Sunday, August 27, 2017: 12th Sunday of Matthew; Pimen the Great, Holy Martyr Phanurius, Anthousa the Martyr, Poimen of Palestine, Hosisos the Confessor, Liverios, Pope of Rome, Monica
While the rich young man’s initial question is reasonable enough, as the conversation unfolds it becomes clear that his obedience to the commandments is merely external. He hasn’t yet, to borrow from St Paul, “put on the whole armor of God.”
Sometimes a similar thing afflicts us in our own spiritual lives. Or rather, at times we hurt ourselves the same way the rich young man hurt himself.
Just as God blessed the young man with the Law and great material wealth, as Orthodox Christians living in America we have been blessed both spiritually and materially. Not only are we heirs to the Tradition of the Church, we live in a country that for all its problems has afforded us economic, educational, social and political opportunities beyond what any of our ancestors could have imagined. By most statistical measures, Orthodox Christians in America are well-educated, wealthy and at least according to secular measures powerful.
Our likeliness to the rich young man, however, has a second, darker side. To see this, we need to be honest with ourselves. We tend to admire our Tradition than
We tend to admire our Tradition more than we put it into practice. For example, we take our moral norms not from the Gospel but the culture. As a group, our moral views are indistinguishable from those of most Americans. While this convergence isn’t all bad, it does suggest that in many ways we are estranged from our own Tradition. This means we not to think with the Church but with popular culture; we tend to model our lives not after the martyrs and the saints but the rich and famous of this world.
There is, however, a third way in which Orthodox Christians in America are like the rich young man in the Gospel. Like him, God has come to us so that we can come to Him. As He did in His conversation with the rich young man, Jesus is saying to each of us this morning and every day our lives “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
We need to be careful in how we understand these words. We mustn’t interpret them in a crassly materialistic terms. While some of us are called to sell all and embrace a life of evangelical and monastic poverty, for most of us the command is more subtle.
Are we, am I, willing to put the economic and educational, social and political gifts God has us as Orthodox Christians living in America at the service of the Gospel?
Are we, am I, willing to follow Jesus Christ as His disciples and apostles?
Are we, am I, willing to shape my life around His Person and teaching and give witness by word and deed of the Resurrection?
All of these questions are really only one question. As we are asked at our baptism, do we believe in Jesus Christ as “King and God”?
Sincerely answering”Yes” to this question will transform our lives, our families, and our parishes. And a sincere “yes” isn’t simply something I say once and never again. It is rather something I must say every day, every moment of my life.
Have I said yes? Am I still saying yes to Jesus as my King and God?
While each of us needs to answer this in the depths of our own hearts, the general trend of the Church in America would suggest that many of us have stopped saying yes. We are losing not only young people but those who joined the Church as adults. This is happening, I would suggest, because we are living lives largely indistinguishable from our non-Orthodox neighbors.
In one sense, our being like everyone else is good and proper. As we read in the Letter to Diogentius,”Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life.”
In other ways though, being indistinguishable from those around us is a harsh indictment of our faith. It suggests that we have not taken St Paul’s words to heart that we put on the whole of the armor of Christ. This is why, again like the rich young man, we are often sorrowful. We fail, I fail, to find joy in being a Christian because I am attached to the things of this life.
What does it mean to be detached from the things of this world? St Paul tells us.
It means that we know that those around us, however much they disagree with the Gospel, are not our enemies to hate but our neighbors to love. We can love even those who hate us because God loves them. And we know that our battle isn’t with them, it isn’t “against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”
Having said yes to God from the depth of our heart not simply once but daily, we understand that the blessings of faith but also of material wealth and civil liberty, are given to us by God not only for His glory but for our salvation and the salvation of those around us.
And make no mistake. However much we diverge from the world, many of the blessings God has given us have come to us through those who don’t yet know the Gospel. We owe to every non-believer, to all those outside the Church who have contributed to the good things in our lives a debt that can only be paid by offering them the Gospel.
And we can only pay this debt if we put on the armor of God, say yes to Jesus, sell all we have and give to the poor, and follow Jesus as King and God.
All of this is to say that paying the debt you owe to your neighbor, means you must “be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
And what does it mean to be perfect?
That we let nothing limit our commitment to Christ.
That let nothing limit our witness to His Resurrection.
Above all, to be perfect means letting nothing limit our love for our neighbor. Perfection means we have with the same love for our neighbor that Christ has for each of us. This love is the only way we can pay the debt we owe for the blessings God has given us by the hand of our neighbor.