“Grant unto thy people that they may love the thing which thou commandest and desire that which thou dost promise.”
I want you to imagine yourself, for a little bit, as a new convert to Christianity in ancient Rome. Perhaps you were a common Roman citizen who had grown up in pagan Rome as most people, with very little money but some personal possessions that perhaps had been passed down to you. You lived in a large apartment building with the rest of your family, and since the rickety apartment housed your family with grandparents and perhaps some extended family, you lived most of the day out on the streets of Rome. The magnificent public buildings, statues, and temples gave you an opportunity to take part in free theater shows, public debates, races and games, and grand feasts when the Emperor fed the common people lavish meals as well as simple handouts such as daily bread and cornmeal. One day you heard a man speaking, like they often would on a small stone pedestal, about something quite amazing and strange–a promise about eternal life. You realize that this man is part of a small group you had heard rumors about–some really strange but some good about this group’s way of life. They called themselves Christians because they followed a man who claimed to be Christ, a messiah, who had risen from the dead in order to save the world from death. Intrigued, you start talking to some of the members of this group and a couple of things stand out to you: first, they are not obsessed with power and even think that humility and caring for the sick and poor are a good thing. You also see these same people healing the sick, but not by sending them to the temple of Asclepius, but rather praying over them in the name of Jesus, the man they claim to be God Almighty. Their way of life, the miracles you witness, and the incredible teachings of Jesus, though, are so amazing that you decide to become one of them. It takes two to three years of classes and strict training, however, before you are baptized and during those years you learn the full story and identity of Jesus. Then on Easter, four years after you first heard a Christian preaching in the streets of Rome, you are finally baptized and able to receive the Eucharist. You now have a new identity and live off of new food and drink. As a new convert you listen to the Holy Scriptures as much as possible as you desire to live in this new identity, but it is not easy. Your family has been very suspicious of these new friends from the beginning. The Roman government from time to time sends out edicts to arrest Christians, and still all the pleasures of Rome are present and all the temples dedicated to the numerous deities still stand.
When James wrote his Epistle, he had Christians like this in mind, a Christian joining a small church amidst a bustling, pagan, and distracted world. We know from the ancient lectionaries and missals, that these readings (James, and John 16) had been appointed for the 4th and 5th Sundays after Easter for over 1600 years, and probably much longer than that. They were chosen because these readings would be so helpful to the newly baptized Christians at Easter.
You can still hear James’ sense of urgency and weightiness when he writes to the young Christian churches. In the first half of the chapter, James is focusing on the proper disposition needed for hearing and receiving the Word of God at baptism. Next week we will read the second half of the chapter, where James highlights the good deeds that should follow baptism. James’ sense of urgency comes from experienced knowledge of the sundry and manifold changes of the world. Only the engrafted Word, the Word that was planted in you at baptism, can save your soul, and so you must let that Word grow by putting away the abundance of malice (superfluity of naughtiness) and any other weed that might strive to take over.
One must, therefore, approach one’s baptism or one’s salvation with humility, but also intentionality. Humility to express thankfulness for this great gift and intentionality to live out the salvation. This is the result of our baptism, our unity with God, which the Gospel explains so well.
The Gospel shows the purpose of our baptisms in a Trinitarian light. We are baptized into Christ so that He may bring us to His Father. As in John 14: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father but by me.” When Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus then responds, albeit a bit perplexed at Philip’s misunderstanding: “[Jhn 14:9-11 KJV] Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou [then], Shew us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I [am] in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake.” When we are joined to Jesus, then, we are truly joined to the Father as well because there is union between the Father and the Son.
Today is the feast day of St. Athanasius, and I have to add a quote from him who fought so hard to defend the unity of the Father and Son and the Holy Ghost. He writes: “”[Since human beings sought God in creation and things perceptible], the lover of human beings and the common savior of all, takes to himself a body and dwells as a human among humans and draws to himself the perceptible sense of all human beings, so that those who think that God is in things corporeal might, from what the Lord wrought through the actions of the body, know the truth and through him might consider the Father”
Even more, in John 16, Jesus explains to his disciples how when he is gone back to the Father, they will still be unified because the Holy Spirit will be given to them: “[Jhn 16:14-15 KJV] [The Holy Spirit] shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall shew [it] unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I, that he shall take of mine, and shall shew [it] unto you.” Again, as we are unified to Jesus, we are unified into the very life of the Trinity so that we may, like Jesus, worship the Father perfectly through the Son, by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is needed so that the Church might be led into this way of truth.
At every Mass, during the prayer for the whole state of Christ’s church, we still pray to God, “beseeching thee to inspire continually the Universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity, and concord.” That is the Holy Spirit, of course–the Spirit who guides us in all truth, unites us with our Lord, and brings peace to the Body. As members of the Church, though, this prayer can also be taken personally, since the Spirit works in each and every one of us to fix our hearts upon Christ himself. We no longer live in ancient Rome, and many of our ways of life and liturgies are different, but we still deal with the sundry and manifold changes of the world–we still must live out our lives in earnest dedication. May we always remember our own baptisms, the vows that we took or were taken for us then to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, believe the articles of the Christian faith, and keep God’s holy will and commandments. This is how the Holy Spirit works in our lives, we can pray knowing that the Holy Spirit will work to accomplish these ends. And so we pray with the Collect that the Spirit may guide us to “love the thing which thou commandest and desire that which thou dost promise.”