12 August 2018

For Thy Sake: Homily at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family of London

Today St Paul says to us, “It is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does He not speak entirely for our sake?” (From the Epistle, I Corinthians 9.2-12) We know that he is addressing the age-old problem of people demanding the Church, its sacraments, its pastors, its schools and even Heaven itself, without offering a cent of support to advance it. Paul is expected to be available for the Church and its people all the time, but he has to find the means to live somehow, and yet people complain. He asks whose sake is he earning a living for – himself or Christ’s people? But as usual, when Paul protests from his own example, he is confronting people with a deeper point about Christ: however God speaks, by whosever lips, whatever He says, He speaks entirely for our sake. Paul is doing none other than to convey the Word Who took the form of a servant, and became obedient to death for our sake.

George Herbert in The Elixir says to God,
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean
Which with this tincture — "For Thy sake" —
Will not grow bright and clean.

All our work and life is for the sake of God; but God tells us that He is all for the sake of us. To listen to some people in the Church, however, you would think that being the right kind of Catholic is about rules and laws, observances and conduct. This soon turns to judgment; from judgment to condemnation; from condemnation to exclusion; from exclusion to the withdrawal of love; and then it is an easy ride to everlasting unforgivingness. Yet the Church’s entire body of canon law, for instance, is about nothing more nor less than putting the Gospel of love and right relationship reconciled with God into gear so that the Church and each member who belongs in the Body of Christ can advance in holiness. For this task, it forgiveness is pre-emptive; it goes ahead of our repentance and even our desire for it. Thus “the Sabbath was created for humanity; humanity was not created for the Sabbath,” said Our Lord. Another way of saying this is, “Doctrine is faith put into words; morals are faith put into practice.” And this faith is not for God’s sake, as if He depends on us for our belief in Him. It is for our sake, so that “whether we live or whether we die, we do so to the Lord” - we do so for the Lord, we do so from the Lord. (cf. Roman 14.8)

This is not to say that sin is not serious, or that evil is not deceptively at work in us. But the perspective of living to God for His sake, as Christ lived and died and rose again among us for ours, does turn our attention from constantly fixating on ourselves onto the Lord and all that He has done for us - and all that He believes with His grace we can be. This is why in the litanies that occur throughout our rite, we sing, “Kyrie eleison”, “Hospodi pomilui”, “Lord have mercy”. It is not to render us craven worshippers afraid in the dark, but to lift our voice, our heart and mind to the Saviour Who wants to forgive us so that we may stand in His light, as it blazes warm because it is fuelled by His love that never grows cold by the exhaustion of forgiving us.

Reading today’s Gospel (Matthew 18.23-35), you recognise straight away the contrast between the slave and the lord who owns him: one is forgiving and it does not occur to the other that an example has been set that he should follow. Now, when Jesus told this story, His hearers could not hear such things as capital letters, and as soon as they heard tell of the lord and the servants who owed him everything, they heard the same word they used for their Lord and Teacher. They knew that He was talking about Himself and about themselves, whom they knew to be servants bound to the service of the Kingdom of God. What does it mean to be bound to the Lord in this way? To people like us in the twenty-first century, we egocentrically think that the basic religious question is, “Do I believe there is a God?” - as if He stands or falls on our decisions. But the real question is not “Does God exist?”, but “Is God sovereign?” Most of us rush to say believe in Him, but we know we say, “Hang on a moment,” when we have to think if he is my ruler and the Lord of my life. If He is sovereign then it affects every corner of my life because it comes from how I recognise the order of the world and creation to be established. No one will believe me when I say that God is the Lord if the example of my life suggests that is otherwise for me.

So the Lord’s story of those who take His generosity and deprive it from others tells us that, yes, in the Kingdom, there are debts to be paid and scores to counted up and settled; yes, there is right and wrong; yes, there is punishment and correction; yes, there is a Law that puts faith into practice as well as a Gospel that plants faith into our hearts. But it also tells us that sinfulness is rooted in cruelty and the ground that we defend of being unforgiving. St Thomas Aquinas saw this as a simple matter of justice. We owe our duty to God because He has given all to us; and, in the same way, what we have received from God we owe to others. To forgive is not to be generous, going above and beyond on that extra mile. To forgive without reserve is no more than the duty that we owe: “Forgive us our trespasses as forgive those who trespass against us,” we were taught to pray. And we know for ourselves that this is how the mechanism of divine justice and grace works, because, as St Paul says, the Lord “we console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.” (II Corinthians 1.4)

The illustrious religious novelist of the 1930s, Charles Williams, an Inkling like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, was once hurrying along the street in Oxford and someone asked him, “Good morning, how are you?” Williams replied, “In the City, under the Mercy.” The Apostle to the Hebrews says “here we have no abiding city” (Hebrews 13.14). He thinks of the Lord of the servants that were bound to Him for everything and yet mercilessly abandoned Him to His death outside the city gate. The Cross was to disgrace the Lord, but deserting Him is ours and it keeps looping us back to Calvary. This then is the point from which we have to “be looking for the City that is to come.” To dwell in that City is to be subject not to control and regulation, any more than it is to be let off the hook, or given time off our sentence elsewhere for good behaviour: to dwell in that City is to be subject to the provision of Mercy, which is so ever-present that it is the air that we breathe. And “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy” is how we breathe it out.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” says Jesus (Matthew 5.4); that is to say, “Blessed are those who know their need of God.” We who know what it is to live already in the City of God, understand that we live under the arc of God’s mercy. To us it is not a question of whether we believe in God or even trust Him. The question is whether He is sovereign in our life, since He is sovereign over all in the universe. The answer is that we live accordingly, as God’s “for your sake and for your salvation, I came down from heaven” is answered by our “For thy sake.”

George Herbert’s poem can be our prayer.
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.

This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told. The Elixir, George Herbert

Teach me, then, to “do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with my God” (Micah 6.8), for I so want to live in the City under the Mercy.