Is the Orthodox Church a cold, worldly organization, or the source of true light, theology, Grace, and Uncreated Energy of the Holy Spirit in the world?
A sermon on the Gospel reading1 for the Second Sunday of Matthew (Mt. 4:18-23), written and delivered in 1996.
First comes the calling of the Lord: “Come, follow me”. Then comes the choice: to follow or not to follow. The disciples, the two pair of the first disciples called by the Lord to follow Him, did not hesitate for a moment: “Immediately”, notes the holy evangelist in both instances, they left everything: nets, fishing boat, house, relatives—everything—to obey the gentle command. If we ask ourselves what we should do with our life, the only answer is to obey today the call of the Lord, and, leaving everything behind us, to follow Him—not only without reluctance, but joyfully, with great eagerness, longing and love. Here is the golden rule. Here is the secure way to reach salvation.
I invite you, my dear Christians, to think for a moment: what would you do if you were in the place of the two pair of brothers the Lord called. Would you spring up, no questions asked, as the disciples did, or would you “look into” the situation, asking a few questions, like, “Sure, I will follow You, Lord. But what’s in it for me?” Or “You know, I will follow, Lord, if You will…, when You will…, as long as You will…” Or worse: “Gladly, Lord, but show us who You are. We believe in You, but… perform for us a tiny miracle, so that we can make absolutely sure”. Or, “We’ll follow, Lord, but do You have any guarantees for us? Life today is demanding, You know…” Or “Sir, can I follow You, but not just right now. How about tomorrow? No. We are invited by our Savior Jesus Christ to follow Him today, now, without reservations and doubts, without any ulterior motives and “deals”. We must act today, not tomorrow.
Beloved in the Lord: The Lord calls us today with the command: “Come, follow me”. There is something, however, which hinders us from following Him. What is it? It is the world, and the love of the world, our attachment to it. You can’t be friendly with the world and at the same time be friends with the Lord. If you love the one, then you will hate the other. St. James says: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:4) You see, the world opposes the Lord and His will. That’s why St. James elsewhere says: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27). So as long as we remain hooked to the world we cannot follow the Lord. We remain captives, imprisoned, bound, enslaved.
The Lord calls us all to let go of the world and of our attachment to it. As a rocket develops great speed and escapes from the earth’s gravitational force and carries the space capsule into space, so the Lord calls us to escape the gravitation of the world and to reach the heavenly spheres. The Lord does not call us to escape physically the world (cf. 1 Cor. 5:10), that is, that all of us become hermits, anachorites, monastics; but to distance ourselves from the world and what it stands for. When we begin to put off and throw away whatever keeps us attached to the world, then we are freed, or rather the Lord comes to fulfill, to complete, to fill the void within us.
What relationship does the Lord want us to have with the world? “Those who deal with the world [be] as though they had no dealings with it” (1 Cor. 7:31), says St. Paul. What does that mean? That we should use the things of this world, without being dominated by them. Eat to feed your body because of its weakness – do not gorge yourself. Eat to live – don’t live to eat. Remember also the poor and the needy. If you are married, let your conjugal relations be pure, clean, honorable, in the fear of the Lord – do not forget that there should also be a time for prayer and fasting and continence.
Let us then crucify our flesh and its passions, let us deaden ourselves to the world (cf. Gal. 6:14), so that the infection and pollution of the world won’t touch us. We can follow Christ only when we abandon everything, when we rid ourselves of every attachment to anything and anyone, and we give ourselves entirely to Christ–as the disciples did. “Let us commit ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God” – “no strings attached”. God is the same God of the Old Testament, a jealous God, demanding: You shall have no other gods but me. You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might, and with all your mind. Not 90%. Not even 99%. But 100%!
At the ceremony preceding holy baptism, the Service for the Making of a Catechumen, there is an insistence on our commitment to Christ. The Catechumen is turned westward, and he is asked a triple question if he intends to renounce Satan, and all his works, and all his worship and all his angels and all his pride, followed by another triple question if he has done so. Then, after spitting on him, the Catechumen is turned eastward, and with the same insistence he is asked three times if he intends to enlist with Christ. Having answered in the positive, he is then asked again three times: “Have you enlisted with Christ?” have you attached yourself to the army of Christ?
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ: Have we committed ourselves to Christ? Have we enlisted ourselves in Christ’s army? We have! But in words or in deeds? Are we just hearers of the Lord’s commandments or also doers? Do we truly follow the Lord? Being a follower is not an easy thing, especially in today’s society. Today we don’t want to be followers; we want to be leaders, chiefs, head honchos. “Lord, why don’t You call us to be leaders–like You! The whole world wants us to be leaders, not followers; successful people, not failures. That’s what we want to be. Your call, Lord, to be followers is somewhat old-fashioned, don’t You think? How are we going to move forward this way, Lord? We have just entered a new millennium. We break new frontiers every day; we make new advances. This business of discipleship, of obedience and submission belongs to other times, to a different era. Our peers will laugh at us, like some people without initiative, without drive and imagination”.
It is true, my dear brothers and sisters, that to follow someone is an anachronism; it is not fashionable. Society today rewards, honors, and respects so much the first one in a race, whether in athletics, in the academic field or business endeavor, in whatever human attainment, that to come in second place is equivalent to having failed. In a society where liberty, freedom, independence, being your own boss, are the highest ideals, to preach discipleship, followship, obedience, runs the risk not only of being ignored, but derided at that, jeered at and at best turned the back at. “We don’t want anyone to rule over us” (cf. Lk. 19:14).
Every once in a while I receive The Encourager, the paper of the local Baptist church. Occasionally I find some good things in it. So much so, I will quote the following from the July issue. “The liberty which democracy allows is a very wonderful thing. It is also a very fragile thing. When liberty becomes license it becomes as much a danger as a blessing”. We all see it. An unbridled expression of one’s right to free speech is our doom. Witness the protection the supreme court has extended to flag burners, to pornographic material circulating in the electronic media, to the rights afforded by the state to homosexuals, to the Ku Klux Clan, and so on. This democracy of ours has turned into a turf of the specialized interests and the vocal minorities — an oligarchy of the lobbyists and their clients. We have only seen the tip of the ugliest face of the most democratic institution on earth, ochlocracy (the rule of the mob), defended officially under the first amendment.
Values and morality no longer matter. One value is as good as another. One life style is as good as another. They are merely different, or simply a matter of personal choice. Everyone should be free to do his own thing. It is called self-actualization. If the young ones are eventually going to experiment with drugs and be promiscuous, at least let’s provide for them a safe environment — just tell them to be careful and to act responsibly. If we are perverts we will demand from society to accept our pervertness, called euphemistically “life-style”. “We’ll demand from the state to sanction our abomination, called “alternate relationship”. We’ll even stand before God and, why not, ask for His blessing. Many so-called churches are willing partners, blessing such “relationships.” Why not? God is forgiving, God is understanding, God is compassionate”. Isn’t that nice? “Why change? We are comfortable the way we are. We want to be ‘just the way we are’. We want others to accept us ‘just the way we are’. We want even God to accept us ‘just the way we are’”.
The world extols self-actualization, self-confidence, self-determination, self-assurance. In a word we are selfish. On the other hand the Lord wants us to seek self-abasement, self-abnegation, self-denial, and to be self-disciplined. These are the opposites of selfishness. “If we want to save ourselves, we must not have confidence in ourselves”, says Fr. Epiphanios [Theodoropoulos] (Υποθηκές Ζωής, p.111). We need to shake off that self-confidence and self-reliance we have, which is prideful and shows a lack of trust in God. Our confidence must be in God.
Months and years have passed by. One day the Teacher talks about the rewards His followers are to enjoy. Then the disciples ask a loaded question: “Lord, what of us? We have left everything behind us, to follow You – what is going to be our reward? The Lord then promises them that they will sit with Him to judge the twelve tribes of Israel. In following we become as the Leader. Wherever He is, there they will also be. May we too, my brothers and sisters, be deigned to sit with Him in His glory. Amen.
Fr.E.H. / 1996
photo by T.H.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 4:18-23
At that time, as Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left their boat and their father, and followed him. And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every infirmity among the people.
Article graphics and editing: Tony Hatzidakis