Saturday, October 4, 2014

Perfecting Holiness and Loving Our Enemies: Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Luke and the 17th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1
    Luke 6:31-36

            If it is hard for us to live faithfully as Christians in our time and place, imagine how difficult it was for the new Gentile converts in the Greek city of Corinth.  They lived in a culture that was notoriously immoral and had themselves worshiped pagan gods before their baptism.  There was so much corruption all around them that they were surely constantly tempted to return to decadent ways of life.  The outrageous problems that St. Paul had to correct in their congregation provide evidence that many of those converts still lived in worldly, as opposed to holy, ways.  (If you ever start to think that our generation has invented new sins, just read his letters to the Corinthians and you will see that there is nothing new under the sun.)   
            He was not speaking here of cleanness according to the externals of the Jewish law, such as following kosher dietary practices.  Instead, St. Paul called the Corinthians to turn away from everything that hindered their full participation in the healing and blessing of humanity that Jesus Christ makes possible for all who share in His life.  Those who live according to their calling as God’s temple and people must abandon both the sins that we associate with the body (such as sexual immorality or gluttony) and those that we associate with the spirit (such as pride or hatred).  That is not due to some kind of legalism, but instead because all sins are incompatible with true holiness. As those created in the image and likeness of God, our calling is to become “partakers of the divine nature,” to be transformed by personal union with the Lord such that His holiness becomes truly characteristic of us.  We are to become living icons of His salvation to the depths of our being and to live out that identity in every thought, word, and deed.   
            That high calling ought to bring us all to our knees, for we all fall short of it in one way or another.  If that is not clear, all that we have to do is to pay attention to Jesus Christ’s teaching on loving our enemies.  It is fairly easy to do good to those who do good to us.  When we help someone with whom we have a good relationship, we can usually expect something positive in return.  But it is quite hard to do good to those with whom we do not have a good relationship and from whom we can realistically expect nothing positive in return.  
            We may wonder why the Lord gave us such difficult teachings to follow as those as we find in today’s gospel lesson.  Be merciful even as your Father in heaven is merciful.  Love your enemies.  Do good to everyone; lend expecting nothing in return.  Treat others as you wish to be treated.  Christ Himself tells us that this is the difficult path of true holiness.
            No matter whether we live in Corinth, Abilene, or elsewhere, we all struggle against the spiritual diseases that make it so hard to forgive, love, and serve those who have violated our pride by offending us or who will probably not respond in kind.  We have these struggles because we have turned away collectively and individually from the truth that we are made for a common life in the image and likeness of God.  We have forgotten that it is our very nature as persons to be united with one another in love as are the members of the Holy Trinity.  When St. Paul wrote of Christians as the temple and people of God, he was pointing to the fulfillment of our calling as human beings by the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and our collective life.   
            It might be fairly easy to obey a set of religious or moral laws about this or that form of outward behavior, even though personal experience teaches that we often fall short of them. It is an entirely different thing, however, to acquire such purity of heart that we love, give, and forgive as God does to the ungrateful, the selfish, and to our enemies and nuisances.  So instead of patting ourselves on the back that at least we are decent to those who love us, we should instead fall on our knees asking for mercy and strength to love those who hate, disregard, or simply ignore us.  
         Of course, it is much easier to recognize the flamboyant sins of the people of Corinth than it is to recognize how we ourselves fall short of “perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”  It is much easier to point our fingers at individuals and groups today who celebrate beliefs and behaviors contrary to the way of Christ.  Yes, we like to praise ourselves and condemn others because we want to let ourselves off the hook, perhaps by saying that at least we go to church and lead fairly decent lives.     
           Maybe that would be enough if we were part of a religion that called only for superficial decency and did not condemn self-righteous judgment, but that is not the case for Orthodox Christians.  God really does call us to become holy because we are His temple and people by the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and our collective life as Christ’s Body, the Church.  We are to be merciful, perfect, and holy like our Heavenly Father.   What is true of God by nature must become true of us by grace.  That is what it means to become “partakers of the divine nature” as we participate in the eternal life of our Lord.  
 So when we refuse to show mercy and love toward difficult, annoying, and inconvenient people from whom we expect nothing in return, we turn away from our calling to be God’s holy temple as surely as if we bowed down before an idol like the pagans of Corinth.  For when we do so, we simply serve ourselves and disregard the calling that the Lord has given us all:  to be so transformed by the mercy of our Father in heaven that we exude that same mercy to others.  For He is kind to the ungrateful and selfish and loves even those who reject Him, even those who killed His Son and the rest of us who reject Him so often in how we live.  Still, He bestows countless blessings on us all.  And through the Son whom He sent out of love for the world, He has made us His own sons and daughters.
How tragic, then, that we so often choose to make the same mistakes as the Corinthians and to live in ways that are really no different from the unholy and corrupt practices so dominant in our world.  How sad that we so often prefer death to life, pain to joy, and the hollow victory of self-exaltation to the blessedness of growing in communion with one another and with the Lord Himself.  And if we as Christians live this way, what hope is there for a world where helping our friends and cursing our enemies is just business as usual?
Jesus Christ is certainly the hope of both the Church and the world.  He is our hope because He brought a new, blessed, and saving way for human beings to relate to others and to God.  He died and rose again for those who rejected Him, who nailed Him to a cross and thought that He was demon-possessed.  He not only healed His own people the Jews, but showed the same mercy to Gentiles, Samaritans, and even a Roman centurion, a foreign soldier who occupied His homeland.  He was at times very frustrated with the disciples for their lack of faith; they largely abandoned Him at His arrest and crucifixion, but Christ still appeared to them after His resurrection and blessed them as the leaders of the Church.
Our Savior is the embodiment of mercy to everyone, for He came to save and transform the entire world and especially every human being.  Even more amazing is the truth that we are able to participate in Him, to be nourished by His Body and Blood, the medicine of immortality and holiness in Holy Mystery of the Eucharist.  And, yes, we really are able to become merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful.  By being filled and transformed by His grace, we may become living icons of the divine love and light even in our most difficult relationships.

In other words, what we do in this temple today is a crucial dimension of being His temple and people, of receiving the strength and power to turn away from all the sins that frustrate our growth in holiness and personal union with the Lord and one another.  We are enabled to become like the Father by receiving the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.  And then let us live as we have received, “cleans[ing] ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and mak[ing] holiness perfect in the fear of God.”

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