Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Meditation for July 29
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

In the readings this morning we glimpse two important truths about Jesus Christ our God.

In the Gospel (Matthew 14:22-34), Jesus commands the disciples to get into a boat and to make their way across the sea while he ascends the mountain to pray in solitude.

A storm arises, the boat is tossed to and fro. Late in the night, he comes striding across the waves – they’re terrified! But he speaks to them, reassures them of His abiding presence. The winds cease. We’re reminded that this Jesus is the Son of God, as we confess in the creed, the One by whom all things were made.

The first important truth is the reminder of our confession that Jesus Christ is the Lord of Creation, whom even the waves and the winds obey.

The second is found in the reading from I Corinthians (3:9-17). St Paul is juggling a number of images – the Christian life is described as co-working with God, then as a field that God cultivates, then as a building that God designs and constructs. And we co-operate with God's grace, we participate in the cultivation and building of our lives. Christ Jesus is the foundation, and we are invited to fashion our lives using various materials: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw. In the preaching of the Church Fathers these materials are understood to be the substance of our lives: the silver and gold and precious stones would be the cultivation of virtue and goodness, a life that glorifies God, that honors Christ the true foundation. The wood and hay and straw would be whatever is weak, our vices, the passions that toss us to and fro.

And we learn in this passage that “the Day will declare it,” that our work will be “revealed by fire.” This is the second important truth about Christ Jesus our God – again, as we confess in the creed, we believe that He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

This second important truth is that Jesus Christ our God is the righteous Judge, and his judgment is a revealing fire.

That’s a powerful image, perhaps indeed a frightening image: Judgment by fire. Think of all that fire is: it illumines, it warms, but it also burns.

Some of you may be familiar with what are known as “fire and brimstone” sermons – preachers call their hearers to repent, to change their ways, or else God will punish them with the fires of hell. Others may hear in this the foundation for the western Catholic teaching about purgatory, a cleansing or purging or temporal punishment for sin before one is ready for blessedness of heaven.

The Eastern Fathers, however, have read this passage in a somewhat different way. In Orthodox Tradition, this divine fire that reveals the truth of who we are, that discloses silver and gold, or else burns away straw and hay, is nothing other than the fire of God’s love.

God loves us all, Christ died for us all, desires that all of us be saved. There is no one deprived of God’s love. The question is, what do we make of that? Or in the language of St. Paul, what kind of building do we build?

For those who receive it, who have come to delight in God’s love, who have fashioned their lives in harmony with God’s love – it is a fire that illumines and warms and gives life. But for those who deny it, who turn away and reject and refuse to share God’s love, this fire is painful, disclosing missed opportunities, bitter regrets – indeed, for them the love of God is hell.

All who deliberately choose evil instead of good deprive themselves of God’s mercy, shut themselves off from God’s love. The very same love that is the source of bliss and consolation for the righteous in heaven becomes a source of torment for sinners who render themselves strangers to mercy and kindness.

It’s not that God prepares ruthless torments for sinners, but rather that by sinning, by refusing to love, we harm ourselves and others – we trade a precious life of gold and silver for a worthless life of hay and straw.

In the last day, in the Day of Judgment, the love made known in Christ our God, the love of our righteous judge, makes all of that clear. And this revelation of who we are in the Last Day – however joyful or painful it may be – is done with our salvation, our repentance and healing, as the goal.

This is why it is so important, here and now, to encourage and exhort and admonish one another along the way of the Christian life. This is why we pray without ceasing, asking God’s mercy for ourselves, our friends and neighbors, our enemies, and for the departed. Our mutual care and encouragement, our prayers for the living and the dead, are our participation in the fire of God’s love.

Just as Christ stretched out his hand as Peter began to sink beneath the waves, we reach out to one another with mercy and kindness, with hopes and prayers for the living and the dead, that all might come to know the life-giving, soul-purging love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.