Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, August 18, 2019 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA
Today I will bring you some wisdom from the prison I visit every Monday night. I learn so much from the men of our MCI community.
First let’s call to mind a verse from the epistle reading. “Do you not know that you are the temple of the Holy Spirit?” If you put yourself in the cultural context of first century Palestine (and all the way back in recorded history), the gods were believed to dwell in temples, shrines, and other kinds of sacred geography. So, this teaching of Jesus stretches to the breaking point what came before. God is confined to nothing and no place.
Think of the Samaritan Woman at the Well to whom Jesus revealed a new way of understanding God and his relationship with his creation.
"Believe Me, woman," Jesus replied, "a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.” That is John 4:21. In verse 23 the Lord continues saying, “Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
St. Paul interprets this to mean that the temple where God dwells is us! Jesus asks us to leave behind the old ways of thinking and adopt his new and most radical understanding. Unfortunately, it seems we are still tied to the past, placing our hope in external and temporal things, rather than in the kingdom within where God dwells. Those who have more fully comprehended the teaching of Jesus, for whom the relationship with God is unmediated union, we call mystics. Carl Jung tells us that, “Only the mystics bring creativity into religion.” And I believe he is right.
So, Jesus asks us to let go of our clinging to the things of this world (even the trappings of religion) and instead to embrace the fullness of the Gospel. God is here, he is not far away. He is within us, not somewhere else looking on from a distance. He loves us with a love that is all-encompassing and that kind of love cannot ever be at arm’s length. He desires to draw us more and more into direct communion leaving behind what was good for something that is far better.
In today’s Gospel Peter looks backward. He walks on water and then remembers that this is not something people do! He accepted the invitation of Christ to come to him at first and then his mind took over from his heart and reintroduced what was familiar to him and he began to sink. He returned to the past (walking on water is impossible) and began to fear for his future (I will drown in the wind and the waves). In that present moment on the sea Jesus called him to embrace something new and creative. The Lord was calling Peter to risk everything to enter into a deeper communion with him. The invitation is being offered at all times and to everyone.
All growth demands letting go of something. At the prison last Monday night the subject of the mysterious encounter between the resurrected Jesus and Mary Magdalene came up. When she finally recognized him, and reached out to embrace him Jesus forbade it. “Do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to my Father.”
My interpretation was that Jesus did not want Mary to cling to what came before by trying to hold on to him as if nothing had really changed. Remember how he had told his disciples that it was better that he go away? Mary would have held him here on this earth forever if he had allowed her to. But this was not the Divine plan.
A new member of our prison community by the name of Malcolm raised his hand. “That makes sense. Think of Lot's wife who after leaving Sodom and Gomorrah disobeyed God's instruction not to look back. Looking back paralyzed her.” Of course, Lot's wife did look back, and we know what happened. She turned into a pillar of salt. Peter looked back” and sank into the sea. Looking back, clinging, holding on is the essence of St. Gregory of Nyssa's definition of sin as “the refusal to grow.”
All growth is letting go of the past no matter how good and opening up to Christ’s continual invitation to live a new and more abundant life. The new life Jesus promises is never imposed on us. The Lord is not behind us pushing us, he is in front of us calling us. We have but to answer.
Let me end with a little more wisdom from prison. Another inmate, John, told me that he noticed something very important. The men who get out of prison and return home, do not make it. The men who leave and go someplace new and do something different, they are the ones who succeed. Recidivism is curtailed when men are courageous enough to adopt a new life in a new place with new relationships. It is the same for us. We are all recidivists until we courageously let go of what is holding us back. Instead we return to the same old sins, the same old opinions, the same prejudices, the same bigotries, the same preferences, the same perspectives, the same grudges. As long as we do, we cannot grow.