Thursday, 24 January 2013

St. Francis de Sales 1567—1622

In Paul's Letter to the Ephesians Chapter 4 he is talking about the purpose of the different ministries in the body of Christ, the Church. In verse 13 he tells us that the ultimate aim of them is to help every Christian grow "to mature manhood” or full maturity—which for the Christian means “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ”. (RSV)

Of course this isn't something required of us in isolation from what God in Christ has already accomplished for us on the cross. As Paul reminds us in Chapter 2 Christians are Christians because through faith they have become the recipients of God's wonderful love and grace: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive with Christ (by grace you have been saved). Ephesians 2:4-5 RSV)

So Chapter 4 comes after, not before, we have experienced his love and grace and as a response to the revelation of that love and grace seen in Jesus and experienced through the Spirit working in our hearts. What follows in Ephesians 4 then is an outworking of that in a longing to be more and more like Jesus.

All this is seen in the life of one of the great Christians from the late 16th, early 17th Century Francis de Sales. He was born as one of six children and destined by his father to become a lawyer like him. He was sent to the best schools and sent to university. But when he was 17 he experienced a spiritual crisis. He had been attending a theological discussion about predestination and became convinced that he was not one of the elect and therefore damned to hell. For a long time he struggled with this until visiting a local church to pray he came to an understanding that whatever God had in store for him was good, because God is love.

This understanding of the love of God not only dispelled his doubts, but also influenced the rest of his life and teachings. He joined the priesthood, went on to become a bishop and was known for his wise counsel and his spiritual direction to Christians everywhere. He wrote a wonderful spiritual classic called “An Introduction to the Devout Life” which is still in print today. One of his biographers wrote of him:

His gentle character was a great asset in winning souls. He practised his own axiom: “A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrel-full of vinegar.” He says later: "Francis de Sales took seriously the words of Christ, “Learn of me for I am meek and humble of heart.” As he said himself, it took him 20 years to conquer his quick temper, but no one ever suspected he had such a problem, so overflowing with good nature and kindness was his usual manner of acting. His perennial meekness and sunny disposition won for him the title of “Gentleman Saint.”"

Francis de Sales once wrote: “The person who possesses Christian meekness is affectionate and tender towards everyone: he is disposed to forgive and excuse the frailties of others; the goodness of his heart appears in a sweet affability that influences his words and actions, presents every object to his view in the most charitable and pleasing light.”

What we see then in Francis de Sales' life is an outworking of Paul’s teachings in Ephesians. As he searches for God he discovers His love for him and it changes his life. As he engages with God in love and devotion he slowly changes showing love, humility, gentleness and patience in his relationships with others. In other words he becomes more and more like Jesus.

And that is God’s will for us. But we won’t do it—we can’t do it—unless first we have experienced the love of God in Jesus and our hearts have been made tender through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit who has removed our heart of stone and substituted a heart of flesh instead. And then as we give ourselves more and more to God, responding in prayer, worship and service, we unconsciously find ourselves becoming more and more like him just as Francis did.

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