Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Putting on Christ" - Sermon for the 26th of July, St. Parascevi

In the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

When it comes to crafting a sermon, I begin with a lot of prayer. I read the epistle and gospel selections, look at the saint commemorated on this day, consider the specific part of the yearly liturgical cycle that we are in, and then pray to God to give me the right words to give to you His people. Then it’s a matter of waiting until He motivates me in a particular direction. This is usually by a “still small voice,” a quiet certainty of what to say. Usually, but not always, and today is a prime example of when God pretty much hits one over the head with a two-by-four, saying: “Deliver this message!”

We’re celebrating a Baptism today, and the epistle reading for today (which is the one for St. Parascevi and hence tied specifically to this date) has a great deal to do with what baptism means for us. In preparing for this sermon I was utterly blown away by the complete appropriateness of what we heard to what we are about to do, yet it just goes to reinforce the fact that for us as Orthodox and Christians, there really aren’t any such things as mere coincidences. God is in charge, and He guides all events – whether we’re talking about small things such as the week-long process of developing a sermon or large things such as the million-years-long course of evolution on this planet – so that we are presented with the opportunities to choose to cooperate with Him on the path to our deification, theosis of both body and soul.

St. Paul tells us today, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” This verse has special use in the liturgical services of the Church. It replaces the Trisagion – the Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal – in special Feastday Liturgies: the first Paschal Liturgy the morning of Holy Saturday, which in the ancient Church used to be the most common time for catechumens to be baptized; in the Theophany Liturgy celebrating Christ’s Baptism; and in the Liturgy for Christmas. It also occurs in the Baptismal Service right before the prokeimenon and epistle – which if you look closely you will see that it’s actually doing the same thing there, replacing the Trisagion, for Baptisms in the ancient Church were always done during the Liturgy, as entrance into the Church is perfected in Communion, and the service of Baptism pretty much retains the form of the ancient Baptismal Liturgy.

But what does it mean for us, to put on Christ?

St. Paul tells us today that “we are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus,” and that we are “heirs according to the promise.” An heir is one who will share in what his or her parents are and possess. Therefore, we are all of us called to, as St. Peter puts it, become “partakers of the divine nature.” This is theosis, deification. St. Athanasius the great explains it very forcefully in his work, On the Incarnation: “God became man so that human beings might become gods.” Theosis is the doctrine that is unique to the Orthodox Faith and which sets Orthodoxy apart from every other form of Christianity. Now it may seem to be an over-the-top claim, that we are all to be gods, but it really isn’t. There is a way to understand it which preserves the sovereignty of the One God while acknowledging that we are called to be gods. The committee of Orthodox scholars who put together the Orthodox Study Bible expressed this important point: “St. John of Damascus, writing in the eighth century, makes a remarkable observation. The word ‘God’ in the Scriptures refers not to the divine nature or essence, for that is unknowable. ‘God’ refers rather to the divine energies – the power and grace of God which we can perceive in the world. The Greek word for God, theos, comes from a verb meaning ‘run’, ‘see’, or ‘burn’. These are energy words, so to speak, not essence words.” Or, to phrase it another way, the title “God” does not just refer to what He is – which we will never know or become – but also refers equally to what He does, a co-participant in which we are each one of us called to become.

Energies are the qualities of God which flow out from Him, from His essence (though they are not the essence), His love, compassion, mercy… His creativity – an important one, that, since when we first meet God in Genesis He “created the heavens and the earth – qualities which permeate the whole of the created universe. “Putting on Christ” is our appropriation of these energies in our life in the Church, our part in synergeia – cooperation with God – that we may actualize our intimate communion with Him and with each other. The potential for that intimate communion is given us in the Incarnation, when the divine essence and the human essence were inseparably united in the one person of Jesus Christ… which is perhaps another meaning to be found in the use of the hymn, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”, in the Liturgy for Nativity. It is the restoration of that intimate communion – expressed in the story of Genesis by Adam and Eve’s walking with God in the cool of the evening and which they lost for us by sin – that is our salvation, rather than the wiping out of a juridical debt or the appeasing of an angry God, the ever-deepening of it that is our deification.

It is that potential which we must appropriate and realize through participation in the Church, her life and mysteries. That is what little Lola will be called to do in just a little while; that is what we all have been called to do in our own baptism or chrismation, that our whole persons, body and soul, may be saved and deified. Amen.