The following sermon was preached on the Sunday after Theophany 2009. As we continue in the economic mess that was so fresh in that January of a little over two years ago, I think this still very much applies, especially as the referenced epistle reading makes mention of the Ascension of Christ, which is celebrated today. Our fundamental economic problem is still fundamentally a spiritual one, and the Ascension calls us up from our appetites to something far better, far nobler.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
If you follow the news about our nation’s economic woes, there is a word that is used over and over again to describe us as human beings. This word is based on something that we’re supposed to be doing. It really says nothing about who we are or what we are supposed to be. This word says nothing about the inherent dignity or nobility of mankind, but rather says something only about his appetites. What is this word that is used by the media to give us our identity? Consumers.
Most of us probably don’t think of ourselves as “consumers.” That’s a word that means “everyone else” in that faceless economic mass that makes up the rest of our nation. “Consumers” are those people who buy things and use them up, those people who are supposed to make the economy go. When there is a loss of “consumer confidence,” then people lose their jobs and investors pull their money back. When someone has an ingenious idea, they appeal to “consumers” to turn it into a big pay-off. Yes, “consumers” are “those people” who shuffle the money around and keep the economy going, right?
If most of us looked into our own hearts, I think we would find that “consumers” are not only “those people out there.” Rather, as an identity, most of us have really bought into what the media is telling us we are. We’re supposed to acquire things, use them up, and then acquire some more. Buy, buy, buy! Spend, spend, spend! Eat, eat, eat! This very word consume means “to eat up.” In order to see the problem with this way of life, we do not need to look at the destruction that is being wreaked in the rest of the world for our nation’s unending appetites. Rather, we need only look into our hearts.
What are the fruits of this endless appetite for something else to eat, something else to consume, something new and interesting? For one thing, we are often bored. We spend so much of our time voraciously consuming the latest bit of entertainment, gossip, information, politics, and possessions that when we encounter things like beauty, permanence, or—dare I say it?—eternity, our response is “I’m bored.” As consumers, our attention spans get more and more childish.
Our appetite as consumers is such that we don’t just use up entertainment and information, but we also use up people. We see other people primarily in terms of what they can provide us rather than for who they are and the communion we can have with them. This corrupts not only friendships, but also marriages and families. Children and parents use each other up and then reject each other when their appetites are not filled. We expect this from kids, but from adults, too?
The consumer approach to relationships also leads to sexuality without the context of lifelong commitment to family. We want to play by our own rules and use what God created for our appetites rather than for our salvation. Sexuality becomes about what I want, what feels good to me, what I think I should get. This approach can lead to all sorts of delusions which fall short of God’s plan for sexuality—one man and one woman committed for life in marriage.
Anything else—whether it is same-sex activity, pre-marital or extra-marital sex, or pornography and other forms of private self-pleasure—all of these things are based on our appetites and not on the beautiful and perfect balance of complementarity created and designed by God. There are even whole subcultures designed to promote these destructive patterns, to make them appear “normal” and “wholesome,” even to give them the veneer of human “rights.” But how can we say we are the “chief of sinners” and demand “rights”? That is really just delusion.
And none of these things, by the way, is somehow a “better” sin than another. It is not “better” to fornicate with the opposite sex than it is to do it with the same sex. All fall short of the relationship created by God to His glory and for our salvation. If we look into our hearts with true honesty, we will see that such desires come out of our fallen appetites, not out of God’s perfect creation, which has been broken since the Fall of Adam and Eve. So if we see brokenness in our desires, it is because of the Fall, not because God created us that way.
So if we are not to be “consumers,” then what is our real calling? What is this higher, nobler way of living that truly befits human dignity? St. Paul in today’s epistle reading says that “to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” By virtue of our baptism, Christ has given each of us grace as a gift. What are we to do with this gift? What is this grace for? Paul goes on to say that “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists and some pastors and teachers.” Notice that nowhere is there given the grace to be a “consumer.” Rather, this grace given to each of us is for active ministry.
Elsewhere in the Scripture, St. Paul talks about other kinds of spiritual gifts that Christ gives to us. All such gifts are for getting out of our seats, standing up and doing something. This is why, for instance, the traditional posture for Orthodox worship is standing, not sitting. Someone who sits is passive, expecting to get something. The person who stands is active, expecting to give something, to do something.
Indeed, because even our church architecture is made to correspond to elements of the Jewish Temple, we see that where we are right now mirrors the holy place of the Temple, the place reserved for priests! Whether we are ordained to sacramental ministry or not, we are all priests of the Most High God. We are all here to participate in and offer the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, not to sit on our bottoms and wait to get served.
So what is all this activity for? Why did Christ not make us consumers or an audience? Why did He give to each of us gifts of ministry? St. Paul goes on to tell us: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” And what is the goal of this ministry of equipping and edification? It is for all of us to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” What a calling! Perfect unity in faith! The knowledge of the Son of God! Perfect humanity, even to the stature of the fullness of Christ Himself!
With such a noble and beautiful destiny that God has appointed for each of us, how can we be content to sit around and continue to “consume”? How dare the media refer to the adopted sons and daughters of the King of Kings as “consumers”?! Such a way of life is so, so far beneath us. If only we could see ourselves as God does! When He looks around within this holy cathedral, He does not see “consumers.” He does not see people identified by appetite. He sees people called to be saints. He sees adopted, redeemed sons and daughters of God. The angels look at us and see us gleaming with the great light of baptism. The saints look at us and see the grace of God resting upon us as a bright, uncreated Light that illumines the darkness. Truly, as the Gospel reading says to us today, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” This is what has been given to us! This is the light of Christmas, of Holy Theophany, of the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ!
The question now is: What are we going to do with what we have been given? Will we turn away from God’s truly awesome gift and continue to be defined by our appetites, to take on once again the low and dirty role of “consumers”? I truly hope not. We are called to something higher, finer, nobler and more beautiful, called by the One Who is Beauty Himself.
And should those who begin to hear this call and respond look down on those who remain struggling with sinful passions? By no means! We are all sinners. There is no sin that is worse than my sin. Just because I am not afflicted with one kind of temptation does not mean that I should condemn those who are. We have mentioned many ways in which sin drags us down and darkens our identity in Christ. None of these ways makes the people who suffer from them worthy of condemnation. Rather, we are all spiritually sick people in need of spiritual healing. There is much hypocrisy among so-called Christians in our time. Let us not join those hypocrites who condemn one kind of sin while indulging in another.
We read in the Scripture that Christ, after He had accomplished all the great works of His life, ascended into Heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father. There sits our humanity. Because God became one of us, now there is one of us seated on the very Throne of the Almighty God. What was the purpose of this holy and blessed ascension? It was so He might fill all things. In partaking of Christ in the Eucharist and in all the other ways He offers Himself to us in the Church, we are becoming filled with Christ. Instead of remaining “consumers,” a title properly reserved only for animals, we are becoming the true consummation of creation, the very pinnacle of what God made through Christ and is now healing and remaking through His death and resurrection.
So let us cast off this “consumer” way of life. Let us take hold of what is eternal, pure and perfect, what is of enduring beauty and holiness, not eating up material possessions and one another, but sacrificing ourselves not just for Christ’s sake, but truly for our own. When we do this, we will encounter other sinners and not condemn them, but rather pour ourselves out for them, just as Christ did for us, even though He was sinless. When we do this, we will encounter God here in Orthodox worship and not be bored, but find ourselves hungry not after earthly appetites, which never satisfy, but after heavenly food and drink, which fill us up and change us forever.
To our Lord Jesus Christ, therefore, with His Father and Holy Spirit, are due all glory, honor and worship, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.