17 February 2007

Deep and Wide: stretch pants and morality

7th Sunday OT: 1 Sam 26.2 (et al); 1 Cor 15.45-49; Luke 6.27-38
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Luke’s, St Paul’s, Church of the Incarnation


It’s been years in the making. And I’ve waited a long, long time, but with a little nervousness, I’m ready to confess something publicly: it’s time for my extreme makeover! Do you watch these shows on cable where crews of highly trained professionals descend on some poor soul’s house or wardrobe or car or hair or makeup? And then they spend the next hour ripping the unfashionable apart; destroying the old and installing the new; rouging every pale spot, spackling every wrinkle, painting every ill-colored curl; new art, new flowers, a new couch, tighter jeans, a sparkled halter top, and witchy-poo pointed boots…you know the shows, right? OK. Well, I’m ready for my makeover. Let’s contact the renovation crews and tell them we have an emergency case: an ample Dominican friar with a wardrobe from the Deep and Wide section of the Burlington Coat Factory and no budget for shoes. We won’t mention the ragweed facial hair or the tree-climbing possum toenails. Even professionals can be creeped out!

Paul teaches the Corinthians that the first man, Adam, “became a living being.” He was a natural man, of the earth, earthly. The “last Adam” became a “life-giving spirit.” He was a spiritual man, of heaven, heavenly. In the order of creation, the natural man came first, then the spiritual man. Adam then Christ. And just as we are creatures with bodies, we are earthly. And just as we are creatures with souls, we are heavenly. We bear the image of dust and the image of light. As rational animals, human persons, we are bodysouls. We are not bodies that contain a soul. We are not souls trapped by flesh and bone. We are persons created in the image and likeness of God. We live our lives in a world created to praise the Creator. So our moral choices are not just spiritual, not merely theoretical. Our moral choices are given flesh. And Christ has a claim on that flesh.

With what do we love our enemies? How do we do good for those who hate us? Why would we think to bless those who curse us instead of cursing them back? And why would we waste our time with God in prayer to pray for those who abuse us? What honor is there in allowing ourselves to be libeled, assaulted, persecuted, and reviled? What grace is there in giving to everyone who asks; lending without expecting repayment; loving our enemies and serving them? What dignity is there in forgiving wrongs, failing to judge justly criminal transgressions, failing to uphold the Law? The honor, grace, and dignity of doing these apparently ridiculous things is easy to see: you are the children of the Most High and he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked; therefore, be merciful, just as God is merciful. After all, before our baptismal makeovers, we stood outside ungrateful and wicked, wanting in, wanting mercy.

Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians gives us a way of thinking about our salvation history, that is, the way we have come to understand the story of our relationship with God. Our lives as redeemed creatures begins with Adam in the Fall and ends with Christ in Heaven. Adam loses eternal life. Christ restores it. Adam loses God’s justice. Christ brings us mercy. Adam falls never to rise. Christ falls to rise again. We fell with Adam in sin and we will rise with Christ in grace. And it is because we live and move and have our being in God’s presence that Jesus sets for us these seemingly impossible moral standards.

He makes these outrageous claims on our freedom and happiness precisely b/c we are being perfected in the Spirit of God. Jesus is calling on his disciples back then and on us now to live right now as if we were already in heaven, already perfected, already standing in the unmediated glory of the Father enthroned. When Jesus asks us to love our enemies, to give whatever is asked, to bless without condition, he is looking at us to see through us to the End, demanding that we do not wait until heaven arrives to live as his brothers and sisters. He is demanding that we be merciful now. That we be generous now. That we be loving, forgiving, untiring in service, grown hoarse in prayer for those who hate us...now not later, now not whenever.

Jesus was no fool. He was human like us in all things but sin. He knew the temptations of pride, excess, anger, of selfishness and disordered desire. He knew the temptations of the flesh, the spirit, the heart and mind—all those demons that claw and gnaw at our resolve, at our determination and courage. He knew then and knows now that what he is asking of us is likely beyond our strength, beyond the widest stretches of our control. And so, he gives us two incentives, two helps in bringing our bodies and souls back on the path of his Way: 1) he points out what those who do not follow his Way are capable of and, 2) he gives us a concrete measure of holy success.

For the first, even the sinner, a lost one, loves those who love him. Returning love for love is no supernatural feat. And neither is it any special spiritual accomplishment to do good to those who do good for you. Anyone can do that. The sure sign of God’s grace, the sign that His blessing on you, is loving those who hate you, doing good for those who wrong you. There you have a sign of radical holiness! For the second, Jesus tells us to ask ourselves this: how would you have others treat you? Be careful! The measure you use to treat others will be the measure Christ uses to measure you. In other words, you will judged by the standards you use to judge others. If you persist in judging others harshly against a rigid law of purity, well, don’t be surprised when you are denied mercy in the end and judged in exactly the same way. And Jesus doesn’t mean here that you are to ignore another’s deadly sins b/c you don’t want your own sins pointed out. It is merciful to admonish a brother or sister in sin. The point is to refrain from judgment, that is, to resist making a final determination of guilt and punishment. Leave that for the one who knows the human heart inside out.

We have all received an extreme makeover. Our transformation from Adam to Jesus, from fallen man to risen Christ, is the ultimate makeover, the Final Do-Over. Though we stand at the bottom of Christ’s demands on our moral lives, looking up at what he has called us to, we are capable of climbing, capable to reaching and grasping perfection b/c he has gifted to do exactly that. Christ wants us with him in heaven, so why would he set for us a standard below perfection? Why would he ask us to do that which we could do without him? His life with us and his death for us completes us, makes us whole and entire, healed creatures perfectly motivated and energized to be the sons and daughters of the Father. We cannot be alone; we are never abandoned.

As you work at meeting Christ’s demands on your body and soul, choose your moral measures carefully. Make sure they are all both deep and wide. Given eternity, a generous cup is far more comfortable than a stingy one.

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