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.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Love and Reconciliation

Tomorrow we begin the Apostles’ Fast in preparation for the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul which we celebrate in about three weeks. Each year the length of this fast varies from a few weeks to sometimes only a couple of days, depending on how early or late Pascha falls in any given year. Despite the variable nature of the fast, the feast itself is a very important one not only because of the two great apostles that it commemorates, but also because of an additional significance this particular feast has come to hold for Orthodox Christian believers. There are at least two different icons that portray this feast. In one, the two apostles are shown standing together and upholding a representation of the Church, demonstrating that Peter, the apostle to the Jews, and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, worked together to found the one Church for all peoples, cultures, and nations. The Christian Church is truly universal, the one true Ark of Salvation which God Himself has constructed for the deliverance of all mankind and the entire world. A second icon is a bit different. In this one, Peter and Paul are embracing one another and bestowing on each other the holy kiss of Christian brotherhood. Often the halos about their heads are seen intersecting in such a way as to form the image of a heart, representing the two chief Christian virtues of reconciliation and love. As we may know from the holy scriptures, Peter and Paul had a bit of a falling out over Peter’s hypocrisy in suddenly refusing to eat with the Gentiles when the party of the Circumcision showed up. Paul publicly called him on this in front of everyone present and likely caused a bit of hard feelings. Yet from the scriptures we also know that these two men were later reconciled, and in one of his epistles Peter even calls Paul “our beloved brother” and speaks warmly of the wisdom which God had given him to serve the Church. This example is very encouraging and shows us the Christian path. These two founders of our Church--despite very real and undeniable human failings--allowed the Holy Spirit to work in their lives to bring about reconciliation and the triumph of Christian love. This is the additional significance of this feast, and a call to us to allow the Holy Spirit to also work in the same way in our lives. When it comes to reconciliation and love, there may be a tendency for us to assume these virtues are already present in our lives simply because we can’t think of anyone we actively hate. This is a mistake. As has been noted many times by our Holy Fathers, the opposite of love is not hate. Just because you don’t hate anyone doesn’t necessarily mean you love anyone either. The true opposite of love is mere indifference. If God had only been indifferent to our plight, we would be left to perish in our sins without any hope of redemption. Instead, His love moved Him to reconcile us and the entire world to Himself through Jesus Christ His Son. True love comes from God and imitates the movement and action of God to reach out, embrace, and reconcile from all alienation the object of love. It is an active force propelling one toward the good of the other through all necessary sacrifice. True Christian love comes to us from the Holy Spirit when we are willing not merely to feel, but to act. As God’s love moves Him to act on our behalf, so the Holy Spirit moves us to action--or tries to--but is often stymied, perhaps not by any hatred on our part, but almost always by our great indifference. If you look around at the other people in this room, do you find any here that you hate? I would hope not, and would further hope that you would come to your father-confessor and tell him if you did. But when you look around, do you find any here that you are simply indifferent toward, that you neither hate nor love, but regard with no particular interest at all? This is far more likely, and an indication that you are blocking the Holy Spirit from operating fully in your life. Love must begin first in the household of God with your own brothers and sisters in Christ, and from there reach out to the stranger and the coworker and the others we encounter on a daily basis. If we do not love our brother or sister first with an active, sacrificial love, as St. John says, we do not know God, for God is love. This active, sacrificial love requires that we stretch our thinking beyond ourselves and our own immediate families and include our parish family in our daily concerns. If we pray for our own families, shouldn’t we also pray for our parish family? If we are careful to provide the necessities of life for our own family, shouldn’t we also provide for our parish family with regular financial support? If we think it important to invest “quality time” in our families, shouldn’t we also put in some time at our parish, working together, volunteering for duties, building up ourselves and one another through service? The same is true for those without families. Singles and young marrieds need to think of their parish family and find ways to support and labor in love for the good of all. This is the first and best way that the Holy Spirit leads us out of the black hole of self-absorption and teaches us to love and be reconciled to others. We need to understand that God has given us the parish and all the people and all the various needs in it as the very means of our growth toward the communion of love in the Holy Trinity, and our salvation. If we fail to see the need to serve one another faithfully, putting the needs of each other over our own as the scriptures instruct, we fail to respond to the Holy Spirit in that which is most needful to us. When we are overzealous to protect our time, our money, our interests alone, we are not allowing the Spirit to lead us into perfect love and reconciliation toward one another, and in a very real way remain isolated from the household of God. And so, as we enter into this fast for the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, let us first do this together as the family of God, fasting also from any selfish isolation or unwillingness to sacrifice for one another. Let us strive to discover our responsibility toward our larger family, and in so doing serve them in the manner that is pleasing to God and saving to us. +To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.