Sunday, February 14, 2016: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost & Seventeenth Sunday of Matthew
Venerable Auxentios the priest of Bithynia; Venerable Abraham and Maron of Syria; New-martyrs Nicholas of Corinth and George the tailor of Mitylene;
Venerable Cyril, Equal-to-the-Apostles and enlightener of the Slavs.
The Epistle this morning calls us to conversion, to “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” This is not, it is important to emphasize, merely a one-time event. As we hear in the Divine Liturgy, conversion is a life-long process; we ask God to help us live lives of “peace and repentance.” So while conversion has a beginning, a first moment, it never ends.
It is also important to emphasize that conversion is not merely negative; it is fundamentally positive. Continual conversion leads, naturally and spontaneously, to wholeness of being. As I lay aside my sinfulness, I remove from my life the obstacles to the fruits of the Spirit “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23, NKJV); through conversion I become myself.
When God looks at the human person, He does so with great, really boundless and superabundant love. God sees in each of us great goodness we don’t initially see in ourselves. And while the world will not see us so, God sees each of us as beautiful.
This doesn’t mean, however, that God fails to see my sinfulness. He does but, again, He doesn’t see my sin the way in which the world does. Much less does He see it as I do.
For the world, human failure is a cause of shame and the excuse to degrade and exploit another human being. In a fallen world, any weakness—real or imagined—becomes an occasion for humiliation and to assert control over a person made in the image of God. For the world, weakness—real or imagined, moral or intellectual, physical or social—breeds fear and dread.
It is not this way with God.
When God sees our sinfulness, what He see is where we fall short of who He has created us to be.
Where the world sees ugliness, He sees hidden beauty.
Where the world see weakness, He sees the possibility for greater strength.
Where the world sees shame, He sees undisclosed dignity.
Again and again, when the world proclaims our death, He announces the death of death and our resurrection to divine life in His Son, our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.
So when Paul tells the Corinthians to cleanse themselves of defilement and to perfect holiness in the fear of God, he is calling them to a life of transcendence. Building on the fruit of divine grace poured out in the sacraments and received in faith, the whole of the ascetical life is nothing more or less than growth in our personal likeness to God. Conversion is how we go from “glory to glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18); how we become ever more like God and so become ever more who we are most truly.
Repentance means to lay aside the lies and half-truths on which I have based my life and instead become who God has created me to be. Conversion is to see myself as God sees me and to live in gratitude, joy and sacrificial love, the life He has called me from all eternity to live.
And all this God sees in each of when His gaze falls upon us.
Just as we need to understand what repentance really and truly means, we also need to understand something about out ourselves. Or maybe, it is better that I speak only about myself.
I am enamored with my own sinfulness.
My sin has become a “second nature” to me. So firmly do I cling to my own sinfulness—and so firmly does it bind me—that this call to love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control doesn’t just frighten me, it can at times repeal me. Who I am most truly, my true self as Thomas Merton calls it, can be repugnant to me.
Knowing this helps us understand the seemingly harsh response Jesus gives to the woman in the Gospel. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
No doubt, Jesus’ words stung the woman. No doubt, they were painful to hear and to hear spoken publicly surrounded by those who she knew despised her. What really makes these words so painful though is that before she heard Jesus say them, before they rang in the ears of those who held her in contempt, the woman had said them to herself. And not once but over and over again.
The tragedy of sin, of this second nature that I cling to so tenaciously, is that it tells me I am unloved, indeed that I am unlovable. Sin blinds me to God’s mercy and love for me.
First sin tells me that my moral failings are of no consequence—”You’re only human after all.” But when I succumb to sin’s blandishments the message changes. Again and again, I hear that God won’t, can’t, forgive me because my sins are too great. And besides, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Sin becomes habitual in me when I come to believe that my failure matters more than God’s mercy and love. And this isn’t simply my struggle; it is the secret we all carry around in our own hearts. To be unrepentant is to say to myself, again and again, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Having become for me a “second nature,” my sinfulness distracts me from God and so from myself. I have come to imagine God’s mercy is for everyone but me.
But like the woman in the Gospel, it the mercy of God that makes me who I am. Before all else, we are all of us the recipients of God’s mercy, His forgiveness and love. No matter how much I would believe otherwise, what matters most about me—about all of us—is God’s love for me, for you, for us.
I simply get things backwards. I imagine that what I do—for good or ill—is who I am. While decisions and actions matter, they don’t matter most of all. What matters most for all of us is that we are loved by God.
Because I don’t know this, I get another thing backwards.
I don’t need to repent to experience God’s love; I need to experience God’s love to repent. Again, what matters most, is not what I do for God but what He has done for me in Jesus Christ.
My brothers and sisters, still for a moment your own, internal monologue—the voice that says to you “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And as you silence the lie, look in your hearts. When the niggling voice of self-condemnation speaks, ignore it and look more deeply within.
As you look in your own heart, you will find there, underneath what you think of yourself, what others think of you (they are in the end the same), you will find Christ waiting for you.
By baptism, He lives in your heart. In confession, He lifts the veil of sin and shame so that you can see Him face-to-face. In Holy Communion, He joins you to Himself and to His Body the Church, freeing you from slavery to sin and death giving you back to yourself.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, be who God has called you to be!