Sermon for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost (2018)

June 24, 2018

Sermon for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost (2018)

Servants of Sin, Servants of Righteousness:
A Homily on Death and Life for the 4th Sunday After Pentecost

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

Introduction

Death and the decomposition that comes with it because of the loss of life is the byproduct of sin for all of us who are of the seed of Adam. And because of death, sin is not eternal but has an end. Consequently, the sufferings we undergo for living in this fallen world, also come to an end in death. This is especially true for those who are reborn in this present life through the gift of God’s grace, for whom death is transformed into an open door leading to eternal life with God.

In the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, a portion of which we have just heard, he exhorts his readers to flee from sin and to desire that which brings eternal life.

On Romans 6:23

Along with other themes which are weaved throughout Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, (i.e. salvation being not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, the relationship between faith and the works of the Law, and the significance of Adam and Christ as the second Adam) one finds the topic of death through sin and life through Christ to come to a climax in chapter six, verse twenty-three: “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Previous to this verse, the Apostle describes the manner in which we were all enslaved to sin (1:18-32; 3:10-18; 5:10-12) but then through faith became slaves of righteousness (1:17; 3:24-31). He says, in 5:20, that the law entered into history so that the offense might abound and that sin would be seen as sin. Yet, despite how rampant and prevalent sin was, which was seen to be so through the law, God, who forever loves mankind, made his grace to abound even more by the righteousness that leads to eternal life which comes through Christ.

The Apostle then addresses the question as to whether we should continue in sin so that the grace of God may abound, so that it may be evidently present, which some people had mistakenly thought.  This is the context to which today’s passage addresses us, namely: You are freed from sin through Christ and are now servants of righteousness. Therefore, why would you choose again to sin? Do you not know what slavery to sin entails? It is estrangement from God. What estranges one from God, as the Apostle Paul earlier stated is “unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; being full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whispering, backbiting, hating of God; being despiteful, proud, boasting, inventing evil things, being disobedient to parents; being without understanding, covenant breaking, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful. (1:29-3). For whatever reason one would think that sin would be good, instead it is the opposite, it is evil, it is separation from God and ultimately will lead to the death of our souls being forever alienated from God.

“For since in general most men are not drawn so much by the promise of what is good as by the fear of what is painful…”, St. John Chrysostom writes, “so we find the Holy Apostle contrasting the gift of God with the wages of sin, that is, the cost, what you receive from the devil by offering him your sin, is death, the eternal death of your soul. You will pay the piper, as they say, to whose tune you have been dancing. But if you continue to give your heart to Jesus, you will be infused with all that imbues life.”

“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” the Apostle Paul says (Rom. 5:8). What is more, we were baptized into Jesus Christ and our former self was buried in those waters.[1] So too, when we arose from those waters, we arose in newness of life with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4). Therefore, we who have died with Christ are dead to sin and should live in it no longer, not obeying its lusts but obeying Christ unto a righteous life since we are now His servants.

What sin has done to mankind

Through Adam’s fall into sin, two things happened, writes St. Maximos the Confessor. The first is the corruption of his free will which he used to choose evil instead of good, and this is a voluntary and blameworthy sin. The second, which came about as a result of the first, was the alteration of human nature from being incorruptible to being corruptible and this, St. Maximos says, is involuntary and blameless. The reason for this second, he says, is that “God judged that it was not good for man, who has used his free choice for evil to have an immortal nature.”[2] Therefore, this evil will come to an end.

Being of the race of Adam who had fallen into sin, it is we who knew God, yet did not like to retain God in our knowledge (Rom. 1:28f) and chose not to glorify Him as God (Rom. 1:21f). Although we know the judgment of God, that those who commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same but have pleasure in them that do them, as the Apostle Paul writes (Rom. 1:32). Therefore, because of our hardness and impenitent hearts we treasure up unto ourselves wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God (Rom. 2:5).

Mind you, this is not God’s fault. Despite being born with a fallen nature, God does not blame us or hold us to account for this. But through our choices, it is we who treasure up for ourselves this wrath. As St. John Chrysostom writes: “For [God] did all, whatsoever things were fitting, and created thee with a power to discern between good and what was not so, and showed long-suffering over thee, and called thee to repentance, and threatened a fearful day, so by every means drawing thee to repentance.”[3] It is not your fault as to the nature you were given. It is not your fault as to the family you were born into. But despite these circumstances, and although you seem to have a disposition towards certain sins – don’t do it. You do have a choice.  St. John understands exactly this and says “Since we are aware of this, let us shun sin altogether, because by reason of it [God] is blasphemed… for it is not [sin] that comes to us, but we that desert to it. God has so ordered things that the Devil should not prevail over us by compulsion: since else none would have stood against his might.”[4]

What faith and Baptism have done

Despite these circumstances and an overwhelming struggle, God has not left us without a redeemer, for in due time Christ died for the ungodly (Rom. 5:6). In Christ is a new life. In Christ is our life.

Our manner of spiritual birth is twofold in that it comes to us actually and also potentially. By faith alone, St. Maximos says, we come to the baptismal font, wherein takes place the washing of regeneration, our actual spiritual rebirth, as we read in the book of Titus (3:5). It is here we acquire the “spirit of adoption” and after which we are considered to have been born through water and the Spirit, as the Apostle John says (John 3:5). In the verses previous to our reading today, Paul wrote, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). (see footnote #1)

It is this exhortation to walk in newness of life which is an appeal to the potential of our spiritual rebirth. What is lacking in our rebirth is our inclination towards righteousness, towards the will of God. As St. Maximos says, “What is lacking, therefore, in each of us who is still able to sin, is the unequivocal desire to surrender our whole selves, in the disposition of our will, to the Spirit.”[5] The spirit of adoption now lives within us and teaches us, yet we still must choose to obey.

The greatness of the love of Christ for mankind

Therefore, being freed from sin why do we want to make ourselves slaves to it anymore? Or if we have been freed from the tyranny of sin and have been given the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, how can we even give ourselves up to laziness instead of struggling to take the Kingdom of Heaven by force?

In the last year of his life, Elder Anthony of Optina instructed one of his spiritual children to write in large letters, “Don’t waste time! (exclamation mark)” and to fasten it over his “bed of illness,” as he called it, “as a steady reminder for others who still wanted to profit from his precepts, as well as for a reminder to himself.”[6]

In many places throughout his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, St. John Chrysostom notes that we have not merely been freed from punishment and perdition, had our sins remitted, obtained reconciliation but what is more we have been given gifts! Christ has given you righteousness, given you life, given you the fruit of the Kingdom, made you just, counted you worthy of immortal honours, and counted you worthy of the knowledge of God.

What is more than all of these blessings, he hints at in brief, saying, “For we ought to do everything for Christ’s sake, not for the reward, but for Him.”[7] “If there were no reward, the privilege of glorifying God were itself a glory,” he says.[8] Why, though, why is the privilege of glorifying God itself a glory and greater than being spared from Hell and given the Kingdom of Heaven and all its glory? Because, he says, “For greater than all these things is to have Christ our beloved at once and our lover.”[9]

While we were yet sinners, while we were estranged from God, while we were rebels, the Creator of the world and lover of mankind, came to His creation and His creation received Him not. He was one of us, yet without sin, and suffered hunger, thirst, persecution, and finally, death at the hands of His own creation but despite all of this and through all of this, He loved us.

Whom have I in heaven but thee?
and there is none upon earth that I desire beside thee.
My flesh and my heart faileth:
but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.
(Ps. 75:25-26)

Conclusion

“…Did we but love Christ as we should love Him, we should have known that to offend Him [whom] we love were more painful than hell. But since we love Him not, we know not the greatness of His punishment. And this is what I bewail and grieve over the most!” writes St. John Chrysostom, “And yet what has God not done, to be beloved of us? What hath He not devised? What hath He omitted?”[10]

Sin, in all of its pleasures, will only bring destruction to us. May we be patient with each other due to the many struggles we have yet to overcome in ourselves with the help of God. But may we love Christ more and more and know His exceeding love for us, for therein is our true joy, beauty, pleasure, glory, happiness. All else that we may dread – poverty, sickness, persecution, and death, all those things which we may forget are in the hands of God cannot separate us from Christ our Beloved.

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.


[1] The water of Baptism is the “water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the laver of regeneration, the renewal of the Spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life.” (cf. The Baptismal Service)
[2] “On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios,” Fr. Maximos Constas (trans.) in The Fathers of the Church. (The Catholic University of America Press: Washington D.C., 2018), 136:243; (cf. Ibid., 241-242).
[3] “Epistle to the Romans”, Schaff, Philip (ed.) in NPNF, 1st series. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 11:362f.
[4] Ibid., 11:392f.
[5] The Responses to Thalassios,” 136:110; Cf. Saint Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, Veniamin, Christopher (trans.). (Mount Thabor Publishing: Dalton, 2014), Homily 59.
[6] Sederholm, Fr. Clement. Elder Anthony of Optina. (St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood: Platina, 1994), 145.
[7] “Epistle to the Romans,” 11:367f.
[8] Ibid., 11:391ff.
[9] Ibid., 11:400ff-401f.
[10] Ibid., 11:366ff-f.




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