14 Ten Lepers - December 10, 2006

Ephesians 5:9-19

Luke 17:12-19


If you love me, keep my commandments, says the Lord.[1] The Lord gives a commandment this morning: “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Given to the lepers, it is given to all of us who would confess with St John Chrysostom that our souls are all leprous and sinful.[2] Christ is the High Priest, the Physician of our souls. Why does he tell the lepers to go to the priest to be healed? Christ does heal them, but only as they obey him and go to the priest as he commanded.

What is the meaning of this? The priest here stands for the Church, for the Church is the body of Christ. She has taken into her sacramental and hierarchical institutions the priesthood of the OT and perfected them in the mystery of Christ. For, Christ who is the head of the Church,[3] is the perfection of the Law, and the One about whom Moses and the prophets spoke. The command to the lepers, “Go, show yourselves to the priest,” is therefore a command given to those who confess that they are leprous and sinful in their soul. If we love the Lord, we will submit to his command and go show ourselves to the priest, i.e. we will go to his holy Church so that he may heal us as he did the ten lepers.

We go to Christ’s holy Church by coming to the baptismal font. It is in the font that our leprous and sinful soul is cleansed and clothed with the robe of light and anointed with the Holy Spirit. But we do not come to the baptismal font apart from the confession of our sins. Fr John Meyendorff under whom I studied at SVS used to say many times to his students: “Every time we sin, we fall out of the Church. So God has given to his Church the sacrament of confession. Every time we approach in true repentance, we renew our baptism and we are cleansed.”

We need to learn why the healing power of Christ is found in the Church. St Paul teaches us that Christ is the head of the Church, and the Church is his body, the fullness of him who is all in all.[4] The body of the Church is in her sacramental and hierarchical structure. As the body of Christ, the Church is human. As human, the Church is the mystery of the Theotokos, for Christ receives his humanity from her. As the mystery of the Theotokos, the Church has all the qualities of the Theotokos: she is wholly submissive to God. Thus, there is in the Church one mind: it is the one mind of the Theotokos that has become one with the mind of Christ by submitting in total obedience to the will of the Father.

But the humanity of the Church that he receives from the Theotokos becomes the humanity of Christ. As the humanity of Christ, the body of the Church is therefore a deified humanity. It has been united to the divinity of God in the Person of God the Word and it is infused with the grace (the energies) of God’s Holy Spirit.

As the deified body of Christ, the Church is the continuation of Christ’s incarnation on earth. In the concreteness of the Church’s sacramental and hierarchical institutions, Christ is concretely present here on earth. The hierarchical institutions of the Church look like earthly institutions because they are earthly, just as Christ looked like a man because he truly became flesh and dwelt among us. But the hierarchical institutions of the Church, as the body of Christ, are earthly institutions that are deified, infused with the energies of the Holy Spirit, just as the body of Christ, as witnessed by Peter, James and John on Mt Tabor, was deified, infused with the energies of the Holy Spirit. The concrete institutions of the Church, therefore, are infused with the power of God. They are the concrete manifestation to us that “Christ is in our midst” both spiritually and physically just as he was in the days when he was in the flesh and dwelt among us.

Hierarchy means “sacred root.” The Church is hierarchical because she is rooted in the mysteries of Christ and his holy Mother, the Theotokos. The hierarchy springs from those mysteries like a tree from the ground; and so the hierarchy of the Church is an image of the Cross, an image of the Theotokos, and an image of Christ (all are described in our liturgical texts as branches or as a tree sprung from the soil of the earth).

On the hierarchical levels of bishop and priest, the Church sets forth an image of Christ as the head of the Church. The bishop (or the priest who is the presence of the bishop when the bishop is unable to be present) stands at the head of the assembly of the faithful as an icon of God the Word who was incarnate as a male child.[5] In this capacity, when the bishop or priest stands at the altar facing East, he is an icon of Christ as the Second Adam in whom all of humanity has been established and raised to the heavenly places in Christ God. When the bishop or priest turns around to face the people, blessing them with the peace of Christ or teaching them from the Scriptures, the Word of God, he is an icon of Christ coming to his people as God the Word incarnate, the heavenly Bridegroom of his Bride, the Church of the faithful; while on the hierarchical level of the laity, the Church sets forth an icon of the Theotokos, from whom God took his humanity that he become flesh and dwell among us.

And so, only certain males are ordained to the hierarchical level of deacon, priest and bishop. Each in his own way stands in the assembly of the faithful as an icon of Christ as the head of the Church, the Second Adam, the Heavenly Bridegroom, and in this way they render the spiritual reality of Christ incarnate present in our midst in a bodily and living way. On the hierarchical level of the laity, both men and women stand before the throne of God as an icon of the Theotokos. Like her, they give heed to the preaching of the Gospel and the teaching of the faith that has been entrusted by the grace of God to the bishop and by the bishop to his priest or to his deacon. In their preaching function, the bishop and his priests are like John the Baptist bearing prophetic witness to the Holy One of Israel. Like John the Baptist, the bishop and priest bear witness to Christ in the hope and prayer that they may decrease that he might increase. In their submission and humility to the preaching and teaching of the hierarchs, the laity render the Theotokos in her humility and submission to God present in the assembly of the faithful in a bodily and spiritual way.

The Church building, which holds within itself the whole assembly of the faithful, in its interior is often configured in the shape of a Cross, so that the whole assembly of the faithful in all its hierarchical levels is shown to move and have its being in the Cross of Christ. The very shape of the Church as a Cross, then, becomes a concrete manifestation of what unites the faithful into the one body of Christ in the one mind of Christ and makes them truly the “faithful”. It is each of us taking up our Cross and following Christ in the fear of God, in faith and in love, submitting to his holy will as did the Theotokos by practicing his commandments and submitting to the spiritual disciplines of the Church.

This is so important for us to understand, lest we fall into the error of the world of looking on the Church and treating her as an ordinary earthly institution, just as the world sees Christ and treats him as an ordinary man. Christ is God made flesh; the Church in her sacramental and hierarchical institutions is his deified flesh. If we do not see the Church’s divine character as the deified humanity of Christ we easily abuse the Church  - or rather, we fall away from the Church even as we think we are going to her. We fall away from the Church when we seek to do her business not in the one mind of Christ but in the wisdom of our own opinions, following some earthly model, such as the model of a political caucus that reaches conclusions from the consensus of the majority gathered round a commonly shared political ideology framed by the bias of a particular human political philosophy; or the model of the labor unions, where disagreements are resolved at the bargaining table through compromise and negotiation between the contesting parties; or on the model of psycho-therapy techniques and practices that are governed by a particular psychological theory constructed by human wisdom; or the model of a club, where membership requires no inner transformation but only the outward observance of certain rules and regulations and the payment of dues.

The Church is none of these. She is the body of the crucified and risen Christ. There is no negotiation with her, no compromise, no argument; only obedience in humble submission to her teaching and her spiritual direction, for all that she says and does is of Christ her Lord, and the purpose of all she directs her faithful to do and to say is to gather them under her wings so that she can carry them in her ark across the sea of nothingness and to the Kingdom of Heaven on the other side.

The more one studies the nature of the Church as it is given in Holy Scripture, the more one sees the awesome sanctity of the Church as the very crucified and risen body of Christ, the continuation of Christ’s bodily and Spiritual presence here on earth. In the Church, we are not dealing with a worldly hierarchy but an earthly hierarchy that has been deified because it is rooted in the mystery of the incarnation, the crucifixion and resurrection of the Father’s only-begotten and beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Out of this reverence for the sanctity of the Church as the very body of Christ, the fullness of him who is all in all, the Scriptures themselves teach us how we keep on all levels of the Church’s hierarchy the Lord’s command given this morning when he says to us as he says to the ten lepers: “Go, show yourselves to the priest.” The laity keep the command according to the instruction of St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews, read this last week on the feast of St Nicholas through their obedience to the bishop and his priests: “Obey those who rule over you,” says St Paul, “and be submissive for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account.”[6] The Orthodox Study Bible comments on this and makes clear St Paul’s meaning: “Priests and spiritual leaders must be respected and obeyed. This is a reference to “spiritual fatherhood” in the Church. They will give account of their ministry at the judgment. For this reason, the faithful are asked by St Paul to pray for him that God may help him to live an exemplary life. St Paul also warns Timothy in the latter days there will be those who will not honor the sanctity of the Church. They will not submit to her spiritual disciplines but they will act on their own counsel, in the wisdom of their own opinions. Some, he says, will even depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy.[7] If anyone teaches otherwise, St Paul says, and does not consent to the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words, from which come envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions, useless wranglings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth. From such withdraw yourself.[8]

And to the bishops and priests, St Paul’s instructions are these: “Instruct the faithful in these things and you will be a good minister of Jesus Christ, nourished in the words of faith and of the good doctrine which you have carefully followed. Give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.”[9]

It is in repentance, in humility and in submission to the spiritual disciplines of the Church that we are established in the hierarchy of the Church and in that, in the very body of the crucified and risen Christ. It is through our integration into the hierarchy of the Church, honoring the integrity and specific functions of our place in the hierarchy whether as lay or clergy, that we are cleansed of the leprosy of our sins. For in honoring our role in the hierarchy of the Church according to the Scriptures, we are practicing that obedience to Christ’s commandments that is the mark of those who love him, and in his love and grace, he deifies us in body and soul, and places us as so many living stones into the building of his Church, which is founded on the prophets and the apostles, the martyrs and the saints, and whose chief cornerstone is Christ our God. Let us pray God that he will grant us wisdom and the grace to keep his commandment, that we may grow in him and into his likeness.

[1] Jn 14:15

[2] St John Chrysostom’s Prayer in Preparation for Communion.

[3] Col 1:18

[4] 1:23

[5] From the Pentecostarion (but of course, also as given in Scripture).

[6] Heb 13:17

[7] I Tim 4:1-2

[8] I Tim 6:3-5

[9] I Tim 4:6, 14-16