Pour into our hearts such love towards thee, that we, loving thee above all things,
may obtainthy promises, which exceed all that we can desire.
(Collect, Trinity VI)
I do not know how often we think of the promises of God. If we are like most men, we don’t. Our consciences don’t seem to be alerted and awake to God’s intention and plan for us. We don’t seem to be planning and preparing for a future with God in Heaven. Or if we do, it is of secondary importance to this life. We are so possessed by this dimension, this time and space, and those who people it. We do not tend to study and ponder our eternal future. Jesus is quite clear about it. It will happen. And we had better be preparing to be with Him in Heaven and not separated from Him in Hell. So ponder God’s promises and His bestowal of them upon us we must, for truly this will condition and qualify our eternal future. God has given himself to us, and if we hope to find life with Him in His Heaven forever, we must prepare for it. Eternity, after all, goes on forever.
Yet, as usual, this seems to be most difficult. How do we become those upon whom God will, in the end, shower His promises? It seems beyond our reach; indeed it seems beyond all that we can desire, as our Collect for this morning reminds us. But being beyond all that we can desire is no reason to stop wanting it. Desire is an inward stirring and passion for an object that we do not yet have. What is beyond all that we can desire means simply what exceeds and surpasses our deepest knowledge and yearning. Beyond all that we can desire means that our desire for God will be transformed into a love far greater than we have ever perceived or known. The kind of love that God has in store for them that begin to love Him truly now will then be wholly perfect because there and then it can never be threatened, challenged, disrupted, or distracted. It will be a love that cannot be destroyed.
So here and now we are called to start getting used to God’s love. This must involve practicing the presence of His rule and governance in our lives. In fact, St. Paul in this morning’s Epistle plots out the way to best receive and reflect this very love. Yet what a strange way he seems to encourage for its acquisition! To embrace God’s living love in our lives, the Apostle would have us consider death. In fact, he seems quite insistent that we shall never receive the promises that exceed all that we can desire until we die. What is St. Paul talking about? When most people hear about death, their minds travel to one thing – that is, to the extinction and termination of physical existence. But there is another death that Christians speak about and that is spiritual death. Most people imagine death as non-existence, a state in which man’s physical nature is shut down and all consciousness is lost. And because of this, they are full of fear and anxiety. But the death that St. Paul is getting at in this morning’s Epistle is spiritual and inward; it is the death that we must die here and now so that we might be saved. It is a death to whatever separates us from the knowledge and love of God. This death is the necessary precondition to that new life that begins to have a foretaste of the promises of God. And so it is no small wonder that so many men fear to undertake it. As G. K. Chesterton writes:
I tell you naught for your comfort,
Yea, naught for your desire,
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
(Ballad of the White Horse)
This death will be difficult and will involve a real inner spiritual battle on the dark plain of human existence. The man who will die to himself must be willing to wage war against the darkness of his sins. Also, he must examine closely the triggers and catalysts that lead to them. At first it may seem overwhelming, and yet, in the end, it will not be fearful because Christians believe that the most difficult aspects of this death have been endured and suffered already by Another on our behalf. Know ye not, St. Paul writes, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? (Romans. vi. 3) You and I, as baptized Christians, have been initiated already into Christ’s death. Christ has taken on our sin and in His one and all effective death has brought it to an end. We believe that the spiritual death to sin, Satan, death itself, and its power has been won for us by Jesus Christ. And it does not stop there. Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Romans vi. 4) Jesus Christ has died the spiritual death that we were not capable of dying. He has died for the sins of the whole world, and in His dying He has reopened the gates of everlasting life to all men. The living love of God is revealed to the world in the death of God’s own Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. The living love of God in the heart of Jesus Christ reveals and manifests love as death, death to the self, death to all that is other than God. This living love, this dying death in Jesus Christ is truly the first and necessary opening to the kingdom of God. All men are invited into the reality of it through Baptism, that in and through Jesus Christ they might die to themselves and begin to come alive to God.
So Baptism is our first incorporation into the reality of the death of sin. Technically speaking, Baptism washes away the stain and corruption of Original Sin. But actual sin remains. The devil is not thwarted by the Sacrament of Baptism. And the hard work of redemption continues long after it is first administered to the believer. If we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. (Romans vi. 5-7) Life for the Christian in time and space is meant to be lived out as conscious death and new life. St. Paul certainly speaks of future Resurrection when Christ shall come again to judge both the quick and dead. But in order to be counted worthy of salvation then, we must be dying constantly to sin now. This means that we must realize and know that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. (Romans vi. 6) Thus we are called in the here and now to ongoing repentance, self-conscious awareness of the sins that so easily beset us (Hebrews xii. 1), the determination to confess them, and turning to God…our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble. (Ps. xlvi. 1) Dying to ourselves involves hard work.
This is why in this morning’s Gospel reading Jesus teaches us that there can be no place for pride, envy, wrath, sloth, covetousness, gluttony, or lust. Jesus reminds us that these sins frustrate the death we must embrace. Ye have heard that it was said of them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. (St. Matthew v. 21) If we envy, resent, or hate anyone from the ground of our hearts, then the love of God that was planted in us at Baptism has neither survived nor grown. Jesus – God’s love for us and all others, is, then, not alive. If we limit and kill that love for others, that love is as good as dead in us, and we are alive to sin and destined for a far more pernicious future death! If we limit and kill God’s love, we cannot hope to be rewarded with His promises.
St. Paul reminds us that when we were the servants of sin, we were free from righteousness, (Romans vi. 20)…but now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, we have our fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.(Romans vi. 22) For, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. (Romans v. 8) In fact, Christ died for us while we were yet nailing Him to the Tree. Yet, as He was dying for us, He was longing and desiring for our salvation. That kind of love should stir us to a deeper longing for union with Him. Christ was dying and hoping for our salvation; we must be dying and hoping for our salvation and the salvation of all others. This is the love that stoops down from heaven to call all human beings into friendship with God. This is the love that never stops giving itself to us as the way and means to our eternal communion with our Maker. Jean Mouroux reminds us that God is present to His creature not simply in virtue of the being He bestows on it, but also by the love He excites in the very heart of its existence; whence it is that the whole world is tense with one immense aspiration, quickening, and unifying, towards the First-Beloved. (The Meaning of Man, p. 183). This same love invites and calls all men to be the saints of God. And as Romano Guardini has said, the saints are those who penetrate into the existence of Christ; who lift themselves , not by ‘their bootstraps’ but by Christ’s humanity and Christ’s divinity. (The Lord, p. 447) It is only by the penetrating love of God in Jesus Christ that we can be saved and find the fulfillment of God’s promises in Heaven. The existence of Christ is the desire of God for man. The existence of Christ is the desire of man for God. In one person, Jesus Christ, we find true life, true vision and true love. So, then, dear friends, today let us realize that he has prepared for [us] who love Him such good things as pass man’s understanding, and that we cannot appreciate, value, cherish, and treasure this love until He pours into our hearts such love towards [Him], that we loving Him above all things may obtain His promises which exceed all that we can desire.