THE EPISTLE. 1 Cor. 15. 1
“By the grace of God, I am what I am”
“I am the least of the Apostles”, St. Paul declares and then goes on to say that “by the grace of God, I am what I am”. The phrase complements, it seems, the prayer of the humble publican, “God be merciful to me a sinner”.
What can it mean? Is it by the grace of God that Paul is a sinner? No. But it is by the grace of God that Paul can in all honesty know that he is a sinner. Why is he the least of the Apostles? In his eyes and in his words, “because I persecuted the Church of God”.
But do you and I do much better or any less when in our pride and arrogance, in our folly and deceit, we deny the very truth of God upon whom we so utterly depend? Are we not persecutors, too, when like the proud Pharisee, we do nothing more than pray with ourselves, giving mere lip service to the presence of God?
It is the quintessential picture of pride. Jesus in the parable names it ever so clearly. “He prayed thus with himself”. Not to God, it seems. The consequences are wonderfully clear in the content of his prayer. He claims to be better than everyone else. “Thank God that I am not like them”. But that is no prayer.
There can be no prayer when we are not open to the otherness of God and to one another. There can be no prayer when we are closed in upon ourselves, standing upon the ground of our own self-righteousness. There can be no prayer without the humility which alone is the counter to all pride.
The great poet Dante, in the Divine Comedy, prescribes as the antidote and corrective to pride the prayer which is at the heart of all Christian prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer, he suggests, is to be prayed while bent down towards the dust of our common humanity, contemplating the great examples of humility, not the least of which is Mary herself who is defined by the grace of God; “Be it unto me according to thy word”, as if to say, what Jesus himself will say, “not my will, but thine be done”. And in turn, is it not what we are given to pray, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?
Prayer is precisely not about talking with ourselves. “Our Father” is not a mere set of words to be rattled off indifferently and mindlessly. Prayer is altogether about our engagement with God. It is the pre-condition of our honest engagement with one another.
The publican in the parable is a public person, a public official engaged in the res publicae, the public things of our political and moral life in community, in our ordered life together with one another. A publican is not just a keeper of taverns and pubs!
The publican in the parable is the picture of humility. His humility is his honesty which leaves him open to the truth of God and so to every one else. Without that we are simply closed in upon ourselves, wrapped up in our own worlds; in short, like the Pharisee.
There is the greatest danger in the pilgrimage of our spiritual lives. It is to put ourselves in the place of God. It is to be in the temple, the holy place of God, and to be completely unaware of his truth and presence, so full of ourselves are we. We forget so easily that it is only by the grace of God that we walk, stand, run and move in the motions of God’s love. It is most especially by the grace of God that we can face the remarkable follies and foolish wickednesses in our own hearts and in our lives.
Paul has found and named what he has done. It belongs to our freedom to do nothing less. The prayer of the publican reverberates throughout the whole of our liturgy: “Kyrie eleison” – “Lord, have mercy upon us”; “O Lamb of god, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us”. Unlike the Pharisee, what is wanted is that we should “not presume to come to this thy table....trusting in our own righteousness”, Rather, like the publican, we should come trusting in “thy manifold and great mercies”. Only so shall we find ourselves in the presence of God. Only so may we be freed from the prison of our own selves.
This is not about grovelling in the dust and wallowing in self-pity and piteous self-recriminations. Paradoxically, there is nothing so magnanimous, so great-souled, as the exemplar of humility, Mary, the virgin mother of our Lord. No. Humility belongs to our freedom and our ultimate dignity. We are the dust which God has shaped and into which he has breathed his spirit. It belongs to the dignified dust of our humanity to offer prayers and praises together to Almighty God. We are raised up only because we can acknowledge what we are by the grace of God. We acknowledge his mercy. Sinners, yes, so we are, you and I, but in such an acknowledgement we are something more. We are in the company of Christ and we are with one another in the purpose of his good will for us. You see, “his grace was not bestowed in vain”.
In ourselves we are vain and empty - our prayers but the meaningless prattle of our own self-affirmations. In Christ we are alive and fully ourselves.
“By the grace of God, I am what I am”
Father Ed Bakker
Priest & Missioner
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne