The Heart of Spirituality
Sermon preached on Sunday, September 18, 2022 by Fr. Antony Hughes
I discovered something in the Gospel reading a few Sundays ago I had never noticed before. (Matthew 19:16-26) A young man kneels before Jesus and asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life." Jesus answers, "Obey the commandments" to which the lawyer replies, "Which ones?"
Now, you might think that the Lord would simply recite the Ten Commandments and be done with it. He doesn't. He picks a few of the ten and, surprisingly, the ones he chooses do not even mention God. He leaves out the first four altogether: have no other gods before me, make no graven images, don't take the Lord's name in vain. He doesn't even mention keeping the Sabbath day holy.
Which commandments did Jesus choose out of the ten? Just these: do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother and, he added, love your neighbor as yourself." What do all these have in common? Each one has to do with how we treat one another. The core of each one of these is selflessness. The young man couldn't do that and walked away. I think a lot of us do that.
Only after this does Jesus speak of God and in an elliptical way. "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and come follow me." The first three of the Ten Commandments becomes one: let go of the things that you believe define you and come follow me. The prerequisite for becoming a follower of Christ is, therefore, selflessness. As a wise teacher once said, "No self, no problem." Think about it. Our conflicts with others usually come when our wishes and desires are not being met. The answer, of course, is to let go of our wishes and desires. "No self, no problem."
Today's Gospel reading says the same in different words. In fact, a multitude of New Testament pericopes speak of it. "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it."
God is not selfish and, therefore, he is not wrathful, nor angry, nor vengeful. He is always peaceful, compassionate, loving and kind. Those characteristics are how you know God is behind it. When we are fearful, angry, jealous or vengeful, we are not living from our authentic core (the divine image). We are instead being led by self-defensive parts (Evagrius' "legion of other selves") whose job it has become to protect us.
There is an excellent book entitled WAY OF THE ASCETIC by Tito Colliander which is wonderful in its simplicity and, frankly, a little dangerous without a guide. He writes about the path to self-denial in very practical terms. We can begin at breakfast. Instead of two cups of coffee, have one. It's that simple. The road to following Christ is to gradually strip away our tyrannical desires in small bites. Maybe amazon is your addiction or social media. Take a break from them each
day. Do something different. You might even pray, or meditate for a few minutes instead and develop a habit of turning to God at least once a day. It doesn't take much to begin, but a little can become a lot. Discipleship is a process, not a one-time event. You see, the kingdom of heaven is here, within us, around us and among us and we cannot see it because we are busy looking for something else. Remember these words, "Seek first the kingdom." As Rumi so beautifully said, "Wash yourself of yourself."
Lastly, today's reading has a mysterious ending. "There are some of you standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom come with power." Usually we interpret that to refer to the Transfiguration. I think that is correct. But I also wonder if to see the "kingdom come with power" may also imply the transfiguration of our internal selves from desire to love. That is, the transformation of our internal controlling self-interests to selflessness. I have a feeling that clearing out the debris of selfishness would make the omnipresent kingdom seeable. This, I believe, is the very heart of Christian spirituality.