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A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

May 17, 1981

St. Peter’s Cathedral, Charlottetown

by Robert Crouse

 

 “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath;

for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”

 

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Our text comes from today’s Epistle lesson, from the Epistle of St. James; and in that lesson, St. James seems, perhaps, at first, to be dealing in clichés or platitudes; points which seem perfectly obvious, and to be taken for granted.  “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above,” he tells us; surely there is nothing very novel in that thought.  Surely, that is a truth which wise men and women, at all times, and in all places, have always recognized.   There is nothing novel, and certainly nothing peculiarly Christian about that idea.  God is the source of life and every blessing.  St. Paul, in Acts 17, was able to quote the pagan Greek poets on the subject:  “In God we live, and move, and have our being; as some of your own writers have said, ‘we are all his children’”.  Or, as one of our well-known hymns expresses it:

To all life thou givest, to both great and small.

In all life thou livest, the true life of all.

God is “the Father of lights,” says St. James, “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning”.  God is the source of life and every blessing.  Behind all the changes and vicissitudes of nature and human history, his purpose abides, sure and steadfast, eternally just, eternally good. 

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,

Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;

Thy justice like mountains high soaring above,

Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love. 

“Every good gift is from above.”  All that seems, perhaps, a platitude.  At any rate, it is something which the poets and philosophers, and the wise men and women of all times and places have always known.  There is nothing very novel about it, and nothing peculiarly Christian; but it is, nevertheless, a universal truth which Christians in our own time would do well to keep firmly in mind.  God’s justice is eternal and unchanging and unswayed by our passing whims and fancies, steadfast through all of our perversities and aberrations.  And in the end, God’s will is done. That truth of God’s eternal providence is fundamental truth, and we forget it at our peril.

 

But St. James has something more specific than that in mind, and so he continues:   “Of his own will he brought us to birth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of all creation.”  The “good and perfect gift” of God includes, more specifically, God’s saving work in Christ, the Incarnate Word,  “the implanted word, which is able to save your souls”.  And the Gospel lesson for today speaks of our receiving that “good and perfect gift” – “the implanted word” – in the power of the Spirit, “the Comforter”, “the Spirit of Truth” – the gift of the Risen and Ascended Lord.

 

By the “perfect gift” of the divine Spirit, we are “a kind of first-fruits of all creation”.  God’s creation has a spiritual purpose, and a spiritual end, of which we are “a kind of first-fruits”, a beginning of God’s spiritual harvest.  As we are born anew by the gift of God’s Spirit, as we share consciously and lovingly in God’s eternal purpose, his will for his creation becomes manifest in us. In us, dumb nature finds the voice of praise;  in and through the worship of Almighty God, the whole creations begins to find its destiny.  In that sense,  we who are born of the Spirit are “the first-fruits of all his creation”.

 

“Ye know this, my beloved brethren,” says St. James, “and so let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.”  Such virtues as humility,  patience, meekness, are perhaps not the most popular virtues in the modern Christian’s armoury.  We are perhaps rather swift to speak and swift to wrath.  There is so much that seems to obviously wrong;  so much to be done: how can we afford patience and meekness?  Jesus said that the meek would inherit the earth; but do we really trust in that promise?

 

“Be swift to hear,” says St. James,  and his point is well taken:  “Receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls.”  God’s eternal will, and the salvation of mankind, will not be served by frantic speech and wrathful deeds. So busy and distracted by what seem to us obvious goods, we become inattentive to God’s word – slow to hear, swift to speak, swift to wrath.  We become distracted in the pursuit of a myriad of apparently excellent gifts, and fail in our perception of that “good and perfect gift” which is ours for the listening. “Be swift to hear.”

 

Thus, today’s Collect would have us pray for patient attentiveness to God’s word; for God alone can order our unruly wills and affections. We pray that we may love his commandments, and desire what he promises; that our wills may be steadfast in accord with the eternal and invariable righteousness of God; that amid “the sundry and manifold changes of the world”, amid all the distractions of swift speech and swift wrath, “our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found,”

 

The message of the Easter season, and the lessons of this Sunday, are simple and vitally important.  The perfect gift of God, the seed of new spiritual life, the word of God, the seed or resurrection, has been implanted in our minds and hearts.  In Eastertide, we celebrate the Passover of Christ, through death to resurrection; and that must be our Passover as well:  “Ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God”.  The temple of his body must be raised up in us, the House of God must be rebuilt in us and among us:  not in frantic speech and wrathful deeds, but in attentiveness to God’s word, in steady, constant discipline of prayer, in patient and long-suffering labour of mind and heart and hands, waiting upon the Spirit’s strengthening, in the sure and certain confidence that though we be in sorrow for a season, the good and perfect gifts of God our Father do not fail.  Fear not; it is your Father’s pleasure to give you a kingdom.  And he will surely do it.

 

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