Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

How many times have we heard it said that “All religions are the same”? How many of us here this morning believe it to be true, that all religions are the same? It is certainly what many people would have us believe. There is a concerted by many of the world religions to create unity by focusing on the similarities shared by them rather than on the differences that separate them. We all believe in some sort of afterlife. We all believe in some sort of higher power. We all believe that we should be loving and kind to one another. We all believe so many similar things, Why is it then that we cannot just all get along?

It is true. There are a lot of similarities between the various world religions. But there are also a lot of similarities between an apple and an orange. For that matter, there are a lot of similarities between a real apple and a wax apple. Yet one is real, and one is a fake. One is an apple; one is not. You discover this, not by focusing on the similarities, but by focusing on the differences. When comparing world religions, you cannot compare the similarities. If all you do is focus on the similarities, you will be forced to conclude that all are the same, when in fact they are not. To discover truth, it is the differences that are important. It is in the differences that truth is found.

Among world religions, Christianity is unique. And within Christianity itself, Orthodox Catholicism is even more unique. Though it does have some minor similarities with other religions, the differences create a vast chasm that cannot be bridged. The main distinction between the world religions and Christianity is that all man-made religions trust in their own good works to receive eternal life. Christianity is the only belief system in the world where we do not trust in our own good works, but rather trust in the completed work Jesus Christ. That is the main difference, but we also have differences in our view of God, sin, human nature, what the Bible is, and who Jesus Christ is. On these subjects and more, there are very different beliefs and understandings of them between the Orthodox Catholic Church and other Christian denominations and ecclesial bodies. We cannot sweep these core differences under the rug simply to get along with other Christians and other world religions.

Still, some Christians say, “So we have some major differences. But there are some areas of agreement between the various branches of Christianity and between Christianity and the other world faiths, aren’t there? Take the Golden Rule for example. All religions hold to the Golden Rule. It is a universal principle.” Many of us believe that to be true, but when you sit down and study the Golden Rule in light of the words and teachings of Christ, we find that it is not really the case. The Christian understanding of the Golden Rule is much different than that of other religions.

Though all religions have a version of the Golden Rule, Christianity raises the bar even in this. The Christian Golden Rule goes above and beyond anything you will find anywhere else. Let me explain what I mean.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus explains the Golden Rule. He is still teaching us the basic principles of being His disciple. He is currently in a section about how to love our enemies. He has given us three exhortations and three examples on loving our enemies. He now turns to provide us with three standards.

The first standard, recorded in Luke 6:31, is the Golden Rule. It reads, “And just as you want men to do to you, you should also do to them likewise.” In other words, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is also stated in Matthew 7:12. This is often the way you will see it stated in American culture today, on billboards and plagues and in books. But that is only because of the Christian influence in our culture, an influence which is waning more and more as time passes. As I mentioned earlier, other world religions present the Golden Rule in different ways.

For example, Confucianism says, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself.” (Analects 12;2). Buddhism teaches, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5,1). In the writings of the Hindus, we read, “Do nothing to others you would not have them do to you.” (Mahabharata 5, 1517). Even Judaism puts it similarly: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman.” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id).

Did you notice the vast difference between what all these religions teach and what Christ says in Luke 6:31? All of these other religions state the Golden Rule negatively. Do not do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. If you don’t like something done to you, don’t do it to others. If we followed the Golden Rule of the world religions, it would only stop us from doing harmful things to others. We should not steal, because we do not like it when others steal from us. We should not lie to others, because we do not like to be lied to. We should not hurt others, because we do not like to be hurt.

But what does Christ say? He says, “Do unto others what you want them to do to you.” This is not a negatively stated command, but it is positive. Christ goes way beyond not doing bad things to others, and raises the bar to doing good things for others. Sure, do not steal, do not lie, do not cheat, do not hurt. But above and beyond that, give generously to others, tell the truth when you could keep silent, be honest, help others who need help, bless, and pray for others.

You may have noticed in the list of world religions I quoted that Islam was not among them. The Muslim religion is much in the news today, so you may be curious to know what their version of the Golden Rule is. Surprisingly, it appears to be the closest of all to Christianity. According to their writings, a true Muslim must “desire for his brother that which he desires for himself” (Sunnah). This sounds remarkably close to Christianity, for unlike all the others, it is stated positively. But again, did you notice the vast difference between it and Christ’s statement? Islam teaches that you only have to wish good for your brother, not actually do it as Christ says. Furthermore, you only have to wish this good on a brother. When it comes to the enemies and infidels of Islam, they must convert or die.

How far above this is Christ’s Golden Rule? Not only are we to not do bad to others, not only are we to wish good on others, we are to actually do good to them. And not just to our friends and relatives, but to our enemies as well. This is radically different than anything you will find anywhere else in all the world, in all religions, throughout all history. The very essence of Christian conduct consists, not in refraining from bad things, but in actively doing good things, and not just for our friends, but for our enemies as well.

Do not say that Christianity is just like every other religion. It is not. Even in something as seemingly universal as the Golden Rule, Christ sets the standard much higher. The world has its standards, but they are not as high as the standard Christ wants us to live by. If we want to make a difference in the world, we must be different than the world.

This is what Jesus goes on to explain in Luke 6:32-34. He gives three examples of how sinners treat one another, and how this is not good enough for His disciples. There are good things that people do, but they do not come up to the Christian standard.

The first example is that even sinners love their friends. Christ points this out in Luke 6:32. “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” This is the standard of sinners, but sadly, many of us do not even live up to this standard. If someone loves you, love them back. It is a good thing to return love to someone who loves you. Do not act hatefully and spitefully toward those who love you. How sad it is that a man can come home from work after being nice and kind to the people he interacts with on the job, but then insult and demean and belittle his wife and children at home who really love him.

Christ has called us to love those who hate us, but how can we do that if we do not even love those who love us? Loving those who love us is the bottom of the barrel response. Even sinners and unregenerate people of the world love those who love them. If you are able to do that, great! But do not expect any special praise from God. That is how you should have acted anyway.

The second example is similar. Even sinners do good to their friends. Christ points this out in Luke 6:33. “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” When someone serves you, serve them back. When someone helps you, help them in return. Even here, this is not how most of us live. Many people think that everybody should help them and they do not need to help anyone. This is why so many people “live off the system.” They do not try to get a job or try to learn any useful skills. They just sit around and moan about how hard life has been for them, and how nobody understands, and how everybody should give them a hand. I hope that no Orthodox Catholic Christian ever lives with this mindset. Jesus says that the bottom rung behavior for sinners and worldly people is that when someone does something good for them, they do something good in return.

The third example restates the same thing in another way. Even sinners lend to their friends. Christ points this out in Luke 6:34. “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.” Often we lend money or possessions to others knowing that at the bare minimum, they will pay us back, or let us borrow something from them at a later date. I lend you an axe; you will one day lend me a saw. There is nothing wrong in this, but there is nothing virtuous either. Do not think that you are a wonderful person because you let others borrow from you. Even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.

I am somewhat amused by the caution of the philosopher Cicero on this subject. He said, “Kindness must not be shown to a youth nor to an old man; not the aged, because he is likely to die before he can repay you, and not to the youth, because he is likely to forget.” This is the way the world operates. These three examples show how the world relates to one another. This is the human standard. They love those who love them. They do good to those who do good to them. They lend to those who lend to them. At the bare minimum, we as Christians had better be living at least according to this human standard.

Hopefully we live higher. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to live on a whole different plane than the rest of the world. If we do the same as them, what is setting us apart? What makes us different? Christ calls us to come out from among them, and be separate. How can we be separate if all we do is the same things they do? If, however, we do what Christ called us to do in Luke 6:27-30, if we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who spitefully use us, we will stand out then. They may think we are mad, but they will recognize something they have always been searching for – a truly loving community. They can give love to those who love them down at the bar. They can show kindness to those who are kind to them at the rotary club. When we do the same thing, they think we are just another social club.

But when we start loving our enemies, and doing good to those who hate us, and giving to those who want to steal from us, then the eyebrows pop up, the mouth hangs open and the whispers start spreading. “Did you see what that church did? Did you hear how that Christian responded when cursed? Can you believe the help that Christian family is giving to their obnoxious neighbor? They are different!” John Stott, an Anglican cleric and theologian, once wrote: “It is not enough for Christians to resemble non-Christians; our calling is to outstrip them in virtue. Our righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees and our love is to be more than that of the Gentiles…”

That ultimately is what it all comes down to. Jesus wants us to be different. No more stepping in line with the world. No more following their tune. No more copying their ways, their attitudes and their faulty system of morality. Jesus attracted quite a crowd because when people saw Him, and talked with Him, and watched Him interact with others, they saw something so completely opposite from what they were used to, they wanted to be part of it. They wanted to share in it. If the Orthodox Catholic Church lives as Christ lived, people will want to be part of us as well. Mankind has a standard of not doing the evil that we do not want others to do to us. Christ’s Golden Rule raises the bar on this standard. We are to live above and beyond the human standard and live according to the divine standard, which Christ explains in verses 35-36.

We begin to see the divine standard in Luke 6:35. “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return.” As if Christ’s version of the Golden Rule was not high enough, He now raises the bar even further. In Luke 6:35, it is no longer “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Now it’s “Do unto others even if they do not do it unto you.”

We often develop an attitude that says, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” “I’ll be kind to you if you are kind to me.” We sometimes think that this is what Jesus teaches. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” gets turned into “Do unto others so that they will do it unto you.” But look what happens when we think this way. Many of our acts of “love” become selfishly motivated. We love others in order to be loved in return. We give in order to receive. We do good so that good will be done to us. We serve on the basis of expected return. Our Lord’s words are intended to show such thinking as utterly mistaken. We must serve others, expecting nothing in return. Christ’s words in verse 31 were already higher than anything human religious teachers had come up with, but now Christ takes it higher still. If Luke 6:31 was the Golden Rule, Luke 6:35 is the Platinum Rule. Do not just do things for others so that they will do it for you. Do good things for others, expecting nothing in return.

I believe that much of the so-called “burn-out” in ministry, and the people who are sick and tired of church, and who no longer want to serve in church, are simply people who are angry with others because when they served, nobody served them. When they sacrificed for others, nobody sacrificed for them. When they helped others in need, nobody helped them in their time of need. That is operating by the Golden Rule. And it is true. We should try to return good for good, and serve others when they serve us. That is common courtesy. Of course, common courtesy is not so common anymore. But still, it is nice to receive thanks when you help someone. It is good to help somebody else after they have helped you. I encourage all of us to do more of this sort of thing.

But Jesus says that this should not be our motivating factor. If you only help others because you want them to help you back, you are going to be disappointed. If you only serve others because you want them to serve you, get ready to be let down. If you only do good to others because you want them to do good to you, it will not be long before you burn out. This kind of burn-out is based upon self-interest and self-seeking, not on the obedience of a true disciple of Christ. Let us forsake our expectations of receiving our rewards from men. You are not going to get it, and if you do, you will always feel short changed and slighted. “I helped him all day long in the woods, and he only helped me work on my car for one hour! See if I help him anymore!” Do you want to avoid burn out and a pessimistic attitude toward others? Do not put any stock in others helping you or thanking you or doing good for you when you help them. Sometimes people do return the favor, but not all the time.

But Jesus knows something about us. He knows that we need incentive. He knows that we need motivation and encouragement to do the right thing. If you are like me, there is not much motivation in doing what Jesus calls for just because it is the right thing to do. Sure, it feels good and makes you happy to be generous and kind to others. It is exciting to do the anonymous good deed for your neighbor. And sometimes doing the right thing is nothing more than an act of the will. But Jesus knows that most of us, most of the time, need incentive to do the things God wants us to do.

Look at it this way. Works without faith are nothing more than empty deeds. If your faith is strong and you believe all that Christ teaches and says, good works will flow like a river from your heart because of your faith. Good works are the fruit of love and true love is found only in God. Our relationship with Christ, if real and true, will bear much fruit in this world. It will result in works that set us apart from everyone else, even other Christians.

 So if you get to go to heaven whether you love your enemy or not, why should you do what Christ commands here? What does it matter? Especially if he just keeps on hating you in return? If you cannot expect others to treat you kindly when you are kind to them, and love you when you love them, and do good for you when you do good to them, why bother? Jesus has an answer for us in the middle of Luke 6:35.

When we do the things Jesus asks for, we may not get reciprocal actions from men, but Jesus says that we will get rewards in heaven. Jesus says that when you do what He asks, your reward will be great. The reward is in being unrewarded because then we will receive reward from God. Reward is key to learning obedience. All parents and schoolteachers know that reward and incentives are one way to encourage obedience and good behavior. Dr. James Dobson, in his book Dare to Discipline, writes: “Our society is established on a system of reinforcement, yet we don’t want to apply it where it is needed most: with young children. As adults, we go to work each day and receive a pay check on Friday. Is that bribery by the employer? Medals are given to brave soldiers; plaques are awarded to successful businessmen; watches are presented to retiring employees. Rewards make responsible effort worthwhile.”

Reward is not only something that parents can use with their children, and teachers can use with their students. It is something God uses with us to encourage obedience. Although eternal life is free, reward in heaven is earned. God uses rewards to encourage faithful living. When we are kind to others, they may not be kind to us, but God, Who is in heaven, sees what is done, and will reward you. If you do the things Jesus has called for in this morning’s Gospel, He promises in verse 35 that your reward will be great (cf. also Luke 6:23).

The rest of Luke 6:35 and on into Luke 6:36 explains that aside from the reward we will get for doing what Jesus commands here, when we obey Him, we are behaving as God behaves. This is how God acts, and so we should act this way too.

In Luke 6:35, we read, “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.” There are several different ways of translating the last part of Luke 6:35 from the Greek. But we know from the rest of Scripture that becoming a son of the Most High is not a reward, but is one of the gifts that comes with eternal life. When we believe in Jesus, we not only get eternal life, we also are given sonship. We become sons and daughters of the King.

So what Jesus is saying here is that when we love, do good and lend, hoping for nothing in return, we are acting like the sons, or children, of God that we are. This is the proper behavior for children of God because this is the way God Himself acts. As children of God, we are His ambassadors on earth. When people look at us, they should be able to see what God Himself is like. You could read the end of verse 35 as saying that since God is kind to the unthankful and evil, we should be too since we are His children.

The message of this morning’s Gospel simply put is this:: “Love your enemies! Do good to them! Lend to them! And do not be concerned that they might not repay. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for He is kind to the unthankful and to those who are wicked.”

When we live as Jesus instructs us tis morning, we are acting the same way that God acts. When people look at us, they should be able to say, “Like Father, like son.” When people see the children of God living similar to the world, they begin to wonder if God is like that too. There is so much confusion in the world about what God is like because the Church as a whole does not resemble God. If we were more like God, the world would want to know God more. Therefore, Jesus says in Luke 6:36, be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Have you ever compared how God acts with how you act? Have you ever compared how the world acts with how you act? Which one do you resemble more?

Try it sometime. Make a chart. On one side, list the character traits and qualities of the world. Include things like bitterness, revenge, hate, greed, rebellion, gossip, slander, lust, lying, thieving, coveting, doing good only to those who do good to them, lending only to those who lend to them, and so on. On the other side, list the character traits and qualities of God. Include things like longsuffering, patient, kind, merciful, gracious, generous, forgiving, faithful, compassionate, truthful, honest, blesses those who curse Him, gives to those who never give anything back to Him, and so on. Then look at the list. Which one do you resemble more? The truth is painful, is it not? As a son or daughter of God, which one should you resemble?

As a child of God, what makes you different from the world? What makes you more like God and less like the world? We could even go beyond what Jesus mentions here and talk about movies, music, behavior at work, attitude, handling of finances, treatment of family. As Christians, we often believe we are better than the world. But are we? We live according to the Golden Rule. Big deal! So do they. We love those who love us. So what? They do too. We give to those who give to us. Even sinners do that.

Jesus says that as children of God, living by the Golden Rule is no longer good enough. We need to live by the Platinum Rule, the Divine Rule, of loving, giving and lending to our enemies. When we do this, no longer will people say that all religions of the world are the same. When we live like God, the world will sit up and take notice that there is indeed something different about Christianity.

Amen.


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