Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Martyrdom of Not Defining Ourselves by Our Passions and Sins: Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost and the Sixth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 9:6-11; Luke 8:26-39
             A great deal is at stake in how we understand ourselves.  How others see us is up to them, but the self-definitions that we accept will shape us all profoundly.  If we identify ourselves in ways that obscure what it means to be a human person in God’s image and likeness, our spiritual vision will be out of focus.  But if our eyes are opened to the truth, we will be able to see clearly as we pursue the healing of our souls.
The wretched man in today’s gospel lesson identified himself to Christ as “Legion” because so many demons tormented him that he had lost any sense of his true self.  He did not even live a recognizably human life, as he had dwelt alone and naked in a cemetery for a long time.  The Savior’s mercy for this fellow was so profound that He took the initiative in giving him his life back.  The transformation was so shocking that the people of the region asked Christ to leave, for they were profoundly disturbed to see the man “clothed and in his right mind.”  He understandably wanted to go away with the Lord, for it would have been quite difficult for people to learn to relate to him as a neighbor and not as a dreaded monster.  He must also have been embarrassed by his former state.  Christ refused, however, and told him to “Return to your home, and declare all that God has done for you.”  Surely, there could be no greater sign of the Lord’s saving power than the witness of someone so visibly restored to the dignity of a child of God.
We must resist the temptation to think that such an extraordinary account has little to do with us.  The Lord’s deliverance of the demon-possessed man is a sign of His healing mercy for all humanity.  The Son of God became a human person in our world of corruption in order to liberate us all from living naked among the tombs.  Our first parents stripped themselves of the divine glory through prideful disobedience; that is when we became enslaved to the fear of death, which is the wages of sin.  Instead of fulfilling their basic calling to become more like God in holiness, they looked for fulfillment in gratifying their self-centered desires.  Such passions easily distort our sense of what it means to be ourselves, for we tend to accept as our standard whatever seems to come naturally in our world of corruption.  We may not call ourselves “Legion,” but all too often we are not even aware of how our thoughts, desires, words, and deeds hinder us from embracing more fully our true identity as those called to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  We will find our true selves only by uniting ourselves in holiness to Christ from the depths of our hearts, for He is the New Adam Who embodies what it means to be truly human in the divine image and likeness.
Doing so means that we must deliberately reject the temptation to define ourselves in terms of our passions, temptations, and sins.  It means that we must turn away from the idolatry of making a false god in our own image in order to justify ourselves in believing and living however we want.  What is functional in fulfilling our self-centered desires in this world of corruption has nothing in   common with what is necessary for gaining the spiritual clarity to embrace the restoration and fulfillment of our humanity in Christ.  As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the one “who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly” and the one “who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  The more we unite ourselves to Christ in His great Self-Offering, the more fully open we will be to His healing of our souls.  Doing so requires the sacrifice of taking up our crosses as we die to the distortions of self that have become second nature to us.  Doing so requires a form of martyrdom in which we struggle to bear witness to the Savior’s victory over the power of sin and death in His glorious resurrection.  That is precisely what the formerly demon-possessed man did when, after his deliverance, he obeyed the Lord’s difficult instruction to “Return to your home, and declare all that God has done for you.”
Today we commemorate the Great Martyr Artemius, a Christian and a high-ranking military official serving under the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate.  When Artemius saw the torture of two Christian priests at the order of the pagan emperor, he boldly denounced Julian and told him, “Your death is near.” Julian then stripped Artemius of his military rank and had him brutally tortured.  The Lord appeared to Artemius in prison, healing him and strengthening him to endure further abuse before he was beheaded.  The wicked emperor Julian soon died while fighting the Persians, as the saint had foretold.
The Great Martyr Artemius knew that his identity was not as a servant of any empire or human ruler, but of the Lord.  He refused to allow attachment to power, success, or even life in this world to turn him away from fulfilling his vocation.  Like other martyrs, Saint Artemius was not simply a person of strong willpower, but someone so deeply united to Christ that he received divine strength to make the ultimate witness to the Savior’s victory over the very worst that the forces of evil can do.
Our paths to the Kingdom will probably be different from those of the martyrs, but the Savior empowers each of us to find the healing of our souls as we bear witness to His fulfillment of the human person in the divine image and likeness.  Christ does not call us to some vague spirituality that merely blesses people in fulfilling whatever desires they happen to have.  His Kingdom remains not of this world, even when we do our worst to distort religion into a tool for advancing the self-serving agenda of any group or individual, no matter how allegedly noble.  Until the coming fullness of the heavenly reign, there will be profound tension between the way of Christ and the way of the world.  He calls those who share in His life to find healing from corruption in all its forms, regardless of how strong our temptations may be to refuse to offer ourselves to Him fully. The journey to growth in holiness is never ending and goes to the very heart of us all.  Instead of trying to make it less demanding as we stumble along the way, we must continue pressing on as best we can, calling out humbly for the Lord’s mercy and strength as we become better living icons of His salvation.
The Christian life requires following the difficult path of taking up our crosses as we die to the stranglehold of the passions on our souls.  That is how we may all find liberation from the misery of being naked, alone, enslaved to the fear of death, and profoundly confused about our identity before God.  It is how we may stop diminishing ourselves according to the legion of our temptations and sins as we do the hard work of becoming more truly ourselves in Christ.  The martyrs refused to worship false gods and we must also, especially those that masquerade as being virtuous in the eyes of our culture.  They refused to let any attachments or inclinations keep them from making the ultimate witness to the Lord’s victory over the grave.  Their sufferings became their entryway into the blessedness of the heavenly kingdom. In the circumstances of our lives, we must do the same as we open even the darkest and more painful dimensions of our souls to the brilliant and healing light of Christ.  That is how we, like the man formerly called Legion, will find ourselves “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in [our] right mind[s].”  That is how we will become our true selves in Him.

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