Sunday, April 2, 2017: Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt; Titus the Wonderworker, Theodora the Virgin-martyr of Palestine, Amphianos & Aedesios the Martyrs of Lycia
James and John make a mistake common to many of us who are disciples of Christ. With best of wills, they allow the world to frame their understanding of what it means to follow Christ.
Because Christ is the fulfillment of all human longing, this misapprehension of what it means to follow Christ isn’t wholly wrong. Like heroes in pagan myths, they are willing to die with their friend. Jesus affirms their sincerity and promises them: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Jesus accepts their willingness to offer their lives in His service.
But there is something slightly off in the apostles’ commitment to Jesus.
Their sacrifice is mixed with selfishness; the divide rightly, but offer wrongly as St. Ambrose of Milan says of the heretics.
They understand that following Jesus means losing one’s life. But they lose their life in the hope of worldly glory. They’re willing to die not for what God asks of them but for what they ask of God.
Not unsurprisingly, their request is a cause of indignation and division among the apostle who are, as the Gospel unfolds, as equally covetous. Not just James and John but all the apostles are angling for prominence in the life to come. The indignation of the other apostles reflects their own “eschatological aspiration” to inherit power in the life to come.
And so Jesus must correct not only James and John but all the apostle.
All are in need of purification of heart because all have allowed the standards of this world to corrupt their relationship with Jesus.
All are guilty of wanting to “lord it over” the others and to demonstrate that they are “great men” by exercising authority over others.
And all of them need to be reminded that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” because all are immature in their faith.
All of us who are in Christ, begin more enamored of the world than of Jesus Christ. It’s only slowly, over time, that through the Holy Spirit God is able to reform and transform us so that in purity of heart we can bear fruits worthy of repentance (see Matthew 3:8 and Luke 3:8). It is only slowly that I come to be able to say in small measure what Jesus says of Himself: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
We here pause for a moment to reflect on two things.
First, selfishness and immaturity don’t in and of themselves negate the sincerity and nobility of the heart’s initial willingness to sacrifice for Christ. Yes, especially at first, our motives are mixed. But the fundamental goodness and God-pleasing nature of the heart’s commitment to Christ remains.
We can’t ever forget or deny that human sinfulness is real. But neither that sin is neither the first nor the last word about our lives. Even if we are in Hell, we are still we are loved by God. Sin will hamper a person’s ability to know or respond to God’s love but sin can’t undo God’s love for even the most unrepentant sinner.
However muddled at any given moment, James, John and the other apostles love Jesus. More importantly, they are loved by Jesus and nothing, not foolish questions, not their betrayal, not their denial, not their abandonment of Him can diminish Jesus’ love for them.
And so, the second thing.
Jesus, and not the world, is our standard. Yes, sometimes, like James and John, I forget this. There are times when, like the apostles, I make the world and not the Cross to become my standard for being a Christian. There are times when I pursuit power or success rather than intimacy with Christ and service to my neighbor.
It’s important to point out that my self-glorification can happen as easily under the cover of ministry as it can in a so-called secular setting. In his play Murder in the Cathedral T.S. Eliot puts these words in the mouth of Thomas a Becket “To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
Becket calls this “last temptation … the greatest treason.” In the hands of those who succumb to this last and greatest temptation, the Gospel and the Name of Jesus Christ are weapons that kill rather than cure. We have all of us met the person, layperson or clergyman, for whom the Gospel is a means to dominate others. The particulars might change–the angry preacher, the gossipy parishioner–but the substance remains.
Rather than cutting away sin through the gentle application of the Gospel, the angry priest wounds. Rather than speaking a word of encouragement, the gossip tears down and destroys reputations and relationships. Whatever is done, is done for the person’s own self-aggrandizement. As for the Gospel, it is merely a cover, a self-justification and an excuse to kill rather than cure.
There is another way in which I “do the right deed for the wrong reason.” This is when I take the world’s disapproval as evidence that I’m doing God’s will. This is as simplistic as it is self-serving. Yes, there are times when the world is my enemy. At other times, though, even if the world is not exactly my friend, it is at least a temporary ally.
In either case, it isn’t the world’s rejection or acceptance that is the standard of the Christian life. The only standard is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ and our willingness to be for others as He is for us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, today we commemorate our mother among the saints Mary of Egypt whose life we hear every year at this time. Extreme as she was in her sin, she was more extreme in her asceticism. But greater than both was her love of God and conformity to the example of Christ.
St. Mary reminds us that we ought not to prefer anything to the love of Christ Who is the standard and content of our preaching, our witness and our lives as Orthodox Christians to Whom be glory and honor forever, amen!