First Sunday after Trinity
Linus, stunned, retorts "I do love mankind…It’s people I can’t stand!" The ideologues have always loved mankind; and they have made many people suffer for it...the judgment to come on the Last Day will concern what we did, not for mankind, but for "one of the least of these My brethren."
I John 4:7-21
Today’s Gospel brings up a subject that most preachers seem unwilling to mention these days. It speaks of a departed soul in torment, and gives us a scene of Hell. In fact, this story is not one that our Lord Jesus thought up, but rather one that He took the liberty of changing. Unlike the other parables, He made use of a story already told, and one that was popularly known by the Jews of that day. They had already developed a strong moral understanding because of the Torah and the prophets, and they knew the fate of those who did not love their neighbors. But our Lord adds His own ending, in which we learn that miracles, specifically the rising of the dead, are not enough to win the heart of anyone who cannot be moved simply by the truth revealed in scripture. A person who cannot repent simply by hearing the word of the Lord, will not believe his own eyes if he sees a miracle. This may seem incredible, but it is true.
The power of sin, when that sin is cherished and pampered, can harden the heart just as it did that of Pharaoh in the time of Moses. When we understand this, it begins to make sense why Christ said one day, after working miracles in the presence of a large crowd, that no sign would be given to their generation. How strange indeed, when we read of the many powerful and visible signs that these very people had just seen. A heart given to sin so hardens itself that no sign is sign enough. You may recall from the Gospel of Matthew that the priests who knew that Christ had risen from the dead paid the Roman guards to make up an alternative story. If that seems strange, I can only say that, contrary to popular belief, seeing is not believing. We know the words of Christ to Thomas, "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." It is also true that there are those who do see and yet believe not. For, ultimately, faith has more to do with repentance than with being convinced of a fact.
The story about Lazarus and the Rich Man is not about the end that awaits unbelievers, but about the difference between living faith and dead faith. It highlights the kind of faith which cannot bring forth any fruit, because it has, to borrow words from the Book of Revelation, left its first love. The terrifying end of torment in Hell is the condition in which the Rich Man (Dives if you prefer) finds himself, even with his own kind of faith. Since the days of Martin Luther a controversy has centered over the question of justification, and if man is saved by faith alone (or sola fide). And, in all fairness, an emphasis on faith is an important balance to many from our own ranks who speak of baptism as if it were the end all and be all of life in Christ. It is right to speak of the importance of faith. In his early days Luther preached a sermon about faith, in which he taught that faith cannot exist by itself; that true faith creates love which produces good works. Very Pauline, very sound, and it throws light on a difference between his concept of faith at that time and the concept of some modern preachers. But, unfortunately, he came to reject the Epistle of James as, to use his words, "an epistle of straw." For, James is the only one in scripture to refer directly to faith alone-not a saving sola fide, but faith alone as in lonely faith. For what St. James wrote was "Even so faith, if hath not works, is dead, being alone (James 2:17)." And he tells us that this kind of faith, that is dead faith, cannot save us. It is dead, like the member of a body cut off and alone. That is the one place in scripture where faith is spoken of with the word "alone" anywhere in close proximity. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith, Saint Paul tells us. He goes on to say that this faith leads to "good works which God hath prepared for us to walk in (Eph. 2: 8-10)." Funny- isn’t it?- that Paul and James completely agree.
The Rich Man sees Abraham, and calls him father Abraham. Abraham calls the Rich Man "my son." Those who have faith, Saint Paul teaches us in his Epistle to the Romans, are the children of Abraham. So, why did not the faith of Dives- the Rich Man- save him from the place of torment? This is very important; we must heed the answer. It was because his faith was dead. In his grave, and in the fires of his torment, he simply caught up with the deadness of a faith which does not heed the words of Moses and the Prophets. He would not be persuaded- persuaded, that is, to repent- had he seen the Risen Christ and placed his fingers in the wounds in His hands.
Impossible you say? Ah, but did not Christ’s enemies witness some of the same public miracles that His friends had seen? Did not Judas the traitor, when sent out with the others, work miracles himself? If we read the Gospels closely we see that he must have. The twelve came back to the Lord and reported that they had preached and healed the sick and driven out demons, as later the seventy would also do. Even if we picture Judas standing by while another apostle did the actual praying that brought about healing, did he not see many miracles in his years with the Lord? He saw Christ’s miracles in abundance. Faith is not simply seeing and believing a fact. It is a living virtue of those who know God. It cannot abide alone, but only, as Saint Paul tells us, along with hope and charity. And so, both the Gospel and the Epistle appointed for the First Sunday after Trinity, tell us of the love of God, of charity, which is the mark of each person who has living faith.
The Epistle by Saint John does not speak of some heroic effort to love our neighbor, with clenched teeth and flexed muscle. Rather, it shows us how naturally the love of Christ flows from the life of anyone who knows God. In line with the Collect, it tells us that the strength of those who put their trust in God overcomes the weakness of our mortal nature so that through us, He loves those who have need of our kindness. If we come to the end of our natural strength in the face of human need; if we are overwhelmed by the poverty and suffering that is beyond our ability to mend, it is not merely the strength of human idealism that sustains us. Having worked for years among the poor and disabled, and having spent many hours taking them to Social Service offices, I know that the world’s best idea of kindness quickly goes down a drain of cynicism, indifference and even cruelty. The caseworkers can be among the meanest and most abrasive people on earth (not all of them of course. Some are absolute saints).
The Rich Man probably thought that his faith was producing good works. After all, Lazarus got to lie outside of his gate and eat the scraps from his table. The Rich Man "gave at the office." He sent out his check, his scraps, to a thing called "charity." But, as a fellow Israelite, Lazarus was his brother. The Israelites were commanded in the Torah to be kind even to the stranger in their midst. How much more naturally it should have come to him to invite Lazarus in from the street, to put him at his own table as David had done for Mephibosheth, the lame grandson of Saul. The best the world offers, in its feeble idealism, is to send out gifts to those we wish not to see. But, a living faith sees no one as a stranger. In the words of our Lord, it does good for one of the least of His brethren.
"The righteous man considers the life of his beast. But, the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel" says the Book of Proverbs. Utopian ideologues since the French Revolution, such as Marx and his followers, spoke lofty words about what was best for mankind. It reminds me of one of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoons. Linus tells his sister Lucy that he wants to be a doctor, a great doctor. She tells him "you cannot be a great doctor. You know why? Because a doctor must love mankind. You don’t love mankind." Linus, stunned, retorts "I do love mankind…It’s people I can’t stand!" The ideologues have always loved mankind; and they have made many people suffer for it. They have offered millions of innocent victims to some idea of "good for the highest number," and all of that Satanic balderdash about what is best for humanity. Crowds enjoying the spectacle of heads being cut off in Paris, Communists dictating who should live, who should die, and who must go to the camps, and, indeed, the Nazis destroying millions in order to advance human evolution to the state of perfection, believed they were lovers of mankind, saviors of that abstract and impersonal thing called "humanity."
But, the judgment to come on the Last Day will concern what we did, not for mankind, but for "one of the least of these My brethren," as our lord taught in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (in the 25th chapter of Matthew). One. Our Lord spoke of "one" quite deliberately. If we cannot love our brother whom we see, how can we love God Whom we have not seen? - our brother, not some lofty and impersonal "mankind." Christ came into the world to save each of us who believe. He bore the sins of each person. Of the whole world, yes. But, with Saint Paul, we can speak of the Son of God "Who loved me, and gave Himself for me." The personal element, love for the one lost sheep, which we all have been, is the very heart of charity. The love He puts into our hearts by a living faith, the charity without which faith cannot abide, sees the need of the one, of our brother. That brother cannot be sacrificed, that sister cannot have her feeding tube pulled out, that unborn baby cannot be aborted and thrown away, that hungry child cannot be neglected, that discouraged individual cannot be ignored, by those whose faith is alive. Because this kind of faith works by love and labors in hope.
And it cannot do so on merely human strength.
This living faith is persuaded by the scriptures. It hears Moses and the prophets, and is ready to welcome the Risen Christ in whom it hoped all along. It cannot help but have charity, the love of God, for living faith knows no other way. It is the faith of the Holy Spirit Himself, Who abides in us to shed forth the love of God in our hearts.