Sermon for 1st Sunday after Trinity
1 John 4:7-21
Burial shrouds do not come with pockets. How rich we are, how well dressed or well groomed we may be does not matter when we are called to account for our lives before the judgment seat. In today’s Gospel reading, the rich man finds out that all those things–those costly items and valuable trappings that had been so important to him in life–were useless to him in eternity. In fact, he had allowed himself to be ensnared by the good life. Greed—the passion for more and more and more—had come to govern him and in the end, he had remained spiritually destitute even though he had amassed great worldly fortunes. The truth that we are called to reflect upon this morning of grace is this: we are not judged by what is in our storehouse, but by what is in our hearts.
So, what is in our hearts? Another way of asking the same question is—does my heart belong to the world or to God? Yet another way to ask the same question is—which passion fills my heart? Which passion moves me, compels me, drives me forward? There are many passions to choose from, including the seven mortal sins. Is my heart governed by greed? Or anger? Perhaps lust or gluttony compels me? Friends, the seven mortal sins are real, and they have real consequences. In what today is, of course, extremely unfashionable language, they have been likened to seven devils (Laestadius, Dhj). These devils may move into a person’s heart at any time, change the locks and take control of it. Once lodged in our hearts, they compel our thoughts, our desires and our actions. They direct our lives. Many a life has been lived under the guidance of the passion called greed, including that of the rich man in today’s reading. For this reason, St Josémaria Escriva remarked: “Remember that the heart is a traitor. Keep it locked with seven bolts” (The Way, § 188).
The Christian passion is love. Love is a more than a core element of the Christian faith: it is the core. It is the beginning, the content, the frame and the end of true faith. It is the indispensible foundation for our fellowship with God and with other human beings, as well as for our stewardship of creation. God’s love for all of mankind—for all of His creation—is reflected in every aspect of His revelation throughout the Scriptures, and it is the only basis for our fellowship with him: by grace are we saved, and God’s grace is nothing other than a product of His love. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).
Our redemption in Christ through His passion, death and resurrection has no other basis than God’s love (Læstadius, Dhj. § 33), nor does it have any other purpose than to bring us into that love; to allow us to dwell in love and thereby in God. God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him (1 John 4:16). To be sure, we acknowledge and worship God’s majesty, might, justice and glory—but all these ‘attributes’ are expressions or functions of His love.
The love of God for all of humanity is infinitely greater than man’s hatred against fellow men. It is worthwhile pausing before the gravity of this truth and to consider its implications. Or, perhaps more accurately, consider the implications that we are called to transform into reality. God’s love is not some ethereal cloud that hovers above us, or swooshes around us like a gust of divine wind. It is not an otherworldly object or a distant supernatural notion. God’s love has implications through God’s people; it works in and through individuals of flesh and blood.
Love is also a passion. It is as real, it as is forceful, it is as compelling as any other passion. When it comes to human love, it affects our senses and our intellect and prompts us, compels us to take action. Perhaps to move from one city to another in order to be closer to the one we love. To marry, to have children, to work hard, to deny one’s own needs in order to fulfill the needs of loved ones. We know this. Everyone who has ever been in love knows it: love is a passion that affects the way we order our lives.
Why, then, do we so often allow ourselves the cozy illusion that loving God is different? We know that God’s love for man moved God himself to send the Son to fulfill the Law, and then send the Spirit to teach, comfort and guide us. We know that God’s love for man moved Jesus to sweat blood in the garden of Gethsemane, and then press on in order to repair once and for all the broken relationship between the divine and the human. God’s love is powerful enough to move God himself—but what about us? Why do we systematically assume that God’s love is some abstraction, or at least live our lives as if it were?
Many believe, because they have been so taught, that there is something so utterly ideal and idealized about the teachings of the Gospel that fulfilling is simply beyond the grasp of humans. Instead, we ought to be content simply to have faith that the ideal exists ‘up there’ while we remain utterly incapable of achieving it ‘down here.’ The Gospel teachings viewed in this way serve simply to demonstrate how utterly unworthy we are. In many denominations it is taught that this is as it should be because it causes us to rely on grace rather than achievement, which in turn is the central aspect of our salvation, our ability to become and remain Christian. Any ideas we might have about actually fulfilling the demands made in Gospel are written off as works righteousness, a theology of self-reliance rather than a theology of grace.
For the hardhearted sinner who has not reconciled with God in faith; for those whose hearts are ruled by the passions of this world, this is true. But what is our excuse? Does not something fundamentally change when, as Christians, we claim to be enveloped in God’s love? Again, St John writes that God is love; and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Is this merely a pretty sentiment, a Hallmark moment, or does it have real world implications? I am not saying that we can attain perfection in this life. Nor am I saying that we can ever avoid failure. But to acknowledge our human limitations is very different from making excuses to not be moved at all. Again, the passions of the world—greed, ambition, lust and so forth—move us to commit all kinds of more or less openly heinous acts. Love between human beings has the power to change lives. God’s love has the power to move God himself–to send the Word and the Spirit in order to heal the rupture caused by sin. Yet among so many who call themselves Christians, God’s love is somehow less real, less forceful, than the seven devils; it is a ‘divine abstraction’; an ideal that is beyond our reach—and then we turn around and make our inability to be moved by God’s love into a corner stone of our salvation.
Why would believe that we have not been given the capacity to love in the way that God requires of us? Some reasons suggest themselves. Seven reasons, in fact. Friends, convenience, which is a product of sloth, is one answer. Not wanting to appear odd to friends and neighbors, which is a product of ambition and self-righteousness, is another answer. Wanting to live our lives as we see fit, which is a product of egoism, is yet another answer. Those seven mortal sins are mortal because they have the ability to lodge themselves so firmly in our hearts that they prevent the one passion that can save, love, from entering—all the while persuading us that we’re doing alright, we’re decent types, we observe moderation, we try our human best.
On October 2, 2006, a gunman entered the West Nickel Mines Schoolhouse and killed five young girls belonging to the Old Order Amish community, before killing himself. Fighting the passion we know as hatred, the Old Order Amish community reached out to the family of the perpetrator, counseled them, brought gifts, and sought reconciliation rather than reproach. They attended the funeral of the man who had killed their children, and they invited the killer’s family to their children’s funerals. Through their lives, these anonymous saints reflected the all-forgiving love exemplified by Jesus on the cross at Golgotha
In Auschwitz, on August 14, 1941, Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe, volunteered to die in the place of a stranger who had been randomly selected for execution. When Kolbe heard the man cry with despair for the future of his wife and children, he took the man’s place, was tortured and eventually killed, while the stranger went on to live and survive the camp. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13). St Maximilian’s life and death absolutely reflected what Scripture itself calls the greatest form of love.
On April 15, 1889, Jozef de Veuster, better known as Father Damien of Molokai, died of leprosy after sixteen years of service to the leper colony quarantined on Molokai. He had volunteered for the mission, knowing that it meant daily exposure to this horrific disease. Six months into his mission, he wrote in a letter, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.” St Damien entire being was a reflection of God’s love for the poor and the sick.
These are acts of Christian heroism, but they are actually not that uncommon. We live in a world where the church is still persecuted, where disease and poverty are rampant, where oppression and tyranny are endemic—and where the nameless workers of the church, clergy and laity alike, are moved to serve, minister and sacrifice for love. Where Christians are still repaid for their love with imprisonment, torture and death. These people serve as examples to us all that it is indeed possible to be moved by God’s love, to follow Christ by loving God above all and our neighbors as ourselves. We must remember that people who are not Christians are also moved by love to selflessly serve others and they must be also be held up as beacons–beacons of the power of love to cause real-world action.
As Christians trying to live in and through divine love, we must prayerfully ask–what is my calling? How am I meant to transform divine love into human action? Where has God placed me? Whom has God sent in my way? What am I skilled at? What do I have to offer? We are not all called to be a St Maximilian or a St Damien. Most of us are not called to perform deeds that are noticed around the world. In most of our lives, the small things are what must be transformed by love into a sacrifice. If we are moved by love we are moved by love–and it matters not one bit if the action is small or great. The point is not the magnitude or global importance of our actions, but rather that we allow ourselves to be truly envloped by God’s love; to be lovers of God by allowing His love to compel us into action, whatever that may be. At any rate, even the great saints have begun their journeys by transforming the little things through what is known, again somewhat unfashionably, as interior mortification. St Josémaria wrote:
The appropriate word you left unsaid; the joke you didn’t tell; the cheerful smile for those who bother you; that silence when you’re unjustly accused; your kind conversation with people you find boring and tactless; the daily effort to overlook one irritating detail or another in those who live with you… this, with perseverance, is indeed solid interior mortification. (The Way, §173)
If it is divine love that compels us, that drives us forward, it does not matter one little bit if our deeds are great or small. With love comes humility, which in itself is nothing other than a loving response to a love that we have in no way merited or deserved. I will conclude by reading you a few lines from a prayer by St Therese of Lisieux, who in small things was always able to both find and offer great love:
But, you know my weakness, Lord. Every morning I make a resolution to practice humility and in the evening I recognize that I have committed again many faults of pride. At this I am tempted to be discouraged but I know that discouragement is also pride. Therefore, O my God, I want to base my hope in You alone. Since you can do everything, deign to bring to birth in my soul the virtue I desire. To obtain this grace of your infinite mercy I will very often repeat: ‘O Jesus, gentle and humble of heart, make my heart like yours!’ (Prayer for Acquiring Humility)
May the Lord continue to have mercy on us all. Amen.