Sixth Sunday after Pentecost / Sixth Sunday of Matthew, July 31, 2015
Romans 12:6-14; Matthew 9:1-8
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse. (Romans 12:14)
Over the past two weeks, we have witnessed in our popular media the conventions of the two major American political parties. I did not watch them, but I did watch people reacting to them, both professional pundits and journalists and also ordinary people commenting about them on social media.
Depending on which convention was going on, the party’s nominee was compared to Hitler or to a brutal Shakespearean villain (and yes, I am referring to both sides). One could also see the nominations being referred to as “historic,” with acclamations of “It’s about time!” (and yes, I am referring to both sides). One nominee or the other is “the only one who cares about people like me” or “a disaster if elected” (and yes, I am referring to both sides).
In short, depending on political persuasion, the party was nominating either a messiah or a satan.
And of course there were also the many supporters of third parties, who insist that the reduction of American politics to the two-party system is itself the great travesty, that a vote cast for someone other than a Republican or Democrat is in fact not a wasted vote, that this may be the year when everything could finally change, given that both the Republicans and Democrats have nominated their most unpopular candidates in history. And naturally these independents and third-party people are being responded to with dire warnings that a vote cast for a true preference is just handing the election to that villain from the other big party.
Now that the conventions are over, we will spend the next three months until the election ramping up the rhetoric, defending our preferred candidates against the vicious attacks of their evil minions found among our family and friends, generally convinced that My Candidate will save us, while Your Candidate will drive us into damnable oblivion. Your Candidate is driven by hatred and greed, while mine is an altruistic champion of prosperity, justice and freedom.
I wish that I could say that things were markedly different in the world of ecclesiastical politics, but in many ways, they are not. While things are really pretty good in our own corner of the ecclesiastical world for the moment, there has been a lot of this same kind of thing floating around since the failed attempt in June to have a council of all the Orthodox churches. Except instead of Hitler, you see hierarchs compared to Arius or Nestorius. And naturally my own man is an Athanasius or a Cyril.
These have been some of my thoughts lately, and I must admit that as I see so much elation and also despair being expressed about these happenings in the world of secular politics and what we might ironically call “sacred” politics, I was really struck by a very brief line at the end of today’s epistle, which was of course not chosen in anticipation of the summer fighting season in American or ecclesiastical politics, but because it is simply where we now are in the daily readings from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. And here’s that line again from Romans 12:14:
Bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse.
I wonder what would happen if, in our politics, we did that instead? What would our country be like if political opponents blessed each other rather than painted each other as villains?
Yeah, but Paul didn’t have that candidate in mind, right? Shouldn’t we go ahead and curse that candidate? His context is different, right?
Yes, Paul’s context is different, very different. In fact, when he says “bless those who persecute you,” he wasn’t using persecute as a metaphor. He was talking to Christians about a vast empire that was hunting Christians down, torturing them and exterminating them, that was throwing their children into fire and to the sword, that was feeding their bishops to lions, that was calling them cannibals and atheists, that was dedicating itself to wiping out the worshipers of the God-man Jesus Christ. It is those people whom Paul is saying should be blessed by his readers.
So if Paul can say that first century Christians should be blessing those who are actively and literally trying to destroy them, what does his instruction mean for us in the twenty-first century?
First, note that he doesn’t give this as an optional teaching. We are not actually permitted to curse those who persecute us. And if we can’t curse them, then how can we curse people who are doing perhaps extremely hateful things but not actually persecuting us?
Now, this doesn’t mean that we can’t criticize them or hold them to account—there is a long tradition in both Jewish and Christian history of offering up a prophetic word to those in power who commit evil. But critique is not the same as cursing. We can critique even while we bless.
God is calling us to bless people whom we fear and even hate. There’s no way around it. We pray for them. We ask God to give them good things. And we do not curse them, not with our lips, our keyboards or our hearts.
But of course this is hard. How am I supposed to feel when it looks like those people are about to be running things, when it looks like those people are in positions of power to threaten what I hold dear, what I have worked for, what I consider the good, the true and the beautiful? Isn’t it just natural to curse those people? How can I even think about blessing them?
How are we supposed to make it through these frankly distressing times, whether we consider our political or ecclesiastical situation? It really does seem sometimes like everything is about to fall apart.
The key to being able to remain at peace and even blessing those who persecute us is that we have to remember that we have but one Messiah. I don’t care what promises any leader makes, whether it is a promise of a better tomorrow or of revenge against enemies or of progress for victims of injustice or whatever—there is but one Messiah. No politician or even churchman is the answer to our problems. They can’t do it. They don’t have the power. I don’t care how much money or how many nuclear missiles they have at their disposal—we have but one Messiah, and that is Jesus Christ the Son of God.
Likewise, there is only one Satan. I don’t care how much you hate someone else’s candidate or theologian or whoever—they’re not Satan. They’re not the evil one. They’re not even demons. Even if they are deeply wicked and in the thrall of demons, they’re still not Satan. They’re actually our fellow creatures. They’re actually people for whom Jesus Christ died, people whom He came to seek and to save. They’re actually potential saints. They’re actually potential brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. They’re actually just sinners, just like us.
Most of all, though, because we do have a Messiah and because we do know who our real enemy is, we remember how the story actually turns out in the end. This world will indeed someday end in fire. It is prophesied in the Holy Scripture. We do not need to try to hasten the day, nor is there anything we can do to delay it. Until that day comes, there will be many ups and downs. We do not know when it will be.
But we do know that our great Messiah, the conquering King Who has destroyed the power of even death itself, will in the end raise us all up from the grave and will reign forever and ever. And that is why we can have peace in the midst of whatever terrifying thing the enemy throws at us, despite whomever he uses to throw it at us. And it is also why we can bless even those who hate us and persecute us.
We are Christians. We have an eternal perspective. We know how the Great Story ends. And so we do not have to be caught up in the world’s desperate search for false satans and false messiahs. And we can even seek the good of those who make themselves our enemies. Let’s listen again to the words of Paul:
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good. Love one another with brotherly affection; in honor preferring one another; in diligence not slothful; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing steadfastly in prayer; communicating to the necessities of the saints; given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless, and do not curse. (Romans 12:9-14)
To our God and Messiah Jesus therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.