In a rare move, I'm offering a bit of commentary on the front end in an attempt to elucidate some of what guided my thinking as I wrote this sermon. In the prologue to Ecclesiasticus (not Ecclesiastes...we're dealing with the Apocrypha here) the author writes, "Many great teachings have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the others that followed them, and for these we should praise Israel for instruction and wisdom. Now, those who read the scriptures must not only themselves understand them, but must also as lovers of learning be able through the spoken and written word to help the outsiders." The writer sets that stage, before the content of the book is given, that the purpose of reading scripture is twofold: 1) For the well being of the life of the believer; 2) For the building up of the life of the world.
He further writes, "That by becoming familiar also with his book (Ecclesiasticus) those who love learning might make even greater progress in living according to the law." So, from the starting line, we ought not assume that hearing the word is enough. We must, in good Anglican terminology, "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest" the Scriptures so we might live a more godly, sober, and righteous life.
The undercurrent of this sermon, though not explicitly spoken, is the old maxim from St. Athanasius: "God became human that humans might become gods." That is to say, I believe the conviction of the Christian faith is that, through the Incarnation, God has given humanity a redeemed nature with the potential to become more than 'merely human', to become divinized, to become more fully partakers of the divine nature. To quote 2 Peter 1:3-7: "His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ."
It has remained the conviction of the Christian East that humans can truly become participants in the divine nature in the here and now, today, in the very lives we live on earth. This does not have to wait until the Eschaton, although we will more fully participate in God when all things are put to rights. Still, we are given the potential to move beyond a death-determined reality and become transformed, divinized, made more like the God revealed in the flesh of Jesus Christ.
In some way, this conviction has permeated into the Episcopal Church. For example, this collect on the Incarnation: "O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."
I attempted, in some way, to communicate this truth in my sermon...
The Good News of God in Christ comes to us this morning as an affront, a challenge to every thought we might have concerning our own holiness or our mastery of righteousness. It offends us, and that, my friends, is precisely why it is good news. We’re often too settled, too comfortable, too certain of the choices we make and the paths we take. And this comfort, this certainty, this resoluteness may in fact prevent us from hearing the Gospel as exactly what it is: an overturning of this present reality and a ‘breaking-in’ of the reign of God…an establishment of a different way of living, a different way of being ‘human’ in this often inhuman world. It is Good News because here, this morning, we are given an opportunity to choose fire or water, life or death…to choose between living in a world conditioned by jealousy, anger, unfaithfulness, and chaos, or living in a world overflowing with peace, humility, integrity, and love.
‘No longer free.’ Like a jagged rock in a stream, smoothed out over time by the constant flow of water, the people of Corinth were shaped and formed by their choices into a people no longer free to hear the deeper truths of Christ, unable to take hold of what was their spiritual birthright, that is, the solid food of Christ that produces true righteousness and causes people to become more than ‘merely human.’ It’s clear from earlier portions of the letter that Paul hadn’t descended into hopelessness and completely written off the Corinthians. In his opening address Paul says, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…” and immediately before the section we have before us, Paul makes a sweeping declaration: “We have the mind of Christ.” Paul is quite clear that the potential is there for the people of Corinth to walk in holiness, to live as a sanctified and holy people, and to embrace the title “Saint.” His sweeping claim of ‘having the mind of Christ’ suggests that Christ is constantly revealing truth to humanity, a grace that allows people to move beyond their passions and their sinfulness. But this revelation can only be discerned if we choose to listen, if we choose to open our ears, if we choose to strive against those things that would keep us as spiritual infants. The Corinthians were not willing to do so. Thus, they remained infants, subsisting on the milk of immature wisdom, unable to really become all that Christ was calling them to be.
When preaching to a church some 300 years after Paul wrote his letter, John Chrysostom remarked, “If jealousy makes people carnal, every one of us ought to be crying out because of our sin and covering ourselves in sackcloth and ashes. Who is not tainted with this? I say this of others only because I know how true it is of me.” That same sentiment carries over to the present age. Like Chrysostom, I know how true it is of me that I choose to sin. Rather than embracing the life, grace, and sanctification set before me, I often choose to remain ‘merely human’, to be eaten up with anger and frustration, to allow sin to cloud my judgment. Thankfully, though, Jesus’ hard words in the Sermon on the Mount offer a counterpoint to a life of death, and a way to un-cloud our judgment. He sets before us a vision of what it means to be a disciple, a vision that “finds its inspiration, its goal and its delight in the perfection of divine goodness”, to use the words of interpreter Stephen Westerholm. “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable for judgment…But I say to you that everyone who looks at a women with lust has already committed adultery…But I say to you, Do not swear at all…let your word be ‘Yes,Yes’ or ‘No, No.”