05 - Be Merciful, Oct 5, 2008

2 Corinthians 6:1-10

Luke 6:31-36

“Become merciful just as your Father is merciful.” There is much more than meets the eye here.

One notes first that the word translated as “thanks” or “reward” or even “credit” in the English translations – as in, “what credit or thanks or reward do you have?” – is in fact the word for grace so that we could translate the Lord’s command more literally like this: “If you love those who love you, what grace is yours? And if you do good to those who are good to you, what grace is yours? Love your enemies and do good and lend, hoping for nothing in return and your reward will be great. Indeed, you will become sons of the Most High (i.e. that is the reward). Therefore, become merciful as your Father also is merciful.”

That grace is the key word here is a clue that Jesus is not just outlining a different ethical behavior to distinguish the Christian Faith from other religions or philosophies; he is referring to the New Covenant or the New Testament that completes and perfects the Old Covenant. This was the covenant God made with Abraham.  Jesus is teaching us here how to rise up out of this earthly life and into the life of God in order to become sons and daughters of the Most High: love your enemies, do good to those who wrong you, give without expecting anything in return. Live like this and God will become your Father and like any son, you will become like your Father.

Understand that for the bible, only God lives. Man was made from the dust of the ground. He didn’t become a living soul until God breathed into him the breath of life, his Holy Spirit. When Adam sinned, he fell away from God and from life. This earthly life we now live is “dead” even though we are living. For one thing – the most obvious – everyone dies in this life. No one escapes death. We are dead even though we are “alive” when we live in total forgetfulness and ignorance of God. What preoccupies those “living” in this life is not to do the will of God but how to stay alive, how to get ahead, how to keep death at bay as long as possible. We are preoccupied with the acquisition of as many good things of the world as possible in the hope that we will get way ahead and lead a long and comfortable life. We can see that none of our worldly riches, neither fame nor position, not even good health or good looks save anyone from death. Yet, instead of repenting of our self-centeredness, we only absorb ourselves more deeply in the acquisition of more good things, more comforts, hoping that we won’t die quite so quickly.

The fear of death gives priority to self-preservation. One lives to survive by doing good only to those who do good to him; one loves only those who love him; one lends only to those who will pay him back, with interest, to make sure one always has enough and then some to acquire all the good things in life one thinks one needs in order live in comfort for as long as possible. Such a life absorbed in self-preservation gives rise to strife, violence and war when the other becomes a threat to one’s comfort and security. Earthly man religiously obeys God only so long as obedience to God doesn’t threaten his comfort and security. Then man’s desire to preserve himself takes over even if it means, in the end, murdering God himself on the Cross.

The Old Testament gave shape to Israel’s earthly life by keeping Israel in remembrance of God through the Law of Moses that governed every aspect of Israel’s life both private and social. The Law of Moses could keep Israel in remembrance of God, but it could not deliver Israel from death or from the fear of death. It could give Israel the precepts of God, but it could not give the divine life of God. For one thing, it was sealed not with the blood or the life of God but with the blood, the life, of goats and calves, irrational, dumb beasts who are themselves living a dead life.

Therefore, to love those who hate you, to do good to those who wrong you, to lend without hoping for any return – in short, to practice this kind of mercy in which you put the welfare of the other ahead of your own self-preservation – is saying something dramatic about death and the purpose of this life. It would say that you are some kind of morbid suicidal nut in love with death and not life because in these acts you are choosing death over self-preservation – except for the fact that you are practicing this kind of mercy that gives precedent to the preservation of the other as being the mercy of the Father in heaven who is not the God of the dead but of the living!

In a life given over to the preservation of the other in deeds of mercy, loving one’s enemy, doing good to those who wrong you, lending without hoping for any return, one bears witness to the Gospel, the Good News, that Christ has destroyed him who held the power of death, the devil, and he has delivered us from the fear of death so that we no longer have to live for ourselves, working to keep death at bay as long as possible, but we can live for God and for the other as we were meant to live when God made us at the beginning in his image and likeness.

In Christ’s victory on the Cross, death was made to be the death of death, not the death of life. In receiving Holy Baptism, and in living the life of Christ we commend ourselves and our whole life to Christ our God as servants of God, just as Christ commended himself to the Father. In afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, as St Paul writes to us this morning, we do not allow ourselves to hate those who wrong us, but we take up our cross in faith and give ourselves over to purity and knowledge of God in patience and in kindness and in genuine love in the Holy Spirit – because in Christ, even though we die, we live. Even though we are punished, we are not put to death. Even though we may sorrow, we rejoice because our life is in Christ and in Christ we are no longer slaves of death; we are slaves of God. We live no longer in the fear of death. We live in the fear of God, and in this holy fear we practice his commandments. We do good to those who wrong us, we love our enemy, we give to those in need, and when we walk in this New Life of Christ, we are drawing near to God in faith and in love and we are becoming partakers of the divine nature, sons of the Most High.

And so, when we love those who hate us, grace is ours because we are living in that same grace that God has poured out on everyone, even on our enemies and on those who wrong us and hate us. When we do good to those who wrong us, grace is ours because we are living not in the earthly life of self-preservation but in the grace of that divine life of the New Covenant sealed with the blood and the life of God. When we give without hoping for return, grace is ours because we are living in the grace of God who gave his only-begotten Son to the world that whoever believes in him might not perish but have life everlasting and become children of God, sons and daughters of the Most High, no longer afraid of death because no longer subject to death.

The New Covenant of the Gospel is much, much more than an ethic or a different set of rules or a distinctive set of religious ideas about God. The New Covenant of the Gospel is about the divine life of God that has conquered death by Christ’s death on the Cross and has been given freely to all who take up their cross and draw near in the fear of God, with faith and love. God is calling us, even we who have been baptized, to come to our senses and realize the great gift we have received in his Holy Church, and to repent, to turn away from our preoccupation with this worldly life and actually to live this Christian life of God that is eternal and which he has given to us in his holy Church. To rise up into this life of the Church and to become a Christian, a follower of Christ is to unite ourselves with Christ in our heart and in our mind and in our body. We unite ourselves to Christ through prayer in order to cultivate in our hearts a love for the God who so loved us; we unite ourselves to Christ through reading of the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Church and the lives of the saints, in order to reshape our mind in the remembrance of God and the vision of heaven; and we unite ourselves to Christ through practicing his commandments: loving our enemy and doing good and giving without hope of return in order to shape our outer life in the likeness of Christ. For, we need no longer worry about self-preservation; for we have been made alive in Christ who has conquered death by his death and delivered us from the fear of death. May God help us therefore to live in the fear of God and not in the fear of death, and to become merciful as he is merciful, so that he is our life and our God and we his people,[1] sons and daughters of the Most High, children of God. Amen.

[1] Jer 38:31-34 LXX; 31:31-34 Hebrew text.