Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A), 2017.
Having celebrated and savored a remarkable sequence of events in the life of the holy Church—the Day of Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi and then the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist—we move into the Sundays of Ordinary time, or to use something of an invented turn of phrase, “Ordinarytide.” Up until Pentecost, the emphasis in the Church has been on the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, an emphasis that began back in the Sundays in Advent. We prayed for His coming, and over the course of roughly half a year, we experienced again His coming: His taking of human flesh, His blessing of sacred humanity, His breaking of Himself on the Cross, and His giving of Himself through the Sacraments and through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Now, over the course of the last several Sunday celebrations, the emphasis has shifted from the Incarnation of Jesus onto the Holy Trinity. Basically until Advent, we will be focusing on how the Church itself lives into the reality of the Holy Trinity, indeed we can say, how the Church itself has a trinitarian nature. The Church is the Body of Christ, Jesus is God, and God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: God is trinitarian, and so the Church is as well. This is to emphasize something very important to our daily lives as Christians in a fallen but redeemed world: the Church itself is not a social club, but a divine organism. It is a visible institution, made by and of Christ, and its essence is holiness.
This is why in our Collect we petition God that we may be made a holy temple acceptable to God. Individuals, yes: but moreso and primarily, us as a body, as a local church here in Tazewell County. God intends us to be a holy temple here in this geographical place. He does not intend us be a social club, one among many others around us. He intends this gathering around this Altar to be a generator of infectious holiness and self-giving love that seeps into the neighborhood around us and by His grace redeems the neighborhood, calling the residents of Tazewell County to Him, because it is the nature of the human condition to hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Now we hear in our Gospel according to Saint Matthew sayings from Jesus that have tripped up Christians for two-thousand years. These are what are called “hard sayings.” “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” is a hard saying, and it seems to directly contradict what Jesus teaches elsewhere, specifically when He appears to the disciples with the first words to them, “Peace be with you.” So of course He has come to us crucified and resurrected to bring peace, but it is a peace new and different, even radically different, than what the common meaning of peace would be. Peace in the Christian sense does not mean absence of war, strife or friction, but the presence of holiness and self-giving—self-emptying—love.
Then Jesus gives us several sentences that make it sound like He wants all families to break up and hate each other; that Jesus is quite anti-“family values.” But of course, the Church celebrates Jesus and His Mother Mary and legal protector Joseph as the Holy Family—hundreds of churches around the world are under this patronage, so how is this not a contradiction? What Jesus is teaching, in rather provocative words recorded by Saint Matthew, is the right ordering of love and desire. Our highest desire must be for God, and only when that is an actual reality rather than sentiment, can we actually love other people.
To love another person is to recognize God in another person. God who is infinite in power and presence in creation is infinitely powerful and present in the hearts of every human creature. Until we love God in our father, in our mother, in our son, in our daughter, in each of our relatives, we are not loving in a Christian sense but loving in an idolatrous sense, because anything loved before God is an idol, indeed made a kind of god. And we are to love no other gods before Our God. “You shall have no other gods but me,” we prayed during Lent.
Mind you, God wants us to love our father, our mother, our son, our daughter, each of our relatives. Why? Because He made each one of them, and He loves them beyond measure. So there is no inconsistency. By loving God first, we are able to love all that He has made, knowing God’s love—His very nature—has been established for ever firmly in the heavens. We love the members of our family when we recognize the infinite God infinitely at work in each of them—indeed, that each member of our family has the capacity for holiness and self-emptying love, indeed when baptized are holy temples indwelt by God.
Brothers and sisters, let all guests who arrive in our presence be received like Christ. Toward all guests, let us not be proud and lofty, but humble and attentive. Whether we receive them in this holy house, or when they carelessly cut us off in the grocery store or in their car on the road, let us fight the temptation toward rancor and anger with the recognition that God is present in all His creatures, because through Him all have made, creatures seen and unseen. To receive a person at its deepest sense is to receive, to recognize, to honor, who they are: creatures of God, who by baptism can or have become children of God. Because the sword Jesus brings is a sword that breaks open the merely outward and visible to reveal a new horizon of depth, of reality, of holiness, of love. Amen.