Preached February 3, 2013
1 Corinthians 11:19–31
St. Luke 8:4–15
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is Sexagesima Sunday, the second Sunday of the Pre-Lenten season, and the theme of virtues for the Christian life continues. You will recall that in preparation for Lent, last Sunday we considered Temperance, Hope and Justice. This Sunday, we move on to consider the additional virtues of Fortitude, Prudence, and Faith.
First consider just what a virtue is. A virtue is a good habit. A virtue is an established, settled practice of the soul to act in a particular way that is proper and correct. In particular, it is not a single correct choice. Those virtues that correctly direct our choices are called moral virtues, and they guide us to right actions.
There are four principal moral virtues, also known as cardinal virtues: Prudence, Courage, Temperance, and Justice. These were all known in the ancient, pre–Christian world, and many noble ancients were guided by these virtues. They are made characteristics of the soul by hard discipline and practice. In most cases, it is fairly easy to identify those persons who exemplify these virtues and others who do not. They speak for themselves. But notice that these virtues were evident to simple, human wisdom, and thus could be known to the ancients before Christ. There is nothing uniquely Christian about them, although they are fully appropriate for Christians to practice.
There are other virtues that are uniquely Christian, virtues that come strictly from being connected to the Body of Christ. These virtues are said to be infused virtues, that is they are infused into us directly from the Body of Christ. Baptism into the Body of Christ is an example, it brings us virtues that can come in no other way. The infused virtues are gifts of the Holy Ghost, and are nourished in the souls of Christ’s members. The major infused virtues are the three theological virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love, which enable us to do what we could never do by our own efforts, namely to love God and to put our trust and hope in Him. These infused virtues – Faith, Hope, and Love – create in us the tendency to seek God who is our true end, in contrast to our natural tendency to seek the ways of the world. The infused virtues, which are solely the gifts of the Spirit, draw us towards God and to our eternal salvation.
Through the theological virtues, infused by the Spirit, Christians are given an aptitude for holiness of life. This potential for holiness must be expressed and worked out in our everyday lives, and that is where the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice become manifest as well.
Consider our Epistle lesson for today. I must confess, I have always found this to be a confusing passage. St. Paul seems to be going off in many different directions at once. The first part of the passage is in regard to a problem with false teachers that have come among the Corinthians. St. Paul is chiding them for failing to have the wisdom to reject these false teachers, but rather they have accepted them because the Corinthians thought themselves wise. They allowed these false teachers to impose burdens upon them, things not of the Gospel, and allowed the teachers to set themselves up as superior to the people. Let us consider just this much in regard to the matter of Prudence.
What is Prudence? Were the Corinthians prudent people? What is prudence? Prudence is the right choice of means for living a good life. It is right judgement, followed by right action. Prudence is not theoretical, it is not about generalities, but rather it is about guidance for living in the situations of life right here and now. It always consists of two parts: (1) correct judgement, (2) followed by prudent action. This implies a sense of good will, a desire to do what is right. If you think about it, it becomes clear that the moral virtues are interrelated such that a man cannot act prudently unless he is also courageous, temperate, and just. His will must be strengthened against fear, lust, and self–interest, which is to say that he must have the other moral virtues as well. It is by prudence that he determines in each particular case what is courageous, temperate, and just. Without prudence, the brave man becomes foolhardy, the temperate man becomes puritanical, and the just man becomes scrupulous, all examples of virtues carried to extremes, and hence no longer virtues at all.
There are three basic parts to prudent action. The first is to take counsel, to seek advice. The second is to weigh the alternatives, consider the options. And the third is make a decision and take the action. Notice that it is not impulsive, but rather it is a considered action. It is based on as much knowledge as may be available, and it is done with confidence and decisiveness. But notice that it includes taking the required action. It does not stop at simply considering the options, but goes ahead to confident action.
Now return to the beginning of our Epistle lesson for today. The Corinthian Christians have received into their congregation false teachers, teachers who have introduced various strange practices and who lord it over the people. Have they acted prudently? Did they seek counsel? We do not know to whom they might have turned, or exactly what they did in fact do. Did they weigh the options, which in this case would be to accept these teachers, or to cast them out? We might well imagine that there was some discussion of the matter, but evidently in the end, the decision seems to have been to accept the false teachers because we know that they were in Corinth. And there we have the third step, the decision as well, the decision to admit the false teachers.
Now the Corinthians may have thought that they were making a prudent judgement, but clearly they were not because it led them to admit false teachers into their Church. What went wrong here? Remember that a virtue is a settled, well established personal characteristic. Most of the Corinthian Christians had not been long in the faith, and they may not have developed the virtue of Prudence to a significant degree. To this we might add that they rather clearly were not following the Holy Spirit in their actions.
When we look further into the Epistle lesson for this morning, we hear St. Paul talking about all of his hardships endured for the sake of the Gospel. He speaks of being whipped, in prison, being beaten with rods, being stoned, being shipwrecked, in hunger, athirst, and so on. St. Paul has suffered much for the spread of the Gospel and the establishment of the Church. What is the natural human response to such suffering? Fear! We fear for ourselves when we see such dangers coming upon us.
The control of fear in the face of great danger is the virtue of Fortitude. Fortitude restrains fear to reasonable limits, while recognizing that it is necessary to avoid foolhardiness and recklessness. Fortitude is particularly bravery in a good cause, because it is the task of fortitude to hold man on the path of virtue and prevent him from being dissuaded by fear. Fortitude is not stoicism or indifference. The last two are not Christian virtues at all.
When we read St. Paul’s recounting of his list of sufferings for the advancement of the Church, we are reading a clear account of fortitude in action. Notice that his sufferings are definitely for a good cause, they are not reckless or foolhardy, but the dangers were in each case very real. Fortitude is what kept St. Paul going as he worked to spread the Gospel which we know resulted in most of the Christian Church as we know it today.
Our Gospel lesson for the day deals with the third virtue for our consideration today, Faith. Faith is a word used to describe both the content of what we believe, and also the act of believing it. The virtue of faith is the habit of belief; the object of that virtue is what we believe. Faith is habitual belief in God. This implies a wholehearted willingness to believe anything that God has said, for no other reason than that God has said it.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus describes the Word of God as sown seed. The act of sowing the seed, planting the Word of God, is the act of planting the faith. But Jesus goes on to describe what happens to that faith in a field which is the world. Some of it is immediately destroyed by the birds of the air, referring to the circumstances of life. It never amounts to anything at all more than the seed that went out. Other seed falls upon the rock, a place where it may quickly sprout and begin, but there is no soil in which it may take root. This is the shallow person who is open to each new experience, always looking for new excitement. But that faith plant quickly withers and dies as the person moves on in search of some other new experience. This is the seeker, always looking for some new religious experience in their life. Some seed falls among the thorns where it is choked. This is the Word of God that comes to those where it takes root and grows, but is never allowed to become truly central to their lives. Eventually, this faith plant also is choked by the affairs of the world and it dies. This is the case of so very many nominal Christians in America today. Finally there is the seed that falls in good soil and prospers, yielding a hundredfold. This is where the Word of God is truly received into the heart of a person, and becomes central in their life. This last person’s faith, growing in the world, produces an abundant yield for the Kingdom of God.
Two things are necessary for faith: (1) an external inducement, and (2) an internal inducement. The first by itself is never sufficient. For two men, observing a miracle, or hearing a great sermon, one will believe while the other does not. The miracle or the sermon is the external inducement. The necessary internal inducement is an act of God Who moves the will to assent. God moves the will to assent, He makes it possible, but He does not compel it. By the grace of God, all men can believe, but none are forced to believe. Why do some not believe? It is called free will.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.