Do I really have to love my enemies? Even the really bad ones?

Homily 228 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
September 11, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

The question the rich young ruler asks this morning is one that I suspect we all ask on a fairly regular basis. What must I do to be saved?

It’s a fair question, I think. I’m not confident our Lord would agree.

In the Old Testament, understanding what we had to do to be saved was a specialized task. Moses heard directly from God the commandments that our Lord references – Do not murder, do not commit adultery, don’t steal and don’t lie, honor your father and mother.

Those were the commandments – that is what we do for salvation. Simple, right?

For the next period, God sent prophets to His people. Now, we need to understand the role of a prophet as used by God.

A prophet was not one who was a soothsayer. A prophet didn’t predict the future. A prophet delivered a clear message.

That message can be summarized like this: You know the rules, now do it. If you don’t, here’s what you can look forward to.

The whole of the law, and the prophets, revolve around this theme. Here are the rules. Now do it.

Jesus continued that theme. Often, when he asked people about himself, the answer came back, “You are a prophet!” Mostly, because his message was identical to that of the prophets – repent.

But this time was a little different. Repent didn’t change. The reason to repent changed. The Kingdom of God is in your midst – the Kingdom of God is at hand.

We sometimes think that the Old Testament God was more harsh than the God of the New Testament. All those rules to follow! The least slip-up results in condemnation!

In the New Testament, the perception is that the rules no longer apply. That we are freed from the laws. That the burden is light, and grace abounds.

All of which is true. However, I think our path may actually be more difficult than the Old Testament Path.

What Christ told the rich young man about salvation is hard. Sell everything, give to the poor, and follow me.

In other words, I’m freeing you from the Law, but holding you to a higher standard. Now, it is not just adultery, it is looking at another with lust in your heart.

It is not just honoring your father and mother, it is selling everything you have to provide for those in need.

It is not just avoiding murder, it is not even calling someone a derogatory name. It is not even thinking ill of anyone. Including those we believe to be our enemy.

On this day, 15 years ago, 19 men commandeered four US commercial aircraft. Two were flown into the World Trade Center in New York. One was flown into the Pentagon in Washington. The fourth was downed by passengers, in a field in Western Pennsylvania.

3,000 of our fellow human beings died. More than 6,000 were injured or wounded in the attack. Nearly 3,000 have died since that day, of cancer and other ailments that they acquired at the site of the attack. St. Nicholas Church was destroyed.

If ever there was a reason to hate – this would have to be it.

But our command from our Lord is clear. No hate. Only love. Care for those who would harm us. Our concern, as believers, is not just for the dead and their families, but also for the attackers.

This is not negotiable. We don’t get to decide who is worthy of mercy. We don’t get to decide who is worthy of love.

Sometimes, we try to justify ourselves. I try to justify myself.

I’ve never knowingly killed anyone, much less killed innocent people like the 9/11 hijackers.

But I am not without stain.

My ancestors – my tribe, my people – forcibly drove the Native Americans west from the Appalachian Mountains to Oklahoma, with an unknown number, perhaps as many as 6,000, who died along the way.

The land we occupy today was once occupied by people – human beings – that were driven from it. By force.

We are not innocent. None of us.

So what must we – what must I – do to be saved?

Christ would tell us that, like the answer for the Jews, the institutional memory of the Church has the answer.

Some would say, and do say – in fact, just this week on the campus of Iowa State. They say that there was a huge diversity in early Christianity, with all kinds of Gospels and accounts of the life of Christ.

And they would be correct. But the story didn’t end there.

The Church, led by the Holy Spirit, gathered in council – from Europe, from Africa, from Asia and the Middle East and the subcontinent of India. And they debated. They discussed.

And ultimately, they decided. They decided which Gospels best portrayed the Jesus they knew both personally and from the Apostles.

Not everyone agreed with every point. But thanks be to God, the Church Fathers preserved the faith that was delivered to the Apostles, and said this is what correct – meaning, Orthodox – belief is.

This is what correct worship is.

It is a higher standard. It is a demanding standard. But it isn’t an impossible standard.

Christ’s message is one of hope. If we lose our life, we will find it. If we die to sin we will be raised to new life in Christ.

If we follow the well-worn but narrow path, we can find our theosis. Our salvation. And, ultimately, through the Mercy of God and the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, our humanity.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!