22 - Prodigal Son, February 28, 2016 (with audio)

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I Corinthians 6:12-20

Luke 15:11-32

We have opened the Lenten Triodion. We have rounded the bend; the Royal Gates of the Fast are now on the horizon before us in full view and we are drawing near to them quickly. Our destination is Golgotha outside the city to the final, consummate, perfect Theophany (manifestation of God): Christ crucified. For, it is the testimony of the Church’s sacred Scriptures that this Jesus who was publicly portrayed as crucified (Gal 3:1) is the very effulgence of the Father’s Glory, the very character of the Father’s Person (Hypostasis). By this Jesus, the world was created. It is He who upholds the universe by His power (Heb 1:3), which is manifested by His outstretched arms on the Cross. This Jesus who is crucified on the Cross, i.e., is the true and living God. We see Him who was in the form of God and who thought it not robbery to be equal to God suffering and dying on the Cross as a man. (Phil 2:6-7) For, He so loved the world (Jn 3:16) that He emptied Himself (Phil 2:5) to share with us our flesh and blood and to become our brother (Heb 2:14) even to the point of partaking of our death by dying from crucifixion on the Cross (Phil 2:8). I.e., the destination of our Lenten journey is this vision of “foolishness”, God dead on the Cross (I Cor 1:18) and buried as a corpse in a tomb (Mar 15:43-45).

What does it all mean? What does it mean that God became flesh, that He endured the Cross, and, what is most “foolish”, that God died? (I Cor 1:18)

To the Jews, the LORD repeated what He had said to the Psalmist: “I said, ‘you are gods, sons of the Most High!’” (Ps 81:6-7 LXX) Our holy fathers teach us that here the LORD is speaking to our true nature and destiny. Man alone of all creatures was created in the image and likeness of God. “From this,” says the Athonite Archimandrite George of blessed memory, “we discover the great love the Triune God has for man: He does not wish him simply to be a being with certain gifts and qualities, possessing a certain superiority over the rest of creation. He wishes him to be a god by Grace.” (Theosis, p. 19) Those who receive Christ, says the Evangelist John, are born from above (Jn 3:3) and they become “children of God” (Jn 1:12-13). They become gods because it is no longer they who live but Christ in His Holy Spirit who is living in them (Gal 2:20), making them “partakers of the divine nature” (II Pet 1:4).

To become gods, children of the Most High, deification or theosis or glorification: this is the purpose of man. It means that it was predestined from the beginning that God would become man so that man might become god. Here is the “great mystery” (Eph 5:33) in which and for which the world was created. Hidden from the ages, it has been made manifest now to the LORD’s saints, i.e., to those who receive Him and become members of His Body, the Church (Eph 1:23): it is the mystery of Christ in you, the hope of Glory! (Col 1:26-27)

The Archimandrite says, that image is much more than certain gifts and qualities. It is, drawing from St Didymus the Blind of Alexandria (4th century), the capacity to receive God and to be born again, or rather from above (anothen) to become one with God as a child of God, a partaker of the divine nature, a god by Grace. And so, received by the Most Blessed Virgin Theotokos, God was conceived in her womb as a child. Because He became flesh and blood like us, we can become children of God in His Image and Likeness.

Christ in you! The LORD Jesus Christ is now in the world in His Holy Church. And, in His Holy Church, He gives Himself to those who receive Him not just in the Words of His teaching – if that were all, then He would be but a messenger, there would have been no point for Him to become flesh and we could not become children of God, gods by Grace – but in the sacramental Mysteries of His Church. In the Living Bread and the Living Cup, He becomes our food and drink. Our body is united and mingled with His Body. He is received into our mind, our soul, our body as a divine Seed, not unlike His being received by the Holy Theotokos, so that if we obey His Word and live according to it, we become temples of the Holy Spirit, and even more, we become members of His Body, children of God, sons of the Most High.

This explains why we see God in the flesh; if He does not become flesh, we cannot become gods, sons of the Most High and attain the meaning of our existence. But, why do we see God in the flesh suffering and dying on the Cross and buried as a corpse in the tomb?

Archimandrite George says, “Adam and Eve desired to become gods not through humility, obedience, or love, but through their own power, their own willfulness. I.e., the essence of the fall is egotism and self-assertion. Thus, they separated themselves from God and instead of attaining theosis, they attained the opposite: spiritual death.” (p. 26)

Therefore, if we would receive God to become one with Him, we must be crucified with Him (Gal 2:20) to put to death what is earthly in us – which is not our body, for our bodies were made to be temples of God radiant with His Glory. What is earthly in us is what is not like God in us: our egotism, our willful self-esteem.  

I believe, actually, that our egotism is what is meant by St Paul’s imagery of the harlot and of porneia,translated as fornication or sexual immorality. This is prophetic imagery for the worship of idols, or rather of the demons who present themselves to us in idols. When we give in to lust, e.g., we are sacrificing to Aphrodite; when we give in to greed, to Pluto or Poseidon; to anger, Ares, and so on. Giving in to the “passions”, we sacrifice to the demons. We eat their sacrificial meat and so we turn away in our heart from our true Bridegroom, the LORD God, who gave Himself to us as our food and drink that we might become one flesh with Him and we become one flesh with them.

Sexual immorality for St Paul, then, I believe comprehends much more than what we understand by sexual immorality. It is a metaphor for the worship of idols because we are giving our erotic love over to the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life at the point where our erotic desire originates; in our heart.

Self-love, so our holy fathers teach us, is expressed in two fundamental ways: through gluttony and carnal desire, and through spiritual pride, prelest, by which we are so quick to judge our brother.

Understanding sexual immorality in this prophetic way, we see that not only is the prodigal playing the harlot in this morning’s parable; so, too, is the elder brother. Neither the prodigal nor the elder brother is found in the Father’s house, an image for us this morning of the tomb of our heart. The elder brother, too, then, in his own way, is a prodigal son.

We who consider ourselves the “faithful” most likely do not see our reflection in the mirror of the younger brother. More likely, we are in danger of being the elder brother, of falling into sexual immorality or self-love that takes the form of self-righteousness, prelest.

Whether we are the younger or the elder brother, we cannot come into the Father’s house – we cannot reach the destination of our Lenten journey which is the tomb of our heart -- without crucifying what is not in the image and likeness of God in us: our willful self-love, our egotism, our spiritual pride. This is at the root of all that is earthly in us, and this is what we are crucifying, this is what we are putting to death by taking up the “cross” of the Great Fast.

Our purpose in taking up the Great Fast, then, is not to abstain from meat and dairy. We take up the Fast to crucify our self-love, to unite ourselves to Christ in the likeness of His death, so that we may become one flesh with Him in the tomb of our heart, which we enter on Pascha Night transfigured to our joy into the Heavenly Bridal Chamber where we who died with Christ are raised with Him, born from above as gods, children of the Most High. Amen!