Sermon for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (2017) - St. John Chrysostom

November 26, 2017

Sermon for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost (2017) - St. John Chrysostom

St. John “Chrysostom” – the Golden Mouth (349-407)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

INTRODUCTION

It has been recorded that the Apostle Paul appeared to St. John and explained to him the meaning of all of his epistles. [1] This may also be the reason that it is said that, “The mouth of Christ is Paul, and the mouth of Paul is Chrysostom.”[2] And alongside these divinely inspired events, to St. John we apply the epithet “Chrysostom,” a term meaning “golden mouth” which has even come to replace his name, at times. He was a prolific writer, being surpassed by none in volume save St. Augustine, yet being succeeded by none in the volume of his commentaries.[3] And yet the description “golden mouth” does not seem to do justice to St. John if we are only looking at the “volume” of his work or even at his rhetorical skill despite the obvious eloquence of it. The term itself would seem to indicate something more, something of depth, something that speaks to the soul of a human being, to guide our attention, indeed our life, toward higher things.

The purpose of the homily today is to demonstrate that one reason St. John is called “the Golden Mouth” is because he is a physician of souls.[4]

Concerning the medical model, Jean-Claude Larchet writes that this imagery is a “particularly adequate means of representing how our salvation was manifested” because the Fathers made frequent use of this image in their writings, it is in nearly all the liturgical texts and rites for most sacraments and is confirmed in various canons of several Councils and, in short, “has been received by the entire Tradition.”[5]

So where is his clinic, one might ask, and what are his medications. How does this relate to the oral nature of St. John being called “the Golden Mouth”?

The answer to these questions begins with the introduction to one of the last correspondences he ever had. In it, he describes his vocation as that of a physician, and his treatments come by way of the medicine of words. He writes, “But [we physicians] while staying in one place, without instruments or drugs or food or drink or money or a long journey, we drive out this sickness. How and in what way? By preparing the medicine of words…”[6]

And his clinic? It is the Church. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Saint John says that the Good Samaritan is Christ, who brings the “bruised and wounded” to the Church whose innkeeper is the Apostle Paul (and, by extension, all the priests, teachers, and minister). St. John writes as the Good Samaritan and addresses the Apostle Paul, saying,

Take care of the people of the Gentiles whom I have given to you in the Church. Since men are sick and wounded by sin, heal them, putting on them a stone plaster, that is, the prophetic sayings and gospel teachings, making them whole through the admonitions and exhortations of the Old and New Testaments.[7]

ST. JOHN’S “ART OF MEDICINE”

St. John was a physician of souls, in the clinic of the Church. His counsels are medications which heal the soul when taken correctly. Another aspect to this medical model includes St. John relying on the free action of each individual that he is talking to, being aware that they can accept or reject what he is saying, to their own harm. Although it is ultimately up to them, he uses all of his rhetorical skill to convince his listeners of the truths about which he speaks and the health that is offered in his remedies.

Two letters which further reveal that this is how St. John conceives of his vocation were written at the end of his life. The first is entitled On the Providence of God. The second is the letter written to the nun Olympias entitled, None Can Harm Him Who Does Not Injure Himself.

In the introduction of the work entitled On the Providence of God, St. John states that what he is doing through such writings is curing sicknesses of the soul which he parallels with curing the sicknesses of the body. The difference between these two occupations, he tells his listeners, is that what he offers is superior to all others. He then continues by describing why and how this is so. As patients, his listeners are asked to put his advice into practice. He tells them that the cure also contains the means by which they can be further protected from that disease in the future.

Saint John writes:

When doctors intend to treat those with a fever or those sick with some other illness, they first seek to see the afflicted ones themselves, since from far away they are unable to provide an opinion. Such is the art of medicine, and such is the nature of these illnesses… But [we] while staying in one place, without instruments or drugs or food or drink or money or a long journey, we drive out this sickness.

How and in what way? By preparing the medicine of words, which for the sick becomes all these things and better than all we have mentioned… (And he continues) Thus, having prepared this medicine, we are sending it on to everyone, and I know that everyone will benefit from the treatment, provided they pay heed with exactitude and right-mindedness to what is said.

When it concerns the body, in order to be delivered from sickness, it is usually of no little importance, and is even exceedingly important, for a sick man to find out the cause of his sickness. By discovering what it is, not only will he be released from the sickness which possess him, but afterwards he will not fall into it again, knowing what caused him to fall into it once, and guarding against it. So let us also, first of all, show those who suffer from such things where they got the disease of scandal from. If they come to know this, and if they are willing to pay heed to it scrupulously, they will be delivered from many others, and not only for the present but perpetually. For the nature of this remedy is such that it both cures the illness at hand and acts as a preventative against other diseases.[8]

In the next example, St. John writes in his introduction to the letter entitled, None Can Harm Him Who Does Not Injure Himself , that his listeners “will express great gratitude to me, as patients do to physicians when they have been relieved from the disorders which besiege their bodies.”[9] Later in the work, he asks, “how might we cure those who are thus disposed [against what he is writing]?”[10]

Throughout this work, St. John “prescribes” sobriety (nepsis), the correct mindset, health of soul, and virtue as being the antidotes which preserves one from the attempts of others to injure us.

In describing the life of various Biblical figures, St. John describes their health by using terms such as “nobility of soul,” their bravery, temperance, watchfulness, and many other virtues. St. John says that it was by adhering to these virtues and maintaining them, that they were are not injured in their souls despite what was done to them.

He writes:

What then is the virtue of man (ie. the evidence of a healthy soul ed.)? Not riches that you should fear poverty: nor health of body that you should dread sickness, nor the opinion of the public, that you should view an evil reputation with alarm, nor life simply for its own sake, that death should be terrible to you: nor liberty that you should avoid servitude: but carefulness in holding true doctrine, and rectitude in life. [11]

Building on this foundation of the description of the healthy soul, he describes Lazarus, in a very lengthy passage, illustrating how this healthy individual responds to his destitute situation. He writes,

For if generally speaking poor men, when they see rich men, are consumed with envy and racked by malicious ill-will, and deem life not worth living, and this even when they are well supplied with necessary food, and have persons to minister to their wants; what would the condition of this poor man have been had he not been very wise and noble hearted, seeing that he was poor beyond all other poor men, and not only poor, but also infirm, and without any one to protect or cheer him, and lay in the midst of the city as if in a remote desert, and wasted away with bitter hunger, and saw all good things being poured upon the rich man as out of a fountain, and had not the benefit of any human consolation, but lay exposed as a perpetual meal for the tongues of the dogs, for he was so enfeebled and broken down in body that he could not scare them away? Do you perceive that he who does not injure himself suffers no evil? For I will again take up the same argument.

For what harm was done to this hero by his bodily infirmity? Or by the absence of protectors? Or by the coming of the dogs? Or the evil proximity of the rich man? Or by the great luxury, haughtiness and arrogance of the latter? Did it enervate him for the contest on behalf of virtue? Did it ruin his fortitude? Nowhere was he harmed at all, but that multitude of sufferings, and the cruelty of the rich man, rather increased his strength, and became the pledge for him of infinite crowns of victory, a means of adding to his rewards, an augmentation of his recompense, and a promise of an increased requital. For he was crowned not merely on account of his poverty, or of his hunger or of his sores, or of the dogs licking them: but because, having such a neighbour as the rich man, and being seen by him every day, and perpetually overlooked he endured this trial bravely and with much fortitude, a trial which added no small flame but in fact a very strong one to the fire of poverty, and infirmity and loneliness.[12]

CONCLUSION

Throughout these examples, we see that St. John’s concern is to instruct us in the Christian virtues by which our souls become healthy. His counsel is meant to enable his listeners to withstand the assaults of the devil who, like a lion, seeks to destroy their souls.

Moreover, from the perspective of the patient, it is a view to their transformation by their own choices after listening to him. Health of soul is possible as he demonstrates in the example of Lazarus above. You can be transformed. You can love. You can be filled with philotimo.

Saint John, the Golden Mouth, spoke the “word of truth” in such a way that has withstood the test of time, even outside of the Church, yet his highest worth is in the healing of souls through his words. John spoke spiritual words by which to convince mankind of their sin and the worth of the heavenly life lived here on earth and mankind’s ability to achieve it. This physician of souls, healed wounds and applied medicines from his place in that space and time up to the present moment, and throughout the world, like a beacon illumining the whole world.[13] Truly, St. John is the Golden Mouth.

Through your prayers, St. John Chrysostom, may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us. Amen.


[1] Mitchell, Margaret M. The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation. (Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 2002), 33, n. 112
[2] Ibid.
[3] Cf. note 15
[4] Though one can see the relationship of this to the Fathers’ writings in The Philokalia, I owe this insight to Professor Wendy Maher, though we would differ on the historical development and St. John’s place in that. On her academia.edu site see The Persistence in Late Antiquity of the Medico-Philosophical Psychic Therapy and Shaping the Sick Soul: Reshaping the Identity of John Chrysostom
[5] Larchet, Jean-Claude. Therapy of Spiritual Illness: An introduction to the ascetic tradition of the Orthodox Church. (Montréal: Alexander Press, 2012), 1:6.
[6] “On the Providence of God”, in The Orthodox Word. (Platina, Vol. 50, Nos 1-2), 11-12.
[7] Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos. Orthodox Psychotherapy: The science of the Fathers. 2nd ed. (Levadia: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 2012), 29-30.
[8] The Orthodox Word. (Platina, Vols 50, Nos 1-2), 11-12.
[9] Ascetical Homilies, Stephens, Rev. W.R.W. (trans.), in NPNF, 1st series. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 9:271f.
[10] Ibid., 9:276f.
[11] Ibid., 9:272ff-273f.
[12] Ibid., 9:278ff-279f.
[13] Troparion to Saint John Chrysostom.




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