Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Christ the King, the Thirty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 29, Year C).
I will conclude today with my series of sermons on the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. It was four Sundays ago that I began in on this area of Christian religion. Recall part of our Collect from that Day: “Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.” Well, we do not properly pray if we say words that we do not grasp and have a decent handle on as far as their meaning. And what understanding we might have already of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity can always be renewed and deepened; it is the very nature of Christianity that we continually revisit and in so doing, re-experience, the terms and principles we use to attempt to grasp the revelation about ultimate reality—God—that is in Jesus Christ, and in Him definitively.
I have said that the theological virtues are habits. In so saying, it should become clear that in considering what Faith is, what Hope is, and what Charity is, we are not merely looking at their everyday meaning in wider society, but the particular depth and richness that the Church has found in them over the course of its two thousand year investigation. We are talking about patterns of repeated behavior—not merely ideas, much more than inward, emotional feelings, but actually what we do in our lives. Now it is often the case that there can be differences or disjunction between what we think, what we feel, and what we do. That there may be inconsistencies is to be expected, as part of the journey. The working out and making our own of the Christian revelation—given to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, and living and breathing within His Church and offered to us through His Sacraments—is a process. It is movement, a movement that involves our rational faculty, our emotional faculty, as well as our behavior.
In this part of the journey for us—that is to say, within the Church Militant, the “Church of visible creation”—the process is a movement toward manifesting in our behavior what it is we think and believe, and what it is we inwardly feel. A person can think Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and a person can feel that he has been saved by Jesus and feel great affection toward Him—but if in the actual behavior of the person, we find little to nothing showing up in his actions, or little to nothing showing up in his day to day habits, then despite his thinking and feeling, he has quite a long way to go.
As I have said, the virtue of Faith is the habit of wanting to learn about the character of God—it is the habit of being a learner, of being open and desirous of who God is and what He has revealed to His Church. Faith is the habit of openness and wanting to be filled by God.
As I have also said, the virtue of Hope is the habit of feeling confident in God’s abiding assistance. To quote from the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer, having the virtue of Hope is living with confidence in newness and fullness of life, awaiting the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God’s purpose for the world. Hope is supported by Faith, because the more we know and want to know about the character of God, the more confident we can feel in His abiding assistance, or what is known as His Providence.
Having spoken about Faith and Hope, what, then, is the virtue of Charity? Here again we must say that the meaning of Charity in the wider world is different than its meaning in the Church. In the wider world, Charity either refers to an organization that seeks to help people in some way—a charity to which people donate time, talent and treasure; or it means the act of giving food, money or other kinds of help to people in need. This of course is the time of year, particularly in the northern climates, when the giving of hats, gloves, coats and food to people in need becomes particularly poignant, and doing so is without question part of Christian mission generally, as well as part of the Mission of this Parish.
The Christian understanding of Charity as a virtue is not at odds with those definitions. Rather, the Christian understanding of Charity can be found when one looks at the roots of giving of hats and gloves, at the roots of donating time and treasure. Why do these things, at all? Why give hats and gloves, time and treasure? Why try to help people who have fallen? Why provide guidance to those whose lives might have taken a wrong turn and are lost?
Why am I even bothering to pose such questions, and ask them aloud? you might be thinking. The answer is so obvious—because they need help, and I, or we, can help them! We do not need to think about it, we certainly do not need a philosophical justification for helping people, much less exhortation from the pulpit—we help them because they need help, end of story.
We look at our actions so as to find in them possibilities for future action. And so we look at Charity, despite what we know if it already, in order to find in it new possibilities, new avenues of potential direction, new ways we can help others. In this light, let me say that the Christian virtue of Charity derives from an older definition of love which means loving people not only for ourselves, not only for gratification, and not only for their immediate benefit—all of that, but also for the sake of God. As recorded in the Gospel of Saint John, Jesus says the following: ‘Greater love—[greater charity]—has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.'” Charity means giving of ourselves to other people because it is God’s will that we do so: giving of ourselves for the sake of God. In basic words, Charity is the habit of serving God in other people.
Last Sunday during the visit of our Bishop, we all renewed our Baptismal Vows. And at one point the Bishop asked us “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” and he asked, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” To both, we answered, “I will, with God’s help.” In effect, we promised to embrace the virtue of Charity, in full awareness that Charity is a gift from God with which we co-operate. The words “seek” and “strive” indicate that developing this habit is a process. The Christian life in all its dimensions is a journey, a pilgrimage: we must learn how to serve God in other people, we must learn the virtue of Charity; and the virtues of Faith and Hope make that possible. By Faith we know the character of God; by Hope we are confident in His presence around us—so that in seeking Him, we might find Him, and in finding Him, hear Him, and in hearing Him, and in hearing Him, love Him, and in loving Him, obeying Him, and in obeying Him, loving Him in other people, because that is His will.
Finally, a word about our celebration today of Christ the King. I hope it is clear that everything I have tried to get across about the virtue of Charity is captured in perfect form by the image of Jesus Christ hanging on the Cross, patiently silent amid the mocking and taunts by the people and the one criminal, responding to and forgiving the criminal who asked Jesus to remember him. How perfectly Our Lord demonstrates true Charity! The gentle and rock-solid promise to the criminal, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Jesus gave His life for that criminal. Jesus gave His life for all those mocking and taunting Him. Jesus gave His life for all people in the past, all people of His day, and all people yet to be born.
What kingly power Jesus has! In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He has delivered us—by His life, death, and resurrection—from the dominion of darkness—from the demons of the Devil—and He has brought us to redemption—to forgiveness! Note how central forgiveness is to Saint Paul’s understanding of redemption, and his understanding of darkness—the place, as it were, where forgiveness is impossible. Can we imagine a world, a place, where forgiveness is impossible? What unspeakable horror! The gift of Our King, Jesus Christ, is that we will never have to.