St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

Peter, Self-Denial, and Change

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 24, 2006

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once advised inquirers to Orthodoxy to put down their books and attend a Divine Liturgy. “The service is long, but even Orthodox services eventually come to an end. And if you simply stand there and are open to whatever happens, something might.” Being open is the key. Something may just happen if we are open to recognizing, receiving and embracing it when it comes.

There is a wonderful character in Islamic literature by the name of Nasrudin. He is what is known in many religious traditions as a “holy fool”, a person who does outrageous things to teach spiritual truths, usually to people who are not interested in learning them. One day Nasrudin was sitting in the public market and he appeared quite uncomfortable. His face was red and becoming redder and he appeared to be in extreme pain. A crowd gathered around to see what was going and and they saw that Nasrudin had a pile of very hot peppers in front of him. He was eating one after the other becoming more and more distressed. Finally someone asked him why he was doing this to himself. He answered, “I am looking for a sweet one.”

St. Peter and his companions had been fishing all night. They were experts. They knew the Sea of Galilee better than anyone. They knew their craft. Still they had caught nothing after laboring so hard. Jesus came to these tired, frustrated, expert fishermen and gave them some advice. “Go back out and cast your nets on the other side and you will catch some fish.” Put yourself in Peter's place. Would you not wonder at the audacity of Jesus? Who was he, a wandering rabbi, to advise them? But Peter acquiesced (maybe just to get Jesus off his back or maybe even hoping to prove that he knew more than Jesus about fishing). He got back in the boat, set out a little, cast his nets on the other side and surprisingly took in a large load of fish.

We heard about self-denial in last week's Gospel. This week we see it in action. No matter how reluctant Peter was, he still humbled himself and did as Jesus suggested. He put his boat out again and cast his net on the opposite side. Self-denial means accepting and embracing change. Maybe the way we are thinking is not helpful, maybe the things we are doing are not working. Like Nasrudin we keep foolishly eating the peppers and growing more and more uncomfortable in the vain hope that we might find that one, sweet pepper that will make life all that we want it to be and more. We like familiar patterns, even if they lead us to more suffering. Holding on to these patterns, these familiar ways of thinking and living is the opposite of self-denial. We know the patterns that are bad because they lead to more anxiety, more anger, more frustration. Self-centeredness always leads to destructive patterns of behavior and mental habits.

St. Peter was amazed at what happened and was lead to repentance. “Depart from me,” he cried, “for I am a sinful man.” Not only did he get some fish by opening himself to the different path suggested by the Lord, he found a Saviour.

We need to turn our attention to the contemplation of God so that in his light we can see the truth of what is running and ruining our lives. Then we will discover the narrow gate that leads to eternal life. But the narrow path is a path we fear to take. It is a path of renunciation of the self, of a stripping away of all illusion, a voluntary poverty, a detachment from the poor “self” we have cobbled together out of the debris of our lives.

A great definition of renunciation I learned recently is, “to let go of holding back” or, in other words, to stop holding back from letting go. We need to stop pretending that our way is working, that everything is alright. There is really not one sweet pepper in the whole pile! The process of letting go is disquieting and uncomfortable, but we need to embrace it courageously. We may have invested everything we think we are in a vision, a mission or a quest that ultimately we must admit we are getting no closer to reaching no matter how hard we try. Normally, we try to anesthetize ourself when we feel discomfited. I like the semi-sweet, dark chocolate solution myself. Some prefer shopping, or eating, or alcohol, or sex. But anesthetizing ourselves at the slightest discomfort is the opposite of self-denial. Self-denial means sitting with our feelings, seeing them, facing them, feeling them and ministering to our own pain with tenderness and care, bringing them to God in all honesty with love and prayer. We embrace what is real in us and all of sudden, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, we are transformed. Jesus came to heal us so we must stop pretending that we do not need to be healed.

The way of renunciation and self-denial is the Way of the Cross, the way of truth. Like Peter we need to be willing to go against the grain, to try something different, to listen carefully for the voice of God and to do what he says even though it will mean taking a different path than we would probably have chosen for ourselves. Like Nasrudin we need to admit that eating the pile of hot peppers to find the sweet one is doomed to failure because in that pile there is no “sweet one”. Following the advice of Metropolitan Anthony we need to be patient and open. If we are, believe me, something good will happen.