us. We cannot do this, and we will not do it, until we seek the grace of God to "put on bowels of mercies." Mercy must fill us spiritually and physically. Mercy must become as central to our nature as blood, bone, or sinew. Every organ of our bodies must become an organ of God’s mercy, so that the love of our Father in heaven becomes our very heart and soul. And then we will really be "Christians" in the most precise meaning of that word, and we will truly be the faithful children who have been empowered by grace to say, "Our Father" and "thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Father Ed Bakker
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne