Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children
This morning I’m going to address you regarding something I’ve been meditating on for several months—about how our characters are formed and the necessary roles that Christian religious liturgies play in this vital process. Today, there is a belief amongst many who call themselves Christian that Church services are optional, a frill that can be dispensed with by those who are of sufficient wisdom or sensibility or…something. And for some people, this may be true. But I don’t think that it is actually true for most of the people that would attempt this line of argument.
To the best of our knowledge, amongst all of creation, we are the only beings to whom God has given the dignity of “working out our own salvation” in the grace of the Lord Jesus, albeit “in fear and trembling”.
Now, it is said that, while the angels are also given the ability to choose a path to which they will adhere—following God or Satan—this is a one-time and irrevocable decision for them. Once they choose, they are doomed to that choice. And the choice is instantaneous, forming their spirit as an angel or a demon for all time.
In contrast, we experience our lives, moment by moment to find out, in an amazing and disconcertingly empirical process, what sort of person we are! At no point short of death does it seem that our destiny is fixed. When we begin our journey through life, almost every aspect of our existence needs to be managed by our loving parents. We react emotionally, unthinkingly to stimuli. Gradually we get a sense of the world around us and begin to reflect upon ourselves as unique and personal beings. As we grow up, if we’re paying attention, we realize our essential volatility.
What do I mean by this? By volatility I mean our lack of bottom, our flightiness, our weakness of character. Our jellyfish-nature. Aristotle wrote that the action of the plot in a story reveals character. Just so, the events of our lives serve to illuminate our inadequacies. Usually just to ourselves, sometimes to those around us as well.
At the same time, we develop a deep and abiding longing to be somebody other than our juvenile selves. And our desire to reify the person that we want to be is influenced by so many, many things, good and bad. Our aspirations for ourselves can be protean. Our hearts—our longings—are restless. In contrast, God’s aspiration for us is simple: he wants our hearts to be mature, to be overflowing with love, and fully responsive to His Spirit. When our hearts are truly fixed on Him, we become the person we were made to be. We become children of God.
Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also has loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour…For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.†
The “proving” invoked by this passage is the empirical experience of life in this cursed world with a fallen nature that is being renovated and perfected by God’s grace. With our aid or our hindrance He is fashioning us to be fit receptacles for His life.
Left to drift in this world order, the vast majority of us would come to bad ends, not fulfilling our destiny. God chose Abraham, Isaac, Israel, and the children of Israel to follow Him. He prospered their family and then saved them from bondage in Egypt. He sent them a shepherd Moses and then a King David and promised that, eventually a greater than Moses and David would come. But how were they supposed to resist the incursions of neighboring polytheism in a world where it was normal to contract by sacrifice with many gods to ensure that blessings would accumulate and curses be held in abeyance?
Now these are the commandments, the statutes and the judgments, which the Lord your God commanded to teach you, that ye might do them in the land whither ye go to possess it. That thou mightiest fear the Lord they God, to keep his statues and commandments…and thy son, and thy son’s son, all the days of thy life and that thy days might be prolonged…Hear O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might…And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.
So this was how God’s chosen people were commanded to remember their obligation to Him. The powers and principalities that influence the world are as much here now as they were with the children of Israel. We are as liable as the people of the tribe of Judah to drift. The pace of life is so fast, the distractions so many, the entertainments so intoxicating. The law was proved not to be the final solution to the manifest temptations that beset the chosen people of God. His eternal plan for our salvation continued to unfold. God’s grace became tangible. He came in the flesh to show us what the life of God looks like in this place. How love acts even for his enemies and persecutors, how He sacrifices for the redemption of the other. He came to defeat Satan and conquer Death. He came to start a society from which His life could be delivered to others until the time appointed by the Father. This society developed practices of remembrance (anamnesis) to fit our selves for His life.
These practices are religious. Religion is repetition. It is grounding. With each prayer, with each celebration of the Eucharist, with each act of manual devotion and piety we remember, we return to the truth, we experience anew the promises and the grace to which we are inheritors. Ligare is to tie. In molecular biology a DNA ligase links two strands of DNA together. We tie-ourselves to these truths again and again so we can learn them with our being. So we can inhabit them; so they become part of us. They give us a fixed dwelling so we can understand ourselves, our place, our destiny and so we can see the context of our lives.
Without a place to stand you can’t develop perspective. Without perspective you might not realize that humans aren’t created for data processing, but for wisdom; not for the satisfaction of appetite, but for love; not for the exploitation of nature, but for participation in it; and not for the autonomy of the individual self, but for eternal communion.
This is the third Sunday of the Season of Lent. This is the time when we stretch ourselves in the religion of Jesus to approach the Holy Trinity. This does not happen automatically. It doesn’t happen without effort. For those who have “advanced” as it may be called to make themselves conform more fully to the rituals and rites—to show up for church, to pray the offices, to commune more regularly—the devils attack us in our hearts to make us cold and insensitive, to dull our response. Our hearts need to move, to be kindled by our bodily activity, by the words of our prayers, by hearing the word of God.
My heart is fixed, O God; my heart is fixed; I will sing and give praise.
The formation of our character, the fixing of our heart on God is the task of our lives. This is Christian maturity. For our destiny is to be face to face, in complete communion with the Lord of All.
Near the end of C.S. Lewis’ best novel, his protagonist summarizes her realizations thusly:
I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
We need to have a “face”, a character which is a true dwelling place in the One Who is the only Real—so we can see God and be known even as we’re known. Until that time when we come to that blessed state, what is there of us to know?
Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also has loved us.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Amen.†