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Byzantine mosaic icon of Christ

Rich in mercy

Sunday, November 2/15
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost
Martyrs Akindynus, Pegasius, Aphthonius, Elpidephorus, and Anempodistus of Persia

Brethren: God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today’s Epistle reading begins with the love of God: “God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us…”

You know, the notion that God loves you is so commonplace that we don’t really hear it. Does it move you inwardly just to hear it? Is it real to us, as solid and practical as bricks or breakfast, the truth that God in His divine nature is all love? That every energy of God comes from love? That God does nothing without love? Have we applied this reality to all people, of every race, and to our enemies and those who seek to harm us? That God is and does love for all people, good and bad, holy and sinful.

We used to say, “God’s gonna get you for that!” Or we see disasters and say that God is punishing that city or people for their sins. But the Psalmist sings, “If thou O Lord should count our sins, who would survive?” (Ps 129:3)

Make a clear distinction between sins, which are things, and cannot be forgiven, and people, who need forgiveness. God is not interested in restoring relationship with violence or envy or lust or pride. These things cause his wrath. In a way, God’s wrath is the opposite of grace, because it is God at work in the world to end the reign of sins that debase and distort and destroy his beloved ones. Why is God angered by idolatry and transgression? Because these things harm us, delude us, and take us away from union with him. The wrath of God is an energy of his nature of love, as surely as his action of saving grace is.

“When we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”

In Paradise, Adam was told, “The day you eat that fruit, you will die” (Gn 2–3). Adam and Eve ate, and became dead. That very day, they were cut off from union with God. The text says they went on walking around dead for years and centuries: Dead men walking, alive in their bodies but out of union with God the Source of life and immortality.

The creation account in Genesis is scripture’s diagnosis of the human condition. It describes our state today: God comes to meet man in the heart, but man is ruled by his mind and will, and can’t enter the garden of the heart. Man is alienated from his own Life in Christ, and cannot enter Paradise, the place of union with God.

But when God the Word took flesh and human nature from the holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, then our race which was dead to God was reunited to the Lord, our Life. Jesus Christ, the Person who is by nature man and God, he is himself the union of humanity and deity. We, who were dead, were made alive. Not just forgiven like a pardoned criminal; not just returned to the state of Adam in Paradise, a creation walking with his Creator. But we were made alive with the life with which Christ himself is alive: the nature and life of God.

In John 15, Christ teaches that he is the Vine and we are branches, and the same sap that is in the trunk is in the branch. In Romans 11:16ff, Paul says that we who were strange plants have been grafted into Christ, by the action of God, through faith.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith.” What is grace? Whenever I hear someone repeat the Sunday school answer “Grace is unmerited favor,” I know this is a person who has not thought about grace.

Grace is our word for what God does. God, at work in a thing, or a person, or a place. The relics of saints are of value to us not only as reminders, but because at times the grace – the power and personal action of God – still works in them just as when the saint was walking the earth. That’s why relics are associated with miraculous healings and deliverance from oppression.

Whenever you see “grace” in scripture, you can almost always swap that word out for “God at work” and see the sentence in an Orthodox way. “For it is by God, at work in you, that you have been saved, through faith.” Grace is not a force like electricity or fire: Grace is personal, because the Holy Spirit is a Person.

God’s love, which acts in the form of Grace to save and heal and make us holy, doesn’t depend on whether anyone is worthy. Love doesn’t begrudge kindness; love is not stingy but rich in mercy. What we call love, which varies depending on who the object is; that’s just affection, and it’s our ego seeking to use acts of kindness for our own advantage.

But we are saved by grace, by God personally acting in us. Do you know what that means? It means that when we come to repentance, we cone with certainty of forgiveness and the resurrection power of God to enable us to repent. We do not come to the sacrament of repentance in fear that God will be angry with us. What, who made you so powerful that you can change God’s eternal mind about you? Did you think you surprised or disappointed God by your sin?

Did you think your repentance would be rejected because it is partial, or full of excuses, or because you don’t trust yourself to walk out of Confession and not fall right back down again?

Archimandrite Zacharias Zachariou, spiritual grandson of our patron St Silouan, said in a talk: “Someone who steals ten times a day might decide one day to steal only nine times, and that may be enough for God to enter in and remove from him his sinful ways. God’s love is madness indeed, but the madness of God is infinitely wiser than the wisdom of men.”

People come to confession full of shame. We are despondent because we have fallen again, to the same thing, and God must be tired of us. What we really are is ashamed and embarrassed that we have been deceived by something so unworthy; we have committed an act or made room for a thought that was unworthy; it was beneath us. We know better. We are better than this! This sin is not like us! Do you hear it? I sinned, but I am not a sinner!

There’s where we are deceived by our pride. We want to say, “I’m better than this!” We believe God has forgiven us in the past because we resolved to do right and because we have mostly kept our promise. We trusted in our performance.

We have forgotten grace.

“Confession isn’t a trade in which I barter my regret for forgiveness. My repentance doesn’t make me deserve this gift; it just means I’ve stopped hiding from mercy and started cooperating.” —Leah Libresco.

St John Chrysostom wrote: “Even if we have thousands of acts of great virtue to our credit, our confidence in being heard must be based on God’s mercy and his love for mankind. Even if we stand at the very summit of virtue, it is by mercy that we shall be saved.”

And in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; there’s a scene in a tavern where Raskolnikov meets the old drunk, Marmalodov, the father of the prostitute, Sonja:

Then Christ will say to us, ‘Come, you also! Come, you drunkards! Come, you weaklings! Come, you depraved!’ And he will say to us, ‘Vile creatures, you in the image of the beast and you who bear his mark. All the same, you come too!’ And the wise and the prudent will say, ‘Lord, why are you welcoming them?’ and he will say, ‘O wise and prudent ones, I am welcoming them because not one of them has ever judged himself worthy.’ And he will stretch out his arms to us, and we shall fall at his feet and burst into sobs, and then we will understand everything, everything! Lord, may your kingdom come!

The Lord says, in the prophecy of Isaiah, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or lack compassion for the son of her womb? Even if she could forget, says the Lord, I will not forget you. Look and see, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (49:15-16).

Here is what I want us all to take home from hearing “by grace you have been saved” — You did not call yourself to faith in Christ. You did not make yourself alive together with Christ in his resurrection and in your baptism. The one who is named the Author and the Finisher of our faith is the Lord Jesus Christ. By grace – by becoming a participant in the life of Christ – you are made a participant in his ascension and his kingdom.

“By grace you have been saved through faith, and even that faith is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.”

There’s a prayer in the Liturgy, right after “Take, eat, this is my body…” While you sing the Amen, the priest begins this prayer silently: “Remembering all these things that have come to pass for us – the cross the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming again – we offer to you what we have received from you, on behalf of all and for all.”

Saint Paisios, in his simple way, said that all he did every day, all his obediences and prayers, were written in heaven as big zeroes. Suffer, struggle against the passions, practice mercy… and it’s written in the book of the Lord as just a zero. And then the Lord comes to this long string of zeroes – and he puts a one at the beginning. All the value and salvation in our works is from the Lord, and all that we offer to God, we received from God. 

And this Lord, who knows the end from before the beginning, who saw all your works before you were born and called you to himself before you were formed in the womb: Knowing already all your sins and passions, he called you by name and said “That one. I want that one for my follower.”

So: Since you cannot surprise or disappoint the Lord, come with eagerness to confession. Come with light hearts, ready to dump your sins at the foot of the cross and receive wholeness and freedom. Your confession does not impart information to the Lord; rather, you need to hear yourself say these things and hear the Lord say, audibly in your ear, that he has forgiven you and receives you with joy.

St Porphyrios of Athens: “You don’t become holy by fighting evil. Let evil be. Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love.”

Turn your thoughts to Christ. Remember that it is grace that has led you to repentance. Grace – God in action – united you to the death and resurrection of Christ in your baptism, and it’s grace that will make you whole.

Come with joyful step into the church. Shame and disappointment and fear are attached to your sins: Bring them all and, in confession, leave them here. Come often to repentance, come without shame or selfconsciousness, and simply be cleansed. “By the Holy Spirit the streams of grace are flowing, watering all the creation, granting life upon it.” (First Antiphon in tone 4)

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.