Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sermon Preached by Father Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 28, 2003
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
(The small group in Somerville is reading Metropolitan Anthony Bloom’s book Living Prayer, so please pardon me as I quote copiously from its pages.)
“Every encounter with God is a last judgment,” writes Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. When we come into His presence the stark difference between what He is and what we are comes sharply into focus. This is what St. Peter experiences in today’s Gospel. “Depart from me, Lord,” Peter cries, “for I am a sinful man!” How does Jesus answer?
“ Do not be afraid.”
What is it that makes Peter grovel so? It is not from an overwhelming display of power, thunder and lightening, but from the love of Christ manifested through his concern for Peter’s livelihood that puts this vignette into sharp relief. The Lord cares that Peter and his friends have caught no fish. The Lord heals, he raises from the dead, he exorcizes demons, he catches fish and he cares for the average, everyday Jane and Joe in the average, everyday, ordinary details of their lives. There is nothing about humanity that is trivial to God and there is no kindness He can perform for us that is too small. In the light of this great love manifesting itself in the huge catch of fish Peter sees something he may never have noticed before – that there is a stark and mind-blowing contrast between humanity and God and he becomes afraid. There is a seemingly insurmountable distance between us and the Lord. Allow me please to quote again from Metropolitan Anthony:
Whenever we approach God the contrast that exists between us becomes dreadfully clear. We may not be aware of this as long as we live at a distance from God…as long as his presence or image is dimmed in our thoughts and in our perceptions, but the nearer we come to God, the sharper the contrast appears.
Is this not perhaps why we choose to live lives that do not include God?
Although we may be afraid to experience the great divide between us and God it is essentially the beginning of the spiritual life. “In thy light we shall see light” and no where else. If we ever want to become who we really are, to be free and at peace, then we must risk coming close enough to the flame of God’s love to be ignited by it. This means that we will lose our lives, yes, but did the Lord not tell us that “those who would save their lives will lose them?” The life we lose will be a false one. What we gain is our true selves. The glory of God is a human being fully alive. We must become like the burning bush on Mt. Sinai: burning yet never consumed. Calling us to this fearful burning the Lord still says, “Do not be afraid.”
We need first of all to change our way of seeing reality. We must learn writes Metropolitan Anthony to behave in the presence of the invisible Lord as we would in the presence of the Lord made visible to us. This means that we need to see life lived in the continuous presence of God and as a relationship between persons: God and us. God is our neighbor and we are his. We must invest in our relationship with God as much as we invest in our relationships with our spouses, or children, or our best friends. Relationships that are not nourished with love and care die miserable deaths. To allow the relationship with God to die is the ultimate tragedy because apart from Him there is only death. To develop this relationship demands a sacrifice from God and a sacrifice from us: for God, the Cross, for us the Cross.
Again, the words of the Metropolitan, Love and friendship do not grow if we are not prepared to sacrifice a great deal for their sake, and in the same way we must be willing to put aside many things in order to give to God the first place.
An encounter with God cannot but change us for every time it is a judgment. It is a judgment of all that is false in us, all that deserves to die in us, but it is also a revelation of all that is good, lovely and worth holding on to. The problem, of course, is that we do not always know the difference. The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord . If we ask, God will show us the difference, but we are often too afraid to ask. Will I have to change? Will I have to give up too much? Will He ask of me more than I am willing to give? The answer to all these is YES, YES, YES, but still he tells us not to be afraid. His love will not destroy us, it will make us more truly alive. What we end up giving away is the cause of our individual misery: the false selves we have constructed and that have us all into slaves.
St. Peter saw himself in stark contrast to the Lord. In response he cried, “Depart from me.” The Lord always responds, no matter what the depth of the contrast, “Do not be afraid.” If the Lord could make sinful and cowardly Peter the chief of Apostles, then there surely is no limit to what he can do with us. For both St. Peter and for each of us the road is the same: relationship, transfiguration, communion.