03 - The Faith that Justifies, Sept 17, 2017

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Galatians 2:16-20 (Cross)

II Corinthians 4:6-15

Mark 8:34-9:1 (Cross)

Matthew 22:35-46

St Paul says that we are justified by faith, not by works of the Law. To be justified is to be made righteous (the two words, different in English, are the same word in the Greek); and to be righteous, says Wisdom, is to be immortal (Wisd Sol 1:15). “The righteous,” says the Psalmist, “shall be an everlasting remembrance” (Ps 111:6 LXX); they shall pass over into eternal life, says the LORD (Mat 25:46). To be justified, then, is to be made to live not the biological life of the flesh but the eternal life of God. So, when St Paul says (in this same passage): “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20), he is simply bringing out what it is to be justified by faith. So, we are made to be immortal not by works of the law but by faith.

What, more precisely then, is this faith by which we are justified or made to live forever in Christ who lives in us?

Let us attend to the LORD’s word in this morning’s Gospel. “Let him who would be my disciple,” He says, “deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. Whoever would save his life will lose it; but whoever would lose his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will find it.” Or, he will be found living in the life of God; he will be justified by denying himself, by losing his life for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, or Christ’s victory over death.

And, what is it to deny oneself, to lose one’s life for the sake of Christ and the Gospel? Let us attend to the WORD of the LORD in our second Gospel reading. The LORD answers the lawyer and says that the greatest commandment in the Law is to “love the LORD God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” This is what it means to deny oneself for the sake of Christ and the Gospel; and this is the “stuff”, the substance of the faith that justifies or makes us live forever in God. Do we not experience it at Pascha when, after denying ourselves and taking up our Cross throughout Great Lent, we find ourselves singing: “Let us call brothers even those who hate us, and in the Resurrection, let us forgive all things?”

Do you see? Our LORD has set before us what this faith is that justifies, that makes us righteous and thereby immortal. Its distinguishing essential property is the inner work of denying ourselves in love for Christ and His Gospel, His death and resurrection.

Do we see why simply to “believe” does not justify us any more than do the “works” of the Law? The devils “believe”, so much so that they tremble (Jas 2:19). They even confess Jesus as the Son of God (e.g. Mat 8:29), but they are not justified, they are not made to live in God. Remember the rich young ruler? He had kept the law from his youth, but he would not follow Jesus (Mat 19:22). Remember the Pharisee? He fasted twice a week and he tithed, but he was not justified, he was not made to live forever in God (Lk 18:14). What’s missing in the “faith” of the devils? What was missing in the faith of these perfect keepers of the law: the rich man that he would not follow Jesus; the Pharisee that he was not justified? Obviously, they had faith in the law or they would not have worked so hard to keep it so perfectly. You might even say there was a certain measure of self-denial in that they denied themselves certain pleasures of the flesh in order to keep the law. What, then, was missing? There was no self-denial out of love for the Son of God, their King; there was no taking up of the cross to lose their life in love for Christ. Their “faith”, even their self-denial by which they kept the law, was rooted in self-esteem. It was a mask for an underlying self-affirmation, a boasting in their own goodness.

Dear faithful: it is possible to “believe” in Christ, as many Christians do; I dare say it is possible to keep a rule of prayer and to fast, as not as many Christians do, without denying oneself in love for Christ. For, the core of this kind of faith is not the humility of self-denial in love for Christ, but the arrogance, the conceit, the self-righteousness of self-love. This kind of “faith” makes us into devils, not gods.

So, what is at the core of our faith?

The LORD’s call to deny ourselves if we would follow Him is not a new command. It goes back to the Garden; for, what was the command given to Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree if it wasn’t the command to deny themselves from their heart out of love for Christ, their Creator? The command, then, is from the beginning, not just in time, but spiritually. It leads us “out of the city”, away from our ego and into the “desert”, into the core of our soul to where we begin; viz., our heart, our true self made in the image and likeness of God, where we are deep beyond all things. This is the “inner Exodus” of the Gospel Christ calls us to.

What, precisely, does Christ call us to deny in ourselves; what is this “life” He commands us to lose, and what is that “life” He promises we will find?

St Ephrem of Syria, in his Commentary on Genesis 2-3, sees that it wasn’t the serpent who made Eve fall, it wasn’t Satan she needed to overcome. It was her own greed. Nor was the command given because the tree was evil; in fact, it was good. The command was given as the occasion for Eve to master her greed, and thereby attain to her destiny of deification. St Ephrem calls it greed. St Maximus the Confessor calls it self-love. St Paul calls it covetousness. The holy prophets call it idolatry. This is the root of all evil.

St Andrew of Crete sees Eve as that principle of greed that is in our soul: “I have an Eve within me,” it says in his Canon. The greed of Eve, then, is the egotism growing out of the core of our soul, our heart, that each of us must “deny”; its arrogant, self-loving, self-righteous disobedience is the life, the wild vine (cf. Jer 2:21) that lives in us from the root of our life, our mother, Eve, (cf. Ps 50:5 LXX – “In sin did my mother conceive me”). It has become embodied or incarnate in me as the law of sin that dwells in me bodily (Rom 7). This is the life or soul (psyche is the word in the Greek) we must lose by putting its root, self-love or covetousness or idolatry, to death (e.g., Rom 7:7, Col 3:5f.); or, as St Paul says this morning: “I am crucified with Christ.”

This work of denying myself, or of losing my life, or of putting to death what is earthly in me, my greed, this is the faith that justifies us, that makes us to live no longer in ourselves but in Christ so that it is no longer the old Adam but Christ, the New Adam, who lives in me. This work of faith was begun at my baptism when I united myself to Christ in the likeness of His death.

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” says St Paul this morning. Dear faithful, this treasure is the Body and Blood of our LORD Jesus Christ that we are given as our food and drink in Holy Eucharist. So, when St Paul says: “We carry in our body the dying of Jesus,” he is not speaking poetically of some reality that exists only in the ether of religious imagination. He is speaking very concretely. In the sacramental mysteries of the Church, you have been united to Christ not just spiritually but bodily and you carry in your body the dying of Jesus. My wife and I both were struck by the teaching in the Matins canon yesterday morning: that blood and water flowed from the corpse of Jesus as though from a living body. Lose your life by uniting yourself to the death of Christ, and you come to life! In the justifying faith of the Church, in the life-creating self-denial of the Church, there works in you the work of Christ’s victory over death. The gates of Paradise have been opened to you. But, to enter, we must believe, not like the devils, not like the rich young ruler or the Pharisee, but like the Publican, like the Psalmist who sought the way of God with his whole heart (Ps 118:25f. LXX), like the good thief; we must choose freely, out of love for Christ, to deny ourselves, to lose our life, to deny our egotism, our insubordination, our self-righteous presumption, we must lose the wisdom of our own opinions for the sake of Christ. For, did He not first deny Himself, emptying Himself and becoming obedient even to death on the Cross, that you might be delivered from bondage to the enemy and be justified, made righteous, made to live forever in His Grace, the love of God the Father and the communion of the Holy Spirit?

Dear faithful, this faith that justifies, that makes us live, is not active in us until we take up our cross, the inner work we must do of denying ourselves and losing our life for the sake of Christ and His Gospel. The Church – Christ’s Body – gives us this cross in her ascetic disciplines of prayer, fasting and alms-giving – i.e., forgiving as we have been forgiven, showing mercy as we hope God will have mercy on us. Done in true Christian faith, these form a comprehensive front of body and soul for attacking the root of our idolatry and our disobedience, the self-love in our heart, that we may live in and Christ in us. We do the as the LORD directs, so that they don’t become occasions for boasting or self-righteousness: when we pray, we go into our closet and pray in secret. When we fast, we anoint our faces with the oil of gladness so that no one can see that we’re fasting.

Doing these disciplines of the cross, the ascetic disciplines of the Church, not in self-righteousness but in humility and self-denial for the love of Christ, we make active in us the faith that justifies us in Christ. The cross of Christ, justifying faith, becomes embodied, incarnate, in us body and soul – so that, as we carry in our body the dying of Jesus, His life is made manifest not just in theory but concretely, in our bodies and in our souls. Amen!