Sermon for Quinquagesima
St. John’s – Moultrie, GA
March 7, 2011
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. With those words begins the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. I’ll bet that most of you could probably guess upon which Feast Day we hear that verse read as the appointed Epistle lesson. If you said the Feast of St. Thomas, you would be right.
Recalling the story from the twentieth chapter of St. John, Jesus makes his first appearance to ten of the apostles and Thomas is not present. We don’t know where he is or what he was doing, but we do know that when he is told that Jesus was alive and he had the unanimous testimony of his fellow disciples, he refused to believe and accept this wonderful Good News. He said that unless he saw it for himself, and actually felt and handled Jesus for himself, he would not believe. He had to have hard evidence. Faith in his brethren was not enough, he wanted more. Of course Jesus does come back eight days later, and Thomas received what he asked for, empirical, physical evidence that Jesus was alive. After this revelation, he does the only thing that he naturally should do, fall down and worship, and declare that his Lord, and his God was raised from the dead and was standing right before his face. Jesus does speak to us in that exchange when he says, “blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” St. Augustine defines faith as, “believ[ing] what you do not see; [with] the reward of this faith is to see what you belive.” St. Anselm of Canterbury took this statement of St. Augustine when he developed his maxim, Credo ut intelligam, which means I believe in order that I might understand. We are on a lifelong journey of the soul to return to its only source of life and existence – Almighty God, the Creator of all life.
Faiths tandem virtue, of the three theological virtues is hope. Hope in a biblical sense isn’t some nostalgic longing that has an easy come, easy go, type connotation. It is so much more than that, and completely rejects that type of notion. Hope in a biblical sense carries with it a certitude that cannot be discounted or diminished. Tomorrow morning when we commit the ashes of Judy VerBerkmoes to the ground we will do so with the following words, “UNTO Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, and we commit her ashes to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose coming in glorious majesty to judge the world, the earth and the sea shall give up their dead; and the corruptible bodies of those who sleep in him shall be changed, and made like unto his own glorious body; according to the mighty working whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself.”
Because those words are anchored in God, they do carry with them a certainty that is sure, certain, believable, and true because they are tied to the future life that is beyond our comprehension.
John Maxwell tells about a small town in Maine that was proposed for the site of a great hydro-electric plant. A dam would be built across the river and the town submerged. When the project was announced, the people were given many months to arrange their affairs and relocate.
During those months, a curious thing happened. All improvements ceased. No painting was done. No repairs were made on the buildings, roads, or sidewalks. Day by day the whole town got shabbier and shabbier. A long time before the waters came, the town looked uncared for and abandoned, even though the people had not yet moved away. One citizen explained: “Where there is no faith there is no future, there is not power in the present.” That town was cursed with hopelessness because it had no future.
The great Puritan John Bunyan once declared, “Hope is never ill when faith is well.”
Faith and hope go hand-in-hand, but their anchor and ultimate source must be found in the greatest of the theological virtues, charity. We’ve come to only know charity as giving to the poor, or showing people charity in a monetary or compassionate sense. Certainly that is one aspect or component of charity, but there is so much more to that word than simply our disposition toward meeting other people’s needs.
Charity is the highest of the four Greek words that we most often translate as love. We are not speaking of simply affection, or friendship, or a sexual type of love, a completely self-giving love that is so concerned about the other that vices such as pride, anger, wrath, and the like begin to be subdued.
The Summary of the Law that we hear in every celebration of the Holy Eucharist speaks to this notion. All that we do, all that we are should revolve around charity toward God and charity toward our neighbor. We are to love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength first and foremost. How do we do that? We cannot do it on our own, we must ask for help, and that is exactly what our collect prayed for. We asked God that He might, “pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, [which is] the very bond of peace and of all virtues.” We must ask God to do the pouring. It’s not like we can just go in for a fill-up, we have to ask God to dispense unto us this most wonderful gift.
We must first love God because that is the only way that we can ever begin to love ourselves and our neighbours. In St. Augustine’s spiritual biography The Confessions, he relays the story of his deep love for a dear friend who falls ill, is baptized while he is unaware it is happening due to his illness (we’ll discuss the implications of this later), recovers, gives up his pagan beliefs and becomes a catholic Christian, falls ill again and does in fact die. Augustine is so heartbroken over the loss of his friend he cannot contain himself. He is distraught and can find no solace for his grief. When Augustine talks to his friend and jokingly tells him what happened, Nebridius begins to try to convert Augustine away from his pagan beliefs. He is shocked that the baptism took effect, and makes his grief even stronger. He bemoans the fact that he even has to awaken each day because wherever he goes he knows that his friend will not be there.
When Augustine is finally converted to the catholic faith by Blessed Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, he finally recognizes that his love for Nebridius was disordered. He was putting his faith, hope, and love into something that was part of creation, and was thus perishable, and would ultimately die. He loved Nebridius in himself when he should have been loving him in God. Only when Augustine discovers this proper order for his love of his fellow man could he truly love him as he should. Once Augustine reordered his affection first toward Almighty God, the one who is imperishable, infinite, and eternal could he then learn to love his neighbour as himself.
In his book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes the effects of Augustine’s loss as follows:
St. Augustine describes the desolation into which the death of his friend Nebridius plunged him. Then he draws a moral. This is what comes, he says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.
Lewis goes on to say that in order to love we must be willing to be vulnerable, we must be willing to be exposed for who we really are. The only way we are ever truly going to love and be loved is if we are willing to take this risk.
Even in our human relationships and friendships, no matter how hard we might try we are never truly vulnerable. There is always something that we either keep inside and choose not to share.
With God, He has taken the first step and held back nothing; He shared it all and became vulnerable to the point of becoming a part of Creation, of living as a human being, of being tempted and tried in every way just like us, sin excepted. God’s vulnerability led him to the cross, but in so doing, He led us back to Himself.
Faith, Hope, and Charity the three theological virtues. Without faith, we can never truly understand. Without hope, we live as folk without a future. Without charity, we will never have the other two. That is why St. Paul says that charity is the greatest of the three because it follows the first two, but then leads us back to them again.
O Lord, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.