The Fruit of Perfection

THE SUNDAY CALLED QUINQUAGESIMA

THEN Jesus took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished (Luke 18:31-33).

The time has come for the Lord to set his face towards Jerusalem. In his determination to journey to the cross every theme, metaphor, and emphasis of this pre-lenten season come together (coalesces). The journey to Jerusalem is a march towards sorrow and suffering; towards mocking and derision; a strenuous one beset by challenges of all sorts; internal and external opponents set upon defeating the Son of Man.

The time has come for the Lord to see his face towards Jerusalem. The place where he will drink the dregs of death "For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: and they shall scourge him, and put him to death…” The One who calls his laborers into the vineyard will prove to be the perfect servant who obediently follows the master’s call to work. Not grumbling but with joy he gladly toils in the vineyard of sorrow called Golgotha.

He, the Sower of the Seed, is also the good soil, and in him an innumerable bounty of fruit is perfected through suffering; the cursed ground beneath his feet wetted with blood and water as it pours from his side. His broken body is laid into the earth, the heavenly grain of wheat, which goes into the ground and from it, springs the tree of life. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).

We should understand the Lenten Journey as following Jesus up to Jerusalem, for the time has come for us to die as well. Death to self; death to sin. But sin is not so easily overcome, and this we know. Joshua faced a great many battles, challenges, and se backs as he led Israel’s campaign to obliterate the seven wicked nations of whom God said,

When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, and He drives out before you many nations—seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you to defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy (Deuteronomy 7:1-2).

Through their actions these seven nations brought judgment upon themselves, and, God knew they would be a snare to his people, wicked agents who would cause Israel to stumble into vice and sin. Therefore, God’s people were to devote themselves to their merciless destruction. What needs to be destroyed in us is sin, impurity, and corruption. This is our Journey to Jerusalem, the Lenten labor we have often spoken of these past two weeks. Like the seven wicked nations embedded in the good land, the seven deadly sins of pride, covetousness, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth must be destroyed. We are to ’sweep clean’ the house of the soul and not leave it barren, but fill it with the virtues of humility, charity, chastity, gratitude, temperance, patience, and diligence. Again, we are to fill the soul with good things for as Jesus warns,

When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it passes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ On its return, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and dwell there. And the final plight of that man is worse than the first (Matthew 12:43-45).

The picture I’m desiring to paint is this: Like Christ, it is time for us to follow him into the suffering and pain that awaits him in Jerusalem. Companions willingly to enter into suffering over sin, to submit pride to humility, and seek wholeness of the soul. For we know the way of Jerusalem is ultimately the way of the Cross, up to the Tree of death. And there, on the cross, we encounter both death and life, suffering and salvation, despair and hope. It is upon that wicked tree where Jesus puts sin to death, removes it sting, taking away the curse.

For “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”” (Galatians 3:13). Suffering precedes death and death precedes life. The glory and eternal hope of Easter morning rises only after the horrors of Friday. And what great wisdom the church in all her glory guides her children with; we leave the wonder and celebratory nature of Christmas and Epiphany-tide seasons of rejoicing in the great salvation that has come, and turn our gaze towards the reality of living out this salvation in a fallen world with all of its enticements and as unfinished works of grace who, in our imperfectness, strive by the guiding of the Holy Spirit, to become more and more like the Lord Jesus Christ, our sanctification unto perfectness.

For the way of the Cross is the way of perfection. On the tree of death died not only our Lord, but the sins of the whole world; yours and mine. And on that tree hung the very embodiment of love; the fruit of perfection. Friends, the fruit of perfection is love, there is nothing greater or surpassing, the only thing eternal. The writer of Hebrews tells us that it was through suffering that the Son was perfected. On that cursed tree hung perfect love for the whole world to see. And love is the fruit which is yielded from the good soil, from all honest and good hearts who with patience bring forth fruit with patience. We are sorely misguided if we believe our perfection will not come without soberly embracing dying: dying to self, dying to sin. If we desire to become the very love of Christ, then we too must embrace the way of the Cross with faith and hope.

Faith must be immersed in the knowledge of the great love with which our heavenly Father has loved us in Christ, the Father who,

hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved. In whom we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace (Ephesians 1:3-9).

Praised be to God! We must believe that we are loved, and in this find confidence and the assurance of hope. For,

If God be for us, who can be against us? “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?... Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:29-31)

To us is given the charisms of faith, hope, and love, and it is by loving in this world that we escape the coming judgment of the world. “God is love; whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him. In this way,” writes St. John, “love has been perfected among us, so that we may confidence on the day of judgment; for in this world we are just like him” (1 John 4:16-17). And how are we in this world just like him? Love.

We might be thinking of Lent as hard, cold, and unattractive, entering into it without any special object, thinking of it as merely an inconvenient season of increased formalities and superficial exercise.  All this emphasis of the church upon sobriety, penitence, and humility is off-putting to the calloused and prideful soul. Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for the purification of the soul appear overly rigorous and unnecessary. If we’re not clear on where the journey to Jerusalem ends then one will wander without purpose over these next four weeks, or in more hardened cases, exit the road all together. But the church teaches that Lent is a season into which love should be the entrance, of which love should be the spirit, and in which the increase of love should be our great object. Thus, will the season be one which God shall most certainly bless, being Himself the God of Love, for the object of Lent is the object of life realized in the risen Christ, even so to possess and be possessed by love as to be fitted for a share in the glorification of love when God shall be all and in all.

If love be not the impetus compelling us unto Jerusalem, then Lent will profit us nothing. In fact, without love we are nothing. Your religion apart from love is nothing. All the spiritual gifts given unto you profiteth nothing. Your knowledge, even your great measure of faith itself is nothing. All the selflessness, sacrificial acts, and giving to the poor have no eternal benefit without love. Even in martyrdom you are nothing if and have not love. All mortification is nothing if we not be love. In other words, love is the chief produce of our Lenten labor.

Love is the sure evidence of our sanctification. According to St. Paul love is greater than faith and hope, for the more richly love dwells in a man, the better the man in whom it dwells. For when we ask whether someone is a good man, we are not asking what he believes, or hopes, but what he loves. St. Augustine says that,

he who loves aright believes and hopes rightly. Likewise, he who does not love believes in vain, even if what he believes is true; he hopes in vain, even if what he hopes for is generally agreed to pertain to true happiness, unless he believes and hopes for this: that he may through prayer obtain the gift of love- St. Augustine

Through prayer, through fasting, through the disciplines and the putting away of sin we grow in charity, edging closer and closer to true happiness. Because the exercise of love brings us closer and closer to love himself, Jesus Christ. Let us therefore remember what we have heard, it is the thorns and thistles of this world which choke out love, the pursuit of lesser loves which displace the God of Love. We become what we love and thereby must order the loves rightly. To enter into the spirituality of Lent without love as its object will profiteth us nothing if our true and burning desire is to attain union with Christ himself; to love and to be loved.

Beloved, the labor of love, the ups and downs, the twists and turns are not without their reward, for St Paul says to those who pursue love as the chief goal of the Christian life, "now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Friends the lover will be known by the beloved. Yes, love brings to us the full knowledge of God. But more importantly, love will be known by God. To be fully known, fully uncovered, unashamedly naked before our creator and not rejected, not laughed at or disregarded, but known and loved as a child loved by a mother, or a wayward son who seeing his father runs into his merciful and loving arms. Finally, home, finally loved, finally complete.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love. In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another (1 John 4:7-11).

The journey up to Jerusalem begins and ends in love: the great love of God towards us displayed in the death of his Son upon a cross. There, the tree of death becomes the tree of life. Let us then pursue love, setting our sights firmly on He who first loved us for. Christ is why we love, how we love, and the reward of all our labor. “Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three: but the greatest of these is love.” Amen.