Locust Street Letters
By Frank Lawrence Vernon
Philadelphia: St. Mark's Church, Locust Street.
ST. MARK'S, PHILADELPHIA.
THE THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT, 1937.
MY DEAR PEOPLE:
In the Epistle for this third Sunday in Lent, Saint Paul writes, "Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God." The word "followers" in our English translation in the original means "imitators." "Be ye therefore imitators of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice."
This admonition seems an impossible one to obey. How can we imitate God? Surely that is beyond our power. Who could possibly aspire to it? We could attempt almost anything but that. The statement of our duty towards God, as we learned it in the Catechism, does not at first sight seem to expect so much.
But mere duty toward God, Saint Paul tells us, is not enough. We must go far, far beyond formal duty. We must be imitators of God, as children, who are dear to their father and mother, unconsciously imitate the father and mother who are dear to them. A child really does reflect and return the love of the father or the mother. So long as duty is the motive, there can be nothing better than formal obedience. If the duty is neglected there can be nothing better than servile fear. But if love is the motive then there will be fearless filial love.
It is this love which is enjoined in the Epistle. Filial love to the Father who first loved us, who so loved us that he gave his only-begotten Son, who also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for us. It is when we survey the wondrous Cross that we behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God. It is when we begin to comprehend what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height, when we know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that we are bold to say Our Father.
This filial love, Saint John tells us, casts out fear. There are three words for fear in the New Testament, each describing a particular kind of fear. The first of these words means fear in general; the second means servile fear, the kind of fear inspired by a dictator; the third means holy fear or filial reverence.
Saint John uses the first word, fear in general, all kinds of anxious fear, arising from distrust in God. This was the kind of fear that Our Lord rebuked with the question, "why are ye so fearful, O ye of little faith?" There is one power that can control and cast out this kind of fear, and that is absorbing filial love for God. The kind of love a child has for a parent whom he trusts because he loves and knows that he is loved.
The second kind of fear, servile fear, is included in the first. Servile fear, as I have said, is the kind of fear a slave has for a tyrant. We have no idea of the oppressiveness of such a fear, though we can imagine it. Yet, strange to say, it seeps into and infects religion, and we may, before we realize it, become victims of a servile fear which deludes us into thinking of God as a relentless judge who desires our condemnation, and does not hesitate to take advantage of our weaknesses that he may destroy us.
As one writes this or reads this, it seems a dreadful thought, and incredible that we should ever entertain it. But in times of depression we do. There is only one way to get rid of it. An instant, adventurous and bold filial trust in a Father whose love we never doubt will never fail to cast out this unworthy fear which dishonors God, and deceives ourselves.
"Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God."
Affectionately in Our Lord,