Homily 449 – 39th Sunday After Pentecost
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
March 7, 2021
Epistle: (140) – 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: (106) – Matthew 25:31-46
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.
It’s not often that we know the criteria by which we will be judged. But that isn’t the case in Christianity.
It is like having the answers to the final exam – except, for this exam, we can’t just know them, we have to do them. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter and comfort to those in need.
At this point, many of our protestant brothers and sisters in Christ would say “Hold on – that is works, not faith!”
Which is quite true. With a key difference I’d like to explore.
We maybe misunderstand the meaning of “work”. It is used a lot and has a connotation of doing something in pursuit of a result of some sort. It is, if I can use the word, “transactional” in nature. We do something in exchange for something.
In Latin, we might call it “quid quo pro.” We do something in expectation of receiving something.
In the traditional sense and understanding of the protestant world, works are useless as an exchange for salvation, which is a free gift of God.
We shouldn’t let this allow us to feel smug, though. “Orthodoxy” in the sense of right belief or right worship is also useless as an exchange for salvation.
In fact, there is no exchange involved in salvation. None. It isn’t this for that. As much as we might want leverage to force God to do this or do that, it isn’t there.
My ways are not your ways, says the Lord.
Now, this is a paradigm-shifting thought for some of us. Perhaps many of us. We have no leverage – zero. If you want to understand our position as it relates to God, read Job.
We may also do well to understand that the term “Orthodox” offers nothing more than what the Church has always believed to be true, who is a person – Jesus Christ. The Church was called “The Way” in biblical days – it was not a set of beliefs, but a way of life.
So then, it is worth considering – why does Jesus speak of works? Why does He speak of activity when speaking of the last judgment and our evaluation in the eyes of God?
It comes back to the initiation of the activity, and the motivation for the activity. Our motives are rarely pure. But for the sake of illustration, we need to see our works to be without exchange.
Their source is love. That is all – love.
In that sense, the work is not considered an exchange, but rather – and this is critical – a manifestation, emanating from our being. Admittedly, finding an analogy is difficult.
What we do manifests who we are. As people. As humans. As Christians.
After all, look at what Christ did. Are any of His actions in exchange for something? No. His actions are a manifestation of who He is – the embodiment of Love.
We can exchange nothing – for we have nothing to offer. Except for Love. We offer love for our Lord, who, while we were yet sinners, self-absorbed and unloving, died for us. And we offer love to those whom the Lord loves – that is, everyone.
We shouldn’t be discouraged about the mixed motivations we have. The Apostles had similar mixed motivations, at least initially. What we see, particularly in Peter, John, and James, the three Apostles arguably closest to Christ, is a contemplated exchange – for power.
James and John wanted to sit at Christ’s left and right – sit, in the presence of the Deity – in His Kingdom. Peter took issue with Christ going to Jerusalem to die and not to conquer.
So, we have good company in our mixed motivations. But thank God, our motivation can and does change. Just as the motivation of the Apostles and the Saints changed as they were purified.
This brings us to Great Lent. It is the root of change – self-denial. That is what repentance is – change. Instead of inward, focusing on our ego and our well-being, we focus on others, and through them, focus on Christ.
St. Paul puts it quite bluntly – By sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ! If you scandalize someone by your activities, you scandalize Christ.
Works become for us a mirror to look into ourselves and see ourselves as we truly are.
Works become a tool for us – a tool for us to examine ourselves. We look at our actions, and that forms the basis of our confessions during this season – when we are asked to examine ourselves, to focus on others.
Of course, it is worth remembering that we look into the mirror to only see ourselves, not to see others. It may sound trite, but it is essential to the understanding, and the benefit, of Great Lent.
We aren’t able to see the motivation of others. When we examine the mirror, we can only see ourselves.
So, brothers and sisters, pray that we might see the true self when we look into the mirror of our behaviors. Repent of those motivations we have that are something other than love.
Work toward that purification of self, that leads to our union with God, which is theosis.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!