|27 - Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, March 29, 2015|
In our Gospel this morning, one has the feeling that the other disciples were upset really because James and John got to the LORD first. It happens in an atmosphere of dread as the disciples are following the LORD “on the way up to Jerusalem”. It is in response to what the LORD says about His impending Passion. So, I think that what the LORD says on how the authority of His Church is different from that of the world’s is much deeper than what is apparent on the surface.
The LORD describes the power of the world with words that have a downward, oppressing movement. The rulers of the world, He says, lord their authority over their subjects, the great subdue the weak with force. The image is of a vanquished foe forced to do the victor’s will.
This power is of pride that shows no regard for anything that does not serve its self-centered ends. Is not this the kind of power that flows like a powerful river through world history raising and leveling kingdoms and civilizations each in their turn?
But, I would have you see also that this kind of power rules human relationships, where authority calls on its superiority either of power or status to subdue, to control and to manipulate those under it to get what it wants.
But, I would also have you see that this is the power of sin that is active in us. Listen to St Paul: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my spirit, making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members.” (Rom 7:15-23)
These sins that hold us captive we call passions. There are two of them that are chief according to the holy fathers: gluttony and pride. The one is self-love expressed in a fleshly way. The other is self-love expressed in a spiritual way. So, there is really but one chief passion: self-love. This is the law of sin that holds us captive. From self-love grow all the sins and the passions that rule over us, forcing us to do what we don’t want to do. St Maximus the Confessor says: "Where self-love is absent, there no trace of evil can exist." For example, I don’t want to eat so much; yet I eat too much. I don’t want to get angry, yet I get angry. The evil cunning of sin is how it makes me want to engage in destructive behaviors even though I don’t want to.
The LORD says to James and John: “You don’t know what you are asking!” I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t beneath this word a theological meaning that connects it to what the Savior says on the Cross: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do!” This might explain why the disciples, following Jesus on the “way up to Jerusalem” were amazed with terror and afraid. (Mk 10:32) They weren’t just going up outwardly to Jerusalem. They were going up inwardly into the mystery of God that was hidden from before the ages and was about to be revealed in the LORD’s Holy Pascha. They were going inwardly to the “true Sabbath”, to the Holy of Holies, to the tomb of the heart. This is the inward way of Great Lent..
It’s what St Paul writes in Romans that alerts me to this possibility, because he seems there to speak to the spiritual significance of James and John’s ignorance. “If it had not been for the law,” he writes, “I should not have known what it is to covet; but sin, taking opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness….The very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me.” (Rm 7:7-10.)
James and John don’t know what they’re asking. They can’t see their covetousness. But, as soon as the LORD corrects them, they will see it; and, the Word of the LORD, which promises life (cf. Jn 6:68 “Where shall we go, LORD? You alone have the words of life”), will indeed prove to be death to them (Rm 7:10) But, it will prove to be the death of their covetousness, for that is why the LORD is leading them on the way up to Jerusalem: to destroy death by His death and to give life to those in the tombs!
The LORD teaches His disciples: “Whoever would be great, i.e., powerful, among you must be your servant; and whoever would be first among you, i.e., your ruler, must be slave of all.” See how the LORD rules with a power that moves upward from the bottom – as though, it is moving upward from the dust of the ground; as though it is rising upward from the grave! In a manner beyond telling, the commandment that promised life yet proved to be death to me has become life for me precisely in my death through faith in Jesus Christ – i.e., through obedience to the commandment of Christ to deny myself and to take up my cross and to lose my life for His sake and the Gospel’s. Through faith, I receive into my body, through the Holy Mysteries of Christ’s Church, the death of Jesus that has destroyed my death by His death and given life to me who was dead in my sins and trespasses in the tomb of my heart. This is the power of Christ. It is the power of His Holy Church; a power that destroys the death that destroyed me and so, whereas the Word of the Law promised life but proved to be death to me, the Word of the Law that was incarnate, the LORD Jesus Christ, delivered me from death and raised me to life precisely by proving to be death to me.
The power of Christ’s Cross – the LORD’s Holy Sword, great and strong (Isa 27:1) –destroys my death not by coercion, but in the freedom of love, only if I want it in love. The LORD incarnate does not give the command, “Thou shalt not covet.” He gives the command: “Take up your cross!” For in taking up the Cross in the ascetic disciplines of the Church to put to death what is earthly in me, I put to death not just covetousness but the whole law of sin that dwells in my members. Attacking my gluttony with the Cross of the Fast, I am at the same time attacking the passion of self-love that hides in my heart – not just in theory (this is what amazes me with fear!) but in the hard reality of the flesh.
Speaking for myself, I find this Orthodox Way of salvation astonishing and fearsome. We do not take up our Cross and follow Christ in theory or romantic piety. We do it in a bodily way: in the way of the Fast, and in eating and drinking the death of Jesus by eating and drinking His Body and Blood in Holy Eucharist. By fasting and prayer, and by eating and drinking the sacramental mysteries of the Church – which is the Body of Christ, the fullness of Him who is all in all – we are “always carrying in our body the death of Jesus.” (2 Cor 4:10) We are carrying the death of Jesus in our bodies, says St Paul; i.e.,not in theory, not in romantic piety. I would like to say that we take up our Cross in our bodies – i.e., through fasting, prostrations, vigils, the sacraments of the Church – because that is the only way that means absolute business! Sin is not a theory. As St Paul say, it dwells in our bodily members, it is active in our bodies so that it has made our bodies to bodies of death. This physical way of working out our salvation in fear and trembling that is the way of the Orthodox Faith is the only way that destroys the sin that has become embodied in us; but this means that if, through the Fast, the power of Christ’s Cross is becoming active in us so, then the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is also becoming embodied in us. So, as we die in the death of Jesus to what is earthly in us by means of the cross of the Fast, the life of Jesus begins to become manifest, as St Paul says, in our bodies (2 Cor 4:10), even as it was manifest in the Body of Christ in His Holy Transfiguration and in His Holy Resurrection.
So, it is in the death of Jesus that we experience the power of His Resurrection, for it delivers us from our passions with a spiritual joy that proclaims to us that we are being raised from death to life, a new creation, in the death-destroying and life-creating power of the LORD Jesus Christ, to Whom belong all glory, honor and worship! Amen!