The Way of Detachment
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 19, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.
The Reading is from Matthew 19:16-26
The way the young man addressed Jesus met with a mild rebuke. He calls him “Good Teacher” and the Lord replies, “Why do you call me good? There is only one who is good and that is God.” Jesus is referring to the Father from who all goodness comes. Jesus always defers to His Father.
The Lord’s response reminds us of the Letter to the Philippians where Paul quotes what many believe was a hymn from the church’s worship. It speaks of the Lord’s humility the same we in the Gospel today.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
That is from the NIV translation. But other translations say that Christ “emptied himself.” I like that better, especially with our Gospel reading today because what Jesus is calling the young man to do is precisely that, to empty himself.
We should note that the commandments Jesus lists today all have to do with how we relate to one another. Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness against your neighbor. Honor your father and mother, (to which I always add, if parents want to be honored, then they must act honorably). Just an aside. And “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
All that is well and good, but salvation cannot be earned through obedience to the law or any other way. It is a gift. That is why Jesus tells his disciples when they ask, “Then who can be saved?”, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
The young man trumpets his righteousness the way many do. “I have obeyed those commandments from my youth,” trying to use the law to his own advantage. Been there, done that. I’ve got what I need. Now what?
Let me tell you a story. My grandmother lived in Erwin, TN, an evangelical heaven. One day a knock came on the door and when she opened it, there was an evangelical preacher of some kind who began to preach at her. The bottom line of his message was, “I have not sinned in 35 years!” To which she deftly replied, “Well, you just did.”
The young man, I suppose, expected that there might not be anything else. But there was. And here is where Jesus throws him out of his self-righteous comfort zone. In fact, he practically blows it up!
“There is one thing you lack,” he says. “Sell all your possessions, give to the poor, and follow me.” All of a sudden we are faced with a new way of thinking. Faith in God is not to be used for our own advantage, but for the good and welfare of others. If we are blessed with possessions, it is in order to give them away.
The young man. may have kept the letter of the law, but he did not keep the spirit of the law because I think that he did not know it.
It all boils down to this: he had failed to understand the heart of the law. Had he been able to say yes to Jesus that day, he would have heard the Word of Truth and learned the first and greatest commandment for Jesus puts it plainly: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” It is implicit in the Ten Commandments, but in the Lord’s mouth it is crystal clear.
Without love, we are nothing, no matter how many laws we obey and how many good works we accomplish. Love is the spirit of the law and detachment that leads to emptiness is the wide open door to eternal life. Unless we are willing to empty ourselves, we will never understand these things.
This is how the Gospel is made visible to the world around us. We empty ourselves and offer all that we have, all that we are, as gifts to the world just as Christ emptied and offered himself. As the song says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another as I have loved you.” And Christ is also clear about something else. “If you love only those who love you, what good is that?” The love of God extends in all directions to all people or it is not Christian love.
“…Christians, then, let us detach ourselves from all earthly things,” writes John of Kronstadt. And Meister Eckhart echoes this same teaching, “He who would be serene and pure needs but one thing, detachment.” And when you read The Ladder of Divine Ascent you will find that the second rung of the Ladder is detachment.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)
Detachment sets us free from the shackles of this world and that is a most wonderful thing. Through detachment we become like Christ who gave himself for us.
Unless we are empty we cannot see the broad and glorious expanse of heaven that embraces the whole of the cosmos and beyond.
When we are attached and bound to the things of this world, our vision becomes too narrow for heaven. We try to make heaven our own little possession and that can never be for heaven is expansive. It is the abode of the infinite God. Wherever God is, there is paradise and he is everywhere.
Let us then follow the commandments of our Lord and freely and willingly deny and empty ourselves, stretch out our arms as he did upon the Cross, and embrace everyone and everything, just as he did, for that is way that leads to life.