|03 In the Fear of God - September 24, 2006|
2 Corinthians 4:6-15
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” says St Paul to us this morning; can you see him pointing to Jesus sitting in the boat in this morning’s Gospel? We know from Holy Eucharist that we, like the boat of this morning’s Gospel, have been granted to hold this treasure of heaven in the earthen vessels of our bodies. We partake of the Living Bread and the Cup of Life, and this treasure becomes flesh and is made manifest in us through Holy Communion as it mingles with our members, our veins and our heart. If ever we were to come to our senses and realize that this treasure is God the Word, who is born on the throne of the cherubim, who is Lord of the Seraphim and King of Israel, who alone is holy and rests in the saints, to whom it is great and awesome even for angels to minister, would we not fall down with Simon Peter and cry out: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord”?
And that would be a good thing; for the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Jesus is the Wisdom of God. We touch the beginning of wisdom, the hem of Jesus’ garment, through the fear of God. And if we wonder what the Scriptures mean when they speak of the “fear of God,” we need look no further than this morning’s Gospel to Simon Peter prostrate in terror at the feet of Jesus, begging him to go away. We could translate the Greek as, “He was clothed with terror and awe.” One thinks immediately of baptism, when we came out of the waters and were clothed with the Robe of Light and one is led to wonder if we were being clothed with the fear of God, and at that moment touching the beginning of wisdom, the hem of the Lord’s garment.
But how does the fear of Simon Peter in the presence of God the Word incarnate square with the Church’s affirmation that Jesus is the “Only Lover of mankind,” or that God is the greatly merciful One, full of compassion and long-suffering. Let us attend to the teaching of our Mother, the Church, and we will hear how it is precisely God’s terrible, fearsome aspect that reveals what the Church calls the unspeakable love of the Father, and how he has granted us to partake of him in his bride, the Church.
The Holy Scriptures tell us that the world was brought into being by the power of God’s Word from out of the formless and empty darkness of the abyss. This is poetic imagery. When translated into the language of philosophy, it produces the virtually inconceivable concept of “creation from out of nothing.” Fundamentally, we are of the abyss. If you could look into our essence, you would find that at its core it is formless, dark and empty like the abyss. We are nothing. God alone truly is. The Being and Life of God is not the being and life of the world. In words attributed to St Maximus the Confessor of the 7th century: “If we are, then God is not; if God is, we are not.” The life we live is the biological life of creation that comes from the dust and returns to the dust. Of the earth, it is fundamentally empty, formless, dark, rooted in the abyss, in nothingness. The terror felt in the presence of God is the terror of dust and ashes in the presence of absolute Holiness, absolute Being. This terror is only deepened when we see in the terrible light of Him who alone truly exists, the foolishness of thinking so highly of ourselves who are but dust and ashes.
It is precisely at this point in the Church’s teaching, however, that the vision of our nothingness leads us far, far away from that existential angst which has led so many to insanity and even suicide who have seen the darkness and emptiness that lies at the root of our being. The vision of the Church leads to the opposite shore, to a vision of God’s goodness and love that can ignite in the human heart a flame of such ardent yearning for this God Who alone Truly Is that, in the words of St Diadochos of Photiki of the fourth century, the human heart actually yearns not to be that it may belong wholly to Him Who Is.
The point at which the terrible aspect of God is discovered to be itself the ground of the creature’s love for God can be found in the biblical story of man’s creation. It says that man became a living soul, in the Hebrew, nephesh, when God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. Nephesh literally means throat, so that the bible is saying that God made Adam as an eater and a drinker, so that he who is nothing can become by grace all that God is by eating and drinking and inhaling the Spirit of God. According to this biblical vision, then, it is precisely in our nothingness that the bible reveals us in our essence fundamentally to be partakers of the divine nature. We become something as we partake of God; we live as we eat and drink Him who alone is Life. “We have this treasure in earthen vessels,” writes St Paul, “that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.” We become good as we partake of the treasure who alone is Good; we become perfect as we partake of the treasure who alone is perfect; we become holy as we partake of the treasure who alone is holy; we become Light as we partake of the treasure who alone is Light, who clothes himself with light as with a garment, who dwells in Light unapproachable; we become god as we partake of the treasure who alone is God. There is something about God that he can be partaken of, to the point that the creature can receive God into himself and hold this treasure in the earthen vessel of his body, even as he is received into God so that the creature can become by grace all that God is by nature. St John the Theologian described it simply when he wrote: “God is love.”
In the mystery of Christ, however, and as we see in this morning’s Gospel, we learn that it is in his love that God is terrible and fearsome. His love is fearsome because out of his love for us, he demands that we love him back. But we cannot love him a little bit; we must love him with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind. To partake of God in love we cannot hold on to anything that is of this world. We must leave father and mother, brother and sister; we must leave the dead to bury their own dead; we must sell all that we have; we must empty ourselves, take up our Cross and follow him to Golgotha, and uniting ourselves to him we must crucify our flesh and our self-love, and descend with him in death back into the abyss, that we might die completely to ourselves and be made alive completely in him and be established not in the biological life of the world, but in the love of God the Father, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the communion of his Holy Spirit.
I believe that the bible is all about the fear of God’s love for us. He loves us to the point of dying on the Cross for us. He emptied himself to become what we are that we might become by grace what he is. And I believe that the central message of the New Testament is the call of God from the Cross to love him with our whole heart, soul, strength and mind, in other words, with all that we are, as he has loved us with all that he is. This explains why we are not justified by works of the Law; and why the rich man was not yet perfect even though he had honored his father and mother, had not stolen, had not murdered or committed adultery. It is because we can fulfill all of these commandments and still serve ourselves. The ego must voluntarily, out of love for God, die to itself completely, become nothing, sell all that it has, before the gates of the heart will open fully to receive the King of Glory – for the Heavenly Bridegroom, precisely because he is love, will not force himself on his bride; and he will not come to her to abide in her until she loves him to the point of losing her life for his sake as he gave up his life for hers.
This mystery of the Heavenly Bridegroom and his Bride dying to each other in love is the very essence of the Church. No one enters the mystery of Christ’s tomb, transfigured by his love into the Bridal Chamber, who has not taken up his Cross and died completely in God, who has not sold all that he has, who has not forsaken mother and father, brother and sister. Who of us can look on this biblical revelation of divine love and not tremble in fear? Who of us, in the presence of this divine love and seeing all that is required of us if we were to turn away from the pleasures and comforts of the world to become partakers of the divine nature would not fall down with Simon Peter and beg him to depart from us and leave us alone in our sin? We are lovers of self and lovers of money; and this demand to sell all that we have, to lose our life for his sake and the Gospel’s that we might partake of his divine nature is beyond our strength if nor our will. We fear it with all our heart.
Let us come to our senses and finally understand that to be a Christian is very serious business. But let us also hear the testimony of Scripture: God desires not the death of a sinner but that he turn from his wickedness and live. God desires that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. He knows our frame, he knows that we are but dust and ashes. It is what one would expect of love that is of God, a love that is as unfathomable and as boundless as God is, that it would do all it can to help us in our weakness and our cowardice to come to the marriage feast of his Son and his bride. In his bride and our Mother, the Church, the Heavenly Bridegroom gives himself to us and calls us to himself in a gentle way that is in accordance with our strength.
The Church is the body of Christ. In the Church, Christ is incarnate, he is made manifest, he is seen, heard, smelt, tasted, handled with our hands in her liturgical worship and in her sacraments, in her prayers, in her hierarchical structure, in her iconography, and in her doctrines. These elements of the Church are all like so many rays of divine light emanating from the tomb of the risen Christ; or they are like so many threads woven together in the fabric of the garment that clothes Christ’s body. When we were baptized, we were clothed with Christ as he has clothed himself with us. On some deep level, he led us down into the abyss so that the old man in us was slain. Then, by the hand of the priest, he raised us out of the font, out of the abyss, into newness of life and he clothed us in the Robe of Light, the fear of God. In this way, we died in Christ. Recalling the joy and beauty of our baptism, we taste something of the sweetness of dying in the Lord. Through our baptism, we have been born again of the Virgin and we have been made a partaker of the divine nature in the joy of Holy Eucharist. We now hold this treasure in the earthen vessel of our body; the treasure of Christ, the Wisdom and the Power of God, and we “carry in our body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.” Sitting in the boat – enthroned on the altar of the Church – the Lord teaches us who are standing on the shore how to put out into the deep and let down our nets for a catch. I cannot help but see this on a deeper level to be saying that the Lord is teaching us how we can descend with our mind into our heart to catch the treasure of God the Word made flesh whom we have been granted to hold in the earthen vessel of our body through our baptism and Holy Eucharist.
In the fear of God, with faith and love, draw near, the priest will call out shortly as we prepare to partake of the divine nature in Holy Eucharist. In the fear of God, step into the Robe of Light with which you were clothed in your baptism. How? When you open your bible and read, you are clothing your eyes and your mind with the light of divine knowledge, the light of Christ’s holy resurrection. When you observe the fasts of the Church, you are beginning to lose your life for the sake of Christ, and when you stand before the icon and say the prayers of the Church, you are beginning to clothe your tongue and your ears with Christ. When you make the sign of the cross, when you bow down before the icon, when you stand in the worship services of the Church in reverence, you are joining your bodies to the Cross of Christ. When you practice Christ’s commandments, honoring your neighbor, loving your enemy, forgiving as you have been forgiven your trespasses, showing mercy as God has shown mercy to you, you are turning to Christ in faith and clothing your soul with the love of Christ. When you share the bounty of your wealth with those in need, you are beginning to sell all that you have; you are laying hold of your cross and beginning to lose your life for Christ’s sake and the Gospel’s. In these ways, we clothe ourselves in Christ so that we may begin to experience the worship of the Church as a blessed entrance into the light of the risen Christ, and our eating the Living Bread from the Living Cup as a partaking of the divine nature, and so we may discover from our own experience how easy it is when our hearts have been ignited with love for God to lose our life in Christ and how sweet it is, how full of joy it is, to come into the fear of God’s love. Now we can see how perfect love casts out fear because in perfect love, we have died completely to ourselves; we have sold all that we have; in perfect love there is nothing to fear because we have become nothing, and so we have become by grace all that God is by nature.
Enlivened by the sweetness and beauty of this biblical vision of the Church, let us do what we can to encourage one another to take up our cross to follow Christ. Let us become readers of the bible and serious students of Christ’s commandments. Let us observe the fasts of the Church according to our strength and so discipline our bodies in the life-giving austerity of the Spirit. Let us organize our finances so that we can share some of our bounty with those in need. Above all, let us become diligent in prayer, judging ourselves in the fear of God’s love, and fall down before him in contrition and compunction of heart. And let us become faithful worshippers of God in Spirit and in truth, participating as much as we can, in the fear of God, with faith and love, in the worship of the Church, that we may receive him who loves us and so become, in the fear of God, with faith and in love, partakers of the divine nature not just with our tongues, but with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength.