Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
Holy Cross Palermo, March 4 AD 2012
Jeremiah 17:5-10 Thessalonians 4:1-8 Matthew 15:21-28
This is the will of God, even your sanctification.
If you have been giving something up, fasting in some way this Lent, you will have been engaged in a sort of battle with your bodily desire. And we are learning the kind of deceit that is played on our minds – as if the thing we gave up is somehow far more necessary to our happiness than in reality it is.
Well, for many, the greatest desire of the body at one time or another, is sexual desire. So we are given this Epistle today, very deliberately – in Lent – because our faith in Jesus is about very practical matters of living. We’re reminded about the call to holiness and that means that fornication – which means sex outside of marriage – is prohibited.
To some it will sound ridiculous to say this – that we must submit to this call if we are to be faithful Christians, and if we would hope to have the vision of heaven and to enter into it.
It sounds ridiculous, because it is difficult for us to remember sometimes the profound changes that have happened in the understanding of the place and purpose of sex in modern Western societies in the last 50 years. Popular TV shows, movies, novels and the examples in our midst encapsulate and in turn sustain these new understandings, and promote them. These new ways of looking at sex become the very air we breathe and, if we inhabit this world uncritically, we are not surprised or shocked any more, they have become the norm. (e.g. Sex in the City?)
Many think that for young people growing up, the pattern will probably be or even should be that they will have various relationships involving sex until they discover the right person. It is just a necessary part of coming to maturity and finding the right spouse, and “thanks” to technology we’ve worked out some of the kinks - unwanted pregnancy and minimizing of sexually transmitted diseases. This is a sea change.
But it would seem, from Jesus’ example, and from the example of St. Paul and most of the great saints of the Church through the millenniums that sexual relations are not needed for human growth, for spiritual maturity or to know one’s self or another. Sexual relations can only be a reflection of love, of an intimacy, that already exists – and it contributes to a true flowering of love only within Christian marriage.
The new ideas of the purpose or place of sex are a radical departure from the Bible. Throughout Scripture there is the call to chastity. In the Law of Moses, sexual desire is restrained and directed to within heterosexual marriage. In the New Testament, Jesus recalls us to the ideal of one marriage (e.g. Mt 19:3-12) and says that to lust after another is not a problem because it leads to adultery, it is adultery (Mt. 5:27-30). St. Paul counsels treating one another in the Church as brother, sister, mother – without lust (1 Tim 5:1-2). If you are not married you are not to have sex, if you are married you are free to have sexual relations, and lustful thoughts are to be put to death by all.
Chastity seems to be everybody’s business, and celibacy the business of many. Why? Why do Jesus and the Apostles seem not to be loosening the heavy demands of the Law of Moses but rather increasing the restrictions on the expression of our love for one another in sexual relations outwardly and in even our minds? Why does this seem so strange, so un-liberated, to our modern sensibility?
There are no doubt many reasons that Jesus his Apostles call us to restraint.
- It has to do with the flourishing and perfecting of friendships – always seen in the past as the highest of loves – and it is about the perfecting fellowship within the Church.
- It has to do, in many ways, with strengthening the institution of marriage, which is to be an icon to the world of God’s deep and faithful love for the soul or Christ for the Church.
- It has to do with the flourishing of family life, which is a principle fruit of marriage.
These reasons have profound implications for individuals and society.
But there is a further reason at least as profound.
Jesus and his Apostles call on us to greater restraint in the expression of sexual desire, not to put that desire to death, but so that we can redirect that same longing, that same love towards God. If we are completely satisfying our desire here, dissipating it here, we will not grow in Christ. We need that very eros, that desire, to lift us heavenward – our eros becomes the wings that bring us home. It is why St. Paul, in 1st Corinthians, counsels married couples to stop having sex sometimes, by mutual agreement, to pray – it is taking that same desire and redirecting it heavenward.
Dante bases the Divine Comedy on this insight – he came to understand that there was a relation between his love for Beatrice and his love for God. His poetry was called “the sweet new style”. His poetry, which understands a certain unity and relation between earthly and heavenly loves, is a development of the Sicilian poetic tradtion from the court of Frederick II, right here in Palermo! in the century before Dante.
When we turn our love, our purified desire, inwardly and upwardly, towards God, we are promised by Jesus that we will discover a well-spring of living water welling up in us, renewing us inwardly, giving us new life – that is the consummation of eros when directed to God. (Remember the woman at the well? 5 husbands, living with a man, and still not satisfied, still thirsting (John 4). Jesus says to her if you ask I will give you living water welling up from within to quench your thirst.) The Song of Songs, which is an erotic poem, has been included in the Old Testament, because of this understanding of the unity of earthy and heavenly loves - it has always been seen by Jewish and Christian commentators as an allegory of the love between God and the soul.
In the modern understanding, the biblical call to crucify the passions of the flesh, that is, to restrain carnal desire within the bounds God sets, sounds morbid and simply about killing joy [Ingham] – a sure formula for depression and despair [O’Donovan]. Modern psychology rightly warns against the dangers of a repression of sexual desire outwardly. We can’t simply restrain our actions outwardly, but dwell on them inwardly in our minds – the call to be chaste is a call to be chaste in body and soul (see today’s Collect from the 5th century which ties these two together).
But, Jesus clearly thinks it is possible – he says to his disciples, if you don’t want to commit to one woman for life, you could always be a eunuch for the Kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:1-12). Jesus tells us that in heaven they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels (Mt 22:23-33) – who wants that? Does Jesus just not understand basic human psychology? But remember Jesus is God – he made us and knows us better than we know ourselves – Jesus is the ultimate Psychologist!
In the light of the general call to chastity and with the understanding that all love has one source and one final end, and that you need that very same desire, by grace, to ascend the heights, the call to be chaste, is the inward and upward call to see and enter the Kingdom of heaven – it is very much tied us with our sanctification, that is, about possessing the inheritance we are promised by God through faith. Citizenship and participation in the Kingdom of heaven is not a diminishment of our humanity but fullness of being. It is to be filled with all the fullness of God, to be on fire with love – it is be like Jesus, acting like Jesus, and knowing the world as God knows the world. (Eph 3:14-21)
The call to be chaste is in no way easy, in fact, it is impossible without grace.
In the Gospel this morning, a woman comes to Jesus and begs him to help her daughter who is bound by some devil – it may not be lust, but it is some carnal desire that has completely bound her and debased her – she cannot help herself. The exchange that Jesus has with this mother is painful to hear – and we must believe that Jesus did it to draw her out, as an example to all of us for all time, that we might see the depths of this woman’s faith and humility. Finally he says, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as you have asked.” And her daughter was made whole from that very hour.
As Anglicans, we remember the great faith of the woman of Canaan in today’s Gospel every time we prepare ourselves for Holy Communion in the Prayer Book service. We remember that, like her daughter, “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table”; that is, that through sin we debase ourselves, becoming less than human, losing our God-like reason, like animals. But we remember also that we can always seek out God for mercy to relieve us of the ways that sin binds us – no matter how far we have fallen, no matter how weak we have become. And in making this plea, despite our undeserving, we can expect to hear and experience in our souls our Lord’s gracious words: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. If we want holiness of life, if we want to be perfect even as our heavenly Father is perfect, we can have it. And St Paul assures us, This is the will of God, even our sanctification.
It is with this background that we can understand God’s words to us through Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
This is a description of that eternal longing unsatisfied,
if it is directed only into this world – a parched wilderness – a thirst that cannot be quenched.
But Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Holy Communion has been given to us by Jesus as a gift to help in the turning of our earthly loves heavenward. Here Jesus invites us all to taste not just crumbs, but his very Body and Blood given for us – and in this partaking we are lifted up from the ground to sit once again at Table with him as sons and daughters, in the kingdom of heaven and to be filled with all the fullness of God.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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