The Fifth Sunday after Trinity (July 17, 2022)
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
What is the good life? What does it mean for us as humans to flourish? Some may say that the good life is pursuing earthly things—money, political power, pleasure, experiences. Of course, we know that these things are fleeting and go away; they are shifting sand not worth laying a foundation on. Others may say that there is no objective definition of the good life: make your own meaning. This may even be worse than pursuing earthly things because it leads to total anarchy. Now the Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle answered this question well for pagan philosophers: they said that the good life is found in being virtuous because virtues are the habits of healthy souls. The Christian understanding of the good life drew heavily from these philosophers while incorporating those ideas into a larger system that presupposes God as Creator, the problem of sin, and the solution of the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and the Sacraments. According to most Christian theologians, the virtues can be divided into two main categories: Cardinal or Moral on the one hand, and Theological on the other. The Cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude. Generally, these virtues are acquired through practice: one does not need to be a Christian, for example, to be temperate. Anyone can acquire the virtue of temperance. The theological virtues, however, are different. This class of virtues includes faith, hope, and love. We cannot acquire faith, hope, and love on our own; you can’t drum up faith inside yourself because that would be the heresy of Pelagianism. But we’re also told in the Scriptures that we can’t attain salvation without faith, hope, and love. So where do we get them? The answer is that they are given to us, infused into us, by the work of the Holy Spirit at baptism and then they are strengthened in us through fuller participation in the sacramental system, prayer, and good works. Now, at the end of our Epistle reading from St. Peter, the Apostle urges us to “sanctify the Lord God in your hearts”—this means that we should consider Christ as our Lord and act accordingly, and it is centering our lives around this recognition that causes us to live the good life. For Peter, if we truly recognize that Christ is Lord, than the virtue of love is our ultimate pursuit which is realized through the attainment of other virtues.
What is love? That seems to be a big question in our culture today. “Love is love,” we hear frequently, but that’s non-descript and trite. Love, according to Thomas Aquinas is the choice to “will the good of the other.” This means love is not a fleeting feeling like infatuation or lust. It is sacrificial, putting the good of the other ahead of ourselves. Love is a choice, it is not an accident, it is not passive. It’s active, something we do on purpose. And in the Scriptures, there are two precepts that belong to love that we call the Summary of the Law: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And the second is like unto it: love your neighbor as yourself.” So first, we are to love God. Of course we don’t love God “for his good” in the same way we love others; God already is goodness itself and he doesn’t need our love, strictly speaking because of who he is. So we love God purely for his own sake because of who he is; we love God because he is sweetness, goodness, and truth. Then we are given a second precept: love your neighbor as ourselves. “Who is our neighbor?” Those with whom we come in contact. While the demands of that love vary based on the nature of relationships, we are to love others because they are created by God. As a result, we should see all others we come into contact with as receptacles of God’s sweetness, goodness, and truth. And further, we are bound to gether by our shared love for God, or at least the potential to share that love. The other thing to remember about love is that it’s the greatest of the three theological virtues, according to St. Paul, but that means it also grows from faith and hope. Faith, according to the author of Hebrews is the substance of what is hoped for and the evidence of things not seen—it is believing what God says simply because God says it. Hope springs from faith because, trusting in God’s promise, we confidently expect what is good for us based on his word. Hope then produces love because if we know what God is doing and that he will complete the good work he began in us, then we should love him and adore him. Love, then, is the chief end for which we were made. This is why St. Peter begins our reading today with the exhortation to “love as brethren.” Obedience to this command starts in the Church with one another as we are bound together by our worship of God. But it spirals outward into the world as we recognize the potential in others to become co-worshippers.
If theological virtues are given to us by God while the Cardinal virtues are acquired by habit and work, the question is: are they related? After all, they have different ends: faith, hope and love are aimed at heavenly goods, namely our beatification while Cardinal Virtues are aimed at the good of earthly life. As I said, a pagan may not have faith, hope, or love, at least not in their fullness, but they can certainly exhibit prudence, justice, fortitude, etc. Still, the virtues do not exist unconnected from one another. While moral virtues are not guarantees of theological virtues, theological virtues require moral virtues because love is a choice that must be worked out through action. We cannot love without knowing the appropriate end and the means to that end, that’s prudence. We cannot love if we’re not willing to endure hard times (for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, etc), that’s fortitude. We cannot love if we’re not willing to render the other person their due, that’s justice. We cannot love without self-restraint, especially in terms of sensual desires, that’s temperance. Love, then, must express itself through the cardinal virtues; these become the means whereby we love others and God. And what this means is that the Church is the place for us to acquire virtue.
The Church is the training ground for virtues because it is the divinely appointed means whereby theological virtues are infused in us. We see this first and foremost in the Sacraments. In a few weeks, we’re going to have two baptisms and, once the water is poured on those children and the words are spoken over them by the priest, we know they are Christians because they have had faith, hope, and love infused in them. And further, we see these theological virtues in the Eucharist because in the Lord’s Supper, we are participating in that heavenly Supper of the Lamb. The theological virtues are further imparted through preaching, though this is less certain than Sacraments: you can have a bad sermon but you can’t have bad sacraments. Still, through the reading of Holy Scripture and the proclamation of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit moves in our hearts to stoke faith, hope, and love in us. While the Church begins with the Sacraments and preaching, there is a social element to the Church where the relationship between theological and cardinal virtues plays out. As we see in Acts 2:42, the Early Christians “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” That fellowship speaks to something deeper than coffee hour, dinners, and social gatherings. Those activities are important but they’re opportunities for fellowship, not the fellowship itself. Fellowship is the bearing of one another’s burdens on the foundation of our bond in Christ. So our fellowship is, according to St. Peter, an opportunity for us to exercise compassion, that is understanding and sympathy so that we can rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep; often times, there’s no magic words to say to someone, the point is that we have a ministry of presence with each other. We are to exhibit pity, which for Peter is a kind of tenderheartedness, the basis on which we are kind of one another, as St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:32. We are to be courteous which isn’t just being nice; real courteousness stems from humility. It’s manifest in Jesus’ commandment, which St. Peter rearticulates here, that we not render evil for evil or railing for failing.
And so as the Church, we Christians are faced with two paths: the way of wisdom or the way of folly, blessings and curses. To detail this, St. Peter quotes Psalm 34: “he that will love life and see good days.” What is this but the good life? In order to live flourishing lives of faithfulness, Peter, informed by the Psalmist, offers three habits for us to develop: (1) refraining from speaking evil; (2) eschewing evil and doing good; and (3) seeking peace. In light of this, St Peter reminds us that there are two paths or two destinations in relation to our ultimate good, which is God: “the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer” but “the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” The question is who can harm you if you do good? As Jesus says in Matthew 10:28: “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” The Church, then, matters not because it’s a place that keeps us entertained through content creation and faddy contemporary music nor is it some sort of political vehicle or a country club style community organization. The Church matters because it is the place where the virtues are infused, stoked, and acquired in us.
At the end of Morning and Evening Prayer, we pray the Prayer of Thanksgiving and there’s a great line in it: “that we may show forth thy praise, not only with our lips but in our lives.” This is exactly what St. Peter wants us to do. The very first exhortation in this morning’s reading is to “be of one mind.” The Greek word for that is the word that means “harmonious.” THat’s significant because it means that in our lives, we each play our part in the symphony by acting with those virtues given to us by God. We are united not because we agree on every issue or because we look alike, talk alike, or whatever. We’re united by our recognition and submission to our Lord Jesus Christ as our ruler.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.