Sermon for Sexagesima Sunday
Jesus chose his disciples from the fishermen, the tentmakers and the poor and illiterate. Not from among the ranks of the noble, rich or famous. This in itself serves as a witness to us, for all time, that lowly origins, or poverty, or lack of education are no impediments to virtue, or to understanding the divine sayings and mysteries of Scripture. What hinders us from understanding, the obstacles on the road ahead, are our own indifference, not our station in life. What hinders us is the fact that we cling to the world and its attractions, even though they are fleeting. Old Adam is powerful and will not be ignored without putting up a fight. So we fight.
We have heard Jesus himself explain the parable. What is the seed? The seed of instruction, the word of eternal life, the promise of restoration to eternal life. In short, the Gospel. In the Gospel according to St John, Jesus tells us that The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life (Jn 6:63). Where, then did he sow these seeds, these words of spirit? In the hearts of the people. In the words of Gregory Palamas,
“some of the resemble a path, as they have been trampled down and pressed solid by evil thoughts and passions, and by the most wicked demons that oversee these things. Those who are like rocky ground are unable, on account of their faint-heartedness and hardness, to hold on to the seeds of teaching to the end, or to bear fruit through them for eternal life. As for those who resemble ground, which brings forth thorns, they are intent on possessions and wealth, fleeting pleasures and what springs from these.” (Hom 47)
The state of our hearts, then, is of utmost importance. The heart understood as the seat of passion. Passion moves us. It overrides reason and calculation, or, perhaps better, makes reason and calculation its servants. When a new passion grips the human heart it gives rise to a new foundation and new directions for thinking and acting. Passion redirects thoughts and forces man to think in ways that are directly contrary to what had previously been thought. St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is a good example of this change of heart—a change of passion that redirected his every thought and every action. What was that passion, which caused the Pharisee and persecutor of the church to become an apostle of the Lord? Love. Love was and is that moral passion that compels a Christian. It is awakened in the heart through the work of the Holy Ghost.
There is an almost endless number of Scriptural passages where those who already are followers of Christ, or those who wish to become followers, are exhorted to love. To focus their lives on seeking and reflecting the divine love that Christ Jesus embodied perfectly throughout his earthly ministry. Indeed, Christians are admonished repeatedly to focus their “faith life” on love as sacrifice and as gift, at the same time: a gift from God to man and in turn man’s sacrifice to God. When the lawyer tried to tempt Jesus to tell him which of the commandments is the greatest, the answer was plain and simple: Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mat 22:37-40)
Why? I mean, it is nice and all, but why is love so important? Why is it said to be greater than both hope and faith (1 Cor 13:13)? The answer is simple: love is that passion that redirects our interests, our thoughts, our will and our efforts so as to induce us to hope and enable us to have faith. The loving heart, my friends, is the fertile soil that is able to receive the word, and in which the word is able to bear fruit. Love as our offering to God, love as God’s gift to mankind through His people—this is the nexus at which Christians must live and work. This must be the core of the life of a Christian from which all else flows, and without which nothing can be achieved.
Yet love often seems as scarce a commodity among Christians as it is in the world at large. We are comfortable with the concept of loving our neighbors, but find ourselves challenged beyond our capacity when it comes to implementing the concept. Loving others often seems difficult, counter-intuitive, even wrong. Instead of submitting to Christ with an open heart, we question His reasons and motives for giving us such a difficult instruction. Maybe He is establishing an ideal that we are to strive towards? Maybe he is setting up an impossible benchmark to show us how far below His perfection we fall? Perhaps he is describing something that is only possible for some “spiritual elite”? Besides, love is for hippies, isn’t it?
Friend, these are nothing but attempts to escape by means of intellectual gymnastics. You and I are called to love, because he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him (1 Jn 4:16), while he that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love (1 Jn4:8). Could it be any more plain than that? We are commanded to do something with which the world is unfamiliar. This is why St Paul exhorts us to be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God (Rom 12:2). This transformation is also why Porcius Festus, the procurator of Judea, accused St. Paul of madness when the apostle gave his testimony before King Agrippa: Paul, thou art beside thyself; much learning doth make thee mad (Acts 26:24b). Love, the basis for St. Paul’s hope in Christ and faith in God, does seem like madness to the world. It did then, it does now because if it is genuine, it alters our lives in a genuinely “counter-cultural” way.
This transformation, like any life-altering process, requires discipline and endurance, which is why we must run with patience the race that is set before us (Heb 12:1). Be ye transformed: a different way of saying. “remember always that the Christian is in the world but not if the world.” This is difficult, perhaps even the primary reason why so many hearts are bereft of that fertile soil that is able to receive the good seed. The world calls us loudly; Christ calls us quietly. Devotion to love requires patience and discipline. For St. Paul this enlightenment was instantaneous, but despite the fact that some have come to believe that we must all undergo exactly the same immediate and shocking experience as St. Paul, there is no evidence for this in Scripture. The sun is no less bright in itself at dawn than it is at high noon, yet it allows our eyes to become accustomed to the light of a new day. The sun does not appear at its zenith, and this is perhaps a good illustration of the Divine light, as it comes to us through the pages of Scripture, and in the Sacrament. It rises slowly, allows us to become accustomed to its brightness, and eventually bathes us and all our doings in its brilliance. Provided that we are receptive. Provided that we take care to prepare and maintain the soil. Prayerful meditation on Scripture and frequent use of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, with an open, humble and penitent heart—these are our daily encounters with the life-altering Divine Light. In the words of Thomas À Kempis, “My eyes could not bear to behold You in Your own divine brightness, nor could the whole world stand in the splendor of the glory of Your majesty. In veiling Yourself in the Sacrament, therefore, You have regard for my weakness.”
May the Lord continue to have mercy on us all. Amen.