In the epistle for today St Paul says to the Corinthians and to us: “In your faith you are standing firm.” What does it mean to stand firm in our faith in Christ? Why is St Paul now so confident that the Christians in the very secular city of Corinth have learned to stand firm in their faith in Christ?
We are not very sure about what was happening in Corinth about the year A.D. 55 when St. Paul wrote this letter; and we will never know precisely what happened. Someone in the Corinth community had done something wrong, something inappropriate for a Christian to do; but it is not clear who the particular sinner was or what he or she did. What is clear is that the incident is past; the person has been punished; and now, says St Paul, later in Chapter 2, “forgive and comfort [that person], otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for [that person].”
St Paul is telling us that we do not need to know precisely what happened and what particular sin was committed by someone at such and such a time in such and such a manner. However, we do need to understand the healing balm, the healing ointment that is to be applied both to the sinner and to the community. The sinner must not “be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” The community must reaffirm its love for the sinner. That prescription applies at all times in all Christian communities, including our own parish today. We are all sinners. We all need to admit our sins in confession and to recognise that God has forgiven us. Indeed, it is because God has forgiven us that we can then forgive ourselves. We must not be “overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” no matter how serious how sin might have been. We do need to ask forgiveness of God and of anyone we hurt; however, we must also learn to forgive ourselves.
Often it is the affirmation of love that wells up within our family, and within the Christian community that energises us, that empowers us to forgive ourselves. Once we admit a particular sin, and we have confessed it, that sin is then forgiven by God. That sin is in fact forgotten by God. Therefore, we too can each forget our past sins and acknowledge that we have within us the Christ-given power to implement the will of God in our own lives.
What is that will of God for each of us? The Beatitudes, set out today in the Gospel of St Luke is a good place to start—especially Chapter 6, Verse 31: “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.” That is a challenge—we all know how we would like to be treated—with love and fairness and the opportunity to exercise our talents—so it would be good if we could slowly learn to treat others in the same manner. Perhaps we will not always succeed; perhaps at times our own needs will grasp at their own fulfilment instead of seeking to fulfil the hopes and needs of others. However, we can still seek to follow that way of life given to us by Christ and by St Luke: “Treat others the same way you want them to treat you.”
The fourth century preacher and teacher, St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, has suggested that our example should be taken from the Song of Songs, Chapter 2, verse 4, which is translated in the Septuagint as “array love over me.” That translation from the Greek suggests that “array” spelled a-r-r-a-y, means to place “love as a signal over me.” That is powerful: if we have love within us, that is indeed a signal to others that we are capable of friendship, that we are capable of treating them as they would like to be treated. St Ambrose’s own translation is even more powerful. In his Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, St Ambrose asks Christ to “set in order love in me.”
To set love in order within ourselves, we need to begin by loving ourselves and then by treating others the way we would like to be treated. We begin by loving ourselves, because it is only when we respect and love ourselves as we are, as repentant sinners, that we can truly set love in order within ourselves and reach out to others. We must learn to respect ourselves sufficiently, both our strengths and our weaknesses, that we then gain the vision and the capacity to love others. Slowly, slowly, from experiences, both painful and joyous, we learn to love Christ and love ourselves as repentant sinners in unity with Christ who has the power to forgive sin—even our own current sin that we are perhaps still struggling to admit fully and to bring to confession.
We often forget that both the Jewish and the Christian visions of a healthy life are linked with loving ourselves. The book of Leviticus, Chapter 19, Verse 18 states: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself; I am the Lord.” Christ echoes those words in the Gospel of St Matthew, Chapter 19, Verse 19: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” In a sense then, the teaching here from the Gospel of St Luke—“Treat others the same way you want them to treat you,” is a preparation both for loving ourselves and for loving others. We can enhance our spiritual journey by accepting that it is appropriate to treat others as we wish to be treated; and this is an important initial step toward loving others as ourselves. I know, I know, from personal experience, that we hesitate to love ourselves because we know how many faults we have. We each know better than anyone else how many faults we have. However, Christ does not share our hesitations: He loves us as we are; and whatever faults we have, the more we accept our need to repent, the greater Christ loves us. The journey of love then is inevitably a paradoxical journey in which the greater our needs, the greater Christ and others can love us. So it has always been; and so it will always be.
Now the Gospel reading today from St Luke sets out a further challenge in Chapter 6, Verse 35: “Love your enemies.” Not only are we challenged in the Beatitudes to treat others as we would like to be treated, but we are also asked to love those who cause us all kinds of trouble, those who do not treat us as we would like to be treated. That is considerably more difficult than simply treating others the way we want them to treat us, especially because we often do not understand why someone is causing us so much trouble, why they are behaving as an enemy to us in some way—at home, at work, at school, at church—doing things to us we not want them to do. Here again St Ambrose sets out for a model for us, when the saint writes: “What Christ said in word, he proved also by example. 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’…”
That is often true of those who persecute us in small or large ways: they may not know what they are doing. They may not realise that at times we need to be quiet; at times we need to pray before we act; at times we need to ask and to seek to understand why someone is making an unexpected request of us. However, at other times there may well be considerable evil within that other person; they may indeed know what they are doing; and they may be trying to annoy us deeply, especially if they are not Christian; and they are sneakily trying to test us to see if we really are the Christians we claim to be.
In such a difficult situation, when we are confronted by genuine evil, the Gospel reading for today concludes with a further challenge that is also a hope: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” And the next line, from the words of Christ is quite explicit: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; and do not condemn; and you will not be condemned; pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and it will be given to you.” Thus even this immense challenge to love our enemies is changed into a manageable appeal to our hearts—be merciful to others even when they make mistakes in their relationships to each of us. Do not condemn them, but pardon them; and then you in return will be pardoned. Christ’s message is clear: if you give of yourself to others, much love “will be given to you.”
The fourth century Bishop of Jerusalem, St Cyril of Alexandria, perceptively and practically reminds us: “The judge of the sinning soul must be higher than that soul. Since [you are yourself a sinner, and] you are not [higher than the one who has sinned against you], the sinner [who has sinned against you] will object to you as judge. Why judge your neighbour? . . . Whoever therefore is guided by good sense, does not look at the sins of others, does not busy himself about the faults of his neighbour, but closely reviews his own misdoings.” St Cyril closes his reflection with words from two psalms. First, Psalm 129 (130), Verses 3 and 4: “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You. . . .” In other words, we are all sinners when we stand in faith before God, but when we ask God for mercy and we do not judge others, we are forgiven, we are released from the pain and anguish of being sinned against. Furthermore, St Cyril closes his homily on Luke with the words of Psalm 102 (103), Verse 14 urging us to “remember that we are dust.”
To conclude, in our faith we are standing firm, Sunday after Sunday, week after week, as we celebrate the Divine Liturgy here as a Christian community. We are all aware that we are sinners, but we are also repentant sinners whose past sins have been forgiven by Christ. Therefore, we can love ourselves and supported by our Christian community here at St Aidan’s we can love others. We can learn to treat others the same way we want them to treat us. We can even love and be merciful to our enemies because we ourselves have experienced that a loving God is merciful to each of us. Let us rejoice together then as we become aware that we can indeed live out the Beatitudes in our own lives. We are all dust; and when we die that is what will remain of us—dust, for a little while at least! However, although our bodies will become holy dust, for now we are living our lives in the present moment as repentant sinners in unity with Christ. Slowly, slowly, each of us discover God’s plan for our lives, to love ourselves and to reach out and love Christ and love others with the same or greater depth that we love ourselves. Amen.
Father Deacon Emmanuel Kahn