St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The Sunday after the Elevation of the Holy Cross

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 16, 2007

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

There is an old African proverb, "When the student is ready the teacher will appear."

Over the past four years many teachers have appeared in my life from a great variety of places beginning with a sixteen-year old camper at Antiochian Village and ending presently with an Abbot from Greece. The remarkable thing is that the message has been the same across the board: real transformation is possible.

In last week's Gospel we learned that God loved us so much that he sent his only Son to save us.  Today we learn that to follow Jesus we must deny ourselves.  There is work to be done.  It seems clear that self-denial is the path of transformation. The question is: what does it mean?

St. Paul gives us big clue. He writes about the struggle taking place within him. "For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil that I will not to do, that I do. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man."

So, there is an "inward man" struggling with the sin that has come to dwell within. The "inward man" is the image of God.  The image is the definition of what it is to be human. Only human beings out of all creation have been made in God's image. The image is what in us yearns to do what is good. The image is what St. Paul refers to as the "law" in him. 

What is this sinful thing he speaks of?  Hear what Archimandrite Dionysios says. "The real enemy is the ego."  "It is such a powerful enemy because it is the enemy within us."  What is the ego? It is what most of us refer to as our selves.  It is the thing within us that works against the good, especially against love and trust.  It is our defense mechanism. The skunk has its scent and we have our ego. Both smell bad! The ego is how we set ourselves apart from other people.  The Abbot says, "Ego is born when we don't trust others. When we are afraid of others...When we trust each other there is no need for ego."  It is safe to say that for most people it is ego that dictates what they do, think and say.  This is the self that must be denied.  The ego is, as St. Paul says, "the sin that dwells within me."

Again from Fr. Dionysios, "We don't understand that this enemy...inside us is not our self; it's not our personality...We confuse our personality...with our faults. We confuse our personality with our sin; we marry these two things, and we have a wrong impression of what we are."

So, the first step towards transformation is to recognize who we really are and drop ego from the equation.  It is necessary to change the way we see ourselves before we can make spiritual progress. We are God's image, innately good, potentially divine. We are nothing without God, but we are more than everything with him.  This is the truth about who and what we are.

The ego claims independence from God and therefore leads us to destruction.  Lucifer made the claim that he did not need God and he fell from heaven. Adam and Eve decided to seek deification without God and were exiled from Paradise.  The reason we are not at peace is that we have lost sight of the image. We have exiled ourselves from the kingdom.

I was driving down the road, minding my own business, listening to the new Crowded House cd when I heard these words from one of the songs, "You are free now to receive the gift of insight." Can it be that we are unable to receive all the good things God has for us is because we are not free to receive them?  I think so. If the ego is in control, then every gift God offers will be rejected because the ego claims it is self-sufficient.  You see, self-denial is absolutely essential if we want to be open to the blessings of God.

The Lord says, "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."

The more we recognize this and deny in us all that opposes the truth the more we will see the fire of the divine image that dwells in us.  Jesus told his disciples that the kingdom is within. That is because wherever God is the kingdom is and the image of God in us is where God has chosen to dwell.  That is why we do not have to physically die to enter the kingdom we have to become fully alive - alive to the truth that his image is who we really are.

Quickly, let me enumerate some ways to defeat the ego.

Repent completely and leave no stone unturned. Be honest in all that you do. The ego is the progenitor of lies.

Care for your soul everyday. Take the time. Learn to love silence and minister with compassion to your own heart. Then you will have compassion to share with others.

Learn how to pay attention to what is happening under your skin: thoughts, emotions and feelings. If you take the time to examine them, then you will find you actually do have the power to choose what among them is helpful and what is not. This is what the Fathers mean by "guarding the heart."  This is what St. John Chrysostom meant when he said that "to be a fool for Christ means to control one's thoughts." I could go on about this forever. 

Remember death. The ego struggles against the very idea of death. Remember that everything is temporal; everything changes inside and outside of us. The ego is a survivalist holding on to the lie that it is immortal. But the ego knows this is not true and so ego is always anxious and frightened, holding tightly to an impossible dream.  Remembering death makes things real and disarms the ego.

Another practice is to keep awake in every moment to what is before you. Don't allow your mind to wander into the past or future. Do everything you do with complete focus. Stay alive in the present moment and the ego will wither and die. Orwell wrote, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle."

Care for one another.  This is the greatest commandment and the most effective weapon against the enemy, for the ego is opposed to love.

Rest your mind, open your heart and allow prayer to rise from the image within you.  Prayer is the most natural thing for a human being to do. The more the ego is quieted, the more prayer will naturally arise.  Keep the Name of Jesus in your heart and on your lips.

Believe, have faith. Transformation is possible.