This sermon was delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Matthew (Matthew 8:5-13), July 5, 2020 (St. Athanasios of Mt. Athos; epistle: Galatians 5:22-26; 6:1-2), at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Flushing, New York.
Audio (not recorded live)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
YESTERDAY, and this weekend in general, we Americans have in mind the concept of independence. July 4th marks the date that the British Colonies in the New World declared independence from the sovereignty of the British Empire. The proximate cause for this declaration of independence was a long list of persistent abuses by the powers-that-be—crippling taxation, political corruption, lack of adequate representation, and so on. From the British perspective, the colonists were unruly children who had forgotten their place and needed to be put back in it. Thus, war ensued, and eventually the rebel colonies prevailed, and the newly won independence marked the birth of a new nation, governed in a new way, that would go on to inspire people around the world for centuries.
This recounting of the birth of our nation seems to contrast greatly with what we see happening within her borders today. Despite the ideals conceived by the Declaration of Independence and fleshed out by the Constitution and Bill of Rights, we still see strife, inequality, abuse, greed, decadence, and moral failure at all levels of government, society, and industry. To be sure, the governing principles are still in tact and, as much as they may have enabled our current maladies, they also have provided a layer of fundamental protection, and good does come through them. America is still a land of opportunity and possibility.
These aspects of our national identity touch us all in various ways. Some of us have been very successful in business. Others, not so much. Some of us have lived relatively carefree lives. Others have been saddled with things like medical debt and the quicksand of financial setbacks. Some of us come from immigrant families, or are ourselves immigrants, and have found a path to the so-called “American Dream”, while others have languished in what feels more like a nightmare. Sure, we can say that some of this depends on the character and fortitude of the individual, but if we are honest with ourselves, we know that the system has cracks through which many fall and are lost.
The real or perceived inequalities or injustices, or freedom and opportunities for success, lead people to seek out representation in our constitutional republic that will reflect and enact what they perceive as important and beneficial. Different perspectives lead to different representative groups, and in general these are distilled into two poles: “right” and “left”, “Republican” and “Democrat”, “conservative” and “liberal”. Certainly, there are other paths, but they are usually not well-represented. In any case, there is a perennial tension between these poles.
Tension, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Think of a guitar string: if it is too slack, it will not produce a tone; if it is too tight, it will break. Its tension must be tuned in order to produce its appropriate tone. Likewise, when there are poles of desire, a balanced tension produces harmonious results that both sides can tolerate and in which they can live and even thrive. Undue tension, however, makes things unbalanced and soon makes things intolerable—either for both sides, or for one disproportionately. God forbid, too much tension will cause a rupture; we usually call this “war”.
My aim in laying all this out before us is not to give us a history or civics lesson. Rather, I wish to hold this image up to the reality of the Gospel. The sad truth is that our sense of civic identity may at times overshadow our Orthodox Christian identity. Indeed, many of us hold very strong political opinions and even filter our daily experience—either what we take in through our eyes and ears, or what comes out of our mouth—through this lens, and not through the lens of our baptism. In fact, we often subject our Christian faith to this same filter, rather than doing the opposite.
Today’s Gospel reading, however, shows us what happens when a strong civic consciousness encounters Jesus. The centurion in today’s encounter was a man of his time. He was formed in Roman civic structures, and was entrusted with an imperial outpost to maintain the law of his fatherland. This would have included worshiping the state gods and an unwavering deference to the authority of Caesar.
Yet word had come to him of this Jesus, and he sensed that something was different about him. He heard about how he healed, but more so how he spoke and taught as one with authority. Now, understand that for a Roman soldier to take note of an authority other than that of Caesar was no small thing—let alone for it to be coming from one of the imperial subjects he was charged with overseeing. It could be tantamount to treason.
But this is exactly what happened. This disciplined, patriotic man recognized an authority in Jesus that surpassed that of the Caesar and of the state and its official deities. This undoubtedly shook him. But when the moment came that he needed help for one of his servants, he did not hesitate to find this man of authority, Jesus, and to request his help.
He did not do so with the bravado and sense of entitlement that we so often see in our political and so-called patriotic discourse today. He did not try to conscript Jesus in the authority of Caesar’s name. No. He recognized Jesus as a source of authority beyond that with which he was familiar, and both submitted to and trusted Jesus wholeheartedly. And look how grace filled his home, and how the Lord himself marveled at the centurion’s faith.
Brothers and sisters, we are earthly citizens of these United States, but it is not our home. We are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Our civic experience is governed by the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights, but we are subject to the law of God and enjoy the grace of Jesus Christ. Our earthly nation promises “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, but not in the name of Jesus Christ, who calls us to deny ourself, to take up our cross, and to follow him. The land in which we live celebrates its day of independence on July 4th, but we celebrate ours at Pascha.
Keeping this in mind, let us revisit what the life of a citizen of Heaven looks like, from the words we heard from St. Paul in today’s epistle:
“Brethren, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”Galatians 5:22-26; 6:1-2
How do our lives match up to this? How do the political leaders and movements we so quickly defend and promote—or castigate and ridicule—match up to this? To the extent we see these qualities lacking in ourselves, our government, our leaders, our society, it is for us to repent and to live them. This is the only way that the ideals of our American nation can be fully realized, in a way that accords with the law of God, so that his will be done “on earth as it is in heaven”.
As we reflect on our nation’s earthly concept of freedom these days, particularly amidst turmoil, the centurion in today’s Gospel shows us the way: to submit our national sense of freedom, patriotism, law, rights, and authority to the feet of Jesus. They will always be found wanting, and will only engender selfishness, greed, sin, and the anti-Gospel—in short, the opposite of freedom from sin, for which the Lord gave his life—if we do not submit them to the measure and authority of Jesus Christ.