Friday, July 15, 2016

God so loved this world

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Remember, never to fear the power of evil more than your trust in the power and love of God." (Apostle Hermas of the Seventy)

In perhaps his most complex, yet theologically-rich Epistle - that to the Romans - the Apostle Paul provides a passage now justifiably famous for articulating his "theology of the Cross."  This passage in many ways stands at the heart of this Epistle and has been endlessly analyzed and commented on throughout the centuries.

St. John Chrysostom's commentaries are known to this day for their multiple insights into this passage and the entire Epistle. A significant part of this passage (which was proclaimed at last Sunday's Liturgy) reads as follows:

While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man - though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die.  But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him for the wrath of God.  For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we have been reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  Not only so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.  (ROM. 5:6-11)

We may question the Apostle Paul's characterization of humanity as "ungodly," "sinners," and "enemies" (of God) as unduly bleak or negative; but that may reflect our own unwillingness to look long and hard into the abyss of a fallen humanity engulfed in evil and desperately in need of salvation. Yet, despite that "dark hole" in which we collectively find ourselves - and this regardless of how the brighter side of human nature, reflected in the lives of countless human beings, has always striven to live moral and ethical lives - the Apostle Paul assures us that the love of God, incarnate in Christ, prevailed on our behalf, and thus God acted in order to reconcile us to Himself - a reconciliation that was effected "by the death of his Son."  This is the Gospel, for this is "Good News."

If we turn to the Gospel According to St. John, we hear what is basically the same revealed truth expressed in different language by the Evangelist:

For God so loved the world that he have his only-begotten Son, so that those who believe in him may not perish, but have life everlasting."  (JN. 3:16)

Now for St. John, the word "world" stands for the fallen world of sin and death; of humanity alienated and estranged from God, a "world" both so indifferent and hostile to God's presence that the "giving" of the only-begotten Son culminated in His crucifixion.  Thus, what the Apostle Paul affirms about humanity - "ungodly," "sinners" and "enemies" - is included by St.John's all-encompassing term "the world." But, again, it is this world that God "so loved."  As the New Testament scholar, Andrew L. Lincoln expressed it:

"The force is not, then, that the world is so vast  that it takes a great deal of love to embrace it, but rather that the world has become so alienated from God that it takes an exceedingly great kind of love to love it at all."

Recent events of the most horrific kind imaginable are forcing us to take a careful look at the words of the Apostle Paul and the Evangelist John - both for their negative and positive insights.  The most pressing of these terrible events are, of course, the random mass shootings in our own nation that leave behind nothing but  carnage, mayhem and inexpressible grief.  We are learning the hard way that there are no longer that many "safe" public places that we can resort to, from shopping malls to elementary schools.  Global terrorism seems even more insidious in its utter callousness and disregard for human life, as women and children are killed with a chilling indifference.  The mass murder yesterday in Nice, France, bears this out. These are acts of evil, and they deeply trouble us, as well as make us fearful. We are now facing the renewal of racial tensions in our country. And, as Christ taught, there are "wars and rumors of wars" throughout the world that are further destructive of innocent lives (MK. 13:7-8). Not too difficult to think that our world is spinning out of control. 

The sacred authors of the New Testament saw this with utter clarity. The apostles and evangelists are neither myopic nor utopian. In this they are simply following their Lord and the realism with which he approached human hearts wandering far away from God:  "because he knew all men and needed on one to bear witness of man; for he himself knew what was in man" (JN. 2:25) They understood that there are no real limits to the depths to which sin implanted in the hearts of men can plunge the world around us into. This is the way of the world (see I JN. 2:15-17).  In no way whatsoever did they promise that all this would somehow go away with the advent of Christ.

The New Testament witness to this is that God entered into the world of human sinfulness once and for all in the person of Christ.  That He both suffered on the Cross because of human sin, but in the process, as the eternal Son of God, He absorbed all of that sin, death and evil, nailed it to the Cross, and thus overcame it from within.  We were "bought with a price" (I COR. 6:20).  As a Christian, I would say that there are no real "answers" to the human misery around us, but that Christ is our "Yes" to life that comes from God:  "For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him" (II COR. 1:20).

It may get worst before it gets any better.  We need to cling to Christ with faith, hope and love. We especially need to be alive in the Church for in the Church we will preserve our sanity and our basic humanity.  We will learn and receive the grace to lead lives worthy of our calling as disciples of Christ; and to strive to make the world around us a better place for our children and for our neighbors.  We will make every attempt to fight against evil with good.  And, I hope that we will be able to embrace the truth behind these powerful words from an early Christian witness from the ancient Church:  "Remember, never to fear the power of evil more than your trust in the power and love of God."  

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God." (II COR. 1:3-4)

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