|37 Pentecost Sunday - May 27, 2007|
John 7:37-52, 8:12
Not long after Pascha, my daughter, currently living in Germany, was at dinner with one of her German friends, who is not religious. Because Easter was just past, it had been in the news, of course; and the conversation turned to an article that had been written up within the last few days about the phenomenon of the “holy fire” that occurs every Holy Saturday when the Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem enters the tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The first recorded instance of the holy fire goes back to the fourth century or so; and it has been happening every year since. Even so, the German article dismissed the phenomenon as a cleverly devised hoax. My daughter’s dinner partner used the article to support her own unbelief in the claims of religion. But Christina confirmed its truth, saying she had a friend who had been eyewitness to the holy fire, and that she herself, when she had been a young girl, had seen and smelled the tears that had been collected from a weeping icon in an Orthodox Church in Chicago. Christina’s friend was sincere when she said to Christina: I so wish I could believe in religious things, but I just don’t.
In her response, Christina’s friend I think expressed both the human soul’s innate desire to know and to participate in spiritual meaning and at the same time the tragedy of western culture. The tragedy of western culture is that it has so confused the enterprise of scientific inquiry with the realm of spiritual truth that it has thought it could demonstrate spiritual truths scientifically and its inner eyes have become blind, unable to see the Spirit. In its spiritual blindness, it looks for meaning in the empirical rationality of the scientific method and jettisons belief in spiritual truth. The words of my daughter’s dinner companion sounded to me like a cry from the depths: “O Lord, I cry unto Thee, hear me; give ear to the voice of my supplications.” But, the comforts and conveniences our scientific industry has lavished on us have so glutted our spiritual sensitivities that I’m sure my daughter’s dinner companion did not feel the full pathos of her own remark and probably dismissed it immediately as nothing more than a childlike wish that fairies were real. (Although who knows, many who don’t believe in the God of the bible do believe in the Green Man!)
Let me quote from a well-known scholar of world religion:
Our western culture has gone into an economic and political phase, where spiritual principles are completely disregarded. You may have practical ethics and that kind of thing, but there is no spirituality in any aspect of our contemporary Western civilization. Our religious life is ethical, not mystical. The mystery has gone and society is disintegrating as a result
In the Puritan period, we had the rejection of the whole iconography of the Christian story and of the rituals by which it was delivered to your soul. The whole thing was rendered simply as a rational performance of bringing people of goodwill together, particularly those in that particular church. But even that has been torn apart bit by bit.
What do we read? We read newspapers concerned with wars, murders, rapes, politicians and athletes, and that’s about it. This is the reading that people used to devote to worship, to legends of deities who represent the founding figures of their lives and religion. People today are hunting around for something they have lost. Some of them know that they’re hunting. The ones who don’t are having a really hard time.”
The Orthodox Christian Faith is authentic Christianity. Many Orthodox Christians have succumbed to the seductions and delusions of our contemporary western civilization, but the Orthodox Christian Faith is unaffected by the errors and sins of her members or by the delusions of society. That is because the Orthodox Christian Faith is the proclamation of the Orthodox Church, which is the body of Christ, the fullness of him who is all in all; and the Orthodox Church’s reference point is not human opinion but the Holy Spirit of Christ God.
The Church is the body of Christ, the crucified and risen body of Christ. In the proclamation of the Church, you will hear her preachers preaching again and again, in many different ways, the message of St Peter that he preached on the Day of Pentecost about this Jesus who was crucified and whom God raised from the dead. And I think that the preaching of the Church to Christina’s friend is this: “You’ve completely missed the point. The response isn’t, ‘I wish I could believe, but I don’t.’ The response is: I wish I could believe. What must I do to believe?” Then, you will hear St Peter saying to you: “Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In other words, it isn’t about believing something you can’t believe; it’s about doing something, viz., taking up your bed and walking, in order to make your way out of the pig pen and back to the Father’s house to discover the spiritual meaning your soul yearns for.
The Orthodox Christian Faith proclaims Jesus not as a man but as the God-man. He is the Logos, which can also be translated, the Meaning, that was in the beginning with God, who was God, and in whom all things came to be. He is the principle of our being, the life of the world, who in these last days became flesh and dwelt among us. He destroyed death by his death by his resurrection. He united earth to heaven by his ascension. In other words, he united death to true life, non-being to true being, and so by his own death and resurrection, he transfigured death and the process of dying into a process of dying to disobedience that brings meaninglessness, emptiness, loneliness, fear and sin and being raised up, “born again” or “born from above” in the Holy Spirit into the life and meaning of the eternal God.
To repent and to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ is to enter upon a life-long process of learning how to die in Christ not to what is good and truly alive, but to what is only apparently good, to disobedience and to sin that brings upon us meaninglessness, emptiness, loneliness, fear, sin, death and corruption. That process is set out for us by the Lord himself in all the commandments he gave to us. And the first command that he gave is the first command St Peter and the apostles give when they begin their apostleship, that is to say, when they are no longer disciples, students, but apostles, those “sent out” in the Spirit of the risen and ascended Lord to proclaim the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ as the source of meaning and life, and to teach those who would listen how to attain to the meaning and life of the Spirit that their soul yearns for.
I was in a dialogue with a Jewish rabbi not long ago, and I made this point that the first command of the Lord was to repent. He challenged me immediately, forgetting for a second, apparently, that I am a Christian who confesses Jesus as the Lord. He was not thinking of the Gospels but of Genesis. He took me back to Genesis and said that the first command of the Lord was to Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. Actually, I said, if you want to go back that far, the first command of the Lord was to Adam and Eve, “don’t eat from the tree of good and evil.” And if you want to go back to the very first command of the Lord, it would be his command to the waters of the deep: “Let there be light!”
To repent, then, as the first command of the Lord when he begins his earthly ministry takes us back to his first commands in Genesis and it can be taken to mean: turn away from the tree of good and evil and turn toward the tree of life by stepping into the primordial Light of creation. Turn away from self-love and from a life devoted to indulging yourself in all the pleasures and comforts of the flesh that the good things of the world can give you, and begin devoting your life to the quest for the fruit of the Tree of Life. Stop partaking of the fruit of self-love and indulgence, and set yourself on the path of asceticism, of chastity and truth and goodness and inward beauty that leads to the Tree of Life that you may become “partakers of the divine nature,” and so begin making your way out of the darkness of the death that surrounds this worldly life and into the Light of God, becoming communicants of Him who is the Light and Life of the world.
This path away from the tree of good and evil and to the Tree of Life is the path of Christ’s commandments. As you can see in the Gospels that have been assigned for these eight Sundays of Pascha, the path leads to the tomb of Christ (the myrrh-bearing women); to the Upper Room (St Thomas); to the sheep’s pool (the paralytic); to the well of Jacob (the Samaritan woman); and to the pool of Shiloam (the blind man). All of these places are images, icons, of the bridal chamber of your mind and heart, the center of your being. It is here where we meet the Heavenly Bridegroom who comes to us at Midnight – at that moment when the old passes away and the new is brought into being. The commandments of Christ are the “light” that lightens the Psalmist’s path and which give him such delight. They are the Law of God that blesses the one who keeps them, making him like a tree (the Tree of Life?) planted by rivers of water, that yields its fruit (the fruit of Life?) in its season and whose leaf does not wither (i.e., he attains eternal life). These commandments of Christ, if they are light, must be the light that came to be when God spoke, “Let there be light,” and in which the whole of creation came to be. The commandments of Christ, if they are light, must be the light with which the Lord clothes himself as with a garment. Therefore, the one who practices the commandments of Christ is clothing himself with the light of Christ; he is walking in the light of Christ; he is walking in the primordial light of creation, the Light that clothes Him who enlightens everyone who comes into the world – not the world created by our sin, the world of death, the world that is good and evil, sweet and bitter, pleasant and painful; but the world created by God, the world that is good, very good, full of life and light and joy, the world of the Spirit of God.
If to repent is to turn away from the fruit of good and evil that ends in death, and to turn towards the tree of life, whose fruit is Christ Jesus himself, the Word and Meaning of God, then the command that Jesus calls out this morning on Pentecost at the beginning of his continuing incarnation on earth in his body the Church, the command to “Come to me and drink,” must be the same the command as to repent. To repent, then, means to come to Christ and to drink the living waters of his Holy Spirit and to become so “drunk” with the wine of His Spirit that one’s heart will overflow with rivers of the joy of the Holy Spirit. And this must mean that to repent is to practice the commandments of Christ, and that to practice Christ’s commandments is to follow Him who is the Light of the world who leads us, by his commandments, out of darkness and into the light of life.
If this is what it means to repent, then this is what we do to find the meaning our soul yearns for. We don’t believe what we can’t believe. We do what we can do; and we can follow the commandments of Christ. We can make our way to the tomb with the myrrh-bearing women, and discover the stone rolled away not by us but by the Lord’s angel. We can make our way to the Upper Room with St Thomas and the apostles – in other words, we can make our way to the Church, and there in her mystical rites see the risen Lord, and in her proclamation hear his voice, in the icon of the incense, smell his Spirit, and in the consecrated bread and wine partake of his body and blood in the way of the Spirit. We can make our way to the pool of Shiloam, to the sheep’s pool, to the well of Jacob, and hear the Lord say to us, take up your bed and walk, go and wash, go call your lover – not your false lovers, but your true lover, Christ Jesus the Heavenly Bridegroom. How in everyday terms can you do this?
Submit to the teaching and ways of the Church – for she is the body of Christ, and when you submit to the Church you are submitting to Christ. Read the Scriptures – you will be filling your mind with images of Him who is the Light and Life of the world. Take up prayer and work up to praying without ceasing, and you will be wrapping your soul in the primordial Light of creation. Follow the Church’s guidance on fasting and the practice of charity. Children, obey your parents; parents love your children. Young person, practice chastity with your body: your eyes, your ears, your hands, your feet, your lips. Fill your minds more and more with the stories of the saints, the writings of the holy fathers, and less and less with the images and wisdom of this world which is not wisdom but vanity – emptiness and meaninglessness. Married persons, be faithful to your spouse. Wives respect your husbands; husbands, love your wives. Bless those who revile you, do good to those who hate you. These are outer disciplines of the Church that reshape our bodies in spiritual health so that we can begin to walk the path of Christ that leads inward to our heart, to the tomb of Christ, the Upper Room, the pool, the well, the bridal chamber. We take up our bed and walk the path of Christ into our heart as we learn to pray the prayer of the Publican and the Prodigal, to turn our inward gaze on the beam in our own eye and away from the speck in our brother’s eye, when we seek to forgive our brother from the heart, when we work up to selling all that we have in order to follow Christ: in other words, to lay hold of our desire, our love, and give it to the eternal God by doing what he tells us to do in holy Scripture and in his body, the Church.
St Peter says: Repent, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Practice the commandments of Christ. They will lead you to the baptismal font where Christ will plant in your soul the seed of his Holy Spirit, the seed of his Holy Resurrection. Now, in the goodness of Christ that has been bestowed on you in the gift of your baptism, take up your bed and walk, take up your cross and follow Christ. Practice his commandments and walk in the light; clothe yourself with his light. And that seed of the Holy Spirit will grow in your soul into a tree, the Tree of Life. Your body will become a tree, the Tree of Life, as you partake of the divine nature in the sacramental life of Christ’s body, his Church, and become a communicant of life eternal.
Christina’s friend needs to pay close attention to the words of St Peter on this day, this Great Day of the Feast: He did not say, “Believe what you can’t believe.” He said, “Repent, and be baptized.” To believe in Christ is not to believe the incredible nor the unprovable: it is to do his commandments. To do his commandments is to step into the light as he is in the light. Then we shall behold him and say with St Thomas and with all the saints, “My Lord and my God.” Christ himself is the proof, the demonstration of faith, for he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and he is proven by practicing his commandments.
O Lord Jesus Christ, teach us your commandments. Make us to understand your statutes. Enlighten us with your precepts.
The joy of the Feast be with you!