As you may know, St. Paul would go physically to various towns and cities and in each city he would spend some time and start small churches, perhaps what we might even call missions. He did this in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ who commanded the apostles to go into every region and tto every corner and preach the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ to all people. In the course of founding these young churches, St. Paul would often hear news of their trials and troubles as well as their successes and he would write letters to these churches when he could not himself be physically present. Sometimes he used these letters to put things in order, or to offer swift correction or to encourage and strengthen the faithful. In today’s epistle we hear the words of the Holy Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians.
“Brethren, be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, and be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”
What does St. Paul mean when he says “Be watchful”? We can often study other parts of Holy Scripture in order to illumine the meaning of hard to grasp phrases. In particular we should hear the words of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the gospel according to Matthew the Lord Jesus says “Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (Matthew 24:42-44)”and again He says “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.” (Matthew 25:13)
Yet again we hear the same teaching from Our Lord Jesus Christ in the gospel according to St. Luke where He says “Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. Assuredly, I say to you that he will gird himself and have them sit down to eat, and will come and serve them. And if he should come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them so, blessed are those servants. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Luke 12:37-40)
The Lord reminds us that we are to remain watchful and vigilant over our souls and our spiritual life because what, rather, who we are carrying in our souls is precious treasure. We are carrying the Holy Spirit. We have become temples of the Holy Spirit through our baptism into Christ. We are reminded that none of us knows when we will meet the Lord so we should prepare to meet the Lord on a daily basis. The fathers of the Church spent volumes writing about this subject of watchfulness. Here is just a taste of what they have taught,
St. Peter of Damascus writes “As St John of Damaskos says, without attentiveness and watchfulness of the intellect we cannot be saved and rescued from the devil, who walks about ‘like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Pet. 5:8). For this reason the Lord often said to His disciples, ‘Watch and pray; for you do not know at what hour your Lord is coming’ (Matt. 26:41, 24:42). Through them He was giving a warning to us all about the remembrance of death, so that we should be prepared to offer a defense, grounded in works and attentiveness, that will be acceptable to God. For the demons, as St Hilarion has said, are immaterial and sleepless, concerned only to fight against us and to destroy our souls through word, act and thought. We lack a similar persistence, and concern ourselves now with our comfort and with ephemeral opinion, now with worldly matters, now with a thousand and one other things. We are not in the least interested in examining our life, so that our intellect may develop the habit of so doing and may give attention to itself unremittingly.”
What he tells us is that we as Christians must not be distracted by this world in which we live. We are called to a life of prayer and watchfulness and that as we practice this lifestyle, we find that we will develop a habit that becomes part of our nature. So that is good news. It may not be easy at first, but with God’s help, we can grow and mature in our spiritual life.
After telling us to be watchful, St. Paul commands us to stand firm in our faith, to be courageous and strong. We are reminded that at the time that St. Paul was preaching and teaching, he was in the Roman empire and that this empire did not have freedom of religion or freedom of religious expression. He was reminding the people that part of being a Christian is refusing to give in to any pressures either internal or external. Refusing to compromise our Christian faith or way of life for anything, eventhe fear of punishment or death. Being a Christian means being prepared to die for your faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Being a Christian means holding your faith as sacred and precious and not compromising those beliefs for convenience or riches or comfort or popularity or political parties or ideologies. Nothing comes before Christ. If you put anything before Christ and His teachings you are like the Israelites who created a golden idol and worshipped it.But we are His children and He was crucified for our salvation, and in every generation there have been precious followers of Christ who have suffered and died for their faith. Even if we are told that we cannot buy food or drink water without denying Christ and accepting false gods, we should not do it! We should gladly die of hunger or thirst rather than be filled and nourished in the body while dead in the soul, which was bought at a price, through the suffering and life-giving death of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the witness of the martyrs of the Church and we are reminded of their heroic deeds on an almost daily basis.
After telling the Corinthian church to be watchful, courageous and strong, he gives them a reminder of one of the most important aspects of Christian life. He writes “let all that you do be done in love.” Those are powerful words to live by! What does love look like? First and foremost love looks like that man hanging on that wood, behind the altar. When I sit with couples and we do pre-marital counseling I ask them if they know what love looks like and then after a few moments I point to the icon of Our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified. That is THE picture of God’s love which means it is a perfect and complete picture, it is not lacking.
Love is suffering and sacrifice on behalf of others. In an age where everyone wants to compete and to win, love often looks like losing. For instance, when a husband and wife are fighting with one another, if one person always wins the arguments, they will actually lose in the end. They appear to win, but they lose because there was no love in the interaction, no humility, no understanding. It is the same with our interactions with others whether personal or virtual. Sometimes love compels us to be silent and to let things slide instead of causing strife through our insistence on winning arguments or being right. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called Sons of God.” St. Ambrose writes about this in the life of the Church when he says “Where there is strife and dissension, there is no love.” It sounds like this could apply to our own country and our own time. It is up to us to rise above the earthly discourse of our power seeking culture and to live above the noise. We elevate society and culture by living godly, sanctified lives, not by arguing with others in person or online. Our Lord taught His disciples saying “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love for one another.”John 13:34-35
As we began with a quote from St. Peter of Damascus, I will also end with one. St. Peter writes “Such are the souls of the saints: they love their enemies more than themselves, and in this age and in the age to come they put their neighbor first in all things, even though because of his ill-will he may be their enemy. They do not seek recompense from those whom they love, but because they have themselves received they rejoice in giving to others all that they have, so that they may conform to their Benefactor and imitate His compassion to the best of their ability; ‘for He is bountiful to the thankless and to sinners’ (cf. Luke 6:35).” May we live firmly in our faith, inthis spirit of generosity and compassion as the children of the One who is the source of all good things, and mayGod give us grace to do so. AMEN.