Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.
(1 Cor. x. 12)
Last week we spoke about the Divine Providence of God and how we ought to be intent upon ordering our lives with the Divine Wisdom. This week we remind ourselves that His Wisdom is dead to us if it is not always God’s way of making good out of a bad situation. We must think about God’s always making good because the Christian journey is all about our ongoing assimilation and alignment to the new life that Jesus offers to us. It is out of a bad situation because we are always in danger of forgetting that we are sinners who are always too capable of becoming worse. That God desires always to make us good and then better means that He intends to work His Word and Wisdom into our fallen state in order to save us. And for this work to be appreciated as what God begins, continues, and finishes in us, we must always and honestly confess that we are in a bad situation so that we might turn and desire to be made better by His Grace.
Of course, some people would maintain that what I am recommending amounts to something that we cannot really admit and so can never achieve. If we cannot admit that we are in a very bad situation, then there isn’t much reason to desire what would make us better. Objectively speaking, of course, such is a recipe for disaster in any realm of life. The painter who doesn’t need to paint a better picture won’t! The farmer who has no need to raise a tastier vegetable in a more efficient way won’t. The doctor who stops looking for cures for diseases will accommodate illness. And so too, the Christian who doesn’t think that he needs to be made better will never see God’s Kingdom! For, when we are driven by our own reason and the limited natures, sooner or later we settle for less because we have ceased to believe that we can find more. What I am trying to say is that we are made for God and our hearts ought to be restless until they rest in Him. The Christian believes that man is made to know and love God forever. But he knows also that he cannot do any good thing without [God]…and that only by [Him] can he be enabled to live according to [His]will. (Collect Trinity IX)
Yet, many Christians fall into trouble when they fail to surrender their bad situation to God’s Grace. St. Paul reminds us of this danger in this morning’s Epistle. He gives us the example of the ancient Jewish people whom God had delivered from bondage and slavery to the Egyptians. He tells us that, all our fathers were under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all eat the same spiritual meat; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (1 Cor. x. 1-4) Oswald Chambers reminds us that through every cloud the Lord brings, He wants us to unlearn something. The clouds illustrate our bad situation. They are given to us so that we might unlearn false confidence in our own reason to see its true limitations. When the clouds come, we are called to remember our own powerlessness and the need for the power of God’s Grace. The clouds reveal and disclose our powerlessness. The clouds conceal and cloak the Grace that we must desire in order to be made better. Clouds come to us when we struggle with besetting sins, suffer rejection from unbelievers, or are dealing with the common drudgery of human life.
St. Paul tells us that our Jewish fathers were hidden, all of them, under a cloud, and found a path, all of them through the sea; all alike in the cloud and in the sea [the ancient Jews] were baptized into Moses’ fellowship. (Ibid, Knox, 2) And yet what do we read next? But with many of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the wilderness. (Ibid, 5) And why? They did not discern the spiritual meaning and purpose of the clouds. They did not unlearn their old natural and earthly ways. They thought that God was merely freeing them from temporal slavery and servitude to an earthly enemy. So they fell into indulging the old bad situation of their sinful condition. They began to murmur, moan, groan, and complain, wondering all the while why God had delivered them from a slavery -that at least had come with food on the table and shelter over their heads. Their preoccupation with earthly manna then turned to lust, idolatry, and fornication. God fed them in the desert, and they took it as license to rise up to play. (Ibid, 7) Thanklessly they had forgotten that their former condition was a bad spiritual situation from which God had delivered them. God began to make good out of a bad spiritual situation, by anointing them to be the fathers and progenitors of a spiritual people whose ultimate destiny should be salvation. They did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ. (Ibid, 4) Yet, St. Paul reminds us that their fall should warn us about the bad situation we are in and the dangers of forgetting our need for the power of God’s saving Grace in our lives. For they were overthrown in the wilderness…and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. (Ibid, 5,8)
The prudence involved in reading the clouds is nicely illustrated in this morning’s Parable of the Unjust Steward. In it, Christ tells the tale of a worldly businessman who had misused money lent to him by a wealthy creditor. The creditor summons him to his office not only for a dressing down but for certain termination. He says, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. (St. Luke xvi. 2) And without missing a beat, ever-perceptive of the imminent clouds, the financial underling thinks fast: How can I make good out of this very bad situation? He wonders: What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. (Ibid, 3,4) The unjust steward is proud. But, he is also shrewd and calculating. He knows that he can never repay the loan to his boss. Yet, he is determined not only to survive but to thrive. If the big boss won’t have him, he’ll at least respect him for having the wisdom and prudence to become a little boss. And more than that, he will not only make good out of a bad situation for himself but for the big boss’ other creditors. He’ll go into the debt-consolidation business! So he called every one of his lord’s debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. (Ibid, 5-7) The long and short of it is that the big boss is impressed. It is not clear that the big boss had much hope in ever recalling any of the loans from his other creditors, and so he praises the economic prudence and skill that has secured this financial settlement. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely…(Ibid, 8)
Jesus concludes the parable by saying that the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. (Ibid, 8,9) Of course, Jesus tells the parable not to commend unjust stewardship. What is most instructive in the parable is the prudence or wisdom that can be found in earthly business men’s detection of the clouds and the need to reform and redeem his life in their shadow. Jesus suggests that unjust or fallen earthly man is often wiser than his spiritual counterpart when it comes to discerning the clouds and making the best out of bad situations. Like the unjust steward, we are in a bad situation, in that we can never repay our Lord, our spiritual creditor, what we owe Him. Like the ancient Jews, living under the cloud of our spiritual poverty, we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect, Lent II) And like the unjust steward, we are unjust by reason of our spiritual negligence.
Monsignor Knox asks, Who is the Unjust Steward?...He is you and I and every one of us; we are all, as children of Adam, unfaithful servants who have been detected in our delinquency. By rights…we have forfeited every claim. We have earthly riches –the unrighteous mammon– still in our possession, and it is out of that that we must strive to gain ourselves a good reward in the day of necessity, by giving alms generously to those in need. (Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, p. 170) So, we are called to give of our earthly substance to those in need in an unselfconsciously generous way. Why? It will reveal that what is of real value and worth for us is behind the clouds. God is challenging us to give freely under the clouds of fallen existence so that He might reveal His treasure to us. When the storm-clouds gather, God offers to overcome our powerlessness and poverty with His strength and riches. We do well to remember that we who live under the clouds are all poor. Thus we must help one another. None of us has any claim on the mercy of the all-just Creditor: we have been the cause of our own shortcomings; God is not responsible for the misuse of His gifts. If we would find mercy in that hour, will it not be wise…to establish a precedent for generosity and largesse [with the mammon of unrighteousness], while there is yet time? (Idem)
Today let us become just stewards of God’s Grace, a Grace that is meant to be multiplied prudently and shared with the world. In so doing, when we leave the unrighteous mammon of this world behind, being caught up in the clouds, when we fail, we shall be welcomed into everlasting habitations because we have allowed God to make the best out of our bad situation. (Idem)
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 sermon 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 theologians used it to defend the Divine Grace against the claims of others who were insistent upon the claims of free will. 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 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, has meaning only in relation to God and His Goodness!
We might find this view of Divine Providence not a little bit intimidating and disconcerting. The all-seeing eye of God, the surveyor and judge, might startle and shake us. But as your preacher, I would like you to know that I think that this is a good and healthy thing! Post-modern, materialistic Christians have become far too at ease with treating God like the aider and abettor of temporary earthly happiness. They gather and fancy presumptuously that God’s chief role and function in the universe is to overcome any material impediment to generate a kind of bodily buzz. Of course, what they have forgotten is God is not really interested in earthly and impermanent expressions of happiness. He is far more concerned with the state of the soul that is required of us if we hope to find eternal happiness. All of the comfort in the world cannot save a man. And it might even be so powerful as to impede and prevent him from ever finding the way to everlasting salvation.
Worldly, earthly, or temporal happiness is not what God intends for us to be consumed within this life. 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 our own hearts and the intentions and motives of our choices. Not only does He see, but also He knows; not only does He know, but also He judges and discerns where our voluntary choices situate us in relation to His Divine Wisdom and 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, determine where we end up.
What we should want, then, is to embrace the Divine Wisdom in such a way that ensures our salvation. First, we need to discern how God sees or knows all things. What I mean is that we should discover what things are and how they might affect us. 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 also the Wisdom that reveals to us why and for what purposes God intends for us to use them.
The author of this morning’s Old Testament lesson tells us that man best begins to open up to Divine Providence and Wisdom through the fear of the Lord. All wisdom cometh from God and is with Him forever. (Ecclus. i. 1) We ought to fear God for His Wisdom. This means that we ought to have a healthy trepidation of the fact that God knows best what things are and how they can be used or misused. Air is necessary for ongoing life. Fire is made to rise and to heat. Water is made to nourish and fertilize or to cleanse and to purge. Man is made to know also that air can contaminate, fire can burn, and that water can drown. The knowledge of these kinds of things ought to inform and condition our wills. The fear of the Lord is that healthy state that cautions us in relation to all things. 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 vision 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 will the best. The fear of the Lord is to hate evil: pride, and arrogancy, and the evil way, and the froward mouth, do I hate, [saith the Lord]. (Prov. viii. 13)
God’s providence is His Divine Wisdom. St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting Aristotle, links it with order. He 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 orders his life with virtue to pursue the highest ends. The wiser man knows that 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) Of course, the pattern and model of Divine Wisdom in the flesh has been given to us in the life of our Saviour Jesus Christ. In Christ, we find the Divine Wisdom ordering human life perfectly. And the same Wisdom that was made flesh long ago forever longs to share its life with us. He 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) Wisdom intends that we should serve 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 is the virtue that grows 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 Wisdom 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 humble myself before 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) Proverbs remind us that 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 Wisdom calls us to cultivate the intention to please God in all of our lives so that we shall be saved. 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. Mr. Law tells us also that if we wonder why the Wisdom of God is not giving us the same intention that the primitive Christians possessed, we shall find that it is neither through ignorance, nor inability, but purely because we never thoroughly intended it. What we intend is inspired by what we love. So let us intend to love God above all things in order that by His Wisdom we might find those things profitable for us, profitable to our salvation.
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, in all humility, he was best positioned to find Christ. 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 his passionate pursuit of the vibrant spiritual life, he was thrown down into startling and frightening spiritual blindness and death. Out of it, he became the man that he had never been before. And yet what we must 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. His alacrity 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 the vice of 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, or discontented 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 the spirit’s commands.
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 human nature but to redeem it. 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 sustained. 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 through 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. In her commentary on her translation of Dante’s Purgatorio, 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 the human heart. 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 habitual sin. 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 neglects the good and does evil.
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) 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 love of 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 begin to appreciate the advances and intentions of God’s love, the intensity or responsive love will grow stronger and stronger until it conquers all spiritual sloth in us. If we understand this Divine zeal and meet it with an equal passion and devotion, 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)
O God who hast prepared for them that love Thee
such good things as pass man’s understanding…
(Collect: Trinity VI)
Trinity-tide 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 we remembered the life and witness of Saints Peter and Paul and how 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 were 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 unanticipated 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.
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 earthly gain. 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 might even assume that human justice is ultimate and final. But, 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. We are moved and defined by evil and what is wrong. In response to it, we think that we must use only those tools that evil understands. We are actually caught in wrong and evil. We think that we are doing good but we have forgotten that we ought to overcome evil with a much greater good, the good that comes from love. 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 find the origin and cause of our inadequate love 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 hate the sin but love the sinner!
Jesus teaches us that the real threat to loving [God] above all things is internal and spiritual insecurity and fear. Anger or wrath is easier than the creative love that might help a brother or sister. Sloth also impedes the desire to help. Envy and Pride, no doubt, play their respective roles. 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 probably afraid to be touched by God’s love. He forgets that his soul is always in need of God’s power of healing and transformation. 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 the human soul, as it did with the Apostles, there is hope that it will discover God’s promises. Yet it must be pursued conscientiously with all due diligence. All potential threats to its growth in the soul must be abandoned with 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 the human soul is other people and our judgment of them. The angry pursuit of earthly justice elevates human injury to the level of Divine importance. We may wreak vengeance on an earthly enemy, but what are we left with? 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 God’s healing love. 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, God’s promise to heal our souls will come true as His compassionate love corrects and cures us. Thus, anything and everything that impedes the progress of our loving God above all things must be put in its proper place. We must confess, 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, Jesus tells us that if God’s love is to become our chief delight, 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 endure his attack by disarming. First, we ought to listen quietly and calmly to those who have something against us. It encourages us to see our enemy as a potential brother in the Lord and to pray for rather than judge him with a harsh word or violent affection. Geoffrey Chaucer tells us that the remedy for gire and rash rage in order to discern our enemy’s sickness and pray for his cure. Patience endures the enemy’s assault out of hope 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 and passes man’s understanding. This is the love that desires to enlarge our affection that we can touch all men with the hope of Christ’s healing.
St. Paul tells us this morning that this kind of love will be found if we remember that we have been baptized into Christ’s death. (Romans vi. 3) Being baptized into Christ’s death means that the body of our sin is being destroyed. (Ibid, 5) The merciful operation by which the love of Christ is bringing sin to death in our hearts must always make us conscious of our own imperfection. There is always something better to be attained in Christ. Agree with thine adversary quickly, Jesus insists. Otherwise, we shall never find it.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: