05 - Become Merciful, Oct 2, 2011

II Corinthians 6:1-10

Luke 6:31-36

“Become merciful as your Father is merciful.” This is a command to become what we really are: like God, for we are created in the image and likeness of God. In St Matthew, the Savior says the same thing in a different way: “Be perfect (or whole, or complete) as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5:48) You were created in the image of God. Now, become complete. Become like God. Unite yourself to Christ and walk in the way of His commandments. Grow in Him and in His salvation to become, in union with Christ, like God in the very fiber of our being.

These different commands to become like God are different forms of the command to deny ourselves and take up our cross to follow Christ. You have received Christ through faith and have been raised from death to life in the waters of your baptism. You have become children of God through the grace of the Holy Spirit. Now, in the robe of light with which you have been clothed, go today to work in the Lord’s vineyard to become like God. This is the work of crucifying the old man in us with all its lusts. This is the work of the cross, the work of faith by which we live out our baptismal oath to unite ourselves to Christ. Clothed in Him, we make our way to the Chalice to receive His most pure and precious body and blood and to become like God by partaking of the divine nature. But, we need to understand that we are making our way to the Chalice not just on Sunday morning. We make our way to the Chalice every day of the week by taking up our cross every day of the week, every hour, every moment: taking up our cross to crucify the old man in us with all its lusts, that we may approach the Chalice on Sunday morning, the Day of the Lord, to partake of Christ and to become like God in the joy of Christ’s Holy Resurrection.

This is the work of faith that we do with Christ, as St Paul writes to us in this morning’s epistle lesson: “We then, as workers together with Him also plead with you not to receive the grace of God in vain.” The grace of God is not in vain if we lay hold of it and do the work of cultivating the seed of grace that has been sown in us at our baptism. The seed of grace is the seed of Christ’s risen body. This is what was sown in us at our baptism. Now, we must work, we must exercise, we must take up our cross, take up our bed, go today to work in the Lord’s vineyard, so that the muscles of the risen body that has been planted in us do not atrophy from disuse. We want to make those muscles strong so that we can follow Christ; so we can walk in procession with Him as He comes forth from the tomb like a Bridegroom to lead us into the Kingdom of Heaven.

This Gospel vision is full of glory, light, joy and hope. It reveals to us the dignity that is ours, which the world can’t reveal to us. We are created in the image of God. And, we are called to become like God so much so that we become partakers, communicants of His divine nature as His children born from above. Having been given this vision of the Gospel, the question now is put to us: Do we want this? Do we want to partake of God’s own glory and virtue and become like Him in the joy of His Holy Resurrection?

To some degree, we must want this, because we are here this morning. Therefore, let’s look at this command of the Savior more closely; and, let’s pray that when we hear all that is contained in this command of the Savior, if we find that it is a hard saying, we will not be like the rich man who walked away from the Lord because he preferred to keep to his old ways rather than learn how to love the Lord with all his heart. Let’s pray that we will be like the one who prayed to the Savior: “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Lord, I do not love you as I should. I am weak. I am a sinner. But, I want to love you. Heal me, make me whole, teach me how to become like the Father in Heaven, and help me to do what you command.

This command, “Be merciful as your Father is merciful,” directs us to the fact that we are created in the image and likeness of God. But it also takes us to the OT. In the book of Leviticus, we read in three places the Lord’s command to Israel: “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” (Lv 11:44-45; 19:2 and 20:7) Leviticus gives very specific instructions to the people telling them how to go about fulfilling this command to be holy as God is holy. In the first passage from Leviticus, the Israelites are told what kinds of animals they may eat and what kind they may not eat. One thinks in this regard of the practice of the Church, and how we are directed to observe seasons of fasting, to guard against gluttony. Gluttony, I think, is not just eating too much. It is also indulging ourselves in food we don’t need to eat. In the second passage from Leviticus, the command to be holy as God is holy is obeyed through keeping oneself sexually pure. Leviticus gives a long list of the kinds of sexual practices the Israelites may not engage in. In a word, the Israelites may not engage in sex outside of marriage. And that is true for those who are in the Church. Indeed, the Savior says that a man who just looks on a woman with lust has committed adultery in his heart. Sexual purity for the Christian, therefore, pertains to what we allow our eyes to gaze on and our minds to dwell on. Sexuality is holy within the confines of marriage, for marriage is an image of Christ and His bride, the Church. Promiscuity is an image of self-centeredness and faithlessness, which is not like God, for God is faithful and He gives His only-begotten Son to the world that the world might be saved. If we are not called to marriage, then we are called to a monastic life, in which we work to become like the angels in heaven, offering our erotic desire towards heaven that we may behold the beauty of the Heavenly Bridegroom, Christ our God.

Finally, in the third passage from Leviticus, the command to be holy is kept by honoring one’s father and mother, honoring the Lord’s Sabbaths, i.e., the days of rest, keeping all the commandments and statutes of God, and not walking in the ways of the nations. This includes not offering the children to the god Moloch. In other words, Israel is forbidden to give her children to the god, Moloch, in child sacrifice, as did the nations.

Because the people of Canaan practiced homosexuality, promiscuity and fornication, pornography let’s say, and adultery, because they did things that were an abomination to God, such as sacrificing their children to the god, Moloch, He cast them out of the land He had promised Israel. And He threatened Israel: if they did these things, He would cast them out of the land, too. The message is clear for us. If like Israel we do these things, if we are sexually impure, if we sacrifice our children to Moloch, if we do not do the work of becoming holy as God is holy, we, too, will be an abomination to the Lord and He will cast us out with all the nations who did these things.

I believe these Old Testament principles still apply for  Christians today. How? The matters pertaining to sexual purity are easy enough to see. But, what about the command not to sacrifice the children to Moloch and not to honor the Lord’s Sabbaths? In what programs and activities of today might we find a modern day “Moloch”, that we are tempted to give our children to on Sunday mornings and on feast days of the Church? If we are not bringing our children to the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning, but instead are taking them to other activities on Sunday morning, are we not doing the modern day equivalent of sacrificing them to a god like Moloch? Do we want to become like God; or do we want to become like Moloch?

The OT injunctions on holiness pertain to the outer man. The Lord in this morning’s Gospel addresses the inner man. All the things he tells us to do in this morning’s Gospel have to do with those we do not like, who are not our friends, who are even our enemies. We are called to do good to them just as we would to our friends because we are called to become merciful and holy in our very being, so that we have become like God, and the image of God that we are has become perfect and complete in our union with Christ.

This work of faith begins with the OT work of purifying the outer man through sexual purity, keeping the fasts, honoring the Lord’s Sabbaths, i.e., the services, prayers and offices of the Church that culminate in the “reasonable sacrifice” of the Divine Liturgy. This work of faith is completed by the work of the inner man: not giving in to or acting out our feelings towards those we don’t like, but being good to them as the Lord has been good to us. This is the work of taking up our cross to follow Christ. It is the work by which we walk from the font of our baptism to the Chalice every day, every hour, every moment in order to prepare ourselves to receive Christ and to become partakers of the divine nature, when His grace descends on us body and soul and we become by the operation of the Holy Spirit like God: merciful, holy and perfect as God is merciful, holy and perfect. Amen.