Pour into our hearts such love towards thee, that we, loving thee above all things,
may obtainthy promises, which exceed all that we can desire.
(Collect, Trinity VI)
I do not know how often we think of the promises of God. If we are like most men, we don’t. The full flowering of God’s intention and plan for us, then, does not impinge on our consciousness, does not affect us in our daily rounds, or dictate what we desire. We do tend to live in time and space, and as creatures possessed by this dimension, do not therefore ponder the eternal future. But ponder it we must, for truly that is our destiny and end. To consider the unsearchable riches of God’s love for us is something that we were made to think about; for if we do not, we might very well fall short of its possession in the eternity of God’s life. God has given himself to us, and if we hope to embrace that activity permanently, we must prepare for it. Eternity is, after all, a long time, and if we hope to experience it in God’s presence, we had better get to work on embracing it now.
And, yet, this seems to be the most difficult part. How do we become those upon whom God will, in the end, shower His promises? It seems beyond our reach; indeed it seems beyond all that we can desire, as our Collect for this morning reminds us. But being beyond all that we can desire, is no reason to stop wanting it. Indeed, what beyond all that we can desire means simply is that what will be given will exceed and surpass our deepest understanding and expectation of what it will be. Beyond all that we can desire means that our desire for God will be transformed into a love far beyond what we have ever known or experienced. The kind of love that God has in store for them that begin to love Him truly now, will then be wholly perfect, unthreatened, unbreakable, and lasting.
So here and now we are called to start getting used to His love. And getting used to that love is practicing the presence of his governance in our lives. In fact, St. Paul in this morning’s Epistle plots out the way to best receive and reflect this very love. And yet what a strange way he seems to encourage for going about it! To embrace God’s living love in our lives, the Apostle has us consider death. In fact he seems quite insistent that we shall never receive the promises that exceed all that we can desire unless and until we die. What is St. Paul talking about? When most people hear about death, their minds travel to one thing – that is, to the extinction and termination of physical life. But there is another death about which Christians speak and that is spiritual death. Most people imagine death as non-existence, a state in which man’s physical nature is shut down and all consciousness is lost. And because of this, they are full of fear and anxiety. But the death that St. Paul is getting at in this morning’s Epistle is spiritual and inward; it is the death that we must die here and now that is essential for salvation. It is a death to whatever separates us from the knowledge and love of God. This death is the necessary precondition to that new life that will begin to have a foretaste of the promises of God. And so it is no small wonder that so many men fear to undertake it. As G. K. Chesterton writes:
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
(Ballad of the White Horse)
This death will be difficult and will involve no small amount of inner spiritual contemplation. The man who will die to himself must look at himself, his sins, his temptations. He must look at his weaknesses and neuroses. At first it may seem overwhelming, and yet, in the end, it will not fearful because Christians believe that the most difficult aspects of this death have been endured and suffered already by another on our behalf. Know ye not, St. Paul writes, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? (Romans. vi. 3) You and I, as baptized Christians, have been initiated already into death, Christ’s death. Christ has taken on our sin. The one and all effective death has been endured by Jesus Christ himself. The spiritual death to sin, Satan, death itself, and its power has been accomplished for us by Jesus Christ. And it does not stop there. Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans vi. 4) Jesus Christ has died the spiritual death that we were not capable of dying. He has died for the sins of the whole world, and in his dying he has opened up to mankind the gates of everlasting life once again. The living love of God is revealed to the world in the death of God’s own Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. The living love of God in the heart of Jesus Christ reveals and manifests love as death, death to the self, death to all that is other than God. This living love, this dying death in Jesus Christ is truly the first and necessary opening to the kingdom of God. All men are invited into the reality of it through Baptism, that in and through Jesus Christ they might die to themselves and begin to come alive to God.
So Baptism is our first incorporation into the reality of the death of sin. Technically speaking, Baptism washes away the stain and corruption of Original Sin. But actual sin remains. The devil is not thwarted by the Sacrament of Baptism. And the hard work of redemption continues long after it is first administered to the believer. If we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. (Romans vi. 5-7) Life for the Christian in time and space is meant to be lived out as redemption from sin. St. Paul certainly speaks of future Resurrection when Christ shall come again to judge both the quick and dead. But in order to be counted worthy of salvation then, we must be dying constantly to sin now. This means that we must realize and know that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. (Romans vi. 6) Thus we are called in the here and now to ongoing repentance, self-conscious awareness of the sins that so easily beset us (Hebrews xii. 1), the determination to confess them, and turning to God…our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. (Ps. xlvi. 1) Dying to ourselves means our dying to sin and embracing God's living love.
This is why in this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus teaches us that there can be no place for division, discord, anger, envy, or covetousness. Jesus is God’s love and hope for all men’s salvation made flesh - to friend and foe alike. Jesus says, Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. (St. Matthew v. 21) If we envy, resent, or hate anyone from the ground of our hearts, then the love of God that was planted in us at Baptism has neither survived nor grown. Jesus – God’s love for us and all others, is, then, not alive. If we limit and kill that love for others, that love is as good as dead in us, and we are alive to sin and destined for a far more pernicious future death! If we limit and kill that love for others, hope too is as good as dead in us, since we are determined to deny that God’s love can heal the hearts of our worst enemies!
But, let us remember my friends, that when we were the servants of sin, we were free from righteousness, (Romans vi. 20)…but now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, we have our fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.(Romans vi. 22) For, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. (Romans v. 8) In fact, Christ died for us while we were yet nailing him to the tree. Yes, and as he was dying for us, in and through his death, he was longing and desiring for our salvation. That kind of love should stir us to a deeper longing for union with Him. It should stir the desire for his new life of love in us now. This is the love that moves the stars and the sun, as Aristotle says. This is the love that stoops down from heaven to call all human beings into friendship with God. This is the love that never stops giving itself to us as the way and means our eternal communion with our Maker. Jean Mouroux reminds us that God is present to His creature not simply in virtue of the being He bestows on it, but also by the love He excites in the very heart of its existence; whence it is that the whole world is tense with one immense aspiration, quickening, and unifying, towards the First-Beloved. (The Meaning of Man, p. 183). This same love invites and calls all men to be the saints of God. And as Romano Guardini has said, the saints are those who penetrate into the existence of Christ; who lift themselves , not by ‘their bootstraps’ but by Christ’s humanity and Christ’s divinity. (The Lord, p. 447) It is only by dying in Christ and rising through Him that we begin to feel the immensity and power of God’s love for us. You see, it is his Grace, his work, his labour of love in our souls that transform our desire into longing love for God’s kingdom. So, then, dear friends, today let us realize that he has prepared for [us] who love Him such good things as pass man’s understanding, and that the only way to find them is by loving him above all things, [that we] may obtain…his promises, which exceed all that we can desire.(Collect) Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons