|13 - The Good Works of Faith, Nov 30, 2008|
Some Christians, of course, deny any saving value in ascetic disciplines such as prayer and fasting and deeds of charity. They think they are “works” and they believe we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Christians who belong to a sacramental Christianity, on the other hand, seem to perceive the ascetic disciplines of the Christian Faith as a kind of religious diet. We don’t eat this, we don’t do that. For them the Christian faith isn’t about living life abundantly; it’s about living a kind of “life lite” that will be compensated for in heaven.
I think that both of these attitudes proceed from a common misconception of the Christian Faith as nothing more than a set of religious ideas one embraces and a certain moral code one practices and that it is this that follows from believing in Christ. I think most Christians hope is that if they believe certain ideas and stop doing certain things, God will reward them and let their souls into heaven when they die. I think that in this, Christians manifest the same religious understanding as did the rulers of the synagogue in this morning’s Gospel: religion is all about holding certain ideas and practicing a certain code of ethics. I think Christians have no clue what the Christian Faith is. It isn’t about believing certain ideas and not doing certain things; it’s about living an altogether different life. And when I say it’s about living a different life, I don’t mean this life in the flesh only modified a bit by behaving a bit differently or following a different set of moral practices. I mean an altogether different life – an ontologically different life: the life of the Spirit.
Let me explain. According to St Paul, this life in the flesh is not life at all. It is death. He writes in his letter to the Ephesians: “You were dead in your trespasses and in your sins. You once walked in them.” Well, obviously you can’t be walking in them if you’re dead. So obviously, St Paul does not see death simply as a corpse that is no longer breathing and walking around. He sees death as a life that walks in sins and trespasses; i.e. that lives in disobedience to God and his commandments. This life of the flesh is death because it ends in death. Walking in this life of the flesh sets you on the path that leads directly to the grave.
Now, you walk with your whole being. Wherever you walk, your mind and your soul go with you. And generally, you walk wherever your mind and your soul tell you to walk. To walk in sins and trespasses, then, is a metaphor to describe a life that is immersed in sins and trespasses. It means that your mind is walking in sins and trespasses, too. It’s dwelling on thoughts and images that are of the flesh, not of the Spirit. It means that your senses are walking in sins and trespasses. With your eyes you look at impure images; with your ears you listen to impure words; with your tongue you curse, you swear, you use vulgarities, you gossip, you tell lies, you tear down your brother or sister. With your hands you do things God commanded us not to do; with your feet you walk where God commands us not to go. We do all of these things in the life of the flesh because in our heart we love these things. That’s why we choose to do them. They are what we live for. Our mind, our soul, our hands, our feet, our heart are alive in this life of the flesh that St Paul says is death because what animates our whole being is love not for God but for all of these things of the flesh.
You love what you live for and your life is what you love. There is a vital connection between love and life. Love proceeds from the heart. If our Christian Faith does not touch our heart and change what we love, then the life we live is not the Christian life but the life of the flesh. Our religiosity is superficial because it does not change our heart at that point where we love. Look to yourself if you want to see what life you’re really living: whether it is the “religious” life that only covers a love for the things of the flesh or the life of the Christian Faith that truly loves God. When you are alone and no one is around, when you are away from the Church and aren’t wearing your Churchly persona, how do you act, how do you speak, what does your mind dwell on? What in other words do you love: the lust of the flesh and the pride of life or the things of God’s Holy Spirit?
The sins and transgressions that we love don’t just dirty our mind or darken our hearts and make us unhappy. They are deadly. They kill us. That’s why we die. That’s why the life of the flesh is death. It’s a life that doesn’t love God but a life that loves to do one’s own will and not the will of God.
Simply believing a different idea and performing certain religious deeds isn’t going to give us life. If one doesn’t love God, it doesn’t matter what one believes or how religious one is. Inside where our heart is, where we love, we are stinking, rotting corpses. What we need is a change of heart that turns away from love of the flesh toward love of God so that it can die to death and be raised up to life, the life of God’s Spirit. But tragically, not even our love for God can save us from death because we are mortals. We do not have the power of life. We cannot give ourselves life. All that love for God can do is awaken us to the tragedy of our existence and give birth in our heart to a deep grief that breaks the heart. And yet, how ineffably sweet is the heart-breaking grief of this godly sorrow.
We are coming to the Feast of Christmas. Christmas is not about Santa Claus coming down the chimney to give us all kinds of toys and goodies. When one begins to see the tragedy of human existence, toys and goodies lose their interest. Toys and goodies aren’t what we need. We need God to save us from this life of death.
The joy of Christmas is the joy of the blessed Theotokos who in her obedience to God opens the human heart to receive the Lord who is the only Lover of mankind. Out of his love for mankind, God the Word descends into the womb of the Virgin and clothes himself in our flesh. He becomes one with us even to the point of dying on the Cross. He ascends the Cross on Great and Holy Friday. This is not an ordinary Friday. This is the Sixth Day of creation when in the beginning God made man in his own image and likeness. As he dies, Christ cries out “It is finished.” What is finished is the creation of man. The Theotokos’ love for God is given a complete answer. When the Christ is conceived in the womb of the Holy Virgin, when he is born as a little child in the cave of Bethlehem, when he is laid in the tomb of Pascha, the Seed of divine love is planted in the human heart. This Seed of divine Love is the Seed of divine life.
The Sixth Day of Creation came to an end on Great and Holy Friday, and the world entered into the Sabbath Day of creation. Christ God rested in the tomb from his work on the Cross of calling the world out of the abyss of death and into the life of God’s Holy Spirit. There is now a life, a love that flows like an artesian spring deep in the heart of the Theotokos and in the heart, the cave, the tomb of the human soul. The waters of that divine artesian spring are the living waters of the Holy Spirit. To drink from those waters is to drink the love of God that flows from the side of Christ and floods the heart of man with love for God and gives him an altogether different life, the life of the Spirit.
The Incarnation of Christ is the good work of God and man. Actually it is the supreme good work of God and man for it is the work of love: of the Theotokos’ love for God and of God’s love for the Theotokos. This is the supreme “good work” that God prepared beforehand that we should walk in it; i.e. live in it; i.e. live in the supreme good work of divine love and mercy. When Christ heals this woman and all the others who were sick on the Sabbath, he is healing them, in effect, from where he would rest on the Sabbath Day after he had finished his creation of man from the Cross on Great and Holy Friday. His healing on the Sabbath is a work of love and mercy that was completed, made perfect on the Cross. His healing miracles are therefore “good works” that proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, that God the Word who created us has become one with us and is even now resting in the tomb of our heart that died when we chose to love the world and not God. The ascetic disciplines of the Church are the cross we take up so that we may walk to where Christ is deep down in the tomb of our heart, so that we may behold him crucified who is our Creator and the only Lover of mankind, and hear the Gospel: that in his death on the Cross he has given himself to you in love completely and utterly.
Beloved faithful, behold God crucified in the flesh, and see if you still love the flesh or if you do not wish to fall down in worship before his life-creating cross as the shepherds and wise men fell down before him lying in the manger and cry out from the depths of your soul: “More love to Thee, O Christ, more love to Thee, this is my earnest plea, more love O Christ to Thee.” With the shepherds and the wise men, let us straighten up like this crippled woman made whole by the love of Christ for her, and let us rise and take up our cross and go to the cave of Bethlehem. Let us take up the ascetic disciplines of the Church and make our way into the cave of our heart that we may see this great wonder of God born in the flesh for the salvation of the world and that we may begin to live the abundant life of the Spirit in the love of God the Father, and in the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and in the communion of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Eph 2:1