36 - Forsake Family for Christ's Sake, June 7, 2015

Hebrews 11:33 – 12:2

Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38, 19:27-30

“Whoever loves father or mother, son or daughter more than me is not worthy of Me.” This hard saying of Our LORD follows immediately after a quote from the prophet, Micah. In its “sola scriptura” setting, it takes us back to the OT prophetic judgment against Israel because of her faithlessness and idolatry. (cf. Mat 10:34-35 & Mic 7:6)

But Micah is skipped over in this morning’s Gospel reading. Thus, the setting of this morning’s hard saying becomes the Church’s liturgical festal setting of Our LORD’s Ascension and of Holy Pentecost. The prophetic word is not dismissed by this at all; rather, I see it deepened and broadened as the ascetic principle underlying Pentecost. It sets forth how, having been clothed by the “power from on high,” the Holy Spirit, we make our ascent now to the “Land of Israel,” up into the heavens opened by Christ, Our King and our God, up into the “Kingdom of Heaven that is within you”, up into the mystery of God hidden from before the ages and now revealed to His saints: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!”

You may have noticed that this hard saying is followed immediately by another hard saying we know well: “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

In its Pentecostal setting, we hear this word of the Church’s Holy Scripture as the command of the Holy Spirit, whom the LORD Jesus Christ has poured out upon those who receive Him, to follow Christ. That can only mean that the Spirit is commanding us to follow the ascended Christ; to “seek,” in other words, “the things that are above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.” (Col 3:1) If we make this command the principle of our life, the inner orientation of our life is fundamentally changed. Our life in this world is centered no more on family allegiances or demands. Perhaps we can say it is not centered on school activities or on sports or family reunions. It is centered on the Church, not the Church as another activity, distinctive only by having a “religious” character - praying to God for a few minutes or by doing social work – but the Church as the “better and changeless path” that ascends from the bridal chamber of our heart up into the heavens. Folding the worship of the Church into our daily life, our daily and weekly routines are anointed by the Spirit as by the dew of heaven. Our outer man withers away and our inner man is refashioned in the liturgical rhythm of the Church’s sacramental life. Our life becomes an exodus on the better and changeless Path, Christ Himself, that is ever ascending in Christ’s Resurrection from glory to glory, up to the “Land of Israel” (Eze 37:12), up to Christ who has called us to His own glory and virtue in the bosom of the Father, for it is His will that we would become partakers of His own divine nature (II Pet 1:3-4).

The Kingdom of Heaven is within you. Christ is in you. The ascending path of the Church leads inward. It descends into the spiritual deeps of our heart (Ps 84:6) that is our true self (Jer 17:9 LXX), that we may become one with Christ, not outward into the biological, worldly life of family that dissolves in the dust of the ground. It is in union with Christ, not in the ties to father, mother, son or daughter that we receive the “power from on high” by which we are able to put to death what is earthly in us – selfishness and all the habits and behaviors that grow like thorns and thistles from self-centeredness, which destroy families and their children – and ascend to heaven in the Glory of Christ.

Putting to death what is earthly in us is, I think, the ascetical work that underlies this morning’s hard saying: “Whoever loves father, mother, brother and sister more than Me is not worthy of Me!” It includes not giving in to the demands of family that draw us away from the ascetical work of uniting ourselves to Christ in the sacraments, the worship and ascetical disciplines of the Church. It is in Christ, not in the family that we find the fulfillment of our natural destiny of becoming “like God in the Image of God.”

St Luke’s account of the LORD’s Ascension says, “While He was blessing them, He was separated from them and taken up into heaven.” (Lk 24:51) I wonder if, in separating ourselves from our family in this inner, spiritual way, we are entering into this mystery of the LORD “separating Himself” from His disciples. Separated from them, He was taken up into heaven, it says. He did not remain on earth. So, to follow Him, His disciples could not love family more than they loved Him, for then they would remain of this world and they would not ascend up to the “Promised Land.” But, the Kingdom of Heaven is within you, Christ says. Christ is in you. To forsake family for the sake of Christ is to find our true heart where we and all the families of the earth originate from within Christ. We find Christ in whom we all originate, and our heart that by its very nature has been created with the innate capacity to “open wide” (II Cor 6:11) and to encompass the world, even God Himself (The Theotokos!). (In Orthodox doctrine, this is called the “hypostatic” or “personal” principle of our being.) Indeed, the “capax dei”, the “capacity for God” is identified by the early Alexandrian tradition of the Church as the very essence of the “Image of God” that is itself the fundamental principle of our human nature. (e.g., Origen & St Didymus the Blind of Alexandria)

What we inherit from Christ is the Kingdom of Heaven. From our family we inherit “this body of death”. (Rom 7:24) Turning in our heart away from family for the sake of Christ, we are delivered from this “body of death” and we become members of Christ’s Body. We enter into the mystery of Christ’s glorification wherein He is glorified in us! (Jn 17:10). How so? See how His Body has been given in the sacraments of the Church to all who receive Him in every age and in every corner of the world, and how they are raised from death to life to become gods, children of the Most High (Ps 82:6) and are placed on the “better and changeless Path”, Christ Himself, that ascends to Heaven! And now, in Christ, we become intercessors for our family that they, too, may inherit eternal life with us!

The glory the Father gave to the Son is given to us, and we become one even as God is one. (Jn 17:22) The love with which the Father loved the Son is in us; for, Christ is in us. (Jn 17:26) This is the mystery of our natural destiny that was hidden from before the ages and is now revealed in His saints: “Christ in you, the hope of glory!” (Col 1:27)  We are made a new creation. We have received the Heavenly Spirit, the “power from on high” and become children of God, born from the Spirit above. Separated from the life of our family, we are taken up into the Cloud of Glory, the Holy Spirit, in whom Christ was taken up into heaven. In the Cloud of Christ’s Holy Spirit, in the Church, we are united to the Father in the love of the Holy Trinity that abides forever; and in this love of God, we gain our father, mother, son and daughter a hundredfold. We gain houses and lands a hundredfold, for we have gained our home in the Land of Israel, in the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us, in the Glory of Christ who is in us.

Might this vision of the Church touch our hearts with the joy of Christ that cannot be taken away! In that joy, may we, especially we who are fathers and mothers, be resolved to take up our cross by practicing the ascetic disciplines of the Church according to our strength and our circumstances, in order to center our family life not on the hearth of the home but on the altar of the Church, that our family may be baptized into Christ and taken up into the Cloud of Christ’s Glory and into the love of God that abides forever. In our love for Christ, let us pray that our families may all be taken up onto the better and changeless Path that is Christ Himself and in that Cloud, may they all ascend to the “Land of Israel” (Eze 37:12) and into the bosom of the Father in the “Christ who is in you!”  Amen!