Saturday 23 August 2014

Submit to God

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. James 4:7

I would like us to spend a little while considering the passage we heard read to us from the Catholic Epistle of St James this morning.

Now it is never a good idea to take a passage out of its context. So let us remind ourselves of the substance of St James teaching throughout his short letter. Then we will be better able to read and understand the passage within the framework of St James’ argument.

Martin Luther, one of the founders of the Protestant movement, said on one occasion that he considered this letter ‘an epistle of straw’. He believed that it failed to come up to the level of theological brilliance which he found in the writings of St Paul. His main objection to this letter was that it teaches that faith which is not worked out in our lives is dead. There is no such thing as bare faith. Yet this was what Martin Luther believed he had found in the Bible.

I grew up in a devout Protestant family, and this opinion of Martin Luther still had a great deal of authority. I was taught in books, and sermons and lectures, and even in songs, that to become a Christian I simply needed tonbelieve that Jesus Christ had died for me. I did believe that. But within my Protestant community no-one seemed to have much idea what should come next! If we only needed to believe that Jesus had done something for us then there was little necessity for any life of ascetic effort. Indeed in my Protestant church we knew nothing about fasting, about a rule of prayer or about any of the other spiritual disciplines of the Church. This was not because people did not love Christ very much and wished to serve him, but it was because we had been infected with the wrong teaching that all we needed to do was believe.

St James teaches otherwise and says in Chapter 2 v 17,

Faith by itself, if it does not have any works, is dead.

And in v 14 of the same chapter he had already said,

What good does it do, my brothers, if someone claims to have faith but does not have any works? This kind of faith cannot save him, can it?

Now Martin Luther was wrong. St James is not diminishing the importance of faith at all. And he surely agrees that our works do not put us right with God. But he wishes us to examine our claim to have faith and see if it is real or counterfeit. He warns us in v 19 of chapter 2 that, Even the demons believe and tremble with fear.

So if we have faith it must be an active faith. It is not an intellectual appreciation of facts ABOUT God. Rather, it is having a trust IN God. Knowing Him and being known by him. If someone said to us, I have faith in God, but I don’t make any effort to pray, I don’t attend Church, I never fast, and don’t really ever try and help others more needy than
myself. If we heard that, or if we considered our own lives and found such an attitude in our own hearts, then we would be concerned that such a person, or even ourselves, lacked the active faith in Christ that does save us, and only had a mental belief in things about Christ, which can save no-one.

Now we have needed to consider this wider background to the teaching of the letter of St James so that we can place the passage we heard today in a context. We understand that St James is teaching us that our faith must be active, it must be put into practice or it is no faith at all. Just as if I never showed my wife any affection, or provided any help in the house, or spoke to her with kindness, she would rightly come to question what my love meant. How could it be real if it was never put into practice?

Likewise our faith requires effort, and the word we use to describe this effort is ascesis. This Greek word means ‘exercise’. The commitment of an Olympic athlete would be questioned if he never turned up for training, and if he abandoned his exercise schedule. But as Christians we are called to no less a degree of commitment, and if we wish to run the race with the aim of winning the victors crown then we need to engage in spiritual exercise or ascesis. We are going to look at the phrases,

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the Devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

I believe we need to go back a few verses if we are to properly understand what St James is saying. In v4 we learn that friendship with the world is hostility or enmity with God. Whoever wants to be a friend of this world is an enemy of God.While v6 reminds us that God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble. This verse is a quotation from Proverbs 3:34.

These two verses and thoughts are important because v7, the first verse in our reading today, has the word therefore in it. It is part of an argument. Let’s have those two verses in mind again before we read v7.

Point #1. Friendship with the world is enmity with God. Whoever wants to be a friend of the world is an enemy of God.

Point #2. God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble.

Now when we come to v7 we find the first of a list of practices which we are to engage in. It is clear that these are the way to avoid the negative consequences of the previous passage. We wish to be friends of God, and we wish to receive grace, therefore this is the way we must live.

This is the way we must put our faith into practice if we want it to be shown to be a real faith, a saving faith. There are 3 activities or practices or habits of behaviour we must adopt and which we will consider today.

#1. We must submit to God. This seems to me to balance the verse which says...God resists the proud. Of course there is a danger of us having a relationship with God which is based on fatalism rather than humility. But St James wants us to put effort into our spiritual lives, therefore we must not accept a fatalistic attitude of saying whatever happens is God’s will and I must put up with it. It seems to me that submission to God by means of humility means that we must find something positive in each circumstance. The practice of Abouna Youstos, of meeting every circumstance with the words, ‘Thanks be to God’, seems to me to put into practice a genuine submission to God that is not fatalistic, because it teaches us to go beyond accepting whatever happens, to positively finding that which is good in each circumstance. This is not at all easy.

And it is perhaps no coincidence that v6, speaks of God giving grace to the humble. If we are to live in a positive submission to the will of God then we need grace. The natural human response to difficult situations apart from God’s grace is to become frustrated, angry, fearful and doubtful of God’s goodness. Yet with God’s grace, which he promises to those who are humble and who submit to his perfect will, each circumstance, however difficult, and many circumstances are very difficult indeed, can become a means of experiencing the closeness of God to us.

#2. If we must submit to God then we must also resist the Devil. It is not possible to serve two masters. It is not possible to be the friend of God as well as the friend of the world. This word resist has a positive and active meaning. It means to oppose and to stand against. It does not mean that we should vaguely wish that Satan would leave us alone, but that we should make every effort, as we are given grace, to oppose his thoughts and his works in our own life, and in our families, and in our Church. St Peter in his first letter says the same thing. In chapter 5 and v9 he says,

Your adversary the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him and be firm in the faith.

Now perhaps these verses are a cause of fear. If we imagine Satan like a lion then we might wonder how we could ever overcome him. But St James teaches us that if we do resist the Devil then he will flee from us. Yet we very often feel that Satan is much stronger than we are and that we cannot overcome him, but must be doomed to continually falling into his traps. I am reminded of that passage in 2 Kings when the servant of Elisha woke to find that the Army of the Syrians had surrounded the city of Dothan where Elisha was staying. The servant cried out to Elisha, ‘Alas, my master! What are we going to do?’ Now there are many times when we are tempted or oppressed by Satan and his servants and we have the same sense of despair come upon us. What are we to do? We are so weak and we are so easily overcome. Now Elisha prayed to God and asked that the eyes of his servant might be opened and that he might see what he saw. And the Lord heard his prayer, and the servant suddenly saw ‘that the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha’.

When we resist the Devil, if we do so with faith, if we do so in humility, well aware of our weakness, we will also find that the heavenly host surrounds us and fights with us against our enemy and he will flee.

Nor should we doubt that we have great friends in the saints and holy angels of our Lord. We should not doubt that they pray earnestly for us, and are ready to come to our aid if we resist even a little. We are never left to struggle on our own, and each one of us has a guardian angel who is especially concerned to defend us from the assaults of the enemy if we will make even a little effort. Matthew 18 v 10 tells us, that the guardian angels of each child always behold the face of our Father in heaven. We should not imagine that our guardian ever leaves us while we need his protection.

God says that he resists the proud. And of course the sin of Satan was pride. He is the angelic personification of pride. When we are proud we become like Satan and God resists us, he opposes our prideful way of thinking and acting. But when we humble ourselves we become friends of God, and with him we oppose Satan and he flees from us.

#3. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Since we wish to be friends of God and receive his grace we have learned that we must humble ourselves and submit to God. We must resist the Devil and oppose him as far as we are able. But we must also draw near to God. Again this is an active and determined spiritual process. We do not draw near to God by having a vague sense that we wish we were spiritual men and women. We must do something about our aspirations.

I was immediately led to think of the parable of the Prodigal Son in this context. You will remember that he took his share of his father’s inheritance and squandered it in a far country. He was reduced to working as a pig herd, and even took the food from the pigs because he was so hungry. Yet he could have stayed in this situation for the rest of his life had he not come to his senses, repented of his foolishness, and decided that he needed to go back home to his father.

It was when he was on the way, on the road itself, that his father saw him a long way off and came running to meet him and embrace him. Luke 15 says,

When he was a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck, and kissed him.

It is easy for us to remain in the pigsty. It is easy for us to be filled with self-reproach and shame because we have failed to live the Christian life as we would wish. But what is necessary for us, if we want to redeem the situation, is for us to set out on the way back to our father’s house.

Within our Orthodox Church we are fortunate that the path back to the father’s house is laid out for us. We can follow it if we choose. When I was growing up in an Evangelical Protestant home one of the great problems was that we did not know the spiritual path which countless saints had established over the centuries since the beginning. We had a faith in Christ, we trusted him and loved him, but there was no-one to teach us how to live in any coherent manner so that we might draw near to God.

This is not a criticism of Protestants, many of whom do live lives of great holiness and devotion to God, more than many Orthodox. But it seems to me to be something we should give thanks for. There is a narrow way which we can follow, and which the saints and our fathers in the Faith have already laid out for us.

Let’s think for a few moments about this spiritual way which leads us to God. In the first place it is sacramental. The way begins for us in the waters of the baptismal font. At the end of the service of baptism and chrismation the priest says,

Give him strength to fulfil Thy commandments and Thine ordinances that he may attain to the blessings of the kingdom of heaven;

Now here at the beginning of the Christian life we find a prayer for strength to fulfil the commandments and ordinances of the Christian way, so that the new Christian might attain to the blessings of the Kingdom. We see that even in the first moments of the new life there is reference to the necessity for an active commitment to the Christian life. We are not baptised and then need do nothing. We are baptised and then begin a journey that requires God’s strength and that requires us to put into practice the commands and ordinances of God. There is no attaining to the blessings of the Kingdom without this active engagement with the Christian life.

And this is what St James teaches. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. If I say to one of you, draw near to me, it requires you to rise up from your seat and step towards me. You must make an effort otherwise you will come no closer to me at all. And the prayers of our Orthodox baptism remind us that this life is one which requires the use of a spiritual strength and spiritual effort if we wish to obtain a blessing.

But baptism is not the only sacrament which allows us to proceed upon the spiritual path towards God. Indeed we have gathered together today especially to participate in the sacrament of the Eucharist, or the communion of the Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour. If baptism and chrismation are the beginning of our life with Christ and our journey to the heavenly kingdom, then surely the Holy Communion is the spiritual food which we need to strengthen us for the way. The prayers of the Liturgy describe participation in the communion as being for the remission of sins and eternal life, and that we might have a share and inheritance with the saints, and that the participation might purify our souls, bodies and spirits.

We do not participate in the communion of the Body and Blood of our Lord because we are Christians; as if it were simply a ritual we perform to preserve our identity as Orthodox Christians. Rather, the participation in the communion renews the life of the Holy Spirit within us, which we received at our baptisms, and in a real sense continues to make us Christians.

We cannot draw near to God if we neglect the blessing of the Holy Communion. Nor is it an incidental blessing which we can live without. Rather it is the source of our continuing life as Christians. If we wish to draw near to God then we must meet him here, in the Liturgy, in the bread and wine, which become the Body and Blood of our Lord. The source of our life, and a spiritual nourishment for our journey towards the heavenly kingdom. Of course in the context of the Liturgy we should not neglect mentioning the sacrament of confession. If we participate in this sacrament, as our Lord wills that we do, then we find a double blessing. In the first place we find that the burden of our sins is lifted from our shoulders by the absolution pronounced over us. We are able to continue on our journey without that weight pressing down on us and slowing us. But we are also able to receive guidance and wisdom from those placed over us to care for us on the spiritual way. Our fathers of confession have experience of many of the things we ask for help with, both personally, and through having had to help many people facing the same situations. And we should believe that our fathers of confession are men of prayer to whom God will grant a word of wisdom when we need it. When our spiritual path becomes less clear to us we should make use of the sacrament of confession and seek the prayers and advice of those pastors who love us and wish us to make
progress on the way.

If we were struggling over a mountainous track and had a heavy rucksack on our back so that we were having to bend right over just to make any progress, then we would be very foolish if, when someone came and offered to bear the burden for us, we refused and insisted that we would press on all alone. The sacrament of confession is a means for us to lighten our load, and to find guidance for the way ahead. We should make the most of this gift if we wish to draw near to God.

But it is not only by means of the sacraments that we are able to draw near to God. And I would like to comment on three of the spiritual practices of the Church which are part of the life we commit ourselves to in baptism, and continue to embrace through the grace we receive in communion.

Firstly we are to draw near to God by embracing the rule of prayer of the Church. One of the greatest blessings I have received since becoming a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church is the gift of the Agpeya which the Church offers to us all. One of the important aspects of the prayer rule presented to us by the Church is that it is infinitely flexible and is directed towards the salvation of each individual soul. With the guidance of our spiritual father we do not judge each other by how much of the Agpeya we pray, rather we see in ourselves a growing desire to use these prayers as a means of creating a godly habit in our use of our time. We pray in the morning, and in the evening, and some will pray at lunch time. Others will pray a little less from the Agpeya, or a little more, as the spiritual state we find ourselves in directs. We will pray these prayers alone, and will pray them together here in Church.

Like the scaffolding which surrounds a building as it rises from its foundations, so the rule of prayer which we follow, according to the advice of our spiritual fathers, helps us to grow straight and tall, as we are built into a spiritual building. Without such a rule we tend to grow in a deformed manner, like a tree or bush which grows up in a place where the wind constantly blows from one direction. We tend to please ourselves and end up creating a spiritual way which suits us best, rather than being formed into the image of Christ by the spiritual disciplines we are taught by the Church.

Sometimes the Agpeya grows stale, and we are tempted to abandon it for spontaneous prayer, or a variety of other practices one after the other. Of course we must also intercede for those in need, and there are other forms of prayer which are useful and should form part of our prayer life. But if we can continue to pray the Agpeya with attention and commitment, even when we find it boring or tedious, even when our mind wanders, then we will discover that each time we open the book and begin we have made another step towards God.

Secondly, we must embrace the teaching of the Church on fasting. Our Lord said, when you fast, not if you fast. And from the earliest period of the Church the practice of fasting was universally adopted. Indeed we know from the Didache, that very early Christian book, written in the 1st century, that the Christians fasted on Wednesday and Friday, while the Jews fasted on Tuesday and Thursday.

When we fast we are not giving something up for God, as if we were doing him a favour. Rather we are laying aside that which slows us down and holds us back so that we can more easily press forward in our drawing near to God. When the Prodigal Son was sitting in his pig sty he was obsessed with food, and thoughts of hunger filled his every waking moment. But when he had set out on the way back to his father’s house we hear no more about food or hunger. He had no money, so he could not buy food for the journey, but now his every thought was of his father and how he must return home at all costs.

When we fast we are not giving something up. Rather we are embracing more completely the journey to God. We are like an Olympic athlete who has taken his track suit off at the side of the track. He has not lost anything, rather he has prepared himself to run as fast as he can, and win the race.

The Church uses the ascesis, or spiritual practice, of fasting in the same way that it uses the Agpeya. Though the teaching of the Tradition prescribes a certain rule of fasting, nevertheless the Church uses the practice of fasting for the salvation of each soul, and not as a new Law which condemns us. Our spiritual father knows our circumstances and will guide us how we should fast at different stages in our journey.

It is not always easy to fast. And even the Desert Fathers speak about the temptation to break the fast early, or fall into the sin of gluttony. But we must not consider fasting a chore, or a burden that we cannot bear. Each time that we fast with commitment, however difficult it seems to us, we will find that we have taken another step on the journey, and have drawn that much closer to God.

Thirdly, I would like us to consider the practice of reading and studying the Scripture, as a means of making progress towards God. Of course there are many other practices we could consider, and I am not suggesting that any others are less important. But it is hard to imagine a Christian making progress on the spiritual way who is not committed to prayer and fasting, and to gaining a greater knowledge of the Scriptures.

When I was a Protestant youngster we learned many memory verses. Verses from the scriptures that had great value. And some of the older men were very well read in the Bible. But the habit of knowing the Bible well has diminished in many places. Indeed it is always a blessing to be reminded of how much the words of the Scripture mean to His Holiness Pope Shenouda, and to find that his books are made up to a great extent with the words of the Scriptures. One of the criticisms which Protestants have made of Orthodox Christians is that we have a reputation for not having any tradition of people knowing and loving the Bible. This could hardly be further from the truth. Of course many of the Fathers, such as St John Chrysostom and St Cyril of Alexandria, are renowned for their
commentaries on the Scriptures. But we cannot rely on the fact that there are others in our Church who have known the Bible in the past, or love it today. What about each one of us?

There are some among us who love to read a good novel, but hardly ever read the Scripture. I can remember when I was 16, and about to start an A Level in English Literature, I read all of the novels of Jane Austen, the famous English writer of the early 19th century. But was I so eager to read the Bible? Yet the Bible is a means of drawing near to God. It provides encouragement and instruction. It gives us hope and builds our faith. At the very least we could each read the Gospel set aside for the Liturgy of each day. Even better would be to have a rule to read one of the Gospels all
the way through each month.

In fact there are books of reading plans for the Bible which would allow any of us to read the whole Bible in a year. Let us look to the example of His Holiness. We cannot be in any doubt as to the value he places on a thorough knowledge of the Bible, and not merely an academic knowledge, but a prayerful study of the Bible which makes its words part of our daily life.

It is not always easy to read the Bible. We all of us have many things which require our attention. But some things must take priority. We would not forget to have a bath for very long, our friends and family would remind us quickly enough. We would not forget to eat or drink for days at a time. We would not neglect sleep and discover that we had been awake for a week. So we should not neglect the reading of the Scriptures. To read a passage each day, however short, even a single verse, is nourishment for our souls, a godly habit, and a step on the journey, drawing nearer to God.

Does it sound as though by simply doing things we receive a blessing? It does not work out that way. Putting up some scaffolding doesn’t guarantee that the building will be constructed, but it does mean that when construction starts it will progress in a sound manner. When the Olympic athlete takes off his tracksuit it does not guarantee he will win, or even jump the first hurdle, but without taking off his tracksuit he would have no hope of running the race. And we can fill our heads with all manner of facts but it doesn’t become knowledge until we live out what we have read.

Likewise we can pray and fast and read the Bible in a manner that does not bring us closer to God, but that need not be the case for any of us. If we remember the first verses we considered, we saw that God gives grace to the humble. He will give us grace if we pray and fast and read with humility, and these practices, by which we work out our faith and show that it is real, will become the means by which we draw near to God.

Now the last phrase we must consider is this one, he will draw near to you. We have been rather thinking about how the sacraments and spiritual practices of the Church are a means of us drawing near to God, and this is indeed so. But we do not have a God who is far from us, distant and detached from our cares and circumstances. Indeed he is so close to us that he is called Emmanuel, God with us, or even God in us.

As soon as we make some stumbling movement towards God, he promises that he will draw near to us. In the parable of the Prodigal Son we read that the father ran towards his son. We should apply this parable to our own situations. When we make a hesitant movement towards God he runs to meet us and embrace us.

It is possible for us to see why Martin Luther objected to the active faith which St James demands of us. Luther tended towards an understanding of faith as being the acceptance of something being true, but St James asks us to trust in a person, and to make steps towards that Divine person on our spiritual journey. If we say we have faith in God then we must show this by taking steps to draw nearer to him.

The Church provides this way for us. It has been hallowed by the footsteps of the saints and our fathers, and those faithful Christians who have lived before us. We take this path by humbly submitting to God, who knows what is best for us, and by resisting the Devil with the grace of God, and the support of the saints and angelic host.

We should not expect to arrive at our destination all at once. Even the great saints were still aware that they had more of the journey towards God ahead of them. But they persevered in drawing near to God, and received the blessing of his spiritual embrace. We will not become perfect in this coming week, certainly I will not, but I hope that by making steps towards God, by the right use of the sacraments, and by committing ourselves more fully to the spiritual practices of the Church, we will see our heavenly Father running towards us, and experience what it means to be the friend of God.

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

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