A Voice From The Isles:
In the Epistle for today from the closing verses of Chapter 6 of the Second Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul gives us a challenge and a promise. He challenges us to change how we are living; and he promises us that if we separate ourselves from idols, God will be loving and gentle and care for us with great mercy. St Paul is trying to communicate to us a single idea—that, in his words, “we are the temple of the living God.” In other words, we should be committed primarily to God, and not to something that is simply a personal desire within us, but not from God.
St Paul is very sure that this idea is quite important and that every Christian to whom he preaches should understand it. Already, in Chapter 3 of the First Letter to the Corinthians, St Paul has challenged the people of Corinth and us with a question: “Do you not know that you yourselves [in the plural] are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.” St Paul is writing here to the whole of the Christian community in Corinth or in any other place or at any other time where Christians gather—men and women, adults, teenagers and children.
Now, I don’t think of myself as particularly holy. No way! Being a priest or deacon does not make me holy. In fact, it may put me in great danger of not being holy, because I am being asked to draw closer to God and to bring many people around me closer to God. That is the challenge with which St Paul confronts me today. The deacon’s role in the Divine Liturgy is to serve as a bridge between the people and the priests. That is why each time I begin a litany urging all of us, whatever our ages—from the children in the back to the choir in the front—to “pray to the Lord,” it is right that I should face you, the people of God, so that when I turn back to the altar I am supported by your prayer, as I dare to face God; and you are, I hope, encouraged by my prayer and the holding of my orarion over you to join me in facing God.
How can each of us draw closer to God? We can come here to St Aidan’s to worship. We can receive the Eucharist. We can become friends with each other and listen to each other’s hopes and problems. In the book, Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator, a former agent of the FBI—the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the States—Gary Noesner, concludes his final chapter, called “Being Our Best When Others Are at Their Worst,” with this insight. He writes: “If I’ve gained any wisdom in my FBI career, it has come from recognizing the degree to which everyday life can mirror the dynamics of the destructive standoffs I faced in my FBI job. Each of us is called upon to negotiate stressful situations in business, social encounters and family life time and again. From what I’ve observed, the happiest and most successful people tend to be those who are able to remain calm at these difficult times and put aside emotions such as pride or anger that stop them from finding common ground. We all need to be good listeners and learn to demonstrate our empathy and understanding of the problems, needs, and issues of others. Only then can we hope to influence their behaviour in a positive way. You might even say that all of life is a negotiation.”
Now, I realize that Stalling for Time: My Life as an FBI Hostage Negotiator is not the kind of book you would expect to hear about in a sermon. Yet it is true for all of us, in this church at this time that we do need to listen to each other, to reach out and seek to understand each other, and to serve each other, especially at times of personal need or confusion. However, note that Mr. Noesner’s aim is to negotiate in order to be happy and successful and remain calm. That is certainly not the aim of St Paul. While St Paul is an outstanding negotiator as shown by his ability to reconcile Jews and Gentiles as Christians at the Council in Jerusalem, St Paul is primarily seeking to reconcile all people, whatever their previous ideas or backgrounds, to Christ. Following the teaching of St Paul about Christ will not lead to a happy, successful and calm life on earth.
Yet St Paul is concerned about hostages. He sees many of the Corinthians and many of us as hostages to the world, people who have been captured by the world, rather than by the Orthodox Church. How do we get captured by the world? How do we become hostages to the world, and not servants of the Church? In my own experience, it’s quite easy. Live a comfortable life, eat well, seek more money, relax at home with the computer—surfing the web, sending emails and spending lots of time on Facebook—watch plenty of television. You see, the world does not use the tactics of the terrorist—no one, at least in this country, is coming into this church threatening to kill us or demanding a ransom for our lives. No, the world is much more subtle. The world is suggesting: “Why not stay in bed on Sunday morning? You’re tired. You need a rest. Have something to eat on Sunday morning—you’re hungry, at least, stay in bed a little while longer and be late for church. Miss the sermon—you’re already a baptised Orthodox Christian. After all, you’re coming to church.”
I would have to admit that many of my own ideas and many aspects of my personality have been formed by the world, not by the Church. That bothers St Paul, because he is concerned about people in any century who are committed to idols—people like us who are at times too consumed by our own ego-driven goals. Therefore, St Paul has placed himself in the lives of the Corinthians and of us to negotiate with us. He wants to bring us back from the world into the fullness of life that Christ offers to us in His Church.
How does St Paul propose to draw us closer to God? Quite simply, St Paul believes that it is wrong to live our lives in such a way that we are comfortable within a highly secular world, whether that world be ancient Corinth or modern Britain. In the Epistle for today, quoting many passages from the Old Testament, St Paul urges us to be separate from the world. “What agreement” he asks, “has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, just as God said: ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I shall be their God, and they shall be My people. Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. And I will be a father to you. And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ says the Lord Almighty .”
To conclude, God wishes to dwell in us and to walk among us—now. He is our God; and we are His people. Therefore, we are each challenged today to come out of the midst of a very secular world and be separate. Then God will truly welcome each of us and draw us closer to Him within the Orthodox Church in His Son, Christ. Amen.
Deacon Emmanuel Kahn