St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

The God Who Is and We Who Are

 

Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Gospel reading today is called the Farewell Prayer and comes at the end of the Lord’s discourse to his apostles in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper and is called the Farewell Discourse.

The Farewell Discourse is punctuated several times by a reiteration of what is called the Lord’s “New Commandment”: “Love one another as I have loved you.”  The “new” part of that commandment is not “love one another.”  There was nothing “new” about that.  The “new” part was the how of it.  “As I have loved you.”  That was new.

“As I have loved you” means that we, like Christ, are to love one another and the whole world just as he did and does, completely, wholly, without bias, without precondition and all the way to death, if necessary, like Christ. Nothing less. That is the way to love as he loved.

The last part of the Farewell Discourse is called the High Priestly Prayer.  Jesus prays this prayer for his disciples as he awaits arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In this time of intense suffering the Savior prayed for them that they be united as Christ and his Father are united and protected.  The prayer by extension is for us as well, for the Lord said, “if they persecute me, they will also persecute you.” And so it was and has been throughout history.

He did not, however, countenance fighting back.  Jesus was not politically obsessed as so many of his followers are these days. He did not whine about his coming suffering or when he was being tortured and crucified. The author of John makes it quite plain that he could have called legions of angels down to rescue him, but, of course, he did not.  And if we are to be like him, we must do as he did.  The only weapon the Lord allows to his followers is compassion.  When we feel wronged we are not commanded to fight back, but to lean in.  The “burning coals” he tells us we should heap on our detractors are the burning embers of love.

I pray that if I must face persecution someday, that it will not be because I provoked it by being intolerant, arrogant and hateful, but because I loved too much, gave too much, sacrificed too much, because I was a peacemaker not an agitator.  We would not be suffering for the sake of righteousness if we are being merely childish and cowardly and utterly intolerable.  The Gospel may be difficult and radical, but we must not preach it at the expense of goodness.

I fear that many have turned their backs on Christianity for the simple reason (among others) that we have failed to be Christ to them, not because they have rejected God, but because they rejected us!  I remember Dr. Kalomiris’ statement that he did not believe that there were really any true atheists, but simply people who despise the God they have been taught to believe in.  So, we must be very careful not to misrepresent God by advancing a gospel of egos and personal agendas.

Orthodox theology begins with the truth that God cannot be known. He is known only when we enter communion with him.  We begin not by saying what God is, but what God is not, for no words can encompass him and no definition define him.  We approach by way of negation and so all our positive words must be seen as metaphors and not as descriptions. That is why Paul spoke to the philosophers not in definitions, but in a broad statement akin to poetry, “in him we live and move and have our being.”

And the Church’s prayer to the Holy Spirit mystifies us as we pray to the One who is “everywhere present and filling all things,” as if union with God is a given that we have not yet realized and think we must work to attain.  And even more that does not include anyone, even our enemies, which, of course, it does.

If we have enemies outside of us, then we must be sure that there are enemies inside of us, parts of ourselves we do not like and will not allow into our consciousness. As it is outside, so it is inside. We are blinded by the logs in our own eyes.  To see another person as an enemy is a projection of the way we see ourselves.  And this projection also includes how we envision God. So we must come to know him as he is and not how we think he us and we must come to know ourselves as we are not as we think we are. In doing one we also do the other. What then is the path?

Sister Joan Chittister writes, “There is no way to ‘get’ God. God is already with us. We…grow into the God who is already with us one insight, one awareness, one experience at a time.”  So, we just need to pay attention and be present to the God who is with us.  He is with us now. The God who is here has always been here and awaits our own awakening into the present.  

What must we do to know ourselves?  There are no tricks or prerequisites to gain knowledge of ourselves since we, like God, are already here as well!  We simply have to look inside and see what is there and bring the light of love and understanding to all we find within paying special attention to the tender places, to the hidden suffering we fear to touch.   This takes courage, curiosity and compassion, all divine characteristics, all gifts of the Spirit and all things which we, by the grace of the Omnipresent, All-Merciful Lord, already possess.