THE THREE GREATEST VIRTUES
In today's Gospel, Jesus invited us to follow Him up to Jerusalem. He was well aware of the difficulties that lay ahead. He warned us to expect hard times, bade us to deny ourselves and carry the cross, to put away as much as we can the vices of the flesh, and learn those virtues which He practiced so perfectly. He is our standard. Without a standard no one would know how he is progressing. For example, I cannot tell you that a song is bad unless I know what a good song is. I cannot tell you this is a cold winter unless I have seen a range of winters, some colder, some warmer. The Commandments are some help, but they are mostly expressed in the negative, telling us what to avoid. The best blueprint for Christian virtue is I Corinthians 13, where Paul tells us what love is.
I am assuming we are God's children here, born of water and the Spirit, having renounced the devil and his works. Therefore I assume nobody here wants to be evil. Of course we have temptations. Even the sinless Christ had those, but because we are God's children, when we fall into sin it is because of weakness, not because we think we are doing right, or because we don't care. During Lent Mother Church gathers her children to help us grow stronger, to plug the holes in our defenses against the devil, the world, and the flesh. She serves us first with spiritual healing by the Great Physician Himself. We hear of His atoning death and resurrection, whereby He reconciles us to the Father. Then comes the convalescent period, when Mother Church serves us with education, training us in the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left. All the while she pictures before us the Perfect Warrior, who was equipped with faith, hope, and love, all of which He can teach us.
Do not think of these virtues as works. They are dispositions of the soul. They can be learned, but only from the Church, through divine revelation. You could have the body of an athlete, an IQ of 180, be as attractive as Helen of Troy; you might have the best parents and teachers, a taste for learning, the mental breadth of an Aristotle and the perspective of Leonardo da Vinci, but without the Word of God, all that excellence serves the Prince of this World. He consumes you, leaving nothing but bitterness.
Has that been happening to you? Do you have the idea that all of your talents and virtues are being wasted? Has your Creator had any thanks from you? Ah, but sin got in the way. So, the first step is to admit that you have it. Then you are ready for the breakthrough that God makes for you. All of your sinfulness has never wearied His love. God's mercy is the sun around which everything else revolves. We come and go, but He is constant.
You have heard of the seven cardinal virtues. What are the other four? Those are the natural man's virtues, the Classical Virtues, which Cicero listed as wisdom, honesty, courage, and moderation. The Bible encourages these, while condemning their opposite faults, but these natural virtues can only give glory to God if Jesus has forgiven your sins. But the three virtues of I Corinthians 13 come from the Holy Spirit to children of God in Christ. Faith needs promises to believe. Hope needs the revelation of heaven as its resting place, and love can only be born of love. The Holy Spirit alone can give us new and contrite hearts - that comes from the collect for Wednesday night. Genuine love requires a new heart. Classical virtues are temporary, but these three abide. Once your sins are forgiven, these virtues are yours, and the other four work for good.
By faith we mean far more than just saying the Creed. The devil knows the Creed. T he object of our faith is not words, but The Word, the living Word. Faith means confidence that Jesus came to seek and save the lost, and that He carries you to the eternal sheepfold. Keep that Shepherd picture in mind, and you will have a standard for the virtue of faith. By hope we do not mean wishing. We mean the earnest expectation that God will bring our lives to their proper fulfillment. We do not hope for what we see, but for God Himself, His gifts, His fellowship, His blessing presence. That is the standard for hope.
Then there is love. Love is always active. It cannot be reduced to words. We speak of erotic love, which is part of God's Providence, but is corrupted by our self-love. The love of a friend is also a blessing, based on common interests, but that is short of what St. Paul is describing. He is calling us to supernatural love, completely self-giving love. The King James Version calls it charity, translating the Greek word agaph. It is the desire to bless others, regardless of the cost to one's self. It is not a feeling, nor an emotion, but neither is it an act of the will, for no one can choose it except by grace. This kind of love hates evil, but loves all creatures great and small. It does not judge people - its expression in "tough love" notwithstanding - it just helps. By that standard we need to examine our love.
The highest good is the cross of Jesus. There will always be a temptation to set ourselves up as the highest good instead. That is a sin against the First Commandment, having yourself as your god. The flesh doesn't want to hear this, but doesn't it come up all too often? Will I pray for so-and-so today? Shall I make the dinner I like or the one my children need? Shall I give my firstfruits to the church? Pride must always be overcome. Genuine love grows. Hard as it comes at first, as we journey with the Lord it gets easier to be loving. As we learn what His cross means, as we can say Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows! what he once did for us He now does in us. May our Lenten journey to Jerusalem this year help us to adorn our new and contrite hearts with spiritual virtues. If He loved us far more than we could ever imagine, then we can love more than we ever thought we could. AMEN.
~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross