Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Wonderful Exhortation

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

If we look at our church calendars, we will notice that we read from St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians all through the month of August, and that we completed that cycle of readings this last Sunday with the concluding portion of this lengthy Epistle (16:13-24), labeled in the Orthodox Study Bible as "Final Exhortations and Greetings." Here is the text that was read in church at the Divine Liturgy:

Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love. I urge you, brethren - you know the household of Stephanas, that it is the first-fruits of Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints - that you also submit to such, and to everyone who works and labors with us. I am glad about the coming of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, for what was lacking on your part they supplied. For they refreshed my spirit and yours. Therefore acknowledge such men.
The churches of Asia greet you. Aquila and Priscilla greet you heartily in the Lord, with the church that is in their house. All the brethren greet you.
Greet one another with a holy kiss.
The salutation with my own hand - Paul's.
If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed. O Lord, come!
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen.

The Apostle Paul combines in this closing portion of the Epistle both general and "timeless" exhortations, together with his immediate and pressing concerns about various persons and situations of the early Church that he knew and was in contact with. As a letter, there is always an immediacy to his epistles that deal with pastoral issues that need attention and resolution. Therefore, in his many Epistles, we are given a glimpse into the life of some of the earliest of Christian communities, Corinth being one of them. His treatment of these persons and the situations - and predicaments - of life in these early communities remain for us today models of pastoral care. However, I would like to briefly comment on some of the more "timeless" teachings found here that are directly applicable to all Christians at any given point in the history of the Church, including our lives today. This passage begins with a wonderful exhortation that summarizes the Gospel and the life of a Christian. If we break it down somewhat more, we find the following "virtues" enumerated:

  • watch - an exhortation to interior vigilance amongst the pressures and temptations of life (cf. MK. 13:35);
  • stand fast in the faith - implying knowledge and practice of one's faith so that it is not easily lost;
  • be brave, be strong - the image of a courageous soldier not afraid to do battle against imposing enemies;
  • do everything in love - a beautiful expression of a Christ-like approach to all situations in life.

Thus, we find vigilance, strong faith, courage and, ultimately, love as the way of Christian life in the world. To embody these virtues in our daily lives would be to truly live by the precepts and vision of the Gospel. In a closing exhortation that we can miss or overlook, the Apostle Paul outlines an entire lifetime of spiritual struggle and the ultimate goal of those struggles - to do everything in love! This is one reason why, before a scriptural reading begins, we hear the liturgical directive: "Let us attend!" We begin by opening up our ears to the text, but so that our minds and hearts may be further opened to the meaning and practice of what we hear.

Yet, immediately following this passage, but within the final exhortations and greetings that close the Epistle, we hear a frightening and harsh admonition from the Apostle Paul. After stating another beautiful expression of Christians greeting one another with a "holy kiss" - remnants of which still survive to this day - the Apostle delivers the horrifying words: "If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed" (16:22). The word "accursed' is actually the Greek "anathema." To be "anathematized" is to be cut off from the Body of Christ - truly a "curse" for the believer. Considering the over-all encouraging "tone" of these last verses, the question arises as to what prompted this "hard saying" and even the question as to whom it was directed toward. In his commentary on I Corinthians, Fr. Lawrence Farley offers a convincing analysis:

It is an extraordinarily strong sentiment and seems to burst from the heart of the apostle - much like a similar imprecation in Galatians 1:8-9. And, like that imprecation, it is not directed at the unbelieving world around them. It is not aimed at the pagans or Jews who have never known the Lord. Rather, it is aimed at apostate Christians - at those who once were His friends and followers and who now "walk with Him no longer" (see John 6:66). That is, it is directed at spiritual traitors, at those who, like Judas, once "ate of His eucharistic bread," pledging their lives to Him, and who now "have lifted up their heel against Him" (Psalm 41:9).

Believing in the Lord Jesus Christ is the commitment to "love" Him with all of our "heart, soul, mind and strength." Yet, it is virtually impossible to "objectively" assess just how much we love someone - including Christ. We do know, that biblically, "love" is never reduced to an emotion or feeling. It includes emotional content, but it is much more a way of acting toward someone. In support of this, we have the words of Christ as found in the Gospel of St. John:

He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father; and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. (14:21)

As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love. (15:9-10)

Keeping the commandments of Christ is the sign of loving Christ as the Lord Himself taught. Basically, the "commandments" refers to His teaching as it has been delivered to us in the Gospels. Not keeping the commandments of Christ will then reveal to us the extent of our "love" of Him. The one we love is also present in our minds and hearts - and not just on one day of the week for a short period of time. We carry the "beloved" in our minds and hearts at all times. Applied to Christ that would mean our heartfelt prayer directed to Him and our conscious worship of Him, together with the keeping of His commandments. Jesus warns us that "because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures to the end will be saved" (MATT. 24:12-13) How horrible indeed if our love of Christ were to grow cold - we would then pronounce an "anathema" over ourselves! It would be a betrayal of staggering proportions. Something like giving Christ the "kiss of betrayal" that we pray to be spared from in our pre-Communion prayers. And we would be cut off from the Body of Christ even if we continued to go through the motions.

The Apostle Paul, however, as a true pastor, ends the Epistle to the Corinthians with a powerful note of encouragement and hope - difficult as this "parish" has been for him:

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. (16:23)

Again, from Fr. Lawrence Farley, we read this by way of commentary:

For he gives his love to all in Corinth, without exception - even to those who grieved him, who have slighted him, who have denigrated him in favor of Apollos or others. There is no malice or resentment in his heart, but only a constant love and a desire to make them wise unto salvation. Thus he concluded his epistle on this note of love. He has written much about the way of true wisdom and has answered their questions according to the wisdom given to him as a chosen apostle. At the end, we see that this wisdom is nothing other than love - love for God and love for man.

I am certain that the Apostle Paul had the capacity to love all of the Corinthians because he loved Christ as the One who extended to him the gift of salvation by dying upon the Cross. And the Apostle extended this love to us on Sunday when our appointed reader proclaimed his words to all of us within the Liturgy. By "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ" we can continue to love Him as our Lord and each other in His name. Only then will the world know that we are His true disciples.

Fr. Steven

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