It was, of course, the door of the bishop, who invited this ex-convict in and seated him at his table, serving him on their finest silver, treating him with great respect throughout the evening. He put the convict to bed in the room adjacent to his. Thus, during the night, the ex-con, unaccustomed to sleeping on soft beds, awakened from sleep early, thinking about the bishop’s silver. He even pondered killing the bishop, but thought the better of it, stealing the bishop’s silver instead and fleeing into the night. The next morning the police brought the ex-con back to the bishop’s house, bringing with them the bishop’s silver. (They had been watching him.) When he saw the man, the bishop exclaimed, “Oh, I’m so glad that you returned!” Speaking to the police the bishop said, “I’m sure this man has told you that I had given him this silver, which is the truth. It is all his. But he left in such a hurry that I didn’t have time to give him my most precious items, my silver candlesticks.” The bewildered police soon retreated, leaving the ex-con alone with the bishop. As the bishop handed these extraordinarily expensive candlesticks to the ex-con, he said to him, “With this silver I have bought your soul. You must leave bitterness and hatred behind. Go live a life of love and faith and goodness and service.” The bishop’s graciousness toward the ex-convict did not immediately bring transformation, but over time the man indeed committed himself to love, faith, service and generosity.
Some of you, I would hope, have recognized my story as coming from the opening chapters of one of the world’s great pieces of literature, Victor Hugo’s, Les Miserables. I pose to you a question this morning: what do you think of the bishop’s behavior? As you behold this man exchanging his nice, palatial home for a smaller, squalid one in order to benefit the hospital, as you ponder this man excusing an ex-con’s theft of his silver, and not only excusing it, but adding to the man’s purloined valuables his two most significant possessions, the twin candlesticks – how do you regard his actions? Some people would regard this bishop’s actions as stupid and foolish. Yet his actions don’t strike us as foolish and stupid. Rather, as you behold the bishop’s generosity, his graciousness, his warmth, his love, do they not resonate with the best impulses of your own soul? When you witness this bishop’s willingness to invest in this hardened criminal’s life, does not the thought flash through your mind, ‘This is how we ought to live. This is how we ought to give.’ Maybe we don’t think we can live up to the standards of the bishop’s goodness, but nevertheless, we feel that his example touches some spiritual chord deep within us and makes us think, ‘This is how God would want us to live. This is how God would want us to treat others.’
We began this month with Easter Sunday, gathering amidst great gaiety, rejoicing that God raised our Savior Jesus Christ from the dead. But I ask you, do you ever pause to contemplate the cosmic implications of the validity of Easter? In truth, our entire faith hinges upon Easter being true. Easter cannot be a partially true and partially false. Easter is either altogether true or it is altogether false! Either our God raised Christ Jesus from the dead – or God did not! Either our God is a God of resurrection power, the Destiny to whom all of us in faith will go, or our God is a fantasy. Either Easter is the definitive moment in human history, or Easter is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated. There is no middle ground. Easter’s triumph is altogether true, or it is a lie, in which case, as Paul has noted, “we are of all people the most to be pitied.”
Yet we cannot prove God’s reality in any laboratory. There is no scientific experiment that validates God’s Presence. So how can we confidently invest our lives in the invisible Kingdom of God that is beyond the boundaries of any test tube? The answer is found in the actions of the bishop. When we look upon the bishop’s warmth, his love, his graciousness, his generosity, his surpassing kindness, we must ask ourselves, ‘Where did those virtues come from?’ The answer is, they are rooted in the virtues of Jesus Christ! How did this bishop have the strength to enact these virtues? The answer is, he was granted strength through the Spirit of Christ! As we witness the bishop’s actions we understand at a fundamental level that love surpasses hatred, and generosity surpasses selfishness, and forgiveness transforms rancor. The bishop’s virtues are signposts that the bishop is traveling the right path in life. When we practice these virtues we know that they guide us rightly along life’s journey. And if the journey is true, how can the destination be false?
Jesus asked his disciples precisely this question. Mark’s Gospel records Jesus as feeding five thousand people with five loaves and a few fish, then feeding four thousand people with seven loaves. In both instances the disciples gathered up many baskets of leftover food. Immediately after this second feeding, the Pharisees pressured Jesus for some “sign from heaven” of his Messiahship. Jesus sighed and said, “This generation will receive no sign,” and hopped a boat for the other side of the lake. Meanwhile, the disciples had forgotten to buy bread and were worried because they only had one loaf between them. Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” He was telling them to beware the religious authorities’ and the secular authorities’ skepticism concerning his Messianic claims and mission. But the disciples heard Jesus’ words and thought he was furious with them for having brought only one loaf of bread on board! When Jesus realized the nature of their fear, he was furious with them, but for a profoundly different reason. “Haven’t you been paying attention?” he asked. “How many baskets of food were left when I fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread?” “Twelve,” they answered in hang-dog shame. “How many baskets of food did you gather when I fed the four thousand with seven loaves? “Seven,” they answered meekly. Jesus then said, “Do you not have eyes to see and ears to hear?” He said in essence, ‘Why would you fret over having only one loaf of bread? You’ve just seen God empower me to feed thousands with a few loaves. The God who has provided for us in the past will provide for us in the future! Why fear? If the journey so far has felt true to you, why do you fear that our destination will be false?’
C.S. Lewis entered his young adulthood as an atheist. But as he examined his existence he began to realize that he had been surprised by so many moments of wonder, beauty and joy that he wanted Someone to thank. But in his atheistic world view there was no Someone to thank! Then he began to analyze people’s experience and found that people made universal reference to the reality of a moral order. People reflexively said, “She ought to have done this. He ought to have done that. I ought to have done this.” People instinctively recognized the reality of a moral ought. People reflexively appealed to the Rule of Decent Behavior. They might apply the rule differently, but they implicitly recognized that the Rule of Decent Behavior was essential to human society. C. S. Lewis realized that a sense of moral ought is imprinted upon human lives. He realized, moreover, The universality of that imprint suggested an Imprinter! Lewis admitted that even then he was miles away from Christianity, but the more he studied his life and human behavior the more he realized that his atheistic perspective could not explain his experience of the world or the nature of his own existence. There had to be a God that had brought creation into being.
Go back to our morning text. Jesus has just fed nine thousand people with a dozen loaves of bread. But no sooner has he done this than the Pharisees demand, “We want a sign from heaven.” The Scriptures say, “Jesus sighed deeply in spirit.” Worse than the Pharisees’ skepticism was the fact that his disciples had witnessed these extraordinary acts and were still fretting over the fact that they only had one loaf of bread!
Jesus fears that if they miss the significance of these obvious signs, will they develop the capability to understand the meaning of the signs to come? Will they understand Good Friday and the empty tomb of Easter? I cannot help but wonder if God doesn’t sometimes get exasperated with us as well. I think our God sometimes cannot help but wonder why we do not live more fully cognizant of the joy and the triumph that is ours. God has given us the great sign of an empty tomb. God has given us the great sign of the continuing life of his church, a community of faith that has survived and thrived for two millennia despite every attempt to eradicate and suppress it. God has given us these great signs of assurance. But God has also granted us small signs of the Kingdom that we enjoy every day. God has given us daily signposts that our lives are on the right path. God’s has granted us fruits of the Spirit that direct us in the right direction — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When we embody these virtues, we know that we are doing right! We know the world needs those gifts of the Spirit, and when we lead lives characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we know that our journey is true. And if the journey is true, how can the destination be false? We know in our hearts that love is greater than hatred, generosity is superior to selfishness, mercy is preferable to ruthlessness. The virtues of Christ’s Kingdom define the way we should live. They define the proper journey to travel.
Years ago a friend came to me asking, “Dr. Kremer, I need advice in talking to a physician buddy of mine in Rotary who tells me that he can’t believe in God because there is too much suffering in the world. What should I say?” I responded, “Ask your friend two questions. First, ask him, why is he in Rotary? Unless he is there simply to spread a public patina of respectability over his life and career, he is in Rotary because he feels a need for community. He implicitly senses the necessity of banding together with others to improve the society in which he lives. Why go to such bother if life is pointless, devoid of divine purpose? Second, ask him why he is a physician? Maybe he has become a doctor for purely mercenary purposes. But if he has dedicated his life trying to deliver people from their suffering and cure them of their disease, but nevertheless believes that life is pointless, why go to the trouble? He may say that he believes that life doesn’t root in God, that life is an accident – but life doesn’t feel like an accident!”’ I said to my buddy, “Your friend says he doesn’t believe in God. But he practices virtues that are rooted in Christ. The truth is, your friend is so like so many people who say they don’t believe in God. He is not a true atheist. He is only a disgruntled fan of God.” Many people who say they don’t believe in God are actually disgruntled fans of God who have been wounded by life and think that divine providence has not supported them as they expected, so they have decided to push God away. Yet they live their lives based on virtues that are rooted in Christ. These virtues signal that Christ’s virtues point us in the right direction. And if the journey is true, how can the destination be false?
St Augustine, at the culmination of a long search for fulfillment, realized, “The heart is restless until it finds its rest in God.” He realized that we are made by God for God. C. S. Lewis observed that it would be a very odd thing if we were made to hunger, but were not made to eat. It would be an odd thing if we were made to thirst yet were not made to drink. So, too, it would be an odd thing if our hearts did not yearn for communion with the divine, unless we were designed for communion with the divine. Every day, my friends, we are on a journey. This journey has guideposts. When we practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control we observe milestones that God has placed to direct our lives in the right direction. For experience has taught us that indeed, love is superior to hatred; generosity does surpass selfishness; forgiveness does trump rancor. And when we embody the virtues of Jesus Christ then we know in the depths of our soul that we are on the right road that will ultimately end in the glorious Presence of our Creator God. For the journey is true. That can only mean that our destination is sure.