Becoming Our True Selves Through Faith in Christ: Homily for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost and the Fifth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 10:1-10; Matthew 8:28-9:1

            The many challenges that we face today should open our eyes to uncomfortable truths about what it means to be a human person in the world as we know it.  The pandemic shows that we remain subject to death and disease in ways that no one can fully control.  Our social and economic crises reveal that no nation or culture embodies the fulfillment of the collective life of humankind.  Such struggles display not only how weak we are before large matters beyond our control, but also our captivity to our own passions.  Self-centeredness, fear, resentment, and even hatred easily fill our hearts as ways of coping with problems that challenge our proud illusions.  Instead of simply accepting what our disordered desires reveal about us and embracing the truth for our humility, we typically prefer the distraction of blaming others or at least of thinking of something else that turns our attention away from reality.

If we think we have remarkable problems today, consider for a moment the plight of the demon-possessed men in our gospel reading.  The Savior did not require them to become Jews, obey a law, or do anything else.  He simply set them free from slavery to evil and restored them to a recognizably human existence. The Fathers of the Church see their demon-possession as symbolic of the state of our ancestors, the Gentiles who worshiped idols and false gods.  As St. Paul wrote to the Romans:  “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  At the very heart of our faith is not a requirement to belong to any nation, class, or race, but instead the outrageous mercy of the Lord Who restores us to the dignity of those created in the divine image and likeness. The good news of the Gospel is that the Son of God became a human being for the salvation of all people, including those as lowly and miserable as demon-possessed Gentiles living in a tomb and scaring everyone away.

Just as Christ took the initiative to deliver them, He has done the same with everyone.  He has become one of us, taking upon Himself the consequences of all human corruption and sin to the point of death, burial, and descent into Hades so that He could conquer them all in His glorious third-day resurrection.  He has ascended into heaven with full, complete glorified humanity and sent the Holy Spirit to empower His Body, the Church, of which we are living members.  He abides within our hearts by the Holy Spirit, casting out our demons, forgiving our sins, and enabling us to share in His eternal life even now.

As St. Paul teaches, we must confess the Lord Jesus Christ with our mouths and believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead; if we do so, we will be saved.  “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”   No, St. Paul is not giving us magic words which we say once in order to guarantee a spot in heaven.  He is not giving us a new religious legalism that somehow earns salvation.  Instead, He reminds us that we must commend our entire life to Christ our God.  If we trust in Him, we will offer our words, deeds, and thoughts to embody the healing that He has brought to the world.  He calls and enables us to become as transformed by the divine mercy as were the demon-possessed men who became powerful living examples of His salvation.

When those men were set free from the complete control of demons, that was only the beginning of their lives in Christ.  Even though their deliverance was quite dramatic, it was only a beginning and they surely had to press on from there to resist temptation, to grow in holiness, and to learn to love and serve the Savior in their neighbors.  The very same thing is true of us.  The healing of our souls is a process, an ongoing journey of sharing more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.  Challenges large and small require us to confess Christ faithfully each day of our lives in what we say, think, and do.

To believe in and confess Christ is never something that we should think we have accomplished or fulfilled.  To be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect is an eternal goal.  To become a partaker of the divine nature is truly an infinite undertaking.  Believing in and confessing Christ requires that we share in His life without reservation such that His restoration of the human person in the divine likeness shines brilliantly in us.  Only then we will be able to stay with St. Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”    That change will not happen in an instant, but will be as profoundly transformative as what happened to the demon-possessed men who regained their true selves by encountering the Savior.  That is what will happen with us as we turn away from slavery to our passions.  That is what will occur when we rise up from the tombs of our sins and enjoy the freedom of liberation from bondage to the fear of death.

Instead of being overwhelmed by threats to our prideful illusions, we must use those challenges to help us identify and reject the lies that have taken root in our hearts and minds.  We may not live in a cemetery and scare everyone away, but we certainly fail to serve Christ in our neighbors because of our spiritual corruption.  We would often rather fear, blame, and even hate others than take a clear look at the state of our own souls.  We would often rather accept the most ridiculous assumptions about ourselves, our neighbors, and our world than simply admit we are the chief of sinners and entrust ourselves to the mercy of the Lord.

In order truly to have faith in Christ, we must become humble.  Humble people accept the truth without making excuses or trying to change the subject in order to make themselves look better.  We simply cannot believe in and confess the Savior without growing in humility, for His salvation is not something we can ever earn or control.  To the extent that we have faith in Him, we will know that we need healing and liberation that we could never give ourselves.  If obedience to a religious law or establishment of a righteous earthly kingdom could have sufficed, there would have been no need for the God-Man to fulfill our humanity through His incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension.  Those who distort the way of Christ into self-righteous legalism or a quest for earthly power over their enemies lack the humility to see and acknowledge the true state of their own souls.  They do not have the spiritual clarity to recognize themselves in a situation like that of the demon-possessed Gentile men who needed much more than a bit of conventional religiosity or worldly respectability.  They needed the restoration of their personhood in God, and the same is true of each of us.

Contrary to popular opinion, being true to ourselves does not mean embracing identities that reflect our corrupt desires any more than the demon-possessed men were simply being true to themselves by not living a recognizably human existence.  The kind of true humility that opens us to faith in the Savior requires that we sacrifice the prideful illusions that tempt us not to conform our character to Christ’s.  He is the God-Man Who embodies the restoration of the human person in the image and likeness of God.  Anything that would distract us from sharing more fully in His life and obeying His commandments does not reflect the truth about who He calls and enables us to become.

The only true response to the challenges we face today is to believe in and confess Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world.  If we cultivate the humility necessary to entrust ourselves to Him, then we will gain the spiritual strength not to fall into self-centeredness, fear, resentment, hatred, or other sinful states of soul that are such appealing distractions to facing the truth about ourselves.  Because our Lord’s Kingdom is not of this world, we must offer even our deepest pains and most pathetic weaknesses to Him for healing that we simply cannot give ourselves.  If we do so, we will find liberation from the slavery to our passions that serves only to alienate us from God, our neighbors, and even ourselves.   If we do so, we will know the joy of those who become uniquely beautiful icons of Christ and living witnesses of the only true basis of hope for the salvation of the world.  At the end of the day, that is what it means to believe in and confess Jesus Christ.

 

 

 

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