Sunday, July 19, 2015

The God-Man Makes Us Holy, Not Merely Nice: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council

          Someone told me this week that there must be more to being a Christian than just being a nice person.  The fellow who said that knows that Jesus Christ calls His followers to something much more profound than being friendly, decent, or thoughtful. Those personality traits are not the sole possession of any religion, and our Lord did not rise from the dead in order to make us pleasant people who fit especially well into our, or any other, society.  Christ sets His and our sights much higher, calling us to become lights shining in stark contrast to the darkness of the world. 
            That is surely why He sets the bar so high for His disciples.  He did not “come to abolish the law and the prophets” of the Old Testament, “but to fulfill them.”  So those who “shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” are those who obey the commandments and teach others to do so.  And, likewise, those who relax God’s requirements and teach others to follow their example “shall be called least in the kingdom of Heaven.”
            The Savior wants us to shine with holiness such that we become the light of the world, illuminating it with goodness so that all will give glory to God.   So it is not enough to refrain from the physical act of murder; we are to be healed of the passion of anger, which is at the root of murder.   It is not sufficient to avoid the physical act of adultery or other sexual sins; we are to be free from bondage to lust in all its forms.  It is not enough to limit our revenge to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We are to turn the other cheek, blessing our enemies with the same love that we have received from Him.  The ultimate goal of these commandments is nothing short of: “Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  If that is who we become in Christ, imagine what a blessing we would be to the world as living proof of His salvation.  That is a calling much higher than being merely nice.
            Today we remember the 630 holy and God-bearing fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in the year 451.  They made clear that Christ is fully God and fully human:  one Person with two natures. They rejected the views of the Monophysites who claimed the Lord has only one nature, a divine one.  If that were the case, we could not participate in His divine life—for we are simply humans--and it would be hard to see how Christ’s death and resurrection had much to do with us.  Today’s commemoration is not simply a reminder about Church history; it is a proclamation of the Gospel, for Jesus Christ must be both fully God and fully human in order to bring us into eternal light and life as our Savior.
            Indeed, He is the Light, the eternal Son of God who becomes fully human while remaining fully divine.  That is how He makes it possible for us to shine with His holy glory even as we live and breathe upon the earth as flesh and blood.   He fulfills all the foreshadowing and preparation of the Law and the Prophets, for God was never primarily concerned with Old Testament rules about outward behavior or the sacrifice of animals.  Instead, they pointed the way to the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, to the One who triumphs over sin and death itself.   And now He makes it possible for us to share in His glorious, brilliant light as partakers of His divinity by grace.
            The God-Man Jesus Christ is our perfection, our salvation, our theosis.   He has joined humanity and divinity, has conquered sin and death, and made us creatures of the earth participants in His life. Our task is to open the dark corners of our lives to His light, to stop hiding in the night of sin and instead to do all that we can to become more radiant living icons of the divine glory.          In order to do that, we must embrace our identity as members of the living Body of Christ. That means growing in holiness, finding healing for our passions, and turning away from the darkness as we enter more fully into the light of the Kingdom.    Our goal is nothing short of perfection, full personal participation in the eternal life of God by grace.
            We will not advance toward that high goal by accommodating ourselves or our faith to whatever strand of popular culture we happen to like.  At the end of the day, simply being nice and decent by any worldly interpretation falls short of our high calling.  We need the God-Man to save us, not simply a moral teacher or good example. We must humble ourselves before Him by refusing to water down our faith into a comfortable cultural agenda of any kind.   
            So in a world of addiction to self-indulgence, we must fast and learn to say “no” to our self-centered desires for pleasure.  In a society of violence, hatred, and revenge, we must love, forgive, and bless our critics and enemies.  In a time of disregard for the weak, helpless, and inconvenient, we must sacrifice to serve all who bear the divine image and likeness from the womb to the tomb.  In an age when we are distracted and busy, we must take the time and effort to pray, to read the Scriptures and the lives of the saints, and to keep a close guard on our thoughts.  And whenever we stumble on this path, we must do the radically countercultural act of refusing to make excuses and humbling ourselves by sincere confession and repentance.  Above all, we must not compromise the high vision and calling that our Savior gives us.  As the God-Man, He has shown us how to radiate His light in our darkened world, and it is surely not by relaxing His commandments.  Easier paths may make us nice, but they will not make us holy.
            We must be on guard against everything that distracts us from following Him, including becoming obsessed with pointless arguments.  In St. Paul’s letter to St. Titus, he notes that some Christians preferred to spend their time in foolish, unprofitable, and useless arguments which led to nothing but division.  Apparently, not much has changed in two thousand years! St. Paul teaches that it is much better to use such wasted time and energy in actually doing good works, meeting the urgent needs of people, and bearing fruit for the Kingdom.  In other words, it is better to focus on living the basic Christian life than it is to distract ourselves with what ultimately amounts to nonsense.
            We certainly have a lot of nonsense in our day.  In our age of the internet, social media, smart phones, video games, and 24-hour television, we probably have more opportunities for distraction, endless arguments, and inflamed passions than any other generation in human history.  So we must be on guard not to waste our lives on habits that sap time and energy we could use as fuel to become lamps burning brightly with the light of Christ.   If we will focus on getting the basic practices of our faith established in our daily lives, we will find strength for keeping other habits in their proper place.  Unfortunately, too often we put other things first and then find that we have very little power to focus on what is really important. If we have already wasted our fuel, we should not be surprised when we do not have enough left to burn brightly ourselves as lamps of holiness.

            We can avoid these problems by simply doing what we know we should be doing already. Come to church; receive the Holy Mysteries with proper preparation; pray, fast, and take confession; repent of any wrong that you do; give to the needy; serve the weak; forgive those who have wronged you and ask forgiveness of those you have wronged; fight your passions; watch your thoughts, your mouth, and whatever else you have trouble controlling.  Focus your energy on living the basic Christian life and you will have much less time for pointless disputes and other spiritually unhealthy endeavors.  Do all of this with sincere faith, hope, and love, and you will become much more than merely nice.  Your light will shine before others such that they will see your good works and give glory to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

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