Sunday, May 10, 2009

Easter 4 Sermon 2009

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.+ [James 1.17]

God is pure light, pure goodness. He is perfectly trustworthy and eternally consistent. And that is why he is the source only of what is good and what is perfect.

Why does St James seem to distinguish “good” and “perfect” gifts here? (It may be merely an idiomatic way to emphasise the point, rather than a genuine distinction, but this is not necessarily the case: it is reasonable to assume that every word contributes something "extra" in the Scriptures, to search for the deepest meaning, the sensus plenior.) Does he mean that some gifts God gives contain some evil or failure? No, that would contradict the denial of any “shadow” in God from the same verse. But not every goodness achieves perfection, that is, completion in or for us, instead perhaps taking us part of the way. This is not bad, it is just the nature of being finite creatures who grow step-by-step and experience happiness and fulfillment progressively over time. So, this verse tells us about ourselves as well as God.

We might also find it strange that God is described as the Father of “lights” rather than just of light. But, again, this corresponds to the relationship between the Infinite, One God and his many finite “offspring”. What do I mean by offspring? Well, a Father is the Father of a child, a child which resembles that Father. So, if God is the Father of lights then he is the Light, so to speak. That is, he is the fundamental Truth (as light helps us to know), the absolute Power (light is energy), and the ultimate Good (as light represents goodness). That means that whatever being He has created, or quality it contains, that partakes of these glories or represents them, is in some sense a small-l light. Now that applies to everything God has created, but to some things more than others. Christians are said to be lights to the world by our Lord (Mt. 5.14). There is a light that enlightens every person, according to St John's Gospel (1.9). But all creaturely innocent joy and true wisdom or justice, and even every inanimate object or living being, can be considered a light given by the Father of lights. We know that all of Creation is considered a visible witness to God by St Paul (Ac. 14.17, Ro. 1.20) and the Psalmist, who wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (19.1).

At this point, person might well object: “What about the darkness? Where does it come from? What about the many cruel or wasteful aspects of Nature or Humanity? How can you claim Creation is full of pure light?”. And the Christian answer is that all that is truly dark, truly evil, is not created by God that way but the result of distortion of Creation by sin, whether of fallen angels or fallen humans. The gifts of God have been ungratefully and rebelliously damaged or destroyed.

However, we must also be careful not assume everything that offends our aesthetic sense or superficially appears a deficiency is in fact so. For example, those who point to the evolution of plants and lower animals through much competition, death, and extinction as evidence of cruelty or wastefulness might have identified, unbeknown to themselves, the effects of the angelic fall which, according to some Fathers, was an indefinite time before humanity's existence or Fall. (Angels are portrayed as specially related to material nature in both Scripture and Tradition, so their fall could have had cosmic effects.) But those who see all this as Nature's viciousness or vanity might also be, to some extent, illegitimately anthropomorphising the sensations and experience of these creatures (that is, treating them as if they had human-like feelings and capacity for pain and fear). And they might be imposing on God a standard of “efficiency”, as well as an approach that makes all life worthless if it does not lead to humans or serve humanity, that is merely a limited human prejudice. Sillier still, some see the vastness of the Universe, almost all of it probably without life (and without "intelligent" life, specifically) as wasted space or meaninglessness, or black holes as evidence of a cosmic theme of destruction that undermines the concept of benevolent Creation. As if God could not create beauty and power beyond our vision or need just for its own sake!

“Of his own will he brought us to birth with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures. ” So, despite what I have said before, we should not doubt that we are a summit of physical Creation and at the centre of God's concern. We must remind ourselves as well that it is by His will and His word that we have been given new life, born again, and not by our initiative to seek Him or by our wisdom in finding Him. “Of his own will”, “with the word of truth”. In other words, we matter enormously, infinitely to God, but not because of our virtues.

Ye know this, my brethren”. How often do we need to be reminded of the things we theoretically know? Quite often, according to Scripture. If human teachers must use repetition even with engaged and willing students, how much more must God bring us “back to basics” as sheep so easily lost and led astray, so ready to wander?

“[S]o let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay aside all filthiness and residue of wickedness ”. How hard it is to listen and how easy it is to talk! Note that it does not say all wrath or anger is evil. “Slow to wrath” does not mean “never angry” any more than “slow to speak” means “never talking”. However, Christians are called to consciously discipline all these tendencies: the plenitude of words that so often rests in proud self-assertion, the quick resort to anger that so often ends in hate and unjust imaginings, and, most ruthlessly, the tendency to the ease of compromise with sin, even if just a residue.

But how can we do this? We cannot do it persistently unless we simultaneously take in to the soil of our hearts, as softened by the plough of discipline, the seed of the word, the Gospel. “[A]nd receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” Through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and through private reading of and prayerful reflection on Scripture, we can receive the implanted Word. And in all this we will, if we are wise, put our full trust in the core of that Seed, the very DNA of our salvation: the Gospel promise of God's pure goodness, perfection and changelessness, in His mercy towards us. +

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