Image and False Image


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 18, 2016 at St. Mary Orthodox Church.

Holy Orthodoxy has a vision of human nature than is unrelentingly positive.  This vision originates in the biblical reference from Genesis 1:26, "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”

Because this is so, to know the truth of who we are, is to know God. St. Clement of Alexandria wrote that, "…if one knows himself, he will know God; and if he knows God, he will become like God."  What an amazing statement!  To know who we are is to know God and to become like God.  Instead of looking outside ourselves for the God who is out there somewhere, Clement directs us to look within.  St. Augustine did as well.  Here is how Augustine put it.

“You were within me,” he writes, “and I was outside myself, and I sought you outside myself.” 

When we were in Dublin a couple of weeks ago we went to the Bloom restaurant for dinner. It was named after the main character in James Joyce’s ULYSSES, one Mr. Bloom. Joyce makes a most insightful reference to him, one that reveals the main problem most of us share with him. “Mr. Bloom lived a short distance from his body.”  Most of us live, in fact, a short distance from ourselves.

How is this possible?  Motivated by fear and inspired by desire we create for ourselves an image that we would like to present to the world.  In this way we attempt to, as Jesus puts it, “gain the whole world.”

What kind of image? Perhaps it is an image that we want to appear to be practically perfect in every way (like Mary Poppins), smart, happy, adequate to every situation. Or, we may choose, if our fear and shame are very great, to create an image that is timid and inadequate, like a frightened animal or an abused child. It depends on our particular conditioning, things over which we, for the most part had no control. Either way, we try and keep the truth of who we really are hidden from the world and from ourselves and we live a fragmented and disconnected life, which is, in every case, a primary cause of deep suffering.

And if we fear to look within and meet ourselves and try and keep others from seeing the truth of our weakness, how much more will we fear that God will?  We are like Adam and Eve hiding the shame of their nakedness in the Garden.  Of course, God sees all, doesn’t he? We cannot really hide from him, try as we might. And the beautiful thing is that we don’t have to. We can come to our senses like the Prodigal and stand before him vulnerable and open and here’s why. I quote from Fr. Jean Philipe’s lovely book, INTERIOR FREEDOM.

"The person God loves with the tenderness of a Father, the person he wants to touch and transform with his love is not the person we would have liked to be or ought to be. It's the person we are." 

Jesus wants us to know something about God.   He is a loving and gracious father, more than any of us fathers could ever hope to be.  Speaking of this the Lord says, "You fathers--if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead?” (Luke 11:11) When we ask, seek and knock, God will always give what we most need and that is, compassion.

It is the will of God to touch and transform us with his compassion and to reveal us as the beautiful image and likeness that we truly are.  The power of repentance is that by voluntarily giving up our false image and revealing ourselves to him, we cooperate in the divine transformation.  St. Isaac calls the false beliefs we hold about ourselves “impurity.”  Letting go of them we come to purity of heart and Isaac tells us that when we do, we will see the heaven that is “within you” and “the angels and the Lord of the angels.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

Gradually, the protective skins with which we have clothed ourselves, fall away and something beautiful appears from under the rubble of our lives, for who we are is beautiful, as beautiful as God, for, remember St. Clement’s words, when we see ourselves we see God. Thomas Merton also picks up this theme and reminds us of this connection and of our true name.

“To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”

The end of our Gospel reading is curious “there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Kingdom of God come with power.”  Many commentators have said that Jesus refers to the coming Transfiguration when Peter, James and John see Christ, and thus his kingdom, revealed in glory. I think that is true and I think there is another meaning.  I think it also refers to anyone that awakens to and embraces the truth of God’s glorious image within. The kingdom comes with power every time a soul awakens to the truth and the glory of who we are is seen to be the same as the glory of who he is. There are some sitting right here in this church today who will see the kingdom of God come with power!