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Friday, May 15, 2015

“Charity shall cover a multitude of sins…"

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
 Sunday after the Ascension  

May 17, 2015

1 Peter 4:7-8 “The end of all things is at hand; be ye therefore sober and watch unto prayer. And above all things have fervent charity among yourselves; for charity shall cover a multitude of sins.”

So speaks the Apostle Peter from the today’s Epistle selection. Coming from arguably the most “human” and “real” Apostle, this is a wonderful and blessed statement.  After all, Peter is one figure in the New Testament with whom all of us can identify in some way or another. If one has acted boldly or brashly in their lifetime, there is Peter. If one has ever been afraid of telling the truth in the face of strong consequences, there is Peter.  And yet, if one has ever boldly proclaimed, “Thou are the Christ; thou art the Son of the living God”, there is Peter as well.

There can be no doubt that Peter became a new and better man AFTER his denial of Jesus Christ. Yet, unlike Judas Iscariot, who allowed Satan to tempt him into the absolute depths of despair, something better happened to Peter. In some mysterious way, the Holy Spirit changed him into a leader of the apostolic band, first in Jerusalem, and later in Rome. He became a pillar of the early Church, and went on to inspire and to lead his early Christian colleagues.  In short, Peter is a picture of what God can do with us, when we allow Him to do so.

Thus, it is so fitting that Peter tells us that “Charity will cover a multitude of sins…” He is not speaking of merely the relief of the poor and needy, although that is important.  No doubt he is speaking of the form of love termed “caritas” in the Greek.  Unlike the other forms of love, namely eros (romantic, sensual love), or agape (fellowship), and philios (brotherly love), caritas is something else, and may be the most interesting of all. Why might we say that?

We will submit to you that charity is more complex and many faceted than the other forms of love. The romantic will certainly disavow this, as will the socialite; even the one concerned with the betterment of mankind through brotherhood.  Yet, if we consider each of the loves just mentioned, note that all of them have some reward or end in themselves, to some degree. 
After all, the romantic seeks the possession of intimacy with the other person; while the one engaged in agape seeks fellowship  as the end of their activity.  The same goes for the one seeking to increase brotherhood and understanding. Again, there is a reward, or payback, if you will, in each of these. Not that any of this is bad; far from it.  Instead, we bless God, and exclaim, “Ecce, quam bonum!” (Behold, what a good and wonderful thing this is….)

No, what we seek to do is to distinguish the quality of love contained in caritas (charity).  Why would St. Peter tell us that it covers a multitude of sins?  Consider this: if one will accept that charity has no end in itself, no inherent payback in the same way as eros, agape, or even philos do, thus charity is more disinterested than the other forms of love. Note, please, that we said disinterested, not un-interested, for there is a huge difference. Charity seeks nothing but a benign view of all men and all situations.  It seeks not to judge harshly or rashly.  It seeks to have “unconditional positive regard” for all. 

Properly done, a charitable view frames one’s whole outlook on life and on the World. Instead of having a harsh, judgmental outlook, one will have a milder, less caustic view of his environment and those with whom he interacts. Instead of leaping to judgment or condemnation, one can “step back” and allow the Holy Spirit to temper one’s own inherent acidity.  This allows one to have a more moderate reaction to things, and perhaps even less heartburn…

When charity rules one’s heart, it leads to an expression of that virtue in one’s daily activity.  This, no doubt, makes life more pleasant for the person practicing charity, and of course, for those that person meets, who ordinarily might be on the receiving end of their scorn and denigration.  Think of all the wasted energy and stress it takes to be negative! Now, think of that same energy focused in a new, more benign direction…

We can now come closer to what the Apostle means when he says that charity will cover “the multitude of sins.”  Think of all the sins avoided when one practices, habitually, the virtue of charity. For a succinct discussion of this, we need only to recall St. Paul’s stirring recap of charity found in 1Cor 13:: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.  2 And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.  3 And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.  4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,  5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;  6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;  7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.  8 Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.  9 For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.  10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.  11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  12 For 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.  13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” 

It is impossible for us to top that summation.  Yet, even as St. Paul tells us about charity, he doesn’t tell us how to achieve it. When one considers Paul’s exhaustive knowledge of the failings of man, learned through hard experience on his missionary journeys, one certainly knows charity doesn’t come from the heart of Man.  There must be another source.

And so there is. As with all aspects of one’s walk with Jesus, it is one based on dependence and trust. We know how hard this is to hear and accept, we thoroughly modern and self-sufficient people; yet it is true.  We who are Christians have to continually let God form our behavior through godly submission and acceptance for His Will for our lives.  In short, without the “bridle of the Holy Spirit” on our rough and ready natures, charity is virtually impossible.

That is certainly not to say that non-Christians can’t be charitable.  That would be wrong, for we all know people, although not religious, who behave well and decently in their lives, even charitably.  What we are saying is that their source of love for mankind comes from a humanistic source, perhaps based on agape or philos, but not necessarily caritas.  Of course, being ultimately human-based, it has its limits.  True love inspired by the Holy Spirit is divine, and therefore inexhaustible.  There is a difference. 

Contrast that with the free, unlimited love of God expressed in godly charity. Herein we see the difference, for as charity moves and is expressed, more freedom occurs and more pure love is shown. As the Holy Spirit moves in our lives and we allow the love of God inside us to focus outward, the condition of the world changes, just a bit. When we really know and accept the love our Heavenly Father has for us, it has to make us more buoyant and joyful. This sense of love becomes so overwhelming that it spills out around our edges, into the world beyond. 

That is when we can begin to practice charity habitually. Then, it is not the forced smile, or the “we should be nice, because we should” syndrome.  It is real love and real charity for all we meet.  That is when charity shall cover a multitude of sins,” For we have been transformed into different people, who see love as their native state,

It doesn’t come from us. It comes from the Source and Font of all love, in all its forms.  It comes from the One who suffered the worst the World could do to him, so that He could profess the ultimate Love for it, and for us.

Corinthians 13:13 - 14:1   13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.