Sunday, November 15, 2015

"Christ is Our Peace": On Learning to See Enemies as Neighbors and Fellow Citizens of the Household of God

Ephesians 2:14-22
Luke 10: 25-37

         The recent terrorist attacks in France, Lebanon, and Baghdad, as well as the crash of the Russian airliner likely due to a bomb, are horrible reminders of how hatred and spiritual blindness keep many people from seeing those of different beliefs and heritage as their neighbors or even as human beings. That was certainly a common attitude in the time and place in which Jesus Christ was born for the salvation of the world.  For example, the Romans thought that they alone were civilized humanity, the human race itself, in a way that justified their occupying Palestine and oppressing the Jews (and many others) in cruel ways.  The Jews thought themselves superior to the Gentiles and especially hated the Samaritans.
            When Christ followed His first sermon in Luke’s gospel with the reminder that great Old Testament prophets at times had blessed Gentiles and not helped Jews, the crowd literally tried to kill Him.  And if that were not enough, Luke also provides us with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which concept was to the Jews a shocking contradiction in terms.  If there was any group of people whom they did not view as their neighbors, it was the Samaritans. From their perspective, there could be nothing good about any of them.  Unfortunately, such ways of thinking are all too familiar to us today.  
            In these dark times, we must remember that our Savior was born to overcome such hatred and division.  As St. Paul wrote “Christ is our peace.”  He unites Jew and Gentile—all humanity-- in Himself, for He fulfills the ancient promises to Abraham, the law of Moses, and all the teachings of the prophets, making it possible for all peoples and nations to become truly human through faith in Him as the God-Man. He destroys the pathetic competing definitions of who is worthy of being treated as a human being, as someone who bears God’s image and likeness.  He does that through the Cross by which He conquers sin and death.   These are the consequences of our estrangement from the Lord and the cause of our estrangement from one another. Our alienation from other people is a sign of our alienation from God.  Through Christ’s victory over the grave and Hades, those who had been strangers and foreigners to the spiritual heritage of Israel—and bitter enemies of one another-- are now made “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” 
            Ancestry and nationality are irrelevant in His Kingdom. When St. Paul wrote that Jew and Gentile “both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” and are “members of the household of God,” he was referring to people of all nations and cultures who have faith in Christ. Regardless of who we are by worldly standards, we join together in the Orthodox Church as the building blocks of a holy temple with Christ as the chief cornerstone and the apostles and prophets as the foundation. We are “built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” along with all the other members of the Body around the world, from generation to generation.  That is the perspective from which our worldly divisions are shown to be ultimately meaningless.  As those who have died to sin and risen to new life in Christ, we must be vigilant in refusing to define ourselves or anyone else by the petty rivalries over which our Lord has triumphed, or to harbor hatred in our own hearts even for those who commit terrible crimes.  For if we do so, we abandon the way of Christ and risk losing our own souls to the forces of darkness.  “Christ is our peace,” and His Church must be a light of reconciliation shining in the darkness of bitter hatred.  The same must be true for each of us as members of His Body.         
That is a message that many people do not like to hear because it destroys the basis of our prideful inclination to build ourselves up by putting others down, by defining our worth in contrast to other people’s worthlessness.  That is precisely what the lawyer in today’s gospel lesson was trying to do by asking “And who is my neighbor?”  He was trying to justify himself by narrowing down the list of people whom he had an obligation to treat as human beings.  That was a very self-serving question that he probably expected to be answered in a way that would encourage him to think of his own people as worthy and everyone else as unworthy.  Of course, the Savior shattered those expectations by telling a story in which righteous Jewish leaders disregarded the obvious and profound needs of one of their own nation, while a hated Samaritan cared for the man with extraordinary generosity.
Of course, this parable shows us that whoever is in need is our neighbor, no matter who the person is.  There are no boundaries to our obligation to love, even as God’s love knows no limits. If we ourselves as Gentiles and sinners have become heirs to the promises to Abraham through Christ’s mercy, who are we to say that anyone is not deserving of our care, attention, and forgiveness? The parable also shows us that true righteousness is not limited by nationality or ethnic heritage.  In this parable, it is also not limited by religion, for it is the Samaritan who loves his neighbor as himself.  He obeyed God’s law more faithfully than did the Jewish priest and Levite.  Perhaps he reminds us of those in the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 who are surprised to learn that they served Christ when they served those in need. 
As we begin the Nativity Fast, the 40-day period of preparation for Christmas, we want to become more like that Good Samaritan who cared so conscientiously for someone who thought of him as a hated enemy. Even as Christ was born to save the entire world, including those who tried to kill Him from infancy, we who are in Christ must become icons of His humble love that knows no bounds.  We especially must abandon all attempts to be like that lawyer in the parable who wanted to justify himself by narrowing down the definition of a neighbor. There may well be people in our families, workplaces, neighborhoods, and schools who view us as their enemies. There are others whom we probably view as our enemies, including those we do not know personally.  That should be no surprise, as Christ Himself had enemies and told us to expect to be treated as He was. And when that happens, we must follow His example. Remember that when they nailed Him to the Cross, the Lord prayed “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  The leaders of the Jews and the pagan Romans collaborated in His crucifixion, and He prayed for them all. 
Most of us have lots of room for growth in forgiving our enemies, treating everyone in need as our neighbors, and overcoming the many divisions that separate us from others.  If being faithful to Jesus Christ were a simple matter of receiving a commandment and obeying it perfectly, we would not need the spiritual disciplines of Advent to help us gain the spiritual strength to welcome Him anew into our lives at His birth.  Preparing for the Nativity requires much more than simply observing the American holiday season or even going to late-night services on December 24.  It requires deliberate, intentional steps that will open us to the strength necessary to manifest Christ’s life in our own, to be so united with Him that we shine with His holiness, love, and mercy for a broken and distorted world.  He is the healing and restoration of what it means to be a human being in the image and likeness of God.  He invites us to participate in Him as the God-Man, calling us to become like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.     
             Let us do that by finding ways to help those we view as strangers, foreigners, and enemies in our own lives.  Let us do that by mindfully refusing to accept even our own thoughts about who is worthy of our time, attention, and service.  Let us do that by reaching out to someone this Advent who needs our friendship, support, and encouragement, as well as by struggling to cleanse our hearts of hatred toward anyone. When nourished by prayer and fasting, these acts of forgiveness and service will become blessed channels for preparing our souls as mangers for the Prince of Peace.  And then, by God’s grace, we will grow in our ability to love and forgive, and bear witness to the salvation that our Lord has brought to a world that still knows hatred and division all too well. 

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