“Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.”
A couple of weeks ago Fr. Dan rightly pointed out some moral instruction in the text he was preaching from, and he rightly pointed out that I tend to be uncomfortable with such references – in isolation from the larger context of the Christian Faith. Specifically, in isolation from the Resurrection of Christ. This past Wednesday evening John Murphy continued instructing us concerning the Sacramental Imagination with attention to some of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins that speaks to Epiphany – since we are in the Epiphany season. He pointed out that the last poem of the evening was a Resurrection poem, not an Epiphany poem. And yet it is the Resurrection poem that infuses the other poems with truth and meaning. And that is my point in bringing up these two events: our belief and understanding of our Lord’s mission and the unfolding of his identity in the Epiphany, as well as our understanding of moral instruction for everyday Christian living are true and infused with Christian meaning, indeed they are products, consequences of the Resurrection of Christ. We cannot remind ourselves too often that the New Testament and the Church are outcomes of the Resurrection.
When I say that “moralism” is a bad thing and it is not something you will find Jesus or his apostle recommending, this is what I mean: moral instruction that is detached from the Resurrection of Jesus Christ has the danger of being taken as the sum of the Christian faith. C. S. Lewis made this very point when he wrote:
“though Christianity seems at first to be all about morality, all about duties and rules and guilt and virtue, yet it leads you on, out of all that, into something beyond…”
A dramatic example of reducing Christ to a moral teacher is the Jefferson bible – a text to which Mr. Jefferson took a razor blade to remove all references to miracles and otherworldliness to reveal what Jesus was really all about, namely his ethical teaching. For Mr. Jefferson there was nothing beyond “rules and guilt and virtue.” That is not true. Christianity is not essentially a moral teaching. To reduce Christ to a moral teacher requires excising his miracles, his identity as the Messiah, his Resurrection and the promise of his second advent. But we speak from the advantage of retrospection.
From the point of view of those men and women who first experienced the resurrected Christ, it was, without exception, unexpected. There was nothing in their experience of being Jews that would have led them to anticipate the resurrection of the man who had been so scourged and crucified. It is true that some of them believed Jesus to be the Messiah; but, their expectation was that the Messiah’s coming would be apocalyptic; he would appear as the conquering, liberating, triumphant hammer of God.
They had all seen or heard of failed messiahs who gathered a following (sometimes a large one), and eventually they all went to their deaths. There had been too many to even recall their names. So as they stood afar off from Calvary and saw Jesus dying on the cross, they experienced what the disciples of John the Baptist had recently experienced when his headless body was handed over to them for burial: profound terror and then grief and defeat. Though the women and the beloved disciple were closer to the cross, theirs was the same experience of agony and bereavement as they followed those who bore his lifeless body to the tomb, so they could later prepare it for a proper Jewish burial. The whole thing was over. They would be lucky to get out of it alive themselves. Such was their experience.
In a sense had it really been all over, their world would not have been so turned upside down. But Sunday morning Jesus walked out of the borrowed tomb, Resurrected from the dead. He was not carried out on a stretcher, he did not stumble out and he did not have to convalesce. He was fit, strong and full of life – Resurrected. He appeared first to Mary Magdalene and then to the other Apostles over a forty-day period that ended with his Ascension. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, after his death by crucifixion, was the definitive, final, climatic moment in history. In light of that event everything else in their (and our) world, without remainder, became provisional. Morality? Not only the Jews, but the Greeks and the Romans had a morality. And, the Jews, the Greeks and the Romans shared a commitment to what we call the cardinal virtues: temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence. There was plenty of morality before Christ. The Jews had a morality, a Law, by which they believed they were made righteous before God. For the Greeks and the Romans, morality, the virtues, had nothing to do with holiness; it was entirely meant to form a man in civic virtue; a man of pride who did great things for his city. There was plenty of morality before Christ, but after the Resurrection those moralities were, like his beaten and abused body, resurrected and transformed as well.
“Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love… serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer; distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality… Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep. Be of the same mind one toward another.”
The epistle for today throws some light on how the old morals and virtues were to be transformed. Little communities of disciples started springing up after Pentecost all over the Middle East and Asia and eventually in Rome. It is estimated that there were close to 40-50,000 Christians by the time Paul wrote the Romans, which was probably about 30 years after the Resurrection. Some of these little parishes grew while others fell apart. Stresses from without gained momentum as the original leaders, the Apostles and their immediate successors, were hunted down and killed.
Paul addressed the whole community within the city of Rome with regard to how they should relate to one another within the Church. There were at least 5 small house churches that Paul identifies in chapter 16. In this passage he lists several moral imperatives that describe honorable, godly conduct within the Church of God. This behavior is absolutely necessary for the internal cohesion – the pulling together of the Christian community. These imperatives are repeated one way or another by the other New Testament authors. I want to look at four of them.
The first imperative is “like-mindedness.” Our text has it, “be of the same mind one toward another.” Agreement, harmony, accord among believers is critical for the resilience of these communities. “Like-mindedness” is ultimately to be found in the example of Jesus Christ himself who was “like-minded” with God the Father. Paul exhorted the Philippians to “have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” Like-mindedness is to be marked by the remaining three moral imperatives; all embodied in the life of our Lord.
“Let love be without dissimulation… Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love…”
The word used here is “philadelphoi.” We are probably at the very heart of Paul’s exhortation. “Love” is the greatest of all the gifts:
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
Love for one another is the sum of it all. Again, surprising to me, this word actually denotes an emotional attachment and commitment to one another – not only behavior. It is all of this: emotional attachment, felt commitment to one another that issues in loving behavior toward one another in Christ. Our family is the Family of God. Our home is the Oikos, the Household of God; our city is the City of God. This brotherhood among us is by virtue of our Baptism into Christ. In this case, Christ and the Apostles would insist, “water is thicker than blood!” Our spiritual kinship is based upon our same Father as Jesus Christ – who is our elder brother. We should follow his example in love. The fact that Christians regarded one another as brothers and sisters did not go unnoticed by outsiders. Lucian, a satirist, wrote a play around 125 AD in which the lead character takes advantage of the generosity and gullibility of Christians. This means that the reputation of Christians for love was already common currency in Antiquity. Lucian could use Christianity as a foil and everyone got the joke. He lampoons Christians whose “first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers to one another.” Christian love was a mark of distinction even for pagans. Centuries after Paul’s epistle, pagans would declare, “Look how these Christians love one another!” Christian love was public knowledge and it certainly drew outsiders to faith in Christ.
“Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”
The word used in other New Testament epistles is “sympathies.” It means pretty much what our word “compassion” means – “to suffer with, to feel with” your brother or sister in Christ. “Have deep feelings of compassion for one another. Passover to one-another’s points-of-view. Feel one another’s pain. Feel one another’s joy.” No community will long stand where cold-heartedness is the standard.
“Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate.”
A more exact translation would be “Put away haughty thoughts and associate with the lowly or the humble.” Peter gives the same advice when he writes, “Be ye all humble minded toward one another.” Now the Greco-Roman world in antiquity would see this as downright immoral. In that highly aggressive and socially stratified society, only degraded and dishonored people were lowly or humble. The weak and shameful were incapable of defending their honor, so they were humble. Humility was a character flaw revealing self-contempt and for that matter contempt for proper social order. From the point-of-view of their non-Christian neighbors, Christians were dangerous and immoral. They were turning the world upside down. One way to think about how Christ transformed morality is to think of Greek and Roman Christians shifting from the order of old civic virtue to the new order and the virtues of the City of God. They were promoting sedition and rebellion against the morals and standards of the present age by their humility.
But for Christians they were following in the footsteps of Jesus. All these imperatives were descriptive of how they conducted themselves within the Household of God. They deeply loved one another. They were committed to one another far beyond anything that made sense to their pagan neighbors. One could feel the solidarity and cohesion that bound their lives together as the Family of God. It is our duty as children of God to consciously and intentionally live these imperatives – individually and as a community. It is our duty to curb our feelings of envy and to control our tongue and to rein in our negative feelings. Protect your brothers and sisters in Christ. Be tenderhearted toward one another. Learn to cherish our unity and solidarity with one another. I hope you see this little parish is a shelter from the storm for you and your family, a haven of peace and blessedness. And I hope you see just a bit clearer the difference between what the world calls “morality” and Christian behavior.