9th Sunday after Pentecost / Martyr Christina of Tyre; Martyrs Boris and Gleb / 1 Cor. 3.9-17; Mt. 14.22-34
F/S/HS Brothers and sisters, last week we explored three great virtues: humility, repentance, and contrition. The life and phronema of St. Sophrony was our example and our guide. Because of his humility, repentance, and contrition of heart, St. Sophrony lived in communion and union with God. He prayed for and loved all lost souls, that God would somehow, someway, cradle them in His love and draw them near to Him.
I want to continue this morning with this same theme of humility, repentance, and contrition. When the wilderness-dwelling Forerunner of Christ first appeared preaching at the River Jordon, John the Baptist’s nine-word declaration echoed all the way back to what tragically happened in the Garden of Eden: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Charmed by the slithering snake, seduced by the temptation to be like gods, Adam and Eve fell from Paradise after eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They fell out of themselves. Their deepest selves, what we Orthodox call the nous, detached from its center. No longer were they in communion with God but instead soiled through and through. Henceforth, all humanity became soiled.
From this darkened place we started committing sin after sin after sin. We murdered one another. We judged one another. Iterations of the seven grievous sins wreaked havoc on our hearts: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. Our thought-life ran amok and unchecked. Some found love for God, becoming righteous. Many worshipped idols and let their passions govern their life.
Along came the Baptist. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. If you want to follow God, adopt a spirit of bold repentance. The people flocked to the Baptist, expressing their sorrow and remorse for how far they had fallen away from God. They acknowledge themselves as chief amongst sinners, just as we acknowledge out loud several minutes from now, before partaking of Holy Communion, our hands clasped across our chest in a gesture of humble repentance.
That the kingdom of heaven is at hand was the Baptist’s way of saying that the Messiah has arrived; the God-man Jesus is here. Redemption and healing, restoration and transfiguration are now at hand. The New Adam is amongst us, who will trample down death by His death.
The task of the people, our task, is the task of repentance, contrition, and humility; to truly feel remorse for having fallen into sin; and to hate that sin. Where we have no remorse before God, there is no restoration and healing of our soul. But where there is remorse and contrition, humility unto repentance, sinners become saints; wicked men and women become righteous. God recreates us and transforms people. They come to know His unutterable love of God for them and for the whole world. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son …
Before I became an Orthodox Christian, I collected examples of sinners-turned-righteous precisely because of their repentance, contrition, and humility, because the love of God so transformed their heart. One of my favorite examples was from the movie The Mission. Jesuit Priest Fr. Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, befriends Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert DeNiro. Rodrigo was a South American slave trader, capturing, harnessing, and hauling off indigenous natives to the slave market. In a drunken rage he murders his brother and then slips into deep self-hatred and despondency for having committed what he believes is the unforgivable. He has no idea how to find the redemption that his soul is crying out for.
Rodrigo meets Fr. Gabriel. He then enters into a grueling display of self-imposed repentance that more and more becomes an authentic repentance only after his willful pride and self-hatred are entirely shattered. Finally the day of that shattering arrives.
An immense load of supplies tied around his neck and back, that load symbolic of Rodrigo’s sins, he ascends a cliff as part of his self-imposed penance. The weight of his sins pulls him down, nearly tearing him from the face of the cliff and plunging him to instant death.
He arrives at the top of his ascent. Overcome with sweat and toil, he gazes up into up the tender face of Fr. Gabriel, along with the smiling faces of the jungle natives who hated the one-time slave trader. Have you had enough of your self-hatred adorns their faces. Rodrigo starts weeping. Tears of repentance and contrition and humility soak his soul. He breaks out in sorrowful laughter at his pathetic state. Completely shattered, entirely made anew, Rodrigo realizes for the first time in his life that God not only forgives him but loves him unconditionally, through and through.
All of our Orthodox saints who were one-time great sinners would whole-heartedly relate to Rodrigo. The Disciple Peter is one such example, teaching us that repentance and contrition and humility are an act in progress, a sometimes slow becoming, are more verb than noun. Peter, who was called by Christ and made whiter than snow by his Redeemer, time and again stained his baptismal robes by falling from grace, falling into sin. Just as you and I time and again fall from grace, staining our baptismal garment.
Out one night on tumultuous seas with the other Disciples—those tumultuous seas symbolizing the storms of our life—Peter sees His Redeemer walking across the top of the waves, towards their boat. All of the Disciples cower in fear; not righteous or holy fear, not fear at the awesomeness and power of God; but animal fear instead, limbic arousal fear, afraid for themselves and their lives; fear that reveals an underlying lack of trust and faith in God because they are caved in on themselves.
Approaching the boat on top of those waves, Jesus says to His cowering Disciples: Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid. If it is you, an apprehensive Peter shouts out, then command me to come to You on the water. Come, says Jesus, the same call Christ makes to all of us during times of turmoil and fear. Come … come to Me, Peter. Peter comes. But when he sees that the winds are boisterous he begins to sink below the waves. His fear intensifies. He cries even louder, that Jesus might save him. And Jesus does save Peter, as He always saves us when we cry out. But not without reminding Peter: O you of little faith, why did you doubt?
Peter’s fear and absence of faith—like our fear and absence of faith—will time and again manifest themselves as sin in his life during his earthly sojourn with Jesus. And no more sorrowfully and sinfully than when he entirely rejects and disowns his Redeemer as Jesus draws ever closer to His Passion: I know Him not. I do not know the man.
But this great sinner becomes an even greater saint. Why? How? Because for every time Peter stains his baptismal garment, he matches his fall with an even greater rise: The rise resulting from his humility and contrition of heart, his repentance. Never again after Jesus’ Resurrection would Peter succumb to the same fear and absence of faith. Righteousness forevermore adorns his soul, even as he hangs upside down on a cross out of sacrificial love for the Lord who time and again forgave him and saved him.
Sisters and brothers, our Lord intends the same for us. When we have sinned, and when in the aftermath of our sin we fragrance our souls with contrition, humility, and repentance, there will God be pleased to pour out His grace and mercy upon us.
Let me close with words about contrition, humility, and repentance, from another of God’s saints, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, so similar to the spirit of St. Sophrony from last week.
If we have two objects before our eyes, and one of them we scrutinize with all possible and constant attention, while not paying any attention to the other, then we will have a very accurate, vivid, concrete understanding of the first object, but will have only the most cursory knowledge of the second. He who lives by the commandments of the Gospel constantly looks at his own sinfulness, through confession to God and tears, he tries to open within himself more wounds and disorders. Even as he reveals them with God’s help, he strives for more and more such revelations, driven by desire to attain God-pleasing purity. He does not look at the sins of others. If, at every opportunity, he would look at the sins of his neighbor, even so his glance would be superficial and cursory, as is usual with people who are intent on some specific task. From his own life, he naturally and logically admits himself the worst sinner of all sinners. The Fathers ever require such a disposition of us.