Trinity XVII – 2016

Trinity XVII

The Epistle. Ephesians iv. 1.

I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

          “Vocation”: “a divine call to God’s service or to the Christian life”; “a function or station in life to which one is called by God”. I offer you the definition of this word because all too often we Christians tend to think that a “Vocation” is something that is reserved for those who have been called to Holy Orders, or perhaps to those who seek to enter a convent or monastery. But St. Paul gives us the truth about the word “Vocation”, as it relates to all of us; and not just to priests, monks or nuns. at the same time, the Apostle speaks to us about how we must fulfill our “Vocation” as followers of Christ.

The way in which St. Paul speaks to us here is through his explanation of the various “virtues” by which a Christian may be known. These “virtues” are five in number and are known more broadly as humility, meekness, long-suffering , love, and peace. The person who displays these qualities can say with all confidence that they are following the commandment of Our Lord; and that therefore they are true disciples of Christ.

But of course, we cannot, as a whole, lay claim to such a thing. We know that we have quite likely failed to be “virtuous” (inferring excellence in moral and ethical considerations) at least in one (or more) of these areas. And so it is also a good thing to remind ourselves about the meaning of each of these Christian virtues; it is a good thing for us to remember what it means to be “humble”, “meek”, and “long-suffering”.  It is good for us to remember what it means to “love”. It is a good thing for us to remember what it means to be at “peace“.

The first virtue in St. Paul’s “list”, which the Authorized Version translates as “lowliness”, is Humility. Now since I have preached about this particular virtue on more than one occasion, I will give you all of three seconds to groan a bit; though I will ask that you refrain from thinking, “well, here goes Father again”!

I suppose our aversion to the whole notion of humility is somewhat natural; after all, before the advent of Christianity, the ancient world did not consider humility to be a virtue at all. At that time, if someone was described as being “humble”, it usually referred to one who was a slave, ignoble, cringing, cowering, of no standing in society. It certainly wasn’t meant as a compliment. But the humility of Christ changed all that.

Christian Humility is what results when we have performed a true and honest examination of ourselves and our lives. It is what results when we realize that we have consistently seen ourselves as being somehow better than we really are. It is what results when we acknowledge our weaknesses, our frailties, our selfishness, and our failures. It is what results when we set the example of our lives beside the example of Christ, and know that we have always fallen short. It is what results when we come to understand that we are unworthy of God’s Grace.

In other words, Christian Humility prevents us from becoming arrogant, superior, self-satisfied. We live in constant danger of becoming like that Pharisee who thought that he was thanking God for a seeming blessing by looking down upon another human being, “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men are; extortioners, unjust, adulterers; or even as this publican” (Luke 18:11). It is only through Christian Humility, as exhibited by that publican, (“God be merciful to me, a sinner”, Luke 18:13) that we can be found acceptable, as Our Lord himself has said “I tell you that this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other: for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14).

The next virtue in our list is “meekness”, which is sometimes translated as “gentleness”. Here again we are guided by the nuances of the ancient Greek language that St. Paul used when writing his Epistles. By this standard, the word “meekness” was not intended as the Webster’s definition would have it; “overly submissive or compliant; spiritless; tame”; but rather “meekness” represented a position between two extremes.

So someone who is said to be “meek” is actually one who is moved to anger only at the right time; they will never be angry at the wrong time. Put another way, a man who is “meek” is moved to indignation (or righteous indignation) at the wrongs and sufferings inflicted upon others; but he is never so moved by the wrongs and sufferings that he himself may need to bear (Barclay; Ephesians, pg 137).

But there is yet another way in which the ancient understanding of the word “meekness” may be considered; you see the Greeks of that time would use this same word to describe an animal that had been domesticated and was under complete control. Therefore, a man who was “meek” was someone who had likewise mastered his emotions, his passions, and his instincts, and brought them under perfect control.

But of course, it would be the height of hubris, (and a return to the sin of that aforementioned Pharisee), to say that we can ever be in perfect control of ourselves; for such control is beyond our individual capabilities. It is only through God that such control is possible. It is only through God that we can achieve that balance of being righteously indignant at the right time, but never angry at the wrong time. It is only through God that we can attain the virtue of “meekness”.

The next virtue, “long-suffering” is also, somewhat incompletely, defined as “patience”. Again, in the ancient understanding, “long-suffering” described a spirit of resiliency that would never surrender, because of a belief that there would be at the end a just reward. The Roman armies of Our Lord’s time might have suffered defeat in an individual battle, but they could never conceive of a scenario where the Empire itself would be brought down.

A Christian who is “long-suffering” must be likewise resilient. Our individual spirits must never admit defeat, regardless of the challenges, the persecutions, the wrongs, the sufferings that we face today. We cannot succumb to disappointment or discouragement, because we must believe that in the end, God will win; the “gates of hell shall not prevail” (Matthew 16:18), and our just reward awaits.

But at the same time, we must realize the power that has been commended to us; the power to condemn or accept. Another way of looking at “long-suffering” is to acknowledge God’s ability to take revenge and further, His decision not to do so. Likewise, we have been given the ability to take revenge, though our capability to do so is limited. The point here is related to our decision to act or not.

This is a very hard thing to do, particularly when we live in a world where so many heinous crimes and offences are committed. In these cases we seek “justice” against those who have so greatly offended. But what this particular virtue of “long-suffering” pertains to goes beyond all those more excessive crimes; for in this context, “long-suffering” speaks more to the interactions that we experience in our daily lives.

Let me put this in a different way; how many times have we heard an acquaintance spout off on some subject, and we “bite our tongues”, rather than cause a scene? How many times have we thought to ourselves later, “I wish I had said this…”? How many times have we known of a surety, that we could refute the pronouncements of our acquaintance, and embarrass them at the same time, but refrained from doing so?

In other words, we had it within our power to show the foolishness of our adversary; we were perfectly positioned to refute their arguments, and make them look bad at the same time. We were in the right place at the right time, to bring them down, and teach a lesson to all those who would attack us or our Faith. I know that there are any number of people in this Church who are capable of just such “revenge”. But for a Christian, this is not what “long-suffering” calls for.

In fact, it is at the point where we feel most offended or persecuted that we need to be “long-suffering”. It is at that point that we need to remember the ignorance of those who offend; “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”, Luke 23:34. It is at that point that we can either bear their offences with grace and forbearance, or snap at them and pronounce our condemnation. It is at that point that we can suffer unpleasant people with graciousness, and fools without irritation. It is at that point that we decide if we will be “long-suffering” for God.

Now we come to the Christian virtue that has been most often misunderstood (and in the modern world abused): Love. In today’s world, critics of the Traditional Faith focus on one singular Greek word; “agape”; which is interpreted as “unconquerable benevolence”.  A person who is said to be in a state of “agape” will do nothing that would make us seek anything but his highest good (Barclay, Ephesians, pg 140). In other words, it does not matter what offense this person commits against others; if we have “agape”, we are to feel nothing but unconditional love for him.

But the modern definition of “agape” falls short in that is focuses only on the one committing the crime (or sin); whereas the virtue of “long-suffering” points us to our response to those who offend. The modern definition of “agape” seems to remove the responsibility from those who commit sin, and places it upon those who would be in position to pronounce judgement.

In other words, the modern definition of “agape”, removes from consideration the will of the individual. This is in direct conflict with the Traditional Faith; for “Agape” was never intended to express such an emotional disconnection, but rather it was intended to communicate a quality of heart and mind through which a Christian may never feel bitterness, revenge, or hatred.  “Agape”, “Love” is the way in which we all may reach the highest good. And of course, that state of highest good is none other than Peace; the Peace of God.

This then is the ultimate virtue; the Peace of God; the “sacred oneness” between God and His Church; the evidence that we, as God’s Chosen people, are in a right relationship with Him.

Every one of these Christian virtues that we have considered depends on the sublimation of our human identities; no longer can we be the central focus of our existence. And while there are many examples in the lives of the Saints and Martyrs, of those who shared in our human condition, it is important to remember that they likewise found their fulfilment in this singular point; the “true Church” is characterized by the virtues of “lowliness, “meekness”, “long-suffering”, and “Love”. The “true Church” is found in the virtues by which it members conduct their daily lives. I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. And by these virtues, the “true Church” has forever established a “sacred oneness” with God.

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