This is thankworthy, that if a man for conscience endure grief,
(1 St. Peter ii. 19)
Our Epistle reading for The Second Sunday after Easter, taken from St. Peter’s First Letter, continues our Easter tide theme of suffering. Last week we meditated upon how suffering and death are necessary components of Resurrection and new life. So today we continue to see how the ancient Church Fathers, who chose the readings for our liturgical season, had some deeper truth in mind when they chose our readings for Easter-tide. I believe that they wanted to be honest with us about what Resurrection entails. They wanted us to remember that human life, as joyously focused on Christ’s Resurrection as it should be, is more honestly experienced as a life in tension between dying on the one hand and rising on the other. What I mean is that the Church Fathers knew only too well that for the prudent and cautious pilgrim life involves spiritual warfare – a real battle between dying to sin and rising into righteousness.
So, this Sunday the Church Fathers ask us to understand again that suffering is a good and virtuous part of a greater whole. Last week we spoke of how Christ’s Peace comes to us in order to convey and express the forgiveness of sins, and an invitation into new life. Today we learn that the process of its possession involves something which we are inclined to ignore, neglect, or fall away from when left to our own natural desires. St. Peter tells us this morning, For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully. For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God. (1 St. Peter ii. 19,20) St. Peter knows that Christ has offered to us that Peace that conquers and overcomes our spiritual resistance and obduracy to it. He knows, too, that the Lord extends to us what amounts to the forgiveness of sins, whose reception must be so gratefully received and then offered to others. Christ’s Peace and Forgiveness overwhelmed and overcame the Apostles. What they neither anticipated, imagined, nor deserved began to grow in their hearts and their souls. Christ has risen from the dead; Resurrection means not only God’s forgiveness of man but man’s forgiveness of man. For I have given you an example, that ye should do [to one another] as I have done to you. (St. John xiii. 15)
For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. (Ibid, 15) The message is clear, by well doing, by forgiving, by praying, by blessing, by hoping -by suffering these virtues to come alive in his soul, the Christian is to stand out in the pagan world as one whose life reveals how good overcomes evil, mercy vanquishes cruelty, benevolence banishes malevolence, hope crushes despair, and light dispells darkness. Yet, St. Peter acknowledges that this will be difficult. He writes his Epistle to a community which is struggling to overcome evil with good, or, more specifically, to suffer Christ’s Resurrected goodness to overcome all and every form of evil that stubbornly and resentfully resists the Gospel. St. Peter does not pretend that Christians are not engaged in spiritual warfare; but he does seem intent upon directing their attention to the spiritual battle against evil in their own souls, and away from the evil that others might visit upon them. The failure to love and forgive on the outside is always a deflective measure designed to protect the self from the needful confrontation of one’s own demons!
St. Peter reminds his flock and us today that Christ Jesus was the one Person in history who understood and underwent this struggle completely and perfectly, and unlike any other. St. Peter tells us that Jesus himself, our God and our Brother, took upon and into Himself the effect of sin in suffering and death, despite the fact that he did not 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 St. Peter ii. 22,23) In a radical and real way the wrongful presence and seeming power of evil in our world tortured and killed Jesus Christ. And yet He suffers its effects with the love that penetrates the heart of darkness. He did not render evil for evil, because He died to sin –both to its meaninglessness and to its malice. For in suffering and enduring sin’s assault, He carried it into its proper end, i.e. death. Within Himself, the goodness, the love, the compassion, the pity, and the forgiveness of sins remained and prevailed: who in his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls. (Ibid, 24,25)
What the Apostles realized long ago was that Jesus Christ, the Crucified One, rose up on Easter Day as the Wounded Healer. What they began to realize slowly but surely was that this same Jesus who had forgiven men from the Cross, was now standing before them as the Good Shepherd, whose Peace and Forgiveness would shepherd them and others into the Father’s everlasting care and embrace. In the parable that He uses in this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus likens himself to both the door and the Good Shepherd who longs to carry us through it to the Father’s eternal presence. We can become His sheep if we begin to know His love and submit to his care. Austin Farrer explains Jesus’ words in this way:
What does he say? A man cares naturally for his own things. He does not have to make himself care. The shepherd who has bought the ground and fenced the fold and tended the lambs, whose own the sheep are to keep or to sell, cares for them. He would run some risk, rather than see them mauled; if he had only a heavy stick in his hand, he would beat off the wolf…He says that he cares for us as no one else can, because we are his. We do not belong to any other man; we belong to him. His dying for us in this world is the natural effect of his unique care. It is the act of our Creator. (Weekly Paragraphs for the Holy Sacrament: Easter II)
We do not belong to any other man, Dr. Farrer insists. He might have added that we do not belong, truly, to this world, to the flesh, and certainly not to the devil. He is saying that we belong to God. And to belong to God we must come to know him through His Son and Word. We cannot come to know our Heavenly Father again without the Peace and Forgiveness enfleshed in the saving life of Jesus. If we begin to open our hearts to His gifts of Peace and Forgiveness, we shall begin to know that we belong to Christ. But we protest: All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every man to his own way, and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah liii. 6) True enough. And if we leave it at that, we will be worshipping Jesus a dead and tragic hero. But He responds to our sin. He rises up and calls us forward. I am the Good Shepherd, and I give my life for my sheep…I am the Good Shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known by them. (St. John x. 11, 14) Jesus tells us that He knows us. He knows who we are and what we need. He gives His life for us, not only in His dying but also in His rising. He has killed sin, death, and Satan so that in and through His loving care we might rise up out of it all. His desire for us is constant and promises salvation if we come to know and embrace Him. Death did not destroy His desire, nay rather it is a necessary component of new life that Christ the New Man offers to us. The Father desired that death should be made good in the demise of His Son. Jesus the Good Shepherd was carrying us on His shoulders into our death. Jesus the Good Shepherd now carries all men on His shoulders up and into a life as suffering becomes something new. To love is to suffer. Jesus’ suffering for us is that virtous Personal loving energy that enables us to die and to rise. We can begin to know Him, Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, and that though [we] walk through the valley and shadow of death, [we] shall fear no evil, for [he] is with us, [his] rod and staff comfort [us]…, and that [He even] prepares a table before us in the presence of [our] enemies; [He] anoints [our] head with oil; [our] cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever. (Ps. xiii. 4-end)
Today, my friends, as we continue to wend our way through Easter tide, let us always remember that, indeed, we have erred and strayed from [Christ’s ways]like lost sheep. And yet He knows this, for we are His people, and the sheep of His pasture. (Ps. c. 3) We belong to Him and He suffers now to find and rescue us that He might restore us to our Heavenly Father. So, as Cardinal Newman says:
Let us not be content with ourselves; let us not make our own hearts our home, or this world our home, or our friends our home; let us look out for a better country, that is, a heavenly. Let us look out for Him who alone can guide us to that better country; let us call heaven our home, and this life a pilgrimage; let us view ourselves, as sheep in the trackless desert, who, unless they follow the Shepherd, will be sure to lose themselves, sure to fall in with the wolf. We are safe while we keep close to Him, and under His eye; but if we suffer Satan to gain an advantage over us, woe to us!... Blessed are we who resolve—come good, come evil, come sunshine, come tempest, come honour, come dishonour—that He shall be our Lord and Master, their King and God!... and with David, that in "the valley of the shadow of death, we shall fear no evil, for He is with us, and that His rod and His staff comfort us…(The Shepherd of Our Souls) Amen.
As my Father has sent me, so send I you. (St. John xx. 21)
You and I have just come off of an intense Holy Week and Easter when we tried to walk with Jesus Christ from His suffering, Passion, and Death into the first intimations of His Resurrection. You will remember that last week we left Saints Mary Magdalene, John, and Peter having found the Empty tomb. Christ Jesus had not yet appeared to them, and so with them, our faith wondered and pondered what all of this might mean. What they did not know, and what we often forget, is that Christ was already working on their souls and preparing their hearts for His bodily manifestation to them. Christ is always working on our souls and preparing us for deeper union and communion with Himself. And as we slowly begin to move through the Forty Days of Easter, we shall, I pray begin to sense and perceive the meaning of His Resurrection for us. I say for us, because Jesus Christ is God the Father’s desire for us made flesh. And in Eastertide, that desire will radically alter and forever change our understanding of what it means to be risen with Christ.
But, to be sure, as this was no easy task for the Apostles, so it will not be for us. Just imagine what the Apostles must have been thinking when they endured the time of Jesus’ departure from them after Good Friday. Why, if only He were here, we might be able to express our sorrow, shame, and guilt over having abandoned, denied, and betrayed Him, they must have thought. Then He might forgive and heal us, as He had done so many times before. Then their minds might have jumped to the Empty Tomb wondering if God had taken Jesus back to Heaven like Elijah and Moses, as they were assembled behind the doors for fear of the Jews.(St. John xx. 19) And to be sure there was Mary Magdalene’s account of how she had seen Him, after having thought He was the gardener. (Ibid, 15) Perhaps she was mistaken, and it was the gardener! She claimed that she approached Him, but He told her not to touch Him since He had not yet ascended to the Father. (Ibid, 17) She must have imagined it and seen a ghost. Her love for Him was, after all, rather exaggerated, and the mind can do strange things through wishful thinking. So, though she returns to them, and tells her tale, the Apostles remain tremulous, timorous, and apprehensive. And then, lo and behold, Jesus came and stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when He had so said, He shewed them His hands and His side.(St. John xx. 20) How did He enter this upper room, they wondered with utter astonishment? The door was bolted shut. Yet, no sooner had He entered than He shewed them His hands and His side. (Ibid) To be sure this was the Lord, for His presence was palpable and tangible. They saw clearly that He was with them, though they didn’t know how. He proclaimed Peace to them all, and then slowly but surely the scales fall from their eyes, and they began to see clearly that the Lord had risen from the dead. Needless to say, the Apostles must have been flummoxed and bewildered with near incredulity. Yet, they were overcome and overtaken by some union and cohesion of the Divine and human, the supernatural and the natural, God and man in the Lord Jesus. For here surely is a Divine Being who can walk through shut doors yet in the body bearing the marks and scars of the Crucified Man.
Yet, this Risen Christ wastes no time with calling His friends into the new life that they witness and endure. The life which bears the marks of His suffering and death, continues the work that He was born to commence and complete. He says, Peace be unto you: as my Father has sent me, even so send I you; and he breathed on them , and saith unto them, Receive the Holy Ghost…. (St. John xx. 21-22) It is as if He picks up and continues His mission to them, from that time when he had left off to go to His suffering and death. And yet their emerging faith, their knowledge and love seem to be growing in the face of this Resurrected Jesus’ wounds and His scars. Thus, slowly but surely, what begins to be believed, embraced, and understood by the Apostles is the fact that Christ’s death on the Cross is somehow taken into this His Resurrection appearance to them. The fact is echoed this morning in St. John’s First Epistle. There we read that whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God? This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. (1 St. John v. 4-6) The temptation has always and ever will be to worship a Divine Jesus only, or the one who was baptized with water by John Baptist in Jordan said, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God. (St. John i.33) But St. John the Evangelist tells us that He came not by water only, but by water and blood. (Idem) The Resurrected Jesus whom the Apostles begin to believe and follow is one who comes to cleanse all men from sin and guilt in that fountain opened for sin and all uncleanness, the precious blood of the Lamb of God, slain to take away the sins of the world. ( Prayers…, B. Jenks, p.225) What the Apostles begin to believe and grasp is that this Resurrected Jesus Christ is not merely God, but God as Man who has suffered and borne the punishment for the sins of the whole world. The impression that strikes them most is that Christ’s suffering and death are taken up and incorporated into His Resurrection and new life. And Christ imparts this truth to them not merely by manifesting and revealing the wounds in His Resurrected Body. From the external and visible He draws them into the inward and spiritual. As the Father had sent Him, so He will send the Apostles. (St. John xx. 21) And so, He breathes on them that they might receive…the [first wave] of the Holy Ghost’s (Ibid, xx. 22) transformation of their lives.
Notice that this first wave reveals the forgiveness of sins. Christ will indeed impart the Holy Ghost to them in phases and stages. What comes first is sending the Apostles out equipped with the forgiveness of sins through the Spirit of the Crucified One. Christ sends His friends out into the world by sharing and imparting His Holy Spirit to them. The Holy Spirit incorporates them into that suffering and death which have established the forgiveness of sins. Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. (St. Luke xxiv. 29) The Spirit has infused the marks of His victory over sin into His new Body. Through the Spirit that He imparts to them, they can participate in His defeat of sin, death, and Satan. In His gift, they must receive the forgiveness of sins if the victory is to be effective. He has forgiven them and will forgive others. What the Apostles must remember, as St. Paul writes later, is that when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly…and that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us…and that 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.(Romans v. 6,8,10) The point is that Christ becomes the forgiveness of sins for all who will embrace this reality as the wellspring and catalyst for the journey into salvation. Of course, some will receive it and some will not. Jesus says to the Apostles, whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. (Ibid, 23) Sins are only retained for those who do sense the need for the forgiveness of sins through the death of God’s only-begotten Son upon the Cross.
But before we conclude, let me come back to a point which we touched upon earlier. We said that Christ is sending the Apostles as the Father has sent him…through the Holy Ghost [whom] he breathes [upon them.](Idem) Here Christ begins to include them in His mission which is the new life of His Resurrection. Again, this mission and new life emerge and proceed from His Resurrected Body that bears the marks of his suffering and death. The Apostles and all of us who would become members of Jesus Christ’s Resurrected Body must bear the marks of suffering and death. We must thus become those who will suffer and die daily to all that stands between us and God’s will made flesh in Jesus Christ. We must suffer to embrace the Grace that overcomes our sins, bringing to death whatever stands between us and God. Only in so doing do we become members of the Resurrected Body of Jesus Christ. Also, we must suffer and endure the world’s rejection of this truth. The world won’t like it one bit. For then, only in suffering to die to ourselves can we help others to bring their suffering in sin to Jesus Christ for death and burial. Only then can we share the good news of the forgiveness of sins with the world. Then we shall know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose. (Romans viii. 28) And that in the end, though we be tempted by [earthly] excesses or any lusts of the flesh, we shall not feast on the meat that perishes, nor sink the vessel [of our Resurrected body] that is carrying us over to the blessed Land of Promise. (Ibid, Jenks, p. 371) Amen.
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above,
Where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affections on
Things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life
Is hid with Christ in God.
(Col. 3. 1-3)
There is something rather strange about our Easter Epistle, which was addressed by St. Paul to the Church at Colossae, a small Phrygian city in Asian Minor. For no sooner has Christ appeared to Peter, to Mary Magdalene, James and all the Apostles, to some five hundred, to Stephen before his martyrdom, and lastly to Paul as one born out of due season (1 Cor. 15. 8) than He disappears and returns to His hidden state, with the Father in Heaven. And St. Paul seems to suggest that man is back to having a relationship with the hidden God. Your life is hid with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 3) He did say that, didn’t he? But what does he mean by it? Surely, he is not advocating what passes for most as real religion and Christian experience these days? Plainly, he is not urging us onwards towards some kind of private affair, a hidden relationship, between you and a god who keeps your life hid within himself never to be challenged, questioned, or called to account by Mother Church or your fellow Christians. Nor can he be calling us to the kind of a la carte religion that picks and chooses what it wants, when it wants, and how it wants in order to ward off unwelcome advances by an intrusive and overly interested God?
No, this is not what St. Paul is suggesting at all. Rather, what he has in mind is a kind of hiddenness that points to an unbreakable intimacy and communion with God. The word is not pejorative but positive. For St. Paul, being hid with Christ in God (Idem) points to a relationship whose nature and value are known fully by Christ and shall be discovered by us progressively if we see to find the secret of it. He makes the conclusion because of the radical belief that Christ indeed has already taken our lives within Himself back to the Father. And this is not to say merely that He has Risen and Ascended to God as a kind of occult medium between man and God in general. This is no paranormal mystical movement, no cosmic sentimental syrup for New Age superstitious slothful slugs. No, indeed, St. Paul means that Christ has returned human life to the God the Father for the beginning of a relationship whose bond cannot be broken by any created principality, power, or dominion. To put it more exactly, because He has lovingly taken our old fallen nature into death, now He raises it up and returns it to God forever. Because He has taken it up again, enlivened it, and returned it to a place where no harm can happen unto it, St. Paul says rightly that our life is hid with Christ in God. (Idem) But more importantly for St. Paul, Christ has taken us into Himself, and in the scars and wounds which He exposes in the hands and feet of His Resurrected Body, He reveals that the men of all ages can be reconciled to God the Father. Suffering and death have always been seen as an obstacle to man’s relationship with God. But for Christians, the suffering and death of Jesus Christ are the fundamental building blocks that lay the foundation of a faith relationship whose life is now hid with Christ in God. (Idem)
But how do we find this relationship through the Risen Lord with whom our life is hid in God? The Apostles had a hard enough time seeing how man’s life could be hid with Christ in God in His death on Good Friday. What were they to make of His Resurrection on Easter Sunday? The struggle between life and death and sin and righteousness must have nearly conquered their already teetering faith. Perhaps George Herbert’s poem about the life that is hid with Christ in God (Idem) will be of use:
MY words & thoughts do both expresse this notion,
That Life hath with the sun a double motion.
The first Is straight, and our diurnall friend,
The other Hid and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapt In flesh, and tends to earth:
The other winds towards Him, whose happie birth
Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
Quitting with daily labour all My pleasure,
To gain at harvest an eternall Treasure.
The poet tells us that life has a double motion or meaning. First, its external, visible, and physical life is illuminated by the sun in the sky. This is straightforward; we are enlivened and illuminated by the sun who is our diurnal or daily friend. This life is earthly and mundane. The second life is inward and spiritual. Here another sun enlivens and illuminates us. This is God’s Son who is transcendent and heavenly. Here the spiritual sun longs to enlighten and enliven our hearts and souls. The first life is wrapped up in earthly flesh and tends towards death. The second life is heavenward bent and leaps up to heaven inspired by Christ’s birth. Christ’s birth has taught us that with one eye on earthly life we tend towards His death. Yet, always with our other eye -the spiritual eye, we can focus on that light which leads back to Heaven’s life. And so with the poet we must toil and labor to be enlivened and illuminated by the greater sun, God’s own Son, so that at the Harvest of Souls we might be rewarded with God’s eternal treasure.
We must, therefore, keep our mind’s eye on that double motion of death and new life that we find in Jesus Christ. Our mind’s eye must beware of living in the light that leads only to the first death that will become the second eternal and unending death. Our mind’s eye must then see the sun and its other light so that we might follow Christ into the everlasting joy of eternal life. CHRIST being raised from the dead dieth no more: death hath no more dominion over Him. For in that He died, He died unto sin once: but in that He liveth, He liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin: but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. vi. 9) Christ Jesus our Saviour is Risen from the dead. He invites us to become a part of that double motion that has destroyed death and generated new life. So we must seek those things which are above. (Col. iii. 1) Not above and beyond our reach, but above and beyond our wildest dreams and imaginings, above and beyond what we desire or deserve, above and beyond the threats of the world, the flesh, or the devil. And yet not above and beyond what God’s love can and will do for us. God’s love overcomes sin with righteousness and death with life. The double motion of earthly and heavenly life is bound up in the light of God’s sun, Jesus Christ. Seeming contraries are now swallowed up into Christ’s victorious love. What we seek is not above and beyond God’s ever-healing touch, His ever-quickening Spirit, or His ever-present desire to save His people. But yes, above and within the heart of Jesus, whose Glorified Body and Life are with the Father and also with us. Yes, above and within Jesus Christ Himself, in whom every aspect of our lives can become a new occasion for our rising up and out of ourselves, mortifying [our] members which are upon earth; [up and out of] our uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness….(Col. iii. 5) In our bodies, because hid within His Risen and Glorified Body. In our souls, because hid within His Risen and Glorified human Soul. In our manhood, because hid within His Manhood that invites us to discover the hidden depths of the Father’s hidden love. Christ is risen from the dead. Sin is finished, death is finished, Satan is finished, if only we shall believe that our life is hid with Christ in God. (Col. iii. 3)
CHRIST is risen from the dead: and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death: by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die: even so in Christ shall all be made alive. 1 Cor. xv. 20. To be hid with Christ in God, we must be made alive. To be made alive we must become assimilated to Christ’s work, here and now, as we become part of His Glorified Body in time and space. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (St. John vi. 51) What is our life? To be hid with Christ in God. How can it be perfected? We must sit down and taste His meat (Herbert, “Love bade me welcome…”). Christ’s meat is His Body and Blood which we shall receive in the Holy Communion. This is the perpetual offering of Himself to us. When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we do show the Lord’s death, until He comes again. (1 Cor. xi. 26) What do we show? His death. What does that mean? We take His death into us. What does it bring? New life in Him. When we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we do begin to reckon [ourselves] to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans vi. 11)
Thanks be to God that giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. xv. 57) On this Resurrection morn, let us remember that the motion of our destiny must be a double motion. If we intend with pleasure/ To gain at harvest and eternal treasure, we must be dying daily to earthly sin. There can be no eternal joy unless we have been broken over and over again through His death. New life demands death. False happiness, superficial earthliness, shortcuts to the kingdom, and all refusals to face the facts of our sin must die. We must die in the light of one sun to come live through another. [Our] life hath with the sun a double motion.... Monsignor Knox tells us that death, burial, resurrection comprise the secret of all sanctity. Our secret may be hid with Christ in God, but its joy must be experienced in our intimacy with Christ so that we cannot help but give it to all others. My…Life…is…Hid…in…Him…that…is…my…Treasure. (Idem) Happy Easter. 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 Jesus Christ. 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. For the Apostles have been following Jesus for some three years, and they have experienced the hand of God at work in Him. 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 frightful prophesies and impending doom. Perhaps if the Apostles were anything like you and me, they might have forgotten or chosen to ignore the negative in Jesus, focusing only on his powerful and loving presence. Surely what was coming would not be all that bad. It couldn’t be as grim as He implied. Perhaps this is what they thought. At any rate, surely Jesus the Son of the Most High God would be able to work some miracle or wonder in order to lessen the severity of possible unpleasantness. For this, they hoped and prayed.
But what we observe tonight cannot be disconnected or severed from the complete and total fabric which we call the life of Jesus Christ. The signs and the wonders had been performed in order to lead to a deeper reality that is about to unfold before our very eyes. The power of God is with and in Jesus. He has come to redeem human nature through rejection, suffering and death. Jesus and the Father are one. He has been tempted to reject his Father’s will and way, but He has successfully resisted this to the end. The outcome has been the revelation of God’s Grace in every aspect of His earthly life. For what we find in the life of Jesus, prior to the end, tonight, and then tomorrow is the real desire of God for His people. God has been at work in Jesus reconciling the world to Himself. (2 Cor. V. 19) Through Jesus, God has spoken the words of promise. Through Jesus, God has communicated the way to salvation. Through Jesus, God has revealed that He is never far away and distant, but rather always present and powerful. His power in Jesus has opened the eyes of the blind, unloosed the tongues of the dumb, and moved lame legs. His love has been manifested in the constant desire of God for His people. God has been at work in the life of Jesus. The today of God has never been denied by Jesus, and that reality persists in the drama of tonight.
Tonight’s celebration marks the Last Supper that Jesus will share with the Apostles. Tonight, Christ shares the Passover supper with his friends. He has broken bread and poured out wine, offered it to His friends, and said that this bread and wine will become His Body and his Blood. What it means is surely obscure and hidden from the Apostles at that time. But what is crucial to our meditation upon it is that Christ still offers the today of God to his friends. The today of God will become something of greater meaning and substance after His Resurrection and Ascension and at the Pentecost. But on this night, He continues to piece together the elements of His life as they begin to form the future of God’s today. He offers His friends a meal that is packed full of promise, as the today of God’s desire and love continues to call and summon those who believe and those who will follow. Bread is broken; wine is poured out. Tomorrow a body will be broken and blood will be poured out. The two will not be, in the end, divided, but one will become the other as God’s love in Christ moves beyond the confines of history. Tonight the body –soon to be broken on the Cross, stoops down to wash and to cleanse the dirty feet of its disciples. In the today of God’s nearness, Jesus reveals to us that He is the servant of His Father’s Love and ministers it to others as He has always done. In the today of tonight’s Gospel, Jesus waits upon his friends. In the today of tomorrow’s meaning, He will do the same in another form. 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, is but one revelation coming from the loving heart of God and shown forth in the actions and gestures of Jesus. Tonight seems warm and reassuring. Tomorrow will be ghastly and horrific. Both combine to give to us the one Today of God’s purpose and intention, behold I make all things new. (Rev. xxi. 5)
But there is more to the today of God’s nearness that we should see and grasp as we move through the drama of the Last Supper and Good Friday. What Jesus does is who He is, as the desire of God’s today. What Jesus does and who He is are what He intends for us to become. 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 must do this, that we might be strengthened and nourished by His presence in the inner man. The today of God desire and service approaches us, first on the outside and then within.
Tonight, Jesus comes to wash our feet, and, with Peter, we react with horrified surprise and proud resistance. Lord, thou shalt never wash my feet. (St. John xiii. 8) Our instinct is to refuse God’s desire to wait upon us and to cleanse us. This is our arrogance and pride. Our sense is that the holy one of God should never stoop down to the level of our sinfulness. God is high, we are low; the Master should never condescend to the 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) In the today of God’s nearness, again, we learn that God stoops down from heaven to wash our dirty feet, the dirty feet of our souls. In the today of God’s nearness, we learn that God stoops down from heaven to offer us imself completely, not just to wash and cleanse us with water and blood, but to feed us also with His flesh and His blood. In the today of God’s nearness, we learn that God is ever present to heal and save us, to give himself to us and for us, to nourish and strengthen us with nothing less than Himself, at work in our souls. God will bring us into death and new life.
Tonight, we learn that the God of today is a loving God, one who knocks at the doors of our souls in order to make all things new. The God of today is in Jesus Christ and we need Him. If He does not wash us, if He does not die for us, if He does not rise for us, then we can have no part with [Him], and the salvation He brings. We do need Him. The outward and visible sign of God’s service today for us is seen in Jesus who washes the disciples’ feet. The outward and visible sign of God’s service today is seen in Jesus who will feed us forever in the future with broken bread and poured out wine. The outward and visible sign of God’s service tomorrow will be seen in a broken body and poured out blood. Will we allow the today of God to touch us, to wash us, to cleanse us? Will we realize that God’s stooping down in Jesus Christ is nothing short of bearing our burden, taking on our sinful predicament and condition? Will we begin to understand that God alone in Jesus Christ can endure and overcome our sinful pride, envy, wrath, murder, sloth, indifference, greed, lust, and so forth? Will our eyes be opened to the fact that our sin has willed his death?
And 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. I die and you will die. I will rise and so shall you. Come follow me. My Body will be your body. My Spirit will be your spirit. My life and my love I offer to you, always and everywhere, ever broadening, ever expanding. God’s love for you in me. Your love for God in me. Come follow me, and you shall find your true life. Come follow me, and you shall find your true love. 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. Amen.
Although all be offended, yet will not I.
(St. Mark xiv. 29)
We ought to remind ourselves that our membership in the mystical Life of Christ is no easy business. To become a tried and true member of the life of the Crucified One takes time, practice, the development of spiritual discipline, and an ongoing surrender to the Mind of Christ that longs always to remold and remake us. One thing that we learn about the spiritual life today is that membership in the life of Christ requires vigilance, acuity, or alert. Of all the virtues that protect and defend the spiritual life, the need for watching and waiting is of preeminent importance. Watching and waiting demand, of course, stillness and silence as we face our demons and overcome them with the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. To be vigilant means to be awake, circumspect, alert, cautious, and ready for whatever the devil may throw our way. And what we ought, at all costs, to be prepared for is the devil’s determination to lead us into the sin that separates us from Jesus Christ -our way, truth, life that leads back to God the Father through the Holy Spirit.
The supreme act of sin is illustrated for us today in the freely will choice of Judas Iscariot. Because Jesus refused to become Israel’s political liberator from Roman domination, Judas sells Him for thirty pieces of silver. One tradition has it that Judas orchestrated his Master’s arrest so that Jesus might be provoked at last to use His Divine Power to banish the Roman occupiers and to put down the Jewish Sanhedrin, whose comfortable cohabitation with the Roman occupiers was viewed by many as malicious betrayer. Judas wanted Jesus to reveal His Divine power once and for all in the interests of Israel’s temporal and earthly restoration. But, Jesus would have nothing to do with such an earthly passion that was possessed by life in the City of Man. So Judas betrayed His Master. Later he will repent. despair, and hang himself.
Today we are called to be vigilant against the temptation to provoke Jesus Christ to meet our earthy needs by overcoming our earthly suffering and sorrow. We are called also to be vigilant against demanding Divine intervention when we have not done our part in conditioning our lives to the operation of Divine Grace. So we are called to be awake to the fact that Jesus Christ does not come to us to ensure the prosperity and peace or the comfort and enjoyment of this life in this world. Jesus Christ came to die for the sins of the whole world, and in so doing to bring that old, limited, fallen human nature, alienated from God, to death. In His death Christians find the first beginnings and stirrings of their own death –death to the world, the flesh, and the devil. Today we ask ourselves, How have we betrayed Jesus Christ in our lives? Have we sold Him for next to nothing, and thus betrayed Him because we pursue earthly and temporal peace, comfort, accommodation, happiness, and contentment? Have we betrayed Him because we will not allow Him to reign as King Supreme from the soil of our souls and so to guide our footsteps to His Kingdom?
In a similar vein, we must be on guard against that kind of relationship with Jesus Christ that depends upon another kind of earthliness. That would be the demand for bodily, physical, and sensory ecstatic or transfiguration moments. Holy Week teaches us that our relation to God hinges upon suffering and death. Our spiritual state in relation to the Father, through Jesus Christ, and by His Holy Spirit, can never be measured solely by the body’s feelings, sensations, emotions, and passions. It is good for us to experience Him at a distance and almost as absent at times so that we might contemplate His glorious power, wisdom, and love. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. God often seems to be far away and removed from our senses because He wants us to learn to fear and obey Him out of spiritual love. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the holy is understanding (Prov. ix. 10) The fear of the Lord is that awesome apprehension of the One upon whom all life and salvation depend. The fear of the Lord engenders that poor in spirit self-knowledge of powerlessness and utter dependence upon God for both being and redemption. The fear of the Lord moves a man to ponder, wonder, study, explore, and investigate the ways of God.
This is the fear of the Lord which St. Peter had forgotten throughout Christ’s Passion because he feared men. Because of it, his rash, enthusiastic, even premature determination never to be offended by Jesus Christ came to naught. Not only does he eventually abandon Jesus, but he even denies ever having known him. An overly enthusiastic, impulsive, compulsive, and impetuous relation to Jesus Christ is very dangerous indeed. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. (St. Matthew xiii. 20, 21) Faith that is not rooted and grounded securely in the fear of the Lord and obedience thrives temporarily and then dies a swift death. It is, more often than not, unpremeditated, unrestrained, and unthoughtful. It reveals superficial religion, too close to the immediate gratification of the body, to pain and pleasure, to fear and trepidation, to the changes and chances of this fleeting world. It is unstable and uncertain, and in the end, with St. Peter, is as easily swayed to deny the Lord as it was to defend Him heroically to the end. It is rash and not grounded in the silence and stillness that contemplate God’s nature.
Today we must ask ourselves, How have I denied Jesus Christ? How have my thoughts, words, and deeds denied any familiarity or acquaintance with the Suffering Servant and the Lord of God’s Love? How have I talked the talk but refused to walk the walk up to the place of Love’s new birth on Calvary Hill? How have I failed to accept that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and that obedience to His will through Grace leads to true understanding?
Let us pray today for vigilance. Couldest thou not watch one hour? Watch ye and pray lest ye enter into temptation. The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak. (St. Mark xiv. 37, 38) Let us pray for the fear of the Lord, obedience to His commands, and a determination to follow Him silently and conscientiously, to watch, see, and learn what the Lord of Love will do for us from His Tree of New Life. Amen.
And he answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly.
(St. Matthew 27. 19)
There is a good deal of silence that is meant to surround us as a response to the Passion and Crucifixion of the Son of God during Holy Week. Holy Week has been set aside from the time of the early Church to ponder our Lord’s suffering in silence and stillness. If we approach this time with a determined silence and stillness, we will, no doubt, find that it assaults and confounds our human reason, as it tears and wrenches the human heart from the fulfillment of its usual desire. But if we sustain the stillness, and with a silent mind ponder the unfolding drama of Holy Week, a reassuring blanket of divine quiet might begin to warm the soul this week, enveloping it with the Word that desires to be made flesh in us so that we might journey with Jesus from death to new life.
In the lections for today, we already begin to observe the truth that will emerge through the trial, arrest, and condemnation of Jesus Christ. There is a lot of commotion. Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judaea, will attempt to bring calm and stillness out of chaos and confusion, on what should be just another fine Friday afternoon in an ordinary outpost of Caesar’s Empire. He seems a reasonable enough man, who is neither drawn to nor impressed by the religion of the Jewish Aristocracy, which has stirred up the people of Jerusalem. He is commissioned with enforcing the Pax Romana –the peace of Octavian, that has successfully stilled and silenced the then civilized world. Earthly calm and peace comprise his vocation. Mostly he will try to treat this Jesus of Nazareth as the cause of a small-town Jewish family squabble from which he longs to wash his hands. But he cannot, for it threatens the peace of Caesar’s city. So he will aim at commanding silence and stillness in order to reestablish that kind of peace that all Romans cherished. In the service of Roman Law, he will rebuke the Jews and urge them to judge Christ themselves, or send Him to Herod. (St. Matthew xxvii. 14) Needless to say, none of this works. To complicate matters, another kind of stillness, silence, and peace will emerge from this Christ. It will be so unsettling that Pilate marvels greatly. (Ibid, 14) For Pilate knows that out of envy the Jews have delivered Jesus up. Yet, their jealousy threatens the Pax Romana. The city’s peace must be maintained. Caesar’s rule cannot be questioned. Pilate’s wife will tell him to have nothing do with that just man (St. Matthew xxvii. 19) and in a sense he will try to do just that. But the crowd will demand that Barabbas be released and Jesus crucified. Pilate desires stillness and silence and then finds himself drawn into the noisome conflict: Why, what evil hath he done?(Ibid, 23) Pilate will exclaim. The Jews are not interested in any alleged crime. They want blood. Let Him be crucified, they cry. So, in response to that determined envy that promises only to breed 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 Pax Romana is asserted. The Jews will confess: His blood be on us, an on our children. (Ibid, 25)
Pilate will believe that he has rid the world of Jesus Christ for political expedience. The Jews hatred of Him will be quenched. Even the disappearance of His Apostles into hiding seems promising for the silence and stillness of the Roman Peace. The problem seems to have been solved quickly and satisfactorily. The greater silence and stillness in Christ’s heart that ensure His obedience to the Father have not, as yet, startled and triggered others into consciousness of what is transpiring. The still and silent core of His mission and meaning have not yet found fertile ground in men’s souls. And so the external chaos of this week will drive them into the world of sadness and confusion. Then saith Jesus unto them, 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) God’s own Good Shepherd and Sacrificial Lamb, it would appear, are rejected on a number of different levels, and for a variety of reasons. Men always find reasons to explain why they persist in being lost sheep.
But for a few others, the silence and stillness of the dying Son of God will begin to move the ground of their souls. From the still and silent center of His obedience to the Father, this Jesus of Nazareth will begin to speak to those whose stillness and silence comprise the fertile ground that can receive His meaning. Christ the Word will be heard and heeded, slowly, even imperceptibly, by those who have chosen to believe and to follow. Even now as the world and its words assault and kill the human Jesus, the Word of God persists and endures in order to speak from the stillness and silence of His dying heart. For this Word made flesh –this Jesus Christ, is always dying to Himself and coming alive to the Father for the world. He did not cease to do so, especially when He will be most tempted to do so in and through His earthly suffering and death. He came from God and He will return to God. But not before He willingly offers himself to God and man by laying down His life in death so that all might live.
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’s silence and stillness in suffering and death are the centrifugal points around which His mission of service is perfected. Here, He does not desperately pry into the secrets of His Father’s will and plan. He is content to humbly obey. Rather, He prefers to die so that the Father’s will might be realized in Him and for all. He will become the new Man, the Second Adam, who once again is happily free because in silence and stillness, He joyfully obeys and fulfils the Father’s desire. He knows that only in silence and stillness, only in death to Himself, can the Father’s plan and purpose emerge into new life.
This week, I pray, that each of us shall make time to travel with Jesus up to His Cross. Some people are too busy to do so. But let us make an effort to travel up to Golgotha in this place and at set times. Let us come to this place when the busy world is hushed and the feverish day is over to be still and quiet in order to be confronted by Christ’s silent and still adhesion to the Father’s Word. All of us can go with Christ to his Cross. We can travel with the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John looking and listening, though we might be very confused and bewildered. This Word of God in Christ will be mostly silent. Pilate marveled, and so should we. This Word 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), we will begin to see as the Word of God’s Love in the flesh. This is a Love that first touches and moves the still and silent hearts of those who remain faithful to it. This is the Love that was first seen and heard in miracles and parables, and now persists in revealing itself to others from that ample supply of forgiveness and hope still remaining to be shared by this Man from His Cross. Ultimately and perfectly He still loves and gives so that all men might live.
On this Palm Sunday we hear Hosanna to the Son of David; Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. And yet it seems that no sooner has the jubilant song of praise and celebration been sung than the new malevolent cries for Christ’s execution rise and swell. Crucify Him. Crucify Him. Let him be crucified. We must try to pry silence and stillness out of this inconstant and fickle emotion. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53. 4-6)
Let us follow the Word, and quietly listen to the words of T. S. Eliot:
If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness
and Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word. (Ash Wednesday V)
In stillness and silence let us acknowledge that our lost words are lost and our spent words are spent. They are dead. Let us remember that that God’s Word alone brings life, meaning, and salvation. Let us hear Christ the Word in silence and stillness from the Cross of Calvary. Amen.
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 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. The majority of men in our own time 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. Or he or she is using arrogance and hubris as a shield against their own fear of confronting themselves and then necessarily finding God. If such a person goes on to describe the philosophy or theology that moves him, what emerges usually amounts to little more than a spiritualization of feeling. If it feels good, and I do it, it must be authentic and morally good. Of course, such a philosophy of life is nothing more than an adolescent approach to reality, where the ideal of adult behavior has long since vanished, since adult behavior would testify of norms and ideals, which our society has deemed hurtful.
Of course, Jesus Christ meets all opposition to God’s 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, who have stopped caring about Jesus Christ because they are drenched, drowned, saturated, and soaked in the pagan culture which envelopes and enables them, it is no small wonder that Jesus Christ and His message are not only alien but antagonistic. They have become habituated and hardened to a new religious dogma whose benefits demand that they have a spiritual right to feel good, and do whatsoever pleases them. With Christ, they find a real enemy of their secular religion, and thus soon become they become the new Pharisees. What is threatened is their supposed freedom. In Christ and His religion they fear only what will enslave and oppress them to the shackles that impede their progress. 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, and forever binding upon their consciences. Who and what they fear most is Christ.
So they are like the Pharisees in this morning’s Gospel who find Jesus Christ who questions their religion and the gods whom they worship. Because they are so unacquainted with the Divine Goodness they can only react to what they consider to be evil. Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil? (St. John viii. 48) What is alien, strange, and contradictory of our ways and mores we fear. That we might be questioned about our choices and customs might irritate or enrage us. Jesus of Nazareth calls most of our lives into question. And when He does, wouldn’t we rather think that the problem is more with Him than us? This is how we convince ourselves that we need not heed with too much seriousness who Jesus says He is and what He asks of us. If He irritates us merely, 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 common sense. If He succeeds in enraging us, we proceed to silence and kill Him.
Of course, technically speaking, we are right. Who He says He is and what He asks are beyond the reach of what most mortal men think makes sense! If who He says He is was within the scope of human intelligent creativity, we would have invented it long ago and saved ourselves. 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 Father…[He] has come from God…that [he came] not of [Himself], [but was] sent. (St. John viii. 42)The Pharisees are irritated because they can’t imagine that Jesus could ever be who He says He is, and so condemn Him as demon-possessed. Their rage is enkindled when He challenges their reliance on a Law that cannot save them. 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. (St. John 8. 49-50) Jesus comes to honor all men with God the Father’s desire for their salvation. The Pharisees honor themselves and seek glory from men. Those who are sinking and going to decay boast most of how other men hold them in the highest esteem. Christ knows that their arrogance stands only to make them not better but worse. What He offers, He has received from the Father, and honors it as what alone can touch human hearts and transform them with eternal glory. He is sent by the Father on a Divine Mission: My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me and to finish His work. (St. John iv. 34) What He will offer is something that the world has never before experienced in quite this way.
We are irritated and might become enraged. Jesus claims that if a man keeps [His] saying, he shall never see death. (Ibid) What He promises to faith exceeds our wildest imagination. We are offended because He challenges us to imagine something beyond our frail powers. 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) The Pharisees mean: 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 their words are as dead as they. So, we cannot believe that your words will ensure our everlasting life.
This is the response of all men who conclude that God’s transcendent Word was dead to Abraham. 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. (St. John 8. 54-58) Christ the Word teaches us that human life is made by God to be blessed, honored, transformed, and perfected by the indwelling Word of God’s love. What He communicates to the world as the Word made flesh is God’s love for His people and passion for their salvation. Christ discloses also that His Father has always intended to save and deliver His people. Christ keeps the Father’s saying because it is the power of love that through Him will save all men. The Father’s saying is the Word of love that moves and enlivens the whole of the universe. The Father’s saying is the Word of love that longs for His people in the life of His Son. This is the same unchanging Word of God, the same saying that moved Abraham to hope in salvation and the life with God that never ends. 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 eternally-begotten Word of love for you. Will you follow me? If our faith is dead like that of the ancient Pharisees, our irritation will become the rage that kills Jesus and longs to drag Him into our spiritual death. Then took they up stones to cast at him…. (St. John viii. 59)
Jesus, God’s Word as flesh 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 that passion that longs to come near to us on this Passion Sunday. This is the passion is that Love that does not count the cost. His Love is as broad as the universe and as deep as the human heart of Jesus Christ. His Love incessantly, persistently, and relentlessly desires to make us His own. His Love is His Passion. This is the Passion that stirred Abraham to hope for the salvation of the nations through God’s Word. This is the Passion that resonated, reverberated, and resounded in the spirits of those ancient souls who heard God’s Word and were athirst for God, yea, even for the living God…. (Ps. xlii. 2) This is the Passion of God in Jesus Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, to purge our conscience from dead works so that we might begin to serve the living God. (Hebrews ix. 11)
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 and it means to suffer, endure, or even to be hurt or wounded. Today, Christ calls us into a vison of His suffering love. He calls us also to overcome our prideful irritation and arrogant rage with a humble desire for the love that He brings. Our first opening to His passion will not feel good. He comes near to us. If we are humble enough, His approach will challenge and shake us. If we remain with Him, He will begin to smite and wound us. If we persevere with Him up to His Cross, we shall be smitten and wounded by His suffering death. So let us consider Christ’s approach and with Henry Vaughn gaze with awe upon the Love that dies to smite and wound us into a death that cannot help but lead to new and glorious life.
Ah, my dear Lord! What couldst thou spy
In this impure, rebellious clay,
That made thee thus resolve to die
For those that kill thee every day?
O what strange wonders could thee move
To slight thy precious blood and breath!
Sure it was Love, my Lord: for Love
Is only stronger far than death.
(Henry Vaughn, ‘Incarnation and Passion’)
But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
(Gal. iv. 26)
At the very beginning of Lent Jesus said to his disciples, Behold we go up to Jerusalem. (St. Luke xviii. 31) We began our journey at Christ's command. Long journeys are hard work, and this Lenten journey is no exception. For nearly some seven weeks Christians are invited to walk with Jesus towards Jerusalem. Walking to Jerusalem is what our lives are all about. We walk with Jesus in order to see how He conquers the temptations of Satan and triumphs over sin for us. We walk with Jesus to discover that, like the woman of Canaan, we are more like dogs than men, aliens and exiles to God’s promises, and yet wholly hanging upon crumbs that fall from His table. So, we learn to long humbly for that mercy that persists in obtaining Jesus' mercy and healing. As dogs, we learn also that we are, more often than not, dumb and mute, incapable of comprehending and articulating God’s Word and will in our lives until His inward Grace opens our spiritual senses to His desire.
Our Lenten pilgrimage with Jesus up to Jerusalem, (St. Matthew xx. 18) will not be easy. We learn much about ourselves on this journey, and so we become spiritually exhausted. We grow haggard, hungry, and perhaps even dejected and discouraged. Lenten fasting and abstinence do that to a person. At times, we become distracted and even lose our way. The pull and tug of certain temptations may well have been overcome, but seven other demons worse than ourselves threaten to consume us. (St. Matthew xii. 45) Satan realizes that he is losing our spirits, and so he attacks our bodies with renewed vigor through the elements of this world. (Galatians iv. 3) We have the best of intentions and yet feel ourselves the children of the proverbial Hagar, the bond woman –mother of an earthly bastard child. We do want to become free men, children of promise, and followers of Jesus, who go up to Jerusalem which is above… and is free. (Galatians iv. 26) And yet it seems the more we try that further back we fall.
So today Jesus Christ and His Bride, the Church, provide us with what we need. Today is Dominica Refectionis –Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday: the day on which Mother Church asks us to sit down and rest awhile, to find some spiritual refreshment so that our pursuit of Jesus Christ will not be in vain. Today we are asked to stop, to breathe, and to contemplate Jerusalem which is above… and is free. (Ibid) So we read that Jesus went up into a mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. (St. John vi. 3) Jesus bids us come with Him to the mountain of His holiness so that He might strengthen us for our continuing Lenten journey. He knows that we are in danger of spiritual languor and listlessness. So, He intends to provide us with that spiritual food which will give us dogged and dauntless determination to press on.…Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) St. John Chrysostom tells us that Jesus calls us up to rest at intervals from the tumults and confusion of common life. For solitude is a thing meet for the study of wisdom. And often doth He go up alone into a mountain, and spend the night there, and pray, to teach us that the man who will come most near to God must be free from all disturbance, and must seek times and places clear of confusion. (St.J.C.: Sermon…)
So, we must sit down, listen, and trust. And yet in Lent, worn out as we are, when asked by Jesus, Whence shall we buy bread that [we all] may eat? (St. John vi. 5), our minds jump back to earthly provisions for earthly refreshment. Jesus asks this question this morning to prove Philip, for he Himself knew what he would do. (St. John vi. 6) He intends to enlarge and deepen Philip's faith so that he might find refreshment in spiritual and not earthly food. Philip has seen the finger of God at work in the miracles that Jesus has performed. Will he believe that Jesus can provide food that no man can find or afford and that can satisfy far more than the physical hunger of a paltry five thousand? What measure of faith does Philip have? Philip answers, as most of us would, as one in bondage to the elements of this world. He responds that even two-hundred penny worth is not enough for this crowd. (St. John vi. 7) Philip is thinking in earthly terms and thus calculates the monetary cost of feeding the hungry thousands. Too many people, too little money, he conjectures. Thus, Jesus intends to reveal the smallness and poverty of Philip’s faith. His faith should have been in process of enlarging and expanding because the same Jesus who made water into wine at the Wedding in Cana of Galilee would surely be able to feed the hungry multitude. His faith should have seen too that if Christ has asked whence shall we buy bread that He intended to provide refreshment of another kind and from another source.
Philip’s faith is small and weak because of what they do not have. Andrew’s faith is small and weak because of what they do have. There is a young lad who hath five barley loaves and two fishes, but what are they among so many? (St. John vi. 9) As Philip’s faith was overcome by too much, Andrew’s was constrained by too little. To offer so little to so many could only stand to mock and offend them, Andrew thought.
True faith can often be destroyed because we conclude that we never have enough or we complain about having too little. Jesus tells us to sit down, listen, and trust. He asks us to remember that we are going up to Jerusalem, that we are dogs eating from the crumbs that fall from His table (St. Matt. xv. 27), and that we must not only hear the Word of God but keep it. (St. Luke xi. 28) Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (St. John vi. 10) The disciples obey the Master, though as yet they have nothing to set before the guests. Nature serves her Master and so affords Him and His guests a plush, green carpet of cushioned grass. And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. (Ibid, 11) Before we make use of God’s gifts to us, we must give thanks. What He gives to us is more than sufficient to satisfy our hunger. Jesus asks us to entrust our wellbeing to Him as we travel up to the Jerusalem of our salvation. Five loaves and two fishes will feed five thousand. Tiny morsels, fragments, or crumbs that are blessed by God’s Word will always be sufficient to fill and refresh hungry souls. Andrew’s poverty becomes Philip’s plenty. Something small becomes something great. The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field. (St. Matthew xiii. 31)
Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof. (Ibid, 32) Jesus says, gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) Faith is fed with such spiritual plenty that fragments remain from Christ’s feast –twelve baskets full to continue to refresh twelve Apostles and the multitudes in the world whom they will convert. Those who think that Jesus Christ comes to satisfy only earthly hunger are in bondage to the elements of this world. (Gal. iv. 3) They are the children of Hagar. They are like Christians who pursue earthly needs and wants to the detriment of their souls. Their faith rests in earthly things and does not enlarge to embrace Christ’s true desire for man. To them nothing remains of Christ’s desire to feed the faith of their souls. But faith’s sustenance is food for men wayfaring. As St. Hilary suggests, The substance [of the five barley loaves and two fishes] progressively increases. (The Passing of the Law: St. Hilary of Poitiers) And as Archbishop Trench says, So we have here a visible symbol of that love which exhausts not itself by loving, but after all its outgoings upon others, multiplies in an ongoing multiplying which is always found in true giving.... (Par’s. p. 213) Christ does not exhaust His loving power merely in provisions for the needs of the flesh. His love intends always to fortify, enlarge, and refresh that faith that will follow Him up to Jerusalem which is above, and is free. (Gal. iv. 26)
Therefore the Apostles gathered the fragments together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. (St. John vi. 13) St. Augustine tells us that the fragments that remained were the parts that the people could not yet eat. (Tr. xxiv. 6) What remains over and above from this miracle is the spiritual meat that the people cannot yet eat. Yet, Jesus says, if you follow me, you will desire to eat of these fragments that remain. In the fragments that remain are hidden gifts of mystic meaning. In the fragments are contained the more of God’s food, which Jesus will give to them that hunger and thirst after righteousness. (St. Matthew v. 6) Jesus always provides more and better food to those who follow Him in faith. Faith sees that the more than the multitude can eat is Spirit and is Truth. Within fragments and crumbs of earthly food lie hidden the spiritual nourishment of God’s Grace that will be food for men wayfaring. There is more to be seen, grasped, and ingested of this Giver and His gifts, but not until the eyes of faith are opened and the believer’s heart is softened. Let us then gather up the fragments that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) We will need them, for remember, behold we go up to Jerusalem, and mere earthly fare will never feed and sustain a faith that seeks to behold and plumb the depths of that love that never stops giving. Amen.
Against thee only have I sinned and done that which is evil in thy sight…(Ps. Li. 4)
Ultimately when we sin we rebel against God. Even when we sin against our neighbors, we are sinning against God because they are His craftsmanship and work and deserving of our righteous respect. At the end of the day, whether we sin against others or ourselves, we shall have to give an account of our sinning before God our Righteous Judge. In the final reckoning, all sinners must deal with God.
The good news is that God’s nature and property is always to have mercy and to forgive. (Penitential Service, BCP, p. 63) God desires that we should approach Him and repent so that He might forgive us. Sin for God is something that we must claim, confess, and own. Sin for God is something over which we must be contrite, compunctious, remorseful, and ashamed. Sin for God is no call to punishment, but a signal for forgiveness. God is love and that love is always ready to forgive sorry sinners.
But God does not forgive sinners without conditions. The sinner must repent and be in possession of a temper that is truly sorry for his sins to be forgiven. What God forgives is sin and man’s way of obtaining forgiveness is through sorrow over the wrong that he has done. To obtain forgiveness, we must submit ourselves to God’s judgment and then to express our deepest remorse and grief over our rebellion against His Will and Law. God cannot and will not forgive us if we are not sorry.
Now this brings up an interesting point. When should we repent? When we have transgressed God’s Law for human beings. Where is God’s Law found? In Holy Scripture. What is that Law comprised of? Well, basically, what the Church has concluded from Scripture as the Seven Deadly Sins. These sins are not simple but complex and multifarious in meaning. They are pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lust. A good enumeration of their multifarious expressions can be found in the St. Augustine’s Prayer Book. The Seven Deadly Sins comprise all sins that ignore or neglect, violate or overturn, or reject and deny God’s plan for human life. God’s plan includes the redemption of our minds and hearts, or of reason and will. God’s plan involves every choice that we make and every motivation that fuels it. God’s plan involves not only what we do by why we do it. Sin against God’s will is exhaustive and exhausting. And if we don’t repent of all of our sins, we shall not be saved and returned to God.
So we must locate, name, claim, confess, and grieve all of our sins. Only in this way can and will God forgive us. God is too respectful of our created being, of our reason and free will to expect anything less from us. As men are free to obey or disobey the Law of God, so are they free to accept or reject the forgiveness of sins He is always ready to offer to them. (Times of London, The Christian Year, p. 69) Forgiveness is never forced. It cannot be. It must be only and ever be God’s desire for our betterment and perfection. Desire and love are never forced. God longs for us to desire to die to sin and come alive to righteousness, to move out of exile and towards intimate communion with Him. Forgiveness must be desired as what alone can bring sinners from their vice into the operations of Divine Virtue. Forgiveness must be longed for as what alone can bring us all from death into new life
Neither does God overturn the Laws of His truth. Sin is its own punishment. Those who suffer the effects of their sinful choices often endure the abuse, suffering, torture, chastening, discipline, and correction that might very well awaken the soul to its wayward meanderings. Sin often disappoints, especially if the sinner is conscious of his desire for the more lasting, enduring, and permanent joys that he finds in others. Sin might alert him to its imperfect approximation of perfection. Sin might cause a deluge of sorrow and unhappiness to arise in his heart. Sin might hurt his body, his soul, and his spirit. Sin might hurt others and stir the conscience to guilt. Sin might bring pain to those who are awakening to the Spirit. Such pain may very well trigger the desire for forgiveness and the love that heals and saves. Whatever effect sin has on the human soul, God desires that the sinner might turn away from his wickedness which he hath committed to do that which is lawful and right so that he might save his soul alive. (Ez: xviii. 27) The turning is found in conscience that desires finally to abandon alienation and exile from God and to embrace the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sin is freedom from its power and must issue in righteousness which rejoices in the liberty of service to God. (Idem, 69)
To come to see and experience the forgiveness of sins brings the deepest sense of liberation, joy, and peace. It is an act of creative Goodness. (Idem) A man can be said to come alive truly only when the forgiveness of his sins has been registered and appreciated. God alone has created us for Himself and His redemption in Jesus Christ promises always to enlarge the creation by way of the forgiveness of sins. With the forgiveness of sins comes an awareness of new life and the meaning that attaches to it. With the forgiveness of sins comes that piercing truth that life is made for return to God with all of the creative energy that newborn babes desire as they embark on life in God’s new creation. Man is born again, born from above, and regenerated through the forgiveness of sins. The forgiven man becomes aware that he has passed from death unto life, from slavery unto freedom, and from darkness to the light of God’s presence. (Ibid, 70)
Will we accept the forgiveness of sins? We must repent to receive it. We must repent to enjoy its benefits. Will we accept that Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, became the Forgiveness of Sins for us? Will we embrace Him as God’s forgiveness? Will we participate in His mercy and forgiveness and share it with others? Will we see that the Forgiveness of Sins is alive and well in the Holy Spirit of the Father and Jesus His Son? Will this Forgiveness of Sins issue forth in Jesus’ Death and ours? In Him, will we begin to be dead unto sin but alive unto righteousness? This is what Lent is all about.
Blessed is the womb that bare thee and the paps which thou
hast sucked. But Jesus said, Yea rather, blessed are they
that hear the word of God, and keep it.
(St. Luke xi. 27, 28)
In last week's Gospel, a heathen woman taught us how to come to know ourselves, repent of our sins, and to supplicate Christ for His merciful love and His all-powerful healing of body and soul. You will remember that the Syro-Phoenician woman taught us how to express humility and obedience to God- that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. (Collect Lent II) She taught us also that if we are to be healed inwardly and spiritually we must persistently pursue the Lord Jesus and to say at all times O Lord, thou Son of David, have mercy upon me.(St Matthew 15. 22) I hope that like her we came to know ourselves as spiritual whelps or dogs –which is to say that we are never worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under [the Lord’s] table. (Prayer of Humble Access)
I hope that we learned also that the faith of the Syro-Phoenician woman is not meant to reveal a temporary appeal to the Lord. It is meant to become the habit of our lives. We are to come near to the Lord in good times and in bad. We are to search for Him, find Him, and hear His Word persistently in our souls. As Jesus insists in today’s Gospel, Blessed are they that hear the word of God and keep it. (St. Luke 11. 28)
Today, another woman, this time a Jewish one, having witnessed Jesus’ healing of the deaf and dumb man and listening to His Word, praised and lauded Him with these words: Blessed is the womb that bare thee, and the paps that gave thee suck. (St. Luke 11.27) Or, Happy is the Woman that has Thee for her Son. The mother…of one who ‘speaks as never man spoke’, that has so much of the Grace of Heaven in Him and is so great a blessing to this earth, as Matthew Henry explains it. (M. Henry Comm…) But Jesus corrects the woman. He insists that the source and cause of all wisdom and righteousness is God. It may very well be true, and indeed is, that the womb that bare Him and the paps which He had sucked were blessed- His mother was, after all, the Blessed Virgin Mary. But she was blessed because she heard the Word of God, and kept it. In other words, she was blessed, indeed blessed…among women (Luke 1. 42)) because her soul magnified the Lord, and her spirit had rejoiced in God her Saviour.( St. Luke 1. 47) Blessedness comes from hearing God’s Word, retaining it, nourishing it, and giving birth to it literally and spiritually in human life.
Since the source of all truth is God’s Word, we are called to hear this truth, keep and perfect it. Keeping the Word of God in our souls is what faith's pilgrimage back to God is all about. We must not seek to be healed of incidental demons only to travel on our merry way, forgetting about the nature of God’s Word that longs to transform us more deeply and lastingly. We are called not to treat God and His Word as the doctor and his medicine at Urgent Care. Faith seeks for healing on an ongoing basis. Sometimes faith has a particular demon that needs exorcising. Sometimes faith needs help in making it through the common drudgery of life. But faith must always be banishing its vices amassing those virtues that fortify it against the assaults of other demons. Faith seeks comprehensive healing. The medicine of faith must be allowed to cure the body, soul, and spirit if true spiritual health is to be found.
At the beginning of today's Gospel we read that Jesus was casting out a devil and it was dumb.(St. Luke 11. 14) The man whom Jesus finds is physically deaf and dumb. Obviously, then, he can neither hear nor speak. Can we identify with this man? We may not be physically deaf and dumb, but are we spiritually deaf and dumb? Is it possible that we have not heard the Word of God addressing us, because we have been too moved and defined by the noise of this world? If we are honest with ourselves, we must confess that we blither and blabber, shoot out vain words in mindless chatter that makes us deaf to the spiritual address, call, and summons of God in His Word, Jesus Christ. St. Paul tells us that mindless jabber, filthiness, foolish talking, and jesting (Eph. 5. 4) too often express and define our lives. He warns us against being deceived by vain words that provoke the wrath of God. (Ibid, 6) He reminds us also that when we hear the Word, and keep it as a habit in our hearts, we must then give thanks for it. (Ibid, 4) We cannot begin to give thanks to God for His Word, until the demons of our deaf and dumb natures have been cast out and off. Hearing God’s Word and keeping it, St. Paul suggests, cannot come about if we are having fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. (Ibid, 8, 11)
In our Gospel for today we read that When the devil was gone out…of the deaf and dumb man…the dumb (man) spake. (St. Luke 11.14) and the people wondered. Those present were amazed. And so too, in our own fallen world, people will be confused and sore-amazed when we are bent on hearing God’s Word and keeping it. God no sooner unlooses our tongues in new spiritual ways, begins to change our lives, than our family members, friends, and others become judgmental and censorious. In the Gospel today some of them said, He casteth out devils through Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. And others sought a sign from heaven.(St. Luke 11. 15,16) When we begin to hear God’s Word and it begins to grow and mature in our lives, people will suspect that psychological imbalance and mental instability are hard at work within us. They will judge us. Many will become impatient and then indignant with us. Some will sense that this world and the words that enslave them to it are being judged and measured by the still small voice of God’s Word hard at work in our hearts and souls. They might begin to perceive that silence is true Wisdom’s best reply. (Euripides)
But Jesus makes it clear that when our spiritual ears are opened and our spiritual tongues are unloosed, God’s Word and not the devil has responded to man’s silence. If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore shall they be your judges. (Ibid, 19) The Devil disrupts, divides, stirs up, confuses, and confounds men with noise, noise, noise. Jesus says, But if I with the finger of God cast out devils, no doubt the kingdom of God is come upon you. (St. Luke 11.20) It is the finger of God alone that is powerful enough to find our dumb and deaf silence and to infuse it with the healing and salvific Word of Truth. The Devil or Beelzebub ensnares and entangles us in meaningless blubbering, blather, burble, gabble, gibberish, and gossip. Through television, the internet, and the cell phone he whips us up into a world of words, exaggerating our fears, entrenching our anxieties, endangering our relationships, and emboldening our depression. He fills our ears with words that divide and clutter our minds with the noise that makes us deaf to the Word of God. The Devil is no friend of spiritual silence and the Word of God that will liberate all men. He is not divided against himself (St. Luke xi. 18), for his single determination and desire is to sever us from the still small voice of God (1 Kings xix. 12) that would save us.
Someone much stronger than Satan must drive Satan out. Someone whose power can overcome all confusion must enable us to hear and respond to God’s desire once again. That one is God’s Word, spoken to us in the life and mission of Jesus Christ. For when a stronger than [Satan] shall come upon him, and overcome him, he taketh from him all the armour wherein he trusted, and divideth his spoils. (St. Luke 11. 21) When Jesus the Word drives out Satan, Satan's power is gone. When the Word drives the Devil out, then the Devil is silenced. Goodness and healing come from God alone, and Satan is positively dislodged and unhinged when their invasion is at hand. God speaks His healing Word through His Son Jesus Christ and the powers of darkness, disorder, disharmony, and dolor are scattered. The spiritually deaf and dumb can neither hear nor speak unless and until God’s Word of love dismisses and dispels all disorder and enables us to respond to God’s merciful work. Yet, only with our response can sanctification begin. Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it. (St. Luke 11.28)
Keeping the Word of God is the hard part. Because of silence and stillness, the unclean spirit has gone out of us. (Ibid, 24) But then there is a danger. We walk through dry places. (Idem) We have been emptied but not filled, healed of Satan’s indwelling and yet not his future threats. As Abbott Bruno says, we are
Empty, since he finds there no charity, nor true faith, nor humility, nor patience, nor justice, nor mercy, nor any of the other things with which the souls of the saints are furnished. How does he find it? Swept and garnished: he finds it as he desires to find it. (St. Bruno, Toale)
In this Lent, we must find more than courage to welcome Jesus the Strong Man into our hearts. We must pray too for His Holy Spirit so that our sins might be overcome by their logical positive counterparts, God’s virtues. Will we then pray for stillness and silence in our hearts as we long the more earnestly for Christ the Word to infuse us with that holiness that enables us to keep His Word? Will we be blessed because first we heard the Word, and in hearing the Word, we believed, and in believing we safeguarded it? (St. Bruno, Toale) Safeguarding requires the same daily silence and stillness that forever embraces the Word that overcomes all evil within with good. Will we then be blessed because Christ says, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it? (Ibid, 28) Amen.
[Love-2.1-15] Eusebius. Oh! Theophilus, you have forced me now to speak, and I cannot contain the Joy that I feel in this Expectation which you have raised in me. If you can make the Scriptures do all that which you have promised to Theogenes, I shall be in Paradise before I die. For to know that Love alone was the Beginning of Nature and Creature, that nothing but Love encompasses the whole Universe of Things, that the governing Hand that overrules all, the watchful Eye that sees through all, is nothing but omnipotent and omniscient Love, using an Infinity of Wisdom, to raise all that is fallen in Nature, to save every misguided Creature from the miserable Works of its own Hands, and make Happiness and Glory the perpetual Inheritance of all the Creation is a Reflection that must be quite ravishing to every intelligent Creature that is sensible of it. Thus to think of God, of Providence, and Eternity, whilst we are in this Valley and Shadow of Death, is to have a real Foretaste of the Blessings of the World to come. Pray, therefore, let us hear how the Letter of Scripture is a Proof of this God of Love.
To know God as Love seems to commonplace for comment. But post-moderns mistake God as Love with God as Sympathizing Sentimentality. God is not sentimental. God does not affirm us in our sinful rebellion against Him. Love is Wrath when we reject His Will. The Love we speak of here is the Being of Power who enlivens and quickens invisibly all things simultaneously. This Love pierces and penetrates every being with that potential meaning towards which it strives. It is omniscient and omnipotent. It is All-Wise. This Love offers to lift all fallen creatures back into the realization of their ends and to thereby perfect them. This Love offers to reward willful obedience with Happiness and Glory. This Love is never forced. It must be desired and embraced by the mind and the heart, through reason and will. Every creature who becomes sensible of this Love through intelligence will be seized, captured, and ravished with delight. The contrary nature of the Divine Love as perceived ‘in the valley and shadow of death’ stands only to reinforce desire of it and transformation by it. But before we move on with Love, we must examine the nature and condition of Wrath. Such will better enable us to understand God as Love.
[Love-2.1-17] Now there are two Things, both of them visible to your outward Senses, which entirely open the true Ground and Nature of Wrath, and undeniably show what it is in itself, from whence it arises, and wherein its Life, and Strength, and Being consist. And these two Things are, a Tempest in the Elements of this World, and a raging Sore in the Body of Man, or any other Animal. Now that a Tempest in the Elements is Wrath in the Elements, and a Sore in the Body of an Animal a Wrath in the State of the Juices of the Body, is a Matter, I think, that needs no Proof or Explication. Consider, then, how or why a Tempest arises in the Elements, or an inflamed Sore in the Body, and then you have the true Ground and Nature of Wrath. Now a Tempest does not, cannot arise in the Elements whilst they are in their right State, in their just Mixture or Union with one another. A Sore does not, cannot break forth in the Body, whilst the Body is altogether in its true State and Temperature of its Juices. Hence you plainly see, that Wrath has its whole Nature, and only Ground of its Existence, in and by the Disorder or bad State of the Thing in which it exists and works. It can have no Place of Existence, no Power of breaking forth, but where the Thing has lost its proper Perfection, and is not as it ought to be. And therefore no good Being, that is in its proper State of Goodness, can, whilst it is in such a State, have any Wrath or Rage in it. And therefore, as a Tempest of any kind in the Elements, is a sure Proof that the Elements are not in their right State, but under Disorder, as a raging Sore in the Body is a certain Indication that the Body is impure and corrupt, and not as it should be; so in whatever Mind, or intelligent Being, Wrath or Rage works and breaks forth, there, there is Proof enough, that the Mind is in that same impure, corrupt, and disordered State, as those Elements that raise a Tempest, and that Body which gives forth an inflamed Sore. And now, Gentlemen, what think you of a supposed Wrath, or Rage in God? Will you have such Things to be in the Deity itself as cannot have Place or Existence even in any Creature, until it is become disordered and impure and has lost its proper State of Goodness?
God cannot be in a state of Wrath, Rage, Ire, Fury, or Anger. In His Nature, He is one with the created universe. To Him, the created universe is wholly Good, True, and Beautiful. Even sinners sinning in their sins can only ever be some Rational and Logical Part of the Good that is established and Being Fulfilled. Wrath, Rage, Ire, Fury, and Anger are expressed at disorder and impurity. To God the greatest of evils are the poorest of choices in a nevertheless rich and abundant Providential Plan that will unfold despite bad angels and sinning men’s rejection of Him. God can turn all evil to good and all sin to the benefit of His Unchanging Love. His Love is Unchanging and thus He never ceases to desire the worst of sinners, though they have willed their eternal destiny in the furthestmost depths of Hell. God’s Love extends into Hell itself and the greatest anguish is felt in the hearts of those who have denied its effectual offer for the highest happiness and joy.
O LORD, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us about the order in which Satan tempted Christ.
For at first he tempted Him to that which men desire, however spiritual they may be—namely, the support of the corporeal nature by food. Secondly, he advanced to that matter in which spiritual men are sometimes found wanting, inasmuch as they do certain things for show, which pertains to vainglory. Thirdly, he led the temptation on to that in which no spiritual men, but only carnal men, have a part—namely, to desire worldly riches and fame, to the extent of holding God in contempt. And so in the first two temptations he said: "If Thou be the Son of God"; but not in the third, which is inapplicable to spiritual men, who are sons of God by adoption, whereas it does apply to the two preceding temptations. (Summa, III, xli. 4)
As we have said, the first temptation was to things earthly and necessary for physical nourishment of our bodies, their clothing, and their comfort. The second temptation was to spiritual self-importance, the protection and security of the holy man and ascetic, or to pride and vainglory. The third temptation seems to be a combination of the first two, where the importance of the earthly man and his pride take precedence over God to the extent that Christ is tempted to sever Himself from His heavenly Father. In the final temptation we hear this:
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. (Ibid, 8,9)
St. Thomas reminds us that here Satan does not address Christ with If thou be the Son of God since this temptation is for those who will become purely carnal men and not spiritual sons of God by adoption and Grace. Here Satan strives to sever Christ entirely from God. If Christ need perform miracles neither on the body or the soul, neither against nature nor reason, then perhaps Satan has finally reduced Christ to the pure potential of becoming His own God severed from the Father. Perhaps Satan now can convince Christ to move beyond good and evil, beyond right and wrong, beyond any final victory of the one over the other. Perhaps He can become the ruler of a universe where good and evil can find peace, coexist, and live happily ever after together. To worship Satan is to settle for a world in which God and the Devil are opposing forces and mutual antagonists. To worship Satan is to make something of evil that is nothing to God. To God, evil is absolutely without power, meaning, significance, or durability. But perhaps Christ will accept a world with good and evil, God and the Devil, or two realities and not the one reality of God’s rule and governance. I guess this world is not so bad. Some years ago a fellow seminarian commenting on various theological innovations at dinner one evening by repeating the phrase, That doesn’t bother me. An old Welsh Canon finally responded to him with, What does bother you? It doesn’t seem that very much bothers you. You must belong to the ‘that doesn’t bother me school of theology’. The only problem with it is that it is a school of thought that will lead both you and your sheep into Hell. Think how easy it is to become acclimated to the heathen culture that surrounds us. Think how often we can shrug our shoulders and exclaim, What can I do about it? What we can and must do is pray. Everything should bother us.
Christ is here tempted to accept and affirm that sin cannot be overcome by obedience to God’s will. Christ is here tempted to believe that God’s goodness in His heart cannot overcome sin and death. Christ is here tempted to believe that His trust in the Heavenly Father cannot win over, transform, convert, sanctify, and save sinful men. He is tempted to give up and settle for less when God Almighty can always do better and more and always wants better in the service of His best.
Men in all ages want Jesus Christ to be King of this world over and against the demands of the Eternal Kingdom of our Heavenly Father.
When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him
by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself
alone. (St. John vi. 15)
Jesus cannot surrender or sacrifice the demands of His Heavenly Father to the demands of this world. Some, like Judas Iscariot, wanted Jesus to deliver the Jews and Israel from Roman oppression. Modern men want Jesus to deliver the United States of America from the grips of Satan by establishing a kind of Christianity as the state religion –of course, the kind that won’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Jesus must be faithful to the Father. He must continue to bring men to the Father through the pattern that leads to His all healing Death, Resurrection, and Ascension.
Jesus Christ is called to resist Satan’s temptations in order to travel up to the throne of His Cross. He must resist this final shortcut. Jesus Christ is called to resist Satan’s temptation in order to give His life a ransom for many. Jesus Christ is called not to compromise with evil not to make peace with Satan but to overcome evil and Satan by the power of that Love and Goodness that lives to die and dies to live.
Satan now treats Christ as a mere man and not the Son of God. Evidently, Christ had not proved Himself to Satan as the Son of God. Christ will be a mere man. Behold the Man (St. John xix. 5), Pilate will exclaim. Indeed. The Son of God is satisfied to be treated as a mere man. He is a mere man. He is the new first mere man, the new Adam, who will establish the pattern of our new life for return to God the Father. This is the first day of the new creation. Christ is not troubled by being treated as a mere man. He is honored and privileged to subject Himself to the same law that He decreed for all of us. A true ruler and governor is ruled and governed by the principles which He lays down for his people.
And this ruler and governor comes like no other. He comes to bow down in humility, to serve, to wash the dirty feet of our souls, to minister to us, to give His life for us, and to surrender His own importance and dignity for our sake. He comes to establish a Kingdom also. He will do it quietly and inconspicuously. It will be hidden beneath the layers of the Parable that His life is. His Life is the Pattern and the Pattern is a Parable for those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to feel. His Life will be the way, the truth, and the life for those who long to find God, for those who long to find in their end their beginning.
Christ says to Satan:
Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord
thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
Christ has resisted the final temptation. He invites us into the power of His resistance. It is a power that works from the inside out, from God’s heart into the world, from Heaven down into earth, and from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit into us. It is a power of joyful obedient love that will overcome all evil with good, all hate with love, and all madness with the Divine Wisdom. The pattern is a parable whose inner meaning calls forth our joyful obedience.
Next we read:
Then the devil leaveth him, and, behold, angels came and ministered unto him.
Behold the Man who has resisted Satan and all his minions. The angels now come and minister unto Him. At last they can be useful. They come to love and comfort Him. They have been cheering Him on all along. They love Him with unceasing love. They know too, however that His work is far from over or done. He desires for another place to lay His head also. Will He lay His head on our hearts? Will we find that we too want to love and minister to Him. He must go to His Cross before this comes to pass. Will we find Him there, down at the Cross? Will the pattern of the parable, the parable of God’s love for us become our reality at the Cross?
Now, He comes down from the mountain. Next, He will ascend the mountain of the Cross. But He comes down to find us again today. How? Through the Holy Spirit. He comes down to find us again today armed as the Word of God. He is with us and for us. Behold, we go up to Jerusalem with Jesus. Let us travel up with Him. May Christ the Word banish the devil from our hearts. May Christ the Word infuse us with His Spirit. May Christ the Word take us up to death and beyond. May Christ the Word embrace us with a love that will never die. No shortcuts.
Let us pray:
WE beseech thee, Almighty God, look upon the hearty desires of thy humble servants, and stretch forth the right hand of thy Majesty, to be our defence against all our enemies; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Let us Pray:
O LORD, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
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 dash thy foot against a stone. (St. Matthew iv. 5,6)
Fulton Sheen reminds us in his Life of Christ that Christ is tempted to take shortcuts for the redemption of man and to the Kingdom. So many Christians are tempted to take shortcuts in their Christian pilgrimage. They think that they are blessed enough with earthly prosperity and they give up on the pilgrimage before it even begins! Man shall not live by bread alone (Idem), Christ insists. We believe that we have done enough, given enough, prayed enough, and sacrificed enough. We believe that we have sufficiently followed Him. And now we find the Second Temptation. We no longer want to turn stones into bread or bread into mammon. Stones are stones and bread is bread. True bread is food for the soul and true wine is a spiritual drink.
So, beyond the first kind of temptation, Christ invites us into a second. Rather than treating material things like food, drink, clothing, mammon and money as gods, Christ is tried, tested, and tempted to treat his own abstemious human nature as an end in itself. Like all of us, having fasted and prayed, abstained from food and drink, and relying on the nourishment of God’s Word, Christ is tempted to presume that God will ensure His safety no matter what. Here, Satan says, Well, it is good that you are entrusting your body to nourishment on God’s Word. If that is the case, it doesn’t matter what you do with your body. Throw it down. God will rescue you for your faithfulness and obedience to His Word. He will not let any harm come to one who is so faithful and true!
Satan tempts us into thinking that because we have embraced a certain degree of holiness and righteousness in our lives, we can do whatever we like with our bodies. Our souls are what matter. The soul lives on and the body is of no consequence. The first temptation is alive and well in the second. So long as we are faithful, say our prayers, live respectable enough lives, don’t harm our neighbours, God will not allow any harm to come to us. Since earthly things are of secondary importance we can do something heroic or maybe even rash in order to prove that God is with us and will not suffer any harm to come to us! We might be tempted here to throw ourselves to the proverbial lions or to provoke the Caesar’s of this world to wrath. God will rescue us and then the people will believe. So we aim at becoming martyrs. We shall provoke or tempt God to perform a last minute miracle for us as we prove our faith in Him! God will protect us. He will ensure our security. Our overindulgence of earthly food and mammon have threatened us with despair. If we have overcome them, we might be tempted to presume that God will protect us as we prove to the world that He is with us in our asceticism.
Now our abstemious denial of things earthly threaten to tempt us with a presumption of things heavenly. Our fasting from food, drink, clothing, money and mammon might very well urge us to prove to a fat, drunk, glamorous, rich, comfortable, and otherwise occupied neighbours that we are faithful and true to God. We will wake you up to it as we provoke God’s favour before your very eyes! People who give up earthly things are often tempted to lust for miracles, signs, and wonders. I had a very ascetic Orthodox priest friend who was forever fasting and praying. But he had this very odd habit of having to tell me about his miraculous icons, one of which was always weeping real tears. He kept insisting upon talking about these miraculous icons and finally he screamed at me because I wasn’t much interested. You seem so uninterested and bored with what I am telling you. I responded, I am. He screeched back at me: Why? I replied: Because I am much more interested in how we can bring real human beings to shed tears over their sins because they realize that Jesus wants us still. I wasn’t trying to be rude. I was being honest. Denying things earthly only to have to provoke signs and wonders to prove our faith in Jesus the Saviour of the World isn’t very faithful. It is superstitious and highly problematic.
Satan tempts Christ to think that we provoke signs and wonders from God to prove His presence in our world. So many around us worship mammon. Now the ascetics want mammon miracles. Mammon miracles are supernatural events that are meant to jolt and shake us out of unbelief. Don’t just stand there, do something! Satan cries to Jesus. Throw yourself down if you are the Son of God. Throw yourself down and God will snatch you up and bring you back to Himself. Throw yourself down. There is no need for suffering, passion, or death upon a Cross! Give us a good miracle and all will believe and follow you back to God!
The priority of the body has been denied. The soul is right with God. But most men won’t see it. So, it seems rational to throw down the body to prove that the soul is most important and that God will not let such a faithful soul perish. If the soul’s good is of utmost importance, then surely, we should prove to the world that our souls are protected and secured by God’s never failing providence! Like the Orthodox priest, haven’t you noticed that when people give up the food, drink, sex, and money they start blabbering on about miracles and signs and wonders?
But how can what is irrational and unreasonable be of God? The body is created by God, is good, and is to be used in His service. The soul is made for reason and knowledge and should never embrace what is irrational in order to provoke God’s favour! Christ has taken on our human nature. He has taken on the laws that rule and govern our lives. He has taken on our natures not to destroy the body or the soul and not to overturn the laws that rule both. He has taken on our natures to save us through the good use of both in the service of the Father! God doesn’t rescue His children from the logic of their choices. God doesn’t cater to the immature whims of rash or cowardly fanatics who want to win the applause of a mob. God’s providence doesn’t allow men to suspend wisdom so that men might be won by cheap Grace. God’s Grace is not cheap. God’s Grace does not destroy nature but redeems it.
Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.
Jesus will not lead us back to God the Father through signs and wonders. The effects of miracles last for about as long as post-modern man’s attention span. Jesus has come down from Heaven to work sin out of the world and righteousness in. This can happen only when man embraces the pattern that Jesus establishes. This pattern is one where human life becomes a living sacrifice to the Father because God’s mercy moves the human heart. That mercy must move our hearts to hear the Word of God and keep it in our bodies and in our souls as we move with Jesus through temptation and towards the holy city of Jerusalem. There will be time enough for signs and wonders. But the real sign and wonder that we shall find will be in the human heart that begins to believe that Jesus the Crucified One is the miracle of God’s love before our very eyes. Here is the pattern. The real miracle comes about when we shall see the great wonder of God’s own Son suffering and dying for us. Follow the love of Jesus down to the Cross and discover that Jesus is still loving us in death. Follow the love of Jesus down to the Cross and discover that Jesus is living to die and dying to live. Embrace the love of Jesus with joyful obedience. This is the true miracle, the true sign and wonder. The real miracle will be found in that joyful obedience that in utmost faith with love gives itself over to Jesus. Willy Mae Ford Smith, the African American Evangelist, reminds us that when we give ourselves over to Jesus, His Holy Spirit comes alive in us deep down and in between the bone and marrow.
Do I demand that God should prove His existence by dancing to my tune and fulfilling my every whim and fancy? Come down from that Cross and save both yourself and us! Do I provoke His favor by feeling that I have done enough and should not be required to do any more? Is Christ’s obedience to the Father not enough for me? Is the shedding of His blood not sufficiently miraculous for me? Is His giving from the Cross not adequately loving of me? Why is Jesus not enough for us?
In our quiet time let us pray about how we have sought for signs and wonders in our Christian lives. Let us pray about how we have desired miracles on our bodies, others’ bodies, and yet only at the very last minute have called God into the picture to have the priest sprinkle holy water on those who waited too long to call upon God. Holy water won’t save us. Priest mostly aren’t much good at miracles. Let us pray that we might work on our souls, the souls of our loved ones, the souls of our brothers and sisters in Christ so that rather than provoking and tempting God, we might have a rule of life that welcomes Jesus into our struggle with sin. Let us embrace the Word of God in our hearts so that we can walk with Jesus down to the Cross. No shortcuts to His Kingdom! No shortcuts to avoid Suffering Love!
Let us Pray:
ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.
(St. John iii. 27)
He must increase, but I must decrease.
Let us pray:
O LORD, who for our sake didst fast forty days and forty nights; Give us grace to use such abstinence, that, our flesh being subdued to the Spirit, we may ever obey thy godly motions in righteousness, and true holiness, to thy honour and glory, who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
I would like to reflect with you today on the temptations of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. I am sure that you have studied them extensively in your Christian journey, and so if I tell you what you already know please use it all as inspiration for a renewed determination to pray it into your lives. My chief concern today is prayer. And I would like to share with you today just how the temptations of Jesus Christ can become our own through prayer. The real benefit of the Christian religion is that whatever Christ has endured for us in time past can be made present to us and can become our own in prayer through the Holy Spirit. So, today we are asking the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son to help us to face the temptations that Christ faced, to resist them, and to embrace those virtues that will establish us in true obedience to our Heavenly Father. This is what Lent is all about. Of course, none of this can be done without God’s Grace. Jesus Christ is the new pattern of full and perfect obedience to the Father through the Spirit. So, we pray that we might become a part of the pattern that He has established. If we become a part of the pattern that Christ established for us, the Holy Spirit will sanctify us and lead us to salvation.
Let us turn to Scripture. Here we read:
Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. (St. Matthew iv. 1)
The Son of God has come down from Heaven to save us from the sins that would alienate us from God our Heavenly Father and His Kingdom. He has come down from Heaven to save us from the sin that has corrupted and enfeebled us. God has made our natures good but sin has corrupted us. Sin has enfeebled us so that we cannot obey God by willing His goodness into our lives. We are born into sin because our first Father, Adam, disobeyed God at the urging of Satan. We have inherited Adam’s sinful nature. Christ has come down from Heaven to free us from our sinning and our sins. Christ has come down from Heaven to make us right with God again. In Holy Baptism, He began that process of regeneration. Regeneration is being born again to obedience and virtue through the Holy Ghost and from above. But our regeneration is the work of a lifetime. So, to continue this process of being born again through the Holy Ghost, we must travel with Jesus into the desert or the wilderness. To continue this process, we must forever be on guard and be ready to engage in battle and wage war with the temptations that Satan always brings before our minds and our hearts.
We must realize also that temptation is normal and good. Temptation is not sin. Temptation is trial and testing. Anything that is worthwhile in life has to be tried and tested to see if it is worthy of our attention and good enough to be established in us as a habit of life. Trial and testing involve struggle. To struggle means to fight. To fight to discover if something is good and then to fight for its acquisition is all part of man’s perfection. Man is made to use his mind and heart to see and will the good in life. And all of this involves trial, testing, and struggle. Man is made to know and to love. When we find the good, we must struggle with all of our might to embrace it in our hearts. We can do this through God’s Grace. We can do this in and through Jesus Christ who promises us His Spirit. No pain no gain. No guts, no glory. No cross, no crown. Temptation presents us with all of those choices other than God’s. Temptation presents us with all of those false gods, which we must resist if we hope to be saved.
So let us be determined to be tempted, tried, and tested. Let us struggle to see what is wrong with sin and what is right with goodness. Let us struggle to surrender to God’s will in and through Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. Through temptations our characters will be tried and tested and hopefully formed by the goodness that overcomes all sin.
Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. (Idem)
The wilderness is a desert. It is a place removed from the usual distractions of human life. Please keep your cell phones off for the duration of our retreat. We need to create a space of quiet and stillness today as we allow ourselves to face our temptations, to resist sin, and embrace God’s goodness.
Today, Jesus Christ wants to teach us how to gain holiness by overcoming temptation. (The Life of Christ, Sheen, p. 62) Christ leads us into that stillness and quiet that will contemplate temptation. With Him, He will ask us to be tried and tested as we consider in what ways we have yielded to temptations and sinned in our lives. There will be three kinds of temptations that we shall be asked to resist with Him.
And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterward an hungred.
The season of Lent imitates Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness. Fasting from food and drink for specific periods of time tames the body and opens the soul to a deeper awareness of reality. Reality is better perceived to be full of temptations when our bodies are less full of food and our minds are not altered by drink. Reality with its temptations to good and evil can be confronted best when we fast and pray. Adam was tempted by good and evil and chose the latter. Christ must be tempted by both to reestablish our way into goodness once again.
St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that as Man Christ wished to be tempted. Our Saviour wishes to be tempted so that He might endure our nature to its fullest. What a friend we have in Jesus! As God, He cannot be tempted. But Jesus is God as Man. As Man, Christ will endure all of our temptations, trials, testings, and struggles.
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)
Jesus will be tempted but will not yield to the temptation in sin.
Jesus is God as Man. After forty days of fasting in the wilderness, He is hungry. When we don’t fast, we put earthly hunger before all other things. When we do fast, earthly hunger assaults and attacks us. The point of fasting and prayer is to find a deeper and more lasting communion with God. The point of fasting and prayer is to embrace God’s goodness more fully in our lives. The Devil hates our fasting and prayer. The Devil hates for us to find the sanctification that leads to salvation. The Devil hates for us to take up a cross that promises a crown! But Jesus reminds us of the words of the preacher: My son, if thou come to serve the Lord, prepare thyself for temptation.(Ecclus. ii.1) While we fast, we are in union and communion with God feasting on His Word. When we finish, naturally enough, we are hungry. We are tempted to put earthly sustenance, satisfaction, and even joy before God’s Word. This is our first temptation.
If thou be the Son of God, command these stones to be made bread. (Ibid, 3)
We fast and we pray. We try to keep a good and Holy Lent. We want to go to God’s Kingdom. Yet we are so moved and defined by earthly food, earthly lust, and mammon. In these dark and dangerous days, our earthly comfort is paramount. In these dark and dangerous days, our body’s appetites are predominant. But we are not called to rush headlong into gluttony, lust, and avarice. We are not called to rush headlong into gorging that is full of greedy passion for bodily fulfilment. Our time of fasting should moderate and temper our body’s appetites. Our time of fasting and feasting on God’s Word should move us to the virtues of temperance, chastity, and generosity. Jesus rebukes Satan and says, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. (Ibid, 4) What is most important for the man who will resist temptation is that he should rely wholly and completely upon the nourishment that God’s Word provides. Earthly comfort cannot save us. Our obsession with it might very well damn us. Food, drink, clothing, and money are all secondary to Jesus. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33)
Jesus has nothing in the wilderness but stones and is tempted to turn them into bread. We have bread to waste and want more. In our quiet, let us pray about how we have worshipped the world, the flesh, and devil. Let us focus especially on how we have overindulged food and drink, have overindulged sex in ways other than God has intended, have been greedy and thus have worshiped money, mammon, and have been hoarders and spendthrifts.
Let us Pray:
O LORD, we beseech thee, mercifully hear our prayers, and spare all those who confess their sins unto thee; that they whose consciences by sin are accused, by thy merciful pardon may be absolved; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his foolishness.
The season of Lent is nothing if it does not confuse human wisdom and turn man’s expectations upside down. For what the lections of this Holy Season attempt to show us is that the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He takes the wise in their own craftiness. (1 Cor. iii. 19) And again, as Isaiah records, therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people…for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid. (Isaiah 29. 14) In Lent, we learn that the Wisdom of God revealed in the human life of Jesus Christ, more often than not, challenges and overturns the wisdom of this world. And I don’t mean to say that human wisdom is destroyed, but rather that its limitations are revealed as what are always in need of God’s redemption and perfection.
In last week’s Gospel we read of a real challenge and trial that Christ underwent in order to resist the wisdom of this world and to embrace God’s Wisdom. You will remember that the Spirit led Christ into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. And there we learned that Christ resisted the temptations and in the end banished Satan and his ways. The wisdom that we gleaned from that Gospel is that somehow this Jesus Christ, God as Man, faced evil, resisted it, and in the end overcame it. Man’s wisdom walks in step with the devil; it thinks that it can use the Divine Spirit for worldly ends, that it can make God subject to its whims and idle curiosities, and that it can be as absolute as God. (RDC. Lent I) What Jesus Christ reveals to us is that true wisdom is God’s will and that the new humanity which He struggles to establish as a pattern depends wholly upon it. The devil strives to sever Jesus and us from God’s will and way. He longs to hide us from ourselves, establishing and centering us in our muddled confusions and delusions, concealing from us the true way of liberation and healing. He longs to shield us even from the Wisdom of God, from seeing and knowing that the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding. (Job xxviii. 28)
But Jesus came down from Heaven to reveal God’s wisdom in human nature for our benefit. He came down to bring us back to the fear of the Lord, and that the Divine Wisdom might be born our hearts. But if we heed the message of today’s Gospel, we learn that there is another dimension still that must be added to our piety if God’s Wisdom is to come alive in our lives. This is the element of desire. For it is from the limitations of our earthly passions and desires that we must learn to long the more earnestly for the Wisdom of God.
In this morning’s Gospel, we see how alien, unfamiliar, and even foreign God’s Wisdom is to most men in most ages. Jesus had departed from Jerusalem and from a people who would not receive the Wisdom that He endeavored to disclose and reveal. The ancient Old Testament prognosis of God’s people was finding fulfilment in Jesus’ hearing: This people draweth unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. (Matthew xv. 8) God’s Wisdom had found no place to germinate and grow itself in the hearts of the religious Jews. Even Jesus’ disciples seemed hard-headed and dimwitted. Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man. (St. Matthew xv. 18-20) God’s Wisdom cannot reach and touch those who do not need it from within. Those who come to need it from realize that their earthly desires and satisfactions provide no lasting health and happiness. So, because He found no need for what He offered from His own people, in this morning’s Gospel Jesus left religious Jerusalem for the frontier territory where Israel borders the land of the heathen. Perhaps the Wisdom that He carried would not be so dyspeptic and disagreeable to those who lived at the far removed from Judaism’s heart.
What He found confounded the customs and habits both of the Jewish scribes and also of His own disciples. God’s Wisdom was, after all, aimed and directed first and foremost at them. That their blindness and ignorance should be overcome only by the discovery of its nature and desire for its power in the heart of a pagan woman would prove all the more confounding. Behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matthew xv. 22) Canaan means place of submission, humiliation, and lowliness. So, from this lowly place was heard a cry for the Divine Wisdom and Mercy- that is with and in Jesus. Jesus seemed immune and impervious to the cry. St. John Chrysostom writes that The Word has no word; the fountain is sealed; the physician withholds His remedies. Jesus studies what will emerge from this supplication. Wisdom is quick to hear and slow to speak…(St. James i. 19) Divine Wisdom will elicit from its seeker a sincere and determined desire for its love and power.
Next, we read that, His disciples came and besought him, saying, Send her away; for she crieth after us. (St. Matthew xv. 23) The disciples long selfishly to derive the truth from Jesus without the distraction of the mob. A selfless woman will have Him for her daughter in a far better way. But not before she has overcome a Jesus who will draw out her faith in Him to the utmost. He responds, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel. (St. Matthew xv. 24) Jesus reminds her that the Jews alone should want what He has because they would know that they are lost sheep. She will insist that the Gentiles are promised a share in it also. And, besides, she knows that she too is lost and needs to be found! Jesus is intrigued. His trying of her is rooted in the tough love of the Old Testament: I will wound and I will heal (Deut. xxxii. 39) St. Augustine describes His method in these words: He is no unkind physician who opens the swelling, who cuts, or cauterizes the corrupted part. He gives pain, it is true; but he only gives pain, that he may bring the patient on to health. He gives pain; but if he did not, he would do no good. (Aug, Serm. xxvii) This is God’s Wisdom. She has pain, the pain of her possessed daughter and the pain of her broken heart. It is painful for her to express this truth but it moves her all the more urgently to cry out, Lord, help me. (St. Mattew xv. 25) Jesus draws out the painful truth of her predicament and her powerlessness. This alone can fuel the passion that will secure her desire. It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. (St. Matthew xv. 26) To which she responds, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. (St. Matthew xv. 27) Wisdom has elicited from her heart the confession of pain and the poverty of her spirit. She knows that she is alien to Israel’s promises; she claims no rights to God’s Word and Wisdom; she knows herself as powerless creature in the presence of her mighty Creator. She knows that no man can assist her. She cannot help herself. So she turns to the sole source and origin of all healing. The Wisdom in Jesus is met by her own. Yes Lord, in comparison to your own people who should know themselves as lost sheep, I am a dog. But surely Lord, thou dost not merely enlighten me to the knowledge of my lowly sickness, but so that thou might open to me the door of thy healing. God’s Wisdom desires to touch and to heal all men. God’s Wisdom is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. (Ps. xlvi. 1) Jesus honors what he could not find in His own people or even in His disciples. O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (St. Matthew xv. 28)
Today let us take note of the alien woman’s pain. I wound and I will heal. (Idem) The pain that Jesus elicits reveals her limitations and she comes to discover herself in the light of God’s Wisdom. She claims that she is a dog because dogs are content to eat the fragments and morsels that fall from Christ’s table. She knows that they are more than enough to heal both her and her daughter. Luther tells us that, Like her, thou must give God right in all He says against thee, and yet must not stand off from praying, till thou overcomest as she overcame, till thou hast turned the very charges made against thee into arguments and proofs of thy need, till thou, too, hast taken Christ in His own words.’ We might think it foolish that we should become as clever dogs to secure the power of the Divine Wisdom that Christ offers. But it is foolish only if human wisdom is the mark and measure of truth. Where is the wise person?...Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor. i. 20, 21) The woman of Canaan was a fool for Christ. This alien woman, a dog, gladly and thankfully receives supernaturally charged crumbs that drop from Christ’s table. For, as the Venerable Bede writes: If, after the example of the Caananite woman, we continue resolutely in our praying…certainly the grace of our Maker will…correct everything in us which is wrong, sanctify everything unclean, and make serene everything which is turbulent. He is faithful and just, so that He will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from every iniquity, if with the attentive voice of our mind we cry out to Him who lives and reigns with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for all ages and ages. (Hom. i. 22)
[Love-2.1-13] Had I an hundred Lives, I could with more Ease part with them, all by suffering an hundred Deaths, than give up this lovely idea of God. Nor could I have any Desire of Eternity for myself, if I had not Hopes, that, by partaking of the Divine Nature, I should be eternally delivered from the Burden and Power of my own Wrath, and changed into the blessed Freedom of a Spirit, that is all Love, and a mere Will to Nothing but Goodness. An Eternity without this, is but an Eternity of Trouble. For I know of no Hell, either here or hereafter, but the Power and Working of Wrath, nor any Heaven, but where the God of Love is all in all, and the working Life of all. And therefore, that the holy Deity is all Love, and Blessing, and Goodness, willing and working only Love and Goodness to every Thing, as far as it can receive it, is a Truth as deeply grounded in me as the feeling of my own Existence. I ask you for no Proof of this; my only Difficulty is how to reconcile this Idea of God to the Letter of Scripture. First, Because the Scripture speaks so much and so often of the Wrath, and Fury, and vindictive Vengeance of God. Secondly, Because the whole Nature of our Redemption is so plainly grounded on such a supposed Degree of Wrath and Vengeance in God, as could not be satisfied, appeased and atoned by any Thing less than the Death and Sacrifice of the only begotten Son of God.
The ‘lovely idea of God’ is that He is pure and perfect Goodness. This is the ‘Goodness’ that enables us to hope for Heaven as our final and eternal resting place. This hope alone lifts us above our own wrath, rage, ire, fury, and anger to partake of God’s Nature. This hope will lift us above ourselves to participate in the freedom of the will that desires only God’s Goodness. ‘An Eternity without this’ is an Eternity in Hell. Hell is defined by wrath, rage, ire, fury, and anger. The vice that stands chiefly opposed to God’s Goodness and Love is wrath that included resentment and bitterness. Such is the vice that actively resists God’s healing Goodness and Love. Thus, we must desire to conquer all wrath within us. We must desire to embrace God’s Goodness and Love because this is the Truth that saves and delivers us from our wrathful despair. And yet we cannot do it without God’s help. And so God sends His only-begotten Son into the world to conquer wrath with His Goodness. He takes the problem into Himself by moving through His Son to suffer man’s wrath and to overcome it.
[Love-2.1-14] Theophilus. I will do more for you, Theogenes, in this Matter than you seem to expect. I will not only reconcile the Letter of Scripture with the foregoing Description of God, but will show you, that every Thing that is said of the Necessity of Christ’s being the only possible Satisfaction and Atonement of the vindictive Wrath of God is a full and absolute Proof that the Wrath of God spoken of never was, nor is, or possibly can be in God.
The Divine Wrath that we read of in Scripture is man’s experience of God’s Goodness and Love negatively or from a distance. It is Love, Desire, Passion, and Yearning as its contrary. When we sin, we rebel. When we rebel, we place ourselves at odds with God. When we are at odds with God, we experience not His nearness but His distance. The Distance is not merely absence but it is Love as rejected, Love as despised, Love as forsaken, and Love as abandoned. Sin is its own punishment. Ours sins yield their desired effects and ends. The end of sin is ultimate death as ongoing alienation from God. In the meantime, we experience little deaths, or habitual alienations from God’s love in time and space.
dSo the last shall be first, and the first last:
for many be called, but few chosen.
(St. Matthew xx. 14-16)
We have just completed our Epiphany-tide pilgrimage and now are entering what is called pre-Lent. The season we have left behind has been characterized by illumination and manifestation. In it, we saw that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us whom we discovered to be the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth
(St. John i. 14). Now we turn to a period in the Church’s life extending from Septuagesima Sunday to Ascension Day. In it, we shall be moving from contemplating the Divine presence to a call to pilgrimage that will end in death. In it, we shall be called to receive God’s labor of love and the work of His Grace that reaches down from heaven to reconcile us to Himself.
Specifically, on the three Gesima Sundays – Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima – the Latin names for the seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter, we are reminded of God’s original vocation for us, the dangers that bring about our Fall from God’s Grace, and the preparation for our return. If Lent will be about the necessary death to sin, then the Gesima season will help us to discern and identify the sins themselves. This work is essential since we believe that in the end times we shall be judged on whether or not we have confessed our sins and died to them. Sin is what separates us from God. So, at the Judgment, we pray that Christ will conclude that we have died sufficiently to everything that separates us from His wisdom, power, and love. And, of course, the Church knows that the work that we are contemplating is no easy business. So, she provides us with this Gesmina season so that we can attempt to begin the call to labour (R.D. Crouse) for the discovery of our sins.
We begin with today’s Gospel. In it, Jesus gives us a way that will help us to locate sin. To do so, He makes use of a parable. As you know, a parable is an illustrated story that makes use of images to convey a message of spiritual and moral meaning. Archbishop Trench tells us that it is like a casket of exquisite workmanship…in which jewels yet richer than itself are laid up, or, as fruit, which however lovely to look upon, is yet in its inner sweetness more delectable still. (Notes on the Parables, R.C. Trench, p. 30) In today’s parable, Jesus desires to instill a truth that will condition our search for sin and the successful victory over it. It is a parable that is all about method. What He is keen to impart to us is a kind of rule and pattern that will situate our souls in right relation both to our problem and God’s solution of it. So, He intends to warn the Apostles and us about one serious temptation that might very well destroy the work before it has begun. What I mean is that Jesus wants to show us that His work can begin only when we embrace a unique disposition of soul.
For 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. (St. Matthew xx. 1,2)
Jesus teaches us first that the work of God’s Kingdom begins not with man but with God. He is an householder or the owner of His own vineyard –a plot of land destined to be fruitful with what makes glad the heart of man. He has a work to be done and His work is His desire for us to labor at identifying and discovering our sins. That He sets out to find us shows that He knows what is best for us. That He went out early in the morning means that man’s salvation is God’s priority. Man’s salvation is the work of redemption. It will involve working out sin and working in righteousness. That the laborers are promised one penny suggests that something equal for all is the reward for those who will work for God. Notice that it is only to the workers who are hired early in the morning, to the first, that the specific amount of payment –one penny is promised.
Next, we read:
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….
Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise.
God calls men into His vineyard in all ages. Some hear the call early in the morning, some at noon, and some at dusk of human life. Those who are called later are rebuked mildly for being idle, slothful, lazy, unoccupied, distracted, or even busy about the wrong things. No matter; God’s desire for men’s salvation labor is greater than their sinning. His yearning and longing for all is expressed in His ongoing intention for them to labor in discovering their sins at all hours of the day. God is the householder and He knows that the work of His vineyard is incomplete until all men are invited into this labor. He promises to pay those whom He finds later what is right, just, or suitable. Those whom He calls later are no doubt surprised by joy that God would want them at all, especially since He knows that they had been idle, and had God been like all other employers they might not have been called to work at all! Therefore, God’s desire for them stirs them up with grateful hearts to join the others in the labor of His vineyard.
We read then:
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. (Ibid, 6,7)
God’s moves and finds those whom His heart always desires. Those whom He finds at the eleventh hour seem to need to be needed more than the others. They are often those for whom love has been experienced only as envy, wrath, and resentment. They have felt forever unwanted and thus are convinced that they have nothing to contribute to the work of God’s vineyard. So, they must be encouraged more earnestly to enter this labor.
Finally, we read:
Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.
And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every
man a penny. 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, 8-12)
Man’s work in the vineyard of God will pay out one reward to all. But notice that those who came last are paid first. The Lord puts idle people to work at the end of the day and then pays them before the others. Worldly employers pay the managerial staff first and handsomely. Then, with what is leftover the idle –the johnny come lately –the cleaners, the window washers, and so forth. Not so with God. The last shall be first and the first shall be last. (Ibid, 16) For God knows that the first think that they ought to be paid more (Idem) because they came first, worked longer hours and harder than the others. So, they murmured against the good man of the house. (Idem) The householder responds:
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 thine eye evil, because I am good? (Ibid, 13-15)
Employment in the vineyard of God is a privileged gift that far exceeds what any man could ever deserve, earn, or merit. It should generate a disposition of soul through which we become self-consciously the last and least. Fallen man is forever unemployed without God. Fallen man deserves nothing but just punishment for his sins.
Yet notice the wisdom of Jesus. If the first had been paid before the last we might never have learned the danger that accompanies work in God’s vineyard. The first show us what happens when we set our eyes on what we should earn and not on the free gift of God’s Grace that reaches down to lift up fallen man –the last and least. They see themselves as advanced beyond the others because they came first. But seniority does not secure immunity from sin. Nor does lateness of call bar the path to saintliness. (E. T. Marshall) These men think that their coming earlier and working longer should earn them a greater reward than others. They have forgotten that the Grace of God was under no necessity to help them out of their fallen condition. You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you. (St. John xv. 16) They have forgotten also that the labour into which God has invited them bestows a reward that is unrelated to man’s efforts and good works.
On the other hand, Archbishop Trench says that the workers who were hired later in the day reveal a true spirit of humble waiting upon the Lord, in full assurance that He will give far more than his servants can desire or deserve… and that God will not fail to show Himself an abundant rewarder of them that seek and serve Him. (Ibid, 141) These men reveal a deep gratitude for a gift that they never desired and whose power and reward would be beyond their wildest imaginations.
The last shall be first…. To be last and least in God’s Kingdom is a disposition of soul that alone can obtain God’s Grace in the battle against sin. Let us pray to be as the last and least so that we may be mercifully delivered by God’s goodness. In becoming the last and the least, we are best positioned to appreciate the gift of God’s mercy. The gift of God’s mercy generates goodness in the soul. That goodness will make us stronger and stronger and better and better. With it will come a profound humility, with which we can hope more earnestly for the joy that reconciles us to God. Then we shall rejoice in the glory of His Name, through Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen.
That day is called the birthday of the Lord on which the Wisdom of God manifested Himself as a speechless Child and the Word of God wordlessly uttered the sound of a human voice. His divinity, although hidden, was revealed by heavenly witness to the Magi and was announced to the shepherds by angelic voices. With yearly ceremony, therefore, we celebrate this day which saw the fulfillment of the prophecy…(St. Augustine sermon clxxxv)
Tonight, we come to the cradle, the cratch, the manger, and the cave in Bethlehem to worship God’s own Word made flesh beginning with a meditation upon the Incarnation by St. Augustine of Hippo. From the human side of this reality we can hear only silence. First, there is the silent wonder born out of silent humility, and then more silent contemplation that urges us onward to the silent fixation that we shall find in this child’s earthly Mother. Second, there is the wonder and awe borne out of the integrity, decency, and honor of the one who shall become the child’s Foster-Father. Third, there is the silence of the child himself. From the child, the only sounds that emerge are the inarticulate cries of a new-born babe. The sound of this human voice must be heard. But first it is not to be understood. Why should it? God doesn’t force Himself upon anyone. The gift of God in Jesus Christ must make its way into the unruly, antagonistic, unfriendly, and hostile world of men and their false gods. The gift of God’s redemption for us that will be found in this child shall not be received truly and sincerely until it is heard by the ears of the human heart. The child’s message cannot be heard until we cherish the Word that will be heard. So first, in faith, we must welcome God in Christ who comes to us in an unthinkable, unusual, unpredictable, and unlikely way.
Jesus Christ is God’s eternally begotten Wisdom and Truth. St. Augustine tells us that,
Truth is sprung out of the earth: and righteousness hath looked
down from heaven. Truth, eternally existing in the bosom of the
Father, has sprung from the earth so that He might exist also in
the bosom of a mother. Truth, holding the world in place, has
sprung from the earth so that He might be carried in the hands
of a woman. Truth, incorruptibly nourishing the happiness of
the angels, has sprung from the earth in order to be fed by human
milk. Truth, whom the heavens cannot contain, has sprung from
the earth so that He might be placed in a manger. (Idem)
For the truth of God’s Word to be made flesh it must express itself as human from the beginning of life until the end. Truth must be embraced from conception until death. The truth that rules and governs the universe must be welcomed as a precious child. It must be cherished, treasured, loved, and cared for with attentive devotion. We must discover its future potency with hope in every moment of human existence. It longs to be seen and loved in earliest moments of conception when a mother who cares for herself because she lives for her baby joyously anticipates the extreme joy of new life that birth brings. It yearns to be seen and loved in childbirth and nursing. It will insist that it can and must be found in poverty and need, and thus over and against the presence of all earthly comforts. But its presence can be found truly and its love felt keenly only with the bare minimum of earthly distractions and worldly temptations. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. (St. John i. 14)
Jesus Christ is God’s Word, Wisdom, and Truth made flesh. God did not send His Son into the world for His own advantage. He is God. He needs nothing. He sends His Son because He wants us, desires us, yearns for us, and longs for our reconciliation with Himself. God wants to share His own great goodness with us so that we might enjoy it with Him forever. Silently and quietly we must go to the Manger. With all humility and meekness, we must contemplate the manner in which our God comes to us. Selflessly and generously we must bring our hearts and souls to Him in order to see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. (St. Luke ii. 15) St. Augustine rouses us to stir, to awaken, to leap up and to follow the message of the angels:
Arouse yourself, O man; for you God has become man.
Awake thou that sleepest, and rise up from the dead, and Christ
Shall give thee light! For you…God
has become man. If He had not thus been born in time,
you would have been dead for all eternity. Never would
you have been freed from sinful flesh, if He had not taken
upon Himself the likeness of sinful flesh. Everlasting misery
would have engulfed you, if He had not taken this merciful
form. You would not have been restored to life, had He not
submitted to your death; you would have fallen, had He not
succored you; you would have perished, had He not come. (Idem)
Imagine if Christ had not been conceived by the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Think about where we would be if Jesus Christ had not been born in time, in poverty, welcomed by His own people with doubt, suspicion, rejection, and hatred. Imagine if He had not suffered and died for us. Think about how we would still be living under the curse of the Law and faced with the certainty of an eternal death. Think about how Heaven would be still the distant dream of prophets who wait and philosophers who wonder. Think about how the Law of Sin and Death would have become harder and colder. Think about how human freedom would not yet have been found to be the wellspring of man’s pursuit of excellence in all arts and sciences.
On Christmas Night, Christ is born in Bethlehem of Judaea. On Christmas Night, Christ enters time and space for just long enough to call us into another kind of death, His Death on Calvary, for just long enough to call us back into the short span of Resurrected life that leads back to God the Father, for just long enough to offer to us pattern for our own short stay and journey through creation.
Let us joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and
redemption. Let us celebrate the festal day on which the great
and timeless One came from the great and timeless day to this
brief span of our day. He has become for us ... righteousness, and
sanctification, and redemption… (Ps. lxxxv 11) (Idem)
Will truth spring out of our earth, the earth of our fleshly selves, for us tonight as righteousness comes down from Heaven once again? Is the Word really going to be born in our hearts and souls? Will the Word be Made Flesh in us tonight? Or are we people of the Law of Sin and Death? Will we keep God on the outside of ourselves, at a safe distance, not too dangerously close so that He might bring us into a death that must precede tonight’s New Birth? If He does come into us, He expects to be born. And if He is to be born, He must be born as Wisdom and Power that issues forth into the world as Love. He cannot born in us if we behold His truth but do not embrace it in our hearts. He cannot be born in us if we have time for the lofty ideals and notions of the Christian religion but no time for intending to please God with all of their lives. Will Christ be born in our hearts and souls tonight? As we speak this night, many Christians will depart this life never having shown that world that Christ is being born again and again in human hearts. Will we be determined to show the world that we Christ is born into the world? Will we show that,
Truth is sprung out of the earth because Christ who said: ‘I am the truth’ was born of a virgin; and righteousness hath looked down from heaven because, by believing in Him who was so born, man has been justified not by his own efforts but by God. Truth is sprung out of the earth' because 'the Word was made flesh/ and 'righteousness hath looked down from heaven' because 'every good and perfect gift is from above.’ (Idem)
We can give out the gift only if our faith in Jesus Christ is alive and well and growing. We can show that God’s Word [has been] made flesh only if and when His Grace is so alive in our hearts that we cannot help but share Him with all others. The Babe of Bethlehem longs to be born in us tonight. The Word of God longs to be made flesh in us so that we go tell it on the Mountain that Jesus Christ is born, so that we not only go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Chrsit is born, but that He is alive and well and working to bring us and our neighbors to salvation! Will we let Jesus Christ so run His course in our lives that His birth is the beginning of our reconciliation with God our Heavenly Father?
Let us sing out tonight, Come into my heart and soul Lord Jesus! He has come so that we might be enlarged and defined solely by His indwelling Spirit. He is God’s Word and can be made flesh only if our hearts and souls are enlarged to receive Him. Will our hearts be enlarged while time remains? Let us ask with the poet,
Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire? Everything,
the choir insists,
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Still time to change.
Still time to change, still time to be born again, born from above, dying to live by the Saviour’s love, dying to speak with the truth from above, still dying to die so that we might live, still dying to live so that we might give, still dying to give for one more day, still dying to give our Lord Jesus away.
Then judgment shall dwell in the wilderness,
and righteousness remain in the fruitful field.
(Isaiah xxxii. 16)
You can say what you will about the old Book of Common Prayer, which we use exclusively in this church, but what you cannot say it that it is not honest and forthright about the struggles which any human being finds in his journey towards salvation. Indeed, perhaps its most brilliant contribution to the history of Christianity lies in its full appreciation of the spiritual warfare that accompanies every honest pilgrim’s desire to embrace the Grace of Almighty God and eschew evil. The Church Year is defined and informed by the persistent recognition of the difficulty that lies in the effort to die to oneself and to come alive to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. And the Advent season is no exception to this rule. It commenced with the spiritual desire to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of Light now in the time of this mortal life. (Advent I, Collect) And it concludes with: O Lord, raise, up, we pray thee, thy power, and come among us, and with great might succor us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness, we are sore let and hindered in running the race that is set before us; thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us…(Advent IV, Collect)
Now, a Prayer Book Advent is, by no means, a mere repetition of a single theme. I hope that our Advent has been preparing us logically for the Christ’s coming at Christmas time. As Father Crouse reminds us, on the First Sunday in Advent we prayed that our souls would be awakened and cleansed to prepare for the coming of Christ. On the Second Sunday we were called to forsake the passing and impermanent world that we might prepare for God’s enduring Word. Last Sunday we were called to witness to the Word in hope, as the impending suffering and death of John Baptist were consecrated to the mission and meaning of Christ’s coming. And today we are called to see and perceive this coming Word of God and rejoice in His coming. (Advent I-IV Summary Sermon, RDC)
But to see and perceive the coming Word…and rejoice in it, we must realize that all of our preparation must end in spiritual death: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord…[for] there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (St. John i. 23, 27 John’s words are spoken just prior to his literal death at the hands of King Herod. Getting out of the way, receceding, decreasing, and dying are all part of the example John provides for us. In Advent, with John Baptist, our preparation concludes with a call into our own spiritual death, to everyone and everything that stands in the way of the coming Christ’s birth in our souls on Christmas day.
Our spiritual death is something for which ancient Israel had been preparing long before the coming of John Baptist. Along with John, Isaiah the Prophet helps us to see and understand both spiritual death and the new life that God prepares to bring. He proclaims, Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness…(Is. xxxii. 1) And then he goes on to say that, a man shall be as a hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. (Ibid, 2) When this king comes to reign, His power and might, His love and compassion, and His wisdom and truth shall rule and govern the human heart. The nature of Christ’s reign will be inward and spiritual. The Christ who is coming shall not be perceived by most men, for they will be too busy basking in the light of their own abilities, accomplishments, and achievements. But for those whose faith yearns, longs, and hungers for Christ’s coming – because they have long since begun to decay, deteriorate, and die in their own eyes – a new cosmic rule and governance is about to be seen and understood, heard and comprehended spiritually. The eyes of them that see shall not be dim, and the ears of them that hear shall hearken. The heart also of the rash shall understand knowledge, and the tongue of the stammerers shall be ready to speak plainly. (Ibid, 3,4) This will mean that what men thought was true, beautiful, and good will be seen now in God’s Light as what could, at best, promote and enhance a kind of life that leads only to death. And for those who cannot see and hear spiritually, because they have not yet died to themselves, their own darkness will become darker, more nefarious, treacherous, malignant, and contrary. In the words of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, The fool will no more be called noble, nor the knave said to be honorable. For the fool speaks folly, and his mind plots iniquity to practice ungodliness, to utter error concerning the Lord, to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied, and to deprive the thirsty of drink. (Ibid, 5,6) God’s truth, goodness, and beauty are about to be expressed through the coming of Christ, and will forever relegate man’s good intentions and noble works to the dustbin of a fallen and dead creation. Good works, the Prophet insists, can never save a man because they only ever satisfy earthly and worldly needs, and, so, leave the soul empty and destitute of lasting, spiritual life and salvation. Tremble, ye women that are at ease; be troubled, ye careless ones: strip you, and make you bare, and gird sackcloth upon your loins. Beat upon your breasts, for the pleasant fields, for the fruitful vine. (Ibid, 11, 12) The Prophet refines his message. True new birth and new life will come from God alone, and then only through the Mother who has died to herself, who will be then full of Grace, who will be highly favored because her singular passion and heartfelt desire is for God’s will to be done through her: Be it unto me, according to thy Word. (St. Luke i. 28…) Christ the coming Word of God can only and ever been conceived and born in the soul which has died to itself in order to come alive to God’s will and way. The coming Christ came alive to John Baptist in hope; the coming Christ came alive to the Blessed Virgin Mary first in faith and then in deed and in truth.
So today we need to ask ourselves if we have indeed been preparing for the coming of Christ by dying to ourselves. John Baptist in another place says that, He must increase and I must decrease. (St. John iii. 30) Of course we can comply with his sentiments only when we come to the point of realizing that, for the most part, we have been engaged in a living death. And living death is just another way of saying that we have lived in, for, and to ourselves. The man who is immersed in a living death is moved and defined by the world, the flesh, and the devil. And he need not be an uncompromised pagan; he might even be a compromised Christian. Such a man is self-consciously moved and possessed by himself. He would be surprised to learn that he is immersed in a living death. Why? Because he has casually and carelessly justified or dismissed the sins of his past life. In other words, he has never measured his every thought, word, and deed in the pure light of Christ’s coming. Unlike Isaiah the Prophet, John Baptist, or the Blessed Virgin Mary, he has never seen that the future in store for those who indulge a living death is neatly summarized in the words of the Prophet: Upon the land of my people shall come up thorns and briars; yea, upon all the houses of joy in the joyous city: because the palaces shall be forsaken; the multitude of the city shall be deserted; the forts and towers shall be dens forever, a joy of wild asses, a pasture of flocks; until the Spirit be poured upon us from on high. (Ibid, 14, 15) There will be only living death for those who do not die to themselves and come alive to the Lord.
A dying life is precisely what is in needful for Christians who will welcome the birth of the coming Christ once again at Christmas time. Our Prayer Book does not underestimate its importance. Today the Psalmist shows us that we ought always to be preparing for the coming Christ. O be joyful in the LORD, all ye lands: * serve the LORD with gladness, and come before his presence with a song. Be ye sure that the LORD he is God; it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; * we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. (Ps. c. 1,2) he sings today. O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise; * be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name. For the LORD is gracious, his mercy is everlasting; * and his truth endureth from generation to generation. (Ibid, 3,4) Over and against our living death stands a loving God whose everlasting mercy will perfect a dying life. St. Paul exhorts us to the same posture. Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, Rejoice. (Phil. iv. 4) The Lord is at hand, he insists, and so we must be careful for nothing. (Phil. iv. 6) We must not be anxious about living in the temporal world, since it stands only to disrupt and frustrate our dying life. But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving [we are to make our] requests be made known unto God…[that] the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Phil. iv. 6,7) God’s peace and good will is about to come to us in the Nativity of our Saviour when our dying life can be redeemed and perfected by his coming Birth. Let us now prepare for His coming birth. Amen.
Art thou He that should come, or do we look for another?
(St. Matthew xi. 2)
We have said that Advent season is all about our preparing for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ at Christmas time. Our preparation is rooted in history and hope. Historically speaking Jesus Christ, the Desire of God, was made flesh some two-thousand years ago in ancient Palestine. The historical Jesus began to summon and carry followers to God’s Kingdom long ago, beginning in time and space through His Incarnation or enfleshment. As the Holy Spirit began to touch and move people through Him, He initiated the pilgrimage of man’s reconciliation to God the Father. And He desires to do the same today. History has been in the process of being swallowed up into eternity ever since God the Father called Abraham out from Ur of the Chaldees. Having overcome all potential obstacles to communion with our Heavenly Father in His Son, the Father continues to send His love down from Heaven into a people whose hope is their ultimate reconciliation to Him. And the Ascended Christ wants to keep making history as He comes into time and space to be made flesh through the indwelling of His Spirit.
We have a future, and our destiny is to be with God the Father. In today’s Gospel we are directed and charged to prepare for that future in a very specific way by John the Baptist. John’s mission is one of preparation for the coming of the active meaning and presence of Jesus Christ, and so his life is a perfect paradigm and pattern for our Advent preparation. That life might be summarized in his own words: He must increase, and I must decrease. (St. John iii. 30) John the Precursor, John the Preparer, is on a mission to lead us into that spiritual state that makes room for the coming of Jesus Christ. Yet, he knows that there can be no room for Him in us until we have been emptied of our sins. Our sin takes up too much space! Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (St. Matthew iii. 2) His voice is one of many calling us to make room in our hearts for Jesus Christ. John lives in the wilderness, and in this wilderness John discovers himself. He sees himself clearly in a place far removed from relations to other people and things. Here he discovers his sins and his need to repent of them. The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35, 1,2) John Baptist is the Herald who invites us to confess the cold, hard, stark truth about ourselves. As Romano Guardini writes, The herald proclaims his message with authority, and what he says is framed in terms of a command. There is always a sense of urgency in what he announces. Though it may conflict with what is in men’s thoughts and interrupts them in their business, he cares less to conciliate them than secure their attention. Our confrontation with ourselves is essential. Without it, there can be no room in us for Jesus Christ.
Repentance is the acknowledgment of our self-willed alienation from God. Repentance involves the naming and claiming of whatever thoughts, words and deeds crowd out God’s will in our souls. Repentance is an emptying that creates a necessary void within us, a barren wilderness, in and through which the coming Lord can begin to create and make new life. Thus, we must be emptied, voided, and erased of ourselves in order that Jesus may begin to generate His new life, light, and love in our hearts. We must be un-selfed or emptied so that in a purely potential state Christ might begin to redeem the raw materials of our being.
And yet how can we do this? It sounds so much easier than it is. Repentance is difficult. What we are speaking about is not being sorry to others for sins committed against others. What we are talking about is being convicted by the Holy Spirit of our sin against God. Oswald Chambers tells us that, when the Holy Spirit rouses a man’s conscience and brings him into the presence of God, it is not his relationship with other men that bothers him, but his relationship with God –‘against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight.’(Ps. li, 4; My Utmost, p.342) We cannot really become the space that is prepared to welcome the meaning and purpose of Christ’s coming to us until our carefully contrived worlds of respectable goodness come crashing down. (Idem) What we have made and what we protect jealously are in the way. Our good works, our law-abiding and moral habits are in the way. Being satisfied by what we do for others is in the way. Natural goodness and pious habits are not going to save us. If we rely upon a self-conscious satisfaction for what we do, our arrogance and pride are taking up too much space in our hearts. There can be no room from the coming Jesus in our souls. Rather, with John the Baptist, we must say, [There is one] who coming after me is preferred before me, the latchet of whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose…Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world…(John i. 27, 29) He must increase and I must decrease. It is not ‘I’. I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord. (St. John i. 23) With John the Baptist we must desire our own undoing completely before enough space can be freed up so that Jesus Christ can begin to form and mold His new life in us. With John Baptist we remain in sin if we cease to understand the value of repentance. With him we must examine ourselves and see if we have forgotten how to be truly repentant. (Ibid)
And this means that we must be found faithful to Christ in following the way of reflection and repentance in good times and bad. We find the extreme of bad times in today’s Gospel. John Baptist is in prison awaiting execution and probably has been tortured severely. John is near death and his role as Herald and Forerunner is coming to an end. He is more likely than not confused about what he has been doing to prepare for Messiah’s coming. He sends his disciples to ask Jesus, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? (St. Matthew 11. 3) Jesus’ response is not what natural man might expect. They are sent back with no promise of John’s liberation from prison or of Herod’s demise. Rather He sends them back with news of a reality that he can only participate in vicariously or by way of rejoicing in others’ healing. Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (Ibid, 4,5) John the Baptist will not saved from impending execution. And even against it all, he must rejoice in what Jesus has come to do for John’s neighbors. It seems cold comfort indeed. But Jesus knows that John is sufficiently emptied of himself to receive the good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people that are already pouring forth from the His heavenly heart into the suffering of John.
Jesus goes on to say: And, blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me. (Idem) A closer translation would be whosoever shall not be scandalized by me, as Monsignor Knox suggests. The idea is that, as he says, blessed is the man who shall not be suddenly out of his stride, just when everything seemed to be going all right, by running up against an unforeseen snag or obstacle…or by falling into a trap. In other words, blessed is the man who is faithful come what may, despite all manner of unforeseen drawbacks. (Knox: The Epistles and Gospels, p. 16) Blessed is John Baptist into whose self-denial and self-abnegation Jesus can enter with the spiritual hope that will save all men through all times and in all conditions.
Christ goes on to show that His coming is most severely tested and tried by the condition that John Baptist is called to endure. What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. (Ibid, 7-10) What should we expect if we follow John the Baptist’s call to repentance? Unwavering faith. Utter unworldliness. Suffering. Death. To repent is to empty oneself. It means that every inch of my being must be sacrificed to God in death. Can this Jesus who is the one that should come really intend that I should suffer in this way? Can a loving and compassionate God demand such agony of soul as a condition for His coming? Jesus’ answer is a gentle but firm, merciful but unwavering Yes. Blessed is he who is not scandalized and outraged by the insistence of this severe mercy. Jesus says that those who follow Him must die. They may, like John Baptist, die at the hands of envious and wicked men, but at any rate they must die to anyone or anything that opposes Jesus’ coming love.
Jesus tells us this morning that John’s way is the right way. John invites us into the wilderness of repentance, and then from the world’s prison-house he directs us to Jesus. Both are spaces of stillness. As Romano Guardini puts it:
Stillness is the tranquility of the inner life, the quiet at the depths of its hidden
stream. It is a collected, total presence, a being all there, receptive, alert, ready.
There is nothing inert or oppressive about it. Attentiveness –that is the clue to the
stillness in question. The stillness before Christ.
We have a future, if we embrace John Baptist’s stillness. Only in stillness can we know ourselves and repent, that he may increase, and we may decrease. Only in stillness can the severe mercy of God begin to un-self us and bring us into death. Only then, with John, will we know that God’s coming Word made flesh suffers far more than we can imagine, so that we may be called the children of God, and hope for a future of eternal union with Him. Amen.
Then, again, if one were willing to believe only those things which one knows with certitude, one could not live in this world. How could one live unless one believed others? How could one know that this man is one’s own father? Therefore, it is necessary that one believe others in matters which one cannot know perfectly for oneself. But no one is so worthy of belief as is God, and hence they who do not believe the words of faith are not wise, but foolish and proud. As the Apostle says: “He is proud, knowing nothing” [1 Tim 6:4].And also: “I know whom I have believed; and I am certain” [2 Tim 1:12].And it is written: “You who fear the Lord, believe Him and your reward shall not be made void” [Sir 2:8].Finally, one can say also that God proves the truth of the things which faith teaches. Thus, if a king sends letters signed with his seal, no one would dare to say that those letters did not represent the will of the king. In like manner, everything that the Saints believed and handed down to us concerning the faith of Christ is signed with the seal of God. This seal consists of those works which no mere creature could accomplish; they are the miracles by which Christ confirmed the sayings of the apostles and of the Saints.
Contrary to the postmodern dogmatic assertion that faith is not part of the usual lives of even non-believers, St. Thomas makes his point. Faith or belief are part and parcel of any human being’s relatively successful non-religious existence. (Of course, all men are religious by reason of making moral choices all the time –but that is for another time.) Faith and belief for St. Thomas are necessary dispositions of intellectual posture without which man could not survive. We believe other people all the time. Jack just stepped out for a few minutes; he’ll return soon. Jill is at the hairdressers but knows that you will be here at 1:00. And so forth. We believe all sorts of things that enable us to continue on or order our lives in a successful fashion. I believe also that Peter is my father. To be sure, if I had to, I could prove it with a DNA test. But belief is as likely to come up with the same answer without bothering with all of that. Believing others is a necessary part of regular and normal human existence. And if we believe others, why shouldn’t we also believe in the One who knows with far more certainty and truth? Belief in God is not irrational and illogical. Rather, it is a rational extension of what is already at work in our belief of other men. It is a rational extension since we are merely reaching beyond others to the One whose knowledge not only informs theirs but makes them believable in the first place. We rest on belief in others because we are made to rest on belief in the cause of belief. God is the cause and reason for belief. Faith seeks understanding and in understanding it comes to certain knowledge of God. Faith seeks to find the source, origin, and cause of all. Faith finds God and comes to know God. Of course, the certainty is not something that can be proved by temporal and created means. It is a believed certainty and this means that it is a gift that is forever being discovered as God rewards relief with the power to overcome sin and infuse righteousness. God proves His own existence through the power that accompanies the faith of the righteous man. Christ is the only righteous man who has ever lived. Christ as Man proves or gives evidence of God’s power, not only in miracles but in His own received ability to conquer sin, death, and Satan on the Cross and to lift human nature into the new life of Resurrection and Ascension. We have faith in this reality because it was witnessed and passed on to us by the Apostles and their successors.
If, however, you would say that no one has witnessed these miracles, I would reply in this manner. It is a fact that the entire world worshipped idols and that the faith of Christ was persecuted, as the histories of the pagans also testify. But now all are turned to Christ—wise men and noble and rich—converted by the words of the poor and simple preachers of Christ. Now, this fact was either miracle or it was not. If it is miraculous, you have what you asked for, a visible fact; if it is not, then there could not be a greater miracle than that the whole world should have been converted without miracles. And we need go no further. We are more certain, therefore, in believing the things of faith than those things which can be seen, because God’s knowledge never deceives us, but the visible sense of man is often in error.
The greatest miracle is the life of Christ. If it is a miracle that so many Christians through the centuries have believed, then we the facts that prove that Christ is the Son of God and our Mediator, Advocate, Redeemer, and Saviour. If it is not a miracle, then it would be miraculous that the whole world was converted without a miracle. So, the power of God in Christ has proved itself in history either way. And this unseen object of our faith provides us with greater certainty than the operation of our senses in relation to things seen and perceived. The senses deceive us. But the object of our faith does not deceive us. It does not deceive us because God is not a deceiver. We believe that it is far more likely that Christ has conquered sin, death, and Satan, that He has risen, is ascended, is glorified and is Pentecostally present because the God we know does not deceive and always assists His people in need according to the logic and rationality of created substances. Created substances come from God and imitate the laws of His Being. Thus, we believe that this same God brings man to His appointed end by the Law of His Love in Jesus Christ. Some say that God did intercede to correct it through Mohamed. But Mohamed is not to be trusted. His "visions" were not verified by eye-witnesses. He was his own verifier and interpreter. Such alone overcomes the fact that many have been and are to this day deceived by him.
And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth
distress of nations, with perplexity…(St. Luke xxi. 25)
Advent is that season which is all about preparing for Christ’s coming. What is coming to us is what endures forever and never passes away. With eager expectation, we await the one permanent and eternal thing that is all-important and all-defining for the life of any Christian. In the cyclical life of the Church, once again we prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas time. Christ Jesus is the permanent Word of God made flesh. He is the eternally-begotten Word of God –that abiding, immutable, and enduring articulation of God that was uttered and spoken into time and space long ago. And the same Word is spoken each year, in a new and fresh way, to the souls of the faithful that they might be born again of a wisdom and love that never pass away. Advent is about the coming of Christ the Word. Today we are called to hear the Word that comes to us, to measure our every desire by it, and to ensure that this Word is indeed our enduring hope.
In the Gospel appointed for today Jesus establishes Himself as the Word spoken and offered to those who will hear Him. He speaks to the Apostles in the present tense of past history, and He speaks to us in the same way today. He speaks though of a future coming, a final coming, when all things shall be measured and summed up in relation to man’s hearing or not hearing of His Word. The Word of God, His rule and governance, will be established finally and definitively in that day when He shall weigh the desire of men’s hearts definitively. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (St. Luke 21. 27) Jesus who is the disclosed and revealed Word of God made flesh, who spoke to the Apostles long ago, who speaks to us today, will come at the end of all time, to judge the world, to determine whether every man’s words and works are consistent, commensurate, and compatible with His will. In the end times then, all things shall be summed up in relation to the Christ the everlasting Word of God, and all men shall find their everlasting abode in relation to Him.
So, it is in this life that we are blessed with the gift of preparing for God’s Judgment. This is the time of discovering what God intends for us all and habituating or acclimating ourselves to it. In the Gospel, Jesus fully expects that His hearers- the Apostles then and us now, will be in communion with Him already because they have long since begun to subject their desires to His Judgment and Will. Jesus says today that those who reject Him as God’s Word made flesh and articulated Will of the Father can expect only confusion, bewilderment, and unending terror. And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. (St. Luke xxi. 25) Heaven will herald in the time of Judgment and the earth will respond in kind with a traumatic and paranormal seismic shift that anticipates heavenly salvation for the good and damnation for the evil.
The unfaithful earthly-minded man will see at last that his perishable riches are now worthless, his worldly comforts surprisingly incommodious, and his natural peace violently torturous. At the same time, the faithful heavenly-minded man will set his eyes and heart upon the coming Glory that is already harvesting and ingathering the fruits of his holiness. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh, Jesus says. (St. Luke 21. 28) Though the creation’s mostly idolatrous inhabitants will be taken by surprise, the faithful friends of Jesus shall be neither blindsided nor astonished. With joy and rapture they shall begin to be swept up in their unfolding destiny because they have long since been judged, corrected, disciplined, and redeemed by the permanent and unchanging Word of Christ’s love. Their spiritual state is illustrated neatly in the Parable of the Fig Tree. Jesus says, Behold the fig tree, and all the trees; When they now shoot forth, ye see and know of your own selves that summer is now nigh at hand. So likewise, ye, when ye see these things come to pass, know ye that the kingdom of God is nigh at hand. (St. Luke 21: 30, 31) The faithful man shall see the world scorched in ruin, as unbelievers desperately and hopelessly scramble for cover, because they have refused to prepare for the triumphant victory of God’s enduring Word. He shall see that the worship of earthly mammon has led only to sterility and impotence cutting off idolaters from the undeterred triumph of God’s love. He shall discover that the words of this world only ever come and go and always pass away because they have no root in God’s Eternal Word. He shall see that man’s possession by lesser gods can never yield any lasting and enduring joy. He shall know that the Word of the Lord alone endureth forever. And so, in the high summer heat of the Word’s return, the bright and burning truth of God’s Word of love shall become definitively present as what alone judges man’s destiny at the end of all things. With His coming, Jesus says, rejoice and be exceeding glad, for the world will be destroyed, but the dynamically penetrating heat of God’s loving Word shall summon the fruits of His Spirit into final and unbreakable unity with Himself. The Word made flesh will come to establish man’s final redemption either in deliverance to His Kingdom or separation from it.
But how, you might ask, does this Word of God judge us now? How, you ask, do we apply this Word of God to our lives now so that at the Judgment we shall be found so faithful to it so that we shall not be judged unworthy of salvation? Our Collect for today helps us. It exhorts us to a faith that seeks understanding and then generates hope in God’s unchanging Word, that never passes away.
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
The Word of God, His communicated Wisdom to us and for us, most fully discerned and perceived in the life of Jesus Christ, is found through a diligent and persistent hearing and reading of Holy Scripture. The same Word must be marked and annotated, learned and understood, and then inwardly and spiritually digested as what alone can enable us to die to sin and come alive to God’s enduring righteousness. We must find in the Word a record of God’s persistent, unalterable, and enduring love for us and our salvation. We must discover that Jesus Christ, God’s Word made Flesh, has, in these last days, become not only the forgiveness of our sins but our resurrection and life, neither of which ever pass away.
The Collect teaches us that if we are to be found faithful, by patience and comfort of God’s Holy Word, we must embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life in Jesus Christ. Hope in eternal life must be the object of our desire. Earthly-minded man hopes for things that perish and puts his faith and trust in earthly relationships that grow old and pass away. Earthly man grows old and when life grows short, his hope grows weary, as Joseph Pieper writes. But spiritual man grows young because he hopes in a life that is ‘not yet’ and shall be as long as eternity. (Faith, Hope, Love, II, 110-111) Spiritual man hopes in a life that is just now starting to be lived in and through God’s Word. Spiritual man hopes in the Word that even now begins to prepare him for perfect everlasting union and communion with God. He has the audacity and courage to hope supernaturally above and beyond this transitory world with its fleeting promises. The theological virtue of hope bestows upon the spiritual man a certain possession of an aspiration that is at once relaxed and disciplined, adaptable and ready with strong-hearted freshness and resilient joy, with a steady perseverance in trust that distinguishes the young and make them so lovable. (Idem) Spiritual man is forever young because he trusts, even recklessly, in a love that makes him forever new. He is forever being made new with ever-growing confidence that what he knows and how he lives can always be bettered by being perfectly possessed and moved by a love that never passes away. Spiritual man is forever young because he does not look backward but forward. His youthfulness lives from a root that penetrates into an area of human nature that the powers of natural hope are unable to reach. This is so because supernatural youthfulness emanates from participation in the life of God, who is closer and more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. (Idem) For spiritual man time is swallowed up into eternity because he hopes forever in the fountain of youth that flows from God’s loving heart into his own! (Faith, Hope, and Love: Chapter II, 110-111)
In this holy season of Advent, we are called to be transformed by the unchanging and enduring Word of God’s love in Jesus Christ that will reward our hope with a love that is forever new and never passes away. So then:
[So] chiefly [we] should lift your gaze
Above the world’s uncertain haze,
And look with calm unwavering eye
On the bright fields beyond the sky,
Ye, who your Lord’s commission bear,
His way of mercy to prepare:
Angels He calls ye: be your strife
To lead on earth an Angel’s life.
Think not of rest; though dreams be sweet,
Start up, and ply your heaven-ward feet.
Is not God’s oath upon your head,
Ne’er to sink back on slothful bed,
Never again your loins untie,
Nor let your torches waste and die,
Till, when the shadows thickest fall,
Ye hear your Master’s midnight call?
(J. Keble: Advent II)
Come, true light. Come, eternal life. Come, hidden mystery. Come, nameless treasure. Come, ineffable reality. Come, inconceivable person. Come, endless bliss. Come, non-setting sun. Come, infallible expectation of all those who must be saved. Come, awakening of those who are asleep.
(Mystical Prayer of St. Simeon)
It is hard to believe, but Advent has arrived once again. Advent means coming and for Christians, it means specifically the coming of Jesus Christ. Today we pray about Christ’s coming two thousand years ago in ancient Israel. Today we pray also about Christ’s coming in the end times to judge both the quick and the dead. Between the two there is Christ’s coming to us now, when we remember that Jesus Christ is always coming to us, constantly challenging and measuring our present lives. In Advent, we are called to prepare for Christ’s coming, His birth, the birth of Emmanuel, God with us and for us. St. Paul tells us this morning that now it is high time to wake out of sleep, and that now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed, (Rom. Xiii. 11). Today Christ is coming to us in Advent to prepare our souls to welcome His coming birth at Christmas time.
So, Christ is coming to prepare us in Advent-tide for His Christmas birth. Like all other births, His birth will be hard and painful to endure. We anticipate it with premature enthusiasm. What comes to birth in the body is difficult enough, but what comes to birth in the soul might be even harder. The dramatic and difficult nature of Christ’s coming birth in Christ’s prophecy of the new age. And there shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity; the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh. (St. Luke xxi. 25-28) Most people tend to forget that Christ’s coming to us will be no easy business. This Gospel awakens our hearts and startles our souls out of an habitual and customary dormancy and sloth that tend to prepare for Christmas like we might make ready for the coming of a new-born babe whom we long to coddle and caress. Christ is coming to us but not as the one whom postmodern Christians treat as an inoffensive and harmless aider and abetter of their heathen ways. Christ is coming to us and if He will be born in our hearts and souls, Advent must involve a penetrating and conscientious examination of our hearts so that they might truly make ready for Him. The whole of our world must be disrupted, rattled, challenged, confronted, and questioned. The fear of the Lord must awaken us out of sinful sleep. The Lord of Glory means business. The Season of Advent calls all men to a change of heart which will be essential to their salvation.
In Advent Season, we shall be reminded that Christ is coming to us so that we might make ready for the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Our King is coming in order to discover where we are spiritually. His birth will call us into death, a death to everything that competes with His coming to us as the fresh start and beginning of our new and future life with Him. His birth will judge us, that we might awaken out of that sinful sleep that has made us the servants of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Should we awaken and embrace His light and be born again from above, we shall begin to make our way to the Heaven of His Heavenly Kingdom. Should we remain asleep and thus refuse to embrace His light, choosing rather to live in the darkness, then Hell and not Heaven shall be our reward.
In Advent, Christ is coming to help us onto the hard road of spiritual circumspection and repentance. Today we pray: Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life. (Collect, Advent Sunday) To cast away the works of darkness means that we must banish all ungodly vice and the desires that seek them out and establish them in our hearts. To put upon us the armour of light means to enkindle desire and passion for God’s heavenly will and way. The armour of light is the protection and defense that God gives to us in His coming Son. St. Paul writes, Now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed. (Romans xii. 11) Sleeping Christians are never alert and sensitive to the many dimensions of Christ’s coming. We are called to wake up, to smell the spiritual coffee, and to know that Christ’s coming to us involves the hard work of ongoing conversion and sanctification. Hard work means abandoning the spiritual darkness of a contemporary culture and world whose strange ways have saturated our souls with compromise, despair, and the denial of man’s call to excellence. Our urgent prayer should be to eliminate and expunge from our lives whatever does not reveal and manifest our desire for Christ’s purity and holiness, for Christ’s forgiveness and mercy, and for Christ’s wisdom and enlightenment. Our urgent prayer is that we might walk honestly as in the day of Christ’s coming and visitation. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof (St. Matthew vi. 34), and thus, again, we pray that we might put on the armour of light.
So, our first wake-up call exhorts us to take time each day to move into a quiet space, that the busy world might be hushed, into an inconspicuous and hidden space, removed from the commotion and commerce of an insane world bent on incessant talk, in order to ask the Lord to give us new desire and fresh longing for His coming light. To be successful, we must separate ourselves from other people, places, and situations. Owe no man anything, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law, (Romans xiii. 8) St. Paul insists. Our souls can be opened to God’s coming light in Jesus Christ only when we cease to be busybodies, sowers of discord, gossips, tale-spinners, and tale-bearers. We cannot be healed inwardly and spiritually if we are stirred up and moved by the sins of other people. If we have problems with others, we ought to write down what is bothering us and lift those people up in prayer to the Lord. The Lord is much better able than we to solve our problems and to provide solutions. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself (Romans xiii. 9).
In addition, we must be purged and cleansed of our own evil habits. This requires real honesty and candor. Again, it will be helpful for us to keep a spiritual journal about our own temptations to sin. This helps us to externalize our internal struggles. Once we have brought it out into the open, we have something to study and offer back to the Lord for His healing remedy. It seems simple and even childish. This is good. Christ likes simplicity and childlike natures! Let us remember that Christ is coming to us to bear our burdens and heal our wounds. He comes to take on the burden of our sins. If we slip and fall into any kind of sin, let us be swift to return to Christ and repent. Part of Christ’s coming to us is our familiarity and friendship with Him. Thus, on a daily basis, we need to make time for the Lord. We need to turn off the TV, computer, and cell phone and to tune into Jesus Christ. We can prepare for His multidimensional coming by reading Holy Scripture and learning to apply God’s Holy Word to our lives. Sunday morning service isn’t enough. God wants our time and an earnest willingness to take account of our dealings and doings. Our efforts should begin with simple honesty. Let us offer back to the Lord what we have thought, desired, or intended throughout the day. Let us offer back to Him also when and where we have failed to be merciful, charitable, and loving to others. Let us list our disappointments. Let us thank Him also for the spiritual strength and victory that His Grace has afforded to us. Whatever our temptations may be, in Advent we are called to identify and combat whatever threatens our relationship to Christ’s coming light and love. Our healing and purification will not happen instantaneously. Like anything in human life, bad habits take time to abandon and good habits take time to establish. We must practice the art of claiming and confessing our sins with patience that all vice might be killed and all virtue brought to life in us through the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Above all, let us remember that Advent is all about taking the coming Judgment of Jesus Christ seriously now so that we will not regret having ignored it later. What we shall be rewarded with then shall be a summary conclusion of what we have freely and voluntarily chosen and desired here and now. We shall get what we want. If we haven’t wanted God, He will not force Himself upon us. If we have lived in a Godless universe, that world will be rewarded to us forever in Hell. Hell is a Godless universe that stands forever within eyeshot of God’s Kingdom and the joy of His people.
The universe is never Godless in the end. God will not be mocked and His truth shall prevail. Man will feel the God whom He rejected and whose love he has lost…forever.
Dear Friends in Christ, Jesus Christ is coming to us once again in yet another Advent tide. Where are we in relation to Him? Let us awake out of sleep, cast away works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light now in the time of this mortal life, that the illuminating brilliance of Christ our love may come to us:
Come, true light. Come, eternal life. Come, hidden mystery. Come, nameless treasure. Come, ineffable reality. Come, inconceivable person. Come, endless bliss. Come, non-setting sun. Come, infallible expectation of all those who must be saved. Come, awakening of those who are asleep.
In stillness and silence Moses, the Lord’s Prophet, seeks and searches for God in Himself. What or who he searches for is what is not anything that he has experienced or encountered in the universe around him. In the universe are changing, moving, growing, and becoming beings. In himself he finds a changing, moving, becoming, being. Not only can he not step in the same river twice but he is not the same person who stepped in the river. Before he stepped into the river he was changing. While he was stepping in the moving and changing river, he was changing. After he had stepped in the moving and changing river, he was changing and still is never the same. Nothing that is always becoming is ever the same. Moses knows this. And yet on the other side of the equation, he is always changing, moving, growing, and so forth. Moses knows that he is the subject of the change and motion. So now he seeks for the source, origin, and cause of all changing, moving, growing, and becoming being. He seeking the cause of his becoming and seeks the source of his being. Being as changing, moving, growing, and becoming nevertheless exists. It partakes of or participates in being. What is being? Who is being?
Moses believes that God is Pure Being. Pure Being never changes. He is that substance that is complete, full, whole, entire, and absolute. His Being is simple, unadulterated, unconditional, and unlimited. He is I AM. He generates His own Being. God is Being in and through Himself. He depends upon no one and nothing for His being. (D. House) Before all beginnings, before partial and created beings begin to become, God alone exists, God alone is I AM. If he were caused, if there had been a cause of His Being, He would not be God. God is, God was not made. God’s being is God’s substance. God’s substance is God’s nature. God is, God thinks, God wills. These are three attributes that Moses discerns as relations within the Godhead or the Being of God. To say that there was a time when God was not is absurd and irrational. To say that there was a time when God did not think because He did not know how to think or had to learn to think is absurd and irrational. To say that there was a time when God did not will is absurd and irrational. God’s Being is such that He thinks and He wills always. Besides, before God created time, there was no time. So it is equally absurd and irrational to limit God to time since His Being is Eternal. There was a time relates only to history. History describes created time. God is I Am, I Know, I Will. These three relations describe the Eternal Being of God. There never was a time when God was not. I AM is not made or created. I AM is always.
What God thinks and wills is known to man only in and through time. Man has no access to God’s being beyond time other than that He always is Being and Knowing and Willing. Man has access to God in and through the time with which he was created. Thus, what man can know of God comes about through a reflection on the creation. What God has made is the only subject matter available to man for discerning and detecting God’s knowing and willing. Through what He has made, man can come to know something of God. Through what He has made man can come to know God’s attributes. Yet, in addition to coming to know who and what God is through creation, man also comes to see what God is not. Moses comes to see that God is not anything that has a beginning, is becoming, or has an end. What has a beginning, middle, and end exists in and with time. To have a beginning means that there was a time when someone or something was not. God is I AM. God has no beginning. God does not exist with and in and through time. God is I AM.
Moses knows that if he has any being, it is partial being. His being began to be at a certain point in time because God shared His Being with the creature that was beginning to be. To begin to be means that the creature begins to participate in and partake of God’s Being. I AM lends His Being to all that comes to be. For Moses, no creature comes to be unless Pure Being causes or brings it about. So, all creatures are becoming beings. This is to say that all creatures are striving to become some being in particular. God’s Being creates and makes all becoming beings. They are becoming in so far as they are striving to perfect a form of being that God established for them.
Man comes to be as he comes to know. Coming to know is part and parcel of becoming a true human being. Coming into knowledge therefore is in need of the same cause as coming into being. This salient feature of created human nature is ignored by most pseudo-scientists and pseudo-philosophers. They are pseudo because they will not admit of the need for God the First Cause in their acquisition of knowledge. Evidently, they believe that there exists no Being who Knows. But if there is no being who knows, then there is no knowledge for becoming beings who are becoming knowers! Being is participated in by beings who begin to be. Beings who begin to be eventually come to ponder, wonder, study, explore, and investigate because all men by nature desire to know. Their end is to know what can be known and is indeed known by the One Being who makes them. His making them involves His Eternal Knowing. When He makes them He knows what He is doing and what He is making. Man strives to understand what is already made as becoming being. Man strives to know things as God knows them. If God doesn’t exist, they cannot be known. Partial becoming knowing depends upon the Knower and the known. What is waiting to be known can be known only by discovering the knowledge of God the Knower who make, sustains, and thus defines them. So God is not just Being but Knowing. Another way of putting it is that God is Mind.
The author of Genesis is familiar with other ancient accounts of creation. He rejects them as not having solved his problem. His problem is that He wants to come to know the creation. He knows that it must be derivative. Becoming being, moving and changing being, being that is in time, for a time, and only for a time confronts him only with a kind of end and not a beginning. He is in search of beginnings. Of course, so were the other ancient cultures. But here there is a difference. A careful study of Enuma Elish, the ancient Babylonian creation account, might have been known to our author. If so, it is unsatisfactory. It seems to begin with divine division and multiplicity. It begins also with cosmic conflict and warfare. The author of Genesis is in search of a truly transcendent cause. God must be one and not many he thinks. God must be transcendent and not immanent. God must be beyond change, alteration, and becoming. Moses is in search of the Absolute Being and the Absolute Knowing. This is to say that he searches for what is unopposed, unalterable, unchangeable, and not moved or defined by anything or anyone else. He searches for one thing or one being that causes and informs all that is other than itself or himself. He seeks what is, what is I Am. This Being will be beyond all, above all, and responsible for all. Everything that comes to be, into being, must depend upon God. God is omnipotent. The power to begin to be and to begin to know come equally from God. God is omnipotent Being and Knowing and Willing. The willing is the necessary consequence of His free desire to make and create.
Some of you are disturbed by the assertion that the universe is created by the Uncreated God. Everything must have a cause, you assert with Bertrand Russell. Your assertion is faulty. Only what has a beginning must have a cause. What does not begin to be does not need a cause or reason for its being. He who is I Am needs not reason for being since He is Being Itself. Because it does not begin to be, it needs no catalyst from the movement from nonbeing to being. What does not begin to be is God. God by definition does not begin to be because God is Being. Everything else begins to be by entering into Being or by commencing to be when it had not been and thus must have a cause. What begins to be is moved out of non-being and into Being. It can begin to be only by beginning to participate in Being. What comes into Being, comes into what is and not what is not. Something is made or created that has or partakes in Being. What comes into being, once was not, now is, and will not be again. Being is. Becoming being is temporary and thus is imperfect and incomplete. It is partial being. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is a something that participates in Being while it exists. When it ceases to exist, it returns to nothingness. (I speak of course of those beings whose natures do not admit of a surviving faculty or element like the soul in men.) It was not, it is, and it will not be again. What is temporary participates in Being for a time or season. A time or season is a measurement of space that defines the endurance of a particular becoming being. Being for a time is not being forever. Being forever is one thing. Becoming being is temporary and thus is defined by duration. Becoming being and time are creatures. This means that both participate in eternal being but are neither eternal nor perfect. Being and Eternity are of God and thus belong to the Creator. Creatures come into being with time and are defined as being only with and in time.
What is interesting about the author of Genesis is that he is articulating a reality that not only participates in Being but has Meaning. Meaning is the definition or nature of a thing.The partial being of creatures can be known. It is known only in relation to the Mind or Intellect that causes it to be. Pure Being is Pure Mind. Pure Mind makes all things and gives meaning to them. They possess meaning in so far as they can be seen to be in the process of becoming some-thing. To say that they are some-thing means that they participate in Being beyond mere existing. It means that there is more to their reason or logos that defines their respective and particular natures. Or to maintain that they have any meaning at all means that they have natures or essences that define them as one-thing over and against another-thing. What they are –their natures, all partake in Being to a degree or extent. Thus, who or what they are can be related rationally back to God and the Meaning of His Being. Whatever God creates will reflect a degree of participation in Pure Being and Meaning. So, the reason or logos of particular created things is an articulation of the meaning of their being.
But before Moses describes what God makes, he must describe how He does it. Pure Being and Meaning create meaningful beings only by way of a method. Notice that we do not read that God simply makes in a kind of explosive bing-bang way. A big-bang is mere sound, fury, exploding energy, and chaotic motion. God’s Being and Meaning as they are discerned in the creation are articulated to rational creatures in an orderly and disciplined way. Uncivilized brutes cannot abide the gentlemanly manner of God. But uncivilized brutes also are never much interested in the Being and Meaning of God as the necessary cause and reason of all that exists. God does not act with an arbitrary will to power. For Moses, God thinks and communicates His intention through Logos and then establishes His desire through Spirit. God thinks and then speaks: Let there be….God speaks and then creates: and there was. Being, Thinking, and Willing reveal the ordered relations and operations of God’s eternal discipline. That discipline reveals the intention and purpose of the Creator that can be found in the creation. Moses is the inspired prophet who moves from the effects back to the First Cause.
We say that Moses moves from the effects back to the First Cause. By process of negation or apophatic theology he discovers the necessary Being of God. By way of what God cannot be, he finds what God is. From there he describes the movement as it proceeds from cause to effect. He begins with the purely spiritual, moves into the material and physical, and ends with the crowning communion of both in Man. He begins with the angelic and ends with the human.
For our conversation citizenship is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour,
the Lord Jesus Christ: who shall change our vile body, that it may be
fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby
he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.
(Phil. iii. 21,22)
Perhaps the hardest challenge that Christians face in the postmodern world is that of disentanglement. Disentanglement means prying or freeing oneself from the world in order to serve God. The problem is as old as the Gospel itself, and it is not made any easier by Jesus himself who, prior to His Ascension, prays to the Father: I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. (St. John xvii. 15) Here, Jesus looks as though he is strongly affirming the world in this passage. Jesus has no intention of carrying His friends with Him at that time, literally and physically, to Heaven. Had that been his plan, there would have been no evangelization of the nations. Rather he prays that they may be disentangled from the world so that they might carry Heavenly redemption into it. Disentanglement is a quality of soul that enables the Christian to be in the world but not of the world. So St. Paul says, in our opening quotation, that our citizenship or conversation ought to be in heaven. (Ibid)
And I don’t mean to suggest that disentanglement is easy. To the mind of ancient man the problem came down to this: How can I live in this world and be happy, knowing that only God is happy? Putting this another way, they asked: how can spirit and matter, or even heaven and earth coexist in an ordered way? To the ancient mind, God was the source of human existence yet did not share anything with man. And we know that the tension between the two dimensions bothered St. Paul. In our opening passage he makes it clear that he will be all too happy to greet the day when he gets rid of his pestiferous and lowly body, so that he can put on a glorious body that will be immune to sin and reconciled or one with God. St Paul is struggling to explain that new relationship between earthly and heavenly as revealed in Christ. In fact, human life, redeemed or not, does seem to require the unhappy and difficult co-existence of the spiritual and the natural, the heavenly and the earthly.
The problem of disentanglement is nicely illustrated in this morning’s Gospel reading. We read that, Then went the Pharisees, and took counsel how they might entangle Jesus in his talk. And they sent out unto him their disciples with the Herodians….(St. Matthew xxii 15, 16) The Pharisees were the keepers of God’s Law, and yet as a religious sect of Jews were also always a political force uncomfortably positioned under the foreign and alien rule of the Roman Empire. Their service to God was everywhere monitored by Caesar’s threatening eye. And if this entanglement wasn’t bad enough, they decided to join forces with their enemies the Herodians in order to attack Jesus. The Herodians were the servants and soldiers of Herod, who was himself a creature of entanglement. The Herods' blood had been polluted through intermarriage to pagans. To the Pharisees, the Herods were not full Jews spiritually since through their acquiescence and submission the Romans ruled the Jewish nation. So two political forces came, together to tempt and provoke Jesus –to entangle him His talk. (Ibid)
Here is what they say: Master, we know that thou art true, and teachest the way of God in truth, neither carest thou for any man: for thou regardest not the person of men. Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Cæsar, or not? (Ibid, 16, 17) The Pharisees saw human life only in terms of either/or and not both/and. They thought within themselves that if Jesus answered that it was lawful to give tribute to Caesar, His fellow Jews would consider Him a traitor to the nation of Israel. On the other hand, should He say it is not lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the Roman occupiers and their Herodian supporters would judge him to be a potentially subversive insurrectionist or a revolutionary. So they were determined to entangle Jesus in an unsolveable dilemma.
But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? (Ibid, 18) The Herodians were known to have been rather cynically disposed towards the truth, and the Pharisees claimed that they already possessed it. Their real motivation was envy and invidiousness. Jesus’ manner and message threatened their respective power-bases. He says: Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny. (Ibid, 19) Christ knows always exactly what He is doing. And this instance is no exception. If you wish to speak about taxes and tribute to Tiberius Caesar, let us examine the matter closely, lest we make a mistake in so important a matter. [So] he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Cæsar’s. (Ibid, 20) Christ wishes to disentangle Caesar from the plotting of the Pharisees and Herodians. The image on the coin is that of Tiberius Caesar, the ruler of the, then, civilized world. The coinage, minted in silver and gold, was used for, among other things, paying taxes. The image of Caesar was the image or symbol of Roman authority and governance. Then saith Christ unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s. (Ibid, 21) Jesus helps the Herodians and Pharisees to distentangle the two worlds so that they can honor and respect both. Since Caesar is your earthly king whose armies protect your borders, keep the peace, and enable you to live in safety, pay your taxes. It is a small price to pay for the freedom from external and visible threats to your bodily existence. And besides, if you render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (Ibid) no more, and no less, you will be better enabled to render unto God the things that are God’s. And this kind of disentanglement is really what alone will generate a good and holy life.
Rendering unto God the things that are God’s really sums up the life and mission of Jesus Christ and all who would follow Him. The problem with the Herodians and the Pharisees is that they are consumed with the things that are Caesar’s even though both think that they have found a way to overcome it. What I mean to say is that both groups are obsessed with Caesar, this world, earthly life, politics, and even economics. The Herodians are obsessed with serving Caesar through Herod, and have staked their lives and destinies on the good things that can come out of it all. But the Pharisees are equally obsessed with Caesar, in a negative way. They resent the Roman occupation, and look for deliverance from foreign occupation. They do not recognize their Saviour because their idea of the one who should save and deliver them looks more like Caesar than God. In other words, their Messiah will be all too human. Both sides are so rooted and grounded in this life, in the human nature that Caesar personifies and symbolizes, that they haven’t the slightest perception of God’s presence when it is standing right in front of them in the Person of Jesus Christ. They are so entangled with each other and with Caesar that they have no idea of how to render unto God the things that are God’s.
So disentangling what is God’s from what is Caesar’s is essential to the way that Jesus brings to all men. Knowing God must be man’s end. Of course, in truth, everything is God’s, including Caesar. But if what is Caesar’s is separated from God’s will and way, it will only and ever be the means to earthly goods and worldly happiness. Caesar’s life and rule come and go like governments. And Christ isn’t much interested in that precisely because he wants to teach us how to render unto God the things that are God’s.
So rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s is only possible when we know that God is the providential ruler of all things. You see Caesar is only on the throne because God placed him there, just as we are only here today because of God’s providential love. For our citizenship [or conversation] is in heaven. (Phil. iii. 20) And what this means is that we are called to give our true selves, our souls and bodies, over to God each and every day for sanctification and redemption. If we would follow Jesus, we would be far more concerned with the things that belong to God, namely our eternal destiny and salvation. With St. Paul we would learn to have our conversation…in heaven; from whence we learn to look for the Saviour (Phil. iii. 20). We would be vigilant and acutely aware of the dangers associated with the commerce of false gods. With St. Paul we would be wary of me with ungodly ways, who 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) And he has in mind those who have rendered [too much] unto Caesar and this world, and not enough unto God and the other. Rather than disentangling themselves from this world in order to pursue their salvation, they have relapsed into worldly and natural entanglements, and so are moved more by this world than the desire for God and His kingdom.
But we, with Caesar, are stamped with the image and likeness of Christ. In the end we must disentangle what is Caesar’s from what is God’s, but only for the sake of clarity. What this means is that the one must serve the other. That Caesar neither knew nor served the one true, living God is not important. For our purposes, life in the earthly city is meant to serve the pursuit of God’s kingdom. This means that our earthly lives can and will be sanctified and redeemed if we put first things first, God before Caesar, heaven before earth, the soul before the body, and heavenly treasure before mammon. Christ calls us to redemption that leads to salvation. Christ invites us into that Love which will redeem and save both the body and the soul. His intention is nicely summarized in a portion of T. S. Eliot’s poem The Four Quartetets:
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
…In my end is my beginning.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons