Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Two Mysteries

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

In our gospel lesson this morning [Matthew 9:27-35] we heard that our Lord Jesus Christ opened the eyes of two blind men and cast out a demon from a man who could not speak. The passage goes on to describe how Christ travelled to all the cities and villages, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.

Miracles of physical healing and deliverance from spiritual oppression often accompanied the preaching of gospel of the kingdom as a sign that the salvation of God has come to reverse the consequences of the fall and release mankind from the wretched tyranny of sin, death, and the devil.

In passages like this and in our epistle lesson this morning [1 Timothy 3:13-4:5], we witness the conflict that continually rages between the kingdom of heaven and the domain of darkness. One aims to bring healing and freedom to man, the other to cripple and enslave him forever. At work in this conflict are two mysteries which we shall examine today; one good, one evil. Both of these mysteries are actively present in the world, and sometimes even in our own thoughts and choices. We need to be aware of their presence and learn to incline ourselves toward the good, that we might find God’s freedom rather than the devil’s enslavement.

The first mystery we encounter is actually named by St. Paul in today’s epistle. He calls it the mystery of godliness. What is the mystery of godliness? I believe it refers to the ineffable manner in which God brings His divine life into the world so that we might find healing and salvation.

Many people don’t see godliness as a mystery. They see it either as the natural result of following the laws of their religion to the letter, or else as a kind of legal status bestowed upon those of approved belief. But for St. Paul, true godliness could only come from the mystery that is God Himself. Quoting an ancient creed of the apostolic-era Church, he wrote: “God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory”.

What is it that Paul is speaking of here? He is speaking of the mystery of the incarnation of Christ and all that is accomplished for us in His glorified humanity. For the early Church, the incarnation was central to the message of godliness and salvation. That message was not simply that God assumed a body to slay upon the cross, but that He took our humanity and added it to Himself to infuse our nature with His divinity and holiness. This is the same message that the Orthodox Church lives and proclaims today.

But there is more to this. If we accept that this quotation came from a creed of the early Church, we can perhaps understand that it was most likely from a baptismal creed, a confession of faith which was made as the candidate stood ready to be received into the Church through the “new birth” of water and the Spirit into union with Christ. This is truly a great mystery! Only God can understand how baptism unites us to Christ, how it makes us members of His Holy Body the Church, how together with the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit it makes His divine life and energies available to us for the transformation which leads to salvation. Indeed only God can understand the mystery of godliness. Thankfully, this mystery does not require our understanding in order for us to participate in it, only our faith and our desire to draw near to God.

Unfortunately, in this modern age men seek rational explanations for everything, and attempt to subject even the mysteries of God to the limitations of the human intellect. Such attempts invariably strip the mysteries of all power, and leave men with only empty symbols which cannot lead to the fullness of truth and the deepest experience of sanctifying godliness.

Behind these actions is yet another mystery. In his epistle to Timothy, Paul went on to say that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and the doctrines of devils. Elsewhere, in his Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, St. Paul described something he called the mystery of iniquity, which he linked directly to the antichrist and his foul teachings. St. John wrote that the spirit of antichrist is already in the world and working to lead many astray.

This seductive spirit of antichrist seeks to draw all men away from truth and the mystery of godliness to enslave them by deception. It never operates entirely alone, but relies on man’s own spiritual pride to coax him into setting aside the Holy Tradition of the Church in favor of something he sees as better. For some, this temptation comes in the form of Sola Scriptura, the alluring promise that with my bible alone I can gain all wisdom and declare my independence from the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. But while we Orthodox may reject this false use of the bible, we may still fall victim to a seductive spirit of pride and of raising our opinions above the life and faith of our holy Orthodoxy.

Let me give some examples. It concerns me deeply whenever I see Orthodox believers who are indifferent to the life of the Church, who come to the services infrequently and only at their own convenience, who seldom give attention to their Orthodox life outside of Church; who disregard their prayers, the fasting, the sanctified giving and support of their parish, and ignore the holy confessional with its life-giving penance. It worries me whenever Orthodox people act as their own spiritual guides, following their own thoughts and ideas in regard to their life, without any consultation with a priest or elder. I am troubled when people make major decisions which change the course of their lives without so much as seeking the blessing of their priest, let alone his counsel.

It’s certainly true that it takes time, humility, and attentiveness on our part to allow the Holy Spirit to form in us an Orthodox ethos or mindset, leading to our becoming truly Orthodox in our thinking and manner of life. It should in fact be our goal to allow this spiritual formation to take place in us through our obedience to the life of the Church and submission to the Spirit of God. But if we allow our own willfulness and human pride to impede this formation, if we live Orthodoxy entirely on our own terms, doing as we please, are we not setting ourselves above the Church and even God Himself, seeking to rule our own lives rather than seeking the rule of God?

My brothers and sisters, this is the spirit of the antichrist. We may claim to love the Church, but if we behave with a casual indifference toward its sacred life, does this not reveal an independent and proud spirit within us that is in opposition to God? Do we wish to follow the Spirit of humility leading to godliness, or only the spirit of self-worship leading to iniquity?

Let us remember that God has called us to a holy life, which we must approach with reverence and a voluntary self-emptying of willfulness and stubborn disobedience. St. Anthony of the Desert taught that by humility, man can avoid all the snares of the enemy. This is the path which can save us from the antichrist and from the mystery of iniquity which will take so many unwary people captive in these last days. Great is the mystery of godliness through which we are saved! May God grant us the humility to live as truly faithful and obedient Orthodox Christian believers.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.