But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let
him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your
servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister,
and to give his life a ransom for many.
(St. Matthew 20. 26,27)
Today we celebrate the Feast of St. James the Apostle. Tradition has it that St. James is the kinsmen or relative of our Lord Jesus Christ, often called St. James the Great or St. James the Just. St. James was the brother of St. John, a son of Zebedee, who was a fisherman and one of the first followers of Jesus. With his brother John, he was called a Son of thunder. He, his brother, and Peter were the only Apostles to be taken up Mount Tabor to witness the Transfiguration of Our Lord. He with them alone witnessed the Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that Herod Agrippa, Vassal of Rome, ended his life by the sword –a curious method of execution since Jews or non-Romans were normally killed by crucifixion. Perhaps the explanation is that he was a Hellenized Jew, and thus as a citizen of the Roman Empire. It is said that his remains rest in the Church of Santiago de Compestella, in Galicia, Spain, where in 2015 some 262, 460 pilgrims travelled to thank God for his life. Finally, what remains to us from his own experience is his Epistle, which we find towards the end of our New Testament, and scholars remind us that it is written in some of the most beautiful Greek ever penned.
From the Epistle of St. James we derive a singularly beautiful and simple exhortation to the Christian life. His Epistle is not long, is bereft of high theology, but provides, perhaps, one of the most straightforward entreaties to participation in the life of the Blessed Trinity. For St. James, the ascended Jesus Christ who is seated at the right hand of the Father intends that His Incarnation should continue in the hearts of His friends to ensure their salvation. The Incarnation of Jesus Christ is the door through which fallen man can enter once again into communion with God who is the Father of all. For St. James, God the Father’s Word was made flesh and dwelt among us in the historical life of Jesus so that He might re-consecrate human nature to God by sharing His obedience to the Father by imparting Holy Spirit.
We might say that St. James provides us with the way of life that alone can ensure our redemption and our salvation. You will remember that he says that every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. (St. James 1.17) For St. James the way to unbreakable union with God the Father is found in the gift of Christ’s ever-condescending presence. Christ descends to us first historically and then spiritually. Both movements comprise the one movement of the Father’s intention to save us. Of his own will begat he us with the Word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures. As the eternally-begotten Son of God came to live and die for us, so we should evidence and manifest His victory over sin and death by participating in His Resurrection and becoming the first fruits in the new harvest of His spiritual creation. The same Word of God, begotten of the Father, should, in other words, be begotten or generated in us, that we too might be called the sons of God, or even with James and John the sons of thunder. For St. James new life means the of Jesus Christ that alone saves.
No doubt it is difficult for us to imagine the overwhelming heaviness and weight of Glory that St. James finds in the condescending Word of God. We live in an age of compartmentalization. We work to make money and support families, and we rest to enjoy the surplus of the one once we met the needs of the other. What we do depends wholly on what we have materially. We wake and sleep, we work and play, we shop and garden, and so on. And while none of these things is necessarily antithetical to faith in God and fulfilment of His will, St. James insists that all of this must be measured by and adjusted to the gift of God’s Grace and the thoughts of His heart. St. James reminds us that our lives come from God and that if we would live them well, we had better be obedient to His will.
Living the good life for a Christian means doing God’s will through the generation of moral goodness. Moral goodness is man’s response to the gift of God’s Grace. God’s Grace has a claim on our lives. The emotional appreciation of His gift without willful submission results in our spiritual ruination and demise. Of course, moral goodness is God’s nature and thus will always be greater and nobler than what we can imagine or obtain. Yet it is precisely in this way that faith continues to seek after it as what can only stand to always make us better. Moral goodness is moral perfection, and Christ Jesus came to the earth to impart that reality to us. It is nothing less than God’s glory. Religions other than Christianity don’t have much to do with it. If they do, because they find that it is God’s uniquely, they find little reason to believe that it can be man’s practically.
Jesus Christ reveals to us the moral perfection of God that belongs to our true lives. (Canon Stone) Christ Jesus is not only the eternally-begotten Word and Wisdom of God, but he is the Perfect Man. But He is not only this. For even great men fail, teachers can be wrong, and philosophers can miss the mark easily. Christ Jesus invites us to participate in His Manhood through His Godhead. Christ Jesus manifests and reveals, through his Manhood, the Goodness of God, and that His Manhood is nothing without it. He offers to us the life of God through the Humanity, which He has redeemed and reconciled to God.
Moral goodness is the life of Jesus Christ. It shines out of His heart and longs to leap and dance within the hearts of His friends and followers, like the blessed St. James. Yet it must not find any resting place there. Because it is true life, its intention is to emanate and flow not only into but out of the deepest core of man’s being. It is imparted so that it might take root, grow up, flower, and fruit into the life of a disciple and friend of the Master. The true disciple, like St. James the Apostle, is one into whom Jesus Christ imparts his life. Jesus Christ longs to take the disposition which He receives always as Gift from the Father of lights and to infuse it into the hearts of those who are His friends. Jesus knows that if we treat him as Teacher and Ethicist only, we shall come to despair. The natural man cannot generate any lasting goodness naturally. As long as we are moved by the self-conceited and self-righteous notion that we can follow Him and can perfect His teaching, we forget what manner of men that we are…and are like the waves of the sea driven and tempest tossed by the desperate flailing of our own unruly and undisciplined wills. But when we come to know and experience the true limitations of our fallen natures, when we know that the good that we would do, we do not, and the evil that we would not do, we do, and do and do (Rom. vii. 19), we then become poor men and paupers, who know that every good gift and every gift cometh from above, from the Father of Lights. (Idem) We then say, I cannot do any good thing, and Jesus says, Blessed are you. Now you stand on the moral frontier that leads into the kingdom of God. Now you are ready to receive the Grace that the Father has given to me and is destined for you. Now I will fill you with His Goodness. Now you shall receive my Father’s loving power, and being moved and defined by it, you will express and manifest it in those thoughts, words, and deeds that will call others, because I am in you and you are in me, and because we both are in our Heavenly Father. (Summary: July 21, My Utmost…Chambers)
Our sanctification is our growth in the goodness of God. Our progress is the extent to which Christ lives in us. He offers to us the same faith, holiness, patience, love, purity, and godliness that He offered to St. James and the Apostolic Band. He offers to us the same power through which He is intent upon continuing the work that began in His earthly Incarnation and is to continue in us. Will we endeavor to receive the fullness of His life? Will we dwell in Him, and He is us, so that we might reach the kingdom prepared for us? Will we, as servants and ministers, serve up the Gifts of His presence to all whom we encounter, counting it nothing less than blessing to minister and serve up His wisdom, power, and love to all others? Christ intends to consume us with the fire of His obedient love to the Father. Christ intends that with St. James His redemption in our lives should become the measure and meaning of our relations with our neighbors. It will not do to hoard our salvation confidence and spiritual progress. At any rate, such would not be Christian progress at all. We are called to share and impart with our fellow men what Christ is bringing alive in us! To that point, let us close with Duke Vicentio’s exhortation to Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:
Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
As if we had them not.
(Measure for Measure, Act I, Scene I)
O God whose never-failing providence ordereth all things
both in heaven and earth, we humbly beseech thee to put away
from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things that be
profitable for us…
(Collect: Trinity VIII)
We concluded last week’s mediations with an exhortation to zeal. Having learned that the Divine desire for all men is that they faint not, but rather feed continually on the living Word of God, we opened our souls to the ongoing nutriment that overcomes sloth. I hope that we prayed fervently that the love of God might grow in us, grafting in our hearts the love of His name, increasing in us true religion, nourishing us with all goodness, and…keeping us in the same. In a sense, what we prayed for was that the same providence that ordereth all things in heaven and in earth, might rule and govern our lives zealously. Its actualization, we learned, would depend upon our willful desire and longing for its ongoing, effectual operation.
But what is this never-failing providence that we pray should overcome things hurtful to our pious zeal? Providence comes to us from the Latin providentia, and it means literally looking for or seeing into. In former times the word was used to describe God’s knowledge of all things –past, present, and future, in the eternal now of His perfect vision. Some theological controversialists used it to defend the Divine nature against the claims of others who maintained that God can and does change His mind. The doctrine of Divine providence insists that God knows every particular form of created life in all ages and simultaneously. Perhaps a simpler way of putting it is that nothing ever has or ever will escape His all-penetrating gaze and censorious vision and knowledge. Nothing escapes God’s seeing and knowing, because his never failing providence orders all things in heaven and earth. Whether men acknowledge it or not, God’s thinking of all things is present to and determinative of everything that ever has, does, or will happen. What happens in the universe is subject completely to God’s will at all times. Even evil itself –a rejection of God’s Wisdom and Will, much to its own rage and resentment, ends our having meaning only in relation to God!
We might find this view of Divine providence not a little bit intimidating. The all-seeing eye of God, the surveyor and judge, might startle and shake us. This is a good and healthy spiritual thing! Post-modern, materialistic Christians have become too used to treating God like the conceptual aider and abetter of temporary healing and earthly comfort. They gather and fancy presumptuously that God’s chief role and function in the universe is to overcome any physical or material impediment to human happiness and comfort. Of course, what they have forgotten is that familiarity breeds contempt. Spiritual familiarity –that tendency to presume upon God’s judgment of our condition, betrays an arrogance or hubris that can never admit of the need for Divine Grace and its promise of salvation. The so-called Christian who has become overly familiar uses God as a tool and instrument for fulfilling human desire over and against the Divine Will.
Such a spiritual disposition is not, of course, one that God intends for us to embrace. We do well to remind ourselves that God does see and know all things, and that His ever-present gaze sifts, weighs, and measures the devices and desires of [all human] heart[s], or the determinants and motives of men’s choices and voluntary acts. Not only does He see, but also He knows; not only does He know, but also He judges and discerns where men’s voluntary choices situate them in relation to His Divine Love. God is nothing if not fair. St. Paul reminds us: Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. (Gal. vi. 7,8) What we will to think, say, and do shall, in the end, be summarized perfectly as what is one with or alienated from God’s love…forever.
What we should want, then, is for the Divine Wisdom to bring us to the knowledge and love of God forever. First, we need to discern or come to know God’s vision for all things or how He knows all things. What I mean is that we should discover the forms and natures of created substances. Next we must learn how to use them appropriately. Put away from us all hurtful things and give us those things which are profitable for our salvation. Providence, again, is the vision or knowledge by which God enlivens, orders, rules, governs, informs, and defines created beings. It is the Divine Wisdom which we must discover and perfect as knowledge becomes virtue in our everyday lives.
The author of this morning’s Old Testament lesson tells us that man best begins to open up to it through the fear of the Lord. All wisdom cometh from God and is with Him forever. (Ecclus. i. 1) We ought to fear God’s wisdom because it alone defines all things by way of the ends that they are created to realize. An acorn is made to grow into an oak tree. Fire is made to rise and to burn. Water is made to nourish and fertilize or to cleanse and to purge. Man is made to know the natures of all things and to return them to God through love. Love or the will are the means by which we translate what we know into how we live. The fear of the Lord is that healthy state that admonishes and cautions us before we make any rational decision. Whoso feareth the Lord, it shall go well with him at the last. (Ecclus. i. 14) The fear of the Lord is a salutary reminder that we ought to use the creation only in God’s service now so that it may go well with us in the end. It is a salubrious sense of God’s omnipresent vison and desire for us. For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Isaiah lvii. 15) The fear of the Lord engenders humility of heart. Humility of heart sees the truth and intends to surrender to it by willing the good. The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate. (Prov. viii. 13)
God’s providence is His Divine Wisdom. St. Thomas, quoting Aristotle, says it belongs to the wise man to order….The name of the absolutely wise man, however, is reserved for him whose consideration is directed to the end of the universe, which is also the origin of the universe. That is why, according to the Philosopher, it belongs to the wise man to consider the highest causes.(SCG i. 1) The wise man rules his earthly life through the perfection of intellectual virtue. The wiser man knows the it belongs to the gift of wisdom to judge according to the Divine Truth. A man judges well what he knows. (Eth. i. 3, ST, ii, ii, xlv. 1) Divine Wisdom has become incarnate in the life of Jesus Christ. Christ the Word of God has borne the burden of human nature, carried it out of ignorance and into knowledge by Divine Wisdom, and lifted it out of sin and into righteousness by Divine Love. Wisdom made flesh now, as always, desires to rule and govern our lives. It teaches us that we should be debtors not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. (Romans viii. 12). Rather, the Divine providence intends that we should be illuminated and liberated by Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. i. 24), remembering that if we through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, we shall live. (Romans viii. 13) Mortifying the deeds of the body is the means to a higher end. In this morning’s Gospel the wise man is compared to a good tree that bringeth forth good fruit. (St. Matthew vii. 17) The good fruit are the virtues that grow up out of a body tamed by the soul that serves the spirit. Wisdom can be operative only when we intend to submit the body, soul, and spirit to the gift of God’s Grace in Jesus Christ so that the Holy Spirit might purge us of all things hurtful to us in the world, through the flesh, and by the influence of the devil.
In the face of Divine Wisdom, we must ask ourselves this morning these questions: Do I habitually study the never-failing providence that orders all things in heaven and earth? Do I thank God because I know that my creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life depend upon His providence? Do I desire that His Wisdom might enter my soul and crucify all things hurtful that distract and delay my adhesion to His will? Do I remember that I was born to be a child of God’s omnipotent Wisdom through the fear of the Lord, seeking, knocking, and asking? As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Romans viii 14) The Spirit of Wisdom crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city She uttereth her words, saying, How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge? Turn you at my reproof: behold, I will pour out my Spirit unto you, I will make known my words unto you. (Proverbs i. 21-23)
Today’s lesson is not merely about vision or even willing a limited good. Today we are called to cultivate the virtue of an interior intention to please God in all of our lives. William Law tells us that it was this general intention, that made the primitive Christians such eminent instances of piety, and made the goodly fellowship of the saints, and all the glorious army of martyrs and confessors. And if you will here stop, and ask yourselves, why you are not as pious as the primitive Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it. What we intend is moved by what we love. Let us love God above all things so that in and through Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit our intentions may be not only to see and know God but to participate in His desire by loving Him till the end of this life and beyond. Amen.
But when thou art bidden, go and sit down in the
lowest room; that when he that bade thee cometh,
he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then
shalt thou have worship in the presence of them
that sit at meat with thee.
(St. Luke xiv 10)
Today we celebrate the Feast Day of St. Bonaventure. He was born as Giovanni di Fidanza in Bagnoregio in 1217. He was the Seventh Minister General of the Orders of Friars Minor or the Franciscans. Later he was made Cardinal Bishop of St. Albano. In 1482 Pope Sixtus IV canonized him and in 1588 Pope Sixtus V declared him to be a Doctor of the Church. He is known as the Seraphic Doctor or Doctor Seraphicus. He died on July 15, 1274, 742 years ago today, following the Council of Lyons, where he had contributed substantially in an effort to reunite the Eastern and Western Churches. His death was mysterious. Some Catholic thinkers maintain that he was poisoned. What is interesting is that he died only a short time after Thomas Aquinas. Thomas died en route to the Council and Bonaventure died just after its conclusion. Both men were viewed with great suspicion and fear by the conservative Latin churchmen of their day. Their error? Both Bonaventure the Franciscan and Thomas the Dominican dared to discover in what way and to what extent Aristotle might be used in the service of the Christian religion.
Of course this problem of reconciling Aristotle to the Sacred Doctrine of the Christian religion might seem odd to us in 2016. Aristotle is probably more feared today than he was in the Middle Ages. He does, after all, demand that we use our minds in the service of the quest for rational understanding. He even insists upon the fact that the object that is waiting to be discovered by reason is already there, existing only because it is already being thought by God! So while some conservative Medieval churchmen thought that Aristotle’s reason might imperil the need for faith in what reason could not prove, the postmodern is terror-stricken by what reason can prove! For Bonaventure and his Franciscans, along with Thomas and his Dominicans, Aristotle does prove that God necessarily exists and that everything else hinges upon His being and His thinking. Because Aristotle has drunk deeply from his Master Plato’s well, he demonstrates that God is more real than anything else. And for this reason, Aristotle’s Medieval interpreters are keen to appropriate what his reason discovers about man, nature, and God in its ongoing quest for knowledge and happiness.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our problem in this Year of our Lord 2016 was: What do I do with Aristotle? It is hard to imagine, but for Medieval Latin thinkers the problem with Aristotle boils down to the problem of the relationship between faith and reason. Bonaventure concludes that reason must be purified by faith in order to be recommissioned into the service of the pilgrim journey to Heaven. He knows that Aristotle’s reason is created by God and that along with the rest of man it is made to take up its role in the economy of salvation. For Bonaventure, if reason is imaged in Aristotle then faith is illustrated in St. Francis, the founding father of the Order of Friars Minor. In fact, it is the faith of St. Francis that proves most useful for Bonaventure in the recovery of reason’s integrity. In St. Francis, reason illuminates the pilgrim soul to its own fallen ignorance. In St. Francis, faith begins to welcome the undeserved and unmerited approach of Divine Love in the suffering Crucified One. Reason reveals a love to Francis that he has never imagined and finds hard to imitate. Faith believes that the love of God is alive in the suffering heart of Jesus. Reason concludes that this union of the Father and Son through the Holy Spirit becomes a spiritual medium of the death and life that leads to salvation. St. Francis takes Aristotle and baptizes him into the service of the Church.
Bonaventure follows Francis and befriends Aristotle. In Francis, Bonaventure’s faith comes into communion with Christ’s death. But through earnest exploration faith comes to understand this death as the all-sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. Faith must never cease to search out and explore the possibilities of coming to know and love God through crucifixion. As this morning’s New Testament lesson teaches us, God’s Sabbath is all about bringing new life out of man’s ongoing death. Francis must bring Aristotle to the lowest place in God’s Sabbath School, the lowest room where man humbly claims and confesses his spiritual sickness and reason’s fallen condition. When thou art bidden, go and sit down in the lowest room. (St. Luke xiv. 10) Yet on the other side, Aristotle must be resurrected. That when he that bade thee cometh, he may say unto thee, Friend, go up higher: then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee. For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.(Ibid, 10, 11) For reason to have a place in God’s economy of salvation, it must be invited to go up higher by Christ who alone can make it well.
Yet it turns out that Francis and Aristotle need more help. Bonaventure turns to St. Anselm. Bonaventure, ever the faithful student of the Abbot of Bec and Archbishop of Canterbury, insists that for faith to seek understanding man must be conformed to the Christ who recapitulates human life into conformity with the Father’s desire. With Anselm, matter must be converted into form, potency into act, sensation into intelligence, faith into reason, and vision into love. Anselm insists that God through His Word and by His Spirit intends to elicit from our hearts and soul’s ongoing conversions that reveal our progressive participation in Divine Life. Faith is in an ongoing state of finding truth and falling short of it. The soul is enriched with illumination and then realizes its own poverty. Faith is informed by reason because reason discovers some truth about God. Then reason realizes what it does not know and so returns to faith that seeks God once more through desire. Bonaventure’s Francis and Aristotle are called to participate in Anselm’s Christ. Anselm prays:
Lord my God, you who have formed and reformed me, tell my desiring soul what you are besides what it has seen so that it may see clearly that which it desires. It strives so that it may see more . . . . In truth it is both darkened in itself and dazzled by you. It is indeed both darkened by its own littleness and overwhelmed by your immensity . . . restricted by its own limitedness and overcome by your fullness . . . . Truly this is more than can be understood by any creature. (Proslogium xiv)
Aristotle in Francis and Francis in Anselm mold and form Bonvaventure the pious pilgrim whose reason, faith, and love earnestly quest after God the Father, through God the Word, and by God the Spirit. Father Zachary Hayes tells us this about St. Bonaventure’s method:
The deepest truth about the created world is that it has within itself the potential to become, through God’s grace, something of what has already come to be in the mystery of Christ. What happened between God and the world in Jesus Christ points to the future of the cosmos. It is a future that involves the radical transformation of created reality through the unitive power of God’s creative love. (Z. Hayes, “Christ, Word of God and Exemplar of Humanity)
Bonaventure betrays the profound Medeival intellectualism that would come to know and love the restoration of the entire created order to God the Father through Christ the Word and by the Holy Ghost. Bonaventure’s method of return to God through the Word and by the Spirit involves faith’s purification of reason. Faith believes in Christ the Reconciler of Man to God. In Christ the Word man can come to know and understand how to appropriate nature into the service of salvation. Reason or Aristotle unrelated to Revelation and Christ is desperately incomplete and doomed. For Bonaventure creation is known in and through God’s Word alone. It is to be used but not enjoyed in and through Christ’s intention for man’s use of it. God’s necessary existence as Trinity, His revelation of this reality to us through the Word made flesh, and His ongoing rule and governance of the universe through the Holy Spirit are more real than all other things. For Bonaventure, man must prove or give evidence of his own dependent nature. Bonaventure is an able student of Aristotle, Anselm, and Francis; God’s thinking and being are what constitute the foundation of all reality. Man is called to discover that his existence is complete only by participating in the life of God the Holy Trinity. Man can prove and manifest his derivative nature only by entering Jesus Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection. This participation alone leads to faithful mind’s journey into God.
Jesus tells us today that whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. (Ibid, 11) For St. Bonaventure, to be abased and humbled is takes one’s stand on the first rung of a ladder that leads back to God. Aristotle is invited to come up higher by St. Francis, and Francis is lifted up by St. Anselm. But Francis is the real mediator. In Francis, Bonaventure finds the beautiful tension of faith and reason, religion and science, and of revelation and nature. In Francis, Bonaventure finds the confluence of suffering death and joyful resurrection in the pilgrim who is converted by the beauty of God’s Grace. Bonaventure writes:
In beautiful things St. Francis saw Beauty itself, and through His vestiges imprinted on creation he followed his Beloved Christ everywhere, making from all things a ladder by which he could climb up and embrace Him who is utterly desirable. (Cant. V)
My friends, today as we commemorate the life and witness of blessed St. Bonaventure, may our faith in God’s Grace inspire us to seek understanding. Let us pray that our faith may find the beauty of God in His Crucified Wounded Son. Let us pray that the curative suffering love of Jesus the Crucified will lift us up into His Resurrection, the Resurrection that leads to Ascension. And may the ensuing Glory so fill our hearts with such wonder that we shall never cease to pursue Him with a desire that believes in order to know, and knows in order to believe. Amen.
Graft in our hearts the love of thy name, increase in us
true religion, nourish with all goodness, and of thy great mercy
keep us in the same.
(Collect: Trinity VII)
If you spend time reading the Epistles of St. Paul carefully, you cannot help but come away with a sense of the Apostle’s uncanny ability to unite spiritual contraries to make his point. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of his momentous conversion, when, in a fit of zealous and rabid hot pursuit of Damascan Christians, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he was thrown down from the high horse of his feverish pride onto the dry, dusty, and desolate road where God’s spoken Word alone could be heard. Paul the zealot, Paul the judge, Paul the persecutor of Christians, endured an extreme turnabout and volte-face of his entire character. He was blinded, and was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. (Acts. ix 9) From the high perch of what he passionately considered to be vibrant spiritual life, he was thrown down into a startling spiritual death. Out of it he became the man that he had never been before. And yet what is key to understand is that he was meant to endure the contraries in order to feel the force of the salvation that God alone could bring into his life. St. Paul’s sight was restored by a certain Ananias, he was given food to eat, and spent three years in Damascus (Gal. i. 17, 18) In time the zeal with which he persecuted Christ was converted into a fiery passion for all men’s conversion to Him. His zeal and fervor became contagious because his mind was agile. Jesus intended to use him as [His] chosen instrument to proclaim [His] name to the Gentiles,… their kings,… and to the people of Israel. (Acts ix. 15)
Zeal is the virtue opposite to sloth. Sloth is a mortal sin, and it is to that sin that we must turn before considering the zeal that seeks out conversion and sanctification. You might think it odd that we must study sloth today, since it neither characterizes St. Paul before or after his conversion, nor does it seem to find expression in today’s Gospel. In the Gospel we read that a great multitude of people had been following Jesus for three days in the wilderness. (St. Mark viii. 2) With zeal they had been pursuing the truth that they found in Christ and were hoping that it pointed to a reality of more than ephemeral and transitory meaning. They, like St. Paul, were zealously cleaving to Jesus, having forsaken the customary human haunts that had only ever brought them impermanent and fleeting joy. In fact, because of their diligent determination to follow and hear Him, an unpremeditated fast had ensued. Nothing in the text suggests that they were restless, irritable, and discontent because their spiritual journey had been bereft of food and drink. So intent were they upon the pursuit of their spiritual good that physical nutriment seemed a radical contrary or something only dangerously opposed to the singular demands of their quest.
But Jesus, perceiving an imminent danger, says, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat: And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far. (St. Mark viii. 2, 3) Jesus comes not to destroy his human friends but to redeem them. He intends to bring to completion the good work which he has begun in them. (Phil. i. 6) They are in danger of fainting. To faint in Scripture means to fall by the wayside spiritually, to lose spiritual steam, to become weak, languid, exhausted, and feeble. To faint means to lose one’s zeal. Men are not pure spirits, the soul is embodied, and thus the whole man must be fed. One who faints has a faith that is in danger of dying and whose pious zeal might wither and dry up because he has no deepness of spiritual earth. (St. Matthew xiii. 5) Jesus knows that danger that looms in the hearts of those who are pursuing Him with a zealous passion. The author of Proverbs says, if a man faint in the day of adversity, his strength is small. (Prov. xxiv. 10) The truth that Christ brings is threatened not by paranormal events but in the common drudgery of human life. Adversity here might be as basic as physical exhaustion, hunger, or thirst – the heat of the day. Should the soul’s good be pursued at the expense of the body, the earnest pilgrim might faint, fail, and fall away from Christ. He might be overwhelmed by sloth because his body has not been reconciled to his spiritual quest.
The Church Fathers tell us that the potential fainting that threatens those who have followed Jesus into the wilderness in this morning’s Gospel is a temptation to sloth. Sloth is one of the Seven Mortal or Deadly Sins. Most people identify it as laziness or indolence that leads to physical neglect or even gluttony. The body’s vengeance upon spiritual asceticism – the imminent danger in this morning’s Gospel – certainly contributes to sloth. Physical hunger from fasting can generate a state that impedes continued spiritual progress. But the true nature of sloth is a far more debilitating and destructive mental condition. The fainting that Jesus seeks to combat most of all is spiritual sloth. He fears that the Word which He has planted in the hearts of His followers might die. Dorothy Sayers tells us that sloth is the sixth deadly sin. In this world it is called tolerance, but in hell it is called despair… . It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for… . It prevents men from thinking. Sloth persuades us that stupidity is not a sin but a misfortune. (An Address… October, 1941) Sloth is a deadly sin because it has ceased to reach out for the truth, beauty, and goodness that God longs to infuse into human life. Sloth cannot be bothered either by extreme goodness or exaggerated evil because it has lost its spiritual pluck! Because it cannot find joy in small victories, dejection, despair, and unbelief overwhelm it. It lacks the zeal and courage to pry out the good from the evil and to convince men of virtue’s new birth. Sloth convinces the soul that the spiritual life is too high to be sustained in a body, which seems alien and averse to continued sanctification. Its nature is to assert the body’s weakness against the soul’s potential strength.
Today Jesus desires that we faint not by the spiritual way. He knows, with St. Paul, that we are weak. I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh and that ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness, and to iniquity unto iniquity. (Romans vi. 19) It will take time and hard work for weak sinners to be weaned from the customary repetition of bad habits and sins. But against spiritual sloth St. Paul urges us to pursue zeal conscientiously. Yield your members servants to righteousness, unto holiness. (Romans vi. 19) His extreme zeal for the Gospel stands over and against the sinister and deleterious designs of sloth. He knows that sloth will kill the soul that both does the evil and neglects the good.
Jesus fed the four thousand many years ago in order to overcome their temptation to sloth. He zealously longs to feed us today. Then He took seven loaves of bread and a few small fishes, and today He takes a small portion of bread and a cup of red wine. Now, as then, a small amount of earthly fare can be sufficient to conquer spiritual sloth. Now, as then, the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah xxxvii. 32) Yet, for sloth to be banished and for zeal to takes its place, we must see that in small things we can find God’s zeal and passion and His incessant concern and care for all men in Jesus Christ. The love of God in all of its breadth, depth, length, and height constrained itself to be limited to the human nature of Jesus Christ. The same love can be found in the seemingly insignificant elements of bread and wine. God in Jesus Christ continues His sanctification of our souls in small ways as He continues to plant the seed of His love into our hearts and souls.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that zeal arises from the intensity of love, because the more intensely a power tends to anything, the more vigorously it withstands opposition and resistance. (ST i. ii. 28, 4) The zeal we seek to embrace comes to us first in God’s determined and diligent devotion for us in Jesus Christ. That zeal intends to eradicate any sloth that threatens to dampen our spiritual enthusiasm and quench our desire for Jesus’ work in our lives. If we open ourselves humbly to its touch, receive, nourish and cultivate its conception, its intensity of love will conquer and subdue all spiritual sloth in us. If we understand this Divine zeal as the unmerited and undeserved gift of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ which longs to grow and expand in us through good times and bad, joy and sorrow, and prosperity and adversity, then with the four thousand we shall begin to apprehend, absorb, and appreciate its power to sanctify and save us. Its kindling fire will strengthen our faith, broaden our hope, and deepen our love for the Lord. It will enable us to seek…. first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…. (St. Matthew vi. 33) And like the four thousand, we shall take no thought of what we shall eat, and what we shall drink. For our Heavenly Father knoweth that we have need of such things. (Ibid, 31, 32) All these things shall be added unto us, as what strengthen the body that houses a soul bent on zeal. In the end what He gives will be just enough to perpetuate and enlarge our zeal for working out our salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) With Dr. Jenks we shall pray, O let us not spend our zeal and spirits for earthly but for heavenly things, not for our own lust and honor but for God’s blessed will and pleasure. (Jenks, 274) And with that we shall feel the effects that extreme Divine gift of God’s great zeal in our souls, which will graft in our hearts the love of His name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of [His] great mercy, keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. (Collect: Trinity VII) Amen.
O God who hast prepared for them that love Thee
such good things as pass man’s understanding…
(Collect: Trinity VI)
Trinitytide is all about growing in the knowledge and love of God; it is the green season, and in it we focus on God’s spiritual harvesting of fertile virtue in our souls. The green vestments and Altar hangings of the season encourage us to pursue the fecundity of spiritual love and hope. We are being readied for things whose goodness, truth, and beauty exceed our wildest imagination. Yet the promised vision hinges upon our loving God above all things. The Divine Lover will reward our love for Him if we intend above all to be taken into His embrace. Our spiritual passion must be focused upon obtaining the Divine promises. Pour into our hearts such love toward Thee, that we, loving Thee above all things, may obtain Thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire. Not only will the vision of God exceed the limitations of human thought, but the love of God will burst the bounds of all human affection.
But loving God doesn’t come easily or quickly. The virtue is not easily attained. Last week St. Peter and his fellow Apostles, having obeyed Jesus by letting down their nets for a draught of fishes and having found themselves the beneficiaries of supernatural power and might, they surrendered themselves to the radical otherness of God in Jesus. And so with a deeper fear of the Lord, their faith and confidence in Jesus was stirred as they forsook all and followed Him. (St. Luke v. 11) As such, they were being caught up in Christ’s net. Slowly but surely they began to die to themselves as they began to love Him, who loved them with the love of the Father. To be loved inspires incipient, responsive affection. As the Apostles were touched by the love of God from the heart of Jesus, they would then begin to cultivate and perfect reciprocal love.
But if we are going to learn how to love God above all things, we had better begin with obedience, the fear of the Lord, and faith in God’s promises. Christ says to us today that except [our] righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, [we] shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. (St. Matthew v. 20) The righteousness or justice of the ancient Jews –of the Scribes and Pharisees – is the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Jesus makes it clear that the observance of this law reveals a kind of love that is limited, measured, and contrived to yield a certain outcome. It is intent upon manipulating and controlling people so that they behave in a certain way. It judges men and then rewards or punishes the effects or results of their choices. It does not manifest a patient love that considers the causes and ministers to a sickness. Rather it treats human justice as ultimate and final. And, as Romano Guardini reminds us, so long as we cling to this human justice, we will never be guiltless of injustice. As long as we are entangled in wrong and revenge, blow and counterblow, aggression and defense, we will be constantly drawn into fresh wrong. (The Lord, p. 81) Think about it. Someone wrongs us, and we pursue vengeance. We reward good and punish evil, and we feel that we have in some way advanced the cause of justice in the world. That we have never given much thought to how God sees the situation is evidenced in our over-inflated egos, exaggerated and embellished hurts and wounds, and destructive identification of injustice done to us with some kind of cosmic event. We think that we have won a victory for justice, when in truth we have become the unwitting victims of an unending cycle of sin. Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord. (Romans xii. 19)
Jesus goes on to locate the origin and cause of our inadequate love and exaggerated hate in the soul. Ye have heard that it was said by 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: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.(Ibid, 21, 22) By reason of our fallen spiritual condition we naturally love those who love us and hate those who hate us. We love those less who do not love us enough or meet our expectations. We judge their inadequate love to be hate and we respond in kind or worse. And while there may be just cause for righteous anger in certain situations, Christ seems to imply that this is all the more reason to love with greater passion in the interests of helping an offending brother out of his sin and into righteousness. This is what God wants. Yet because of our own insecurities we respond with, Raca or Thou Fool! The Biblical Scholars tells us that Raca means worthless or empty one. So beginning from within the human heart and mind the man who is angry with his brother and not the cause (Idem), is in spiritual trouble. Jesus says that what happens is that the sinner and not his sin has become an object of retaliation and retribution. What has happened is that the offending party has been elevated to the status of a worthless and empty false god. If we hadn’t made him into a false god, we would treat him with that love that God has for all his creatures.
Jesus teaches us that the real threat to loving [God] above all things is internal and spiritual insecurity and fear. Anger or wrath shields them by deflecting any challenge or contest. What is feared most is the illumination of God’s truth through the power of His love. When one hates another man, he ceases to hope for that man’s conversion and salvation. He judges his enemy –if he even is an enemy, because he has never felt the healing power of God’s mercy in his own soul. He is afraid to be touched by God’s love. He forgets that his soul is always desired by God for healing and transformation. Because he is afraid, he finds God’s love too daunting to accept because it is too dreadful to consider.
However, if God’s merciful curative love begins to touch and change human life, as it did with the Apostles, there is hope that it will grow into the discovery of God’s promises. Yet it must be embraced passionately and with all due diligence. All potential threats to its growth in the soul must be abandoned with all haste. Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother …Agree with thine adversary quickly…lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. (Ibid, 24,25) What imperils the fertility and harvest of God’s love in our hearts is other people and our judgment of them. The angry pursuit of earthly justice elevates human injury to the level of Divine importance. Human justice may yield limited vengeance against an earthly enemy, but what does it harvest? A crop of self-satisfaction that quenches the spiritual discovery of those good things as pass man’s understanding…and the promises that exceed all that we can desire. What is lost is the needful and merciful love of God which longs to lift the accuser and accused above their division and difference and into His vision and love of all. Anger makes [a man] smaller, while forgiveness enables him to grow beyond what he was. (Cherie Carter-Scott)
Jesus teaches us that if we long for such good things as pass man’s understanding, we need God’s compassionate love as the only curative and corrective that can heal and save us. We must bring to death anything and everything that impedes the progress of our loving God above all things. We must admit, with Dr. Jenks, that we have foolishly and wickedly forsaken the fountain of living waters, to hew to ourselves broken cisterns, that can hold no water; shutting our hearts against the love of our chiefest good…preferring trifles and vanities of this present time; and the satisfaction of our own foolish and hurtful lusts, above God and His love, which is better than life itself. (Jenks, Prayers…168)
So if we would embrace God’s love, we must agree with our adversary quickly. (Idem) This is the testing ground for our love. On it God sees whether we truly are aiming to love Him above all things. Agreeing with our adversary quickly means that we ought to listen quietly and calmly to those who have something against us. It encourages us to lift our enemy up into the heart of God and to pray for rather than judge him with a harsh word or violent affection. Geoffrey Chaucer tells us that the remedy for anger is gentleness and patience. Gentleness is a posture of good will that quashes impulsive ire and rash rage in order to discern our enemy’s sickness and pray for his cure. Patience endures our enemy’s spiritual illness out of love for his salvation. Both gentleness and patience are virtues that come out of the heart of Christ who loves God above all things. Christ enlarges His heart to welcome us into His loving. His gentleness and patience enabled His love to go to the Cross for us. But His love does not cease to flow back to God and out to all men in His death. His love is that Divine gentleness and patience that rises up into Resurrection and Ascension and then descends once again into Pentecostal fire. It loves God above all things and loves God in and for all things. It seeks what is above in order to penetrate and convert what is below. Because it is always returning to its source, it can bring good out of evil, right out of wrong, and love out of hate. This is the love that exceeds our intellect’s imagination. This is the love that so enlarges our affection that we can touch all men with the hope of their healing.
Of course, the love that we seek to study today must never be forced. Christ doesn’t force it upon us and we ought not to force it upon others. At any rate, if it is forced then it is not Divine love. Divine love must be desired so that its nature can appreciated. And so long as we do not agree with our adversary quickly, we merely postpone its discovery and thus forsake its effects. Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons