|45 Fourth Sunday After Pentecost, July 13, 2008|
Sometimes when I’m standing at the altar and listening to the words of the Church’s worship, it’s as though they are delineating the otherworldly features of God’s Heavenly Kingdom and making it to materialize invisibly before my mind’s eye. The teaching of the apostles and the holy fathers come alive. One begins to see into their meaning and to understand their inspiration. One has the sense of standing on sacred ground in a place of quiet joy that is forever undiminished. A presence is here; a lordly, personal presence. One cannot see its face but one can feel from the force of its penetrating gaze that its countenance is fearsome yet serene in absolute goodness, justice and mercy. I stand in this presence acutely aware of my perversity. I cannot raise my eyes. I feel that I don’t deserve even to ask for mercy. Yet I don’t want to leave this presence and I am sad knowing that it will slip away as quickly as it came. But I remember it long after; and when I look back, I can see that the reason I felt unable even to ask for mercy is because my perversity and uncleanness are fundamentally willful. Somewhere in my secret heart, I have chosen to think, to say and to do perverse and unclean things. Strangely, however, standing in this presence revealed to me in the worship of the Church, the feeling of being altogether undeserving of the Savior’s mercy does not drive me to despair. Rather, I find a prayer welling up in me that extends beyond myself to embrace all my friends and acquaintances, even my enemies, even the whole world, and I find my soul beginning to intercede on behalf of all and for all; beginning even to pray that the Lord not have mercy on me until he has had mercy on the world.
I believe that this otherworldly reality that I see in the vision of the Church’s worship is real, even more real than our life in the world. I take it as a glimpse of a glimpse of the unchanging reality of God’s Holy Spirit that lies beneath the forever changing life of the world. And I take it as proof that Christ’s words are true: “The Kingdom of Heaven is among you!” It is to this reality that the Word of God would make us slaves.
However, before you reject the Church’s invitation to become a slave to God, understand this lesson from our scripture readings this morning. You are already a slave. You are a slave by your very nature. None of us is our own master. We like to think that we are; but we are not. Think about it. Who of you was free to choose to be conceived and born? Who of you was free to choose your body, or your face, or whether you would be male or female? Who of you is free from death?
You are a slave by your very nature. But there is another lesson to be learned in this morning’s Scripture readings. We are slaves, but we are slaves of whatever we choose to love. If we choose to love the body, the body becomes our master, and we become slaves to the emotions and feelings and moods of our body; we become slaves to the wisdom of our own opinions. And in this slavery, we become blind to the Spirit that transcends the body and the wisdom of our own opinions. If we choose to love God, his immortal Spirit becomes our master – the very Spirit that raised Jesus bodily from the dead. In other words, when the Spirit is our master, we do not cease to be body but we become, even in our body, spiritual. This is the marvelous irony of St Paul’s imagery of slavery. In effect, he is saying: do you wish to be a slave to darkness and death; i.e. do you wish to become darkness and death? Or, do you wish to be a slave to light and life, to become light and life in the Spirit of God?
The Gospel teaches us that sin and death entered the world through the choice of Adam and Eve. So also, salvation and life have entered the world through the choice of the Second Adam and the Second Eve. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the Second Eve, chose to say “yes” to God and, in her choice, she opened the “gates” so that the Lord of Glory could enter into the world to become flesh and dwell among us. The Lord of Glory, Jesus Christ the Second Adam, prayed to the Father in Gethsemane, “Thy will, not mine, be done,” and he was then voluntarily lifted up on the Cross for the life of the world.
Through the choice of the Blessed Virgin and Jesus Christ to be servants of God, the Tree of Life that stands in the middle of the Garden of Eden has been planted in the world toward the East, in the Church. The doors of the Church open mystically eastward onto the Garden of Eden and anyone who chooses to can pass through those doors and become slaves of God as children born of the King and Queen of the Garden: Christ, the Second Adam and the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Second Eve.
We heard what it means to receive the Word of Christ that would make us slaves to God in this morning’s Gospel. The centurion’s slave was enslaved to his paralysis. He was unable to move, confined to his bed. By the Word of the Lord, the paralytic was freed from his paralysis and made a slave to the same Word of Christ that comes to us in the words of the Church’s worship. To be enslaved to the Word of Christ makes our body spiritual as it made the centurion’s body whole, able to walk and run as he had before. Enslavement to the Word of God makes the world as it was in the beginning, sacramental. The elements of the world – oil, water, bread and wine – and even the sounds of the world – music, words – become by the descent of the Holy Spirit mystical: mysteries, sacraments, sacred elements belonging to the Body of the Divine Word, Jesus Christ. They become paschal: possessed of a spiritual power that can raise us from death to life as the centurion’s slave was raised from his paralysis to wholeness, and make us to pass over into the mystical reality of God’s Heavenly Kingdom that we can actually see with our eyes in an unseeing way, as St John Climacus describes this spiritual phenomenon. And this is no surprise; for, enslaved to Christ, the world is made one with the Heavenly Kingdom of the Father and it is deified, made holy, sacred, divine by the Holy Spirit that made Adam a living soul, that raised Jesus from the dead, and gives life to those in the tombs. And so the world becomes transparent to God, and in its materiality, it is but a veil that delineates the features of the Kingdom of Heaven to reveal the risen Christ “in our midst”.
When we stand here before the Royal Doors of the Sanctuary, then, we are standing in no ordinary place; we are singing no ordinary words; we are doing no ordinary thing. We are standing in the Pascha of the Lord in which everything of the world is deified and made paschal because of the Christ who is in our midst, whose crucified and risen body the Church is, who has opened the heavens and rolled away the stone from the tomb and united earth to heaven so that here, in the Church, here in the Pascha of the Lord, we stand in the Father’s Heavenly Kingdom even as we stand here on the corner of 54th and 38th in southern Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Through our baptism and our Chrismation, we were made to pass over mystically into the Garden of Eden, just as Adam was placed in the Garden after he had been fashioned from the dust of the ground in the beginning. And, like Adam and Eve, we stand again, here in the Church, before the two trees, under the same command that Adam and Eve were under: to eat from the one, the Tree of Life, and not to eat from the other, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We are slaves by nature because we are slaves to food. We have to eat in order to live. Food is our master. From which tree will you choose to eat? The fruit of which tree do you wish to be your master? To eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represents the choice to live according to my will, not God’s will. It is a life where the good that is chosen is immediately enslaved to evil, pleasure is enslaved to pain, life is enslaved to death because it is life lived in the choice to separate oneself from God. The Tree of Life represents the life of the Church. Its fruit is Christ, given to you as the food of immortality, spiritual food, in the Church’s Holy Eucharist. It is the fruit Adam and Eve were commanded to eat in the beginning; and it is the fruit that Christ commands his followers to eat if they would become slaves of life; for to eat and drink Christ in the holy Eucharist of the Church is to receive his heavenly Spirit and to become a partaker of the divine nature unto life eternal.
So how do we go about in our daily life choosing to eat from the Tree of Life as we are given to eat from it here in the Church, so that even in our daily life we may experience the reality of Christ’s Word raising us from our spiritual paralysis and making us slaves to the Kingdom of Heaven that is among us. We eat from the Tree of Life every day, as we are granted to eat from it at every Divine Liturgy, by choosing every day, every hour, every moment to walk according to the commandments of the Lord regardless of our mood, our feelings, or our intellectual understanding. In our baptism we were made slaves of the Lord, not of our mood or our feelings or our intellectual understanding. Therefore, serve the commandments of the Lord, not your feelings or your mood. Know that regardless of how you feel or what your circumstances may be, nothing hinders you from choosing to do good to those who hate you, praying for your enemies, blessing when you are reviled, forgiving as you have been forgiven, being honest, responsible and accountable; being faithful to (and patient with) your spouse, your children and your parents; choosing to be chaste and moral in your body and in your mind and heart.
Lay hold your freedom in Christ and choose to be a slave of his Word, keeping your mind and heart rigorously focused on the reality of his Heavenly Kingdom that is among us. Make the Word of God that you have received in the sacramental worship of the Church the reality to which you aspire, the joy that you live for, knowing that the Word of God that you hear in the words of the Church’s worship is the very Word that freed the centurion’s slave from his paralysis. Indeed, it is the very Word of God that brought the heavens and earth from non-existence into being in the beginning. If you choose to love that Word and to eat it and drink it so as to make yourself its slave, it will free you from sin, from its shame and its guilt and make you righteous and immortal as it freed the centurion from his paralysis and made him well. It will raise you up into the reality of God’s heavenly Kingdom no longer as a slave but as a child [paiV] of God. Amen.