(Collect: Trinity VII)
Those of you who have spent considerable periods of time reading the Epistles of St. Paul cannot help but come away with a sense of the Apostle’s uncanny ability to use spiritual antagonists to make his point. Perhaps this is a natural consequence of his momentous conversion, when, in a fit of zealous and rabid hot pursuit of Damascan Christians, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, he was thrown down from the high horse of his feverish pride onto the dusty and desolate road where God’s spoken Word alone could be heard. Paul the zealot, Paul the judge, Paul the persecutor of Christians endured an extreme turnabout and volte-face of his entire character. He was blinded, and was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. (Acts. ix 9)
So he was brought to into the stirring and starting of spiritual death, and from its burial ground he became the man that he had never been before. But this occurred only slowly and cautiously. His sight was restored by a certain Ananias, he was given food to eat, and spent three years in Damascus (Gal. i. 17, 18) learning the rudiments and first principles of the Christian religion. In time his former determined zeal for persecuting Christ was redirected and transformed into a fiery passion for all men’s conversion to and through Christ. St. Paul’s fervor was infectious and, combined with the gift of his genius, Jesus intended to use him as [His] chosen instrument to proclaim [His] name to the Gentiles…their kings…and to the people of Israel. (Acts ix. 15)
Zeal is the virtue opposite to sloth. Sloth is a mortal sin, and it is to that sin that we must turn before considering the zeal that seeks out conversion and sanctification. You might think it odd that we must study sloth today, since it does not seem apparently visible in the readings for this Seventh Sunday after Trinity. But if you look closely into today’s Gospel, there you will find it hidden beneath the surface of the text. We read that a great multitude of people had been following Jesus for three days in the wilderness. (St. Mark viii. 2) They had been pursuing the truth that was emerging from His being, believing and hoping that who He was and what He said were of more than ephemeral and transitory meaning. They, like St. Paul, were zealously cleaving to Jesus in an extreme way, having forsaken their usual and habitual haunts because His presence and message were pressing. In fact we read that because of their diligent determination to follow and hear Him, the thought of food had wholly escaped them. We don’t read a word to suggest that they were restless, irritable, and discontent because of the fasting that accompanied their spiritual journey. They were so intent upon pursuing the spiritual good from Jesus that physical sustenance and the body’s health were neglected.
But Jesus perceives a problem. He says, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat: And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far. (St. Mark viii. 2, 3) Jesus is the compassion and mercy of God in the flesh. He intends that the good work which he has begun in them may be perfected. They are in danger of fainting. To faint in Scripture refers always to falling by the wayside spiritually, losing spiritual steam, or becoming weak, languid, exhausted and feeble. To faint means to lose one’s zeal. Men are not pure spirits, and for the soul to persist in the pursuit of its Lord, the body must be fed. One who faints has a faith that is in danger of losing a spiritual high because of an earthly low, or of finding his faithful zeal withered and dried up because he has no deepness of spiritual earth, and when the sun is up [is] scorched and withers away. (St. Matthew xiii. 5)
Jesus knows that danger that looms in the lives of those who are pursuing Him with a zealous passion. The author of Proverbs says, if a man faint in the day of adversity, his strength is small. (Prov. xxiv. 10) The truth that Christ brings is meant to be tried and tested along the lines of the common drudgery of human life. Adversity, suffering, hunger, thirst –the heat of the day, face the whole human person that Jesus came to save. Should the soul’s good be pursued at the expense of the body, the earnest pilgrim might faint, fail, and fall away from Christ. He might be in danger of becoming overwhelmed by sloth.
The Church Fathers tell us that the potential fainting that threatens those who have followed Jesus into the wilderness in this morning’s Gospel is a temptation to sloth. Sloth is a mortal or deadly sin. Most people associate it with that laziness and indolence that leads to physical neglect or even gluttony. It can be that, but its purview is far more debilitating and destructive. It may be the physical body’s vengeance upon spiritual asceticism –the imminent danger in this morning’s Gospel. Physical hunger from fasting can indeed threaten spiritual growth. But it is more than that. The fainting that Jesus seeks to combat most is that of spiritual sloth. Jesus senses that the Word that He has planted in the hearts of His followers might die.
Dorothy Sayers tells us that sloth is the sixth deadly sin. In this world it is called tolerance, but in hell it is called despair…It is the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing it would die for…It prevents men from thinking. Sloth persuades us that stupidity is not a sin but a misfortune. (An Address…October, 1941) Sloth would seem to be the deadly sin that follows swiftly upon the heels of an ascetic spiritual high. For, sloth is not merely laziness and indolence that leads to physical gluttonous gorging. It engenders a despair that throws a man’s spirit back upon the urges and compulsions of the physical world. In the end, it is a deadly vice that gives up on God and His mercy, as it stops searching, seeking, knocking and asking. It mistakenly thinks that spiritual life is all about ecstatic and paranormal encounters with God on the spiritual peaks of charismatic joy and rapture. When transcendental bliss recedes and withdraws, sloth surreptitiously convinces the soul that the spiritual life is too high to be sustained in a body which seems alien and adverse to continued sanctification.
Today Jesus desires that we faint not by the way. He knows, with St. Paul, that we are weak. I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh and that ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness, and to iniquity unto iniquity. (Romans vi. 19) He knows from personal experience that it takes time to be weaned from sin, unrighteousness, and the predominating influence of the flesh. But even so now he exhorts and encourages his flock and us to yield our members servants to righteousness, unto holiness. (Romans vi. 19) His extreme zeal for the Gospel stands over and against the ominous, sinister, and foreboding designs of sloth. St. Paul desires that we, with him, might be fed with a zeal for the love that leads to Christ’s kingdom.
Jesus fed the four thousand many years ago in order to overcome their temptation to sloth. He zealously longs to feed us today. Then He took seven loaves of bread and a few small fishes, and today He takes a small portion of bread and a cup of red wine. Now, as then, a small amount of earthly fare will be sufficient to conquer spiritual fatigue, exhaustion, and sloth. Now, as then, the small, common and simple fragments of physical sustenance will be consecrated and transformed into that Divine love that sustains and enhances zeal for the Lord. Now, as then, the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah xxxvii. 32) For God’s zeal and passion, His incessant concern and care for all men in the person of Jesus Christ long always to lift the hearts of all men up and into the love of His heaven.
St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that zeal arises from the intensity of love, because the more intensely a power tends to anything, the more vigorously it withstands opposition and resistance. (ST i. ii. 28, 4) The zeal we seek to embrace is a determined and diligent devotion of God for us in Jesus Christ. That zeal intends to eradicate any sloth that threatens to dampen our spiritual enthusiasm and quench our desire for Jesus’ work in our lives. If we submit ourselves humbly to its operation, receive, nourish and cultivate its seed, the intensity of love that moves it will conquer and subdue all spiritual sloth.
If we understand this Divine zeal as the unmerited and undeserved gift of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ which longs to endure and grow in us through good times and bad, joy and sorrow, and adversity and success, then we shall with the four thousand begin to apprehend, absorb, and appreciate its power to consume and possess us. Its kindling fire will strengthen our faith, broaden our hope, and deepen our love for the Lord. It will enable us to seek…first the kingdom of God and His righteousness….(St. Matthew vi. 33) And like the four thousand, we shall take no thought of what we shall eat, and what we shall drink. For our Heavenly Father knoweth that we have need of such things. (Ibid, 31, 32) All these things shall be added unto us, as what strengthen the body that houses a soul bent on zeal.
In the end what he gives will be just enough to perpetuate and enlarge our zeal for working out our salvation with fear and trembling. (Phil. ii. 12) With Dr. Jenks we shall pray, O let us not spend our zeal and spirits for earthly but for heavenly things, not for our own lust and honor but for God’s blessed will and pleasure. (Jenks, 274) And with that we shall feel the effects that extreme Divine gift of God’s great zeal in our souls , which will graft in our hearts the love of His name, increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of [His] great mercy, keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen. (Collect: Trinity VII)