Saturday, October 22, 2011
Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity
I Corinthians 1:4-7 * Matthew 22:34-46
In today’s Gospel we have heard that familiar summary of the Law, the two greatest commandments from the Torah, or Law of Moses. We know by heart the quotation, in which our Lord Jesus Christ singled out two commandments from the Old Testament scriptures, one from Deuteronomy (6:5) and one from Leviticus (19:18), upon which hang the entire moral teaching both of Moses and of the prophets, the greatest and all inclusive commandments of God. 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.
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, times have changed, and with them the moral expectations of the world around us. But, not the commandments of God (which is why I remind you, for example, that no matter what the world has been doing, Christian parents teach their children to wait until marriage). 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. In my experience, I have seen that people never ruin their lives and gain a load of regrets by obeying the commandments of God. Now, we believe in the forgiveness of sins; but, also, I like to help spare people the pain and consequences of stopping their ears to God’s word. I especially want young people to be spared all that. For one thing, they will be happier.
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 context that teaches us the Biblical use of the word “saint,’ which is different from how we have come to use it (when forced to choose between the Bible and people’s usage, better to choose the Bible. That is why I will not call nuns “brides of Christ.” The Church is the Bride of Christ, and He has no need of a polygamous image to be created in His Church). We find how St. Paul used the word “saints” by backing up four verses to the beginning:
“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.”
Once more, 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? 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.” (Hebrews 12:14) That is what the first and great commandment means, and the second. And, the problem is, if you don’t like the first product the Church has for you, namely to become a saint, life in the Church really has 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 a priest, I have the right, in fact I have the duty, to call each and every one of you to the same standard. 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 has promised no place in His kingdom to 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.
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. 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.
Early in the year 2005, 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.