For the very beginning of [wisdom] is the desire of her discipline; and the care
of discipline is love. And love is the keeping of her laws; and the giving heed
unto her laws is the assurance of incorruption. And incorruption
maketh us near to God.
(Wisdom vi. 17-20)
The Book of Wisdom is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, son of David, and King of Israel. He lived some nine hundred years before the birth of Jesus Christ, and he is known for his wisdom. The First Book of the Kings tells us that he prayed for wisdom, so that he might have an understanding heart to judge [his] people…[to] discern between good and evil. (1 Kings 9) Solomon was granted his wish and petition, and became so wise that the rulers of the world came to sit at his feet in order to learn the wisdom that God had given to him. Solomon was not wise in his own conceits; rather he knew that true Wisdom is a gift from God. And he reminds us also that without God’s Wisdom we cannot hope to be saved. So he exhorts his readers and listeners to pursue the instruction and discipline of Holy Wisdom. It is given to man to instruct him in the ways that lead to eternal life. Instruction is understood as the work of a loving God. When a man allows himself to be instructed in her ways, he realizes that he is being led forward into the reality of incorruption, and so he begins to love the ways of Wisdom and the virtue which she generates in the human heart. God’s gives his Wisdom to us to reveal his loving care and our own desire for Wisdom increases.
Now you might be saying to yourselves, well this all sounds all well and good, but what does it have to do with my life? Everything. Why, you ask? And the answer is, because we were made to know, to understand, and to love. This is why human beings were created. And not merely to know and understand the world around us, nor to love our fellow men. All of that is important enough. But the point is that we were made for knowledge, love, and discipline. Solomon knew all of this, and this is why he goes to all the trouble of explaining it to us! Indeed, we were made to know and to love God because he is the source, origin, and cause of all knowledge and love. And His knowledge and love are given to us that we might find the discipline that leads to incorruption and brings us near to God. (Wisdom vi. 20)
So, you say, alright, but how do I find this knowledge and love? Well, if you are an inquisitive and conscientious student of the natural world, you can find a lot of God’s knowledge and love at work there. In nature you will find the principles of order, arrangement, relation, truth, beauty, and even goodness that you neither create nor control. If you take the time to be quiet and still enough, you will find God’s mind and heart at work. And what you should come away with is a deep sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of the created universe. Such an endeavor starts a man on the journey after Wisdom. The Wisdom that is found is clearly Divine. No man’s truth has made the vast universe that surrounds him or painted it with beauty and goodness. No man’s truth has combined minute particulars into one harmonious and majestic whole. Nature itself, if we would only contemplate it, leads our minds to the fount and wellspring of God’s Divine Wisdom.
And yet there is more. While we are contemplating nature and discovering the principles of truth, beauty, and goodness in it, has it ever occurred to us just how we do this? We do it through the operation and activity of the soul. The 17th century Anglican Bishop William Beveridge tells us that we ought to marvel at this fact also. He says that he comes to know that he has a soul because he can reason and reflect. (W. Beveridge: Thoughts on Religion, 1) Other creatures have souls but don’t know it. They act, and know it not; it being not possible for them to look within themselves, or to reflect upon their own existence and actions. But this is not so with me, the good Bishop says. I not only know that I have a soul, but that I have such a soul which can consider and deliberate on every particular action that issues from it. Nay, I can now consider that I am considering my own actions, and can reflect upon [my own] reflecting. (Ibid, 2) The same soul with which the Bishop reflects upon his own reflecting, then moves out of itself to examine and study the whole of the universe, mounting from earth to heaven, from pole to pole, and view all the courses and motions of the celestial bodies, the Sun, the Moon, the Stars; and then the next moment returning to myself again, I can consider where I have been, what glorious objects have been presented to my view, and wonder at the nimbleness and activity of my soul. (Ibid, 2,3) The good Bishop reminds us that we can move out of ourselves to consider the whole of the universe with our souls, and then return into our souls, and still reflect upon and study all that we have seen and heard through our remembering and recollection. What a marvel! Have you ever considered it? And more than all this, the same soul can move the body and all its parts, and even understand, consider, argue, and conclude; to will and nil; hope and despair, desire and abhor, joy and grieve; love and hate; to be angry now, love and appease.(Ibid, 3) What a miracle is this man that each of us is! And what does all of this mean if not that we are made to know and to love and to discover finally that God’s Wisdom is the source and cause of it all?
And yet there is this difficulty. Bishop Beveridge reminds us that we are not merely souls or spirits like angels, but are souls who inhabit bodies. And our bodies always tend towards corruption, disintegration, and death. Our souls and spirits are spiritual and incorruptible. But they are joined to flesh which decays, fades, and passes away. The place of the soul’s trial and testing, in the here and now, is with the body. The way and manner in which the soul and body cooperate will determine the eternal and incorruptible state of the whole human person, body and soul, in eternity. Should the soul seek God’s Wisdom, apply it to the whole person, then in the end times man will be saved. Should he refuse the rule and governance of God’s Wisdom in this life, he will be damned.
And this brings us back to the Wisdom of Solomon. In our opening quotation we read that the application of Wisdom to the soul and body demands our submission to instruction and education. God’s instruction and education reveal the love and care of Wisdom for every human being’s ultimate welfare and wellbeing. To submit to this Divine labor, the human soul must lovingly receive the instruction that Wisdom enjoins. Wisdom desires to direct the soul to order, tame, and discipline the body. St. Paul says in this morning’s Epistle reading that we must not be debtors…to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if [we] live after the flesh, [we] shall die. But if [we] through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, [we] shall live. (Romans viii. 12, 13) When Wisdom is applied to the body, the whole person is right with God, for he is then moved and defined by the Spiritual Truth that God intends for the body and the soul. If Wisdom is not applied, then man faces spiritual death in which both soul and body shall live alienated and separated from God forever. St. Paul says that, They that are in the flesh cannot please God. But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.(Ibid, 8-10) He says in another place that Christ [is] the wisdom of God and the power of God. (1 Cor. i. 24) To live according to God’s Wisdom, is to live in Christ. To live in Christ means to accept the instruction, discipline, and love that Christ’s Spirit brings to man’s life. As many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Romans viii. 14) Life in Christ is an invitation to become the sons and daughters of God, whereby we [can] cry, Abba, Father.(Ibid, 15) And this opens for us an intimate spiritual window into a relationship with God whose Wisdom will enable us to love to keep [His] laws…bringing us near to incorruption…[with a] desire for [the] wisdom [which] brings us near to [His] kingdom. (Wisdom vi. 18-20)
So, God’s Wisdom is something that we can find not only in nature but also in the life of Jesus Christ our Lord. In submitting and adjusting our lives to Christ’s pattern, we can begin not only to be moved by the Divine Wisdom, but can even reveal it to others. In this morning’s Gospel Christ tells us that by [men’s] fruits, ye shall know them. (St. Matthew vii. 20) A man’s spiritual value and worth is measured by the thoughts, words, and deeds that issue forth through his body and from his soul. So man’s thoughts, words, and deeds are reflections of his rational soul’s relation to the Divine Wisdom. The soul and body are such precious gifts and tools, in and through which man can receive and apply God’s Wisdom to a life destined for eternal happiness. We can reach our end only if and when we pray for the instruction, discipline, and loving care that Christ, the Divine Wisdom, will apply to our souls as he generates the fruits of holiness that can be revealed through us. And as Solomon reminds us, it is a gift to be neglected only at our own peril. So, with Bishop Beveridge, without any further dispute about it, [let us] resolve, at this time, in the presence of Almighty God, that from this day forward, [we] will make it our whole business, here upon earth, to look after [our] happiness in Heaven, and to walk circumspectly those blessed paths, that God appointed all to walk in, that ever expect to come to Him (Ibid, 4), in the light of His Divine Wisdom, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
Pour into our hearts such love towards thee,
that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain
thy 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. Our consciences don’t seem to be alerted and awake to what God plans and promises for all men. We don’t seem to be readying ourselves for a future with God in Heaven. Or if we do, it is of secondary importance to this life and thus is unlikely to do us much good. We are so possessed by our lives in the here and now that our eternal destiny doesn’t seem to matter much. But Jesus is quite clear about it all. Our future matters a lot. And we had better be preparing to be with Him in Heaven and not separated from Him in Hell. God has given himself to us in Jesus Christ, and if we hope to find life with Him in His Eternal Kingdom, we must prepare for it in the here and now. Eternity, after all, is forever.
To be sure, this will not be easy. Nothing in life that is precious is ever obtained without sacrifice and hard work. And God’s promises are no exception. They seem beyond our reach -beyond all that we can desire, as our Collect for this morning reminds us. But exceeding all that we can desire is no reason to stop pursuing them. Desire is an inward stirring and passion for an object that we do not yet possess. What is beyond all that we can desire means simply what exceeds and surpasses our knowledge or ability to cognitively create. What God promises is the subject matter of His own love for us. What God promises to us is a way to that love that He provides through life in His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ and by the indwelling of our Lord the Holy Ghost. Beyond all that we can desire means that our desire for God will be transformed into a love far greater than we have ever perceived or known. The kind of love that God has in store for them that begin to love Him truly nowwill be perfected then because the then can never be threatened by sin. It will be a love that cannot be destroyed.
Here and now we are called to start getting used to God’s love. This must involve practicing the presence of His rule and governance in our lives. In fact, in this morning’s Epistle, St. Paul plots out the way to receive this very love. Yet what a strange way he contrives! To embrace God’s living love in our lives, the Apostle would have us consider death. In fact, he insists that we shall never receive the promises that exceed all that we can desire until we die. But what does he mean? Is he preparing us for earthly death? Most people view death as non-existence, that state when the body shuts down and all consciousness is lost. And the closer they get to it, the more fearful of it they become! 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 so that we might be saved. It is a death to whatever separates us from the knowledge and love of God. This is the death in which we must try our best to die to all other loves, or at least to love all others only in relation to our first love, which must be the love of God. 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 a real inner spiritual battle on the dark plain of human existence. The man who will die to himself must be willing to wage war against the darkness of his sins. Sin a lesser love or a forbidden love which steals our attention away from the love of God. Thus, he must examine closely how his other loves have vied for primacy of place in his heart against the love of God. At first, it may seem overwhelming, and yet, in the end, if we have faith in Jesus Christ, we shall realize that God has provided us with the means to loving Him above all things. (Idem) 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 Christ’s death. By loving [Our Heavenly Father] above all things, Christ has taken on our sin and in His one, and all sufficient Sacrifice, Oblation, and Satisfaction for the sins of the whole world, He has brought our old earthly death to an end. We believe that the spiritual death to sin, Satan, and deathitself has been won 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 reopened the gates of everlasting life to all men. The living love of God is given back 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 love as death, death to the self, death to all that is other than God. This living love, thisdying death in Jesus Christ opens the kingdom of God to us all once again. All men are invited into the reality of this death 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. We all know only too well that devil is not thwarted by the Sacrament of Baptism. The hard work of redemption continues long after our first Baptism into Christ’s death. 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 must involve a conscious and ongoing death to our lesser loves, or to sin. St. Paul certainly speaks of future Resurrection when Christ shall come again to judge both the quick and dead. But to be counted worthy of salvation then, we must be dying constantly to sin now. This means that we must believe in Christ and 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), and with the determination to confess them to turn to God…our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. (Ps. xlvi. 1) Death to ourselves involves hard work.
Therefore in this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus teaches us that there can be no place for pride, envy, wrath, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, or lust. Jesus reminds us that these sins compete with the death we must embrace. 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) We might very well have just cause to be angry with a brother. If we don’t forgive and hope for his salvation, then the love of God that was planted in us at Baptism is dead. Jesus is then not alive in us and His love is as good as dead in us, and we are alive to a much more pernicious future death in Hell! If we kill God’s love in Jesus, we cannot hope to be rewarded with His promises.
St. Paul reminds us 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. Yet, as He was dying for us, He was still longing for our salvation. This is that kind of love that enables us to obtains God’s promises because it exceeds all that we can desire (Idem). This is the love that stoops down from heaven as the forgiveness of sins in the heart of Jesus. This love never ceases to desire our salvation. Jean Mouroux reminds us that God is present to His creature…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).
With God’s love, we should yearn to partake of the merits of Christ’s death. 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) Christ is the incessant desire of God for man made flesh. Christ is the incessant desire of man for God. In one Person, Jesus Christ is that love that forever longs for us to obtain God’s promises. (Idem) Remember, God has prepared for those who love [Him] such good things as pass man’s understanding. Until we allow Christ to pour into our hearts such love towards [Him] and love Him above all things, we shall not obtain His promises which exceed all that we can desire. (Idem) Simon Tugwell reminds us, God is only Himself in pouring Himself out. (The Beatitudes, p. 24) We must pour ourselves out to be full of Jesus Christ. Then, being full of that love that obtains His promises, God’s excessive love shall pour from us into the hearts of others also.
…The people pressed upon him to hear the word of God…
(St. Luke v. 1)
It must always be the case that good Christians should be pressing upon [Jesus] to hear the Word of God. (Idem) But hearing the Word of God is one thing and doing it is quite another. St. James tells us to be…doers of the Word, and not hearers only. (St. James i. 22) This is where most well-intentioned Christians find trouble. After all, we can read God’s Word and hear it, but how can we do it? The problem seems to be with the application of the Word to human life. Knowledge and understanding comprise one activity, but to be caught up in the goodness that God’s Word generates in our lives is another. Today, let us see if we might press upon Jesus to hear God’s Word so that we might be caught up in the Net of His everlasting glory.
Prior to this morning’s Gospel Lesson from St. Luke, Jesus had been thrown out of His hometown of Nazareth, barely escaping with His life. No prophet finds acceptance in his own country. (St. Luke iv. 24). So, He traveled into Capernaum where His teaching was acknowledged as authoritative. Here He cast a demon out of a possessed man, healed Simon Peter’s mother-in-law who had been gripped with a fever and restored others who were diseased either physically or spiritually. Finally, He retired to a desert place and prayed. But crowds of people caught up with Him because they wanted more. But the more that Jesus was preparing to give them would not be found in signs, wonders, and miracles, but in God’s Word and Will for man, so that they might begin to perceive and understand the way to salvation.
So, today we find Jesus moving down into the fishing village of Gennesaret, thronged by a mob of people who would hear the Word of God. We read that Jesus entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. (Ibid, 3) If we would press upon [Jesus] to hear God’s Word, we must allow the Word to thrust out a little from the land (Ibid, 3) of human commerce, clamor, confusion, hustle, and bustle in order to free us from those earthly preoccupations that would distract us. Over and against the usual course of human affairs, God’s Word must stand alone with men of prayer to address them from a place of concentration, that they might serve Him in all Godly quietness. (Collect Trinity V)
But notice that some are on shore and some are in the boats with Jesus. Some will hear the Word, and some will experience His Power. Thus, we find Peter, James, and John who have accompanied Jesus in the ships. And while both groups are intended to be caught up in the net of Christ as his spiritual fish, as Archbishop Trench reminds us, the Apostles must be converted first that they may then become Christ’s fishers of men. I think that Saint Peter in particular, and then Saints James and John –by reason of their presence in the other ship–represent in this story the Church and her ministers. The people on the shore represent the fish that will be caught up on land once the Apostles have been caught up in Christ’s Net from a deeper spiritual sea. There are different levels and stages of faith, trust, and obedience that pass first from Christ to His Apostles, and then from His Apostles to all others who would be saved. Some men are ready to hear but not yet digest. Others will hear and feel the blessed union of God’s Wisdom and Power.
Next comes the trying and testing of the faith of the Apostles who have thrust out from land and onto the sea with Jesus. We read: Now when He had left speaking, He said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught. (Ibid, 4) Simon, like his fellow fishermen, and unlike the crowd, has had a long and unsuccessful night of fishing. Most of the other fishermen are on the shore, exhausted, cleaning their nets, licking their wounds, and perhaps downcast and depressed for having failed to catch any fish. Matthew Henry tells us that One would have thought this should have excused [the Apostles also] from Christ’s sermon; but it was more refreshing and reviving to them than the softest slumbers. (Comm. Luke V) The fishermen on shore did not see much sense in thrusting off onto the waters again with Jesus. But the Apostles did. While the others washed their nets and went to bed, the Apostles would use their powerlessness, failure, and fatigue as a reason for turning more faithfully from themselves towards Jesus. The Apostles worked hard to catch their fish, but when they failed, they turned to Christ for the reviving of their souls. Christ knows our weaknesses and yet from them all He will draw out new and vibrant faith. Simon Peter responds to Jesus: Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. (Ibid 5,6)
Peter submits. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. (Ibid, 6,7) Peter, James, and John were overwhelmed by the catch. They called on their partners to help to relieve the weight of the treasure that was causing their boats to sink. The Apostles were beside themselves with wonder and awe. Peter alone spoke for them as it began to dawn on him that they were being caught up in another kind of Net. We read that when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord. For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken: and so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. (Ibid, 8-10) St. Peter is overwhelmed by the power of God that he experiences the effects of Christ’s words and nature’s response. Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Cor. i. 24) effects what might happen in nature on a good day but is accelerated now with supernatural intervention. Human ingenuity is one thing but to be caught up in the provision that God’s Word generates is quite another. Peter’s unworthiness is radically other than the power and wisdom of God in Jesus. He falls down as one undeserving of such a gift. Archbishop Trench tells us that the deepest thing in a man’s heart…is a sense of God’s holiness as something bringing death and destruction to the unholy creature. (Miracles, 102) Peter’s faith and trust yield a miracle greater than the draught of the fishes. Peter knows himself as an unholy creature in the presence of an all-loving God.
The first step towards a right relationship with God is the fear of the Lord. It is the beginning of wisdom that learns humility in the presence of the Divine power. Father Mouroux reminds us that man must realize that [he] is dust and ashes before his God; however much he abounds he is always a poverty-stricken thing hanging on the Divine Mercy, and however much he may be purified he is still a sinner face to face with Holiness. (The Meaning of Man, p. 217) The fish which the men have caught are still alive, flailing, thrashing, and thwacking with all their might to return to life in the sea. Peter, on the other hand, is rendered dead to himself as he falls down and endures a spiritual undoing that he cannot resist. He finds himself the chief of all sinners in the face of an all-powerful God who promises him new life.
Christ catches Peter, James, and John in His Net. They find themselves in a state of Grace, in which all the contradiction is felt, God is still a consuming fire, yet not anymore for the sinner, but for the sin…[for they are in] the presence of God…[whose] glory is veiled, whose nearness…every sinful man may endure, and in that nearness may little by little be prepared for the…open vision of the face of God. (Trench, Idem) Jesus says, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men. (Ibid, 10) Jesus intends that Peter, James, John, and the other Apostles should come alive as fishers of men.
So, what does it mean to be caught up as spiritual fish into Christ’s Net and to become fishers of men? Our Gospel concludes with, when the [Apostles] had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed Him. (Ibid, 11) The Apostles were called to be fish out of water -to forsake the world, the flesh, the devil, and themselves. They were called to be all of one mind, having compassion one of another, loving as brethren…pitiful…courteous; not rendering evil for evil…but contrariwise blessing…eschewing evil, ensuing good, seeking peace and ensuing it. (1 Peter iii. 8,9) Forsaking all is a spiritual disposition that zealously puts Jesus first, hears, obeys, and follows Him into the New Life that He brings from above. Forsaking all will mean also following Jesus to His Cross. We must press upon Jesus to hear the Word of God. (Idem) We must leave our earthly occupations and thrust out a little from the land. (Idem) Next, we must launch into the deep with Jesus and cast our nets out for a draught. Trusting with faith in the Word of the Lord alone can sink the ship of our sinfulness so that we might be caught up in the catch of Christ’s Net. Faith in God’s Grace can flourish and bloom [only if] it is welcomed; it can act [only if] it is activated, [for] all the infinitude of its power comes from the adoring passivity in which it lies open to God. (Mouroux, p. 217) The Apostles had every natural reason to return to their profession because of this miracle. They didn’t. Another miracle is at work here. God’s power and wisdom overwhelm fallen men and bring them into death. God’s power and wisdom catch us up into Christ’s Net, the Net of Christ’s assumption of our sin and suffering on the Tree of Calvary. The Son of God alone, wholly removed from His natural glory and bliss in Heaven, is the real fish out of water. We too can become fish out of water only when Christ catches us in the Net of His death for future glory and bliss in Heaven. Then, being caught up into Christ’s Net, He will enable us to be followers of that which is good…suffering for righteousness sake…so that happy we may be….forever. (Idem)
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons