Self-Emptying Peace (revised)

August 19 (O.S., August 6) 2018: 12th Sunday after Pentecost. The Holy Transfiguration of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.

Epistle: 2 Peter 1:10-19
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

On the feast of the Transfiguration, we sing that the disciples saw the divine glory “as far as they could see it.” 

One sobering implication of this is that the only limiting factor on divine grace is human freedom. Put in its starkest terms, the only constraint on God’s grace and mercy is, well, me.  St John Chrysostom makes a similar point.image

After reminding us that “the blessings and gifts of God are irrevocable” he goes on to say that because God respects human freedom, my “recalcitrance” can “frustrate even the intention of God.”

While God doesn’t change, from a human point of view, my lack of repentance can “overthrow” the mercy of God (“Homily on St Matthew,” 61.4, ACCS NT, vol Ib, p.88).

Thankfully, not only does God respects human freedom, He conforms the revelation of His love to our ability to receive it. And all this He does this, as the kontakion says, for our benefit.

This means that God in Jesus Christ makes Himself small so that in Christ, we can grow great. How do we grow in greatness? Through our proclamation of the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15).

Preaching the Gospel needn’t mean standing on a street corner telling people about Jesus. It need not mean, in other words, telling people about Jesus. But it does mean working to bring the world around us into an ever greater conformity to the Gospel.

Doing this excludes absolutely any coercion on my part. I can’t manipulate or browbeat others into believing the Gospel. Much less can I use physical force. I can’t even use social pressure, I can’t shun those who don’t believe.

So how can I peaceably proceed?

We heard last week that in His incarnation the Son “empties Himself.” It is just this self-emptying we see when Jesus reveals His glory to Peter, James, and John. Our Lord doesn’t overwhelm His disciples.

He is able to do, or rather, not do this for two reasons.

First, He knows His disciples, their strengths, and limitations. There is nothing abstract in how Jesus relates to Peter, James, and John.

Second, Jesus is free in Himself. He isn’t moved by concern for His reputation. Much less does He suffer from those internal compulsions–that internal dialog–common to us as fallen men and women.

Of the two qualities, it is the second of these–Jesus’ freedom–that is decisive. Not only is His humanity wholly united to His divinity. The former is the vehicle (if I may speak so) for the latter.

Far from obscuring His divinity, Jesus’ humanity is the means by which His divinity is revealed. If it seems otherwise, it is because of my own sinfulness. To borrow from the troparion for the feast, in my fallen state I can’t bear the glory of His divinity as it shines through His humanity.

And so, I close my eyes to the beauty that is before me.

All this means that to grow great, to become more fully who God has created me to be, something in me needs to change. Paradoxically, I must change to become who I am.

And if I don’t? If I refuse to change? Again paradoxically, by staying the same I increasingly become who I’m not.

The change I need to make is this. I must empty myself of all those things in my life I cling to and depend upon rather than God. This is the meaning of repentance. I lay aside everything in my life that is not God.

If we stop here, the Gospel sounds monstrous. And, let’s admit it, many Christians present the Gospel is just these terms, as wholly negative. They deform the Gospel presenting as they do as a series of renunciations without any commensurate gains.

But this simply isn’t true. The loss we experience in following Christ, pale in comparison with the gains.

As we lay aside everything in our lives that isn’t God, as we empty ourselves after the example of Jesus, we discover a deeper, more enduring attachment to those things that we a moment ago surrendered.

On the other side of the self-emptying to which Christ calls us, we discover that is He, His love, that unites us to each other and to the whole creation.
Whether person or project, the tie that binds us is not our own affections.

What unites us to each other, to the work that fills our days, and to the whole human family is not our own passing thoughts and feelings but God’s grace and love for us.

Like the Transfiguration, conforming the world to the Gospel is not first and foremost a matter of changing others but changing ourselves. To borrow from the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, I must learn to see the light of Christ’s love as it shines throughout the whole of creation.

It is only illumined by the Divine Light that I am able to avoid the myriad great and small acts of violence that undermines the Gospel and instead bring the world into ever greater conformity to Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God in Jesus Christ conceals His glory, He limits Himself so that we can reveal Him as “the Radiance of the Father!”
He makes Himself small so that we can become great.

And proclaiming the Gospel? Conforming the world to Christ? These are one and the same. Two ways of saying the same thing we hear today in the Gospel.

“Lord! It is good for us to be here!”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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