Not There Yet (Fr. Caleb)
O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom.
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I have no doubt that at some point as kids, sitting in the back of the family car during one of those boring road trips, we all asked our parents are we there yet? Besides being a sure-fire method for pushing mom and dad into complete delirium, it was also a rather odd question to ask. Because it was already perfectly self-evident that you had not yet arrived at your destination — you were still uncomfortably buckled in your seat and your sibling was still poking you in the head. But, of course, that’s precisely why you kept asking if you were there yet, despite the abundant evidence otherwise. You had been on the road long enough that surely you had to basically be there by now. How could you feel so ready to get out of the car if the time to do so had not yet come?
That tension between your certainty that the trip should be over and the reality that it very clearly wasn’t gets at one of the fundamental tensions of the Christian life: the tension of hope. Because hope is fully aware that we are not there yet, that the Christian life is one of pilgrimage, and pilgrimages often involve discomfort. But though the pilgrimage is at times uncomfortable, hope also knows that it’s headed towards its fulfillment, which is described quite well by our Collect this morning. Consider how significant it is that the Collect does not speak of the destruction of the works of the devil or of us being made the children of God as past accomplishments. Rather, they are described as the purposes for which Christ came into the world, with the implication being that these purposes are still in effect. We look forward to being made the children of God. We are en route to his eternal and glorious kingdom, for it is there that we will be fully realized as the children of God because it’s there that we will be made like God. There, we will rest in eternal life, which consists in nothing less than God himself, the ultimate source of life and happiness. And we will have no concern for the works of the devil, because they will have been destroyed. Nothing will obstruct our gaze upon the face of God. This is our present hope, for we are not there yet, but having this hope, our Collect says, the task that is set before us is to purify ourselves as he is pure. This is the purity of holiness, which Christ already possesses in the fullness of his divine nature, but since we have not yet been made like him in such purity, there is still a distance ahead that we must travel. And hope is what moves us along. We’re not there yet.
Now, all that said, the problem is that it’s actually pretty easy to forget that we’re not there yet and instead experience the Christian life as you would experience the comfort and relief of arrival. It doesn’t take much for the unsuspecting soul to fall into a false sense of security and stability, particularly if it’s a soul “to whom religion is as yet easy and the horror of sin unrecognised.” (1) It’s up to you to discern whether that describes your own soul or not, whether you practice an easy religion or whether you recognize the horror of sin. Best Facebook personality quiz ever.
Anyway, even if our religion is too easy and our awareness of sin is lacking, it’s pretty obvious that we have not yet arrived in the eternal and glorious kingdom of God. Just look around. But the point is that this observation doesn’t necessarily keep us from living as if we have arrived, any more than the seatbelt and the annoying siblings kept you from asking your parents if you were there yet. The Collect’s reminder that we’re not there yet thus challenges us most directly in our presumption, which is the opposite of hope and therefore the sin against hope. Presumption is ultimately a form of pride, and it’s what happens when we act like we have achieved the fullness of salvation when such fullness actually still lies ahead of us. Think of premature celebrations in sports: the wide receiver who triumphantly dives into the end zone but lands a foot short; the team that storms the court in victory when the buzzer goes off as an opposing player desperately hurls the ball right into the basket for a stunning upset. Presumption treats what is still open to possibility as though it is already secure. And in the Christian life, presumption manifests itself as a careless and complacent satisfaction in one’s own power. It’s the comfortable certainty that I am either good enough for salvation on my own or at least will be able to be good enough for salvation when it counts. (2) Or, if we’re perhaps a bit more honest with ourselves, we might admit that we’ve got faults like everybody else, but God is merciful, right? (3) This form of presumption is the false hope of the gamble: I presume upon the grace of God and bet on his mercy down the road so that I can presently excuse myself from the call to repentance and a holy life. There’s no need to purify ourselves as he is pure when it comes to presumption; in fact, presumption is precisely the sin by which we exempt ourselves from the struggle of purification.
So the antidote to the sin of presumption is hope, which begins in the sober recognition that although eternal life is certain because God is eternal life, our own attainment of eternal life is not certain, at least not presently. Hope is the humble and courageous acceptance of the fact that we’re not there yet, that our arrival is still open to possibility and subject to contingencyko0 Hope is first infused into our souls at baptism, and there it “settles the soul on God” and produces in our will “a fruitful and purposeful activity” that directs us towards “the attainment of God as our eternal and perfect joy.” (4) But hope doesn’t move our souls along towards God automatically; rather, our growth in hope “is gained by constant and faithful collaboration” with the many blessings that God provides to us so that we may purify ourselves. (5) But that means that we must set ourselves with utmost diligence to self-examination and penitence, to growth in virtue and unceasing prayer, and especially to the frequent reception of the sacraments. (6) If we do that, I guarantee that we won’t have to worry a bit about practicing a religion that’s too easy.
I should admit, of course, that like with everything else in Christianity, this is not either/or. Just because we wait expectantly in hope does not mean that there is nothing to support us in the meantime. There is a very real sense in which we have arrived and that we can experience the happiness of God in the here and now. We stand upon the once and for all accomplishment of Jesus Christ: his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Christians live as if in an epilogue to the Passion of our Lord. Plus, like I said, there is the sacrament of baptism, through which we received the gift of hope, and we can look back on our baptisms as our point of departure. While we only hope because we have not yet arrived, are not yet entirely purified, the fact that we hope is itself the proof that we are on our way. So hope reminds the soul that being made like God is the end for which it was created — its final destination — and not only that, but hope also assures us that being made like God is attainable through the purity of Christ. (7)
So you might consider praying this Collect this week; use it to reflect on your own life and your own soul and to ask yourself what it is that reminds you that you are definitely not there yet. And most importantly, what it is that fills you with that tension of hope that keeps you from deciding that not-there-yet is good enough. Because hope is not content with not-there-yet, nor will we be if we “seize the hope that is set before us.” (8)
Let us pray.
O God, we ask that you would destroy our presumption, so that having hope instead, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(1) F.P. Harton. The Elements of the Spiritual Life, 49.
(2-3) Thomas Aquinas. http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3021.htm.
(4-7) F.P. Harton. The Elements of the Spiritual Life, 47-49. (paraphrased, if not directly quoted)
(8) Hebrews 6:18 (NRSV)
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