Monday, June 25, 2012

Is Righteousness Possible?

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. On this day we commemorate the Nativity of the Forerunner and Baptist John. Our gospel lesson opens with a wonderful description of the Forerunner’s parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, whom St. Luke tells us were both “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly.” This righteous couple was chosen by God to become the parents of a righteous man whom our Lord would later describe as “the greatest of those born of women.” This parallels God’s choice of the pure and righteous virgin Mary to become the birth-giver of His own Son. From these two prominent examples at the very foundation of the New Testament age, we see that righteousness and purity of devotion matters to God and allows Him to bestow even more grace upon His people. How would you like to be remembered by posterity as a righteous person who served God blamelessly? As attractive as that sounds, I have a feeling that many of us have already decided it’s an impossible dream, and perhaps have formed the conclusion that we will go on forever failing God. Is that gloomy opinion based only on our own experiences, or do we have a theological basis for assuming we can never be righteous? Many of us have come to Orthodoxy from a different spiritual tradition which insists that human righteousness is impossible, even for Christians. The teaching is that each of us is born into this world with what is described as a “sin nature,” assuring that we must compulsively sin throughout our entire lives, even after being “born again.” Furthermore, it is taught that all of this sinning simply doesn’t matter because God deposits into our spiritual bank account the righteousness of Christ and “looks upon us” as being holy, even if our lives are in fact demolished by sin. When this teaching is followed to its logical course, it leaves people believing that any Christian effort to live righteously before God is both impossible and unnecessary. If we have a sin nature, why fight it and feel guilty over things we can’t control? If the righteousness of Christ is imputed to us automatically, why try to add to that our own righteousness which obviously is of far lesser value? With such teaching to guide them--or more correctly, misguide them--many Christians find little reason to challenge themselves to live holy lives before God, despite the numerous scriptural examples which show that holiness truly matters. If we come from this spiritual background, as many of us have, it can sometimes leave us with a lingering confusion over the importance of righteousness in our lives, and even over how much effort we should put into resisting sin and trying to overcome it with the help of God. Perhaps the first thing we should recognize is that it is not correct to say that we are born into this world with a “sin nature” but rather with a human nature that is fallen and as such is inclined toward sin. There is a big difference between the two. If it is literally our nature to sin, then all the many scripture verses that tell us to stop sinning would be both pointless and cruel. You may as well tell birds not to fly, or rednecks to park their cars on the street instead of on the front lawn. But if we have a human nature which is merely fallen and thus filled with fleshly desires that draw it toward sin, then this is something that can be repaired by God and aided by our repentance. Listen again to the words of St. Paul from our epistle lesson this morning: “Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; conducting ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Would this esteemed apostle write such words to a people whose very nature was to sin, who literally had no control over their actions? This is only one of many passages that teach that while we may be inclined toward sin, we are not obligated to sin. It comes down to the idea that we sin not because we have to, but because we choose to, and quite naturally the scriptures instruct us to choose righteousness instead. Another thing to consider in light of this is that our efforts to live righteously in obedience to the scriptures and to the God who inspired them is not an attempt to undermine or “add to” the salvation provided in Christ. We are not trying to save ourselves through good works. The clearest example of this is found in our Most Blessed Lady Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary who, although living a pure life before God, was still in need of a Savior as she herself testified in Luke’s gospel, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly estate of His maidservant”. Mary understood quite well that she was a fallen human being (in a “lowly estate”) in need of deliverance from death and restoration to God (by her Savior). However she also understood that even fallen human beings can choose for God and live in a manner pleasing to Him. This is a very important fact that many Christians today--perhaps even many of us--have seemingly forgotten. If Old Testament saints could live righteous and blameless lives before God though still needing Christ, how much more can we who have been baptized into Christ and granted the gift of the Holy Spirit walk in newness of life and in a manner pleasing to God? We have been granted every advantage over the saints of old, as Christ Himself might have meant when He said, “Among men born of women, none is greater than John the Baptist. Yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” If we allow ourselves to be constantly directed by the impulses of the passions and sin without measure, is that the failure of the gifts of God, or simply a manifestation of our own unwillingness to struggle and engage a fight that is difficult? There is no doubt that holiness is hard, even with the Spirit to guide us and give us life. But we must choose the hard path if we are to allow God to lead us to even greater things. The desires of the flesh are many and always lead us to go easy on ourselves and choose the path of least resistance. We must choose the path of greater resistance, though our fallen nature complains bitterly every step of the way, and our self-pity begs for a softer and easier journey through life. This is nothing. The complaints of our flesh are nothing. What is something is that we are fashioned in Christ for holiness, created by God to one day shine brighter than the stars of the heavens. We are not doomed to remain forever in sins as if being in Christ meant nothing, as if we were not destined for glory but only for shame. There are many things working against us, but the greatest of all these might just be our own unwillingness to change, to better our way of life, to mature in Christ to the glory of God. It is God who will cause the growth, who will make us holy, who will cause us to shine brightly. But like the saints of old, we must say yes to God and no to our sins and passions, no matter how great and difficult a struggle this may be. Let us never think that it is too late for posterity to remember us as a righteous people. That is simply a pandering to our self-pity. Let us choose instead to struggle with great fervency, and see what marvelous works God can accomplish in our lives. +To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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