Any man who thinks that the Genesis account of Creation and the Fall is a fable crafted for the simple-minded should be silenced by what follows on the heals of Adam’s first transgression. Interestingly enough, what ensues is not a violent Divine punishment for man’s disobedience, but an inquisition. It is, as it were, a working out of the problem of man’s sinning in relation to the Divine Truth. And the interrogation is couched in the context of an eerie calm that alone can facilitate rational discourse. You can imagine the whole of creation silencing itself in order to listen in on God’s questioning of Adam! There is something about sinning that brings silence to all else in the world as the soul endures the punishment of its own willing. In the silence, then, shame grows and the soul is driven to hide from the object of its crime. Man is born good. His nature is good. Why? God has made it. Man has never at any time made himself. His existence is dependent and derivative. If he had made himself, he would have remembered it. And besides, if he had made himself he would have had to be in possession of himself before he made it, which is absurd.
So, man is made. There was a time when he was not. He came into being because Being so willed that it should be. His being and wellbeing are the effects of a cause much mightier than himself. When he sinned, he took a perfectly good nature and abused it. You can only corrupt something that is potentially good. You cannot corrupt pure goodness. That would be like saying that you could corrupt God. And you cannot corrupt something that is pure evil. That would be like saying that you could corrupt what is pure corruption. Of course, there is no such thing as pure corruption. Even the devil knows that God is God, and that knowledge is good. You can only corrupt what is good by nature though not good by necessity. In other words, you can only corrupt a good nature by deforming it or by choosing to disregard God’s ideal intention for it. The creature is not good by nature –only God is that! The creature is good by reason of his will. So the creature must continuously choose the good of its nature in accordance with God’s plan for it.
Adam corrupted himself. He came to realize what he had done. He sought to hide the evidence of his sin from God –the evidence being himself. So we read: They heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. (Genesis iii. 8) The elements and nature are not disturbed or disrupted by man’s sin; why should they? They remain faithful to the contours, lines, and limitations of their respective forms. Sin hasn’t affected the elements. (Sin cannot have any effect upon nature, except by way of a once-removed effect. Sinful man can relate now to nature sinfully.) The only physical alteration to the environment is the cooling of the air, perhaps an image of nature’s removal from man’s selfish idolatry. In any case, man senses that the atmosphere has changed. His surroundings seem hostile and even adversarial. They cannot and will not aid and abet him in his sin. Man is on his own.
Yet, he cannot bear to face God, and so he hides himself. That he thinks that he can hide from God reveals the corruption wrought by his willful idolatry. Evidently, he actually believes that the trees are now of such substantial tangibility that they can conceal him from God! When man disregards the Spirit of God in the world and worships the material and physical, his remembrance of the Maker’s nature is lost. Pure Spirit is less real to man now that he has begun to worship and appropriate material creation for himelf –away from and outside of God’s plan for it. Now man believes that the Spirit of God is as avoidable or embraceable as any other creature. His perception of God is material. He supposes that he can conceal or hide his being and knowing from God. Matter has been given the power to protect man from God. He has delusions of grandeur. He prays, no doubt, that God will leave him alone. He imagines that God won’t much care, couldn’t be bothered, is wholly uninterested in the finite details of his choices. He minimizes what is maximal to God. God cares about everything. God made everything. Why wouldn’t He care about all He has made? God has made all things down to the atoms, molecules, and so forth. Also, He sustains all things. He even leads all things through to their appointed ends by the movement of His Mind and Heart. To say that everything matters to God merely emphasizes the immediate proximity of the Maker to the meaning of all matter that He has made. The wisdom of God is what is nearest to any creature’s perfection. What is most important to God is the creature’s form or meaning.
And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou? (Genesis iii. 9) God questions Adam not because He needs to inquire after Adam’s physical whereabouts, but because he wants Adam to articulate the nature of his newfound spiritual condition. He means, where are you spiritually? What is moving and defining your soul today, Adam? Tell me; confess the truth. Where are you in relation to me? Adam must answer for himself, and the self-confessed truth shows that where he is, is in mental and volitional alienation and separation from God. His answer comes in response to the Divine Presence; it is a relational confession. He perceives God’s nearness: I heard thy voice in the garden. He begins to feel the punishment of freedom from the Divine protection and governance: I was afraid. He experiences the temptations that assault the soul no longer clothed with God’s holiness and righteousness: because I was naked. He is afraid also because for the first time he hears God’s voice as what he has chosen to reject, or as what, even if for a fleeting moment, he has decided to circumvent. God’s voice is his Word; his Word is the commandment that defines and governs every creature’s meaning and purpose in the creation. God’s voice or commandment is essential for the harmonious unity of every particular with the whole. Man now knows himself as alienated from the Word that alone can ensure any future participation in the creation he has dishonored.
It might well be that the author of Genesis is describing here the genesis of conscience. Conscience comes to us from the Latin word conscientia, and it means knowledge or awareness. Here, specifically, it means an awareness of one’s being in relation to the truth. Adam has separated himself from the Divine goodness; it stands against him. He hides himself from God because now he fears God’s judgment of his sin. His being has become as nothing. Nothingness is not only nakedness before the Maker, but powerlessness. It is the state out of which man was made; the difference now is that man knows and experiences its raw and primal impotence. So he experiences a non-being that he was never made to endure.
But hiding from the Divine Truth is a kind of suicidal wish that God, in his Divine Mercy, will not tolerate. The naked truth must be not only endured but in some new way formative in man’s journey back to God. So the dialogue between man and God continues. God in His mercy will allow that, at least. Without it, God would deny the integrity of the rational creature and His own power in relation to it. That evil has been actualized for man does not mean that God's goodness cannot overcome it through man's return to his senses. The future will be dangerous, difficult, and daunting. But God’s intention for man remains unchanged. Man ought to be reconciled with God. It is just that, for now, man must take the long road back to God.
Thomas Aquinas: Is Sloth a Mortal Sin?
It would seem that sloth is not a mortal sin. For every mortal sin is contrary to a precept of the Divine Law. But sloth seems contrary to no precept, as one may see by going through the precepts of the Decalogue. Therefore sloth is not a mortal sin.
Sloth is not listed literally as what violates any of the Ten Commandments. The Commandments make no mention of sloth. So perhaps sloth is not a mortal sin.
Further, in the same genus, a sin of deed is no less grievous than a sin of thought. Now it is not a mortal sin to refrain in deed from some spiritual good which leads to God else it would be a mortal sin not to observe the counsels. Therefore it is not a mortal sin to refrain in thought from such like spiritual works. Therefore sloth is not a mortal sin.
Sloth does not seem to be a mortal sin in a spiritual sense either. For aversion of the mind from a spiritual good may be merely a consequence of human nature which cannot possibly live up to all the Divine Counsels at all times. Perhaps sloth is merely the intellectual or spiritual inability to will the good at all times.
Further, no mortal sin is to be found in a perfect man. But sloth is to be found in a perfect man: for John Cassian says (De Instit. Caenob. x, l) that sloth is well known to the solitary, and is a most vexatious and persistent foe to the hermit. Therefore sloth is not always a mortal sin.
Sloth can be found in the most perfect of the Desert Fathers. No doubt, if sloth is found in the perfect man, then it mustn’t really be a mortal sin. Perhaps it is a vexatious enemy that harasses and threatens a man against his reason and his will.
On the Contrary: It is written (2 Cor. vii. 20) The sorrow of the world worketh death. But such is sloth; for it is not sorrow according to God, which is contrasted with sorrow of the world. Therefore it is a mortal sin.
Sloth is sorrow that fails to hope in the Divine good. Sloth thus is of the world and consumed with its finite limitations and created imperfections. Sloth avoids the Divine Good because the good of the world has molded and defined the expectations and hopes of the sinner away from any transcendent perfection.
I answer that, mortal sin is so called because it destroys the spiritual life which is the effect of charity, whereby God dwells in us. Wherefore any sin which by its very nature is contrary to charity is a mortal sin by reason of its genus. And such is sloth, because the proper effect of charity is joy in God, as stated above while sloth is sorrow about spiritual good in as much as it is a Divine good. Therefore sloth is a mortal sin in respect of its genus.
Sloth destroys the spiritual life because it stands opposed to the Divine Virtue of Charity. Through Charity, God dwells in us and we dwell in Him. Charity yields joy in God as the sinner is made into a saint through Divine Grace. The experience of the Charity makes a man joyful and thankful for God’s condescending movement into his soul. Sloth is sorrow and despair over the spiritual good that God longs to bring alive in the human soul. It is a mortal sin because it rejects the life that God brings to the soul through His Charity.
But it must be observed with regard to all sins that are mortal in respect of their genus, that they are not mortal, save when they attain to their imperfection. Because the consummation of sin is in the consent of reason: for we are speaking now of human sins consisting in human acts, the principle of which is the reason. Wherefore if the sin be a mere beginning of sin in the sensuality alone, without attaining to the consent of reason, it is a venial sin on account of the imperfection of the act. Thus in the genus of adultery, the concupiscence that goes no further than the sensuality is a venial sin, whereas if it reach to the consent of reason, it is a mortal sin. So too, the movement of sloth is sometimes in the sensuality alone, by reason of the opposition of the flesh to the spirit, and then it is a venial sin; whereas sometimes it reaches to the reason, which reason in the dislike, horror and detestation of the Divine good on account of the flesh utterly prevailing over the spirit. On this case it is evident that sloth is a mortal sin.
Sloth is a venial sin if it does not reach the level of the consent of reason. If it remains in the body or the sensuality or the appetite it might be better called laziness or lethargy. The body often resists the soul’s pursuit of the spiritual good. But if sloth is consented to in the soul by reason because a man despairs of the spiritual good, then sloth is a mortal sin. A man might grow to hate and despise the possibility of the efficacious nature of Divine Grace. He might think God too perfect to desire any involvement in human life. Or he might grow impatient at the pace in which Grace operates on his life. He might give up on Grace because he cannot perceive or see its effects in himself or others. He might decide that his sin is too great for God to overcome and conquer. Or perhaps the power of the flesh is so strong that it overcomes the spirit in a man, and for that reason a man succumbs to despairing over the spiritual good. So a man might reject the spiritual good of God’s Grace because of his body or because of his soul, because the flesh possesses him or because his soul refuses to hope. Whatever the reason, sloth is a mortal sin if a man uses his mind to reject the power of God’s Grace in human life and thus fails to pursue it.
Reply to Objection 1.
Sloth is opposed to the precept about hallowing the Sabbath Day. For this precept, in so far as it is a moral precept, implicitly commands the mind to rest in God: and sorrow of the mind about the Divine good is contrary thereto.
Sloth is directly set against keeping the Sabbath Day holy and refuses to rest in God. It is thus implicitly present in the Fourth Commandment. Sloth is thus the willful refusal to keep God’s Day holy and to rest in it because the slothful man does not see or perceive that any good can come out of it.
Reply to Objection 2.
Sloth is not an aversion of the mind from any spiritual good, but from the Divine good, to which the mind is obliged to adhere. Wherefore if a man is sorry because someone forces him to do acts of virtue that he is not bound to do, this is not a sin of sloth; but when he is sorry to have to do something for God’s sake.
Sloth is a turning of the mind away from the Divine Good. We are made to adhere and cleave to the spiritual good of God’s Grace in order that our natures might be perfected. If a man is sorry about having to do something for God’s sake or because God wills it, this is mortal sin of sloth. A slothful man may either flee the spiritual good by entering into a state of physical or spiritual torpor or through a busy-ness that is equally fatal. In both cases either the increase or decrease of activity is slothful unto death because the sinner is fleeing the spiritual good.
However, sloth induces us to avoid not only pure goodness. It induces us to avoid all pain, sorrow, or threats to a limited good. Sloth moves us to avoid the spiritual good out of fear for spiritual pain and suffering. So sloth can be motivated by the fear for what the spiritual good might demand of us in the process of its purification of our souls. The slothful man is more often than not immersed in earthly pleasures. So the virtue that opposes and overcomes sloth is zeal. But to cultivate zeal we must come to know God’s Charity, His goodness, and His desire to fill our hearts with the effects of His Grace.
Reply to Objection 3. Imperfect movements of sloth are to be found in holy men, but they do not reach to the consent of reason.
Holy men like the Desert Fathers are tempted and tried by sloth. It does not, however, reach the consent of reason in them. They resist it and they flee from it by pursuing with much zeal the Charity of God’s Grace. Dearest brethren, let us do the same. Amen.
Saint John Chrysostom (c. 349–407)
For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine and avarice. Let the feet fast, but ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties. For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Dost thou not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. “Thou shalt not receive a false report,” it says. (St. Chrysostom: On the Priesthood; Ascetic Treatises; Select Homilies and Letters; Homilies on the Statutes: Hom. III)
I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honour fasting; for the honour of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it. Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works!
Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony—sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on. And how mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the tempest of evil thoughts. Preserve the bark; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot. But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things. (On the Priesthood)
Do you fast? Prove it by doing good works. If you see someone in need, take pity on them. If you see a friend being honored, don’t get jealous of him. For a true fast, you cannot fast only with your mouth. You must fast with your eye, your ear, your feet, your hands, and all parts of your body. (On Fasting)
As bodily food fattens the body, so fasting strengthens the soul. Imparting it an easy flight, it makes it able to ascend on high, to contemplate lofty things, and to put the heavenly higher than the pleasant and pleasurable things of life.
Death trampled our Lord underfoot, but He in His turn treated death as a highroad for His own feet. He submitted to it, enduring it willingly, because by this means He would be able to destroy death in spite of itself. Death had its own way when our Lord went out from Jerusalem carrying His cross; but when by a loud cry from that cross He summoned the dead from the underworld, death was powerless to prevent it.
Death slew Him by means of the body which He had assumed, but that same body proved to be the weapon with which He conquered death. Concealed beneath the cloak of His manhood, His godhead engaged death in combat; but in slaying our Lord, death itself was slain. It was able to kill natural human life, but was itself killed by the life that is above the nature of man.
Death could not devour our Lord unless He possessed a body, neither could hell swallow Him up unless He bore our flesh; and so He came in search of a chariot in which to ride to the underworld. This chariot was the body which He received from the Virgin; in it He invaded death’s fortress, broke open its strong-room and scattered all its treasure.
At length He came upon Eve, the mother of all the living. She was that vineyard whose enclosure her own hands had enabled death to violate, so that she could taste its fruit; thus the mother of all the living became the source of death for every living creature. But in her stead Mary grew up, a new vine in place of the old. Christ, the new life, dwelt within her. When death, with its customary impudence, came foraging for her mortal fruit, it encountered its own destruction in the hidden life that fruit contained. All unsuspecting, it swallowed Him up, and in so doing released life itself and set free a multitude of men.
He who was also the carpenter’s glorious son set up His cross above death’s all-consuming jaws, and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of mankind, it was upon a tree that mankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognise the Lord whom no creature can resist.
We give glory to You, Lord, who raised up Your cross to span the jaws of death like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living. We give glory to You who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man. You are incontestably alive. Your murderers sowed Your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of men raised from the dead.
Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love, pouring out our treasury of hymns and prayers before Him who offered His cross in sacrifice to God for the enrichment of us all.
St Ephrem of Edessa
For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities;
but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.
(Hebrews iv. 15)
Monsignor Knox reminds us that the whole story of the Temptation is misconceived if we do not recognize that it was an attempt made by Satan to find out whether our Lord was the Son of God or not. (The Epistles and Gospels, p. 89) And perhaps this is our question too. To be sure Satan tempts Jesus, but so do we from the inmost regions of our being. We want to know if He is the Son of God. We want proofs that provide certain knowledge; we want evidence. And today on the First Sunday of Lent we are given good evidence that He is, at least, moving towards revealing this truth to us. After all, proofs aren’t bad things; and in this case we can thank Satan for making explicit what we might always have wondered or even doubted in our own hearts.
So we begin with our Gospel lesson for today, remembering that we have accepted Jesus’ invitation to go up to Jerusalem. Presumably, then, we are going up up not merely to be recognized and registered as pious pilgrims, but to find out for ourselves just who this Jesus of Nazareth really is. So we read that Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred. (St. Matthew iv. 1,2) From the historical record of Saints Matthew and Luke we learn that Jesus was alone. Having fasted for forty days, being truly and fully human, He was hungry. So the Devil starts in on him where He is weakest as a human being. Jesus is famished, and the nearest things in appearance to bread in the desert are stones. And so Satan says to Him, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. (St. Matthew iv. 3) Jesus knows that God sent Him not to destroy nature but to redeem it. So why not ensure that the natural man is well fed before He moves on? Jesus the Man needs to eat. But natural men need also to be redeemed. Stones are stones, and bread is bread. He can feed the multitudes by multiplying the loaves and the fishes after they, with Him, have made a spiritual journey. And besides, the poor ye have with you always, but the Son of God ye have…always. (St. Matthew xxvi. 11) The Son of Man is the Son of God that through Him men might hunger and thirst for [God’s] righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) Things Divine must take precedence over things mundane and natural. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, that….all [other]….things may be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Jesus remembers who He is truly, and that He has meat to eat that Satan does not know of and that His meat is to do the will of Him that sent…. Him.(St. John iv. 32,34) Jesus is tempted here to sacrifice the Son of Man prematurely to the needs of His body. But He knows that, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (St. Matthew iv. 4) Man is made to eat spiritual food, God’s Truth, here embodied in the Son of Man’s hunger to be the Son of God by feeding first on His Word.
So Jesus’ physical hunger is overcome by His spiritual longing to eat and digest the bread of God’s will. The devil sees before him a spiritual man. So in His physical weakness and exhaustion, Satan thinks, let Him be wholly spiritual. Perhaps this Jesus is called to be a supernaturally inspired ascetic, perhaps some kind of mystical Desert Father, who in denying the body completely can become a kind of incarnated angel! He has denied the good of the body, Satan thinks, so let this man dispense with his body entirely, cleaving as he does to this ‘Word’ of God. He trusts in God, then let Him deliver Him now, if he will have Him: for he said, I am the Son of God. (St. Matthew xxvii. 43) Then the devil taketh Him up into the holy city, and setteth Him on a pinnacle of the temple, And saith unto Him, If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for it is written, He shall give his angels charge concerning thee: and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew iv. 5,6) Satan tempts Jesus to provoke God to reveal His anointing by sending angels, pure spirits, to rescue His soul and body. The soul is the seat of unity with God; from the ground of the soul man chooses freely to worship and obey his Maker. If you cannot perform a miracle with regard to the body’s hunger, prove your unbreakable unity with God through the mind or the soul, Satan suggests. Cast yourself down; surely God will not let one perish who places the good of his soul above that of his body. Jesus, however, knows that this is no way for the Son of Man to reveal that He is the Son of God. Man’s soul is in a body. God doesn’t intend for us to prove the good of one by destroying the other. The Son of Man must reveal that He is the Son of God by taking on the whole of human nature. That He is the Son of God will require much much more than sparkling and dazzling supernatural Divine interruptions designed to startle men out of their dull spiritual stupor. Men must follow the Son the Man along the hard path of suffering that alone can bring belief. Their minds were made to be redeemed and reconciled to God not through supernatural magic, but through the common and familiar mode of pondering, wondering, studying, exploring, investigating, questioning, and finally assenting to what lies hidden in the heart of the Son of Man! Christ has come to redeem souls through faith, and not to compel conversion by force. To compel and force God to prove Himself can never perfect creaturely man’s faith. Belief can never be forced. It must be elicited and carried forward as it discovers God in the heart of the Son of Man, the Father in the life of the Son, and the Spirit at the root of both. Satan and his minions demand signs and wonders. Men of faith will see a sign and wonder in the Love of the Son of Man, who rather than throwing down His life will allow it to be hoisted up by others. Jesus said unto him, It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. (St. Matthew iv. 7)
We come to the final temptation. Satan guesses that if the Son the Man will not prove that He is the Son of God by worshiping the needs of His body or exaggerating the excellence of His soul, there is but one option left. Surely if He is the Son of God as flesh, He can still be tempted by the will to power. Jesus has come to save all men, to be sure, but only in so far as the Son of Man is held captive to His Father’s will as the Son of God. His last temptation is to despair of His reconciliation with God through obedience. Again, the devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me. (St. Matthew iv. 8,9) Satan is perfect desperation, and is thus the prince of despair. The temptation here is for Jesus to sever himself from his Father’s will precisely because He can resist all temptation. That it should be a temptation to Jesus at all surprises us. How does it make sense? Well, here we find that Jesus has forsaken all for God and His kingdom. He has rejected both bodily and spiritual threats to the free operation of His will. His act of will in submitting to the Father seems to have rendered Him utterly powerless. His sense of impending impotence is weighing so heavily upon Him in the face of long, hard road lying ahead that He is tempted to give it all up –to do evil that good may come of it. (Idem, Knox, p. 65) Then saith Jesus unto him, Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve. (St. Matthew iv. 10) The Son of God is God’s only perfect child. As God the Father rules the whole of creation, so He speaks through His invisible Word into the flesh of His Son. That Word has neither meaning nor significance apart from the Father who speaks it. His speech is obeyed as a command, willingly, in the humanity of the Son. Then the devil leaveth Him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto Him.(St. Matthew iv. 11)
That Jesus is the Son of Man has never been doubted. Sane men know too that God alone should be worshiped and served. The Sons of Man are born to become the Sons of God. What the Son of God reveals to us is that the one must be sacrificed to the other because Man must die for God to be made alive. The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (St. Matthew xx. 28) In the end of our Gospel lesson for today we read that, Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him. (St. Matthew iv. 11) Luther tells us that the angels came down from Heaven to feed Him. This is the proper order and nature of God’s provision. The Son of Man is hungering and thirsting for the righteousness as the Son of God. God the Father feeds His Spirit, nourishes His soul, and now cares for His body. He has become an inferior being as the Son of Man in order that all men might partake of His superior nature as the Son of God. The superior creatures now honor and worship the inferior Son of Man, feed Him and equip His Sacred Humanity for more of the same devilish assaults that will contrive to construct a Cross for His Love. For out of that Cross the Son of Man will reveal to men of faith what the Son of God will do to win back the love of His people. Amen.
Whether Envy is a Mortal Sin: Summa, II, ii, 36, iii.
It is written (Job v. 2): Envy slayeth the little one. Now nothing slays spiritually, except mortal sin. Therefore envy is a mortal sin.
Envy kills the children of God. We are called to become as little children. The slay the growing and maturing little child of God in a man’s soul is to murder God’s offspring. To murder God’s offspring is to murder the Holy Ghost in another man’s life.
Envy is a mortal sin, in respect of its genus. For the genus of a sin is taken from its object; and envy according to the aspect of its object is contrary to charity whence the soul derives its spiritual life, according to 1 John iii. 14. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. Now the object both of charity and of envy is our neighbor' good, but by contrary movements, since charity rejoices in our neighbor's good, while envy grieves over it, as stated above (Article 1). Therefore it is evident that envy is a mortal sin in respect of its genus.
Envy is a kind or type of sin. According to the aspect of the object under consideration envy is the vice that stands opposite to the virtue of Charity. The soul derives its spiritual life from the Charity or the Love of God. If the love of God or Charity is the life of God in the soul, then the soul is animated by Charity that is extended to all others. The subject, being filled with Charity, turns to the object. The object is our neighbour’s good. Envy is sorrowful and grieves over our neighbour’s potential and actual good. Envy begrudges the Good’s presence and then perfection in our neighbour’s soul. Envy cannot bear the Good in any other man.
Nevertheless, in every kind of mortal sin we find certain imperfect movements in the sensuality, which are venial sins: such are the first movement of concupiscence in the genus of adultery, and the first movement of anger, in the genus of murder and so in the genus of envy we find sometimes even in perfect men certain first movements, which are venial sins.
Due to the fallen condition, even in the man who does not indulge the mortal sin of envy, there might be certain sensual movements of the body that resist goodness in the life of a brother or sister. So envy might be present as a venial sin in the body because of the Fallen constitution. That it is present in the perfect man as a venial sin, which might be better expressed as irritation, unease, and discomfort, does not mean that it is the same as a Mortal Sin. It can be present in sensual potential and yet not be fully perfected as a rational sin.
Some say that since envy is a kind of sorrow, it is a passion of the sensitive appetite. Now there is no mortal sin in the sensuality, but only in the reason, as Augustine declares (De Trin. xii, 12) Therefore envy is not a mortal sin. But I reply that the movement of envy in so far as it is a passion of the sensuality, is an imperfect thing in the genus of human acts, the principle of which is the reason, so that envy of that kind is not a mortal sin. The same applies to the envy of little children who have not the use of reason.
So envy is not a mortal sin before reason is fully developed. However, once reason is developed, the knowledge of begrudging another man his share in God’s Goodness renders the sin a Mortal Sin. That babies reveal a horrifically zelous form of envy cannot be held against them since they reveal merely the presence of Original Sin that is not yet perfected by reason.
Furthermore, According to the Philosopher (Rhet. ii, 9), envy is contrary both to nemesis and to pity, but for different reasons. For it is directly contrary to pity, their principal objects being contrary to one another, since the envious man grieves over his neighbor's good, whereas the pitiful man grieves over his neighbor's evil, so that the envious have no pity, as he states in the same passage, nor is the pitiful man envious. On the other hand, envy is contrary to nemesis on the part of the man whose good grieves the envious man for nemesis is sorrow for the good of the undeserving according to Psalm lxxii. 3, I was envious of the wicked, when I saw the prosperity of sinners. Whereas the envious grieves over the good of those who are deserving of it. Hence it is clear that the former contrariety is more direct than the latter. Now pity is a virtue, and an effect proper to charity: so that envy is contrary to pity and charity.
So envy lies between pity and nemesis. Pity is a passion that grieves over his neighbor’s misfortune or the evil in his life. Nemesis is a passion that grieves over a man’s undeserved and unmerited goodness. So nemesis grieves not over the good man but over the sinner. Envy grieves over the good man and his goodness. Pity is a virtue and is caused by charity. Envy is contrary to the virtues of charity and its pity. Envy is opposed also to nemesis. Envy mourns over the sanctity of the saint. Nemesis mourns over the success of the sinner.
Now envy can be a natural or a spiritual sin. It can be directed against a man’s earthly success or against his spiritual profit. The latter is far more sinful than the former, for in expressing it we wish to deny spiritual transformation and salvation to our neighbors. To sorrow over the Grace of God in another man’s heart is truly a Capital Sin. ‘Hence it is accounted a sin against the Holy Ghost because thereby a man envies, as it were, the Holy Ghost Himself, Who is glorified in His works.’ To envy the flow of Grace in another man’s heart is to begrudge God the Father, His Word, and the Holy Ghost their rightful place in our neighbor’s life. Such is a sin unto death.
Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar,
and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had
received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head,
and gave up the ghost.
(St. John xix. 29,30)
Jesus the crucified, Jesus the suffering Servant and dying Lord of Good Friday, is betrayed by one, and then denied and abandoned by the others, including all of us. Sin betrays and forsakes God, denies His power, rule, and governance in human life, and abandons Him for the impermanent, temporary, and fleeting pleasures and goods of this world, as important as they might seem. So as we look back on this Good Friday, as Christians, it is our duty to identify with any sin that reveals no acquaintance or familiarity with Jesus Christ. We do this because we desire to repent. And we desire to repent because we believe that Jesus Christ is God’s forgiveness of sins made flesh. And we believe that this forgiveness of sins is fully, perfectly, and truly embodied and communicated through the death of God’s Son on the Tree of Calvary. We believe also that this forgiveness of sins calls us into death, the death of Jesus Christ, and then our deaths. For if we will not die to sin through the forgiveness of sins, beginning here and now, we can never begin to come alive to God the Father through the Risen Christ on Easter Day.
But before we repent we must look into the nature of what Jesus Christ is doing for us when He dies on the Cross of Calvary. St. Paul tells us that by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned. (Romans v. 12) By one man’s disobedience to God, sin and death came to define man’s relation to Him. And so from the time of Adam to Christ all men were oppressed, enslaved, overcome, and even overwhelmed by that power which prevents them from obeying God purely and perfectly. But because Jesus Christ becomes the forgiveness of sins, He takes on and into Himself sin and death and brings their reign and rule over human life to an end. Jesus [humbles] himself and is obedient [to God the Father] unto death, even death upon the Cross. (Phil. ii. 8) Thus, through His sacred humanity He brings man’s addiction to the world, the flesh, the devil, and himself to death. Through His Passion and Desire for God, He will overcome Original Sin. Through His enduring Love, He will suffer and withstand the worst and the best that man’s sin can do in order to bring it all to death, and out of it make something much better and new. Sin and death then may try to kill God’s Love in the humanity of Jesus, and they will indeed kill Him in the flesh. They will taunt, tempt, mock, deride, torture and kill God’s Word made flesh. And they will bring His flesh or His manhood to death. But what sin and death cannot kill is the Word of God’s Love in the heart of Jesus that persists and endures through suffering, into death, and then up into new life. For even while dying, Jesus’ forgiveness will begin to make and mold a new humanity, a new manhood, a new Adam whose nature will be shared as the Body of new life for all who believe and follow.
So we come to the vision of Christ crucified. We come to see what sin tries to do to God in the flesh. And to our surprise and amazement we find the forgiveness of sins not as an obscure theological concept but as the life of God Himself in Jesus. For this forgiveness of sins is God’s uninterrupted desire for our salvation. And it is still at work in the heart of the suffering and dying Christ. What do we hear emerging from the lips of the dying Jesus? Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34) Father, today they kill me through ignorance, confusion, weakness, and pain; forgive them, for tomorrow they may repent and believe and become our friends. And then we hear: Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise. (St. Luke xxiii. 43) Look Father, this convicted thief dying alongside me has confessed his sin and desires to come and follow me. We have just now won the first new member of the Kingdom we are building. It’s death-bed conversion! And then what? Father, my Mother and dear John are here watching and waiting, dying to become a part my death and new life. Woman, behold thy son!...Disciple, Behold thy mother! (St. John xix. 26, 27) Father, already we have our first two missionaries, members of the new humanity that I am making. My Mother is ready to become the mother of your new spiritual children. My friend, my spiritual brother is ready to become a new spiritual son to the Mother of redemption and salvation. But Jesus continues. Father I am suffering and dying, but they are suffering and dying with me. Strengthen them spiritually now, as I grow weaker and weaker, and my pain and agony grow stronger and stronger. For, Father, the devil is once again on my back. My wounded and lacerated head, hands, and feet are overwhelming and crushing my sense and perception of the outside world that looks and gazes upon me. I am becoming blind, deaf, dumb, withered, and palsied like those I came to heal. I feel the pain of Job, and I hear the words of his wife: Curse God and die. (Job ii. 9) I feel the darkness, the silence, the stillness, even the nothingness enveloping me. Lord I am spent; is there any more for me to do? Father, you, even you, seem to be moving away from me. The deep and mysterious power of sin is attacking me. I sense and feel the nothingness not as that pure potential “about to be” that you and I once made real. I endure man’s rejection of thee my God. I sense the distance between thee and me. ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (St. Matthew xxvii. 46) I know that you are here, but, ‘why…art thou so far from my health, and from the voice of my complaint? I cry in the day time but thou hearest not: and in [this] night season also I take no rest.’ (Ps. xxii. 1,2) I know that ‘thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness: that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.’ (Ps. li. 8) And so, I gasp for that spiritual drink that will satisfy my soul. ‘I thirst.’ (St. John xix. 28) Yes Lord, there is one more thing for me to do before ‘It is finished’ (Ibid, 30), before ‘I commend my spirit into thy hands.’ (St. Luke xxiii. 46) There is Roman soldier over there, I cannot see him clearly, but he has not moved throughout this my suffering death. He has not taken his eyes off of me. But he is not vengeful or wrathful. He has been looking into my eyes from the beginning. By his own judgment and understanding, he knows that something is terribly wrong. And yet he also sees that something is coming to pass that will be wonderfully right. The seed of faith is growing in his heart. ‘Now there was set a vessel full of vinegar: and they filled a spunge with vinegar, and put it upon hyssop, and put it to his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost.’(Idem, 29, 30) This Roman soldier, perhaps with another, gave Jesus his last sip of wine. Father, I thank you for giving me this drink through him. I thank you for moving him to provide me with the drink that is becoming his own offering of himself through you. Keep him near, my Mother and disciple will need his help in taking me down from this tree and burying me. And through them, let us welcome him into the Body of my Death, which is already becoming the Body of our new Life.
Today we come to the Cross to repent. We come to confess all of the ways in which we have denied, betrayed, and crucified Jesus Christ’s eternal love in our hearts. We come to confess how we have refused to embrace his ever-dying desire to heal, cure, redeem, sanctify, and save us. We come to confess how we have refused to embrace that same desire for all others, when we have criticized, judged, condemned, and failed to forgive those whom Jesus always loves and desires to bring into the Body of His Death and the substance of New Life. In the confession of our sins, we come to die to ourselves, the world, the flesh, and the devil. We come then to Christ’s crucifixion to remember our Baptismal vows and covenant. With St. Paul we remember this:…That so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? 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. For 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. 4-6)
Today we renew our commitment to die to sin, and this death is the first step towards the New Life we anticipate on Easter Sunday. As we die to sin today, let us now see that our sin is also buried with Christ. And with John Donne, let us ask for loving correction and discipline that only the Master can give, that we might turn from death and burial up and into the new life that Easter Sunday will bring.
O Saviour, as Thou hang'st upon the tree.
I turn my back to thee but to receive
Corrections till Thy mercies bid Thee leave.
O think me worth Thine anger, punish me,
Burn off my rust, and my deformity
Restore Thine image, so much, by Thy grace,
That Thou mayst know me, and I'll turn my face.
(Good Friday: John Donne)
Today we come to the Cross of Good Friday in order to discover the true meaning of Lent in the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. I pray that as we quietly and silently look and listen we shall discover what Jesus Christ alone can do for the world. What we must try to penetrate and explore is the love expressed in the crucifixion of our Lord. We shouldn’t be looking for ourselves in the event. That must come later. Suffice it to say that sin, our sin, has brought Jesus to His Cross. So at the outset, we ought to pray for the courage to confess our guilt and to subject ourselves to the punishment that Jesus metes out to us today. Our sin wants God, His Word, and His Spirit far removed from human life. So today we shall be blessed and honored with a bird’s eye view of its success. The Word of God in the flesh is tortured brutally and eliminated swiftly. Sin kills God in the human flesh. But more significantly God allows sin to attempt to kill His being in His Word made flesh, His Son as flesh, in order that on the battlefield of human life, He might respond to it.
What most men doesn’t understand yet is that Christ it taking our sin, its creator Satan, and their desired end in death, into Himself in order to re-commission them into the service of salvation. If mortal men ever could have found a way to face evil and use it for the good, he would never have fallen. Christ alone can foment this sabotage and subversiveness. St. Paul reminds us that, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost (Titus 3. 5), and, by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2. 8-9). Or as Article XI insists: We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Jesus Christ alone can entice sin, death, and Satan into His web of love in order to overturn and overcome than control of all men.
So we must come to the Cross today, first as those whose sin kills God. Christ Jesus is our enemy. He is God’s Word made flesh. He has said, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. (St. Luke ix. 23) His threat to the customary possession of a safe and predictable worldly happiness is proof that He intends to kill not only the big sins, which we pride ourselves in having forsaken, but the little ones too. Jesus questions our respectable conformity and acquiescence to the unclean, unholy, and unrighteous world that surrounds us. His light and love will demand spiritual death to all but His Father’s will in our souls. Jesus opens up those chilly horizons beyond death, when we shall be stripped of achievements, hobbies, comforts, and possessions, and left with nothing to live upon but love of God and man. (Farrer: Lord I Believe; Cowley, p. 52) We are so conscientious about keeping what we have and securing more of it. And yet Christ says that, Whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away? (St. Luke ix. 24,25) Jesus asks us to see that our determination to put the happiness of our temporal lives before the demands of His love is crucifixion.
All sin tries to eliminate God from the world. It has its reward. (St. Matthew vi. 2) What we must see is that God’s Word will not be frustrated from running its course through suffering, into death, and beyond, to offer fallen man a chance to be saved. We may make Jesus Christ our enemy, but He forever remains true to Himself. He is always God’s love for all mankind. In fact, He is always God’s love in mankind, in the flesh of His Son. He is that love of God that understands, comprehends, and experiences fully all of man’s temptation to make an enemy out of God. Thus in the loving heart of Jesus Christ, Man’s alienation from God is endured perfectly in every conceivable spiritual state. His identification with our humanity demands that the effects of sin be felt purely in the whole of His being. We love God, because he first loved us (1 John 4. 19), and in this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. (1 John 4. 9) and not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son [to be] the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4. 10) Within His heart then, fallen man’s experience of God will be embraced through suffering and yet that alienation will be overcome and brought to death. For in the end, anything and everything separating man from God- sadness, loneliness, frustration, confusion, uncertainty, fear, and even despair, will be brought into death. Out of their powerlessness Christ will lovingly sew the seeds of salvation and deliverance.
Let us listen to Cardinal Von Balthasar’s summary of the Crucifixion.
Jesus, the Crucified, endures our inner darkness and estrangement from God, and he does so in our place. It is all the more painful for Him, the less He has merited it. As we have already said, there is nothing familiar about it to Him: it is utterly alien and full of horror. Indeed, He suffers more deeply than an ordinary man is capable of suffering, even were he condemned and rejected by God, because only the incarnate Son knows who the Father really is and what it means to be deprived of Him, to have lost Him (to all appearances) forever. It is meaningless to call this suffering “hell”, for there is no hatred of God in Jesus, only a pain that is deeper and more timeless than the ordinary man could endure either in his lifetime or after His death. (Sermon for Good Friday)
Love takes on our darkness and estrangement from God. Love that is the Light and Life feels the pain more acutely than any man can because He has not earned or merited this condition. Because Love that is the Light and Life knows God perfectly, it will be utterly broken for all men who do not. He will lovingly endure the pain of a broken heart until He can overcome sin and open up to man the gates of everlasting life once again. For we must never forget that this is the light that has shined in darkness, and the darkness overcame it not. (St. John i. 5) Amen.
Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabacthani: My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me? (St Matt. xxvii. 46)
We come on this Good Friday to the fourth series of words uttered by Christ from the Cross. They are to be sure the most difficult words that Jesus- or perhaps anyone, has ever uttered. They strike us as wrong, precisely because they seem so dangerously close to despair. And yet they are not the cry of despair, but of alienation, dereliction, and abandonment. These words reveal the deepest spiritual pain that Christ as Man can feel. You will notice that Christ is not speaking into the void of nothingness. Rather He turns to the one and only source of reality, God the Father, in a cry of painful helplessness. This is the summary of the long, dark night of the soul. The soul can turn to nothing for comfort other than God himself. And though God is perceived as distant and unmoving, Christ does cry My God, My God.
God’s distance and silence are indeed part of the process of salvation. Here is the sense of utter dependence upon God when He does not respond. O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou [wilt].(St. Matthew 26. 39), He prayed in his agony in the garden. But God must accomplish His will in Jesus. And so Jesus endures what for all other men is unendurable. The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness overcame it not. (St. John 1. 5) The light flickers, trembles, quivers and quakes and yet does not yield to despair. The light flickers and trembles because the loving Christ has taken into his heart the experience of every man, woman, and child who has ever felt forsaken, abandoned, and rendered powerless. In the heart of Jesus, mankind’s last and final temptation to surrender to the void, to choose the meaninglessness of nothingness is taken on. Jesus experiences humanity’s predicament to the full. He endures a final temptation to sin against the Holy Ghost. And yet he does not yield. He is tempest tossed, nearly overwhelmed, and yet He sings the song of the Psalmist:
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent…I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death…They pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones…
Jesus confesses the pain and agony of being forsaken as He resists the evil one and cleaves to His Father. Romano Guardini sums up what is at work here beautifully. He writes:
God followed man…into the no man’s land which sin had ripped open. God not only glanced down at him and summoned him lovingly to return; He personally entered into that vacuous dark to fetch him, as St. John powerfully expresses it in his opening Gospel. Thus in the midst of human history stood one was both human and God. Pure as God, but bowed with responsibility as man. He drank the dregs of that responsibility- down to the bottom of the chalice. Mere man cannot do this. Man is so much smaller than his sin against God, that he can neither contain it nor cope with it. He can commit it, but he is incapable of fully realizing what he has done. He cannot measure his act; cannot receive it into his life and suffer it through to the end… It confuses him, leaves him desperate but helpless. God alone can ‘handle’ sin. Only he sees through it, weighs it, judges it with a judgment that condemns the sin but loves the sinner… Through the Incarnation a being came into existence who though human in form, realized God’s own attitude toward sin. In the heart and spirit and body of a man, God straightened his accounts with sin. The process was contained in the life and death of Jesus Christ.
Christ is alone now. He has forgiven His enemies. He has welcomed a new friend into the journey of death, which includes His mother and her new son. Now he is alone.The more perfect the Life, the more severe is the sense of its loss. But Jesus wills to be cut down in order that he may grow up. His desire has been to be nothing less than the will of God made flesh. This demands death not only to sin, suffering, and pain but also to any being other than God. He cannot help man fully unless he endures man’s death to himself completely. So Jesus must surrender the good flesh that He has used to express God’s will to all other men. The climax of separation from His old self, as perfect as it was, compels the cry, My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me? (St. Matthew xxvii. 46) The sheer pain and agony of any division between His soul and His flesh is almost unbearable. He has loved his neighbor, as himself. He has loved the self that was nothing but a pure gift from God. But His flesh was nothing if it did not endure the collision between bearing God’s love and man’s sin at once. In holding to the one, He would now completely conquer the other. Had he clung to his flesh, he would have gone down in history as the world’s greatest fool. Man and his sin, which Jesus holds in His forgiving heart, must die.
Jesus Christ stands at the door of Hell. Hell is the punishment for those who despair of God’s goodness. Those who despair do not cry out, My God, My God. With Matthew Arnold, they lament the loss of retreating faith, the disappearance, they say, of God.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
But those who learn to be exiled, banished, emptied, alone, and dead to all else can and will sing out My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me because Jesus has faced the horror and endured the pain. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. (St. Matthew v. 3)
The earth and all of creation can offer Him nothing now. Out of the nothingness, that He has in a way become, He must turn again to the light that makes new life. The created universe is dark and at a standstill because as yet it awaits God’s response to the omnipresent agony, the total and complete experience of darkness by primal Man himself. Man is nothing but what God will make Him again.
For He hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
neither hath He hid his face from Him;
but when He cried unto Him, He heard.
THE FIRST WORD:
Father forgive them for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34)
Here we are at Golgotha, on Calvary, on Good Friday, as the Son of God, Jesus Christ, dies, hanging on a tree. Jesus Christ, the God-Man, has never left His Father’s side, and will not begin to do so now. We are in his presence, but because we are confused, bewildered, uncertain over why He must die, He seems more distant than ever. He went about doing good and healing all that were oppressed of the devil; for God was with him. (Acts x. 38) He is unjustly accused, and yet we remember that He said that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected of the elders….(St. Luke ix. 22) His body writhes and flails in response to the unmerited torture and pain, Nevertheless He cleaves to His Father, who has a few more words for Jesus to utter before He dies and gives His life a ransom for many. (St. Matthew xx. 28)
He never spoke without the Father’s inspiration while living, and He will not begin to do so even while dying. Through the unimaginable pain and suffering, especially that of His soul and spirit, veiled and hidden from man’s experience, He continues to hear the Father. He listens in the midst of the darkness and from His heart emerges true light. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. (St. John i. 4) His Father bids Him pray for others. Father forgive them for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34) Praying for others means hoping for their salvation and deliverance. Praying for those who are torturing and killing you reveals incandescent light and perfect love. He taught us all how to pray: Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. (St. Matthew vi. 12) He insisted also that if we do not forgive others their trespasses against us, neither will our Heavenly Father forgive us our trespasses against Him. (St. Matthew vi. 15) Love ye your enemies, and do good…Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful. Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven: give, and it shall be given unto you… .(St. Luke vi. 35-38) And so even now, Jesus asks for the forgiveness of His enemies. Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. (St. Luke xxiii. 34)
But the death of Jesus seems not only wrong and unnecessary but also absolutely unforgiveable. How can this sin be forgivable? We remember His words, Whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come, (St. Matthew xii. 32) O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? (St. Luke xxiv. 26) Those who kill the Son of God ignorantly can be forgiven; those who fail to hope in the Holy Ghost cannot.
So Jesus asks forgiveness for those who know not what they do. (Ibid) He begs pardon and mercy for those who have secured His death because they did it out of ignorance. He is petitioning forgiveness for the Romans, the Jewish Sanhedrin, and those who will facilitate His suffering and death. There is a sense in which this forgiveness extends to all who don’t realize that fallen man sins and that sin is a determination to kill God’s Word and will in human life. When most men sin they don’t realize what they are doing or that they are even sinning. They think that are pursuing and perfecting the good, as they know it. And so they spend their lives unwittingly judging God’s Word to be guilty and then proceeding to kill it. In general then, most men –and especially the contemporary variety, are so possessed of an adolescent mindset that the thought of what Jesus said and did is positively disruptive, distracting, and destructive to the pursuit of the selfish self’s happiness and comfort. In fact fallen man judges what Jesus has done to be evil and worthy of death. Why? He confronts and challenges the very roots and causes of earthly man’s quest for happiness and perfection. He tells us that truth is not relative absolutely nor is it relative in relation to our particular narcissistic pursuits. He tells us that truth what God the Father reveals through His Word and to the world through His Holy Spirit. So because men think that any challenge to the comfortable mantra Truth is Relative is evil, they kill it ignorantly. And He forgives them.
Jesus teaches us that we must forgive our enemies because only then shall we not be sinning against hope that the Holy Ghost will save all men. Evil has no power. He is about to reveal this to the world in His immanent death, burial, and resurrection. And if it can secure no lasting claim from the Son of God, it shouldn’t have any power over us either. Even if evil wills and secures man’s torture, suffering, and death, it has only as much power as man gives to it. But, you protest, what if they enslave, torture, maim, brutalize, and kill innocent people –usually our relatives and friends…for we don’t care so much for the others? Jesus says a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. (St. Matthew x. 36-38) So we should agree with our adversary quickly while we are in the way with him! (St. Matthew v. 25) And what He wants to teach us is that Satan and his vices must never, ever sever us from the victory of good over evil that He is accomplishing for us. If we love anyone or anything more than God’s Wisdom and Love made flesh in Jesus Christ, then we are His enemies. If we do not forgive our enemies, we are His enemies. He that is not with me is against me. (St. Matthew xii. 30)
Father forgive them for they know not what they do. (Ibid) We have been the enemies of Jesus Christ who is the forgiveness of sins. We have not embraced this principle in our lives. We know this. We cannot claim ignorance. If we know Him, we had better repent of acting as if we didn’t. Pilate, Herod, Caiphas, and Annas stand a better chance of reaching the Kingdom than those who sin knowingly. Today let us wake up to the truth of our unfaithfulness. Let us forgive all our enemies. As we gaze on the Cross, in the words of Father Neuhaus, Let us fix our eyes on the dying derelict who is the Lord of Life. Let us look at the One who is everything that we are and everything that we are not, the One who is true man and true God. Let us love God more than love of our friends or the hatred of our enemies. Let us look upon Jesus Christ and pray that we shall cease to be His enemies because we do know better. Amen.
He riseth up from supper, and laid aside his garments, and took a towel and girded himself.
Tonight you and I are invited to the Last Supper of Christ. With the Apostles we move into a realm that is fraught with the fear and trembling of Jesus’ friends, who do not understand the meaning of it all and what will come next on the tomorrow of God’s today. The Apostles have been following Jesus for some three years, and they have experienced the hand of God extended to them and others through the life of their Master. In a sense there was so much to be thankful for, so many wonders and miracles, so many beautiful teachings and sayings, so much that seemed so very positive. But there were also the ominous words of impending doom –of suffering, and death. Perhaps if the Apostles were anything like you and me they might have been too afraid to confront what was not yet known. On this night they live in darkness, darkness proceeds against Jesus, and only hints and intimations of Light brush their collective conscience.
But what we observe tonight can never be severed from the seamless robe of Jesus Christ’s life and mission. His signs and the wonders had been performed in order to lead to a deeper truth that is about to unfold before our very eyes. The power of God is with and in Jesus. It has generated all manner of goodness that will continue to overcome all evil. Its fullest manifestation will be revealed from the the Cross of tomorrow. Jesus has been tempted to reject His Father’s will and way, He has refused it resolutely and will do so to the end. God’s Grace defines every moment of His mission. God’s desire will unfold in every act of His choosing. The Father desires the Son, and the Son the Father. Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee. (St. John xvii. 1) The two move as One for man’s redemption. Through Jesus, God has declared His Word of promise. Through Jesus He has expressed His work of salvation. Through Jesus God will faithfully fulfill His will. His power in Jesus has opened blind eyes to see, unloosed tied tongues to talk, and freed the lame legs to walk. His wisdom has lain in parables awaiting elicitation from the minds of earnest seekers. Jesus has never denied the today of God’s light and love, and tonight He carries it into the darkness.
So tonight we remember the Last Supper that Jesus shares with His friends before He marches on into suffering and death. Christ has eaten a Passover supper with His friends. He has broken bread and poured out wine, offered it to his friends, and promised that they would become His Body and his Blood. For now what it means remains hidden and obscure to His disciples. The Word is heard; understanding of it must wait. What Jesus did and said, He offered as a friend. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. (St. John xv. 14, 15) Bread is broken and wine is outpoured. Tomorrow a Body will be broken and Blood will flow. The two acts will not be divided in the end. The one shall become the other as God’s love in Jesus Christ expands and enlarges.
Tonight the Body –soon to be broken into and pierced, stoops down to wash and to cleanse the dirty feet of His disciples. In the today of God’s nearness Christ Jesus reveals to us that a true friend elevates His soul mate, waits upon him, ensures His wellbeing. Jesus always serves His friends. He is the One who leaps down from the high Heaven of His Father’s eternal today in order to wash, purify, and cleanse those whom He loves. Tonight Jesus waits upon his friends. Tomorrow He will do the same in another way. He is the servant who comes to wash and to cleanse, today with water, and tomorrow with blood. Both will be one. We are washed through water and blood. We are purified through Baptism and Eucharist. The today and tomorrow of God with us and for us, God near to us in Jesus Christ, is but one revelation coming from the loving heart of the Father and shown forth in the compassion and kindness of His Son. Tonight is tender and tame. Tomorrow will callous and cruel.
But there is more to the today of God’s nearness that we should see and grasp before we move from the Last Supper to Good Friday. What Jesus does is who He is, as the desire of God’s today. Who Jesus is, is what He intends we should become. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet…These things I command you, that ye love one another. (St. John xiii. 14, xv. 17) He will give us bread and wine, and will wash men’s dirty feet. He will give us His Body and Blood and will wash the dirty feet of our souls. He does both, that first the body and then the soul are washed in the purifying power of His Word. Then we must do the same to all others.
On this night we share either in the Apostles’ ignorance, confusion, and wonder, or in one man’s betrayal. Jesus does what he does and we have no part of him if He does it not. Jesus comes to wash our feet, and, with Peter, we might react with horrified astonishment that yields to proud resistance. Lord, thou shalt never wash my feet. (St. John xiii. 8) Our instinct is to refuse to see what God must so that we might be saved. We prefer a distant and unapproachable God; such a God is easier to endure. We prefer a God who does not muddy His garments with the filth and corruption of earthly existence. Our sense is that the Holy Word of God should never stoop down to the level of our sinfulness. God is high, we are low; the Master should never condescend to become a slave. Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man. (St. Luke v. 8) Jesus answers, If I do not wash thee, thou hast no part with me. (Ibid)
If we do not allow Him to wash us, we are certainly not going to let Him die for us. This is how St. Peter is thinking, and will pay the price for both tomorrow. But we do need Jesus to do these things for us. The outward and visible sign of God’s service today will move into Christ’s dying heart tomorrow. The question is whether we will open ourselves up to this washing and cleansing, which we, as fallen men, so desperately need. Will we realize that God’s stooping down in Jesus Christ is nothing short of bearing our burden, taking on our condition, and working within it to make us well and right with God? Will we begin to understand that God in Jesus Christ alone can endure and withstand our sinful pride, envy, wrath, murder, sloth, indifference, greed, and lust and change forever their power and meaning in our lives? Will our eyes be opened to the fact that our sin has willed His death? For sin is nothing other than the will to silence and kill God in time and space, to deny His presence, to resist His power, to banish His love, and to ignore His wisdom. Sin, in other words, refuses to accept the truth. The truth is that we need Jesus. Pretending that we or our loved ones don’t, gives way to the lie that we are already perfect or at least good enough. With Judas, we shall sell Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and betray Him. He is not what we expected Him to be, which is as much as saying that He does not wait upon us to fulfill our desires and promote our earthly happiness. For Judas, Jesus is not invited to wash and cleanse but only to fulfill human expectations. For the others, Jesus as suffering servant is the Lord and Ruler of the universe whose service to man alone brings about salvation.
Will we start to realize that God in Christ must die to our sin, die at the hands of our sin, die for our sin, and that then, and only then, can He begin to shape and mold us into the new human beings that He has always meant for us to become? Will we begin to see that His death is offered at our service because He wants to love us into that life that leads back to the Father’s everlasting embrace? Will we start to realize with Jean Mouroux that, out of a means of destruction He made the very means of life; of a punishment the means of healing; of an annihilation the means to a resurrection? (The Meaning of Man, p. 88) Will we see at last that Christ chose His destiny as suffering and dying servant for you and for me, and that at the source of this choice, there lay a measureless love, a love that never hesitated, never drew back, never murmured; a love on the contrary that accepted, desired, and bore with everything? (Ibid, 89)
Tonight I pray that we begin to realize that it is God in Jesus who hungers and thirsts, longs and desires for our salvation. Over and against those who refuse Him is the Lord who loves, who stoops down, who tends to and cares for, who forgives and hopes for every man’s deliverance and salvation. As we shall see, this same Lord, in His own body hanging upon a tree, will say this: I love you and forgive you. Come follow me. Let me die for you, and you too shall die. Let me rise for you, and you too shall rise. My Body will be your body. My Spirit will be your spirit. My flesh and blood will forever expand and enlarge to desire and delight you have never imagined. I am God’s light and love for you; come and live in me. Come follow me, and you shall find your true home and destiny, prepared for you by my Father from before the dawn of the ages. Come follow me, and through you, others will follow too, as they discover how ‘Behold, I make all things new.’ (Rev. xxi. 5) Amen.
God's Will is His Word. His Word rules and governs, informs and defines, and moves all things to their appointed ends. Man too is being moved to His appointed end. And yet what shall that end be? In one way it is the same for all. First there is the death of the physical body. But are we just bodies with ungovernable and pre-determined appetites? No. God respects us more that that. He respects and even honors our intellect and free will so perfectly that He wishes to reward us with what we want. If we have not wanted Him, we shall not be forced to have Him. Life without God, removed from His presence, is called Hell. You can't complain once you are there, since this is what you have spent your life accumulating -an existence without God! God respects your freedom of choice! If we want Him, and have tried our best to repent and embrace His truth, beauty, and goodness throughout our lives, He shall welcome us into His embrace.
Of course, God isn't stupid and so He knows that we are not either. Embracing His way means that we not only believe in Him, but are so completely overawed by His truth, beauty, and goodness, that we come to know that they alone can ensure our return to Him. Knowing God comes through His Son Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ we find His truth made flesh. But there is more. God's truth is His love for us. He loves us to the point of giving Himself completely to us in the suffering and death of Jesus. Why must the Son suffer and die for us? Because it is the only way back to God. Men have tried doing it on their own for centuries, only to fall flat on their faces. To be reconciled to God, we must admit that we are powerless. We are powerless to help, heal, and save ourselves. It takes God's Son to do what we cannot do. In God's Son alone, our sin, our suffering, our death are transformed. No longer do they reveal the final judgment on man’s condition and destiny. Now they can become the triggers and catalysts for new life. Sin, impotence, and death can be faced courageously and defied and destroyed by the righteousness, strength, and new life of Jesus Christ. Death can be swallowed up into life's new hope and future. Satan can be banished to the Hell he has desired and deserves. With some insightful cleverness and wisdom, he might even be seen as what we have sometimes wanted but now reject because we want God and we want Him forever.
Let us, in this Holy Week, choose God in Jesus Christ. Let us learn, however, that if we hope to be with Him forever, we must lose all rights to ourselves in order to find ourselves in Him and in all other men. Let us, in other words, suffer and die in the loving outstretched arms of our Savior, because we have lost ourselves and want to find them in the illuminating wisdom of His uninterrupted forgiveness. Let us remain held tight in His passionate embrace as He brings our old selfish selves to death. Let us move through our death into the new and promising land of Resurrection. So let us remember always that the road back to God is paved with the forgiveness of sins. Jesus is the forgiveness of sins. If we do not forgive, we shall not be forgiven, and don't want God. For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement. (Romans v. 10)
When Pilate was set down upon the judgment-seat, his wife sent
Unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man:
For I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of
(St. Matthew 27. 19)
There is a good deal of silence that descends upon the Christian Church during Holy Week. The silence is meant to come, no doubt, as a response to the Passion and Crucifixion of the Son of God. Holy Week has been set aside from the time of the early Church to ponder our Lord’s suffering in silence. If we approach this time with a determined silence and stillness, we will, no doubt, find that it will interrupt and confound the usual course of human reason and its expectations, as it tears and wrenches the human heart from the fulfillment of its usual desire. Then, if we sustain the stillness, and with a quiet mind ponder the unfolding drama of Holy Week, the blanket of divine otherness might begin to warm our souls, clothing them with the Word that desires to love us into death and new life.
Following Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem He had told his Apostles: All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. (St. Matthew 26.31) This Word that was made flesh would be rejected on a number of different levels. Men always find excuses for refusing to allow the Word to be made flesh in them. In the interests of political expedience, Pilate will believe that he has rid the world of a fleeting religious nuisance. The Jews’ self-righteous indignation will be justified…or so they think. His Disciples will abandon Him out of confused fear and cowardice. Peter will deny Him, and Judas Iscariot will betray Him.
In the lections for today, we already begin to see and hear the truth that will emerge through the trial, arrest, and condemnation of Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judaea, will attempt to bring temporal calm and stillness out of earthly chaos and confusion, on what should be just another peaceful Friday afternoon in a relatively obscure outpost of the Roman Empire. He seems a reasonable and just enough man, who is neither drawn to nor impressed by the strange religion of the Jewish Aristocracy, which has interrupted his day. He is commissioned with enforcing the Pax Romana –the peace of Octavian Augustus that has civilized the world through Roman Law. So he will do his best to treat the problem of this Jesus of Nazareth as expeditiously as possible with a kind of Stoical calm and indifference that made Rome famous. With all the might of Caesar’s power behind him, he will attempt to banish the Jews back to their religious ghetto. Judge Christ yourselves, he commanded, or send Him to Herod….(St. John xviii. 31) Then another kind of stillness, silence, and peace will emerge from this Christ he interrogates. Pilate marvel[s] greatly. (St Matthew xxvii, 14) His wife has the spiritual sense to warn him to have nothing do with that just man (Ibid, 19) and in a sense he will try to do just that. The crowd will become restless and demand that Barabbas be released and Jesus be crucified. Pilate’s conscience is nevertheless stirred, for he finds no evil or crime in the defendant. Why, what evil hath he done? (Ibid, 23) Let Him be crucified, they cry. In response to the passionate envy that will threaten further chaos and anarchy, we shall read that, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see you to it. (Ibid, 24) The Jews will confess: His blood be on us, and on our children. (Ibid, 25)
Many people, Christians and others, have no time for Jesus of Nazareth, for the Word of God’s Love in the flesh. As T. S. Eliot reminds us, Christ speaks to them and us:
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the daytime and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
(Ash Wednesday: Eliot, v.)
But for those who can become contemplatively still and quiet by God’s Grace, the sound and sight of the God’s Word of Love will emerge through the suffering and death of Christ His Son. From the unmoving and silent center –the heart of the Son of God who will be suffering and dying not only to the world, the flesh, and the devil enfleshed in others, but also to Himself, the Word will be seen and heard. It will be perceived and received, slowly, even imperceptibly, by those who have chosen to believe and to follow. And the light shone in darkness and/ Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled/ About the centre of the silent Word. (Ibid) For though the world and its words will assault and kill Jesus Christ, the Word of God endures, to be spoken from the center and through the stillness of His unchanged and unaltered desire for all men’s salvation. For this Word made flesh –this Jesus Christ– always sees and hears, and then reveals and expresses His Father’s will to the world. He came from God and He will return to God. But not before He willingly offers himself to God and man by becoming the wall of division that must be broken down. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (1 Cor. v. 21)
This morning, with St. Paul, we remember that though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2. 6-8) Jesus Christ empties Himself of His humanity, in order that pure powerlessness might be placed back in the hands of God, the maker and molder of all new life. He will not desperately grab for, grasp at, or clutch to to His Divinity in the hour of His human impotence and desperation. Rather He prefers to obey, fear, and follow God with all the humanity that remains to Him. He will become the Man who once again is the servant of God because God’s will and Word alone suffice to secure Man’s unbreakable union with Him. He will be one with the Word of the Father that He sees and hears. This is the only Word that can reveal and manifest the eternal Desire of God for His people. This is the Word of Love that conquers hate, the Word of Good that conquers evil, and the Word of Truth that conquers falsehood.
This week, I pray, that each of us shall make time to travel up with Jesus to His Cross. We can travel with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John looking and listening in silence and stillness, wondering at the Word. This Word of God in Christ will, mostly, be silent. Pilate marveled, and so will we. We shall contemplate what sin does to the Word of God’s Love in the flesh, who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth: Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed himself to Him that judgeth righteously (1 Peter 2. 22, 23). This is a Love that first touches and moves the still and silent hearts of those who remain faithful to Him. This is the Love that was first seen and heard in miracles and parables, and now from the Cross persists in revealing Himself to the world in perfect power, as forgiveness and love. This is the Love whose forgiveness will make the enemies of today into the friend’s of God’s tomorrow.
This week, let us listen to the silent Word of God’s Love alive in the heart of the dying Saviour. Let us listen as the Word of Love makes innocent suffering and death the occasion for His persistent pursuit of our salvation. Let us listen to the Word of Love that calls us into death. Let us be determined to die in the embrace of Love which offers Himself to God and to us in one knot of fire that purges away all cruelty, malice, malevolence, ill will, envy, and pride. Let us be determined to leave our old sinful selves behind that the new Man in all of us may be made alive. And let us remember, in stillness and silence, as we comtemplate the Word of God’s Love in suffering and death, that, as R. S. Thomas writes,
It’s not that He can’t speak;
who created languages
but God? Nor that He won’t;
to say that is to imply
malice. It is just that
He doesn’t, or does so at times
when we are not listening, in
ways we have yet to recognize
Cast out the bondwoman and her son; for the son of the
bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of Freewoman.
So brethren we are not children of the bond-woman,
but of the free.
(Galatians iv. 31)
The Epistles and Gospels for the Lenten season prepare us to receive the liberating power of Jesus Christ more fully as we approach Holy Week. In this time of the Church’s year, we are invited to follow Jesus more closely in our hearts and minds, as we discover our true desire and love- the desire and love with which God made us to love Him and one another. But we cannot discover our love for God and our neighbors until we first remember God’s love for us, as shown in the life of his Son. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 St. John iv. 10) Or even more poignantly, We love Him, because He first loved us. (1 St. John iv. 19) What we struggle to see, ponder, even question, and perceive then in Lent is the eternal love of God in the heart of Jesus Christ which desires to carry us into death and beyond.
However, when we say into death most men’s minds go to the termination of their earthly physical natures. Their thoughts jump to that end. And, of course, Lent might be about that, but not for now. For now Jesus, the Love of God made flesh, desires to take us into a prior death. And if we do not endure this prior death, well, then at the other death, it will be too late. Why? Because long before our physical frames conk out, our spiritual natures must have died to this world and come alive to God. What we mean by the prior death is a spiritual death; this is a death that we choose and will here and now- a death to sin, death, Satan, or anything separating us from the knowledge and love of God. So Lent is all about spiritual death. At the end of this season we come to the Cross and the death of Jesus Christ. If we have been dying to ourselves as we approach that Hill of Calvary and the Cross of our Saviour, I think that we will discover the nature of his death. And in his death, I believe that we shall appreciate a death like none other ever known to human experience. If we have died to ourselves, we shall be invited into his death. And there, I pray, we shall begin to experience the presence of Divine Love at work reconciling us to God.
But back to our prior death. We are roughly three weeks out from Calavary, and as we journey deeper into our spiritual death, it is always necessary to behold, over and against us, the refreshing new life that will replace it. This is Refreshment Sunday or Laetare Sunday. The Latin comes to us from the ancient introit to the Mass, Laetare Jerusalem, O be joyful, Jerusalem. And St. Paul tells us this morning in his Epistle to the Galatians that Jerusalem which is above is free, and is the mother of us all. (Gal. iv. 26) Thus today is known also as Mothering Sunday. And we wear rose-colored vestments today, because in Medieval Europe the Popes used to send roses to the Monarchs of Europe in mid-Lent as a sign of the joy that Mother Church anticipates. Henry the VIII received three of them in his lifetime. I wonder if he gave them back when he broke with the Papal See! Laetare means rejoice, and on this Sunday we are reminded that we die to ourselves in order that we might rise, lift up our voices, rejoice and praise God as we approach Easter. Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice with joy for her, all ye that mourn for her: That ye may suck and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations; that ye may milk out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory. Thus saith the Lord: As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you: and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Isaiah lxvi. 10-13)
So today as we die to ourselves, we begin to open to our Alma Mater, our Nourishing Mother. Jerusalem which is above is free, the mother of us all, and she ministers to us here through Mother Church. Mother Church then cares for us, teaches and admonishes us, feeds us on God’s Word and Sacraments, as she leads us out of our death and into birth. Ye must be born again, said Jesus to Nicodemus. And he did not mean that a man should enter into his mother’s womb and be born again that way. Jesus says that unless a man be born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again. (St. John iii. 5-7) This birth that Jesus Christ brings to us through Mother Church is the new beginning of our lives in the Kingdom of Heaven. This birth is made possible from above, as the free Holy Spirit of God generates new life within the womb of Mother Church, and so in your soul and mine. Beloved, now are we the sons of God. (1 John iii. 2) Jesus says, Behold, I make all things new. (Rev. xxi. 5)
By receiving the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, Mother Church desires to bring us out of death and into birth or new life. But the problem is that we are tempted to remain as children of the bondwoman…born after the flesh…and in bondage. (Gal. iv. 23,25) It seems that we so easily fall back into bondage, under the elements of the world. (Gal. iv. 3) doing service unto them which by nature are no gods (Gal. iv. 8). Think about it. How often have we used our Christian beliefs to justify an obsession with perishable and impermanent treasures and ideas. Supposed Christians pay lip service to the Gospel Truth and yet inwardly and spiritually are more accurately children of the bondwoman…born of the flesh, who persecute those born after the Spirit (Gal. iv. 29). The problem is not with the world but with Christians who are too alive to it, and not dead to themselves and being born again from above.
The world will never know that freedom and love that God offers to us from above, if we who are below, in the Church, are not receiving and revealing it! This problem is not new. St. Paul rebukes the Galatian Church in his own day for the same insouciance and indifference, and he rebukes us today. My little children, I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you…(Gal. iv. 19) cries St. Paul to his flock. My brothers and sisters, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth (1 St. John iii. 18) says St. James.
And so as we die to ourselves we acknowledge and offer up our weaknesses, temptations and the sins that so easily beset us. We admit that we are not where we should be spiritually. We claim and confess that our Christian language is halting, its expression in our lives too often confused and confusing, its place and role uncertain and insecure. We repent of this over and over again as we struggle to die to ourselves and come alive to Jesus Christ. Mother Church nourishes and cares for us in this process of transformation. She gives us faith, God’s unearned gift, from the lips of Jesus Christ, who says, fear not, only believe. (Luke viii. 50) She gives us hope, For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. (2 Cor. iv. 16) She gives us love. For I am persuaded, says St. Paul, that neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor principalities, nor power, nor things present nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. Viii. 38,39) Mother Church has the Divine Gifts which shall overcome death with new life, sin with righteousness, alienation with reconciliation, bondage with freedom. All of these things she offers to us from the Holy Bridegroom and her spouse- Jesus Christ.
This Sunday- Laetare Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, Mothering Sunday, prepares us to receive more of the love that God will show us as we enter Passiontide. Holy Mother Church nourishes and strengthens us as we die to the world, the flesh and the devil, and undergo new birth. Holy Mother Church promises to fill us with the bread of heaven- like the miraculous loaves and fishes in this morning’s Gospel reading, with nothing less than the love of God, in Jesus Christ, who will offer himself completely to us and for us as we ascend to Jerusalem, and the hill of Calvary. For thus saith the Lord; As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you, and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem. (Is. lxvi. 13) Amen.
When we fast and abstain during the holy season of Lent, we do so in order to open up our minds and bodies to the more regular and habitual presence of Christ in our lives. Lent is a time when we ask the Lord to give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit (Coll: Lent I) we may obey Him always, follow the movements of his will and embrace his love. During Lent we put aside diversions, distractions and occupations that tend to deplete our spiritual energy and concentration. In it we pray that holy desire and longing for God’s presence increase within us.
Fasting is an exercise in cleansing. Before holy desire or spiritual longing can grow, we must be emptied of the many vices and bad habits that define our lives. St. Augustine puts it this way: The exercise of fasting will be effective only to the extent that we free ourselves from the desires leading to infatuation with this world. Take the example of filling an empty container. God means to fill each of you with what is good; so cast out what is bad! If he wishes to fill you with honey and you are full of sour wine, where is the honey to go? The vessel must be emptied of its contents and then be cleansed. (Serm. 1st John: Augustine)
The problem is that, by nature, we do not tend to want to rely on anyone or anything outside of ourselves. We do not want to be emptied in order to be then filled. The Credo of post-Christian America seems to be that we can make it on our own, by our efforts, pursuing our own desires. We are so full or ourselves that we ignore the need for self-emptying and God-filling. Self-fulfillment and self-maintenance seem to prevail in people’s lives. But this is of course is delusional and fatal to the intentions that God has for us. As C.S. Lewis says, God made us, he invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. (Mere Christianity)
We need God because he is fuel and energy that makes the human machine run at its best. We cannot be filled by the Holy Spirit until we know that relying on our own energy means that we are running on empty. That is the point of the fast.
Christ the Word did not come to affirm us. All creatures are made by Him to become better and more perfect, to reach the ends for which they were made. Clergymen who tell people that “God wants you just the way you are”are full of the devil. They stand against the laws of nature and they deny the power of Grace. Man is fallen. And, No, it is not a sin to hate the sin and love the sinner. Post-moderns caught in a prepubescent or adolescent prison, disguised in adult bodies, conflate the two. Evidently one is not permitted in the post-modern playground to hate certain sins. And yet if we do not hate our sins, we shall never be freed from them. We are made to eschew the evil and cleave to the good. We are made to be carried out of the one and into the other. Making excuses for our sins means that we shall continue to live as those who know not God and hew out for ourselves broken cisterns which can hold no water. (Jer. ii. 13) He who did cause water to gush out of the stony rock, desires to break and melt our rocky hearts into such contrition that works repentance unto salvation. (B. Jenks)
But Woe to the rulers and people of this land who call good evil and evil good, that put darkness for light, and light for darkness…(Is. v. 20) and who teach our children the same. They are the enemies of the cross of Christ: whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things. (Phil. iii. 18, 19)
God made us to become His sons and daughters. This means that He has made us for Himself. But we are all fallen and need the refashioning of our nature through Jesus Christ our Lord. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 St. John i. 8,9) Only sinners can be made better. This Lent let us claim and confess our sins truly and exhaustively that we might be made new through the love of the Lamb of God. In Him let us become vulnerable enough to be changed and transformed by His Heavenly Passion. Let us let Him remake us into His image, likeness, and pattern. And let 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)
It is hard to see suffering as a positive or a good thing. Imagine trying to tell the families and friends who have lost a loved one through a violent crime that their suffering, pain, loss, and ensuing emptiness are in any way good. That would seem to contradict the truth and make matters worse.
But the Christian religion demands that we believe that good can come out of evil, hope out of despair, and love out of hatred. And yet the most common retort leaping out of the mouths of the wounded is that certain sins are unforgivable. Well, in point of fact, according to God, there is only one sin that is unforgiveable and that sin is the failure to forgive and to hope. All others sins are forgivable and must be forgiven if the Christian hopes to be saved. The only sin that will not be forgiven is the failure to forgive another and hope for his or her salvation. It doesn’t matter whether the forgiven repents and believes. That is really, in the end, God’s affair and not ours. What is key is that we forgive as God forgives us and hope for every man’s conversion and salvation. If we don’t we shall not be forgiven. On judgment day there will be no rooms for any ands, ifs, or buts about it. We must forgive, pray for those who have hurt and despitefully used us, and hope to meet them in Heaven in the arms of our Saviour.
On a very basic level we are enabled to do this when we look at ourselves honestly in the light of Christ’s love. Have we examined ourselves thoroughly enough so that we confess: Lord I am the sinner, the chief of all sinners, the chief, the chiefest, the greatest of all sinners. God be merciful to me the sinner? When we come to a deep sense of our own unworthiness and wickedness in the presence of the Lord’s incessant desire that His compassion, pity, mercy, and forgiveness should work themselves into our lives and us into salvation, we cannot help but transmit and impart this unmerited gift to others. Have we ever pondered on what God desires to do in and through us? Have we ever realized that His forgiveness and love are the roots and anchors of the new life that He has shared with us in His Son Jesus Christ? And do we remember that Christ desires even now to share His life with us that we might impart it to others? Through us who are members of His Mystical Body? Do we thankfully receive His forgiveness as what must be wellspring and fount of all godly living? Is that forgiveness the primary moving principle in our lives and relations with all other people?
Some years ago the famous Dutch Calvinist evangelist Corrie Ten Boom told the story of the day that she ran into an old enemy in Munich. During World War II the Germans had imprisoned Corrie and her siter Betsie in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for hiding Jews. Betsie died. After the war Corrie went to Germany to preach forgiveness at a conference. When she began one of her talks, seated in the audience was one of the concentration camp guards. After the talk the man approached her and admitted that he had been a guard at the camp but had repented and become a Christian. He said that he knew that God had forgiven him. But, he said to Corrie, will you forgive me? She said:
And I stood there — I whose sins had every day to be forgiven — and could not. She wondered if the petition for forgiveness could wipe away the evil that led to her sister’s death.
It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.
For I had to do it — I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. "If you do not forgive men their trespasses," Jesus says, "neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses." ...
She said that she knew that forgiveness is not a feeling or emotion. It is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. "Jesus, help me!" I prayed silently. "I can lift my hand, I can do that much. You supply the feeling."
So she offered her hand to the man without any feeling and no small amount of coldness. She began to feel a warmth pervade her body and tears started to well up in her eyes.
"I forgive you, brother!" I cried. "With all my heart!"
For some time they held tightly each other’s hands. She said that she had never felt the presence of God in such a powerful way. (Corrie Ten Boom: How to Forgive, PBS)
Forgiveness. Are we prepared to receive it with deepest thanksgiving and gratitude this Lent? First and foremost we must open up to the forgiveness of sins, which we neither deserve nor merit. God’s love and mercy always overcome His judgment and justice in our sins. For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (St. Matthew vi. 14, 15)
Jesus Christ is the forgiveness of sins made flesh. How often have we betrayed, denied, and crucified His sway and rule, His desire and will in our lives? And still He longs to be so intimate with us that He forgives and waits for our return to Him. Will we repent and receive His forgiveness? Will this forgiveness conquer and subdue our judgment and condemnation of our enemies? Will our forgiveness become a love that hopes for their salvation? First we must obey and embrace it; in its wake will follow the warmth of its liberating energy.
This Lent let us pray for our enemies –those whom our sins have made our enemies, and those who have made themselves our enemies. Let us forgive them all, love Jesus in them and them in Jesus. Let us hope and pray that the Jesus in them will come alive as the forgiveness of sins and as love and hope for all others. Let us pray that with them we all may love to forgive because this alone will make us members of Christ's Mystical Body and the conveyors and transmitters of His salvation.
Today we begin our extended Christian journey into the spiritual environment of Lent. Lent will lead us to what is called the Easter Triduum- the memorial of the Last Supper, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord, which will reveal to us the extent to which God’s love or charity will travel for our salvation.
In Lent you and I are called to humbly ponder, study, and explore God’s love at work in the life of Jesus Christ and our relation to it. For forty days we shall journey into a dimension, therefore, of repentance and contrition, of amendment and transformation. For forty days we must look into our souls. There we must locate and identify our persistent and habitual sins. We then name and claim them. We must offer our sorrow and sadness over them to God. We must beg for His merciful forgiveness and then for his healing power to eliminate them. We look into our souls and find the less commonly practiced vices too, express our sorrow over them and ask the Lord to subdue and conquer them.
For forty days we go up to a spiritual Mount Sinai in order to be confronted, challenged, and overcome by the Lord's truth, beauty and goodness. As we begin to submit to His nature, for forty days with Him we shall be tempted of Satan, knowing that as we repent of our former sins and negligences, the devil will desire to have us in new and exciting ways. Our temptations are occasions to cleave all the more resolutely and persistently to Jesus as we learn to die to the world and the flesh that the devil idolatrizes. So we must clear away the cobwebs of forgetfulness, cut away the thorns that persistently choke the birth and growth of virtue in us, and melt our hearts into a readier submission and docility to God's Word of love. We do this in order to open our eyes and enflame our desire for the love of the Crucified One who is dying to save us.
In Lent we admit who we are. In Lent we admit where we come from. In Lent we know where we must go and what path we must take. We are sinners. We come from nothing. We must go up to Calvary and then move beyond it with Jesus to become something completely new. We take the path that Jesus paves before us. Before us lies the straight road of human life offered and returned to God. The human life that leads the way belongs to Jesus Christ. He calls us to become a part of this life. He calls us into His offering and sacrifice. We go to Calvary to embrace that love in the flesh that dies so that we too may live through His dying love.He calls us to enter into death. He calls us beyond death into Resurrection and Ascension. To follow him, we must follow the straight line leading to God the Father.
Today we receive ashes on our foreheads. Today we remember that we are limited and finite, we are subject to corruption and decay, like the grass of the field. In acknowledging this reality we are encouraged to repent and believe the Gospel.Therefore, in this Lent let us begin to cultivate the life of faith, hope, and love. Trusting that God will be quick to hear the cries, sighs, and confessions of a contrite heart, let us be nourished on the Word of God. Let us read our Scriptures with greater zeal to learn. Let us partake of the Sacrament with a deeper desire to be filled with the real presence of God's wisdom, power and love.
Remember the opening words of T. S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday.” Because I do not hope to turn again.... He hopes not to turn back and into a world of sin, illusion, falsehood, and wrong. His poem repeats the penitent's plea: Let my cry come unto thee. We pray that our turning is towards God in Jesus Christ today. We pray that we shall no longer turn to right hand nor to the left, but towards Jesus that we might be taken onto the straight road of His pilgrimage to the Father. We pray that we may become a part of this life that alone can be a pure and spotless offering to God the Father.
Let us follow Jesus to his Cross and beyond, praying with Bishop Andrewes:
Lord I have sinned
But I am ashamed,
And I turn from my wicked ways,
And I return unto my heart,
And with all my heart I return unto Thee,
And seek thy face
And pray unto Thee saying,
I have sinned, I have done amiss, I have dealt wickedly,
I know, O Lord, the plague of my heart:
And behold I turn unto Thee
With all my heart
And with all my strength.
And now, O Lord, from thy dwelling place
And from the throne of the glory of thy kingdom in heaven,
Hear therefore the prayer and supplication of thy servant,
And forgive thy servant
And heal his soul.
Before Abraham was, I AM.
(St. John viii. 58)
The threat of God’s nearness and proximity are quite enough to unnerve, unhinge, and unsettle most men in all ages. There is something about human nature that is resistant, refractory, and recalcitrant to God and His Word. Most men treat the existence of God carelessly, incautiously, indifferently, or haughtily. Think about it. How many of you have heard a person say, I am spiritual but not religious. What that usually means is that he or she isn’t in the least bit interested in the intellectual pursuit of God, and is, rather, smugly and self-righteously self-contented. Evidently he’s got it all figured out and he doesn’t need to know more. If he goes on to describe the philosophy or theology that moves him, one soon learns that it amounts to nothing more than if it feels good, do it; you’re ok, I’m ok; whatever floats your boat. Of course, such a philosophy of life is nothing more than adolescence write large onto the big screen of Western life, where the actors refuse to grow up, in which we must never, never, never offend the emotional sensibilities of a nihilistic world.
Of course, Jesus meets all opposition to His visitation then and now with the words that read in this morning’s Gospel. Which of you convicts me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God, hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. (St. John viii. 46) To be fair to post-modern nihilists, they have stopped caring about Jesus Christ because they are drenched, drowned, saturated, and soaked in the pagan culture which envelopes and enables them. But should their spiritual right to feel good, and do whatsoever pleases them be threatened by anything like Christ, they soon become the new Pharisees. They believe that good works, freedom from the perceived threat of a Christianity that they think has only enslaved and oppressed the world, must be put down at all costs. And what threatens them most is that there might just be one form of goodness and truth that is absolute and not relative, true and not false, right and not wrong.
So they are like the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel who find Jesus Christ to be alien to their religion and our relationship with our gods. This morning the Pharisees bereft and devoid of any hint of evil by which to accuse and censure Jesus, nevertheless attack Him. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil? (St. John viii. 48) Are we not correct in thinking that so much of Jesus Christ’s nature is alien, strange, foreign, and just too bizarre to command our allegiance and following? Are we not justified in feeling uncomfortable which so much that Jesus said and did? And must that not mean that the problem is not with us but Him? This is how we convince ourselves that we need not hear and bear who Jesus says He is and what He asks of us. We pardon, excuse, and justify our failure to follow Him on the intellectual or emotional grounds that who He says He is and what He asks are beyond the reach of our rational and moral comprehension.
And, of course, technically speaking, we are right. Who He says He is and what He asks are beyond the reach of mortal men! If who He says He is and what He asks were within the scope of human ability and expertise, well, there would be no need for a Saviour. So the real question is this. Do we believe that He is who He says He is, and will we give Him what He asks of us? Jesus claims that God is His the Father…[He] has come from God…that [he came] not of [himself], [but was] sent. (St. John viii. 42)The Pharisees won’t and don’t believe because they think that He is possessed by the Devil. Jesus answers, I have not a devil; but I honour my Father, and ye do dishonour me. And I seek not mine own glory: there is one that seeketh and judgeth. Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death. (St. John 8. 49-51) What Jesus carries and bears in Himself is beyond the reach and extension of any human effort, good work, ritual or doctrinal law, or ethical code. He makes it very clear that what He offers to the world He has heard and received from the Father, in order to honor, obey, and glorify the One who sent Him. He is sent by the Father on a Divine Mission and so He says, in another place, My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me and to finish His work. (St. John iv. 34) And what He claims to offer is something that the world has never before experienced in quite this way.
And here is where, I am afraid, our faith fails us. This man Jesus makes claims that if a man keeps [His] saying, he shall never see death, (Ibid) and so our human imagination and intellect protest that he has gone too far. Now we know that thou hast a devil. Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and thou sayest, if a man keep my saying, he shall never taste of death. Art thou greater than our father Abraham, which is dead? and the prophets are dead: whom makest thou thyself? (St. John viii. 52-53) With us the Pharisees so much as say, You are a man, Jesus of Nazareth, and when you die, your words will die with you. Abraham and the prophets are all dead. And their words have died with them. Indeed the words that they spoke, like those that you speak, die. And so we cannot believe that your words will ensure our everlasting life.
This is the response of them for whom the words of the prophets and the Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us are dead. Christ speaks once again. If I honour myself, my honour is nothing: it is my Father that honoureth me; of whom ye say, that he is your God: yet ye have not known him; but I know him: and if I should say, I know him not, I shall be a liar like unto you; but I know him, and keep his saying. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I Am. (St. John 8. 54-59) Christ the Word teaches us that both as a human being and as the Son of God, He never seeks His own glory and honor. He is what he receives from His Father. His communication and expression of the Father’s will and way are honored and blessed because the Father honors and blesses all who receive Him. What He reveals and communicates throughout His life is what He receives from the Father whom He has always known. His knowledge of the Father informs and defines His whole being, meaning, and purpose. He is not separated from the truth or wisdom that defines and moves the universe. And He is not ignorant as to how that Word must redeem and save all men. In fact, he claims to be that very Word that Abraham heard and followed, and that the prophets espied, detected, and pursued. Jesus says, Before Abraham was, I AM. I am the Word, that was heard of old, is with you now, and will be with you forever if you believe and follow me. I am my Father’s Word. I am my Father’s eternally begotten Son, Jesus says. Will you follow me? If we are like the ancient Pharisees, being dead, we will try to drag Jesus down into our spiritual death. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple. (St. John viii. 59)
But Jesus, God’s Word as flesh, is more than mere Divine Wisdom or Truth personified. He is sent to do His Father’s will. God’s Word is His will, His will is His Love, and His Love is the utterance and expression of God’s deepest desire and delight for all men’s salvation. His Love is His passion to bring all men to Himself, no matter what it might cost. Divine Love moves the universe. It moves us towards Him at all times and in all places. His Love incessantly, persistently, and relentlessly pursues us until we become His own. His Love is His Passion, and we understand Passion in two ways. First, there is romantic passion, which steadfastly suffers in love for another person. Then there is that passion, which means to be acted upon, to suffer, to endure, and withstand all attempts to destroy Love. Christ's Passion is both of these. His Passion and Desire waggled and whipped up Abraham into faith and hope in God’s Word for the salvation of the nations. That same Passion resonated, reverberated, and resounded in the spirits of those Prophets whose souls heard God’s Word and were athirst for God, yea, even for the living God…[eagerly longing] to come before the presence of [their] God. (Ps. xlii. 2) God’s Word, as Passion made flesh, [will so love] the world, that He will give Himself as a living sacrifice and propitiation for its sins. (1 John ii. 2) What Jesus Christ then claims is that He is the everlasting I AM God’s Word, I AM Heaven’s Passion and Desire made flesh, I AM the way, the truth, and the life that alone loves all men and will conquer all attempts to separate men from the knowledge and love of God.
On this Passion Sunday, Jesus Christ persists and perseveres in His determination to reveal God’s Passion and Love for us. Our English word passion comes from the Latin word patior, which means to suffer, endure, permit, or be acted upon. Today he suffers a first rejection of His love for the salvation of all men. This will not disrupt, discompose, or disarray the Passion, which He receives from His Father, for our salvation. He does not come first to be loved but to love with that Love which can never be arrested, hindered, or impeded. He is God’s Love in the flesh. And as we shall see, that Love will so love us that though it be tortured, bruised, maimed, mocked, derided, gagged, silenced, and driven from the human flesh of Jesus, still it will be stirring, moving, visiting, summoning, transforming, transfiguring, and finally calling us in faith, hope, and love to rise up through Him into the journey back Home to the Kingdom of our Heavenly Father and His unending happiness. Amen.
March 2, 2014
If a man will only despise and overbear these obstacles from a world which calls itself Christian; if, despite all [opposition], he will go on, until Christ is evidently and plainly with him [and in him], then the very same who at the first [criticized and judged], will in the end applaud and admire [what is in him]; they who at first exclaimed, ‘He is mad,’ will end exclaiming, ‘He is a saint.’
(Arch. Trench: Notes on Miracles)
Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to a man’s spiritual growth in Jesus Christ is other people. Think about it, how often do we struggle to allow the Lord Jesus Christ to be born in us, only to find that other people are always at us? I won’t say that other people are offended with our Christianity, since that happens only when we go public, trying to force-feed the world with what must always remain a choice. No, what I mean is that we are distracted and diverted from our spiritual path because other people –be they our co-workers, family members, friends, or others are addicted to communication. Bing, there is another text message, an email, a phone call, drawing us obsessively and compulsively down and into a world that won’t shut up.
Of course the upshot of the post-modern obsession with technology has, in many instances, had an effect opposite to the one intended. With young people, at any rate, the communication explosion has desensitized them to other people. Another bing, they think, is just one more attempt at meaningless talk. And in some ways they are right. But the danger is that in the usual pursuit of their ends they might miss that one distraction or interruption which should arrest their attention and claim their time. We find an example of this in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Of course, there were no cell phones in 2029 A.D., but there was as much motion, commotion, noise, and talk then as there is now. Jesus says to his friends, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: and they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken. (St. Luke xviii. 31-34) Jesus bids His friends travel with Him up to Jerusalem in order to see and experience the unfolding of God’s Love in His impending suffering and death. But we read that [His] saying was hid from them, and so they did not understand the description of His impending doom. They were blind, like most of us, because they were too immersed in this world, moved and defined by their own limited apprehensions and expectations of what life should be. Jesus’ Apostles, having heard so many of Jesus’ parables and witnessed so many of His miracles, probably thought that He was speaking allegorically or symbolically. Had they received his message by way of text, they might have thought that He was expressing some cryptic truth hidden beneath His literal words.
That they didn’t pay much attention to what Jesus had said is verified in what comes next. And it came to pass, that as he was come nigh unto Jericho, a certain blind man sat by the way side begging: and hearing the multitude pass by, he asked what it meant. And they told him, that Jesus of Nazareth passeth by. And he cried, saying, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. And they which went before rebuked him, that he should hold his peace: but he cried so much the more, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me. (Ibid, 35-39) No sooner had Jesus tried to draw His friends into the prophecy of His own impending suffering and doom, than, Bing, they are interrupted and distracted by a man who is suffering. Here we find a man born blind, and one who earnestly desires to be touched by the Love that informs and defines Jesus’ life and mission. The Apostles attempt to silence him, since he interrupts and frustrates their determination to follow Jesus and see what will come to pass. But the Apostles are completely blinded to the blind man’s desire and passion to be touched and healed by the Love of God in Jesus Christ. As it turns out, the blind man sees, perceives, and knows much more than Jesus’ faithful disciples and friends. For though he cannot see the external world, and so does not yet have the luxury of that vision that will enable him to walk in Jesus’ footsteps up to Jerusalem, he senses and trusts that the Love of God is alive in the heart of the Son of David. He has an inward and spiritual vision of the merciful power that moves Jesus. Jesus asks him, What wilt that I shall do unto thee? (Ibid, 40) The blind man answers, Lord, that I may receive my sight. (Ibid, 41) Jesus says, Receive thy sight. Thy faith hath saved thee. (Ibid, 42) The blind man’s journey up to Jerusalem with Jesus begins long before his physical eyes are opened to the tangible world around him. He has the eyes of faith which trust and hope in what they do not yet possess but are determined to acquire and procure.
The interesting fact that we should remember is that blind men in Jesus’ time were mostly shunned and avoided like the plague because ancient Jewish tradition taught that blindness was the effect or reward of grievous sin. That science had not, (and has not!) found a cure for blindness stood only to reinforce the judgment of God’s wrath upon the sinner. So blind men in Jesus’ time were judged, and thus abandoned and neglected. So the blind man in today’s Gospel is alone, living in his own physical darkness but praying for that spiritual light which would open his eyes. No man had any time for his suffering, until Jesus passes by. The Apostles were determined to follow Jesus up to Jerusalem, no doubt determined to see and experience some great miracle through which Jesus would, once and for all, put down the Jewish religious establishment of his day –which always despised Him, and conquer and expel the foreign Roman Legions. Their minds, we might say, could not see how this suffering, blind man’s predicament could contribute usefully to their journey up to Jerusalem with Jesus.
The Apostles wanted to keep moving with Jesus up to Jerusalem, impetuously and impatiently hoping that if they kept up the pace they might circumvent and avoid that inconvenient little text about how Jesus would be mocked…spitefully entreated…spitted on…scourged… and put…to death….(Ibid, 32, 33). They probably didn’t mind the bit that read, the third day he shall rise again (Ibid), but the sooner they could get to that, the better! But we read that Jesus stopped and stood still. (Ibid, 40) They may not have understood what was happening, but they would have to wait. The Gospels are full of distractions and interruptions to the life of Jesus, and each and every one of them He deems essential for our salvation. And this morning’s example is no exception. If and when Jesus stops, we must stop. And today Jesus stops because He intends that the blind man should play a role in our impending Lenten journey up to the Jerusalem of His Cross. The blind man needs and desires the healing Love that Jesus was born to give. And his predicament reveals the right order of man’s approach to that healing. The man cannot see the Lord with his physical eyes, but his soul sees and perceives spiritually the healing Love and desire that consume every moment of Jesus’ earthly mission. Blessed are they that do not see and yet believe. (St. John xx. 29) The blind man is well suited to travel up with Jesus to His Cross. He believes so deeply in his heart that Jesus is God’s Love and Mercy made flesh that he desires to see and follow him not only in his soul but with the physical vision that can move his body up to the summit of Christ’s Love. He will not be satisfied with anything less. He cries out first, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me. (Ibid, 38) And his need and desire are not thwarted or disrupted by the spiritual ignorance of those who try to shut him up. He cried so much the more, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me. (Ibid, 39) This man is in search of salvation. This man will not be satisfied until his need becomes his desire, and his desire is fulfilled. He wants his inward and spiritual vision to open up into the physical vision of what God’s Love will accomplish for the whole of the world. What he knows through his soul, and believes from his heart, he desires to see and meet with his eyes, as the tangible painting of Love found in Jesus’ flesh.
Now the cynic will say that the blind man in today’s Gospel wished to see only the physical universe which had been before covered in darkness. But Jesus knows otherwise. Jesus knows that those who are born blind desire to see absolutely everything, from the inside out, from the soul to the body, from the depths of the human heart to the breadth of the universe. Jesus knows that the man born blind desires to see and experience not just the Love that opens his eyes for the very first time, but the Love that promises to dilate and distend them to the contours, lines, colors, shades, depth and breadth of His Divine Mercy made flesh. Jesus knows that the man born blind desires to follow and see His Love through to the end. We don’t know it for a fact, but the blind man might have been one of those anonymous friends who stood by the Cross and could not take his eyes off of the dying Lord who was still loving, giving, and even healing. He might even have helped the devout women to wash Jesus’ dead body and prepare it for burial. This was, after all, the human flesh that housed the Love that made him to see. Then perhaps with the others he waited for what would come next. I have a sneaking suspicion that he believed with all his heart that the same Jesus, whose Love in the flesh opened his eyes, would not go down into a death forever –where His Love would cease to be seen, but would rise up again as the vision of Love whose desire to open the eyes of those who will follow Him home to the Father never ends. Behold, we go up to Jerusalem. Amen.
So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
St. Matthew xx. 16
The Church in her ancient wisdom is nothing if she is not keenly aware of the dangers that human nature poses for the process of redemption and salvation. Think about it. If the Church were not aware of human nature’s tendency to fall away from the vigilance that is required in the process of salvation, she would not provide seasonal themes in her lectionary that remind man of the dangers that accompany his spiritual journey. We have just emerged from the season of light-- that of Epiphany, in which the brilliant vision of God’s love and good will in the life of Jesus Christ is made manifest. The Church, being conscious of man’s tendency to view the approaching Lent like a deer in the headlights, has formulated the period between Epiphany and Lent with caution. You see, the Church knows that man is likely to fall into resentment, and so to become hardhearted. She knows that her sheep are easily dissuaded by theories of good works and comparative goodness, and so she has given to us the Gesima Sundays, between the season of Epiphany-vision and that of Lenten mortification.
So today we begin the Gesima Season- comprised of Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sunday, named from the Latin words meaning seventy, sixty and fifty days prior to Easter. In this season the Church reminds us of the temptations and dangers that most commonly thwart and interrupt the Christian’s preparation for the coming Lent. In Lent the Christian is called to see and experience the suffering and death of Jesus Christ in a life-changing way. So in this Gesima-Season Mother Church calls us first to cultivate and nurture those habits of mind which will ensure that we are effectually and suitably susceptible and vulnerable to our Saviour’s Passion for us.
St. Paul helps us this morning by comparing our Gesmina-Season work or labor that we undertake with running a race. In our Epistle, taken from his First Letter to the Corinthians, he compares us to athletes or runners who are in training and will compete to win the prize. Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. (I Cor. ix. 24) St. Paul appeals to our competitive spirit and attempts to convert the passion and zeal associated with it to the demands and conditions of running a spiritual race. If we are faithful to our calling, we all should be seeking for one prize or one reward, he says, which is eternal life. And so we are called to temper and moderate our bodies’ physical passions that we might better reach the goal of our striving. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. (I Cor. ix. 25) We must remind ourselves that because we seek a spiritual and eternal prize- which is eternal salvation, and that this is our chief and even sole preoccupation, our physical natures- appetites, impulses, feelings, emotions, and desires, must be tamed and then subordinated into the service of our soul’s good. What and how much we eat and drink, what we need or desire should serve only to enhance and promote our spiritual fitness for running the race that is set before us. Thus we must embrace the virtue of temperance. St. Ambrose says that what we observe and seek most in temperance is tranquility of soul. (De Offic. i. 42) So if our passions and appetites are moderated and tempered to the good of our souls, we shall not be torn between the false gods of the external and visible world and the one true God. St. Paul says that people whose loyalties are divided and who worship others gods do it to obtain a corruptible crown (I Cor. ix. 25) –they seek earthly rewards and treasures of impermanent meaning and unlasting significance. But we Christians run to obtain an incorruptible crown –a gift and prize of eternal worth and lasting importance. So we are called not to run blindly, erratically, pointlessly and capriciously. Since we know our end, we should moderate and temper our physical lives in such a way that best suits us to pursue our spiritual goal or end.
But our Gesima-workdays are not merely exercises in individual and personal spiritual running. The portion of St. Paul’s Epistle that we have read this morning is preceded by his defense of having given his life for the sanctification and purification of the Church or the Body of Christ. He embraces the virtue of temperance and keeps his mind focused on his end lest that by any means…[having] preached to others, [he himself] should be a castaway. (1 Cor. ix. 27) His running to obtain the incorruptible crown is no exercise in self-promotion but part and parcel of imparting to others what he has received freely from Jesus Christ. He desires that the free gift of God’s Grace, that moves and defines his life because of his faith in Jesus Christ, should move others also, and not that any should think that redemption and salvation can be earned by good works. And the point is nicely made in today’s Gospel Parable. For there we read that:
…The kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder,
which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard.
And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them
into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour, and saw others
standing idle in the marketplace, and said unto them; Go ye also into the
vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way.
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and
saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him,
Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard;
and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. (St. Matthew xx. 1-7)
As Archbishop Trench reminds us, the Parable is offered in response to the question which St. Peter asked in the preceding chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Peter had said, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? (St. Matthew xix. 27) Jesus had promised to His faithful Apostles…twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Ibid, 28) He had also promised that others who had forsaken all…would receive an hundred fold…and…everlasting life. (Ibid, 29) But he concluded his promises with the very words that finish today’s Gospel parable. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Ibid, 30) So today’s parable is offered by Jesus as a warning about that kind of spiritual attitude that might very well make the first last, least, and thus unsuitable for salvation.
The parable teaches that some, like the Apostles, who were already industrious workers, at fishing or tentmaking, would be called first and promised one penny for their labors. Others would be called later, this time out of idleness, and with no more specific promise of payment than whatsoever is right [or just]. (Ibid, 4,7) When the workday was over, the Lord of the vineyard would instruct his steward to pay the laborers. But notice this interesting detail. We read that steward was to pay the laborers beginning from the last unto the first. And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. (Ibid, 8,9) Jesus desires to reveal a danger here for those who were called first into the labor of His vineyard. What do we read? But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. (Ibid, 10-12) It appears that the first are in danger of having a problem with the last. They are moved by envy and jealousy and so begrudge the other workers the same reward or prize which they have received. But the Lord rebukes them with these words: Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? (Ibid, 13-15) Archbishop Trench tells us that that if those who were first hired …forget…that the reward is of Grace and not of works, and begin to boast and exalt themselves above their fellow laborers, [they] may altogether lose the things that they have wrought; while those who seem last, may yet, by keeping their humility, be acknowledged first and foremost in the Day of God. (Trench, Notes on the Parables, p. 140) The first are meant to welcome the gift of Grace for themselves and for the last man who can join their happy labor. The last are meant to imitate the first. Both are to be moved equally to humility and gratitude in the face of God’s free gift of Grace, as they share in the labor of sanctifying love.
Some commentators have said that the reward of one penny is meant to symbolize the eternal and incorruptible reward of salvation. Archbishop Trench thinks this is wrong, and I think he is right. If the one penny symbolizes salvation then it would appear that the first workers, or the men who are full of resentment, bitterness, envy, jealousy, and a begrudging spirit, are saved, since we read that they received every man a penny. But such a sinful disposition can never land a man in Christ’s Kingdom. So the one penny must symbolize God’s Grace. If it is received as what is never enough because we think that our good works and hard labor entitle us to more, it will not have been received in the right spirit. We will then be intemperate in all things, comparing and contrasting ourselves with others according to earthly measures of earning and compensation, always on the brink of envy and jealousy, and thus on the way to perdition. If, on the other hand, God’s Grace is received humbly and gratefully as what we neither desire nor deserve, as what far surpasses anything that earthly effort and industry can earn, as the free Divine gift zealously at work in our hearts because through temperance our passions and appetites are right with the world, then we shall be honored to be called the last and the least, privileged to be seated under the feet of God’s Elect. Amen.
And the governor asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews? And Jesus said unto him, Thou sayest.
(St. Matthew xxvii. 11)
Silence is something that post-modern man cannot stand. Silence reveals a refusal to answer the immediate lusts, desires, passions, and impulses of a materialistic people. Silence is at the furthest remove from instant
gratification. Silence is then judged to be guilty; silence is always hiding something. Silence is up to no good. It must be plotting with the same feverish, impetuous, unsatisfied, and craving appetite that marks out most men in our age. Men cannot stand silence, for it demands stillness. And stillness frightens contemporary man; noise, talk, babble, and so much active doing protect him from ever facing the universe that stands before him - the self, or even the powers that lie hidden behind the scenes of immediate experience. Silence and
stillness, once the prerequisites to any creative man’s response to what was other than himself, seem conspicuously absent in this world of ours. And for that reason we no longer have schools of thought, painting, sculpture, poetry, literature. Rather we have a chaotic and unbridled unity of feelings, emotions, and animal passions pursuing their selfish wants and shaking the center should they fail to achieve the ends of their
I say all of this because what should strike us most poignantly in the tradition of this Holy Week that we now enter upon is the silence and stillness that characterizes the last days of Jesus of Nazareth. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is the everlastingly-begotten Word of God made flesh. And so how odd it is, then, that
the most important Word or Speech that the world has known or could have ever heard should remain so quiet as the world around him plots and plans, and successfully executes his demise and death. The best intentioned of his followers wondered why he did not perform some miracle to disband, confuse, scatter, and bring down his enemies. He opened the eyes of the blind; he unloosed the tongues of the deaf; he made lame legs to walk; he even drove many demons out of one tortured man named Legion. He resuscitated Lazarus. And so why
is he now so still and so silent? Why doesn’t he conquer pride, envy, jealousy, malice, and murderous hatred with the power of the Word he derives from his Father?
The answers to these questions are, of course, not easy ones. But for starters we might recall that when he did work a wonder or perform a miracle, more often than not, he said, See thou tellest no man. (St. Matthew viii. 4) His primary mission was to reveal his Father’s truth – his will, love, and forgiveness. I always do the things that please my Father. (St. John viii. 29) And as St. Paul reminds us this morning, we should have this mind among [ourselves], which is [ours] in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count
equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. iii. 5-7) Though Jesus Christ is the eternal Word of God made flesh, its wisdom, power, and love which he shares with the Father are not things to be clung to selfishly or expressed forcibly, but gifts to be offered freely to all men who discover that they alone lead to God’s kingdom. What I mean to say is this: man’s true relationship with God is one of free will and choosing. True wisdom proves and establishes its own
credibility. True love or charity honors and respects every man’s innate ability to discover and cherish it, like a pearl of great price which [when a man has found it, he sells all that he has in order to possess it.]( St. Matthew xiii. 46) For the love of God is something to be unearthed and uncovered, through the stillness and silence of a pondering mind and a searching heart. It is neither easily obtained nor effortlessly
And this is why Jesus will be so silent and so still in this Holy Week of his Passion. Prior to the events that we commemorate this week, Jesus had labored relentlessly to prepare and dispose the hearts of his hearers to the
truth that he would reveal. As Jean Mouroux reminds us, Jesus showed unwearied devotion [to his Father], [wore] himself out with labour, [lacked] time even to eat, [sank] exhausted by the well [of Jacob], [even] slept in a sinking ship.(The Meaning of Man, p. 88) He had done and said all that he could to prepare for the spiritual truth that his suffering and death would reveal. And yet we read over and over again these words which he spoke to them were beyond their understanding. (St. Luke ii. 50) The best of men, his mother and his disciples, were always pressing upon him to reveal his nature prematurely with all force and vigor. They
have no wine, (St. John ii. 3) his mother cried. His frustrated Apostles hollered after him, Nobody is content to
act in secret, if he wishes to make himself known at large; if Thou must act thus, show thyself before the world. (St. John vii. 3-5) And later, in today’s Gospel, the bystanders, who knew no silence and could not stand still, passed by [and] reviled him, wagging their heads. (St. Matthew xxvii. 39) Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. (Ibid, 41,42) Pilate, uncomfortably bothered and exasperated at his silence because he found no fault in the man, desperately asked him, Hearest
thou not how many things they witness against thee? And he answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly. (Ibid, 13, 14) Neither friend, foe, nor the foreign judge knew what to do with this man who would not resent and so would not defend, would not react and so did not provoke. Instead, the eternal Word of God in him remained still and silent, and so suffered arrogance, ignorance, confusion, and sin to proclaim their final judgment on him.
To such a sorry state of affairs the Word of God in Jesus has no response. Sin must run its course. And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me. (St. John xii. 32) The truth that Jesus carries, embodies, and will share with all men never changes. God is love, and he that abideth in love, abideth in God, and God in him. (1 St.
John iv. 16) Jesus is love, God’s love made flesh. Who he is, is what he receives freely from the Father. God’s love defines his desired nature. That nature is compassion, pity, love, forgiveness, and hope. God’s nature revealed in Jesus Christ is the uninterrupted, ever-living, ever-giving, incessant passion for his people’s return to and reconciliation with himself. Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall
find rest unto your souls; for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (St. Matthew xi. 28-30) The truth never changes; Jesus will now reveal what that truth demands of him. Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man seweth, that shall he also reap. (Gal. vi. 7)
So today in silence and stillness we behold the man. (St. John xix. 5) There is darkness, confusion, obscurity, and chaos. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. (Gen. i. 1,2) Sin envelops itself with disorder, derangement, and disarray. The Word of God is hidden and unheard. Its meaning and purpose seem lost. Out of this condition emerge anger, hostility, resentment, bitterness, and
revenge. Man does not easily admit the effects of his own free-choosing and willing. Yet still the Son of man promises to come to us with power and great glory. But at first only quietly, silently, in the stillness of his
undeserved, unmerited, wholly unearned death. Jesus endures man’s rejection of him. Jesus loves him still. He suffers the unspeakable torture of the long, hard death reserved for the enemies of Caesar. Jesus loves him still. He not only takes on sin, but he takes it into himself – for the source and origin of his suffering is sin; and sin wholly misunderstands who and what he must be. He not only endures sin’s desire for his death, but he forgives it all. He can do no other. Why? He is the forgiveness of sins, just as he is the resurrection and the life. He is broken bread and poured out wine. He is broken body and poured out blood. No man cometh to the Father, save through me. (John xiv. 6) He is with the Father because he has died perfectly and completely to himself, the world, and the devil. That death is his; he has chosen it. But he cannot help but offer it to us also. He shares his suffering and death with us because without it, we cannot be changed. He dies for us, and even at our hands,
because, always, he desires to make us new. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness. (Gen 1,3,4) In stillness and silence, then, let us follow Jesus to the Cross, whose light reaches out to us even in his death. In stillness and silence the light emerging from his heart will begin to separate us from our darkness. When these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. (St. Luke xxi. 28) And in the stillness and silence out of his death the light of new life will begin to touch and heal us. Through his death
we shall begin to be dead indeed unto sin, and alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep
(St. Luke xi. 28)
In last week’s Gospel we read of the Syro-Phoenecian woman who was tormented because her daughter was more grievously vexed by a devil. We learned too of her persistent faith and willingness to consider herself to be no better than a dog that eats of the crumbs that fall from its Master’s table. (St. Matthew xv. 27) With this, I hope that we gleaned something of the nature of humility that faithfully persists in its supplication of God’s mercy and healing power. The fallen human condition can be overcome only from a determined desire
to seek out what is not its own, or to seek out what God alone can give. And yet there is more to it than just that. We know very little about what the future held in store for the suppliant woman of Canaan and her cured daughter. Whether they returned to life as usual, we do not know. But if they did, they might have
fallen into the kind of troubles that Jesus tells us about in this morning’s Gospel.
Jesus never intended that miracles should produce one-time off cures or healings. In last week’s Gospel the real miracle that Jesus effected was not the healing of the Syro-Phoenician’s daughter, but the miracle of faith that was elicited or drawn forth from the mother’s heart. And so we find a similar happenstance in this morning’s Gospel. Of course, today we read of no entreaty or supplication of one on behalf of another. We read simply that Jesus was casting out a devil, and it was dumb. And it came to pass, when the devil was
gone out, the dumb spake; and the people wondered. (St. Luke xi. 14) Jesus comes upon a man who was mute or could not speak. Neither family member nor friend found the courage or compassion to entreat on behalf of this sorry soul. He performs the miracle in the midst of a surprised and astonished crowd who, at
first, remain as silent as the dumb man. And curiously enough, we read that the man was possessed by a demon. The ancient Jews believed that blindness, deafness, and mutism were all the result of demonic possession. Jewish men or women afflicted with any or all of these diseases were shunned from civilized society. So Jesus will venture into dangerous territory with no prompting at all. He does so in order to teach something about the nature of miracles. His enemies – no doubt the Pharisees and Scribes - answered the miracle with the
charge that he cast out devils by Beelzebub the chief of the devils...while others sought of him a sign from heaven. (Ibid, 15) Beelzebub was the foreign god of Ekron, interpreted by some to be the Lord of the flies, by others, more pejoratively to mean the god of dung, or perhaps more generally the prince of
the air. Whatever the meaning, Jesus’ accusers intended to say that he was an agent of Satan, and with the others who demanded an even greater miracle, did not believe that any good had come of what Jesus had done. To be fair to most people, miracles are strange occurrences, and for the most innocent of observers
fear and trepidation carry men into the strangest of places in search of explanations. Be that as it may, Jesus answers his critics and doubters with a fuller explanation of the meaning of miracles and the faith that it should
Jesus says this: Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and a house divided against a house falleth. If Satan also be divided against himself, how shall his kingdom stand? because ye say that I cast out devils through Beelzebub. (Ibid 17, 18) He knows the thoughts and motivations of his enemies. He counters them with the truth: Satan’s kingdom is most assuredly divided against itself, and will be brought to desolation. His kingdom, in the end, will not stand precisely because he foments division from and warfare against God, that is impossible to perform with any hope of permanent success. But prior to the fall
that Satan desires, he has no preliminary interest in being divided against himself. (Ibid, 17) His primary intention is to divide man from man, and man from God. He certainly would have no interest in the healing of this deaf and dumb man. Hearing and speaking have all the potential for uniting man with his fellows, and man with his Maker. So Jesus makes clear that Satan would not stand for any miracle that might enable a man to hear the Word of God and keep it. (Ibid, 28)
Having performed this miracle, however, Jesus reveals much more about who he is and what he intends. He says: But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. When a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace: But when a stronger than he shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all his armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth. (Ibid, 20-23) Jesus admits that it may very well be true that this poor dumb man had been possessed by a devil. Sickness and disease are evidence of man’s fall from God and his goodness. So let us agree that this man was, in some way, possessed by a power
other than God’s. He is, then, moved by a strong man or Satan, who was fully armed and guarding his own possession. The man’s condition seemed irreversibly invulnerable to any outside interference. He belonged to the devil, whose peace and protection were secure. And then suddenly a stronger than [the devil] came upon him, and [overcame] him, taking from him all his trustworthy armour, and divided his spoils. (Ibid, 23) The stronger man is, of course, Jesus. Satan’s kingdom will not stand, and will be brought to desolation, because the finger of God will divide it. Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth, and the success of its temporal survival depends upon what comes next.
Wonders and miracles may be packed full of power, Jesus acknowledges, but they also have all the potential to die idly in a thankless and forgetful soul. Once the miracle has been wrought, a great danger ensues. When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out. And when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself; and they enter in, and dwell
there: and the last state of that man is worse than first. (Ibid, 24-26) The dumb man now speaks; he is freed of one barrier to his redemption and salvation. But being healed of one possession, demon, or vice does not ensure protection from others or even promise salvation. The healed man in the Gospel is now free to hear and
receive the Word of God into his soul if he so chooses. Other men, like Jesus’ accusers, could hear the same Word if only they would open their spiritual ears to the truth that Jesus speaks. The dumb man’s house is swept and garnished of one demon. Jesus’ accusers think that their spiritual houses are tidied and cleaned up because they follow the ritual precepts of the Jewish Law. Both may be emptied of one unclean spirit, but are in danger of being overtaken of seven others spirits more wicked than [themselves]. (Ibid, 26) Why? Because hearing
the Word of God is not enough.
God’s Word in Jesus is spoken to the cured deaf man and Jesus’ accusers in order to habituate and accustom them to the Divine virtues that ensure redemption and salvation. Redemption comes about when a man in faith humbly submits to the power of God’s Word and its incessant demands. The dumb man now joins all others
who are ready to hear the Word of God and keep it. (Ibid, 28) But even here, the devil does not give up so easily on any man from whom Jesus has cast out a demon. John Calvin warns us: Let us not then suppose that the devil has been vanquished by a single combat, because he has once gone out of us. On the contrary, let us remember that…[the devil] has knowledge and experience of all the approaches by which he may reach us; and that, if there be no open and direct entrance, he has dexterity enough to creep in by small holes or winding crevices. (Calvin’s Commentaries: Volume XVII) Faith must grow into virtue if the devil’s advances are to be resisted and thwarted successfully. As one writer reminds us, the virtue of the soul…is a matter of humility and obedience…. We become good by doing the good, over and over and over again, until it becomes the habit, the very pattern of our lives. (The Price of Liberation, R.D. Crouse) True healing comes about only when faith
entrusts itself to the persistent presence of Divine virtue in the soul. It requires patience as each individual person surrenders humbly on a daily basis to God’s labor of love, remembering that he was sometimes darkness, but [is now] light in the Lord, as he learns to rebuke the works of darkness, and to have no fellowship with them (Ephesians v. 11) Humility and obedience are then essential if faith will not only hear the Word of God but keep it. St. Paul says, You must begin to live as men native to the light; where the light has its effect, where all is goodness, holiness, and truth, as your lives begin tobecome a manifestation of God’s will. (Ibid, 9,10)
So dear friends in Christ, let us remember today that we rely wholly and completely upon the finger of God to cast out [our] demons, not once and for all, but continuously, indeed as often as the devil assaults and attacks us. We must, therefore, as Calvin reminds us, endeavor that Christ, holding his reign within us, may block up all the entrances of [the devil]. Whatever may be the fierceness or violence of Satan’s attacks, they ought not to intimidate the sons [and daughters] of God, whom the invincible power of the Holy Spirit preserves
in safety. (Ibid, XVII) For if we humbly open our souls to the Holy Spirit, and obey his Godly motions in righteousness and true holiness (Collect Lent 2), the light of Christ’s power will shine into our souls, banish all darkness, and enable us, with the dumb man in this morning’s Gospel, not only to hear God’s Word and keep it, but to share and minister it to those who have not yet heard
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