Sermon for August 22, 2010, Third-to-Last Sunday after Pentecost on the ACCA Calendar.
Readings: Ephesians 2:11-22, Psalm 27:7-11, John 12:20-26.
The season of Pentecost is coming to a close for another year, and today, we celebrate the Holy Greek Doctors – that is, “teachers” of the early Church. Next week, we shall commemorate the Syriac Doctors: Mar Ephrem, Mar Isaac, Mar Severus of Antioch, and others. In two weeks, the Last Sunday of Pentecost, we will celebrate both the Latin Teachers and Trinity Sunday.
The Greek Doctors are men such as St. Athanasius of Alexandria, who vindicated the Church’s teaching on the incarnation of the eternal son and word of God, Jesus Christ, against the Arians. They are teachers like the Cappodocian Fathers, Gregory of Nazianzen, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nyssa, who clarified for all time the Church’s teaching on the Trinity, that God is a community of Three Divine Persons who are one in being, one in essence: the unoriginate, eternal Father who eternally generates the Son and Word and who simultaneously, eternally breathes forth the Holy Spirit, who “proceeds from the Father and rests upon the Son.”
Yes, our God is the eternal, archetypal community, a communion of Divine Persons who are “members one of another” and in whose image and likeness we who are human are created.
The Greek Doctors also include St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, who without fear spoke truth to power and died in exile as a result.
In the Gospel reading from the Preaching of St. John, “some Greeks”, presumably Jewish converts of Hellenic descent, want to “see Jesus”. They approach Philip, probably a Greek-speaker, and Philip and Andrew go to Jesus. Interestingly, it is not clear that the Greeks are present with Philip and Andrew.
In any event, Jesus replies: “The hour has come for the Son of Adam to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him.”
Now Jesus is quoted in other contexts as saying that in order to have life, one must lose one’s life. Here, however, with “Greeks” in mind, he speaks first of a cycle of nature, and then applies the same principle to humanity. If I would live, I must die to myself. I must live for something bigger than myself, outside myself.
Jesus continues: "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour'? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify thy name." And, a bit later: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." And then, commentary from the gospel writer:“He said this to show by what death he was to die.”
In giving up his life to an unjust criminal execution, Jesus does many things. First and foremost, he defeats Satan, “the ruler of this world”. He defeats Satan, the master of death, by voluntarily submitting to death when He, being sinless, was in no way subject to death. He defeats Satan in this way by exposing Satan as the co-opter, the usurper, who uses good things, the State, culture, the divinely-revealed teaching in the Jewish law, as weapons by which to unjustly kill the Messiah. Jesus thereby exposes Satan as the thief who, upon entering the house and encountering the owner and the police, tries to convince the officers that the owner of the house should be arrested for trespassing!
Now the possibility that the state, the law, can be co-opted in this way is a stumbling block for all people. We really want to live by the law, by force. Why? So we, in fact, can justify protecting ourselves, secure in our possessions. For the Greeks, as for us, who are their heirs, this often takes the form, not of being afraid to die per se (although we are), but of inclining toward risking our lives in causes that are not worthy of self-sacrifice.
These causes are essentially oppressive of others but in them, we can glory because we think we are purifying, not ourselves, but the world around us and thereby protecting ourselves and all this is "true, good, and beautiful," etc. As Nietzsche pointed out, these are pagan values, the values of Greek philosophy. They are essentially the values of social Darwinism. Only the strong survive: only the strong SHOULD survive. I think of Naziism. Stalinism. The Confederacy and its desire to preserve slavery. I think of the neo-liberal approach to economics.
Yes, there may be a time and place where war is necessary. I think most agree that World War II, for example, was necessary. But in so many cases, people give up their lives for causes that lead, not to resurrection and life, but only to death. In any event, the great achievement of the Greek teachers was to use the language of Greek philosophy to express the Christian faith. In the West, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas attempted to use philosophy as the key to understand the Christian faith and in doing so, they distorted it. The Greek fathers used their Christian faith to understand and, where necessary, to critique philosophy. In essence, they nailed philosophy to the cross and when it was resurrected with Christ, it expressed a whole new reality but in the old, familiar language.
So then, if we wish to live, we too must die with Christ, along with our old presuppositions. If we do, we shall indeed also rise with him. As the reading from Ephesians explains, in dying with him, we are reconciled with all who follow him, regardless of ethnicity or culture, as we are all drawn to Christ, as He says in the gospel. We learn to appreciate the gifts that each group brings into the Church. In Christ, in his death and resurrection, the direct revelation given to Moses and the Hebrew prophets is fulfilled and completed as is the indirect revelation discerned by the Greeks and all paganisms. In both cases, the fulfillment is personal: the fulfillment is a person. The Eternal Son and Word of God-become-human, Jesus Christ.
Classical Greek philosophy is almost anti-personal (not unlike much of contemporary science). Why? In short, because personhood is unknowable. It cannot be reduced to something else. All we can discern of personhood is through its works, or energies.
A person is free. Free to transcend his or her human nature. Free to love. To love to the point of giving up one’s life for one’s friends. Free to be in communion with other persons. This is possible for us because we are becoming friends with him who gave up his life for us.
In so doing, we are also becoming friends with those who were previously enemies because they are different ethnically, or of the other gender, or because they are of a different socioeconomic class, and/or because we oppressed them or they oppressed us. No, in dying with Christ, in rising with him, all of that is irrelevant. We start to become true persons, in communion with others who are also becoming persons in Christ. We stop oppressing. We stop accepting oppression.
In Christ, we are reconciled, not only with God, but with each other.
Now, all who have been baptized and chrismated have begun this process. We continue it, at least weekly, by offering ourselves together to the Father in, with, and through the sacrifice of the Son in the sacrifice of the altar, as empowered by the eternal, all-holy, good, and lifegiving Spirit. Let us pray therefore that, in receiving in return the heavenly gifts of the body and blood of Christ, we may truly become what we are, one body and one spirit, members of Christ and therefore members one of another, for he is indeed Lord forever and ever. Amen.