On the Sunday of Pentecost

Sermon by Fr. Antony Hughes for Sunday, June 15, 2008

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Reading is from John 7:37-52; 8:12

 “He who believes in me, as the scripture says, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’  Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive.“ “Do you not know,” writes St. Paul, “that you are temples of the Holy Spirit?”

The question is: are there rivers of living water flowing from our hearts or rivers of something else? Are our hearts at peace or are we troubled within?  Are we at ease or anxious, happy or confused?  Do we bring joy to others?  What is coming from our hearts?  Is it compassion?  Kindness?  Patience?  Love?  Does our presence bring peace and healing to the people we meet or would it have been better had they not met us at all?   The fruit of our lives reveals much about the state of our souls.

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom poses the same question in a different way:

“Why is it that people who meet us never notice that we are limbs of the risen Christ, temples of the Holy Spirit? Why?  Each of us has got to give his own reply to this question. Let us, each of us, examine ourselves and be ready to answer before our own conscience and do what is necessary to change our lives in such a way that people meeting us may look at us and say,’Such people we have never seen. There is something about them that we have never seen in anyone. What is it?’ And we could answer: It is the life of Christ abroad in us. We are His limbs. This is the life of the Spirit in us. We are His temple. Amen.”

There is a kind of religiosity that is false and artificial. We are not interested in anything that is not completely honest.  Nor are we talking about being weird. Smiles can cover a multitude of sins, just as long hair, klobuks and prayer ropes can.  We need to look for something deeper than that.  Clothes and mannerisms do not make the saint.  Saints are authentically human and are not “playing a role” called holiness.  Saints may be characters, but they are not actors!  Rivers of living water flow deep.  To the deeply observant they are unmistakable.  Holiness cannot be faked. Sooner or later the “man behind the curtain” will be exposed and the truth will be known and the world is always better for it.  Have we not seen this throughout history over and over again?  The “great evangelist”, the new television savior, falls into public scandal!  So there must be no pretense.

A person truly filled with the Spirit is marked by absolute transparency, extreme humility, a complete lack of self-interest and  joy that cannot be shaken by anything.  A person filled with the Spirit shows no favoritism and greets everyone as if they were Christ Himself. A Spirit-filled person cannot be offended, but welcomes offense as if it were a gift from God.  A truly spiritual person is authentic. A saint speaks the universal language of compassion. Such a person is at peace with herself.  As St. Isaac of Syria said, “If you make peace with yourself, heaven and earth will be at peace with you.”  And the beloved St. Seraphim of Sarov famously said, “Make peace in your own heart and thousands around you will be saved.”  In such a person there is nothing false to be found.  If we are not at peace, then it is obvious that there is some spiritual work left to do.  If we are not at peace with ourselves, then there is something false in us.

The beginning of holiness is a heart and mind completely open to what is real both within and without.  True repentance comes when we see the truth and are willing to embrace it without excuse and without judgment.  Embracing what is is the beginning of salvation.  Jesus said, “I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness.”  The light of Christ illumines and reveals not in order to crush and condemn us, but to liberate us.  In repentance we introduce ourselves openly to Christ just as we are and we find in Him acceptance and forgiveness.  For this reason the Holy Spirit was sent: to help us see and to set us free.

Unfortunately, not all Christians practice the way of the Gospel. I had a friend in High School whose father was an alcoholic.  One morning he went into his pastor’s office and repented, literally on his knees, asking for help.  The response he got was, “We do not want your kind around here.”  Dear Lord!  Religion can be such an ungodly thing!

We must also know that while salvation is a gift freely offered, it does not mean we have nothing to contribute.  St. Paul says that we must be “co-workers” with Christ working out our own salvation “with fear and trembling.”  Thomas Merton puts it this way: “It is true that Christian sanctity is the sanctity of Christ in us: but this does not mean that the Holy Spirit will do His work in us while we remain completely passive and inert. There is no spiritual life without persistent struggle and interior conflict.”

Yes, there is much to be done and this is a particular and unique strength in Holy Orthodoxy.  The Holy Fathers and Mothers have mapped out the way to accomplish it.  In the end, of course, we will come full circle and recognize that while our work is essential, enlightenment and deification, that is, salvation,  is always a Gift.  Of course, we could discuss this at great length, but thankfully (for all of us) I will not do that.  There will be other times, I pray.  But let us leave with this quote from the great Orthodox lay theologian Olivier Clement, “In the desert [Christ] rejected the temptation of riches, magic, and power that would have drawn people after him like tamed animals. He did not come down from the cross. He rose from the dead in secret, and is recognized only by those who love him. In the Holy Spirit, he walks at everyone's side, but he waits for the response of loving faith, that Yes like Mary's, by which our freedom is set free.”