July 27, 2014 Sixth Sunday After Trinity
The Garden of Earthly Delights
On the Text: The Propers for the Day, especially Romans 6:3-11
By the Rev. Dr. Randolph Constantine
There was a priest in the Church of England named Melville Scott, who was the Vicar of Castlechurch in Stafford. He wrote a book back in 1903 titled The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels in which he showed that the Collect and the Epistle and Gospel lessons for each Sunday and for each of the Feast days had themes that belonged to each Sunday and Feast and that there were overarching themes for each Season. He saw that the overarching theme for the first five Sundays after Trinity is Love. Today, that overarching theme changes so that for the Sixth through the Tenth Sundays after Trinity the overarching theme is and will be Duty, though the Propers for today show us a transition with emphasis on both Love and Duty.
Our Gospel lesson for this morning gives us one of Jesus’ many “hard” sayings, to the effect that God does not want to receive our gifts to Him unless we are in a right relationship with our brothers and sisters. What the Rev. Scott saw in it is our duty to both God and Man, that it is our duty to have a right love for God and our fellow man so we might be worthy of the rewards spoken of in the Collect and that imposes on us certain duties. This Gospel lesson is certainly worthy of a sermon all by itself, as is any one of the Propers for Today: the Collect, the Psalm, the OT lesson, or the Epistle lesson. However, today, I want to look at the Epistle lesson. This Epistle lesson is one of those that is already pretty long, but it took St. Paul almost all of Chapter 5 in his Epistle to the Romans to set up what he wanted to say in Chapter 6. Let me give you a digest of Chapter 5 starting at verse 12.
St. Paul begins by looking at two consequences of Adam’s sin: first that because of Adam’s sin, the nature of his descendants (that’s all of us) is also corrupted so that they (we) are prone to sin; and secondly, that because of sin, death came into the world and has been universal for all, even before the Law was given to Moses. Paul is always concerned about the Law and how the Judaizers wanted all the Gentile converts to be subject to the ceremonial Laws that pertained only to the Jews; but he points to the great contrast between Adam and Jesus. So he says, “For if many died through one man's (Adam’s) trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. The free gift is, of course, Jesus’ self-sacrifice of Himself on the Cross for the sins of all mankind, so Paul points out an even greater contrast: “the free gift is not like the result of that one man's sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” By justification, he means that through faith in Jesus Christ, God declares the believer not to be guilty of his sins; so the free gift is also the gift of righteousness through faith; and this came to all mankind through that one act of Jesus.
In the last two verses of Chapter 5, St. Paul goes off on a tangent that continues into Chapter 6. He says this: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (ESV) Romans 6:1-2 “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
St. Paul said much of what he said in Ch. 5 and the first two verses of Chapter 6 so he could lead up to talking about how Christians were free from many, but not all, of the strictures of the Law (the 10 Commandments are not gone); but that that did not mean we are free from sin. He needed to ask, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” so he could lead into our lesson, which I’ll reread from the ESV.
Romans 6:3-11 “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died, he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Now we look at the world today. The events of recent weeks and months brought to mind an old painting that is a favorite of mine. What we can see in these events, which I shall catalog shortly, is how the secular world is pushing strongly against the Christian religion and what God, speaking through Jesus Christ and His Apostles, has to say about certain things in the Bible. I am not talking about pressures from Islam or from atheists. I am talking about things that come from within various churches that call themselves Christian. The worst part of this problem is that many of the various denominations of Christ’s Church are not just yielding to the pressure of these secular forces, but that they are embracing them.
Here are a few examples of what I mean. Same-sex marriage has been embraced not only by the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church, it has also been accepted by at least one branch of the Presbyterian Church and by the Methodist Church in America. Only resistance by the Methodists of other countries has kept the entire denomination from accepting it. The Episcopal church has accepted abortion as OK, and the Church of England is wavering on that. However, some bishops of the Church of England have in recent weeks – as recently as two weeks ago – given their endorsement to physician-assisted suicide. There is much pressure from within the clergy of the Church of England to accept same-sex marriage, but the Archbishop of Canterbury is standing somewhat firm against that. We wonder how long that will last.
What drives all this? I see it as a seeking after earthly pleasures. Sex as recreation, abortion as a convenience, having the taxpayers pay for contraception and abortions to aid in one’s licentiousness, drunkenness, legalizing marijuana, parties, building and having the perfect body, a great tan, playing and watching sports. You name it. Whatever is done to excess, for personal pleasure, that puts God aside, shoves Him off, is really a sin. But then when anyone from a church says something is a sin, the secularists hustle off to get a law passed that says that human desire trumps God’s Law.
It is these things that reminded me of that old painting. It is called the Garden of Earthly Delights. It was painted by the Dutch painter, Hieronymus Bosch, sometime around 1505 and is now in the Prado in Madrid, Spain. No, I have never been there to see it. I have seen it only in books and know that they cannot give any idea of what it must be like to stand in front of it because it is very large and detailed. It also is not just one painting; it is three paintings side by side in what is called a triptych. Triptychs were often done in Bosch’s day to go on the wall behind the altar in large churches and cathedrals.
Hieronymous Bosch was born in Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands sometime around 1450 and died there in 1516, a year before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. Bosch was very religious, and most of his paintings have religious themes in keeping with the Roman Catholicism of the late Medieval period. He is also described as having been a stern and moralistic fellow. You might not think that when you look closely at some of the details of his paintings because they are somewhat graphic in a slightly lewd fashion.
The painting, called The Garden of Earthly Delights, is painted on three panels of wood and gets its name from the middle panel. The middle panel is a fraction taller than 7 feet, 1 inch, and is a bit more than 6 feet 4 inches wide. The two side panels, which are fastened onto the middle panel with hinges, are the same height and half the width so that they can be closed over the big middle panel. Bosch put a fourth painting on it by putting one on the outside of the side panels when they were closed over the middle panel. That painting is “The Creation of the World.”
When the side panels are opened, it is almost 13 feet wide, and the three paintings that are revealed are, from left to right: “The Creation of Eve,” “The Garden of Earthly Delights” and then, “Hell.” Bosch’s pictures are often fanciful, hyper-realistic or surrealistic, as if they were paintings of dreams or of visions. They are also often disturbing.
The panel depicting the Creation of Eve shows a landscape of fanciful forms, strange animals and odd trees. There is a fountain in the middle of the Garden, and there is God, who looks like Jesus, standing between a naked Adam and Eve. It is a little strange for that time, but it’s not anything that would have gotten him burned at the stake.
The middle panel is the Garden of Earthly Delights. The only way I can describe it is that it looks like someone took a photograph from a tall building looking down at a giant orgy at a state fair. There are people everywhere, all naked, engaging in all sorts of odd behavior, with a few instances that might be called pornographic.
These first two panels are very colorful and full of light.
However, the third panel, his picture of Hell, is very different; it is dark and foreboding, with just a few bits of color here and there to provide enough light to illustrate the sufferings of the damned. Those sufferings might have been inspired by Dante’s Inferno. There is fire, a burning city and very little light; and it is certainly not pretty or attractive. Looking at his picture of Hell makes you wonder if Bosch was sane. But then, perhaps he was more sane than we can guess.
The connection I made from the events of apostasy that I listed to Bosch’s painting is made through the Collect for today. In this Collect, we acknowledge God as having prepared such good things for us that they surpass our understanding; and then we ask that He pour into our hearts such love for Him, that we, loving Him above all things, might obtain His promises, which exceed anything that we in this life could possibly desire. Let’s look at this in the light of what St. Paul says in the Epistle lesson.
In the Epistle, St. Paul repeats the Easter message adding that through Baptism we have become members of the Body of Christ, which is more commonly known as the Church; and that through Jesus’ victory over death and sin, we have inherited that same victory over both death and sin -- not that we may never sin, nor that our earthly bodies will not die; but that through Christ’s death and resurrection, we too shall rise again to eternal life with Him. Just as Jesus said in St. John’s Gospel in 11:25: "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.”
The problem with those churches which have turned from God seems to be that they care more about what society says about them than what Jesus says; so they ignore what St. Paul tells us a little later in his Epistle to the Romans at Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” They have been duped by society, and by the world, the flesh and the devil.
But as Jesus tells us in the Gospel lesson today, we can be murderers in our hearts without shedding a drop of blood. We know that we are all sinners, but that through faith and repentance, anyone can become a child of God. We should not shun sinners as individuals. Rather, we should give them Christ’s message of repentance and salvation. But what we must not do is to affirm anyone in their sin and say that what they do is holy. That is the great sin of those errant churches.
The way Bosch’s triptych speaks to me about all this is that when we look at it we see that God is there in the form of a man, Jesus, as He had to be at the Creation of Eve (for He created all things); but God is nowhere evident in the Garden of Earthly Delights, nor is He there in Hell. What the painting shows us is that the path from the creation of Eve through the Garden of Earthly delights, where there is no picture of Christ or God, does not lead to salvation; it leads to Hell. All these churches that are happily running about, affirming sin as good, are looking for Heaven to be like the Garden of Earthly Delights, … where God is not found.
God began with Abraham to make Himself a people, but only a remnant of the many descendants of Abraham remained faithful, and even some of them turned away from Jesus. But as Jesus told the Pharisees after the parable of the tenants who killed the Master’s son in Matthew 21:42-43: "Have you never read in the Scriptures: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.”
That people is now those who are called Christians, the ones who believe what He said, that He is the only way to salvation, the people who do not reject His teachings because they want to conform to the world. They, we, are not perfect. We pray, we read the Holy Scripture, we worship; and each day we get a little closer and become a little more holy. The path is narrow, and the way is steep; but the reward is not in the Garden of Earthly Delights. It is, as the Collect says, beyond our comprehension.