Sunday, October 19, 2014

Boasting in Weakness: St. Luke, St. Paul, and the Widow of Nain

            Yesterday was the feast of the patron saint of our parish, the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke.  The Church remembers him as the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.  A Gentile, he accompanied St. Paul on missionary journeys.  He referred to him in Colossians as a “dear and glorious physician.”
            As a Gentile and a healer, St. Luke especially highlighted our Lord’s mercy for people who were considered outsiders or unimportant, who suffered profound difficulties and challenges in their lives. Whether it is the shepherds who received word of Christ’s birth from the angels, the Theotokos who responded with complete obedience to the message of the Archangel Gabriel about the miraculous conception of the Savior, or the poor, hungry, and thirsty who would be blessed in the Kingdom of God,   St. Luke’s gospel gives particular stress to how those considered weak in that time and place found great blessing and strength in Jesus Christ.
            Today’s gospel reading from St. Luke about the Lord’s raising of the son of the widow of Nain proclaims powerfully Christ’s mercy for the lowly and suffering, for He has compassion upon a widow who mourns the death of her only son.  He comforts her, saying “Do not weep,” and then touches the coffin, bringing the young man back from the dead.
            The Lord’s great act of compassion for this woman is a sign of our salvation.  For we weep and mourn not only for loved ones whom we see no more, but also for the broken, disintegrated state of life that the sins of humanity—and our own sins—have brought to us and to our world.  Death, destruction, hatred, fear, and decay in all their forms are the consequences of our refusal to live faithfully as those created in the image of God.  We have worshipped ourselves, our possessions and our pride, and found despair and emptiness as a result, as well as slavery to our own self-centered desires.  So we weep with the widow of Nain for losing loved ones and for losing ourselves.
            In that time and place, a widow who lost her only son was in deep trouble.  She would have no one to provide for her or to protect her.  Poverty, neglect, and abuse would be real threats to her very life.  Who knows what would have become of her as a result?  When the Lord raised her son, He not only demonstrated that He is the conqueror of death, but also of our separation from one another.  In raising her son, Christ restored both his life and hers.      
            The good news of the Gospel, of course, is the compassion of God that extends even to the most miserable and vulnerable human being.  Rather than simply observing human suffering and letting us bear the consequences of our actions, the Father sent the Son to enter into our suffering, into our distorted and disintegrated world, in order to set us right, to stop us from weeping, and even to raise us from the dead into the glory of the heavenly kingdom.  The Saviour touched the coffin of the dead man and he arose.  Christ’s compassion for us is so profound that He also entered a coffin, a tomb, and even descended to Hades, the shadowy place of the dead because—out of love for humankind—He could not simply stand by and allow us to destroy ourselves by bearing the full consequences of our actions. 
             Contrary to what some may teach, Christian faith is not fundamentally about justice or punishment or wrath for sinners.  It is instead about the infinite and holy love of Christ Who will stop at nothing to bring the one lost sheep back into the fold, Who is not embarrassed to welcome home the prodigal son, and Who will even submit to death on a cross in order to destroy death by His glorious resurrection.
St. Paul learned something about Christ’s compassion through his many sufferings.  He barely escaped Damascus with his life, endured beatings, imprisonment and other calamities, and had a “thorn in the flesh” of some kind that the Lord would not remove from him.  Instead, He gave him the word:   “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.” St. Paul accepted that, saying “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
            Many of us do not have to look very hard to find our own “thorns in the flesh” or how our lives bear some similarity to the difficult plight of the widow of Nain.  When that is the situation with us, we must take St. Paul as our example.  Instead of abandoning his ministry and holding his problems against God or thinking that he could handle everything by himself, he used his weakness to grow in his awareness of Christ’s power, comfort, and compassion.
            As St. Luke emphasized so clearly, our Lord’s salvation is not a reward for having a life with no difficulties.  Indeed, it was often those who had suffered disease, loss, poverty, and rejection who were most open to the good news of Christ during His earthly ministry.  Surely, it was their humility that opened their hearts and souls to Him.  Those who think that they have it all in life can easily convince themselves that all is well. If they want a religion, it is often one that congratulates them for their accomplishments and never gets beyond worldly ways of thinking.  But those who are aware of their weaknesses, of their failings and their inability to fix all their problems, know that they need help from One Whose compassion is deeper than merely helping those who help themselves.  They need a Savior Who conquers even death itself, Who turns the ultimate weakness of the grave into the triumph of an empty tomb, and Who is not ashamed to remember even the most wretched repentant sinner in His Kingdom.
            When our spiritual eyes are opened to see that that is how we all stand before Christ, we will give up trying to impress Him with how religious we are or judging others for not measuring up.  In fact, we will no longer focus on ourselves at all, but instead we will be transformed such that we extend His compassion to others.  Think for a moment about the widow of Nain and her son.  Surely, they were so profoundly grateful for the Lord’s mercy that they lived the rest of their days showing that same mercy to others.  It would be impossible for someone to go through an experience like that and think that they had achieved it all by their own ability.  No, their life was entirely God’s gift.  In their weakness, they received Christ’s strength, which is precisely the strength of God’s eternal compassion.  If we receive it, if we receive Him, then we must live accordingly, showing the same mercy to our suffering neighbors that we have received ourselves.

            The ministry of Jesus Christ continues to this day through His Body, the Church. In our personal and collective weaknesses, we all have the opportunity to open ourselves to the compassionate strength of our Lord.  In keeping with how our patron St. Luke told the good news of Christ’s ministry, this parish embodies compassion toward people who know that life in our corrupt world is not easy.  Many of us can identify with the shepherds, the poor, the sick, and the bereaved who so powerfully received the mercy of the Lord.  Like them, let us take up our place in extending that same blessing to others.  For Christ’s Body continues to do Christ’s work, His ministry of binding up the wounds of His sick children, conquering death, and inviting them to the life of a Kingdom where the last really shall be first. 

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