Recommitting to the Gospel
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, December 6, 2020
In the year 313 AD an imperial edict proclaimed Christianity to be the preeminent religion of the empire. Something was lost in that moment. I am not the first to say it, nor will I be the last. What was largely lost was the prophetic voice of the Church. The Church was from the beginning a counter-cultural movement. It became an arm of the Imperial authority. As the people of the empire rushed to embrace the preferred faith, many fled instead to the deserts where they sought to live out the Gospel they had received through prayer and charity, isolation and silence.
The simple message of Christ and the fishermen was subsumed under the heaviness of imperial culture. The message remained, of course, for even the gates of hell cannot prevail against it, and yet it may be hard to find at times. That is, unless you really want to find it.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann notes a strange adoption of imperial language as the lingua franca of the Church. "How torturous is the 'churchly' language one must speak in Church - the tone, style, habit. It is all artificial; there is a total absence of a simple human language. With what a sigh of relief one leaves this world of cassocks, and kissing and Church gossip. As soon as one leaves, one sees: wet bare branches, fog which floats over fields, trees, homes. Sky. Early dusk. And it all tells an incredibly simple truth."
One of the things that drew the masses to Jesus was that he spoke in simple human language. He did not wax philosophically nor politically. He spoke of a kingdom not of this world and refused the devil’s offer of power, fame, and riches. He told them about fishing and farming. He offered hope to the hopeless for the majority of the inhabitants of Palestine were lower classed people, living on the edge of survival.
I’ll never forget the visit of Bishop Antoun of blessed memory to St. Vladimir’s while I was a student there. It was the first time an Antiochian bishop had come to ordain a student. It was a beautiful liturgy, light, refreshing, and joyful. After it was over students approached His Grace asking him to return. When I questioned some of them about their response, one young man replied, it was as if the roof, the windows, and the doors were blown open and fresh air was allowed into the chapel.
See how lovingly and simply Jesus speaks to the woman. No grandiose language, no appeal to the Mosaic Law or religious canons, just a simple statement that came from the loving and compassionate heart of God, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” This simple remark set the rabbi on edge and the congregation to wonder. "There are six days on which work ought to be done;” the rabbi said, “come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day." Then the Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?" As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.
Do you remember the Lord’s first sermon in the synagogue where he quoted the prophet Isaiah? The words are stirring. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Then he rolled up the scroll and sat down and he began to speak to them saying, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
This was too much for the rabbi, who, I’m sure was quite beside himself, and it moved the congregation to awe and wonder.
If we are to impact the world, we must follow the path he has made for us. It is a path that cares nothing for earthly power and rather sees it as a distraction and an avenue for corruption. We must never grasp for civic authority, nor, as Metropolitan Anthony Bloom so beautifully said, “speak from a position of power.” It is our job as followers of the Lord Christ to speak rather from a position of weakness and humility. It is in our weakness wrote St. Paul that we are strong.
My hope is that, after this time where the Gospel has been corrupted by so many, that some may decide to take the path less traveled, the narrow path demonstrated by Jesus, so that the Church may not be forever be tainted by the religious hypocrisy of our age. It is most important that we recommit ourselves to the Crucified Lord and his Gospel.