49 - The Way of Salvation, Aug 16, 2020

This Sermon can be viewed on our public Facebook page, on the recorded live-stream of the Divine Liturgy for this morning (Aug 16, 2020)

1 Corinthians 4.9-16

Matthew 17.14-23

To enter the Orthodox Church is to enter the way of salvation. Salvation is an Exodus, led by our Joshua, Jesus Christ, into the heavens opened at the Jordan. Our Gospel today offers opportunity to review this biblical doctrine. Understanding it answers many questions and exposes much false teaching.

The word, Exodus, is formed from ‘ex’, away from, and ‘odos’, path. Creation, then, comes to be in an ‘Exodus. Drawing from St Dionysius the Areopagite: ‘God, through His intense love for everything, goes out of Himself’—He goes on an Exodus—and creates the world in the love of His Son, Jesus Christ (Jn 1.3). The Incarnation of the Son of God is an Exodus; indeed, it is the very principle of creation. ‘Whoever apprehends the mystery of the cross and burial,’ writes St Maximus (d. 662, Philo II, p. 127) ‘apprehends the inward essences of created things; while he who is initiated into the inexpressible power of the resurrection apprehends the purpose for which God established everything.’

The creation of man begins with an Exodus. In the mystery of His Sabbath Rest—a reading of Gen 2 one would not see outside the mystery of Christ’s Holy Pascha!—God fashions man from the dust of the ground [prefiguring His Sabbath Rest in the tomb, when He refashions man from the substance of His own flesh received from the Virgin] and then places him in the Garden of Eden, an Exodus that prefigures His translation of Adam from the tomb of His Sabbath Rest to the Garden of His Resurrection, an Exodus from death to life, from the power of darkness to the Kingdom of His Beloved Son. (Jn 19.41 & 20.11-16; Col 1.13)

 In the Garden, man’s heart is tested. The LORD’s command not to eat from the tree is the same He gives in His Incarnation to those who would follow Him: it is the command to deny oneself in order to find one’s life in Christ for the ‘purpose’ of becoming one with God in love, and not with the proud rebellion of Lucifer in enmity.

Man fails the test and falls onto the path of a dark exodus that goes away from God into the bitterness of death. Note well the sentence of man’s expulsion from the Garden. God says: ‘Lo, Man has become as though he was one of us.’ He has made himself a god in himself. Here, I’m sure, is the ‘law of sin,’ the ‘wall of enmity’ that has become embodied, incarnate in us (Rm 7.23-25): it is spiritual pride whose fruit is death.

Yet, as man is expelled from the Garden, he is given hope in the word of God’s mercy: ‘You are dust, and to the dust you shall return.’ This sounds like a curse, until its inner meaning is opened when the stone is rolled away from the LORD’s Tomb. It’s not a curse. The LORD is showing man the path of that Exodus that will lead him back to Eden. Learn how to lose your life and return to the dust in the humility and love of God’s holy Pascha, not in the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud, and the path of your life that ends in the dust of the grave will become the end of the law of sin and an Exodus back into the Garden.

So, when the Son of God became flesh and dwelt among us, He brought the old Exodus of Israel to the gate of His Tomb and into the mystery of His Sabbath Rest. The geographical Exodus became spiritual, hidden in the interior depths of the soul. When, therefore, you were baptized into Christ, you were placed on the ‘better and changeless Path’ of the hidden Exodus of the Gospel that begins in the Tomb of Christ, in the Font of the Church. Walking in newness of life, following Christ, we begin to ascend from wherever we are into the heavens that were opened at Christ’s baptism in the Jordan.

That Path is within us; for, it is ‘Christ in you, our hope of Glory.’ Christ leads us to that ‘spot’ in the ‘garden’ of our heart where, as were Adam and Eve, we are tested to see ‘this day whom we will serve.’ Having ‘put on Christ’ in the font of our baptism, will we deny ourselves to unite ourselves to Christ, or will we deny Christ to unite ourselves to the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, the pride of life?

Now we begin to read the story of Israel’s Exodus with new eyes. The Exodus of Israel—and how, having received the Land of her inheritance, she chose not to purge it of all the idols—comes into view as the template of the inner Exodus of the Gospel we are now called to walk. In the Church, we are in the Garden as Israel was in the Promised Land. We stand, as did Adam and Eve before the tree of knowledge, and as Israel did before the idols of Canaan. We stand at that spot where we, too, now hear the LORD’s command: ‘If you would follow me, you must deny yourself. You must deny all your idols. You must take up your Cross, put to death all that is earthly in you, all your idolatry, and lose your life for My sake that you may eat from the Tree of Life, my own body, my own blood, to find your life in Me and so become one with Me. (Jn 6.54-56)

This is when we discover the suffering of the Cross. The suffering is not physical, though it might be. It is the inner suffering of denying our love for the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life in order to find ourselves no more in the death that is the fruit of our idolatry but in the Tomb, the Sabbath Rest, of God, the font of our resurrection in Christ that is the fruit of the LORD’s obedience to the Father. The suffering from this battle in the depths of the soul, in the closet of the heart, hidden from the world, is fierce. We are not so much battling the devil; he was rooted out of our heart at our baptism. We are battling our love for the idols in which we once walked, as though we were gods.

I hear all of this given in the LORD’s complaint this morning, which He gave many times to the prophets: ‘O faithless and perverse generation!’ The word means to turn aside; so, ‘O faithless generation that stubbornly turns aside from the Path, the Exodus that goes up to the Tree of Life at the top of the Edenic mountain to go down into the region and shadow of death! How long must I put up with you?’ You constantly provoke Me; you constantly go your own way as though you were gods. You honor Me with your lips; but, in your heart, you are far from Me! (Isa 29.13) And we wonder why God does not hear our prayers!

One sees in the disciples’ effort to expel the demon from this boy on their own the same arrogance of those Israelites who set out to conquer the Amorites of Canaan on their own counsel, and they were utterly routed. (Dt 1.41-45) There was no self-denial, no humility. So here, the disciples, in spiritual pride, think they can expel the demon as though they were gods. This absence of humility, of self-denial, as though they were gods themselves, is, I think, their unbelief.

The LORD goes on to say that this kind of demon is expelled only by prayer and fasting. I think we are not far from the truth to understand ‘this kind’ of demon as the demon of spiritual pride. It nestles in our heart, right at that ‘spot’ where our will originates and where we choose either to deny ourselves for the sake of the LORD’s Christ or to deny God so that we can become as though we were gods. When we have let it into our heart, does not spiritual pride jerk us around mercilessly, throwing us into the fire, let’s say into anger that wants to destroy, and into the water, let’s call it greed that would drown us in desire for the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, the pride of life?

How is it that this kind comes out only by prayer and fasting? Because prayer and fasting are the ‘flowers that grow from the wood of the Cross.’ They are the cross we voluntarily take up to unite ourselves to Christ in concrete practice of the LORD’s command to deny ourselves and to follow Him on the Exodus of the Gospel into the Kingdom of Heaven that is within us and into the joy of His Holy Resurrection. With this, the ‘little faith’ the LORD speaks of comes into view, again as it did last Sunday, as simply calling on the Name of the LORD in repentance; and the mountain that is moved comes into view as the temple of our own body that is moved in the Exodus of the Gospel from idolatry to the love of God, from death to life, from earth to heaven, from the power of darkness to the Kingdom of His Beloved Son. (Col 1.13)

We are in the 40-day season of the Elevation of the Cross that began with the Feast of the LORD’s Transfiguration. Having come down from that Feast, the Church surrounds us with the beauty of the Theotokos’ Falling Asleep. She is our model of self-denial for the sake of Christ. In the maternal love of the Theotokos, our souls are warmed and made soft with a longing to deny ourselves, to come out of our greed that we may be found following Christ on the inner Exodus of the Gospel into the joy of His Holy Pascha. And the Church, the Spirit and His Bride, call out: in the fear of God, with faith and love, let all who are thirsty draw near and drink from the Fountain of Immortality. Step onto the Path of the LORD’s Exodus and draw near to the Fire of the Glory of Christ so that all that is earthly in you, separating you from God, is consumed down to its root of spiritual pride, and your heart is cleansed, created anew, and it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us. Amen!