11.16.2014 Preaching Text: “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (1 Thessalonians 5:8)
After Christmas ended last year, I joked that Christmas was now right around the corner. Well, I was right. It’s startling, really, that we’ll soon be celebrating yet another Christmas.
This means, among other things, that we’re nearing the end of another liturgical year. On November 30th, in fact, we will enter the season of Advent, which serves as New Year’s Day for the Christian church.
This also means, logically enough, that we’re at this year’s end. And, as with all endings, we’re prompted to be reflective, assessing the past and looking toward the future.
This is, needless to say, a healthy thing to do, and our lectionary readings over several Sundays reflect this constructive, philosophical imperative. In each case we are encouraged to assess the state of our lives and to consider that which is most beneficial moving forward into the future.
The context of the readings, we know, is biblical Christianity’s assertion that Christ’s first appearance was but the precursor of a future, itself unknowable, when he shall return to initiate the Day of the Lord, when all accounts shall be settled and what we’ve done with our lives shall be assessed.
I’m reminded of Charles Dickens’ now legendary novella, A Christmas Carol, a seasonal classic. I still remember sitting in front of the television as a kid – along with my entire family – watching with fear and trembling the original 1938 film that searingly depicts Ebenezer Scrooge’s perilous vision of the future (along with his ultimate resolve to change his heart).
In a fashion, that’s the way our lectionary readings function today. They prompt us, in heeding their warning, to discern what the virtuous life should be, how we ought to aspire to it, and where we’ve fallen short of attaining it.
As you probably know, one of the themes I’m continually harping on is the difference between the way secular culture sees life and the way Christians are encouraged to see it. In this there is a deep chasm – at least that’s my argument.
Perhaps there’s no starker example of this than the way the world understands virtue. For centuries, Western Civilization embraced the church’s notion of the “Seven Virtues.” Today such a list is largely unknown.
To wit, the philosophical virtues are prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. The remaining theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity. Of the seven, maybe we’d guess “justice” correctly.
Having edited a new book on virtue, Jonathan Last remarks: “I think it’s pretty indisputable that, over the last generation or so, we’ve organized ourselves around a very different set of cardinal virtues. To my mind the modern virtues are freedom, convenience, progress, equality, authenticity, health, non-judgmentalism.
And while many of these “virtues,” if taken in the right measure, have merit they are, as he puts it, “second-order goods that deal with the superficial aspects of what it means to be a human being.”
“What’s more important, in the grand sense,” he asks, “that you be healthy and authentic, or charitable and courageous?”
Freedom, for instance, if disconnected from responsibility, can easily become mere license. And what’s so great about eating “cage-free eggs, locally sourced beets, and sustainably grown arugula” if we use our health to pursue immoral purposes?
Furthermore, every virtue, on its own, is corruptible. “Extremism in pursuit of virtue,” he adjures, “can easily be vice.”
“Think of it this way: Curiosity is an essential virtue; without it we’d still be living in caves and clubbing animals with sticks. But if you’ve got nothing but curiosity, you become a gossip. Or worse. Mengele was a curious sort.”
Thus, “the key to the virtues,” he says, “[is] additive. They buttress and constrain one another. You need prudence and charity and courage to go with your curiosity.”
In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul writes, “Let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation,” these three to become the church’s three theological virtues.
Placed in context, Paul is speaking of the coming Day of the Lord, while reminding his hearers that Christians are destined not for wrath, but for inexplicable joy.
In 1 Corinthians 15, for instance, he writes, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
Elsewhere, in his letter to the Philippians, he pens these seemingly incongruous words (while facing a possible death sentence at the hands of Roman authorities), “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
“I am hard pressed between the two:” he continues, “my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.”
Here we find the essence of Christian discipleship and its pursuit of virtue. Because of the resurrection of Christ, we no longer fear death. And having been released from this, life’s greatest fear, we actually can look forward to it! To die in the Lord, after all, is “far better!”
We are thus heartened in pursuing the virtues of the Christian life in the here and now, in spite of the pressures and challenges of living as those “in the world but not of it.” With the resurrection as our governing incentive, we are freed to live Spirit-filled lives, as children of the day, even if surrounded by darkness.
Paradoxically, as we do, the virtuous life not only grants us an inward joy and peace, born of eternity, but our joy and peace becomes a quiet blessing to the world around us. Amen.