The Stone Which the Builders Rejected
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 6, 2009
Matthew 21:33-42 (13th Sunday of Matthew)
"Have you never read in the scriptures: 'The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner, this was the Lord's doing and it is marvelous in our eyes."
One thing we must realize is that, as the Holy Fathers and Holy Scripture teach, only the Holy Spirit can reveal to us who Christ is for "no one knows who the Son is but the Father and no one knows who the Father is but the Son - and those to whom the Son wants to reveal it." (Luke 10:22) We can learn about him from Holy Scripture, but to know him calls for a relationship with the Living Christ that can only develop in a heart that is pure, cleansed of everything false and foreign to God.
We learn today that Christ is the chief cornerstone, that is, he is the One around whom everything revolves. From Scripture we also learn that he is the only-begotten Son of the Father and that he and the Father are one. "If you have seen me," Jesus says to Philip, "you have seen the Father." But it is one thing to know these truths and it is quite another thing to know the Truth himself.
Jesus says to the Pharisees, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life, but do you not know that the Scriptures speak of me?" There is only one source of eternal life and the Scriptures speak of him, but they are not him. They point to him, but cannot replace him. Without an intensive, interior spiritual life, that is, the conscious purifying of heart and mind and the development of intimacy with God, the Holy Scriptures cannot reveal to us the One of whom they speak.
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." Cleansing our hearts opens the eyes to see things are they really are. This includes the understanding Holy Scripture. Hear what the Holy Fathers and teachers of the Church have to say about reading Scripture. St. John Cassian writes, "To penetrate to the very heart and marrow of the heavenly words, and to contemplate their hidden and deep mysteries with the heart's gaze purified, can be acquired neither through human science nor through profane culture, but only by purity of soul..." and "If you wish to attain to true knowledge of the Scriptures, hasten to acquire first an unshakeable humility of heart. That alone will lead you, not to the knowledge that puffs up, but to that which enlightens, by the perfecting of love."
When we come to see that our hearts and minds are not pure, that our humility is not "unshakeable," and that we are in need of a very deep cleaning, then we can actually get somewhere. The first sermon of Christ began with the word "repent." If we begin to look deeply into our own hearts we will find the impurities: pride, hatred, anger, fear, lust, bigotry, greed, desire. We will find our idols and false gods: ego, fortune, fame, our attachments and aversions. We will see that their roots are deep and there is much to be done before we reach purity of heart and mind. What we see is only the tip of the iceberg. Impurity blinds us to reality. It coats our eyes so that when we read Scripture we see what we want to see, not what is really there. We find in Scripture a comfortable Savior who fits our descriptions of what a Savior should be, not who he really is: the Christ who would challenge us, our beliefs and opinions to the uncomfortable core.
There are people whose hearts and minds are purer; whose eyes are much clearer. We need their help. The Orthodox Church has never believed that the Bible is all that is necessary. The whole of Church Tradition is necessary. Scripture is in the interpretation, not in the reading. It is in the interpretation that we get into trouble.
Here is an example of what can happen when the eyes of spiritual perception are opened. The Scripture comes alive with preciously unknown depth. Origen said that there are levels of Biblical interpretation. Today let's dig a little deeper into one verse. I did not come up with this myself of course. My mind is not very clear. It comes from the experience of a French Orthodox priest and his book COMPASSION AND MEDITATION.
When Jesus speaks to the Samaritan Woman and tells her there is a time coming when "the true believers will worship in spirit and in truth" there is a depth to those words I had never seen. The word for "spirit" ("pneuma" in Greek) also means "breath" like "ruach" does in Hebrew. And the word for truth in Greek ("alethia") comes from the word "lethe" which means "forgetfulness." Add the "a" prefix and you have a word meaning "unforgetfulness," or "awareness" or "mindfulness". So, the true worshippers will worship with the "breath" and with "awareness." This is the root of hesychasm, the Orthodox way of meditation and union with God. Observing the breath leads us into our own depths and into the present moment where all things are possible for you cannot breathe in the past or the future, only in the present. "Remember God," writes St. Gregory the Theologian, "more often that you breathe," and, as I like to add, at least as much. "Awareness," "wakefulness," and "mindfulness" means to be fully conscious and focused on the object of prayer without distraction by thought or emotion. The words "spirit and truth" now take on a more specific and practical character. "Prayer," says St. John Chrysostom, "is the laying aside of thoughts," or perhaps better said, distractions.
We need to reevaluate our spiritual condition often and honestly. The path to authentic faith calls for the purification of heart and mind and of openness to hear the Word of God new each and every time we read it. The Holy Spirit can only reveal Christ and the meaning of Holy Scripture to us if our minds are completely opened and the windows of perception are wiped clean. "Each of us," writes St. John of the Cross, "is called to cultivate an inner garden in which the Divine Word may grow and flourish." John refers here not to mere words written in a book, but to the Word of God himself.