In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
This morning is the final Sunday of the Epiphany with Transfiguration Sunday occurring next week. There has been a little dispute over when it should be celebrated over the centuries however, the RCL*, which we follow, places it next week.
In this final Sunday of Epiphany, we are looking at the theme of God works for our good and His glory. As we read last week, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain, that the people came to be healed and to hear Jesus. They were healed and now he teaches us about love. St. Ambrose tells us that he comes to this place last wisely. He has taught the basics and now he teaches us the greatest virtue – Love. He teaches us this virtue in the words – love our enemies.
In this teaching of loving our enemies St. Augustin sees an apparent contradiction. He explains,
We are also prohibited both from loving that world, and, if we understand rightly, are commanded to love it. We are prohibited, of course, where it is said to us, “Do not love the world.” But we are commanded when it is said to us, “Love your enemies.” They are the world, which hate us…. We are prohibited from loving the fault in it and commanded to love its nature. So we rightly love and hate it, although it perversely loves and hates itself.1
The world has fallen, we are to love the good that God has created in it. I think we talk a lot about how our enemies are not people. (Although it often seems people are.) They are spiritual forces. We love men whom God has created, we hate the fault i.e. the sin nature and the sin that man has fallen into, but we love men who are the handiwork of God. Everything that God created is good and we cannot hate what He calls good.
This loving of enemies, Jesus did not merely teach, but he also lived. (In our 1st Testament reading, the patriarch Joseph prefigures this lifestyle as well, but more on that later.) St. Ambrose tells he intentionally prayed for his enemies as an example for us.
Indeed, when he was on the cross, he said in reference to his persecutors who were slandering him, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” so that he might pray for his slanderers, although he could have forgiven them himself.
Jesus chose to limit himself to his humanity on the cross, in the face of his enemies, in order to show us by way of example how to pray for our enemies. Because of His example, St. Stephen and countless other martyrs have had the courage to face their enemies with forgiveness, being preachers of the Lord’s suffering and also imitators of His patient gentleness. From our Lord and Saviour, to the lowliest saint we live a life of forgiveness and love for our enemies.
In this passage Jesus deals first with the major way to love i.e. our enemies, now we turn our attention to the seemingly smaller form of love i.e. compassion. Loving our enemies can seem daunting and in certain seasons it is constantly in front of us, like right now for example, but we can we go through long stretches of time seemingly without any enemies. However, those who need compassion and mercy are always around us.
Think about it, there are beggars at busy intersections or the entrances of grocery stores. People come up to us in parking lots asking for money. Grocery stores often have a charity that you can donate to as you are checking out. Then of course we know the need in Asia and there are other ministries that request our help as well.
The opportunity to give to those who ask of us is tremendous, what are we going to do with it? Of compassion, St. Cyril of Alexandria tells us,
For it is a most excelling, and very pleasing to God, and in the highest degree proper for pious souls. It may suffice for us to imprint upon our mind that compassion is an attribute of divine nature. “Be merciful” he says, “as your heavenly Father is merciful.”2
In compassion, we show that we truly are the children of God. Are we truly willing to be compassionate though? In the circumstances that I have just recounted, I very seldom choose to show compassion. I don’t want to be pestered. I hadn’t prepared myself to give, but this isn’t what God has called us to. He has instructed us to give to those that ask of us, because that is what He does for us. Do we ever stop to think that our requests might not be convenient to God? No, we trust that he is merciful to hear us, and He is simply calling us to imitate him.
This leads us into judging and forgiving. Compassion deals more with physical needs, while judging and forgiveness deals with our relational life with others. If we have compassion for others, can we not also forgive them for what they do to us and others? Judging others is not our place and will cause the reaction of others as St. Cyril of Alexandria explains,
The lawgiver and judge are One. The judge of the sinning soul must be higher than that soul. Since you are not, the sinner will object to you as judge. Why judge your neighbour? But if you venture to condemn him, having no authority to do it, it is yourself rather that will be condemned, because the law does not permit you to judge others.
Whoever therefore is guided by good sense, does not look on the sins of others, does not busy himself about the faults of his neighbour, but closely reviews his own misdoings.3
In these three areas, the first is easiest for me. I follow the doctrine of non-resistance so loving enemies, turning the other cheek, giving the tunic make sense to me, and I have purposed that if a situation like that ever comes up to do that. I have had situations where I prayed for those who have cursed me.
In principle, I know that I am to be compassionate to other people’s needs. I struggle to do it, but I can very easily see that it is the way that I am to live. Not judging others, that is a tough one for me. The church context that I grew up was in the reaction to liberalism and modernism. It was loudly touted that it was because of a lack of church discipline and judgement we were headed in a bad direction. Which may or may not be true, that can be discussed at another time. I got in the frame of mind that I had the right and even the duty to judge and confront those who didn’t toe the line as I saw it in Scripture.
This is not the teaching of Jesus and it is the core value that I have struggled the most with. To be a person of grace and love in the culture that is ingrained in me is very difficult. However, by insisting on judging others I am bringing myself into condemnation, because I am placing myself over the law and by inference over God the lawgiver. In the words of St. Cyril, I lack good sense. For me and maybe for you, I have to rebuild a culture of grace and forgiveness for the faults of others.
Joseph demonstrates for us what this lifestyle looks like. If you have ever studied the life of Joseph, you’ll see that his life prefigures Christ in many ways. In fact, St. Ambrose sees everything he says being echoed in the words of Christ in the gospels.
Joseph absolves his brothers of blame in his words, “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you…. So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.” St. Ambrose says of this,
What fraternal devotion! ….Christ would even excuse his brother’s crime and say that it is God’s providence and not humanity’s wickedness, since he was not offered up to death by humans but was sent by the Lord to life…When he was on the cross, Jesus said on behalf of the people, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”…And when they were startled and panic-stricken and thought they saw a spirit, again Jesus said to them, “Why are you disturbed, and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself…”4
We see from this that forgiveness absolves the offender from blame. This is a hard truth, but we can accept that. When we forgive, it is as if nothing has happened between us, but then it is taken a step further. Joseph comforts his brothers and Jesus comforts the disciples. Our brother under condemnation, needs our comfort. We cannot allow him to wallow in his grief, we must comfort him. This is the intent of Christ’s teaching in the Gospel passage and Joseph’s example here.
St. Chrysostom explains it this way and challenges us,
That servitude, Joseph is saying, procured for me this position. That sale brought me to this prominence. That distress proved the occasion of this honour to me. That envy produced this glory for me. Let us not simply hear this, but also emulate it. In the same way let us comfort those who are badly disposed to us relieving them of responsibility for what has been done to us and putting up with great equanimity, like this remarkable man.5
We have the example of Joseph, and the instruction and example of Christ, let us purpose to follow in it. Let us now look to the warning of David. We cannot afford to be provoked by evildoers, they may seem to get ahead by wickedness, but we must not imitate them. “Rather, be an imitator of apostolic doctrine, of prophetic grace and of the virtue of the saints. Then you will bear fruit and reap the harvest of your good deeds.”
Let us take a look at verse 8 as well, “Cease from anger, and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.” Anger or forgiveness are the choices that we are presented with. St. Basil warns us of this vice,
If by the prudent use of reason, you could cut away the bitter root of indignation, you would remove many other vices along with this, their source. Deceit, suspicion, faithlessness, malice, treachery, rashness, and a whole thicket of evils like these are offshoots of this vice…. It is a wicked demon coming to birth in our very souls, taking prior possession of our interior, like a shameless tenant, and barring entrance to the Holy Spirit.6
We see what a great danger anger is. We must put aside our anger, absolve the blame of our offenders and forgive. If we do not, it will destroy us. When we are contemplating anger, we are standing on thin ice. We are in danger of barring the Holy Spirit from our lives. Is this a risk we are willing to take?
Now let us take a look at the epistle reading and while it does talk about the future resurrection and that is a glorious subject, it also speaks of our resurrection from sin, which we will concentrate on this morning. We see that anger is wrong and forgiveness is right, but how do we live that?
Our body is neither perishable or imperishable in itself, in just the same way our soul is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It is capable of becoming either of these by the choices that we make. Also we do not have one body that we use here on earth and a different one in the hereafter it is one and the same body. What does it mean that we can have a spiritual body? St. Augustin has an answer for us.
For as, when the spirit serves the flesh, it is fitly called carnal, so, when the flesh serves the spirit, it will justly be called spiritual. Not that it is converted into spirit, as some fancy from the words, “It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption,” but because it is subject to the spirit with a perfect and marvellous readiness of obedience, and responds in all things to the will that has entered on immortality,-all reluctance, all corruption, and all slowness being removed. For the body will not only be better than it was here in its best estate of health, but it will surpass the bodies of our first parents ere they sinned.
We live in forgiveness by subjecting ourselves to the desires of the Holy Spirit. This not only gives us better relationships with those on earth, but through continual submission to the Holy Spirit, we will be raised with a truly spiritual body. God came in an earthly body, so that this is possible. Now we can receive the Holy Spirit into our bodies making us spiritual bodies. We now bear the image of God as St. Chrysostom explains, “To ‘bear an image’ is not so much a matter of our nature as such, as of our choices and behaviour.”
Finally, in this passage it says flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God. The fathers are unanimous on this point and it would take too much time to read the quotes of Novatian, Ambrosiaster, Chrysostom, Jerome, Isaac of Nineveh and maybe others. To say it in short flesh and blood means disobedience and wickedness. It is not saying that our physical bodies cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. It is saying our sin cannot enter. Our bodies are and will be redeemed.
To sum up what the Scripture is teaching us this morning, we are to love, forgive, pray for our enemies, absolve them from guilt and comfort them. We are to show compassion to those who need it. Let us also show forgiveness and grace to our neighbours and not judgement. We are to keep from anger because this opens our lives up to all kinds of vices and bars the Holy Spirit from our lives, and finally we are to submit to the Holy Spirit in everything.
~ Dn. Fr. Matthew
*The RCL is a three year order of readings for the church calendar.
1 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 108
2 Ibid. 109
3 ibid. 110
4 Thomas C. Oden and Mark Sheridan, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament II (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 291
5 Ibid. 292
6 Thomas C. Oden and Craig A. Blaising and Carmen S. Hardin, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament VII (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 291
7 Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D., Editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume 2, Augustin: City of God, Christian Doctrine, originally published in the United States by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1887 (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishing Marketing, LLC), 255-256
Cornelius, Peter von, 1783-1867. The Recognition of Joseph by His Brothers, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54199 [retrieved May 24, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_von_Cornelius_004.jpg.