11 The Good Samaritan - November 11, 2007

Ephesians 2:14-22

Luke 10:25-37

Behind both the Gospel parable and epistle reading for this morning is the issue of circumcision. In the first decades of the Church’s ‘manifestation’ on earth, there was disagreement between those who followed the “gospel” of St Paul that Holy Baptism had replaced circumcision as the condition for incorporation into the “body of Christ” and those Jewish Christians who were demanding circumcision of Gentiles converting to the Christian Faith in accordance with the Law of Moses; in other words, they had to become Jews in order to become Christian.

It is actually rather critical that we understand the theological vision of St Paul’s “gospel”. That St Paul understood so clearly that Holy Baptism had replaced circumcision as the requirement for entering the Christian Faith is all the more remarkable when one remembers that before he himself was converted to Christ, St Paul was advanced in Judaism beyond many of his peers, extremely zealous for the ancestral traditions of his Jewish heritage – at the heart of which was the ordinance of circumcision.[1] Now, the Mosaic Law is quite clear about circumcision. God says to Abraham: “An uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”[2] What did St Paul, who before his conversion was so zealous for the traditions of his Jewish ancestors that he sought to destroy the Church, see in that bright light of Christ that appeared to him on the road to Damascus that so radically changed his understanding of the Mosaic Law?

In a word, he saw that those who would live to God must die to the life of this world completely, body, soul and mind. What needed to be ‘cut off’ wasn’t a small piece of foreskin but the whole body of sin: body, soul and mind. Circumcision doesn’t do anything to get us out of the life of this world. It effects only a minor change in the body, the body that needs to die, and it does not at all touch the heart.

St Paul’s Gospel teaches us that the life of the Christian Faith is not the life of this world tweaked or modified. It is not the acceptance of Jesus as one’s personal Savior – whatever that means. “Accept Jesus” and the only real difference is that your life may be modified to some degree because now you’re trying to practice Christ’s commandments – which is a good thing; but we must do more than just accept Christ. We must die in Christ to the life of the flesh. The Christian Faith is much more than accepting certain teachings and ideas as true; it’s much more than modifying our behavior. It’s about dying, body, soul and mind, to the life of the flesh and being born from above as a new creation, living no longer the life of this world but the life of God that is not of this world.

Circumcision, as part of the Mosaic Law, was given by God to serve as guardian of Israel, to keep Israel in mind of the one, true God and to keep Israel from following after other gods, until the time when not the generative organ but the heart, as the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, would be circumcised; i.e., when not just the foreskin but the whole body of sin, made to live in this world by the “spirit of disobedience,”[3] would be cut off and put to death, and God would raise up from the dead a “new creation”, creating in those raised up from the dead a clean heart made to live by a new and right Spirit,[4] the Holy Spirit. According to the prophet, Jeremiah, in this new creation, the Law of God would be engraved not on tablets of stone as in the creation that had grown old and corrupt because of sin, but it would be engraved on the heart because the life which the “new man” would live would not be that life animated by the spirit of disobedience that is the very life of this world, but it would be that life of God animated by the Spirit of God. This death of the old creation and its recreation in the life of God was accomplished in the death and resurrection of Christ; and the union of the whole man, both the outer and the inner man, with the new creation effected by the Lord’s Passion was accomplished not in circumcision, which modifies only the body, but in Holy Baptism, which puts the whole of us to death in Christ and raises the whole of us up in Christ as a new creation.[5]

The implications are critical. The Gospel that St Paul preaches goes much deeper than the body and all the bodily institutions and values of the world. It goes all the way to the heart. Circumcision pertains to the body, not the heart. If the Christian religion were centered on such ordinances as circumcision, it would be a religion that separates people from each other on the basis of their bodily characteristics, like the Jew is separated from the Gentile on the religious ground that the Jew is circumcised in the flesh; the Gentile is not. In our day, this religion of the circumcision has crept into Orthodoxy in the form of making the Orthodox Christian Faith into an ethnic religion whose distinguishing marks are physical characteristics such as shape of one’s nose or the color of one’s skin, and a distinctive cuisine. When some people think of Orthodox Christianity, they think first of perohi, falafil, baklava, stuffed cabbage. If I wanted to be this kind of Orthodox Christian, I would have to decide first if I wanted to be Greek or Russian Orthodox, Antiochian or Serbian or Ukrainian Orthodox, and then I would have to become Greek or Russian, Serbian or Arabic or Ukrainian before I could become a member of that particular Orthodox Church.

I don’t need to tell you that that is not the Orthodox Christian Faith. The Orthodox Christian Faith pertains not to bodily characteristics and not to ancestral traditions but to the heart; and so to all human beings because it touches us not on the surface but at the very center of our being: our heart and the spirit that animates our heart. By creating in us a clean heart and by putting in us a new and right Spirit, the God sanctifies our bodily characteristics and our ancestral traditions by baptizing them in the death and resurrection of his Son and making them alive not in the spirit of disobedience but in his Holy Spirit. In the Church, we can celebrate our ethnic ancestry not in themselves but on a much deeper level as living embodiments, particular “incarnations” of the new creation that is in Christ. Jew and Gentile, Serbian, Ukrainian, Russian, Greek, Slav and American are made each one living “stones” that are being fitted together, growing into a holy temple in the Lord, all of us with our different physical characteristics and ancestral traditions being built together into a dwelling of God in his Holy Spirit.[6]

Notice how, in the Gospel parable this morning, Christ is represented as a Samaritan – bitter enemies to the Jews. In other words, Christ has destroyed the body of sin, he has overthrown the death that rules the life of this world, which separates people on the basis of physical characteristics or ancestral heritage, and he now comes to the Jews from outside the ancestral heritage of the Jews, even though he was himself a Jew in the flesh. He comes to the Jews and to us not from the realm of this worldly life that goes no deeper than the flesh; he comes to us in his holy Resurrection from the spiritual realm of the heart that lies deeper than the flesh. In the heart made clean by its union with the death and resurrection of Christ, we are one even in the differences of our ethnic ancestry, for the life we all live in the Church is not the life of this world where people are separated according to their ethnic ancestry, but the life of the Holy Spirit whose law is the humility and compassion of God that is being written on the heart of all those who, having died to the life of this world through Holy Baptism, are now walking the days of their earthly sojourn in the new life of Christ’s holy resurrection by practicing the commandments of Christ.

Note the sacramental character of the acts done by the Samaritan to the man beset by the thieves and robbers. He pours on him oil and wine – a reference to the sacraments of Holy Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Eucharist. He takes him to the inn and takes care of him. This is the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who is all in all. He gives to the innkeeper – who represents the hierarchical priesthood of the Church, the holy apostles, the prophets, and the bishops – two denarii for the continued care and nourishment of the man. We could say these two denarii represent the Holy Scriptures and the sacramental worship of the Church. And this sets before us how we now walk through our life in this world so that we no longer walk in the spirit of disobedience that is the very life of this fallen world but rather in the waters of our Holy Baptism in which we died to the life of this world and were raised up in the newness of life of Christ’s holy resurrection.

Christ says to the lawyer who had asked him, who is my neighbor: go and do likewise. He means, go and show mercy to your neighbor – those who are helpless and in need around you – as did the Good Samaritan, or Christ our God. But it’s hard to show mercy when we are absorbed in ourselves. And it’s easy – even most natural – to show mercy when we are dying to ourselves. When we practice the commandments of Christ with a mind and heart centered on the disciplines of prayer, faithful observance of the sacramental worship of the Church, training our mind to dwell on what is of God rather than what is of the world – in these ways, we are dying in Christ, we are renouncing ourselves, and taking up our cross, and following him. As we die in Christ through these ascetical and moral disciplines of the Church, our heart should begin to soften and there should be a certain measure of joy and peace that descend on us. The sign of a softening heart is a greater awareness of our own sinfulness. We begin to mourn our greed, our arrogance and conceit, our pride and our vanity. A spirit of contrition and sorrow is born in us. We begin to feel more and more keenly our unworthiness, and we freely acknowledge the justice of God’s judgment against us: that we have sinned and done nothing good on the earth. This birth of contrition and sorrow in our soul is the evidence that we are dying in Christ. It is only to this contrition and brokenness of heart that God grants the sweetness of his Holy Spirit. This taste of the Spirit’s sweetness is the proof that the Gospel of the Church is true: that Christ is indeed risen from the dead. It is in such a heart that is dying to the self and tasting the goodness of the Lord, as the man set upon by the thieves experienced the goodness of the Good Samaritan, that we are able to go and do likewise in the same joy, humility and compassion of Christ our God, the Good Samaritan.

To die in Christ is to die to greed, conceit and selfishness. To die in Christ is to cultivate a broken and contrite heart in the confession of one’s sins. To die in Christ is to be raised up in a clean heart, made alive by a new and right spirit. To die in Christ is to transfigure our life on earth, and our death, into a witness to Christ’s victory on the Cross by which he has destroyed death by his death, and given life to all those in the tombs. In this experience of the mercy of God for us, we are commanded to “go and do likewise.” When we go and do likewise to our neighbor, those around us, we are dying to this world in Christ and we are walking in that newness of life with which he clothed us in our holy Baptism.

[1] Gal 1:14

[2] Gn 17:14

[3] Eph 2:2

[4] Cf. Ps 51

[5] Rom 6:4 & Gal 6:15

[6] Eph 2:20-22