Sunday, September 6, 2015: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost & Fourteenth Sunday of Matthew
Commemoration of Archangel Michael’s miracle in Colossae; Archippos of Hierapolis; Martyrs Eudoxios, Zeno, Romulus and Makarios at Melitene in Armenia
The Apostle Paul was a good man. He was a faithful servant of Christ and loving pastor of souls. He was, however, not always a particularly pleasant man. The epistle for today makes this last point very clearly.
The Apostle is willing to hurt the feelings of his brothers and sisters in Christ. He does this not out of malice but because “he saw it as the necessary prelude to the joy which would come from their obedience” to Christ (Ambrosiaster, “Commentary on Paul’s Epistle”). Reflecting on the often painful art of the physician St Basil the Great says that in a situation like that which Paul is confronting at Corinth we need to remember the goal of his intervention and so “consider him a benefactor” who causes pain which is “according to God” will (“The Long Rule,” 52) for us and our salvation.
Paul’s behavior flies in the face of what has become for many the expectation of pastors. I want the priest to be likable, a “nice guy,” somebody who likes me and is like me. Within limits this is fair. St John Chrysostom says that after saying that he is “gladdened by their sorrow” the Apostle takes care not to alienate his spiritual children with words that “may have seemed arrogant and harsh.” So “to soften the impact” he tells the Corinthians he knows “if he were happy they would be happy and that if he were sad, they would be sad too.” This is why he delays his visit, not out of “hate or aversion but … exceeding love” (“Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians,” 4.2). Like Paul the spiritual father’s goal isn’t to be liked but neither is it to be disliked. In fact, one of the most dangerous things a spiritual father can do is to try to elicit from his spiritual children a particular feeling (good or ill) for him.
What Paul instead offers is love. He brings to Corinth the abundant love that suffers with those who are suffering and rejoices with those who are rejoicing (Romans 12:15). This is the love that Paul has in his heart not only for the Church but the Jewish people and the whole human family. He doesn’t simply invoke God’s blessing on others but “feel[s] compassion for their pain and sufferings” and for all they “fall into” (St John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Romans,” 2.2). Paul is not a mere “spiritual” technician but a real father in Christ. Even if doing so causes him, and them, pain he loves his spiritual children enough to call them to repentance.
We need to be careful here in how we understand things. Abundant, suffering love for others can—and does—take different forms. Long suffering tolerance of another’s weakness is one form but so too is the firmness—dare I say the intolerance—with which Paul responds to the problems in the Church. Living as we do in a culture that seems at times obsessed with celebrity and personality, we might overlook the fact that what Paul does is not a simply reflection of his personality. Much less does it reflect a character flaw.
No what Paul does, he does because he is moved by the Spirit of God to do so.
Look at this morning’s Gospel. A king holds a great feast to celebrate his son’s wedding. When the honored guest fail to attend, he invites the common folk and the poor. But first he sends his troops to destroy those who those who not only reject his hospitality but murder his servants. Hospitality, or more directly the offer of divine grace, reflects God’s great love for us but I reject His grace at my own peril. We see this second point in the final verses of the Gospel.
The poor man who is not wearing a wedding garment didn’t reject the king’s hospitality but neither does he fully accept it. He was happy to join the celebration but—whether through negligence of indifference—he failed to wear the festive garments that the king provided. This is the situation of the Church in Corinth. They accept some, most even, of the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ but not all of it. They say in effect to God, “We will love you this much but no more.” In response to God’s total and unrestrained self-offering in Christ, they hold back something of themselves. Like Ananias and Sapphira, the Christians in Corinth “agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord” (Acts 5: 9). Like the beggar in the Gospel, the Corinthians wish to enjoy the good things of the feast but only to a point. They greet divine hospitality with an unhospitable heart. Simply put, they would lie to God by placing limits on His grace and in so doing deceive themselves and by their actions preach “another Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:4)
And of course, none of this is just about the beggar or the Church at Corinth. This is also about me. Like Ananias and Sapphira I’m tempted to abuse God’s grace. I’m tempted to use His offer of forgiveness as a justification for my own unwillingness to love sacrificially. Yes I look to God for forgiveness but forgiveness on my terms not His. I’m willing to accept His sacrifice for me but unwilling in return to sacrifice myself for Him.
Simply put, I am all too willing to use God’s forgiveness as a justification for my own sinfulness, His forbearance for my lack of repentance.
The Apostle Paul was not like this, he was not like me. He loved his spiritual children even when love demanded from him that he cause them pain and risk losing their love. Again Paul loves his spiritual children enough to call them to repentance even if doing so causes him, and them, pain. In so doing, he is faithful to the teaching and example of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Above all though, Apostle Paul sets the standard for all of us, clergy and laity alike. We are every bit as much his spiritual children as were the Corinthians and as such he call us to be friends of God and of each other. Such friendship requires that we love God, each other and all we meet without reservation even when doing so causes us pain or loss.
May we all be so faithful to love without limits.