The Marks of a Christian - On the Fifth Sunday of Lent
Sermon Preached by Dr. Lewis Patsavos on Sunday, April 9, 2006
"Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again." (Mk 10:33-34)
As we meditate on these words of our Lord's passion, beloved in Christ, and ponder its mystery, let us take heart from the words of promise uttered by our Lord Himself: "And the third day He will rise again." For the Christian who takes these words seriously, they are words of hope, strength, and victory over evil. This is especially so when considering the lurking dangers which surround us in our struggle to live what the life in Christ implies. One of these dangers is the possibility of slipping back into our old ways and bad habits following our intense efforts of conversion during Great Lent and Holy Week. More cunning still is the danger that our practice of religion might one day become a thing of habit. In the early days of Christianity there was vigorous enthusiasm towards the new faith. But by the second century that original zeal had already begun to show signs of weariness. And what was first a thing of splendor and glory was now becoming traditional, half-hearted and nominal.
As a result, the standards demanded by Christianity were considered to be a burden and an obstacle. Persons did not want to different from others - as expected by the Christian ethic. There has always been a distinct separation between the Christian and the world. As foretold by our Lord in the Gospel of St. John (15.19): "If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you."
All this involved an ethical demand. It demanded a new sense of morality, a new kindness, a new service, a new forgiveness - far above the standards of the world. And it was difficult. Once the first zeal and enthusiasm were gone, it become harder and harder to stand up against the enemies of the Church - both from within and from without - and to refuse to conform to the generally accepted standards and practices of the world.
The world, as used in the scriptural reference just quoted, is hostile to the Christian; it is a world without God. It does not know the Christian, because it does not know Christ crucified. Because the world is in collaboration with the evil one, the Christian must overcome it. In this struggle, the Christian's primary weapon is faith embodied in the power of the Cross. Hostile as the world is, it is nevertheless doomed and will one day vanish with all its evil. That is why it is folly to identify with the world and to be captivated by its allurements.
The message we are called upon to spread to others is simple yet profound. We live in an evil and hostile world. However, the person committed to Christ possesses what is needed to overcome it. When the destined end of the world comes, therefore, that person is safe because he/she is a member of the body of Christ, His Church, the kingdom of God on Earth. Nevertheless, the more dependent we are upon the things of the world - its material goods, as well as its fleeting pleasures and fascinations - the less free we are and the more distant from God's kingdom.
How can this theology be translated into practice? What practical things are there to say about the Church and the Christian way of life that can be applied to our daily life? One must first be strenuously and consistently engaged in Christian fellowship. This means that we must not only be bound to God, but we must also be bound to each other. God has loved us. By His terrible death on the Cross, He showed the length to which God's love will go and that there is no limit to what His love will do for us. That, then, is the best reason for loving each other. Consequently, the person who loves God must also love his neighbor. Love of one's neighbor, however - and this is most important - must not be only a sentimental emotion but a dynamic towards practical help. Just as a tree is known by its fruit, there is no better way to know a person than by his conduct, since deeds speak louder than words.
The social Gospel of Christianity calls for our active participation in alleviating the pain and suffering of others. The Gospel teaches us that there are many opportunities to display the love of Christ in everyday life. To follow Christ means extending a helping and sympathetic hand to our neighbor who is suffering or in pain; it means giving of what we have to our neighbor who has not; it means feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and the imprisoned. To shut our heart and refuse to give to our neighbor in need is to show that the love of God has no place in us.
This reflection began with the unsettling reminder of the dangers that surround us in our struggle to live the life in Christ - the danger of slipping back into our old ways and of allowing our practice of faith to become a thing of habit. That certainly is the case when it is limited to ritual piety. The practice of faith that does not issue forth in acts of love remains a dead letter. Similarly, fine words will never take the place of fine deeds; and no amount of talk of Christian love will take the place of a humane and kindly action to our neighbor in need, involving some small sacrifice. For in that action of love, the principle of God's love for us as manifested by His Son's death on the Cross is operative again.