Melville Scott, The Harmony of the Collects, Epistles, and Gospels, Second Edition, 1903. Public Domain.
Temptations of the Flesh
From the temptations of the evil one we pass to a solemn warning against the sins of the flesh. As not infrequently, the keynote of the day is struck most clearly in the Epistle.
THE EPISTLE – I Thessalonians 4:1-8
This falls naturally into the following divisions:–
A. The Importance of this Subject.
The Apostle’s loving earnestness is seen in the opening words–he beseeches, he exhorts as speaking in the Name and by the authority of the Lord Jesus. He reminds his readers how distinct and strong had been his teaching, and that they must never rest in the pursuit of holiness, but “abound more and more.” The lesson once taught must never be put aside as completely learned.
Such primary instructions on plain matters of faith and duty was part of the Gospel message. If such definite instruction is not always found in the New Testament, it must never be forgotten that it is always pre-supposed. The high doctrine of the Epistles was for those who had received a solid foundation of elementary truth, given in the form of definite commandments.
B. Sensual Sins are Sins against Ourselves.
The will of God for each of us is that we should attain to holiness: He will, therefore, give us the help we need to carry out His commands. Every individual Christian was entrusted by God with his or her body as a “vessel” or instrument to be used for the Giver, and every individual must, therefore, learn how to “possess” or acquire mastery over that instrument, to keep it clean, to regard it with honour, and not debase it as Gentiles might who had never learned the intention of their Creator. To sin against our bodies is to sin against ourselves.
C. Sensual Sins are Sins against Our Brethren.
We must read “in the matter,” i.e., of purity, in place of “in any matter.” S. Paul is not exhorting against dishonesty, but showing that impurity is dishonesty, as a fraud on family life, a robbery of the peace and life of homes, and especially of Christian homes. Our Lord and Master will avenge such dishonour done to the life of the family and of the Church. Sensual sins–all the sins of the flesh, in thought, word, and deed–are the worst form of selfishness. Hence our Divine Lord takes such earthly sins into His own hands.
D. Sensual Sins are Sins against God.
The call of God given in our baptism was a call into a state of holiness. This call was no empty form, but was accompanied by the power to obey through the perpetual assistance of the Holy Spirit. Hence “he that rejecteth [for this is the face of ‘despiseth’] rejecteth not man, but God.” He is false to the position of grace and salvation in which God has placed him. He may not plead that sins of the flesh are natural, for as baptized he is not in a state of nature, but of grace. The fact that we have such temptations is no sign that we have not received grace but if we fall it is a sign that we have not made use of the grace given. The fault is not in God’s grace, but in man’s rejection; not in baptism, but in the baptized who have neglected the pledged assistance of grace. We must not frustrate the purpose of God, which is our sanctification by grace, and which is no mere willingness, but a thing of strength; it is a will, to carry out which we have the help of the Holy Spirit.
THE GOSPEL – S. Matthew 15:21-28
From this miracle we learn to look to our Lord for deliverance from sins of the flesh, and how to seek His help by earnest prayer.
A. An Unclean Spirit.
We learn from S. Mark vii. 25 that the girl was possessed by “an unclean spirit,” and both accounts follow immediately after our Saviour’s teaching on the things which proceed out of the heart and defile a man. The miracle is, therefore, most appropriately chosen for the present Sunday. Our condition of covenant grace and favour is contrasted with that of the woman of Sidon, who was outside the Covenant, and yet by earnestness won an interest in Christ, which is ours before we ask. Our Lord, Who loved “the dogs,” will not neglect His sheep.
B. The Unclean Spirit Cast Out.
“This kind goeth not out but by prayer,” and we are to learn from the woman of Canaan the nature of true prayer. True prayer must show sincerity of faith, perseverance and determination, reverence and humility; it will in due time be rewarded with victory.
The woman of Canaan had faith not only in the power but also in the love of our Lord, a faith which enabled her to see through His continued silence, to be patient under His rebuff, and to turn a seeming insult into a prevailing argument in behalf of her child. Let our prayers be thus earnest, taking no denial, regarding no obstacle, humbly confident that in spite of all appearances they shall find an answer, and then it shall again be said, “Be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” Christ waits to be conquered before He will conquer the spirit of evil. Let no Christian, therefore, be discouraged as to his sinful tendencies, but pray and faint not till prayer is turned to praise.
A prayer for those tempted in spirit through the lusts of the flesh.
A. Our Plea.
Our very weakness and defencelessness is our plea. We have “no power of ourselves to help ourselves,” and He Who knoweth whereof we are made sees, as we cannot see, the justice of our plea. Our argument rests on grounds even stronger than we know, but God knows them.
B. Our Petition.
We pray for the defence of Divine providence for our bodies, and for the defence of Divine grace for our souls. We are outwardly and inwardly weak, and the weakness of the spirit is intensified by the weakness of the flesh. We need continual “keeping,” for we know not what temptation each day and hour may produce.
C. Its Desired Consequence.
A body safe from all adversities, and a soul safe from the evil thoughts which assault and hurt it through its connection with the body. The ancient form of this collect is even more appropriate–“we may be cleansed from all evil thoughts.”
We who thus pray against evil thoughts must learn not to harbour them. We who are gunpowder must avoid sparks.