In today’s Gospel we have heard that familiar summary of the Law, the two greatest commandments of which we hear in every Mass, or as we also call it, Holy Communion service. We know by heart the quotation, in which our Lord Jesus Christ singled out two commandments from the Old Testament scriptures, one from Leviticus and one from Deuteronomy, as being that upon which hangs the entire moral teaching both of Moses and of the prophets. If we take to heart the point He made, we cannot go about life in a way that the world regards as normal. If we love God with all of our being, our whole heart, soul and mind- and all of our strength as well - then we cannot go about a well balanced life in which we include just enough religion, and no more, as part of our complete diet.
Let me be practical about this and give you a little better knowledge of what to expect from me as your priest here. One thing I know is that God’s commandments have never changed. I made a rule for myself long ago, and I am mentioning it only by way of example, that is, an example of how I apply the word of God to myself and to the church where I minister. If a couple comes to me seeking to be married by me, and that couple is already living in a sexual relationship, enjoying the intimacy of married life before being married, I will require that they abstain from sexual relations until after the wedding. That is a rather basic thing, and it is called repentance. They will need to confess their premature consummation as the sin that it is. If not, I will not marry them, nor will I allow this church to be available for their wedding. Period, no exceptions. Why? Because I am mean? The truth is, simply put, if I cannot first teach them to live as Christians, I cannot teach them to live as a Christian couple. I am not going to set people up for heartbreak and divorce just because our society has decided to become immoral – and stupid. That is a practical example of what it means to love God and our neighbor. If I love God I cannot ignore His commandments; and if I love my neighbor I must teach the truth, rather than aid people in embracing the deception of this present age. Yes, maybe “the times, they are a’changin’ ” – but not for those of us who are Christians. We do not live by the rules of the times, or the spirit of the age. We live by eternal truth that has been revealed.
It is not only a homosexual, who was wrongly made into a bishop, for whom the word of God has not changed (and we are right to object to the fact that such a thing was done). But, it is for all of us that God’s commandments have never changed. It is written in the book of Isaiah: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever (Isa. 40:8).” And, our Lord Jesus Christ said: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away (Matt.24:35).” If we love God and our neighbor, then we do not run over the cliff like lemmings, nor do we help others run with the lemmings. Whatever the world accepts as normal is completely irrelevant to what we must live by. We must live by the eternal and unchanging truth revealed by God in every area of faith and morals.
The Epistle and the Gospel complement each other today. In fact, the Epistle we heard comes in a rather shocking context. That context is in the verses which immediately precede where we came in. This is what those opening verses say:
“1: Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, 2: Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: 3: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”
If you are wondering what is so shocking, let me draw your attention to these words: “…called to be saints.” Who are the people called to be saints? Everyone in the church to which he wrote. What does that mean for you here today in the Church of the Atonement in Fountain Hills, Arizona? It means that if Saint Paul were writing this letter to us, he would say the same thing. Everyone who belongs to the Church is called to be a saint. You, whether you like it or not, are called to be a saint. Your vocation is holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord. That is what the first and great commandment means. And, the problem is, if you don’t like the first product the Church has for you, namely to become a saint, we have nothing else to offer. Real Christianity is radical, and calls for total commitment in every area of life. That is why we need the Holy Spirit.
Because I am a priest, you have every right to demand of me that I live a life devoted to Jesus Christ. That I read the scriptures daily, pray daily, be in Church and receive the sacraments regularly, and that I live in this world with God never far from my thoughts. You have every right to demand that I love my neighbor and seek to represent Jesus Christ to every person. And, as your pastor and priest, I have the right, in fact I have the duty, to demand all these exact same things from each and every one of you. And, if I don’t call you to live up to this standard, I am not doing you any good.
However, let me assure you, I am preaching as much to myself, if not more so, than to you.
We need the grace of God, and a spirit quick to forgive, because we all fail. But, the only people who can fail are the people who are making genuine effort to succeed. It is impossible to fail at something that you do not even try to do. Which means, once again, in the clear teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ as we heard it read today, God can offer no place in His kingdom for people who want just enough religion and not too much, sort of like a mere part of a healthy diet. A little Christianity, not too much thank you, to make us immune to catching it for real. Don’t look for such people in heaven; rather, as Hamlet advises, seek them in the other place.
None of us can live as Christ requires, and accept His call with courage, unless we have the grace of God from the Holy Spirit; unless we pray often never giving up, unless we take the time to know and understand the scripture, and unless we remain within the Church and receive the sacraments. But, if we are willing to love God with our whole being, life will begin for us, and will never end. To whom else can we turn? Only Jesus Christ has the words of eternal life. By God’s grace, each of us is called to be a saint, if necessary, to be a martyr. Oh yes, and thank God the ancient Church accepted this fact, or we would not be here today. And, it is not just the ancient Church that had to accept the call to martyrdom. In many parts of the world right now, it is not safe to be a Christian.
Just a few months before I moved away from Maryland to come to Arizona and this church, I met some Egyptian Copts; that is Christians who are part of the ancient Coptic Church. One of them, an elderly man, has refugee status in this country. Another of them said to me, “in our country the routine mass killing of Christians by Muslims has been commonplace for a long time.” I can well imagine some people wondering why they cling to their faith in Christ when it can get them, and their families, killed. It is because their priorities are right. Our faith in Christ is worth more than our lives in this world. If Christians had not known that all along, the Church would have died out before the Roman Empire did. Jesus Christ had the Chutzpah to call His followers to be willing to die for Him, should it come to it. And, why not? Only He gives us the one thing we really need: Eternal life, the promise that we will survive death if we follow Him, the One Who died for our sins and rose again.