Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2012
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
“You are a temple of the living God.” We hear these words today from St. Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, and they are followed by exhortations from Paul, quoting from the Old Testament, that the Christians of Corinth ought to be separate from the world and not to touch what is unclean. When reading these lines, we often focus on the moral message emphasized here, that it is proper for us who are the temple of God to remain free from the corruption of sin. But I would like us to emphasize today the purpose of that chastity and voluntary separation from sin.
Most everyone, including non-Christians, agrees that we should be “good” (though of course there are different definitions of what “good” means), but there doesn’t seem to be much public reflection on the purpose of our ethics, even Christian ethics. Let us first dispel some popular ideas about what the purpose of Christian ethics is.
First, “being good” is not a precondition for “getting into Heaven.” Heaven is not a reward for the ethical. Second, “being good” is not just what we “ought” to do—that’s really just tautological. That is, if you say that you should “be good” because it’s the “right thing,” then all you’ve really said is you should be good because it’s good to be good.
A perhaps deeper idea about Christian ethics is the notion that its purpose is because it’s proper and fitting that we who are created and loved by God ought to “be good,” because anything else is not really worthy of the high calling God has given to us. That’s true in its way, but it still doesn’t actually tell us what “being good” actually does.
When the saints urge us to do what is righteous, to keep ourselves separate from what is unclean, their purpose is not to help us do a deal to get into Heaven, to affirm ethics for its own sake, or even to insist on behavior that is merely “worthy” or proper of Christians. Rather, the purpose of seeking after righteousness is to prepare us as the temple of the living God.
The purpose of the Christian life is to attract the grace of God, and what is grace, except the very presence of God Himself? When Orthodox theologians say that grace is “uncreated,” that is what is meant—only God is uncreated, therefore, grace is God; it’s His presence. And if we have attracted the grace of God to ourselves, then is it not proper that we should be called a “temple”?
Each human heart has been uniquely created by God to serve as a temple for His divine presence. Just as there are numerous churches throughout the world, some spectacular and glorious with others humbler and less likely to cause notice, there, too, are many kinds of human hearts, although there is more variation and possibility for prayer within them than all the many churches of the world taken together. Yet even though some temples are more magnificent than others, all hold within them the possibility for the dwelling of God, becoming places of true worship and pure prayer.
I think we may often pass over these more “mystical” or “spiritual” words from Scripture because they probably make little sense to us—being a “temple of the living God” sounds like nice poetry, but it doesn’t actually mean anything, does it? Isn’t just getting to Heaven when you die the real purpose of Christian life?
A close examination of the Scriptures and the words of the saints of the Church will reveal that one’s eternal destiny cannot be separated out from teachings such as this. The glory of eternity in Heaven is not a reward for living ethically, nor is it an automatic consequence of having been baptized at some point in life. Rather, Heaven is a place for human hearts that have become temples of the living God, because Heaven is nothing less than the unmitigated, unveiled, direct experience of Christ in glory, with His Father and the Holy Spirit.
Our hearts have to be prepared and properly adorned as temples of God in order for us to experience the next life as anything pleasant. If we step through the veil between this life and the next, yet our hearts are not prepared as God’s temples, then the experience of the glory and love of God will not be pleasant but rather painful.
But why is it that we so frequently see words such as this—”You are a temple of the living God”—and just pass over them as so much spiritual mumbo-jumbo? It is because we are too attached to what is temporary, too distracted by the cares and pleasures of this world. That is why repentance is the necessary precondition even to find our hearts within ourselves. Most of us actually do not even know that we have a spiritual heart—and I am not talking about the seat of our emotions here, but rather the place within us where we can actually meet God directly and experience the vision of His glory.
This is why these words may seem like nonsense to us, because we seldom are willing to confront our sins and to repent of them. “I haven’t done anything terribly bad,” you may be thinking. “I don’t really have any sins.” But the beloved Apostle John tells us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). It does not matter how “bad” your sin is. It is still sin. Even the most seemingly “minor” sin, if not repented of, darkens our heart and obscures it from our spiritual senses.
“You are a temple of the living God.” When Paul tells us this, he is not merely mouthing nice spiritual-sounding theological words. Everything in Scripture is for our salvation. This is what salvation actually means!
Salvation is not just going to Heaven when you die. I think that bears repeating: Salvation is not just going to Heaven when you die. Salvation is to become a temple of the living God. The human heart was created by God to serve as His temple. He desires to dwell within your heart. He desires to make His glory and love and peace and vision present within your heart in the way that is particular and specific and customized to you.
“I will dwell in them, and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…. I will receive you, and I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” That is what salvation is.
If all of that sounds to you merely like metaphor for some emotional experience, then there is some work to do, some cleansing of the heart to make it visible to you. When the heart becomes visible by being cleansed of sin and healed of distraction, then the whole being of a man is strengthened. He sees the inner meaning of things. He is illumined. He knows God directly, more directly than he knows his family and his friends. He becomes fit to be a temple of the living God. And in that encounter with God in the Kingdom that is within him (Luke 17:21), the inner kingdom, he becomes like God. He becomes like God.
We fall so easily into distraction. We are so used to living outside of our hearts that we do not even remember that we have them. And we even project this fragmented, externalized approach to life onto the spiritual life, thinking of it as obligations, as mere ethics, as doing this or receiving that. But if our hearts truly are made to be temples of the living God, then we must enter within them. That’s where the process and progress of salvation actually take place.
When was the last time you spent a few minutes meditating on God’s presence? When was the last time you went on a pilgrimage? When was the last time you took a deep, long look at your soul? When was the last time you asked yourself how Christ would order the pattern and routines of your life? When was the last time you became truly present to God and dedicated yourself to making your life on earth as much like Heaven as possible?
Have you entered into the inner life of Christ’s Church?
To the Holy Trinity Who made our hearts for His own home be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
I spotted this image on Facebook today, and it puts forth a commonly accepted ethic, which I’ve dubbed here the Eminem Ethic. Essentially, various categories of race, sexual desire, physical appearance, and economic status don’t matter when it comes to winning his kindness. What matters is that “you’re nice to me.”
This sounds pretty good. This is a morality bandwagon that probably most folks in American culture could jump on. It probably even sounds noble. And of course this is a familiar ethic. In 1991, Michael Jackson told us that it didn’t matter if we were black or white. He would probably add Eminem’s various categories, too, if he were writing his song now.
Probably the most obvious point here is that these various categories of human being and behavior don’t matter much when it comes to kindness toward others. With that, I agree. I laud Eminem’s desire to be kind to people without regard to these categories.
But let’s think about this for a moment. It is probably one of mankind’s most basic yearnings that we overcome divisions between each other. Even the most rabid Nazi, despite his desire to expel all difference from Germany, actually desired peace and not divisiveness—his method for attaining it was of course, monstrous. The Eminem Ethic is similarly problematic, because it also expels difference from his sense of community, but in this case, it is a difference based on one behavior—being nice.
Implicit in this ethic is its inverse: If you are not nice to me, I will not be nice to you. This is the ethic of revenge. There is nothing in the Eminem Ethic that will prevent or end wars, that will overcome differences, that will bring about peace, because he leaves us the excuse for not being nice to those who are not nice to us.
And we are also left with this ethical problem: If being nice depends on the nice behavior of others, then who actually gets the ball rolling? Someone will first have to be nice to someone who has not yet been nice to them. But if everyone follows the Eminem Ethic, then there will never be any niceness at all, because we’d all be waiting for other people to be nice first before we return the favor.
Let’s compare this ethic with the ethic that is, quite frankly, superior to all others:
But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. (Luke 6:32-26)
When at the birth of Jesus the angels announced to the shepherds that there would be “peace on Earth,” this is what they surely had in mind. Jesus was born into a world dominated by the pagan ethic of obligation and revenge—which is what the Eminem Ethic actually is. But He came to bring something higher, something far better, and that is the ethic of love.
True love is not obligation or reciprocity. It is not what you owe someone else, and it is not in return for something you have received. In sending His Son Jesus, the Father gets the ball rolling, but it is not the ball of niceness, but of love. And what is love? It is to care for and give to another in a self-sacrificial way. Jesus puts it exceptionally clearly in the quote above, and He even tells us to love not just those who have failed to be nice to us, but even those who hate us and oppose us, the unthankful and the evil.
In the passage immediately preceding the one quoted above, Jesus says this:
But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. (Luke 6:27-31)
In our time, the Golden Rule (essentially taken from Luke 6:31, the last sentence in this quote) has become distorted into the paganized Eminem Ethic: “Do unto others as others do unto you.” But the Christian, like his Master, is called to be something far greater, and it is because he is a citizen of the Kingdom of Love, because God is Love, and because He first loved us, even while we were His enemies.
We will never overcome judgmentalism, prejudice, hatred, violence and war if we merely care for those who do the same for us. But a new Kingdom has been inaugurated, and its triumph is coming. There is only one way to become a citizen of that Kingdom.
Will you be one of them?