Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Today we’re going to talk about a love story… and a rather unusual love story at that.

Lots of our favorite movies and books are about love stories: two people meet, fall in love, overcome challenges, grow stronger together, and live happily ever after. Or not, as the case may be.

But the love story we’re looking at today is a very rare kind of love story. It’s a love story where the one who’s loved doesn’t know it. It’s a love unknown.

An old hymn-writer back in the 1600s in England captured this kind of love when he wrote:

“My song is love unknown
My Saviour’s love for me;
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be…”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We’re going to be looking today at Acts 17:22-31, but first I want to touch briefly on our reading from John 14:15-21.

John is relating a conversation that takes place between Jesus and the disciples during the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus is teaching the disciples what they’ll need to know when he’s no longer with them on a daily basis.  And the disciples are not catching on very well.  Jesus is saying the Messiah (himself) is going to die – which goes against everything the disciples have ever believed about the Messiah – and then after three days he will rise again, and then ascend into heaven, and then he will send the Holy Spirit.  And – Jesus says – when all this happens, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. Whoever loves me will keep my commandments and will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

This passage tells us there is a love yet to be revealed by Jesus. A love unknown.  Bookmark that thought – we’ll come back to it.

Turning to our reading from Acts, the reading for today starts in the middle of the chapter, which means we are coming in on the middle of the story, so we need to back up and start at the beginning.

Paul and Silas were traveling through the part of the Roman Empire that was occupied Greece.  And as they traveled, they would stop at the local synagogues and share the gospel – because for people who attended synagogue, the gospel was not entirely unknown. It might be unexpected, but the Old Testament was taught in the synagogues, and the Old Testament included prophecies about the Messiah, so their listeners at least had the background to understand the gospel message.

First Paul and Silas arrived in Thessalonica. They went into the synagogue and taught and preached for a few weeks, giving evidence from the Old Testament that the Messiah had to suffer and then rise from the dead, and proving that Jesus met the criteria.  And some of the Jews believed, along with a large number of Gentile Greeks.

The synagogue rulers were jealous to see so many Gentiles responding to Paul’s message.  So they went out and stirred up a mob who went and grabbed these new believers and had them arrested.  Of course having no charges the people were released, but Paul and Silas (for their own safety) were sent on to the next city.

So they travelled to a town called Berea, about 45 miles away.  When they got there, again they went to the local synagogue and started preaching. And this time the good news about Jesus was well-received.  Verse 11 says: “they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.”  And many of them became believers, both Jews and Greeks.

Now the synagogue rulers in Thessalonica heard about this, and they were so ticked off they walked 45 miles to Berea stir up trouble for Paul and Silas. (45 miles is roughly the distance from Pittsburgh to Uniontown!  Have you ever been so ticked off at somebody that you would walk to Uniontown just to bother them?)

Anyway for safety’s sake the Bereans suggested Paul and Silas move on, and they accompanied them as far as Athens (about 150 miles from Berea – at which point the Thessalonians gave up).

So Paul and Silas arrived in Athens.  During Paul’s lifetime, and for about 400 years before he was born, Athens was one of the greatest educational centers of the world.  Aristotle had taught there, and Socrates, and Plato; Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine (you’ve heard of the Hippocratic oath).  Athens was the birthplace of democracy – the first place democracy was thought of, and the first place it was ever tried.  Life in the United States in the 21st century would not exist as we know it, if not for Athens back then.

Even the Romans appreciated Athens.  Though they conquered all of Greece, they considered Athens a ‘free city’ so that it’s teaching and its arts and culture would continue uninterrupted.

Paul and Silas, when they got to Athens, had a lot to see, and a lot to take in as they walked around the city.  But what Paul noticed more than anything was that it was “a city full of idols”.  Verse 16 says he was deeply troubled at this; because the message Paul had to share was a love story – a story about a love unknown.  As Paul and Silas walked around the city, they saw people who did not know they were loved by God, people who were being led astray to worship idols and to serve what was not God.  And this moved Paul’s heart very deeply.

Paul started out, as usual, in the local synagogue. And he had a little success there.  But then he went to the marketplace – the Agora as it was called (you remember that name from high school social studies?). The Agora was a place where people would buy and sell, but it was also the central public space in the city – a place for events, a place where political speeches would be made, and where religious and philosophical debates happened.

So Paul joined in the debates in the Agora. Verse 18 says he got into conversations with the Epicureans and the Stoics. The Epicureans belonged to a school of philosophy that taught materialism and the pursuit of happiness, and ridiculed the idea of God interfering in human affairs. The Stoics on the other hand belonged to a school of philosophy that believed the path to happiness is found in accepting what we’re given in life; and not being controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, but using our minds to understand.

Do I really need to say how much these philosophies still influence people’s thinking?  We may not call it by those names any more, but we still live in a materialistic culture, that pokes fun at religion, that pursues happiness, and that values logic over too much drama in our relationships. Things haven’t changed much in 2000 years!

Paul made enough of an impact on the Greek philosophers to be invited to speak at the Areopagus where many of the great debates were held.  So he came, and they asked him, “what are you teaching?”  And that’s where our reading for today picks up.

What Paul said to the philosophers is a wonderful example of how we can share our faith in the world around us.

  • Step One, Paul begins where his listeners are. He says “I observe that you are very religious in all respects.” Paul doesn’t attack their idols; he doesn’t stand up and call the people ‘idolaters and sinners’.  He takes his observation of their idols and casts it in a good light.  He praises the fact that they’re religious. In today’s culture we might say something like, “I see that you are very spiritual.  You care about living things, you care about the planet, you believe in doing what is compassionate, and you are mindful of how you treat others.”
  • Step Two, Paul builds on where his listeners are and finds a connection to the gospel. He says, “as I went through the city and looked at the objects of your worship, I found an altar with the inscription ‘to an unknown god’.”  Paul knows about this love unknown, knows that it is a universal truth, and he connects it to their ‘unknown god’.In our own day there are still many people who call themselves agnostic – who say they don’t know who God is, or they’re not sure. Even churchgoers sometimes can be sort of functionally agnostic –knowing there’s a God and his son’s name is Jesus but not really sure what that means. The word agnostic – a Greek word – literally means to not know.
  • In Step Three, Paul zeros in on the unknown and makes it known. He says: “What you believe is unknown, this is what I proclaim to you.’ And he goes on to talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  He says God created the world and everything in it; God does not live in temples or buildings made by hands; God is not served by people, as if God needed anything; in fact God gives us what we God sets the times and boundaries for nations and encourages people to seek God “groping around as we do, though God is not far from us” – Paul says – “for in Him we live and move and have our being”. And Paul adds, “as some of your own Greek poets have said, “we are God’s children.””

Can you imagine how people today would appreciate hearing that God does not live in buildings and is not served by people?  And that we live and move in God – and as God’s children, we are loved?

Paul does criticize the making of idols: he reminds his listeners that God isn’t made of silver or gold.  These days people don’t usually have household gods, but idolatry is still one of the most commonly practiced sins.  Today’s idols might include wealth, power, youthfulness, fame, food, sex, shopping… anything that becomes more important to us than God.

King Solomon once said: “the worship of idols… is the beginning and cause and end of every evil.” (Wisdom 14:27 edited)  In Paul’s words, idols are “a representation by the art and imagination of humanity”.  I could preach a whole sermon on just that – but for now the important concept is that idols are made up. They represent a lie.  And when people put their trust in lies, tragedy is the result.  If Paul were here today he would most likely remind us that God doesn’t need fame, or political power, or front page headlines, or a pile of money in order for God’s will to be done.

Bottom line, Paul says in verse 30: in the past God has overlooked such ignorance – overlooked our not knowing – but now God requires all people everywhere to have a change of heart, because there is a day coming in which all people will be measured by the man who walked out of the grave alive.

As soon as Paul mentions the resurrection of the dead, the philosophers in the Areopagus begin to laugh and poke fun. But some believe and want to hear more.

As for Paul himself, he’s not interested in debating for the sake of debating (which sets a very good example for those of us who hang out on Facebook).  For Paul, once he’s delivered the message, his job is done, and he’s ready to move on.  Next stop: Corinth!

But back to our love story.  We’ve been talking about an ‘unknown’ God: a God who knew us and loved us before we knew God.  Can you imagine what that’s like for God – to love us, and for us to not even know it?

You don’t see that kind of love story in movies very often. But I did see a story like it once in an old TV show.  It was a story about two soldiers – a man and a woman, Marcus and Susan. They cared about each other as comrades: they teased each other, they had each others’ backs, but their duties kept them apart most of the time, so they were friends and nothing more.  But Marcus loved Susan… and for her sake and the sake of her career he never let on.

One day in the heat of battle there was an explosion and Susan was mortally wounded. She didn’t die right away, so Marcus found her and carried her back to the medics, but there was nothing could be done.

Except this particular story takes place in the future, and in the future there’s a machine used for healing by which a healthy person can transfer health into the body of an injured person in order to heal them.  So for example, if a child scrapes their knee a parent can hook up the machine to themselves and to their child and pour healing from their own body into the child’s body.  Or if the child breaks a bone, which is a greater injury, it would require more energy from the parent, but it could still be healed.  But if the wound was fatal… using the machine would be fatal.

And for that reason the machine was made illegal. But Marcus finds one, and hooks it up, and pours his life into Susan. And just as she’s coming around, with his last breath, Marcus whispers ‘I love you’.

That’s the kind of love God has for us: a love that gives all it can give, before we even knew it was there.

The good news is that Jesus lives.

Which brings us back to the Gospel of John, where Jesus says: “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; and because I live, you also will live.”  Jesus also says “If you love me, keep my commandments” – and the first and greatest commandment is love: love of God, and love of neighbor.

So the first thing we can do with all of this is to know God’s love.  Don’t let God’s love go unknown. Read about God’s love, meditate on it, immerse ourselves in it, until our souls are convinced, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of how very much we are loved.

And second, tell others about the unknown God (who is now known) and about the unknown love that’s waiting for them.

The old hymn I quoted earlier ends with these words:

“Here might I stay and sing
of him my soul adores:
never was love, dear King,
never was grief like yours.
This is my friend in whose sweet praise,
I gladly would spend all my days.”  AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) Pittsburgh, 5/21/17


[collection of video clips summarizing the story from which the illustration was taken:]

Acts 17:22-31  22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.  23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands,  25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.  26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live,  27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us.  28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.  30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

John 14:15-21  15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  17 This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.  19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  20 On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.  21 They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

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This sermon was given at Church of the Atonement, Carnegie
8AM service on 8-1-10.

For years I’ve been commenting to friends that I wish someone would preach a sermon about greed.  I don’t know about you, but in all my years in church I don’t think I have ever heard a sermon about greed.  I have heard lots of sermons about stewardship, and I have heard sermons warning about the dangers of wealth, but I have never heard a sermon preached on greed, and I have been complaining about that for some time.

So after accepting the pastor’s invitation to preach, I looked at the scripture readings for today and I got the feeling maybe God was telling me to put my money where my mouth is (so to speak).  Because every single one of our scripture readings for the day –  even the one we didn’t read – deal with how chasing after money and things effects our relationships.

The ironic thing is, where it comes to this congregation I feel like I’m preaching to the choir.  I wanted to preach a message on greed to people who feel trapped by money, who feel like they’ve been running on the hamster wheel long enough and want to get off.   I’ve discovered that in life some people learn how to master money, while other people become slaves to it.  And I don’t know for sure but my gut feeling is that most of you have mastered money fairly well.  What I mean by that is, you use it rather than it using you.

So I’d like to ask you to do something a little different today: as you listen, see if you can find a nugget or two to share with people – family, friends, co-workers, whoever.  Help me spread the word.  Because I think greed is the #1 battlefield for peoples’ souls.  Here in America, we are one of the largest and wealthiest nations in the history of the world.  But even in poorer countries, and in other times, I think greed has been the #1 battlefield for peoples’ souls.  I think that’s why Jesus talked about money so much.

Think for a minute about the evils of this world and how many are caused by greed.  Addictions?  Addictions are a form of illness, but it’s the greedy who keep the addicts supplied.  In the case of drug lords they subjugate entire populations of nations in order to keep up the supply.  Pornography, prostitution, and other abuses of the human body?  These things wouldn’t happen if there wasn’t big money to be made.  Slavery?  Or “human trafficking” as it’s called – happening in parts of Africa and Asia today – greed is at the root of it.  Corporate executives raiding employee pension plans. Credit card companies who not only charge interest but charge interest on the interest, enslaving people in years of debt.  Nations doing outrageous things to each other in their mad rush for oil.  And even in small communities like Carnegie much of the evil we see happening can be traced to greed.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.  What amazes me is that nobody ever points to greed as being the problem.  Nobody in the public eye ever stands up and says “Don’t you know that people are worth more than money?  Don’t you respect your own souls enough not to sell them, doing these things?”  Greed is the proverbial elephant standing in the middle of the living room that everyone ignores and talks around.

Thank God Jesus doesn’t ignore it.  In our Gospel reading for today He takes it on.  He says to the crowd – “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  And He gives His famous example of the foolish rich man who says to himself “I have everything I need: eat, drink, and be merry.”  And God answers, “this very night your life is required of you.”

I think a common mistake here is to think Jesus is preaching against wealth.  Jesus does warn about the dangers of wealth in other places.  But as St. Paul says, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”.  It’s not being rich per se that gets a person into trouble – it’s loving money.  If being rich was the issue, we’d have a hard time finding one person in America who could be saved, because even the poorest of us is wealthy by most standards.  And Jesus’ disciples questioned Him on this very point.  In Matt. 19:25 they ask Him, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus answers, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

Which brings us to the Psalm appointed for today.  Today’s Psalm was written by the “Sons of Korah”.  These guys were Levites, warriors, and musicians (interesting combination!)  They were familiar with wealth and with life and death situations.  Here’s what they have to say in Psalm 49:

v. 1 – Hear this all peoples!
v. 3 – I will set forth my riddle upon the harp…
v. 4 – Why should I be afraid in evil days,
when the wickedness of those at my heels surround me,
v.5 – The wickedness of those who put their trust in goods…

And they give two answers to their riddle:

Answer #1 – They know that:

v. 6 We can never ransom ourselves,
v.7  For the ransom of our life is so great
that we should never have enough to pay it.

And… Answer #2 – They know that:

v. 15  God will ransom my life
He will snatch me from the grasp of death.

The bottom line for the sons of Korah is trust: the wicked trust in wealth, but they trust in God.   And the Sons of Korah know that they’re dealing with a life-and-death issue.  Security is found in God, not in things.

Greed is not just a little sin.  It is not just a sin we commit within ourselves.  It is a sin that has repercussions in the lives of others, often for generations.  But at its heart, greed is what happens when people fail to trust God to provide.  Is it any wonder that, as the influence of Christianity in Western nations is declining, the influence of greed in those nations is growing?

Greed is a lack of trust and a lack of faith.  It’s a lack of trust in the One who is trustworthy, a lack of faith in the One who is faithful.  Greed is buying into a lie.  Because with God (not money) all things are possible.

For people who are not yet convinced of this, the words of Ecclesiastes might provide a starting point for conversation.  These words come from King Solomon, David’s son, probably the richest and wisest king in ancient Israel.  Solomon writes:

“I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and all is vanity and a chasing after wind.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

As anyone who has ever tried to build a career knows, if we are honest with ourselves, at some point we begin to question why we do what we do.  What difference will it make if I get all these reports done?  What difference will it make if I ever finish this sculpture?  What difference will it make if I get these books balanced?  And yes, we know it matters in a small way, but only like a cog in a machine.  That was the point of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and of the movie The Matrix.  We’re just another brick in the wall.  We’re just one more cipher in the program.  We’re just chasing after the wind.

Solomon was not the kind of guy who would have a bumper sticker on his chariot reading “He who dies with the most toys wins”.  His bumper sticker wouldn’t even read “He who dies with the most toys still dies” – although that’s getting closer to the point.  I think Solomon’s bumper sticker might have said “He who dies with the most toys has to leave them to somebody who didn’t work for them.”  That’s basically what he says in v. 21-22.  He says: “one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it.  This also is vanity and a great evil.” And Solomon was proved right by his own son, who squandered his father’s wealth, oppressed the people, and ended up losing 5/6 of the kingdom of Israel in a revolt.

Solomon’s thoughts are dark, and Ecclesiastes can be difficult to read; but it has also been a comfort to millions who have seen and experienced the truth of it.  We are not alone in our observations.  The world really has gone money-mad.

So after all of Solomon’s observations of life, where does he end up?  In Eccles. 12:13 he writes:

“Here is the conclusion of the matter:  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”

I don’t know about you, but for me reading this was a bit of a letdown, at least at first.  But without knowing it, Solomon has just pointed us back to the New Testament, where Jesus is saying pretty much the same thing.  At the end of his teaching on greed, Jesus says: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” This statement begs the question: what does it mean to be rich toward God?

St. Paul gives us the answer in today’s reading from Colossians.  He says in Colossians 3:12-14:

“…as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience… forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love…”

It’s impossible for a greedy person, someone who is in love with money, to do these things… because greed only thinks of itself.  As God’s people, we are loved (so we have received) and therefore we love (so we give).  To be rich in the Kingdom is to be rich in love, to practice compassion… and the truth of Jesus’ words becomes crystal clear: it is indeed impossible to serve both God and mammon.  That’s not a law or a restriction, it’s the nature of reality as God designed it.

So to sum it all up from our readings today…

  • Jesus warns us to be on our guard against all kinds of greed.
  • The Sons of Korah in the Psalms challenge us to choose who or what we’re going to trust.  They tell us, from experience: Trust God, not wealth.
  • King Solomon says that all of life is just chasing after wind.  He says: Fear God and keep His commandments.
  • And Jesus and St. Paul advise us to be rich in God’s eyes, reminding us that God’s commandments are summed up in “Love God and love your neighbor”.

Like I said, I feel like I’m preaching to the choir.  But I think every now and then it can be encouraging to the choir to be assured that they’re on the right track.  And if you’ve heard anything worthwhile, then share it.  Warn people about greed, and spread the word that God doesn’t measure people by what they have but will give them everything they need if they will trust Him.  AMEN.

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Today Trinity School held a day of prayer and fasting for the persecuted church worldwide in response to the increasing number and severity of incidents of violence against Christians around the world.  Just as the day was coming to a close the following message was received on campus email.  I copy it here in its entirety as an example of the kind of reports that are increasing in number.  This particular report comes from Egypt, a nation close to the hearts of the staff and student body.

Please join us in praying for peace and an end to religious prejudice and violence both in Egypt and throughout the Middle East.


Posted message begins here:

“On the day we are praying for the persecuted church this message was sent to me from [the] Executive Director of the Friends of the Diocese of Egypt.”

Egyptian Muslim Mob Attacks Thousands of Coptic Christians in Egypt

WASHINGTON, Nov. 24 /Christian Newswire/ — As of Saturday, November 21,
2009 the Egyptian town of Farshoot, located 300 miles south of Cairo, and
the neighboring villages of Kom Ahmar, Shakiki and Ezbet Waziri, have been
the scenes of massive Muslim mob attacks against Coptic Christian
inhabitants. The mob looted, vandalized and burnt Coptic properties
estimated for six million Egyptian pounds (over one million dollars), while
Copts are still hiding indoors fearing for their lives. There are reports
that many Copts were attacked and injured. According to many eye witnesses,
the mob made wooden crosses and burnt them in the streets while shouting
“Allah Akbar.”

Victims and eye witnesses said that nearly 3000 angry Muslims have been
damaging and looting at least 50 shops all owned by Christians, including
jewelry stores and pharmacies, over a claim that a 20 year old Christian
man, now in custody, had a relationship with a 12 year old Muslim girl.
Coptic priest Rev. Benjamin Noshi was attacked and is now hospitalized as a
result of a fracture in his skull. His car was damaged by the Muslim mob. By
the evening most Coptic businesses were looted and burnt and many Coptic
Christian families were thrown out of their homes by other Muslim residents.

Farshout’s Bishop, Kirollos, said the attacks were definitely preplanned and
suggested that the principal of an Islamic Institute in Farshoot motivated
his students to attack the Christians. He also pointed out to the shameful
role of the security forces, which disappeared without giving proper
justifications or making any arrests, despite several demands by the victims
to put an end to the organized attacks against the Copts.

In the early hours of Monday, November 23, 2009 three additional
Christian-owned businesses were looted and burnt in the village of “Abu
Shousha” located 15 miles away of Farshout. New attacks were taking place
Monday night in Al-Arky village seven miles away.

It has become clear that the organized violence is spreading out to more
villages only to target the Christian lives and businesses while the Police
continue to watch. The last 90 days witnessed at least seven similar attacks
on Christian villages, where at least five Copts were killed, many Coptic
girls and women were abducted and forced to embrace Islam with the
assistance of the Egyptian authorities.

Coptic American Friendship Association (CAFA) pleads to the American and
International Rights Organizations to demand the Egyptian government to take
immediate measures to protect the Christian lives and properties of the
persecuted Copts in Farshout, Egypt (Copts are about 18 million Christians –
The largest Christian minority in the Middle East).

For more information, please contact CAFA at Coptic.American@yahoo.com or
Call: 703.337.5217

Ihab Aziz
Executive Director
Coptic American Friendship Association (CAFA)

Coptic American Friendship Association (CAFA) is a non-for-profit 501(c) (3)
organization based in the greater Washington, DC area since 1996. CAFA
advocates on behalf of the persecuted Christians in Egypt and the Middle

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Why is there suffering in the world?  If God is really a good God, why does He allow so much pain in people’s lives?  In his book The Problem of Pain C.S. Lewis gives intellectual answer to those who pose such questions from an intellectual standpoint.  Yet he is the first to admit that a person going through suffering and pain is not looking for an intellectual answer… which brings us to our Quote of the Week:

“…when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than knowledge, a little human sympathy more than courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.” (p. xii)

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Sounds like a question that would have an easy answer, but it’s more involved than it looks!  There’s a lot of history behind this list.  So sit back, pour yourself a second cup of coffee, and enjoy… (the article, that is, not the sins!)

First it should be mentioned that the Bible itself says nothing about ‘seven deadly sins’ or ‘deadly sins’ in general.  In Scripture all sins, even the smallest, are deadly and the antidote is faith in Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

Having said that, what is a “deadly sin” and where did the idea come from?  Sometime back in the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church made a differentiation between “Cardinal Sins” (sins that could cost a person his or her soul) and “Venial Sins” (which weren’t quite as serious).  The idea was that the lesser sins could be taken care of through any of the sacraments but the greater sins required the sacrament of Confession and acts of contrition.  It should be understood that the Catholic Church considers participation in any of the sacraments to include repentance on the worshiper’s part and forgiveness on God’s part; the physical sacraments in and of themselves do not ‘magically’ remove sins.

Even before the Middle Ages different theologians had made various lists of the worst sins.  The earliest recorded “greatest sins” list, written around the third century, contained eight:  gluttony, lust, greed, sorrow, wrath, despair, vainglory, and pride.  Around 590AD the list was narrowed down to seven: extravagance, gluttony, greed, discouragement, wrath, envy, and pride.  In modern times, the current list recognized by the Roman Catholic Church is: pride, avarice, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony, and sloth/acedia.  In addition a list of the top seven virtues has been created to help identify what one should strive for: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

The actual meanings of some of these words have changed over time.  “Charity” (for example) has little to do with giving money and would be expressed in modern language as “brotherly love”.  With this in mind, here’s a closer look at the most modern list of the Seven Deadly Sins:

Pride – “Excessive love of one’s own excellence” is the opening definition given in The Catholic Encyclopedia — which continues, “that frame of mind in which a person, through the love of his own worth, aims to withdraw himself from subjection to God.”  Pride is considered by many to be the original sin and the most deadly of the seven, the sin from which all other sins grow.  It includes the desire to be more important, more attractive, or better than others, and often includes an inability to acknowledge the good in others.  Vainglory (in the earliest list) is considered a form of pride, and includes boasting, vanity, presumption, excessive ambition, and narcissism.

Pride has its roots in contempt of God.  Scripture names Pride as the sin for which Lucifer was thrown out of heaven: the desire to compete with or to be equal to God.  ([Lucifer said] “I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.” (Isaiah 14:14))  Jesus, by contrast, “in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” (Phil. 2:5-7)

Avarice or Greed – From the Latin avarus, “to crave”, Avarice is often listed as “Greed” in the top-seven list.  The definition of avarice includes the sins one commits in planning to satisfy one’s craving for money.  Greed is related to Envy and Gluttony in that all three are sins of excess.  Greed, however, usually relates directly to wealth, and is the excessive accumulation of  (or desire for) money.  The foundational sin behind all three sins is making things of this earth — temporal things, destined to pass away — more important than God, or making them into things worth living for.  Related to Greed are the sins of bribery, hoarding, and disloyalty.

Envy – Sometimes called Jealousy, Envy is related to Greed but differs in two respects: one, greed is usually associated with material goods, where envy is not necessarily so; and two, in envy, a person resents another person who has something they don’t.  The end result of envy is that a person wishes to take away from another what they themselves wish they had.  Thomas Aquinas defined envy as “sorrow at another’s well-being“.  Envy opposes Love because it fails to rejoice in the good of others.  Growing out of envy are the sins of hatred, idolatry, and gossip.

Wrath – Wrath goes beyond just being ticked off about something.  It is a deep, abiding rage: hatred and anger spinning out of control, hatred of someone or something that has done nothing to deserve one’s wrath.   Wrath is irrational: it can be seen in denial, impatience, a desire for revenge, or a desire to do evil to another.  Wrath is considered to be the root cause of the sins of murder, assault, and in some cases genocide.  Wrath can also be turned inward into self-destructive behaviors such as self-mutilation and suicide.  Wrath is not necessarily a selfish sin, and often works against self-interest; it is at its root a rejection of the good God has created in others and/or in oneself.

Lust – In the original Latin list the word was luxuria, from which we get the word “luxury”.  Luxuria included immoral sexual thoughts and acts, but the original meaning was as much the “the lust of the eyes” as “the lust of the flesh”.  In some lists this sin was called “extravagance“, and I prefer this translation because it gives insight into the nature of the sin: to be excessive in enjoying good things; to mis-use, abuse, or take for granted the gifts one has been given.  In the modern sense, however, lust refers strictly to sexual sin, and is defined as an inordinate craving for carnal pleasure.  The sinful aspect of lust is not in wanting sex but in either the excess of or the inappropriate satisfaction of desire.  Lust is often one of the foundational sins for crimes such as adultery, incest, criminal assault, rape, and abduction.

Gluttony – From the Latin gluttire meaning “to swallow”, gluttony in modern speech deals with eating or drinking too much.  However the original meaning implies something deeper: consuming so much one harms one’s health, or becoming obsessed with consuming, or consuming to the point that it interferes with one’s ability to carry out one’s duties.  Originally Gluttony meant over-indulgence or over-consumption of anything; wastefulness.  Gluttony is also a sin because it takes away from the needs of the poor being met.  The Catholic Encyclopedia defines gluttony as taking more than you need.  Some church teachers expand the definition (and I think rightly so) to include the thoughts a person has about their particular over-indulgences: anticipation, obsession with specific delicacies, spending too much money on exotic food and drink, etc.

Sloth/Acedia – “Acedia” is an ancient Latin/Greek word meaning “neglect” and refers to neglectfulness of one’s self or one’s duties.  Apathy is the nearest translation we have in modern speech — the attitude that “doing the right thing is too much work”.  Acedia might include  listlessness, uneasiness of mind, restlessness, or instability.  Its root is a lack of love, or a lack of passion — of all the seven deadly sins it is the only one that has its roots in emptiness, or an absence of something.  In modern speech, Sloth is often equated with laziness, and this is certainly part of the definition; but in adding acedia the meaning expands to include states of mind that produce frenetic activity without any sense of purpose; directionlessness.  Related to this is the sin of Despair, a deep dissatisfaction or discontent, and Sorrow. Both of these were in the earliest top-seven list.  (Sorrow goes beyond garden-variety mourning; its definition is a despondency often without discernible cause.)  Sloth violates the First Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your strength.” (Mark 12:30)  The opposite of Sloth is Charity (Love).

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.


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Because we’ve heard it all before.  Because we’re sick of the pretenses.  Because we’re more than just brains.  Because we’d like to see faith lived and not just talked about.   All this and more…

…but iMonk says it much better than I could.  This article is a must-read:
“Just Beyond the 100th Time: What Many Of Us Are Looking For”


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Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a powerful juxtaposition of Grace and Law represented in the lives of two men.

Valjean represents a life lived by Grace: an ex-convict and parole breaker longing to be innocent, angry at a world where he can never get a fair shake.  He is shown kindness and mercy by a stranger who has “bought his soul for God”.  The circumstances in which this happens confront Valjean with his sin, and he chooses to die to his old self and begin a new life of faith.  From that point on he spends his life and fortune in helping the injured, the poor, the orphaned, the downtrodden of the world.

Javert represents a life lived by the Law: he is an officer of the law, and when Valjean breaks parole Javert makes it his life’s work to hunt down and capture a man he sees as a law-breaker and a thief.  He takes no notice of Valjean’s change of heart or his mercy and generosity to others.  Javert is right, but his righteousness is cold and hard and could never redeem anyone; in fact he’s not interested in redemption, he’s interested only in justice.  In their final confrontation Valjean says to him: “there’s nothing that I blame you for; you’ve done your duty, nothing more.”

In the musical version of Les Miserables, each man sings a song at THE pivotal point in his life.  Valjean’s song starts with the words “What have I done?” after which he begins a new life; Javert’s starts with  “Who is this man?” and ends in his suicide.

The fresh insight is this:  both songs are sung to the same music.  They are two verses of the same song… or more accurately, the two possible responses to Grace upon being confronted with one’s own sin.  Valjean responds with confession and faith; Javert also confesses but cannot bring himself to bend the Law and chooses suicide rather than a life in which there is something greater than the Law.

It’s the choice all of us need to make, sooner or later.  As Javert sings, “It’s either Valjean or Javert“.  It’s either Grace or Law.  The Law kills, but Grace redeems.  It’s either life or death.  God says: “come, let us reason together“.  Which would a reasonable person choose?

Here are the two songs side by side (WordPress permitting!).  Note the richness of the parallels and how often the two men sing the same or similar words, yet end in totally opposite places.


What have I done?
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night,
Become a dog on the run
And have I fallen so far,
And is the hour so late
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate,
The cries in the dark that nobody hears,
Here where I stand at the turning of the years?

If there’s another way to go
I missed it twenty long years ago
My life was a war that could never be won
They gave me a number and
murdered Valjean
When they chained me and left me for dead
Just for stealing a mouthful of bread

Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me

Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!

One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!


Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past and wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!
Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life.
He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live… but live in hell.

And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on….

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Currently attending, and writing to you from, the Ancient Wisdom – Anglican Futures Conference at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.  The conference continues all day today, tomorrow, and Saturday morning June 4-6.

If you’d like to follow along, join the Twitter Group at


This morning’s presenters:

  • Jason Clark, Emergent-U.K. and Vineyard Church pastor, Sutton, England
  • Holly Rankin Zaher, Director of Student Discipleship, St. George’s Episcopal Church, Nashville, TN
  • David Neff, Editor-in-Chief and VP, Christianity Today Media Group, Carol Stream, IL

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