All Things Are Fulfilled in the Cross
Sermon preached by Fr Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 16, 2012
John 3:13-17 (Sunday after the Cross)
The human side of religion, its credos, rituals, and instructions is a way rather than the goal. The goal is 'to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.'
When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.
- Abraham Heschel
For much of my life I was schooled in a theology that believed in narrow minds and rigid, inflexible positions. Since we were trapped in the sterile world of biblical literalism we were not taught the value of science, psychology, and the social sciences. This attitude predominates in the religious climate of our country and I fear it is gaining strength in our own Church.
But the theophanic theology of Orthodox Christianity reveals another way, a way of openness to the fullness of the world, a way that encourages learning, a way of curiosity, creativity, and compassion that simply cannot be represented by the simplistic ideological Christianity of our time. This way is the way of repentance which means changing one’s mind. Fundamentalism resists this understanding of repentance, because of the fear that even a slight change of mind on one thing, can lead to another. When one resists changing one’s mind, then repentance is impossible.
That’s what leads me to talk about snakes. In last week’s Gospel Jesus used the image of Moses lifting up the bronze serpent on a pole in the wilderness as a symbol of the Cross. Since Christ is the one lifted up on the Cross it is unavoidable to miss the fact that Jesus is identifying himself with the serpent. But Satan appeared in the form of a serpent in Genesis! That pretty much marked snakes for good, right? Wrong. Folks, I have news for you, the devil is not a snake in the same way that the Holy Spirit is not a bird.
When the Tennessee pro football team was searching for a name a friend of my youngest brother launched a campaign to name the team the “Copperheads”. It was a brilliant and compelling campaign, but it was defeated in part because fundamentalist pastors protested. “Snakes represents the devil,” they cried. That’s biblical literalism on steroids! How silly is that? My High School team after all was named the “Blue Devils” and no one complained about that! I guess because everyone knows the devil is red. “Copperheads” was a better name than the one they chose because, to my knowledge, Titans are not native to Tennessee, but copperheads most certainly are!
Before Christ came into the world humanity expressed its deepest longings for God through symbols and metaphors and religion, just as we do. Many of those symbols are universal. They show up in all religions. Most of them even show up in the Bible itself. Parts of pagan sagas and poetry show up in the Old Testament. Look it up. It is the belief of the Church that all those symbols and metaphors, Judaic and pagan, are fulfilled in Christ.
A frequent story that repeats itself in many cultures is that of the incarnate god, born of a virgin, killed, and resurrected. As hyper-conservative convert seminarians, my friends and I trembled with anger at the very idea that these ancient stories had anything to do with Jesus. The truth is that they do! Christ fulfills them all! They are actually prophetic. That is why Olivier Clement, the great Orthodox theologian wrote, “Not a blade of grass grows outside the Church.” Christ Jesus is not a simple metaphor, but in a way he is the Great Metaphor who embodies them all.
We must not be narrow-minded and closed to the world. If we do, we become reactionaries. When we do it makes it impossible to minister the love and compassion of Christ to the world. We are too busy judging and criticizing to love. If we try and force ourselves, our children, and others into a vise that closes the mind, squeezing out the ability to think, to reason, to doubt, to question, to create ignoring the amazing expansion in human knowledge, then we become sterile and impotent and irrelevant. We become puppets of politics and fanatics.
Our young people are studying to become scientists, clinical social workers, psychologists, doctors, philosophers, and a myriad of other wonderful things and if we do not wake up to the fact that our theology is, in fact, expansive, dynamic, and creative and stop taking our cues and carrying water for those whose ideology opposes our theology with its inherent openness and creativity we will lose even more of them.
As long as our message to the world is reactionary rather than responsive we betray the spirit of the Gospel. Orthodoxy is neither liberal nor conservative. Orthodoxy is not an ideology it is the path to enlightenment and deification. “Liberal” and “Conservative” are labels for ideologies. The Church is theological. Theology is not the same as ideology. The Church is, and always has been, when true to herself, the Middle Path.
Professor Yannaras, in ELEMENTS OF FAITH writes:
Usually the invocation of orthodoxy happens with a boasting about faithfulness to what is genuine and authentic. Boasting means a demand for common recognition of and reverence for what has been handed on, but also for those people who maintain and represent it. Thus, orthodoxy comes to function as a means for justifying not so much conservative ideas as conservative people - to serve often for the psychological veiling of cowardice or spiritual sterility. Those who will not risk or cannot create something new in life fasten themselves fanatically to some orthodoxy . . . protectors of the forms, interpreters of the letter. They transform, finally, any orthodoxy whatever into a 'procrustean bed' where they mutilate life in order to make it fit the demands of their dogma.
Either Orthodoxy is, as Fr. Elchaninov states, the “element of absolute freedom” or it is not the truth for one simple reason, the truth sets us free.