NAVIGATING THE JOURNEY OF FAITH
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
August 28, 2016 Fourteenth Sunday After Trinity
Lections: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1-10; Hebrews 13:1-8;15-16; Luke 14:1;7-14
I bless Thee, O Heavenly Father, Father of my Lord Jesus Christ, for that Thou hast vouchsafed to think of me, poor that I am. O, Father of Mercies and God of all comfort, I give thanks unto Thee, who refreshest me sometimes with thine own comfort, when I am unworthy of any comfort. I bless and glorify Thee continually, with thine only begotten Son and the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, for ever and ever. O Lord God, Holy lover of my soul, when Thou shalt come into my heart, all my inward parts shall rejoice. Thou art my glory and the joy of my heart. Thou art my hope and my refuge in the day of my trouble.
But because I am still weak in love and imperfect in virtue, I need to be strengthened and comforted by Thee; therefore visit Thou me often and instruct me with Thy holy ways of discipline. Deliver me from evil passions, and cleanse my heart from all inordinate affections, that, being healed and altogether cleansed within, I may be made ready to love, strong to suffer, steadfast to endure.
This prayer is from the 15th century devotional manuscript The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. John Wesley held it high regard and included it on his reading list for Methodists. The Imitation of Christ provides a discipline for spiritual formation, through practices of humility, obedience and simplicity of life, known in Wesley’s lifetime as pietism.
One way of approaching this book is to ask, What is the spirit of a person? Is it the spirit of Christ? When we long for the spirit of Christ, we “strive to become like him in every way.” We become enlightened, that is, “set free from the darkness of our own hearts,” by imitating him. Christ is our example of a virtuous life.
We should keep in mind that this is not a vague exhortation. We have several accounts of how Jesus lived during the brief time of his public ministry, and through them all runs a single thread: Jesus conformed his life to what is described as loving and serving only God and directing his effort “toward achieving the kingdom of heaven.” So when we hear and read and study Scripture, this is what we should focus on: how we are to love, who we are to serve, and what we are to achieve.
Let us step back for a moment. Our local church is quite small, yet large enough to function as a church, that is, as a community of disciples. Each of us shares the responsibility for insisting that we do. Individually, we cannot love, we cannot serve, we cannot achieve; instead, we must rely upon the discipline of our community to order our daily lives. We must put our church life ahead of our individual concerns. We must want, more than anything else, to be like Christ.
The book The Imitation of Christ emerged from an interesting period of medieval history, during which the Dutch Roman Catholic and popular preacher Geert Groote founded the community called Brethren of the Common Life. The Brethren lived together ‘according to the Gospel,’ renouncing material wealth and vanity for a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience; they held all property in common, earned their own livelihood, and devoted themselves to daily worship, hearing scripture, preaching sermons, and striving after the everlasting joy of kingdom life. Following Geert Groote’s death from the plague in 1384, the Brethren adopted the rule of the mystic Jan Van ‘ryzbruk (Ruysbroeck). Their life together continued the ‘mixed life’ of action and contemplation, of not being entirely separated from “the life of their time,” even when they moved into a monastery built for them in 1387.[i] Thus, the Brethren held a transitional position in the movement that would in many ways define the Reformation: the transference of Christian discipline from medieval clergy settings to ordinary households. In the process, the church would expand to include laity, not just clergy, as full members.
An important aspect of this shift was the composition of manuals for ordering daily spiritual life that could be used outside the monastery. Van ‘ryzbruk was the author of several, including The Seven Steps of the Ladder of Spiritual Love and The Spiritual Espousals. Van ‘ryzbruk’s devotionals focused on cultivating inner peace, through the denial of self and arduous, silent, and solitary meditation on the life of Christ. Thomas a Kempis became a follower of Van ‘ryzbruk’s Devotio Moderna (New Devotion), and The Imitation of Christ collects writings with practical guidance for common persons. The Brethren’s emphasis on education, scholarly literacy, and book production can be regarded as a precursor to humanism, and Nicholas of Cusa, Erasmus, Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, eventually even John Wesley, all came under its influence.
Let us consider the relevance of this brief history to our lections. First, from Jeremiah: we hear what our lives look like, from God’s point of view, when we don’t imitate Christ. The word idols means ‘other gods;’ if we aren’t imitating Christ, we are imitating a counterfeit, and from God’s point of view, we – His people – become worthless, because we make no effort to conform our will to his. Instead, we try to escape our dependent existence for one of our own making. As Jeremiah tells it, we dig our own cisterns, but they, like us, are worthless; they cannot hold water. By not fitting our human form to our divine image, we turn against ourselves. We become vain and self-loving; self-indulgent and pleasure-seeking; money-oriented, acquisitive, greedy. We pollute our planet’s water supply and destroy its atmosphere. We condone violence and war, pain and suffering. The truth is, we are cracked; we don’t hold water and the Spirit. We forsake our baptism, preferring death to life. This is why God will prosecute us, in the heavens’ court.
In contrast, the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Hebrews tells us what being set apart to imitate Christ looks like: Christ’s followers love one another “as brothers and sisters,” “show hospitality to strangers,” visit prisoners, keep themselves from sexual immorality, don’t chase after money, are content in all circumstances, and trust in God. Christ’s followers honor their baptism; they hold water and the Spirit. And they persevere in the life of Christ, because they can see the outcome for those who do. They sacrifice to God by word and deed, and “God is pleased.”
The author of The Imitation of Christ uses again and again the word ‘humility,’ and Luke’s parable emphasizes humility and its twin, generosity. A lot can be said about each, but I would like to make just one point: we should not be afraid of our shortcomings. Wesley comments, “On every occasion, he that exalteth himself shall be abased, and he that abaseth himself shall be exalted.” This is true, of course, but it is not the whole of the matter. Humility and generosity are discovered by searching inward and expressed by acting outwardly; together, they represent the union of contemplation and action. With just these two present, love – for God and neighbor – falls out, as if from itself. And this is where trust issues come to the fore. Conversion is a change of heart that redirects the will: where we can see humility and generosity in action, God’s people are present, and God is pleased.
In his “Profession of Faith,” Geert Groote writes, “The knowledge of all knowledge is for man to know that he knoweth nothing. The more a man is assured that he is far from perfection, the nearer is he thereto.”[ii] St. Paul writes similarly to the Corinthians: “Knowledge inflates with pride, but love builds up. If anyone supposes that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” ((I Cori8:1). In The Imitation of Christ, à Kempis says: “All perfection in this life has some accompanying imperfection, and all our speculation is not without some darkening mist. A humble understanding of yourself is a surer way to God than a profound searching after knowledge.” And echoing Luke’s gospel account, he concludes, “That person is truly great who has great love. He is truly great who is small in his own eyes and who regards every pinnacle of honor as nothing in itself.”[iii]
Brothers and sisters, the world is “fallen and fleeting.” Let us pray for an increase in the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Amen.
[i] Ross Fuller, The Brotherhood of the Common Life and Its Influence (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press: SUNY Series in Western Esoteric Traditions, 1995)
[iii] Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ: A New Reading of the 1441 Latin Autograph Manuscript by William C. Creasy (Mercer, 2007), 6