Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
In our Lectionary this week, we have the theme of Touching Godliness Through Submission. In our Gospel portion we have the sub-theme of Forsaking All to Follow Christ. St. Augustin tells us that this is a difficult passage, especially for younger believers. It doesn’t seem to make sense. We are to love our enemies, but we are to hate those who are closer to us.
The Fathers have left us some instruction on how these things are reconciled. First of all, it is not the people themselves that we are to hate. This would go against the teaching of Christ and the New Testament, rather we are to hate the relationships.
Basically, do we have greater affection for our fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, children, brothers and sisters, than for Christ? If it comes down to making a choice between offending Christ or offending our family, which do we choose? Christ calls us to forsake those relationships, to pursue him.
Second, for better understanding, the Fathers direct us to the parallel passage in St. Matthew 10.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.
They focus in on the words “more than me”. We can still have love for our family, but it must be less than our love for Christ. We remember our Lord’s words to St. Peter,
“Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these?”
“These”, who are these? The other Apostles, if anyone had a call on our affections would it not be these who walked, talked and were commissioned by our Saviour. However, we must love our Lord more than even them.
Third, this isn’t just about us. Yes, we are to forsake these and all attachments that keep us from loving Christ, but we are to look to encouraging our family to do the same. Our family is precious, and we want them to know and follow Christ to the same extent that we do. Therefore, in our Christian warfare we fight against these affections in both ourselves and our relatives.
Fourth, if we don’t forsake our inferior loves, and pursue Christ with all of our heart, we become like the man building a tower and unable to complete it or this king that is unable to win. We must count the cost and see it through to the end.
We now move on to carrying our cross. Jesus has just given us a practical example of carrying our cross – forsaking our family. There are many other ways that we can take up our cross. In other parts of the world there is actual physical suffering and even martyrdom for those who follow Christ.
For us, together with the believers who lived post-Constantine physical suffering is less of an occurrence. There are exceptions, but as a general rule, we don’t have physical suffering and martyrdom in Canada for following Christ.
St. Symeon the New Theologian addresses this issue. First, he points out that the cross follows the sacrifices of life. This tells us that we must face trials and temptations throughout this life before laying our lives down. He then references that martyrdom and tortures were common in the time before his day. He concludes with,
Now, when we through the grace of Christ live in a time of profound and perfect peace, we learn for sure that cross and death consist in nothing else than the complete putting to death of self-will. He who pursues his own will, however slightly will never be able to observe the law of Christ the Saviour.1
This is what we are to be about, putting to death in our bodies the passions, choosing self-denial as we fast, choosing to care for others when we’d rather only look after ourselves. As we say no to ourselves, we are free to observe the law of Christ. As we discussed a few weeks ago, we need to destroy the practices of the old man in our life to make room to grow and nurture the practices of Christ.
We now come to the tower and the army which we touched on briefly before. St. Cyril of Alexandria has left us some instruction on these points. What is the cost and materials of the tower? It is our zeal. We must make sure as we begin our journey to lead a glorious and blameless life that we prepare ourselves with zeal. As one has said,
My son, if you draw near to serve the Lord,
Prepare your soul for temptation.
Set your heart right and be steadfast,
And do not strive anxiously in distress.2
We also remember the words of Christ,
“And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
It is very important that we count the cost in following and make the needed preparations. It may mean that we need to spend more time in prayer and seeking God to renew our zeal. Perhaps we will need to find someone to be accountable to as we struggle against a certain passion. But in all things, let us make the necessary preparations that we can endure until the end.
We have enemies in our Christian life. St. Paul explains who these are,
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
We have other enemies as well as St. Cyril tells us,
They are the fleshly mind, the law that reigns in our members, passions of many kinds, the lust of pleasure, the lust of the flesh, the lust of wealth, and others.3
As this king needed to take count of his enemies to know how to face them, so we also need to learn the strength of our enemy to know how to face them. How do we overcome this great host against us? We will conquer believing in God we shall do courageously and trusting that he will bring to nothing those who oppress us.
Today to be his disciple we must break the attachments of this life whether they be physical possessions or relationships. We must purpose to fight against the passions and other enemies that beset us and know that in the strength of the Lord we shall conquer.
As we turn to the reading from the Prophet Jeremiah, our theme is to submit to the Master Potter. The question is if we have failed, if we have not taken inventory of the cost or the enemies against us and have loved things more than our Saviour, what are we to do now?
The whole human race had turned out bad, therefore, God through His passion made the human race perfect again. It is God the Father as the Potter remaking the human race through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.
God would not leave the human race helpless in their corruption but restored them. How much more we who have put our trust in God, when our zeal wanes, when our enemies overwhelm us, will he leave us helpless? No, he will come to our aid and in Him we shall overcome if we but submit to him.
Our sub-theme for the Psalm reading is that God knows us intimately. St. Augustin sees this Psalm as very much speaking of the incarnation. He sees that Christ was made of our nature by God, so that we might become partakers of His divine nature. The sitting and rising up, he sees as His passion and resurrection. For us the sitting is humbling ourselves in repentance and rising up in forgiveness to the hope of eternal life.
We also know that God supports and fashions us. He does this of everyone in the human race in their physical birth, but He also does it in every spiritual birth as well. In his visitation, He has supported us, that he might protect us from all evil. He has formed us for his pleasure and to serve him, and He will sustain us.
Finally, in our pursuit to touch godliness through submission, we are to submit to our leaders. We have here the example of Philemon and Onesimus. St. Paul makes a request of St. Philemon that St. Onesimus should be returned to him.
Church tradition records that he sent St. Onesimus back to St. Paul. He served St. Paul until his death and was made a Bishop and in his old age was martyred.
St. Paul in his letter very quickly identifies himself as a prisoner. He does not do that to garner the sympathy of St. Philemon, but rather to establish his authority. We, at least I, think of imprisonment as a bad thing, but this is not how the early church perceived it. It was badge of honour and authority. It meant that you had been counted worthy to suffer. Those who had suffered for Christ were given an automatic authority.
St. John Chrysostom points out how cautious and delicately St. Paul makes his request. His compassion will not allow him to force his request upon St. Philemon. St. Paul is imitating Christ in this way. God doesn’t force or tyrannise us but rules over us with compassion. He encourages us in the right way to go, but He desires that we will give ourselves to the right way in willingness with the freewill that he has given us. We also in our dealings with those under our authority must always do it with encouragement and not force.
Why is St. Onesimus precious to St. Paul? He has begotten him in the faith in the midst of being imprisoned. He was part of the forming of Onesimus in the faith. God formed us physically and spiritually. It is something to think of how much more we are precious to God than Onesimus was to Paul. God will look after us just as Paul is looking out for St. Onesimus.
Finally, St. Paul makes his request. He desires that, Onesimus who has been begotten in his imprisonment, would come to assist him. In this way good can come out of evil. (Onesimus had sinned in running away.) In the same way as Joseph’s brothers had intended evil in selling him and good had resulted, so good can come here as well. God delights in turning evil to good.
Today then, let us fight against the affections of relationships both in ourselves and in our families. We must look to preparations in following Christ are we maintaining a relationship with Him that will nurture zeal that will last to the end? Have we reckoned the force of enemies against us – evil spirits, passions, self-will etc. Are we looking to God for strength to overcome? Are we denying ourselves that we might overcome and follow the law of Christ? We must also be quick to listen and follow the direction of our authorities as St. Philemon did for St. Paul.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
~ Fr. Matthew
Philemon and Apphia, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55642 [retrieved September 13, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Philemon_and_Apphia.jpg.
2 Scripture taken from the St. Athanasius Academy Septuagint™. Copyright © 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 242