Purification in the Spiritual Life

Sunday, November 27, 2016: 23rd Sunday after Pentecost & 13th Sunday of Luke

Great-martyr James the Persian; Venerable Palladios of Thessalonica; Venerable Nathanael of Nitria in Egypt; James the wonderworker, bishop of Rostov

Epistle: Ephesians 2:4-10
Gospel: Luke 18:18-27

St Paul says that what God does, He does out of his abundant mercy and love for us. But how I experience God’s mercy depends on the nature of my relationship with Jesus Christ.

Let me explain.

Rightly, we look to God for strength and comfort. These, however, come to me not according to my desire but according to what is necessary for my salvation. This means that at times the mercy of God will feel severe, even harsh.

Look at the rich man in this morning’s Gospel. He comes to Jesus and asks “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus then tells him to keep the Commandments, specifically those that are concerned with how we are to treat others.

All these, the man says, he has kept from his youth. In response Jesus offers the man the opportunity not simply to inherit eternal life but to become His discipline. “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  This is more mercy than the man can bear. Life as a disciple of Christ—that is to say, as a witness to the mercy of God—makes demands of that the man isn’t willing to accept.

Just as He does with the rich man, Jesus invites each of us, you and me, to follow Him. Just as with the rich man, He invites each of us to become a witness of God’s mercy and of the “immeasurable riches of his grace” and kindness for all mankind.

Answering this call, however, requires that I surrender all that that I love more than God. In the rich man’s case, his wealth mattered more than God and so it was his wealth that he needed to surrender.

And, just as with the rich man, there are things that we all need to surrender, “to sell” if you will, if we are to follow Jesus as His disciples and His witnesses.

We get a hint of what it is that we must all give up in the first half of the exchange between Jesus and the man.

Make no mistake, the rich man was, objectively, a good man. He kept the Commandments. There’s no hint or suggestion in the Gospel that he neglected what God commanded in the Law and the Prophets.

And yet for all that he was good, his goodness was merely formal never personal. He did his duty—no small feat to be sure—but no more. He was, in other words, a man of obedience but not mercy.

To really be a disciple of Christ, it isn’t enough for me to do my duty. While essential, obedience isn’t a sufficient if I’m going to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I must also be merciful.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy for us, for me, to be merely obedient. I tend to think that the formal aspects of my life as an Orthodox Christian—the ascetical life, participation in the liturgical life of the Church, even my stewardship commitment to a parish and my charitable giving to the poor—are enough. But they aren’t; they are a preparation.

Just as in our daily life we discover that maturity is more than doing what is necessary, so to as we grow in the spiritual life, we discover that perfection, holiness, requires more than merely a formal adherence to Tradition.

And so, God in His great mercy, will for a time often take the Tradition from us.

This isn’t to say that we’ll be deprived of access to the sacraments, though as we see in the lives of the saints, this can happen. It does however mean that, for a season or two, we will be deprived of consolation from the sacraments or from the Church’s liturgical life. We may for a time find no wisdom in Scriptures or the Fathers, no support from our brothers and sisters in Christ.

We will, in other words, find ourselves stripped of all that we have come to value more than Jesus Christ and His merciful love and kindness for mankind.

It is in these moments of desolation that we can come to a deeper, more personal, relationship with Jesus Christ.

And it is in these moments that we can come to understand what it is to be loved by God even though we are dead in ours sins. It is in these moments of spiritual dryness that we come to know what it means to be “alive together with Christ” and to “sit with him in the heavenly places.”

Why do I say this?

In the spiritual life, the greatest obstacle is my will, my own plans, my vision of what it means to follow Christ. I need to be purified of my willfulness so that my willingness to follow Jesus can flower.

Please listen careful to what I’m about to say.

I need to be purified not merely healed. My willfulness can’t be healed, there is no such thing

English: John Chrysostom, icon by Dionisius Ру...

English: John Chrysostom, icon by Dionisius Русский: Иоанн Златоуст, икона Дионисия и его мастерской (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

as a “healthy” or God-pleasing willfulness. willfulness is simply rebellion and rebellion needs to be quashed. St John Chrysostom says this: “the indolent and supine man who is his own betrayer cannot be made better, even with the aid of innumerable ministrations” (# 12).

This why God’s mercy, to return to where we began, often feel harsh. It does, because it is. My tendency toward rebellion needs to be defeated if I am to inherit eternal life and there are no gentle wars.

God enters into my life to do battle with my one great enemy, me. Why do I say I am my own enemy? Because, to quote Chrysostom again, “in no case will anyone be able to injure a man who does not choose to injure himself.”

And just as God goes to battle against me for me, He does this not only for me but for all of us. He enters into our lives and begins a campaign to break our willfulness, to break our rebellious spirits, so that we can follow Him and not our image of Him.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!

No one can hurt us if we are “vigilant and sober in the Lord” Chrysostom says. So when those moments of spiritual aridity or desolation come to us—as they will—let us take the saints advice, and “endure all painful things bravely that we may obtain those everlasting and pure blessings in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and power, now and ever throughout all ages. Amen” (17).