St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Sunday of the Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council

 

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on June 16, 2013

John 17:1-13

The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus is a dangerous passage.  It directs us to consider lofty and mysterious things. It gets us to the heart of the spiritual life which is uncomfortable for us. In this prayer the Lord speaks of intimacy, oneness, communion and identification with God – not just his, but ours. 

We are not used to this because most of what we hear in church these days is about three things: morals, dogma, and belief…these days mostly morals. As if behaving correctly is what the Christian life is primarily about.  Tell that to the thief on the Cross, the Samaritan Woman, and the Woman Taken in Adultery.  They didn’t behave at all well and look what happened to them!

There are two contradictory traditions in Christianity, actually in all religion that vies for our devotion. The first is the priestly tradition, also called the Constantinian tradition. It is Church as worldly power, a legalistic, moralistic institution of rules and regulations and tyranny.  It is the religion of moralism, narrow-minded adherence to canon, and doctrine, of bruised knuckles, inquisitions, and politics. It gives lip service to spirituality, but preaches, in reality a kind of materialism.

To this traditions the Lord’s words, “My kingdom is not of this world,” are naïve. It regards the narrow path as romantic and impractical, a pious, but impossible way of life for all but the most fanatic and, frankly, unbalanced.

The other is the prophetic tradition. The prophetic tradition is mystical, experiential, and controversial. Those who embrace it are mystics and saints who became radiant with divine light, fearlessly spoke truth to power, took up the cause of social justice, taught the way of transformation through prayer and meditation, and whose lives inspired many to leave behind the world and take up their cross.  Worldly power, wealth, and reputation meant nothing to them. They took the Lord’s words, “My kingdom is not of this world,” seriously and compelled by love to follow them they became thorns in the flesh of the church and respectable society – like Jesus himself, come to think of it.

Dissatisfied with external things and knowing them to be ultimately shallow they were driven to seek tirelessly for union with God who dwells within.  “I have looked for you,” wrote a Jewish mystic, “from sunup to sundown, I have reached for You in every direction and now I must plead for Your grace like a beggar.”

These mystics often angered religious institutions and were persecuted and even put to death.  Consider the great Francis of Assisi who met with the fiercest opposition because his example inspired the youth of Italy to run after him and leave everything behind for lives of poverty, chastity, and obedience.  There was no greater threat to the Church, corrupt with wealth and power, than inspired youth who cared for neither. I think of the great Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj who was crucified for heresy and the Old Testament prophets many of whom met death at the hands of angry kings.

In our church there are many examples, Antony the Great, Seraphim of Sarov, Elizabeth the Grand Duchess, Symeon the New Theologian, Maria of Paris.  All of them took paths of devotion over power. There are many outside our tradition as well that followed and still follow this path of self-sacrifice, humility and love, serving in diverse ways the in-dwelling God.  They are yeast in the dough, salt, water, and warmth. They hold the cosmos together by the strength of their devotion. They become little christs, little gods by Grace within the One God by nature. They show us the way and invite us to come along.

The prophetic tradition is the religion of Christ. The priestly tradition is the religion of men. The prophetic tradition is the mystical path of intimacy with God, to transformation and inner healing. The priestly tradition is the call to power and is nothing but a distraction, a ruse, a delusion, a lie. The prophetic call us to a religion of Love, to a higher way of life.  The priestly tradition to a worldly kingdom that leads nowhere but to the grave like the empires that coddled it.

The mystic Thaddeus the Elder who died in the year 2003 wrote: "God is perfect, He is faultless. And so, when Divine love becomes manifest in us in the fullness of Grace, we radiate this love --- not only on the earth, but throughout the entire universe as well. So God is in us, and He is present everywhere. It is God’s all-encompassing love that manifests itself in us. When this happens, we see no difference between people: everyone is good, everyone is our brother.”  

The mystical experience is of unity with God and all of creation and is accompanied by the surprising intuition that all things are as they should be and are heading toward a final glorious conclusion. As Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well,” echoing the words of Jesus, “To the pure all things are pure.”

St. Symeon the New Theologian embodies what is for us the epitome of mystical experience. Of him it was said that he knew God so intimately that he walked with Him and saw Him face to face.  When he tried to describe it be resorted to high poetry and for speaking of it and writing about it he was rejected in his life by nearly everyone in authority. His experiences threatened theologians and bishops, monks and priests, but today he is honored among the saints with the rare title given only to two others: theologian.

We may not all reach such high states of illumination in this life. Remember it is a gift. But if we take up the Cross and follow Christ we will experience God to the degree to which each of us is capable in this life and increasingly more and more in the next.  If this is not so, and the sterile, ostentatious and corrupt priestly tradition is right, then we are of most people to be pitied. Thankfully, the mystics are there to show us, and the Holy Spirit there to guide us to things much more worthy of our devotion.