Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sermons, Feb. 19th, The Sunday Before Lent, delivered at Virgin Mary Church

The readings: Romans 13.11-14.4 and Matthew 6:14-21

The Sermon

Discipline in Christ is possibly the single most important part of being a Christian. Listen to the words of the apostle Paul:

Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Of course we had two readings today. So, we’re not only told not to be debaucherous, licentious, jealous and drunken, but also we’re ordered to forgive, to accept forgiveness, to not misplace our treasure or heart, to live in the light, to fast, but not just any old fasting - fasting with a smile.

It’s a lot to take in. The Lenten season is upon us, and for most of us nothing says “lent” quite like a long list of rules. It’s all about more time in church, hurting feet, emphasis on Confession, and bad food.

But although there are a lot of rules, we usually make the mistake of seeing them as a list of rules for the sake of rules. What’s easy to miss is the tie that binds them – Discipline in Christ.

By discipline I mean of course behavior, especially behaviors when we do which we would rather not do.

Discipline may seem like an annoying part of the faith, but it’s extremely important. In fact, it could be said that Discipline in Christ is a kind of first principle for Orthodox Christians. Discipline in Christ is a way to show Christ’s living power in the world today.

St. Athanasius, the great father of the first Council, once wrote a refutation of the Greek and Jewish critics of Christianity. When asked about how a dead man could still have power, St. Athanasius appealed to the example of disciplined Christian believers:

Anyone who likes may see the proof of [Christ’s] glory in the virgins of Christ, and in the young men who practice chastity as part of their religion and the assurance of immortality in so great and glad a company of martyrs.

For Athanasius, the surest way of seeing Christ in the world was to look at the disciplined example of his followers. The way that the best of the Christians practiced the virtue of discipline in their sexual lives and finally their courage in the face of death was, for Athanasius, proof enough of the continuing presence of Christ. Can the power of a man be denied when his followers are so sure of their resurrection that you cannot even coerce them with death? Can we not all see the awesome domain of a presence so persuasive that people don’t feel the need to have a family if they are in the service of this man?

In our Church in particular, the Orthodox Church, discipline in Christ is a particularly strong teaching. The Orthodox Church is built on the notion of discipline in Christ. I know that many of you were born into the Orthodox Church and probably cannot see it from the outside in, but as one who was not born into it, let me tell you, there aren’t many Christian groups who would ask of you what the Orthodox Church asks of you: We’re the only major Christian group that still asks our members to fast on a regular basis, sets strict rules for vocations, stands during most services, and emphasizes regular sacramental Confession. In fact, to be real honest, there are plenty of “Christian” groups today that would not really think of sexual fidelity in the single life, fidelity to one partner in the married life, or the willingness to die for one’s belief in Christ to be virtues at all. In other words, there are plenty of groups out on the market who go by the name ‘Christian’ who not only don’t care about discipline in Christ, but would openly deny those very things that St. Athanasius once told the pagans most clearly showed Christ’s power to the world.

We don’t live in a world where discipline in Christ is a popular concept.

Now that’s not to say that the world doesn’t value discipline – that’s not true. If you look through any kind of popular media you will find countless praises lavished on self-discipline. There’s no shortage of emphasis on self-help, self-esteem, self-consciousness, self-accomplishment, self-meaning, and self-care, or in short: self-importance.

So that leads us to look at the other half of my first statement, Discipline in Christ.

Many people “behave”, and there are many reasons to behave. Many of us sacrifice in order to earn more money, gain more power, or better our physique. I know that many of you go to the same gym that I do. And it’s nice to see you there! One of my weight lifting partners there is the greatest examples of raw discipline. The man does all kinds of taxing workouts to get his body in perfect tone. He eats a precise diet, tans a certain amount, runs, and builds muscle. And of course, he can’t wait to tell me all about it. And yes, it’s an impressive feat how well-honed a human body can be, but it’s all for his glory. The man sacrifices all on the altar of his ideal body, and I respect the effort, but it’s not for Christ. It’s not for the betterment of his spirit. I don’t really admire his efforts all that much.

Any time we are truly committed to something we need to ask for whom we’re doing it. As the early Latin writer Tertullian reminds us “the demons also have their virgins and ascetics.” And he’s right.

People have spent all kinds of effort serving false gods, demons, and the Devil himself. People have dedicated their lives and the lives of their children to all kinds of demonic powers and ideologies. My godparents live in a small town in southern Germany. In the middle of the town is a chapel up on a hill that has a war memorial for the soldiers from the town who died in the world wars. In a town of only 3,000 people, 300 names are on that list. Three hundred brave young men gave their lives in the service of a cause who’s main purpose was the extermination of people they did not consider human beings. Three hundred people - talented, educated youths in the prime of their life - slaughtered on the altar of a demon they didn’t even understand.

Plus, we all know persons of different faiths who are hardcore. We fast, but so do Muslims. We pray to the God of Abraham, but so do Jews. We meditate, but so do Hindus. But the difference is that we fast, and pray, and meditate in the spirit of Christ. Our discipline is only there to strengthen our bond with the one thing needful, our bond with Jesus Christ.

So listen again to the words of Paul:

Let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

So we see here that Paul has already said that which I elaborated on. It’s not firstly the denial of our fleshly desires that we’re trying to accomplish, but rather we strive first to put on the Lord Jesus Christ. We put him on as the virgins, ascetics, and martyrs always have. We put him on in order to make his power visible to the world around us. We put him on so that we might, like St. Athanasius, refer to one another as examples of Christ’s living power in the world.

Now as this Lent approaches, we shall not fixate on the rules and demands. Yes those rules and demands will be made. You will be asked to fast, to go to Confession, and to attend more church than you’re accustomed. But remember that it’s all training in discipline… it’s all training in righteousness.

Any weight lifting exercise seems kind of silly by itself, but it’s all part of shaping the body. Everything we learn as students seems individually insignificant, but everything adds up into a lifetime of learning, and so also the demands of the Church might seem a little arbitrary if taken in isolation, but taken together they are the discipline in Christ which we seek. They form us into the disciples of Christ who we want to be.

So we will look at the demands of Lent not as rules, but as a collection of exercises leading us deeper into our Christian vocation – Discipline in Christ.


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