Overcoming “the Dividing Wall of Hostility” as the Living Temple of God: Homily for the Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost, the Ninth Sunday of Luke, and the After-feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 2:14-22; Luke 12:16-21

     Today we continue to celebrate the feast of the Entrance into the Temple of the Most Holy Theotokos. Her elderly parents Joachim and Anna offered Mary to God by taking her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem as a young girl, where she grew up in prayer and purity as she prepared to become the Living Temple of the Lord in a unique and extraordinary way as His Virgin Mother.  This feast obviously points to the good news of Christmas, as it is the first step in Mary’s life in becoming the Theotokos who gave birth to the Son of God for our salvation.

Joachim and Anna had a long and difficult period of preparation to become parents, as they had been unable to have children until God miraculously blessed them in old age to conceive.  They knew that their daughter was a blessing not simply for the happiness of their family, but for playing her part in fulfilling God’s purposes for the salvation of the world   Their faithfulness throughout their years of barrenness prepared them to offer her to the Lord.  They knew that their marriage and family life were not simply about fulfilling their desires, but were blessings to be given back to God for the fulfillment of much higher purposes.

Joachim, Anna, and the Theotokos were the complete opposites of the rich man in today’s gospel reading.  His only concern was to eat, drink, and enjoy himself because he had become so wealthy.  He was addicted to earthly pleasure, power, and success, and saw the meaning and purpose of his life only in those terms.  When God required his soul, however, the man’s true poverty was revealed, for the possessions and accomplishments of this life inevitably pass away and they cannot save us.  This man’s horizons extended no further than the large barns he planned to build in order to hold his crops.  Before the ultimate judgment of God, he was revealed to be a fool who had wasted his life on what could never truly fulfill one who bore the divine image and likeness.  He had laid up treasure for himself, but was not rich toward God in any way. The problem, of course, was not simply that the man had possessions, but that he had made them his god, which is another way of saying that he worshipped only himself.  His barns were a temple to his greed through which he offered his entire existence in a vain effort to fulfill his self-centered desires.

In stark contrast, the Theotokos followed the righteous example of her parents.  She was prepared by a life of holiness to agree freely to become our Lord’s mother, even though she was an unmarried virgin who did not understand how such a thing could happen.  When she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” this young Palestinian Jewish girl bravely made a whole, complete offering of her life to God.  She did not ask what was in it for her, how this would fit into her life plans, or whether she could count on financial support.  Unlike the rich fool in the parable, God was more real and more important to her than any of those things.

St. Paul taught the Ephesians that Jesus Christ is more real and important than any human division, even the separation between Jew and Gentile.  He reminded them that “Christ is our peace, Who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the Cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.”  The Gentile Christians are now also part of a holy temple “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the chief cornerstone…”  Though they had been “strangers” to the heritage of Israel, they are now built into the living temple of Christ’s Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Some people serve their distorted desires for fulfillment in money and possessions, like the rich fool in today’s gospel lesson.  Others make false gods out of nationality, culture, race, or politics.  Too many people today want to keep up “the dividing wall of hostility” so that they can indulge in the pleasure of condemning others as evil even as they imagine that they themselves embody all virtue.  At a deep level, we all know that the passing distinctions between people and groups in this life extend no further than the grave.  In order to protect ourselves from facing the anxiety fueled by basing our lives on such insubstantial realities, we like to convince ourselves that some worldly agenda manifests the ultimate good.  It is no surprise, of course, that we tend to place ourselves on the right side of such divides.  There are ways to “eat, drink, and be merry” that have nothing to do with food and beverage, but everything to do with how we have impoverished our souls by becoming blind to the spiritual impact of how Christ “has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” and brought peace to those “who were far off, and peace to those who were near.”

The Jewish Messiah Whose ministry extended to Samaritans, Roman centurions, Gentiles, and public sinners has brought all with faith in Him into His Body, the Church, the living temple of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He worked that reconciliation through His great Self-offering on the Cross through which He has released us from bondage to the fear of death through His glorious resurrection on the third day.  If we want to be at peace with those we consider our enemies concerning any matter in this world, we must embrace our true identity as “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.”  We must find healing for our souls as we become holy temples of the Lord.  His Kingdom must become far more real and important for us than any of the pathetic realms of this world of corruption.  In other words, we must become like the Theotokos who opened herself fully and without reservation to receive the Savior.  His peace comes to the world not through conventional political struggles, but when we truly offer ourselves to share more fully in His life, as did His holy mother.

We are now in the Nativity Fast, the 40-day period of abstaining from the richest and most satisfying foods as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior at Christmas.  The weeks of Advent are also a time for confessing and repenting of our sins, generosity to the needy, and intensified prayer as we prepare to welcome the Lord into our lives at His Nativity.   Presently in our parish and in many others around the world, people are unable to attend services as they would like.  Many are filled with worry about their own health and the well-being of their loved ones. Out of love for our neighbors, we must all accept various forms of inconvenience that pale in comparison with the risks that the Theotokos took in agreeing to become the Living Temple as the Virgin Mother of our Lord.   As we fast, pray, give, repent, and accept restrictions for the sake of our neighbors during these weeks, let us refuse to make doing so a way of fueling division, animosity, or condemnation toward anyone.  Instead, let us embrace them as humble ways of refusing to lay up treasures for ourselves and becoming poor towards God.  Alas, addiction to fulfilling our self-centered desires according to the standards of this world of corruption remains all too appealing, if even in the subtlest ways.

Now is the time to follow Joachim and Anna in offering their long-awaited child to fulfill her vocation.  Now is the time to become like their daughter in preparing through self-denial and prayer to receive the Lord into our lives.  Now is the time to bear witness to the peace of Christ through our common life as His temple, His Body, the Church, in a fashion that reveals the foolish resentments and divisions of this world as nothing but forms of idolatry.  In the remaining days of the Nativity Fast, let us struggle to become less like the rich fool and more like the obscure Palestinian Jewish girl who said “Yes!” to God with every ounce of her being.  That is surely the only way to gain the strength necessary to overcome “the dividing wall of hostility” and provide the world a much-needed sign of the peace of the Kingdom of God. Now is the time to follow the Theotokos into the Temple as we make ready to welcome the Savior at His birth.

 

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