Sunday, February 16, 2014

“Be Ye Perfect.” Holiness In the Midst of Humanness. A Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time for 2.23.14 from Matthew 5:38-48.

February 23, 2014
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A.
(revised from a homily first
posted on 2.13.11) 

 The Lectionary Gospel reading for this, the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time, ends with the words, 
"So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Can there be any more challenging textual call than this? 

We, who inhale corruption and exhale mendacity, we are to be perfect like the Almighty? Like Nicodemus of old we are stupefied in our wondering, 
"How can these things be?" 
Or as Isaiah said when he envisions the LORD in his temple: 
“Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”
Yet, there it stands, brilliant and blatant -- You! Be Holy!  

Does Jesus really mean this to be part of my practice, this holiness? 

Well…yes, I think he does. 

And, what is even more compelling are the points of perfection Jesus includes in this section of the sermon, that is the practices included in the, 
"Be Perfect as GOD is Perfect."
"You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance..."
or -- 
“You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies...”
Of necessity, then, this homily will be brief for I honestly have little understanding of holiness, at least not as Jesus here describes it. Oh, I can deliver on some sort of cultural/fundamentalist holiness, the kind all of us were taught -- "We don't smoke and we don't chew and we don't go with those who do," but real holiness, GOD-likeness holiness, well, that's something else again.

To be sure, this points to the truth that most of us can talk a good spiritual game, but when push comes to shove the majority probably must question whether we actually live out the Gospel content or if we merely offer lives that fall back on those old life-scripts? You know, those old habit patterns that cause us to lash out and meet our own needs at the expense of the other, seeking only later to baptize these selfish practices with religious phrases  such as -- “No one is perfect” or “We live by grace, not by law”. 

And, while these thoughts may be true, if they are offered as skin over a sinful heart that wishes not to change, well we become the hypocrite? 

Anyway, I know how I must honestly face this question of holiness. Usually with regret.

But, wait a moment. What if the Christian actually took these words of Jesus with total seriousness? What if we actually attempted to get beyond our cherished rage and insulted feelings, and genuinely -- under the power of the Spirit of course -- attempted to live out the Jesus-way of non-retaliation, going the second mile and loving those who use us and hate us? 

What would this mean? What is at stake?

First, I must insist that this is how Jesus really lived. What we have presented here in the sermon are the in-truth practices of the Galilean Prophet who was more that a prophet. Said clearly, his life backed-up his words. According to the standard that he himself set, he was holy.

Therefore, if we must pattern life  after him — and what is he if not our pattern — then I take this to mean that this life can somehow and in some way, be done. (I mean, why call us to follow him if it can't be done?) 

Hope dawns.

Second, I must also insist that this practice of holiness is critical for the power of the Gospel, and is more than individualistic and pietistic punctuation. The kind of holiness here pictured by Jesus in the sermon -- that of sacrifice and chosen-brokenness before a shattered world -- encases the Gospel with an incredible raw power that eventually compels the open heart toward an honest hearing.

And, third, I must finally insist the stinging weight that these holiness practices demand is in point of fact what it means to follow the Christ. One need only add the call to forgive your enemies and you have the primary actions of the Christian Gospel that must be lived out in the world.

OK.  So, how should we proceed to holiness?

I would say that we cannot live out holiness alone. We need the Spirit of the risen Christ in us, and the people of the Gospel -- the faith community -- surrounding us. 

To begin, we would say that the Spirit of the Risen Christ indwells the believer and empowers them (us) toward holiness, enabling them (us) to live out the continuing life of the Christ. This may seem hocus-pocus and mumbo-jumbo, but it really is nothing of the kind. 

From Jesus himself and especially from the early church we are taught that the Spirit is sent for us by the Christ:
"But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you..” (John 16:5-7)
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; (Ephesians 1:13)
The Spirit, then, empowers our weakened flesh and our scattered will enabling us to choose and to enact the way of the Christ. It cannot be otherwise. But this does not mean we are solely acted upon. 

No, we still have a part in this deeply challenging way of life. Hear St. Paul’s writing, this time from Galatians:
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:16-25)

Notice the final phrase: 
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.” 

This walk with the Spirit is really what is in view here, I think. As we are under the Spirit’s control we are in step with the Spirit. As we are walking the out-living or our lives, step-by-step, we are empowered by the Spirit to continue the incarnation life of the Christ -- 
Christ lives in me 
-- says St. Paul (Galatians 2:20b).

But this is not all, for we are also surrounded by GOD’s people, loving each another, bearing each other’s burdens, praying for each other, thus fulfilling the law of Christ. Hear again St. Paul, again from Galatians:
1 My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. (Galatians 6:1-3)
So, we share the each other’s problems and troubles -- each other's non-holiness -- bearing the weight of the community’s flaws and sins, even while they bear ours. This is sometimes a brutal offering of sacrifice. This means we are called to love and accept and forgive the other with anyhow love, even as they love and accept and forgive us anyhow. 

This act of absorbing the pain of the fallen human being in front of me is how holiness flowers in the community, for this burden bearing is meant to make us stronger, to bring about our own true humility and to erode the selfishness found deep in our hearts.

So, let’s be clear, I am asserting that apart from the empowering Spirit and the uplifting discipleship community there is no way to live out this calling to perfection. And even with this help we still, all to often, far, far too often, stumble and fall.

However, is failure an excuse not to try? Should we toss in the towel and live for ourselves just because the calling of Christ is struggle, is difficult? No! For, we must remember that genuinely following the Christ means we follow the way of the brokenness, the way of sacrifice, and the way of the cross. That is, the entire enterprise is struggle and pain and suffering. If you believe otherwise, then you were lied to from the start of the journey.

This means, as a community, we must once again take the words of the Master with grave seriousness, not allowing our broken humanity and our drift toward selfishness to present us with excuses, so that the struggle is surrendered.

Finally, there is then one additional bit of help I would offer. We must break-down this task toward holiness to comprise only the very moment we have now. It is only in this particular moment when I am empowered to be like my Heavenly Father.  It is only in this existential moment, the one that is now mine, which I now live out in front of the LORD, where I can find his will and his ways and offer him the sacrifice of obedience. And, it is only in this moment-present when I can keep in step with the Spirit of power and thus obey the Spirit’s calling to follow Jesus? 

If I think in terms of some sort of a life-time of obedience and perfection then I will surely fall from the sheer weight of the burden. The waves of discouragement will drag me to failure for I know that I cannot follow Christ for an hour, let alone a lifetime. But, if I know that all I am called to do is follow Jesus right now, in the decisions that must be made in this present-I-now-have, well that is something else. Holiness, then, is no easier, but it seems more manageable. 

To be sure, honesty demands that the truth be said: We will never attain the full length of holiness, not as our Father in heaven is holy, but what must be quickly added is that there can be substantial truth and Christ-likeness if we will surrender this moment to the Spirit’s power and to the Spirit-empowered discipleship community, putting GOD and the other before our own comfort and entertainment.