Saturday, February 20, 2010

First Sunday in Lent

II Corinthians 6:1-10
Matthew 4:1-11

A new kind of Pelagianism captured the imagination of twentieth century clergy. Pelagius was Britain's first- sadly not last- heretic, and he taught that man was not really dead in trespasses and sins by Adam's transgression. His doctrine was that one could pull himself up by his own bootstraps, and become holy by sheer will power. Never mind everything St. Paul wrote about the weakness of the flesh. Never mind the words of Jesus: "Ye are from beneath; I am from above: ye are of this world; I am not of this world."1 Because they had embraced, essentially, a Unitarian view of God, they were unable to accept the Gospel.

To accept the Gospel you must come to a very simple recognition of fact: Life is not a test. Those who teach, in the name of religion, that life is a test, and at the end you get a passing or failing grade, will never understand the portion of the Gospel according to Matthew that we read this first Sunday in Lent. Pelagius and the new unitarians who pose as Christians, cannot see that Christ came in the fullness of his divine nature, taking our finite and mortal human nature into his uncreated eternal life. They cannot see that he reached down and saved us from sin and death, that his cross and passion were the sacrifice by which we receive forgiveness of sins, and that he was raised again for our justification; that only by his cross and passion, and glorious resurrection and ascension, are we given life and immortality. They cannot see that he did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Life is not a test; it is a shipwreck. Christ did not come to prepare us for a test; he came to rescue us, to pull us out of the sea of sin and death and place our feet on solid ground. If life were a test we would all get an "f" and be cast into Hell. "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved."2

So, the message of today's Gospel is not, "imitate Jesus: if he could do it so can you." Yes, try to imitate Jesus the best you can by doing always what pleases the Father. But, when, not if but when, you fail, confess your sins and be forgiven. This is one area in which you cannot imitate Jesus, for he had no sins to repent of. We have no power in ourselves, of ourselves, to save ourselves. The temptations of Jesus in this passage from Matthew are strange to us. They exist on a higher level than the carnality we must wrestle with. I have never been tempted to use divine power to turn stones into bread. Have any of you? I have been tempted to eat when I was fasting, and tempted to satisfy the body in ways that are outside of God's will; but, never to turn stones into bread.

We need to examine these temptations in light of what they were for Christ, and in light of what they mean for us. Two things that come to our aid are from St. Paul. One is the line, "There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it." 3 The other is, "But not as the offence, so also is the free gift. For if through the offence of one many be dead, much more the grace of God, and the gift by grace, which is by one man, Jesus Christ, hath abounded unto many." 4 With these passages in mind, let us think of the temptations Christ endured, first in terms of their meaning in his life, and then what they mean for us. Always remember this; Christ being holy and sinless was not a fallen creature. He was the Word made flesh, the fullness of the Godhead dwelling bodily among us, fully God and fully man. It was not the fullness of his divine nature shrunken down into humanity, but the raising of human nature into his infinite divine Person. For us, the temptations that come are common to man. To the holy, righteous savior, born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit instead of the seed of a fallen man, he is the pure and perfect man. These temptations we read about in this chapter of Matthew were not common to man, in one sense, but were common to man in another sense. I shall explain.

The first temptation was this: "If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread." The temptation was to use his divine power in a way that was foreign to his very character as God. In everything we see from creation, God always used his power to make, that is, to give. Everything is grace, including life itself. The creation of life, including human life, met no need of God, for God has need of nothing.5 All of God's creative work was from his love, by which love he gave, seeking nothing for himself. 6 The Son of God came into the world because of God's immeasurable love, with the intention of sharing the humility of a creature, and suffering the death of the cross as the atonement that no sinner could make either for himself or as a ransom for his brother. The will of God that he would rise again was for the sake of fallen mankind who needed the gift of eternal life to save us from the full power of the grave. Every miracle he planned to perform would be so that he could go about "doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the Devil."7 The temptation was to use this power for himself. It was to satisfy the demands of his body by that creative power that had always been used in charity, that is agape- the love of God.

The second temptation was to throw himself down from the temple, that is, to put the truth itself on trial. It is this temptation that demonstrates the cunning of Satan in his misuse of the very scriptures themselves. Notice how he misquotes the Psalm, taking it out of its context that teaches us not to fear death as an ultimate power, so that its meaning is reduced to something no bigger than this mortal life. Notice too the addition of three words not in the real Psalm: "lest thou strike thy foot against a stone" becomes, in the Devil's mouth, "lest at any time thou strike thy foot against a stone." At any time? The condition is taken away, and the promise mis-stated. The temptation here is to place the word of God on trial, and it is to be done by using an arbitrary and false measure, one forbidden by the Law itself, namely, testing God.

The final temptation is subtle indeed. "The devil taketh him up into an exceeding high mountain, and sheweth him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; and saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me." It is the plan of God that all nations serve and obey Christ, 8 for this is best for man and so in accord with God's love. When he comes again in glory, this will happen, and will happen in a way far beyond our ability to perceive in our present state. The temptation here is to avoid the cross. This is why we see this echoed in Christ's words to his own Apostle Peter. Remember one day, when the Lord predicted his coming suffering and death, that Peter

took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, 'Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.' But he turned, and said unto Peter, 'Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.'" 9

The temptation is to arrive early at the goal by abandoning the Father's will, by avoiding the suffering and death which alone could reconcile man to God without any compromise of his holiness, and which in making sacrifice also shows the seriousness of our sins to change us morally. Retire early, avoid the suffering, do not take up the cross. Such a decision would have been to turn away from the Father indeed.

In fact, there was no danger that Christ would yield to this. But we see important things for our own edification.

The book of Genesis describes the Fall this way:

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat." 10

Look at these three things: 1) Good for food. 2) Pleasant to the eyes. 3) Desired to make one wise. Compare this to the words of St. John:

"Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever." 11

Compare the two lists: "Good for food" to "the lust of the flesh." We forget that the lust of the flesh is not only sexual lusts and passions, but also all other things that drag us away from God because of their direct effect on the desires of the body. This includes abuse of sex and of food, but also the abuse of drugs and alcohol that destroys lives and families. Beyond the obvious, read the fifth chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians about "the works of the flesh" that are the opposite of "the fruit of the Spirit."

Compare "Pleasant to the eyes "with "the lust of the eyes." Remember the words of St. Paul: "for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet."12 The lust of the eyes is what Jesus spoke of when he said that it is the sin of adultery to look on a woman to lust after her. He was simply driving home the point he had made in the days of Moses: "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife." 13 The lust of the eyes is never content with the gifts that God has given, and is the opposite of that love that "seeketh not her own." It wants more, even if your neighbor is deprived or diminished. The lust of the eyes does not give thanks to God for what he has given, but finds fault with him for not giving to our satisfaction. "Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee." 14 Giving in to the lust of the eyes is like drinking sea water. It never satisfies, but with each drink makes a man thirstier and thirstier.

Compare "it was desired to make one wise" to "the pride of life." Pride requires an illusion. The truth makes a man humble. The truth is the very opposite of Pelagianism; for the fact is, you cannot go one day without committing sins if only in your thoughts. The truth is, you cannot keep your own soul alive. The truth is contrary to "Motivational Seminars," which teach the sin of pride a thousand different ways. Every day, in every way, it is not getting better and better, no not at all. You are aging, and as your eyes fail, and your hair gets gray or falls out, and your skin wrinkles, you are reminded that the body is sinful because it is subject to the uncleanness of death 15. This is part of the Fall. Pride says life must be a test, and we can pass it. Humility says, "God I have earned no better than an 'f', that is, everlasting damnation. Save me from sin and death." A man trying to stay afloat in a shipwreck has no time to impress anybody; he must, with the humility that realism brings, accept salvation from his rescuer.

Christ overcame the things that are in the world. "The world" in this sense, that has only these three sinful categories, is best described in the first chapter of John's Gospel: "He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not." The world is fallen into the state of not knowing its Creator, even in his Incarnation. 16 This season of Lent, learn the humility to take seriously these three enemies: The world, the Flesh and the Devil. Learn to fight the temptations used by the Devil through "the things that are in the world." Jesus used the scriptures, the sword of the Spirit; so, you need to know the word of God, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it. 17 The disciplines of Lent are useful indeed. Fasting is a way to humble our souls before God, 18 and giving is away to show gratitude to the Lord.

Let us have a holy Lent, knowing that without him, we can do nothing.19

1) John 8:23
2) John 3:17
3) I Corinthians 10:13
4) Romans 5:15
5) Acts 17:25
6) I Corinthians 13:5
7) Acts 10:38
8) Psalm 2
9) Matthew 16:22, 23
10) Genesis 3:4-6
11) I John 2:15-17
12) Romans 7:7
13) Cp. Exodus 20:17 to Matthew 5:28
14) Hebrews 13:5
15) See my sermon for Trinity XVI.
16) John 1:10
17) Ephesians 6:17, in context.
18) Psalm 35:18
19) John 15:5


Vance said...

A number of scholars have taken another look at Pelagius and concluded that his views were not as heretical as they've been made out to be. He did miss the mark in a number of his comments, but so did Augustine, his strongest opponent (who appears to have misrepresented Pelagius on certain points). Calvinists (whose soteriology is rooted in Augustine's views) interpret narrowly passages that speak of humans being "dead" in their sins. Yet, it is clear that this is one of several metaphors Scripture uses to describe man's sinfulness. We are not only "dead"; we are also "sick" and "slaves"--all this due to sin. These are metaphors. They do not mean we are incapable of doing what God commands us to do. Rather, they describe a condition that has resulted from not doing what God has commanded.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

That bit about Pelagius comes across as a new idea, and seems rather theoretical. What evidence is there for this new take on the man's doctrine?

The Midland Agrarian said...

Father Hart Asks:"That bit about Pelagius comes across as a new idea, and seems rather theoretical. What evidence is there for this new take on the man's doctrine?"

Father Hart: did you not see the 2004 remake of King Arthur? If its in the movies, it must be true!

BTW: a wonderful sermon. Thank you!

Vance said...

Here are a couple of essays you might find of interest. (You might look up the sources cited in these essays--and just ignore any references to movie remakes.) In the issue of divine grace and human free will, Pelagius went too far in one direction, and St. Augustine, in his response, went too far in the opposite direction. St. Augustine's influence was greater in the West than in the East, and to this day some Western theologians accuse the Orthodox of being "Pelagian" or "Semi-Pelagian." It seems to me that the Orthodox understanding regarding this matter is consistent with what the Church (before Augustine) taught in every place. The matter should be especially important to a branch of the Church that places a high premium on the Vincentian principle.

Vance said...

Here's another work you may find interesting:

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I have had no chance to check out the above links, so they may or may not pass the test of scholarship. Rehabilitation of the image of just about every major heretic has been quite an industry in the publication and sale of books for some time now.

Nonetheless, whatever we may make of Pelagius the man, the heresy we call Pelagianism (for now, I will say, whether rightly or wrongly named) is, nonetheless, a heresy and false gospel.