Sunday, June 28, 2015

How to Respond to Contemporary American Culture with the Humble Faith of the Centurion: Homily on the Fourth Sunday of the Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 6:18-23
Matthew 8: 5-13

           Especially in our time and place, no one wants to be a servant, a slave, or held accountable to anything that they did not freely choose.  We are much more likely to want to be free from all constraints with total liberty to define ourselves and live on our own terms.  The problem, of course, is that we are also susceptible to falling into delusions about who we are before God and where the paths that we follow will lead us in life.  In the name of freedom, we easily enslave ourselves to our own desires and passions in ways that make it very hard to set things right once again.  
            St. Paul reminded the church in Rome that the abuse of freedom is quite serious business, as “the wages of sin is death.” Before their conversion, his largely Gentile audience had been slaves of sin with one level of depravity leading to another.  As we have all learned by bitter experience, one sin so often gives rise to another, usually more serious than the first.  But St. Paul teaches that those who have faith in Christ have become slaves of righteousness toward the end of sanctification, holiness, and eternal life.  They will find freedom, not by enslaving themselves to disordered desires and corrupt practices, but by embracing the healing of our humanity made possible through our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  As the Church has taught from its origins, there is a path that leads to our fulfillment in Christ, that makes us more fully participants in the eternal blessedness for which He created us.  This path makes us free to share in the very life of God and to shine with the light of heaven even as we live in the world.   
            The Roman centurion in today’s gospel lesson provides an example of how to follow this path to true freedom in Christ.  He showed trust and humility so profound that the Savior said that He had not found such faith in Israel.  In other words, an officer of a pagan army of occupation, someone despised and condemned by the Jews, showed great faith in the Messiah, the one expected to fulfill the ancient hopes of the Hebrew people.  As the Lord made clear, some will begin the path to eternal blessedness from very unlikely places, as Gentiles “from east and west,” while some “sons of the Kingdom” (presumably some of the Jews) will not inherit such blessings. As was often the case, Christ’s words here must have shocked and offended many people.  He did not make Himself popular by saying such things.
            The humble faith shown by the centurion is very far from the self-centeredness that so often passes for freedom in our culture.  First of all, this fellow cared about his lowly servant so much that he risked embarrassment, if not something worse from his own superiors, by asking for Christ’s help.  But he was not ashamed to lower himself to be point of being dependent on the aid of this Messiah.  He also confessed his sinfulness publicly by telling the Lord that he was unworthy to have Him enter his home.   Think about how astounding that statement was from a Roman officer to a Jewish rabbi, a person quite far beneath him in every way according to the standards of the empire that he served.   In this man’s humility, he had the spiritual clarity to know that Christ needed simply to say a word from a distance in order to heal the sick servant.  He had the humble faith necessary to follow the path to freedom from sin and death.   And because of that, the Lord granted his request and used him as an example of those from all over the world, even hated Gentiles, who would share in the heavenly banquet with the great patriarchs of the Old Testament.  Remember that Jews would never eat with Gentiles, but here is Christ predicting that some Gentiles will dine with the founding figures of the Hebrew people in the coming Kingdom—while some of the Jews will be shut out of the celebration.  What a radical and disturbing thing to say.
            We all need the humble faith of the centurion in order to respond in a spiritually healthy way to cultural trends in our society.  A great many things are legal, accepted, and even celebrated in our culture in the name of freedom that the Body of Christ does not bless as being paths to greater righteousness. Our faith teaches that using freedom contrary to God’s purposes does little more than weaken us spiritually and enslave us even more to corrupting passions and unholy desires. That is true in all areas of life, including sexual behavior, regardless of our particular temptations. The abuse of freedom makes us even more the slaves of sin. If we want to be faithful Christians, we must use our liberty to live in accordance with God’s purposes for us, not in ways contrary to them.
             The Supreme Court has made civil marriage between persons of the same sex legal throughout the United States. The Orthodox Church does not approach marriage in terms of arguments about civil rights or the principles of the American Constitution, but in terms of salvation.  Hence, the Church blesses only the marriage of one man and one woman for the growth of the spouses in righteousness as faithful servants of Jesus Christ, Who said "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matt 19:4) That is how the eternal Word of God, Who created us male and female in the divine image and likeness, spoke of marriage.
            St. Paul wrote something very similar to the Ephesians (5:31-32): “’For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Along with many other types of sin, St. Paul describes desire for members of one’s own sex as a sign of humanity’s rebellion against God. (Rom. 1: 26-27)  And, of course, the union of man and woman is the only  kind of human relationship blessed with the capability of fulfilling God’s ancient commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” bringing forth new life from the personal union of the spouses. (Gen. 1:28)  There is no basis in the Bible, the lives of the Saints, or any aspect of the Church’s tradition to bless other forms of marriage. 
How we approach the union of man and woman is part of the ancient and unchanging faith of the Orthodox Church, which we accept with the humble faith of the centurion.   He knew that he was unworthy to have Christ visit his home, and we are unworthy to take it upon ourselves to change the holy mystery of marriage or any other dimension of the path to the Kingdom that the Lord has given us.   Like the centurion, we may risk losing social standing or popularity due to faithfulness to the way of Christ.  We must remember, however, that Christians have sacrificed to follow the Lord from the very beginning of the faith.  Think for a moment about our suffering brothers and sisters in Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East, literally becoming martyrs and refugees because of their steadfast commitment to the Lord.
We must not feel sorry for ourselves due to changes in civil laws about marriage, but instead remember that Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world.  He calls us to become a city on a hill—a beacon in the night-- that attracts those who are sick and tired of slavery to sin to a new way of life, to the glorious freedom for righteousness of the children of God.  Current cultural trends demand greater faithfulness on our part, as well as vigilance against hypocrisy.     
With the humble faith the centurion, we must also remember that there is hope for every human being to enter the joy of the Kingdom.  The centurion was a hated foreigner, a despised Gentile in the army of occupation from a pagan empire.   The Romans were famous for their immorality and quite unclean from the perspective of the Jews.  But here we have Christ praising a Roman officer for his faith being superior to that of the Jews, together with a prediction that Gentiles will be guests at the heavenly banquet.  How amazing is that?  In other words, the Lord reminds us not to write off anyone, including those who presently order their lives in ways contrary to Christian teaching on matters of sex and anything else.
Judging the souls of other people is completely contradictory to the beautiful humility of the centurion.  That is God’s business, not ours, even when someone acts publically in ways contrary to our faith.  Whenever we are tempted to make ultimate pronouncements on others, and in effect to put ourselves in the place of the Lord at the Last Judgment, we are the ones who need to repent and should say the Jesus Prayer until that temptation goes away. Upholding the fullness of Christian teaching is one thing, while self-righteous judgment of particular people is quite another.  If we persist in that practice, we will shut ourselves out of the heavenly banquet.  As Christ said of the self-righteous in His day, “Prostitutes and tax collectors go into the Kingdom of God before you.”   (Matt. 21:31) Let us take that warning quite seriously.
            We should use everything in life for our salvation, for opening ourselves more fully to the healing and blessing of Jesus Christ.  Let us use current cultural trends as a reminder to become more faithful servants of righteousness, more faithful followers of our Lord on the blessed path to the Kingdom that He has given us in His Body, the Church.  We cannot control what others do and it is never our business to judge.  We must all press on with the humble faith of the centurion, trusting in Christ’s mercy as we pursue holiness in every dimension of our lives, no matter the cost or difficulty.  That is still the best way to witness for Christ in a world so terribly confused.  For if our lives do not shine forth with righteousness, no one will pay any attention to what we have to say about marriage or anything else.

            And why should they?  If we do not become living witnesses of a blessedness beyond the customs of mainstream culture, then we will have failed to manifest the joy of a Kingdom that calls all people to become who God created them to be in His image and likeness.    With the humility of the centurion, let us be faithful witnesses of what our Lord’s mercy can do with even the most unlikely guests at the heavenly banquet, including sinners like you and me. 

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