|01 - TO BECOME STRONG ENOUGH FOR HEAVEN, Sept 4, 2022|
1 Corinthians 15.1-11
Many in the history of the Church, when hearing the Gospel we heard this morning, have been so inflamed with the desire to seek God, that they have literally sold all they had and gone into the desert to seek God through prayer and fasting as ascetics and monastics. St Anthony the Great in the early 4th century, and St Joseph the Hesychast in the mid 20th century are but two examples.
But is there anything in this morning’s Gospel that is for us who do not feel our soul stirring within us to sell all that we have and to leave father and mother, brother and sister, house and lands, to go out into the desert to seek God? Absolutely! This Gospel is for all of us who want to be perfect—that is, to become like God Our Father—and to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. So, how is it for all of us?
Note that the LORD says to His disciples: No one is strong enough to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (v. 26). This means that neither the rich nor the poor are strong enough to become ‘perfect’, to become like God, and enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But with God, the LORD says, it is possible.
Precisely what is possible? Follow the text: only God is strong enough to become perfect and to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. How can this be? God is already perfect, from eternity! He is the King of the Kingdom of Heaven, so of course He’s already in the Kingdom of Heaven.
But note, now, what the LORD tells this rich man to do if he wants to become perfect and to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. He tells him follow the LORD Jesus. Follow Him where? Into the mystery of becoming perfect and into the Kingdom of Heaven! But if it is impossible for any man to become perfect and enter the Kingdom of Heaven, if it is possible only with God, how is it that Jesus can lead all who would follow Him into Heaven? Is not the LORD teaching His disciples with this that He is God in the flesh? He is not a ‘teacher’ because He is a ‘man’ in some special relationship with God. He is God. In the words of St John, He is the only-begotten God, ‘He Who Is’ in the bosom of the Father (Jn 1.18, Ex 3.14). No man comes to the Father, no man becomes perfect and enters the Kingdom of Heaven, except through Him, the LORD Jesus Christ, Himself the Son of God; Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth and the Life because He is God, He is the Son of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made.
And Jesus, God the WORD incarnate, is right here, ‘in our midst.’ The disciples could see Him, they could hear Him, they could feel Him because He had become flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. And His Body, which He received from His Holy Virgin Mother, is the Heavenly Temple of God. (Jn 2.19&21), the image of which Moses saw on Mt Sinai. (Ex 25.9&40)
If, then, we desire to become perfect, to become like God and enter the Kingdom of Heaven, somehow, we must get into the Body of Jesus, into the Heavenly Temple of God. Here is the mystery: this Heavenly Temple of God, Christ’s Body that He received from His Holy Virgin Mother Theotokos, was the Temple He Himself ‘built’ without human hands with the materials of our human nature. If we want to, therefore, we can enter God’s Holy Temple somehow by entering into the temple of our own body, which is our heart; and there the LORD will be found within us. For the Temple of God that is His Body received from the Holy Virgin is the Church!
In the Church, then, in the mystery of Jesus Christ the God-Man, we are made strong enough to become perfect, to become like God, and to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Church, in the Body of Christ, our weakness is put to death in the waters of Holy Baptism where we are united to Christ in the likeness of—that is by partaking of—His death and resurrection. And in the sacramental mystery of Holy Eucharist, we eat and drink Christ who, in His body, in our own human nature, destroyed death by His death, and upon those in the tombs—that’s all of us—bestowed life. And, in Holy Eucharist, we receive the Heavenly Spirit, the very same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead in the flesh, in our flesh.
Having received the Power of God, His Heavenly Spirit, in the sacramental mysteries of His Body, the Church, we receive the strength, the power, to follow Him, if we want to. Follow Him where? We hear it on Great and Holy Friday night, at the Matins for Great and Holy Saturday when we have gathered mystically inside the Tomb of the LORD’s Sabbath Rest. We hear it from the prophet, Ezekiel: this Jesus, whose corpse lies before us, this same Jesus whom the rich young ruler thought was no more than a ‘good teacher,’ is in fact the very God who will raise us from our grave and lead us to the Father in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Thus, the earthly life of those who follow Christ is infused with divine power and is transfigured into an ascent into Heaven. The trials and tribulations, the afflictions and sufferings of this life are transfigured into the means by which we can sell all that we have to follow Christ; that is, the means by which we choose not to hold onto our love for the carnal pleasures of the flesh—these are the riches of the passions, the riches of lust, greed, anger, vain-glory and the rest—that we may follow the LORD Jesus on the Way of His Holy Pascha, His death and resurrection, into Heaven. It is the way of denying ourselves out of love for Christ, of losing our soul in Christ’s Tomb, that we may find our life in His Holy Resurrection.
Who of us, in whatever walk of life we find ourselves, cannot do this? That is, who of us cannot choose at any moment to turn away from our love for the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life in order to follow the way of Christ, the way of the God-Man that leads anyone who chooses to devote his whole being to the Way of Truth and Life into Heaven?
But precisely how can we all do this, even we who feel no call to monastic life as such? If I read the holy fathers aright, it is through prayer. This is the spiritual form of selling all that we have and giving it to the poor. Prayer is not just saying words to God; it is descending with our mind into our heart there to stand and to live in the presence of the LORD Jesus Christ. This work of prayer, however, requires that all of our thoughts and desires are ‘sold’ to Christ, the One who became poor for our sake. For all of us are rich in thoughts and desires that are of the world, that serve the carnal desires of the flesh. These draw us away from God because ‘friendship with the world is enmity with God.’ (Jas 4.4) Our worldly thoughts and carnal pleasures are the riches all of us must sell if our whole being is to become ‘perfect’; that is, if we are to realize the image of God in whom we were made and love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and thereby attain to the likeness of God. Then we are perfect, for then our whole being is filled with God; we are sanctified, we are illumined. We are even deified. We become ‘good’ as God made us to be in the beginning. We become beautiful for it is no longer we who live, we who are ugly and full of death; but it is Christ who lives in us, Christ who is Himself the Source of all beauty and goodness. Our life on this earth now becomes the Path that ascends to Heaven, for it has been joined to Him who is the Path. Our death in the flesh becomes the Gate that opens onto heaven, for we have become the Child of the Virgin Theotokos, She who is the Gate of Heaven.
To say, then, that we become strong enough to attain the mystery of perfection and to enter the Kingdom of Heaven by selling all we have and following Christ is to say that we become beautiful and good and holy, because we have sold everything that we may become partakers of the divine nature, partakers of Beauty Himself, partakers of Him who alone is Good, who alone is perfect, partakers of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, ‘He Who Is’ Grace and Truth in the bosom of the Father, in the Holy Spirit, the Glory of the Father. All who desire to become perfect like this must sell all that they have—either literally, which really is only for those who are called in that way, or in the way of prayer, which is the way in which all are called—in order to follow Jesus our LORD, God and Savior, with our whole being in the love of our heart, our soul, strength and mind. Amen!