Trinity VIII.  St. Francis’ Church, Gainesville, GA.  July 22, 2018.

St. Matthew vii, verse 15f. – Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolvesYe shall know them by their fruits.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

There are some things that only exist in case of disaster.  Two such thing are emergency exits on airplanes and sprinkler systems in buildings.  The drug to reverse opioid overdoses is another.  Yet another such is Church courts.  21 years ago, as Archbishop Lewis was dying, the Provincial Court had to meet in Athens to adjudicate a squabble over which bishop should be acting metropolitan if the Archbishop were not able to function.  A few of the bishops were being, if not ravening wolves, at least misbehaving children.  On that Sunday I had to be in Charleston, SC, to represent Archbishop Lewis at Saint Timothy’s 20th anniversary.  Knowing I’d be gone from Athens, I called Father Cotterell, who at the time lived in Indiana but was going to be in Georgia for the court, and asked him to preach for me.  Father John agreed and then asked me if I wanted him to speak about the troubles the Court was to consider.  I said, ‘No.  I don’t believe in topical sermons of that sort.  Just preach on the gospel for the day.’  He agreed that that was best.  Five minutes after we hung up from that conversation the phone rang.  It was Father John again.  He said, ‘I can’t preach on the gospel for the day.’  Why not, I asked.  ‘Because,’ he said, ‘it’s about false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.’  We agreed that might hit a little too close to home and that he’d better preach on the epistle.

But there’s no reason today why I shouldn’t stick to the gospel.  Beware of false prophets.  This particular warning comes from our Lord himself, but it is just one in a long line of denunciations of false prophets and priests in the Old Testament.  John the Baptist continued the denunciations into the New Testament, and our Lord brought to a pitch with his verbally violent denunciations of the religious leaders of his day — brood of vipers, whited sepulchers, hypocrites, children of Satan, murderers of the prophets.  Our Lord shows no inclination to go easy on religious leaders, and therefore Christian leaders should not be too easy on themselves.

Now what is a false prophet?  In the Old Testament the chief way to distinguish a true from a false prophet was to watch what happened.  If the prophet’s prediction came to pass, he (or occasionally she) was a true prophet.  If it did not, he was a false prophet.  But there was another rule which would produce results faster.  That rule was that true prophets were usually blunt, unpleasant, and unpopular.  For example, when good king Jehoshaphat of Judah asks evil king Ahab of Israel to consult a prophet about a military matter, Ahab says that there’s only one prophet around, Micaiah:  ‘[B]ut,’ Ahab continues, ‘I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil…’ (I Kings 22:8).  We, like Ahab, prefer prophets who will say, ‘You’re just fine and dandy,’ or, at worst, ‘You’re not so bad.’  But true prophets, of course, don’t flatter.  Wanting a prophet to ‘prophesy’ only ‘good concerning me’ is about as sensible as setting my scales ten pounds light or disabling the smoke alarm so that I won’t be disturbed if a fire comes in the night.  What’s the point of that?

The rule Jesus gives is a little different from these Old Testament rules.  He says, ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits.’  Like so much that our Lord teaches, this is profound but not quite as simple as it sounds.  At face value this could be taken as saying success equals virtue.  Those who are good will do well; those who are bad will do poorly.  This is the morality of Deuteronomy:  obey the law of God and he will make you rich and give you lots of children who will be nice to their parents and you’ll live long and prosper, like a successful Vulcan; disobey the law of God and you’ll be poor, your spouse will nag, you’ll die young, and your children will be a constant headache.  But that’s Deuteronomy, not the New Testament; that’s the prosperity gospel, built on a crude reading of a sliver of the Old Testament.

So let’s look at it again:  Ye shall know them by their fruits.  This does not actually say that virtue will have earthly rewards.  Instead and more it seems to suggest to me what we might call the coherence of the various dimensions of our being.  When we examine ourselves before approaching the throne of grace, we should consider ourselves in terms of thought, word, and deed, in terms of our innermost hearts and also in terms of our outward acts.  That we are known by our fruits surely means that the easiest and most obvious way to know others is not by what we suspect about their innermost heart and not even by what they suggest in word but rather by what they do, and especially by what they do over time.

We all know that very good people can do very foolish or bad things.  We all know, also, that sometimes bad people do very good and noble things.  The quality of a life is not a matter of one deed or a single moment, but rather of long term behavior, habits, and enduring character.  Don’t trust a sudden conversion, in yourself or in others:  be hopeful but watch and wait and see if it lasts.  Don’t be discouraged by a bad act, past or present:  be penitent and work at it and alter bad influences around you, and do it all little by little by little.

In particular, don’t worry too much about your feelings.  Feelings come and go and are often a matter of what we had for dinner or whether we had a good night’s sleep or have a cold coming on.  I can’t make myself like my disagreeable neighbor:  but I can resist the fruit of my snippy reply.  I can’t avoid the driver who cuts me off or the rude clerk, but I can resist the temptation to retaliate.  Whether you feel you’ve forgiven John or Jane matters much less than whether you’re kind and patient toward him or her.

The ravening wolves let their thoughts, words, and deeds run wild, and woe to those who get in the way.  Beware – beware of them.  As for you and me, we also should beware and be careful, to keep control over our deeds so that they both appear to be and in fact are fruits of the Spirit as becomes Christian men and women and children.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

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