A SERMON FOR QUINQUAGESIMA SUNDAY
When I was eleven years old, I started a new school, as was the custom in England back in the 1960s. It was a public school, and because it was England, where Church and State are not separated but very much integrated, part of the curriculum was devoted to the subject of Religion. Religion was taught by the headmaster himself, who was a Church of England minister called Dr. Watthey. I was eleven, he was the headmaster, the one who administered the canings, it was a new school, and I was terrified. The very first homework he gave us, that September day in 1966, was to memorize the whole of today’s Epistle. Not just pick out our favorite verse and memorize. No such luck, we had to know the whole thing by heart! You can imagine how that ruined my first weekend. Nor could we rely on not being called on to recite. Every one of us had to write out all thirteen verses, and hand them in for grading. Spelling mistakes were not ignored, and it had to be perfect. There’s nothing quite like fear to make us strive to be perfect.
You might think that this introduction to today’s Epistle would have filled me with loathing for these words of St. Paul. And yet, the wisdom of Dr. Watthey prevailed, and his choice of Scripture in his introductory class shaped my destiny, instilling me with a sound understanding of the importance of the love of God. Because after all, that fear, which propelled us to learn the words as best we could, turned out to be an incentive to do more than merely learn by rote. Fear is a means to the end, not the end in itself. The purpose of putting the fear of God in us was not to ruin my weekend, spent in trembling terror at the thoughts of failing the Monday morning test. It was to make sure we really “knew” the words of this Epistle. And to make sure we understood them. To make sure we really knew what “love”, or charity is.
That love was the end of the exercise. Unlike fear, love is not the means to an end, it is the end itself. The more we are inspired to show our love for God, the more we will actually love God. And the more we love God, the more we will be inspired to show our love for him. It’s like the opposite of a vicious circle—it’s a virtuous circle, based on the theological virtue of charity. That weekend of drumming St. Paul’s epistle into my head made me realize this
An analysis of today’s Epistle is not necessary. Every word in it is so simple, and yet has such depth of meaning that we could read it every day for the rest of our lives, and still manage to be inspired. Its opening sentence sums up to what extent love supersedes all other gifts: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as a sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” If I were to preach the best sermon you’ve ever heard, but it didn’t somehow preach the love of God and neighbor, then it would be utterly useless. It cannot be expressed strongly enough how essential it is to acknowledge God’s love for us by loving him in return, and our neighbor as ourselves. Everything we live for is contained in this concept, and without that love we are nothing. Absolutely nothing—even if our faith is strong enough to move mountains, even if we can understand all mysteries, even if we give all our goods to feed the poor. What better message can we have three days before Lent begins?
The readings at Matins this week included the story of the Tower of Babel. The men of this world were puffed up with pride, love of themselves, and they determined to build a great tower that would reach up to heaven and to the throne of God himself. But they had no charity. God destroyed their tower, and divided mankind by making them speak with diverse tongues. And so they did speak with the tongues of men, and because they had no charity, they became as sounding brasses and tinkling cymbals to each other.
It is St. Paul’s last message to us before Lent begins. Our penances of Lent mean absolutely nothing if they are not done out of love for God. Sure enough, fear may inspire us to be perfect, but that inspiration will be like the seed that falls by the wayside if it does not inspire us to love. Because it is only by love that we can move towards perfection. And we can never achieve perfection without perfect love.
Granted, we never will be truly perfect. We are imperfect, finite beings incapable of the true perfection which exists only in God. But we can be as perfect as we possibly can be, by striving towards perfection with every atom of strength we possess. Where it’s a question of love, God looks on our efforts, not our success, because our effort is the yardstick by which our love is measured.
We all have many difficulties in this life. You know what your own personal difficulties are. Sometimes you ask God to help you with these difficulties. Other times you might ask your priest. But today’s Epistle has the only answer that can ever truly help you with the problems you face, even those problems which you think are insurmountable or which seem to have no solution. Read again that sentence which explains what love, or charity, really is. “Charity suffereth long, and is kind,” says St. Paul. Charity “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.” Here is your answer. If you truly love God, you will be able to put up with whatever life throws at you, whatever predicament you find yourself in. Only our love of God can enable us to find peace and contentment in our turbulent lives.
A little old French lady once came up to me, with tears of devotion in her eyes, and she asked me a question, no doubt expecting a profound and mystical theological response, full of wisdom. But it was a simple question from a simple soul, and my answer was equally simple. She asked me: “What can I do, mon Père, to be perfect?” And the simple answer? “Love God,” I told her. “Aimez le bon Dieu!” And her wizened old face fell, she was obviously disappointed, and she replied, “But I already love God.” To which I said, “Then love him more.” She still wasn’t convinced. “That’s all?” she asked. “Love God to the best of your ability and you will be as perfect as you can be. Et ça suffit. It is enough!”
Read and re-read today’s Epistle. Let it be your daily Lenten meditation. It sums up all you need to know about the love of God, about how to make a good Lent, how to live a good life, how to save your souls in spite of all temptations. Love God, and it is enough.