Sunday, October 29, 2017

Finding Healing Through the Humble Faith that Overcomes Shame: Homily for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost and the 7th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20; Luke 8:41-56

The lives of many people are shattered by the burdens that they carry due to their own sufferings and those of their loved ones.  When those closest to us are troubled, we are troubled also.  When our lives come to revolve around persistent problems that strike at our hearts, it is easy to lose our hope and trust in God.

            The woman who had been bleeding for twelve years had spent all her money on physicians who could not heal her.  Because of her condition, she was considered unclean, which meant that she could not enter the Temple or have a normal social life.  Anyone who touched her would also become unclean.  She was chronically ill, impoverished, and isolated.  After twelve years of such problems, it would not have been surprising for her to have lost all hope for the healing of her body and her relationship with others, as well as with God.

            Somehow, however, she had both the courage and the faith to reach out and touch the hem of Christ’s garment as He passed through a crowd of people.  She was understandably too embarrassed to walk straight up to the Lord, explain her condition, and ask for His healing.  So she did what she had the strength to do, hoping she could secretly be relieved of her affliction.  When she did that, her bleeding stopped immediately, so she got what she wanted.  But because Jesus Christ is not merely a human being with healing powers but the Son of God, He knew what had happened.  By saying “Who touched me?,” He challenged her to grow in faith by recognizing that the point of this miracle was not simply to get what she wanted.

Instead, He gave her the opportunity to fall down before Him, confess in the hearing of a large crowd what her malady had been, and how she had been healed.  Of course, being put on the spot like that terrified the woman and she trembled with fear.  But through this difficult experience, she was transformed.  Not only her body, but also her soul, were healed.  She died to the damage that came from focusing only on her own problems and the need to protect herself from the rejection and ridicule of others. She was delivered from her shame at not having the life that she understandably wanted.  Shame is a form of pride that holds us captive to the illusion that everything is up to us.  When we cannot accept in humility that there are matters beyond our control and that we cannot solve our own problems, we easily become obsessed with doing all that we can to hide these truths from others and even from ourselves.

This blessed woman was not, however, totally paralyzed by shame, because she had the humility and faith to identify herself publically once she knew that the Lord was aware what had happened.  He did not directly command her to do that, but she knew that was the proper response to His question when “she saw that she was not hidden.”  Her secret was out, at least to the Lord.  The isolating power of embarrassment died in that moment, and she gained the strength and freedom of a truly humble person by telling the whole story in public.  That is when the Savior said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” 

With these words, the Lord confirmed that she was no longer defined by her illness or her inability to heal herself.  She had died to her old life as an anonymous outcast suffering from a condition that cut her off from personal relationships with other people and from God.  Through humble faith, she embraced her true identity as a beloved daughter of the Lord who was dependent upon His mercy.  In order to do that, she surely had to muster every ounce of courage in overcoming her fear.  That is how she gained the spiritual clarity to see who she really was before God:  not simply a bundle of medical symptoms or an example of social isolation, but His beloved child and the recipient of His grace.

St. Paul refers in today’s epistle reading to a similar kind of death, for he writes that he “died to the Law, that I might live to God.”  Earlier in his life, Paul had thought that meticulous obedience to the Old Testament law, as interpreted by his fellow Pharisees, put observant Jews in right relationship with God.  But after the Risen Lord appeared to Him on the road to Damascus, Paul became a Christian and ultimately a great champion of God’s mercy extending to all who have humble faith in Jesus Christ.  St. Paul had to die to relying upon whatever righteousness he could earn for himself by legal observance, for that approach could never overcome the power of sin.  He had to die with Christ in baptism to his illusions of earning his own righteousness in order to rise up with the Lord into eternal life.  That is why he says “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”

If we think that we stand before God based on whether we perfectly obey a law simply by our own ability, we may easily become slaves to shame and guilt because we will never be at peace with how we never measure up to what we think God requires.  We will likely view Him as a harsh, impersonal judge who is eager to condemn and reject us.  We will likely become obsessed with how unclean we are before Him, and perhaps do all that we can to hide the truth of our corruption from others and even from ourselves.  We may become as miserable and isolated as the woman with the flow of blood.  Recognizing that some things are simply beyond our control can be quite scary.

The good news is that Jesus Christ taught us to view God as “Our Father.”  Through Him, we are not anonymous defendants before a court of law or individuals simply on our own, but beloved sons and daughters.  As much as I hope that we all love our own parents, they are not the models for our understanding of the Heavenly Father.  It is the other way round, for Christ has shown us the Father.  Recall the parable of the prodigal son, in which the father eagerly awaits the return of his wretched son and restores him fully to the household with great joy.  How sad it would have been if the self-absorbed shame of that young man had kept him from returning home to a right relationship with his father.  He was blessed by his father’s mercy well beyond anything that he deserved or could have achieved.

In Christ, we are all sons and daughters of such an outrageously merciful Father in heaven.  It will be tragic if any of us allows our problems, or those of our loved ones, to keep us from responding to His mercy with humble faith.   Shame or embarrassment that keeps us from doing so reflects the pride of not accepting the truth about who are in relation to Him.  It is impossible to earn the status of son or daughter, for that is a gift based on a relationship initiated by parents.  Christ calls us not to either measure up or run away in shame, but humbly to open even our deepest and most painful wounds to Him for healing with the recognition that we are not our own saviors.

That will not mean that every sickness will be cured, all broken relationships will be restored, or that we will simply get what we want.  It will mean, however, that our weaknesses will become opportunities to die to the misery that comes from the self-centered perspective that we relate to God and other people only in terms of what we achieve, earn, or deserve.  It will mean that, if we have only the faith to touch the hem of His garment, Christ will enable us to grow in the humble trust of sons and daughters for their Heavenly Father.  It will mean that He will grant us the strength to see that literally nothing other than our own refusal can keep us from knowing the holy joy of His beloved children.  As the woman healed from the flow of blood demonstrates, His healing mercy calls us to die to our pride, shame, and self-reliance. That is how we too will find healing for the deepest pains of our lives.

Monday, October 23, 2017

"Often Disappointed, but Seldom Surprised": Thoughts on Sexual Harassment and a Culture of Depravity

        “Often disappointed, but seldom surprised.”  That old saying came to mind upon hearing of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against a leading figure in the American film industry. Alas, it is commonplace for mainstream films today to present the bodies of women as visual commodities to be bought and sold for the voyeuristic pleasures of men.  Moviegoers are so used to nudity and “strong sexual content” that most have become desensitized to what is going on:  presenting the exposed bodies of women as entertainment.  In earlier ages, men had to sneak into disreputable places to see such displays.  Now they are easily available in the privacy of their homes via the screens of computers, televisions, and the phones in their pockets.  And it is not considered scandalous to show in regular cinemas films that not long ago would have been rated X.      
            I once saw a brief interview with the film mogul in question in which he said that a particular film had “good sex” that people wanted to see.  Think about that for a moment.  The holy act of two people becoming “one flesh” has been reduced to a bit of entertainment to be sold.  It is not hard to give the clear impression in a film that a couple have gone to bed together and to leave it at that when necessary for the plot.  There is no reason to show the graphic details of their intimate union other than to inflame the passions of viewers.  Even as we hear of gratuitous vulgarity thrown into the dialogue of films so that they will merit a rating that will draw in more customers, the same is surely true of “strong sexual content.”   
            That should not be surprising in a culture with no higher standard for sex than the consent of individuals.  Many believe and act as though there were nothing sacred or even particularly profound in the intimate union of man and woman or in the dimensions of their bodies traditionally treated with modesty.  If they can be used to sell movie tickets and advertising, nothing else matters.   When actors agree to expose themselves and engage in sexually explicit scenes, they do so in the same way that they sign a contract to perform in any production.  It boils down to an commercial exchange.
            Perhaps some may view scenes of nudity and intercourse without being phased.  At least most men, however, will find their passions aroused in one way or another.  Many men, women, and children will make what they see their standard for how their bodies, and those of others, should look and how they should act sexually.  Regardless of what we intend, unrealistic and unhealthy expectations work their way through such images into our minds, souls, and relationships in a fashion that makes real intimacy more difficult.  What is fake then becomes the standard for what is real with the predictable results.  What is as intimate as life gets becomes impersonal and a matter of commercial exchange for mass entertainment.
            Should it be surprising that women typically bear the brunt of living in a society that celebrates that kind of entertainment?  As the “Me Too” campaign on social media has shown, sexual harassment and assault are epidemic.  In an age that has rejected the holiness of sex and of virtually any intrinsic moral restraints on the pursuit of pleasure, it is tragically predicable that many men will use their typically greater physical strength and economic power to take advantage of women.  The passions of men for domination and pleasure are sadly often so dominant that the fragile restraint of consent is too weak to stand in the way.  Legal standards often do not serve as a firewall to protect the intrinsic dignity of human beings, but as mere procedural hurdles to be ignored, overcome, or maneuvered around with the help of a good lawyer.  Unfortunately, they often fail to keep people enslaved to their passions from doing terrible things.
            These observations are not excuses or justifications for this horrible state of affairs, of course, but a description of the low point to which we as a culture have fallen.   Those who say that the sexual revolution has not harmed consenting adults are fooling themselves.  In a culture that has abandoned the holiness of sex and marriage and treats the bodies of women as commodities for entertainment according to the demands of the marketplace, too many men will distort or ignore the requirement of consent in order to get what they want.  
            I cannot imagine that there is a decent man alive who does not regret many of his actions, words, and thoughts in relation to women.  The passions that drive men to treat women as objects of desire to be used and dominated run deep within our corrupt souls.  No one has earned the right to be self-righteous in this area of life, which is surely one reason that Jesus Christ said that those guilty of lust are guilty of adultery.  No one is in the position to cast the first stone, for we have not achieved purity of heart or become perfect as our Father is perfect.  
That is also true for women, who also experience lust and in our culture are consuming pornography at increasing rates.  By focusing on the failures of men and the impact of cultural trends on their behavior, I do not mean to give the impression that women are free of such temptations in this area of life, but will leave it to others to comment on the particular challenges faced by women.     
Criticism of depraved cultural standards is not a matter of the pure pointing a finger at the sinners.  It is, instead, a recognition by those who struggle against their own distorted desires that we all are in this together.  Because of our common brokenness, norms and practices of decency are crucial to form men of decent moral character, as well as to protect women from harassment, assault, and otherwise being treated as less than a person in the image and likeness of God.
Men and women formed by the practices of pornography and promiscuity will be the weaker and the worse for it.  It is hard to see how even basic standards of decency may exist in a society in which young boys now routinely become addicted to pornography on their cell phones and the entertainment industry lives by some mixture of “strong sexual content” and graphic violence.  Those formed in the habit of viewing women’s bodies as objects for gratification in media of whatever kind will likely fail to develop the character necessary to respect even the requirement of consent.    
            I recently heard a brief radio news report on BBC that celebrated a certain pornographic magazine having its first “transgender woman” on its centerfold.  A female commentator spoke in glowing terms about how this publication used the public display of nudity to empower women.  The reporters spoke enthusiastically of the choice of this particular model as a great step forward in sexual liberation.  Leaving discussion of “transgender issues” for another time, I will simply comment that when dominant cultural voices lionize publications the only purpose of which is to make money by fueling the lust of men with images of the objectified bodies of women, what can be the expected outcome but a society with even weaker moral vision and less ethical strength to resist practices that lead to a culture of harassment and abuse?  That hardly sounds like liberation to me.
            In the current cultural context, the Church must form men who gain the purity of heart necessary to treat every woman they encounter with the honor due a living icon both of our Lord and of His Holy Mother.  The dominant culture will not help us with that, which is where the ascetical and sacramental life of the Church comes in. If there were ever a time for the Body of Christ to become a sign of hope for the salvation of the world in the troubled relationship of man and woman, it is now.  

Sunday, October 22, 2017

On Overcoming the Fear of Becoming our True Selves: Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Luke 8:26-39

We have probably all been surprised at some point by a family member, friend, or acquaintance who behaved out of character. We get to know people and have some idea of who they are, but then they say or do something that makes us wonder if we really know them.  If we are honest, we will acknowledge that the same is true of each of us.  We say, do, and think things that surprise even ourselves.  Sometimes we handle a problem or respond to a temptation better than we thought we would, but so often our actions reveal a brokenness that we do not like to see.  That is why we can so quickly become defensive when others see our weaknesses, and especially when they point them out.
            In today’s gospel reading we read about a man whose situation was beyond miserable.  He surely had no illusions about himself, for he was so filled with demons that he called himself “Legion.”  His personality had disintegrated due to the power of the forces of evil in his life.  That is shown by the fact that he was naked, like Adam and Eve who stripped themselves of the divine glory and were cast out of Paradise into our world of corruption.  He lived among the tombs, and death is “the wages of sin” that came into the world as a consequence of our first parents’ refusal to fulfill their calling to become like God in holiness.  This naked man living in the cemetery was so terrifying to others that they tried unsuccessfully to restrain him with chains.  People understandably feared that he would do to them what Cain had done to Abel.  But when this fellow broke free, he would run off to the desert by himself, alone with his demons.  In the Gadarene demoniac we have a vivid icon of the pathetic suffering of humanity enslaved to death, naked of the divine glory, and isolated in fear from loving relationships with others.
            Evil was so firmly planted in this man’s soul that his reaction to the Lord’s command for the demons to leave him was “What have you to do with me?...I ask you, do not torment me.”  His brokenness was such that he had no hope for healing and perceived Christ’s promise of deliverance simply as pain.  By telling the Lord that his name was Legion, he was acknowledging that the line between the demons and his own identity had been blurred.  He was in such bad shape that it was not clear where he ended and where the demons began.  The Savior then cast the demons into the herd of pigs, who ran into the lake and drowned.  In the Old Testament context, pigs were unclean, and here the forces of evil lead even them into death.
            Perhaps there is no clearer image of human brokenness in need of the healing of Christ than this miserable man.    He represents us all in many ways.  He did not ask Christ to deliver him, even as we did not take the initiative in Christ's coming to save sinners.  The corrupting forces of evil were so powerful in his life that he had lost any sense of what it meant to be someone in God’s image and likeness.  Whenever we are driven by our distorted self-centered desires, we think, speak, and act similarly. We too are often so wedded to our favorite sins that, like him, we would rather that Christ leave us alone than that He set us free.  We are often so weak and confused that we fear His healing mercy will torment us, for we have lost all hope of being set free from them.  We are afraid of what life would be like without them.
            After the spectacular drowning of the swine, the man in question was “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”  The one who had not been recognizably human returned to being his true self, was back in society, and was learning from the One Who had set him free.  That was very disturbing, however, to the people of that region.  In fact, they asked Christ to leave out of fear at what had happened.  We may find their reaction hard to understand.  What could be so terrifying about this man returning to a normal life?  Unfortunately, we all tend to get used to whatever we get used to.  What we have experienced in ourselves or in others becomes normal to us.  Even as the scary man in the tombs was afraid when Christ came to set Him free, his neighbors were afraid when they saw that he had changed.   
            It is no surprise, then, that the man formerly possessed by demons and still feared by his neighbors did not want to stay in his hometown after the Lord restored him.  He begged to go with Christ, Who responded, “Return to your home, and declare all that God has done for you.”  That must have been a difficult commandment for him to obey.  Who would not be embarrassed and afraid to live in a town where everyone knew about the wretched and miserable existence he had experienced?  It would have been much easier to have left all that behind and start over as a traveling disciple of the One who had set him free.
            But that was not what Christ wanted the man to do.  Perhaps that was because the Lord knew that the best witness to His transforming power was a person who had been healed from the worst forms of depravity and corruption.   Why should people believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world?  Surely, the lives of His followers must bear witness to His power in order to convince them.  When someone moves from slavery to the glorious freedom of the children of God, that person has moved from death to life.  Such a radical change is a sign of the truth of Christ’s resurrection, for He makes us participants in His victory over death by breaking the destructive hold of the power of sin in our lives.   
Our Lord makes it possible for us to become our true selves in Him, the Second Adam.  That means being united with Him in holiness such that, by His gracious mercy, we become “partakers of the divine nature” who fulfill humanity’s original vocation to become like God in holiness.   He has overcome our nakedness by clothing us in a robe of light in baptism, filled us with the Holy Spirit in Chrismation, and nourished us with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  He Himself forgives and restores us through Confession and repentance.  Our Lord is even more present to us than He was to the man in today’s gospel lesson, for He has made us members of His own Body and dwells in our hearts. 
Our challenge, then, is not to ask Him to go away out of fear that He will torment us.  Sin only has the power in our lives that we allow it to have, and we all have a long, challenging journey to turn away from it.  Nonetheless, we must take the small steps of which we are capable to turn our hearts more fully toward God through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and all the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.  When we fail, we must use our weakness to grow in constant dependence on the Lord’s mercy and strength.  We cannot save ourselves by our own power any more than the man could cast out his own demons.
  We may be as terrified to think about life without our favorite sins as the man’s neighbors were to see him in his right mind.  Sharing more fully in Christ’s victory over death will always be terrifying in a sense, for we must die to sin in order to rise up with Him in holiness.  His Kingdom is not of this world and we must crucify the distortions of our souls that have become so familiar to us.  When the struggle is hard and we want to give up, remember the difference between a naked and isolated person out of his mind due to the power of evil in his soul and that person “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.”  That is really what is at stake in the question of whether we will do all that we can to welcome the Lord’s healing presence in our lives or run away from Him in fear.  May He grant us all the wisdom and strength to choose blessedness over despair, to choose life over death.   

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sacrificing in Order to Bear Fruit: Homily for the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council and the 4th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
            In last Saturday’s football game at McMurry University, the home team was behind at half-time even though they were favored to win.  The coach had noticed that the players had not seemed to enjoy playing during the first half and told them to remember to have fun in the remainder of the game.  He reminded them that ultimately that was why they played their sport:  to go out there and have some fun.  Well, they did have fun in the second half as they came from behind to win.
In just about any area of life, we can get into trouble when we forget why got into it in the first place.  It is so easy to become distracted and confused to the point that we become blind before the most obvious truths.  It is tempting to get so caught up in matters of secondary importance that we simply miss the point, not only of an activity, but of our lives.
With His explanation of the parable of the sower, Jesus Christ instructed the disciples to think of themselves as plants that have grown from seed cast upon the ground.  Why would someone throw seed on the soil?  In this context, it was done in hope that they would take root, grow, and bear fruit. That is the most obvious reason that someone plants a garden:  in order to enjoy the growth of healthy plants.  And that is why we have all embraced the fullness of Orthodox Christianity:  to become mature plants that bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God.  In other words, we have come to Christ and His Church for the fulfillment of our most basic calling as those who bear the divine image and likeness.  We want to be united with God in holiness.  We want to find the healing of our souls.  That is in no way selfish, for doing so requires dying to self out of love for our Lord and our neighbors in so many ways.
Just like we can easily get distracted in any tense and frustrating situation, we usually find it very hard to remain focused on what is necessary to grow spiritually and bear fruit for the Kingdom.  Some are quite enthusiastic about the faith at first, but then fall away when the new wears off and they realize that growing in holiness is a long, difficult road that requires sacrificial commitment for the long haul.  Others last longer, but are overcome by “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” which they allow to dominate them, to become more real to them than the joy of sharing more fully in the life of Christ.
The world as we know it is full of distractions, and who does not have to devote significant attention to matters as pressing as sickness, paying the bills, and challenges of all kinds in our families and in our world?  To use the imagery of the parable, if gardeners wait until they have no distractions or problems of any kind, most of them will never even begin to prepare the soil.  But even if they do prepare the soil and then later allow themselves to become so distracted that they do not water the plants and protect them from weeds and pests, they will likely never have healthy plants that bear good fruit.  Just like athletes enjoying playing their sport still have to concentrate on what they are doing, gardeners who take pleasure in their work must pay attention and refuse to become distracted.
The same is true for us, if we are to abide in Christ, share more fully in His blessed life, and bear fruit for the Kingdom.  Instead of allowing whatever is going on in our lives to separate us from Him, we must make our daily cares points of contact with Him, opportunities to gain strength for living faithfully with our challenges.   That is just as true when things are going well as when they are going badly.  Even as we must not fall prey to the temptation to allow enjoying good times to become a false god, we must not allow even the darkest and most difficult problems in our lives to lead us to despair.  A garden neglected by someone who is too busy having parties to care for it probably looks just like a garden neglected by someone who is too sick to tend it. The result is the same: dead plants that ultimately dry up and blow away.  And no matter what it is that keeps us from preparing the spiritual soil of our lives, from pulling out the weeds of our souls by the roots, and from receiving the nourishment that we need in order to flourish in the Christian life, the result will be the same.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul reminded St. Titus to instruct his people not to waste their time with foolish distractions, such as arguments over pointless things with contentious people.  He wrote, “And let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.”  Addressing real problems that we can actually do something about is far more spiritually beneficial than getting worked up about nonsense or matters that we cannot change.  In today’s world of constant news and social media, it is tempting to get caught up in ceaseless worry about all kinds of things and to define ourselves in terms of how popular culture divides us up as this group against that group. And it is often much more appealing to brood about our own persistent personal problems than to turn our attention to serving God and our neighbors.
The problem, then, is how little time, energy, and attention we will have left to offer to the Lord for the healing of our souls and the fulfillment of His purposes for the world.  Just as gardeners so overcome with worrying about other matters will probably not provide adequate care to their plants, we will not give adequate care to our relationship with Christ if we are so obsessed with other things that basic spiritual disciplines become afterthoughts that we admire, but do not practice.  People who do not sacrifice so that they can advance in any endeavor probably will not make much progress.  If we are not sacrificing other objects of our attention in order to pray at home and at Church on a regular basis, to share our resources and time with the poor and lonely, and to fill our minds with the Scriptures and other beneficial spiritual reading, we really cannot expect to become healthy plants that bear good fruit in the Lord’s garden.  If we are not struggling to keep our mouths shut when we want to speak in anger or judgment, to turn the other cheek when we are insulted and to forgive our enemies, and to gain the strength to overcome our many addictions to our self-centered desires, we cannot really hope to find healing for our souls.
Gardeners do not earn a good crop by their dedicated labors, but their diligent work opens their little plot of land to the power of the natural world.  Faithful Christians do not earn the healing of their souls by conscientious practice of the spiritual disciples, but that is how they open themselves to the gracious divine energies of our Lord.   Amidst all the other appealing things that we could be doing, we must invest ourselves each day in what we know it takes to participate more fully in the life of Christ.   We must refuse to be distracted from the one thing needful of hearing and obeying the Word of God, for He is the One in Whom we will find the fulfillment of our most fundamental desire as human beings:  to be united with God in holiness.
If we stay focused on Christ, and do what it takes to unite ourselves more fully to Him each day, then we will be like the good seed in the parable who “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  No, that will not happen by accident, but by persistently turning away from all that would threaten to keep us from bearing good fruit for the Kingdom of God.  It will happen by persistently investing ourselves in what it takes to flourish in the garden of the Lord.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sharing the Mercy We Have Received as God's Temple: Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost & Second Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

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

How we see ourselves plays a very important role in how we live.  Many people define themselves in light of their own weaknesses in ways that keep them chained to whatever shattered personal history they may have.  It is easy to weigh ourselves down with ways of thinking that hold us in bondage, especially when we think that there is no possibility of us changing.  When we do that, we simply enslave ourselves further to a distorted perspective on where we stand before God and in relation to others.

When St. Paul addressed the Gentile Christians of Corinth as “the temple of the living God,” he was doing something no one would have anticipated.  As his letters to the Corinthians make clear, they were converts from paganism who had to be corrected from their tendency to fall back into old ways of living on everything from worshiping false gods to engaging in sexual immorality.  Not only were they Gentiles, they apparently continued to fall back into the very ways of living that the Jews associated with the perversions of strangers and foreigners.   

The Old Testament contains many warnings to the Jews to have nothing to do with Gentiles.  That is why St. Paul quotes Hebrew prophets admonishing the Jews to be entirely separate from the corrupt ways of other peoples.  What is so shocking, of course, is that he now applies that instruction to the Gentile Christians of Corinth.  Those who were hated and feared for their immorality and paganism are now themselves “the temple of the living God” in Jesus Christ.  They are His people, His sons and daughters, to whom the promises of Abraham have been extended through faith.  Because of this great dignity, St. Paul tells them to be clean “from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”

No matter how debauched the Corinthians had been before becoming Christians, and no matter how gravely they had sinned since their baptism, the Apostle urges them to remember who they are in Jesus Christ and to live accordingly.  He calls them to refuse to define themselves by their sins, past or present.  The point is not how they have fallen short or what particular temptations they face.  The point is to accept in humility who they are by the grace of God and no longer to give any place to sin and corruption in their lives.  Whatever does not belong in God’s holy temple does not belong in them, for their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul calls them to live according to the high calling and dignity that is theirs in Jesus Christ, not according to whatever sins have enslaved them in the past or still threaten to distract them from offering every dimension of their lives to the Lord.

We may be tempted to think that those Corinthian converts had it easier than we do.  After all, they lived in a world in which it was obvious who the false gods were.  The ways of the pagan culture were diametrically opposed to those of the Church in many ways.  But as the problems St. Paul had to address in Corinth indicate, there was actually nothing easy at all about being a Christian in that time and place.  Though they take different forms, the challenges of taking up our crosses and following the Lord are always with us; and no generation navigates them perfectly.

In today’s gospel reading, the Savior teaches that we must do something that seems impossibly hard in every generation, namely, loving our enemies.  He reminds us not to define ourselves by what seems easy or even natural in our world of corruption by simply being nice to those who are nice to us.  Even terrorists and gangsters do that, of course.  There is no great virtue in loving those from whom we expect love in return.  Far more challenging is the calling not to be defined by the disagreeable actions and words of others or by how we are inclined to respond to them.  Even as the Corinthian Christians were sorely tempted to return to what was comfortable and convenient to them in light of their pagan past, we will find it much easier to hate and condemn our enemies than to be generous, kind, and forgiving toward them.  There is much in our culture, and much that somehow passes for Christianity in our society, that would tell us we are perfectly justified in allowing fear, resentment, and self-righteous judgment to shape how we respond both to particular people and to certain groups.  Those who worship the false gods of worldly power and self-centeredness may think that loving their friends and hating their enemies helps them get what they want.  Because they set their sights so slow, they may be right—at least for a time.  Even terrorists and gangsters will have a measure of success by their own standards. 

But what on earth should that have to do with us, who by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ have become “the temple of the living God”?  Our goal is not to achieve this or that earthly goal like another interest group or faction, but to become “merciful, even as your father is merciful.”  Our goal is to live as sons and daughters of the Lord, cleansed from every stain, and to “make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” 

We are just like the Gentile Christians of Corinth who, purely by God’s grace, moved from aliens to heirs, from hated foreigners to those who have inherited the promises to Abraham in Jesus Christ.  We must separate ourselves, then, from much that is appealing to us in our culture, from much that would keep us enslaved to old habits.  We must shut our ears to voices that associate strength with bondage to the passions of anger and hatred, as though it is somehow virtuous to hold grudges and refuse to forgive.  We must shut our eyes to the habit of seeing as neighbors only those who are like us in how we look, how we live, or how we believe.  Thank God, His mercy extends even to sinners like you and me.  If that is the case, then how can we refuse to extend mercy to anyone?  Did not Christ die and rise again in order to save the entire world, including those who nailed Him to the Cross?  Even as there are no limits to His love, there should be no limits to ours.   If we judge others by merely human standards of any kind, we fall well short of showing to others the same mercy that we want for ourselves.

There is no limit to the holiness to which our Savior calls each and every one of us.  We are all weakened by our own sins and those of others.  We may find it impossible to believe that our lives will ever manifest the holiness of God’s temple.  That was surely true of St. Paul before his conversion, as well as of the Gentile Christians who came to faith from pagan backgrounds.  Our culture teaches us primarily to believe in ourselves, but we must primarily believe in the healing mercy of our Savior, which extends even to the most unlikely candidates “to make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”  If before such a high calling, you feel as unworthy as a Corinthian pagan, then thank God for that profound insight and use it for your humility. For we never stand before the Lord based on what we deserve.

The best way to thank Him for His mercy is to extend that same mercy to others, which is possible only if we refuse to define ourselves as anything but His beloved sons and daughters, as His holy temple.  The more we embrace this blessed calling, the more strength we will have to turn away from everything that would separate us from fulfilling our vocation to become like God in holiness.  In some ways, the message is really very simple.  We are the temple of God by His grace.  It is time we started living like it as we show love, do good, and extend mercy to neighbors who need His grace just as much as we do.