Being Humble, A Sinner or Virtuous?

Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.  (Luke 15:7 )

But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.   (Romans 5:8)

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners… (1 Timothy 1:15)

Athonite Elder Porphyrios writes:

We must all be humble: in thought, in word and in behavior. We will never go before God and say, ‘I have virtues.’ God does not want our virtues. Always appear before God as a sinner, not with despair, but ‘trusting in the mercy of His compassion’. Suffice it that we find the secret. 

The secret is love for Christ and humility. Christ will give us the humility. We with our weaknesses are unable to love Him. Let Him love us. Let us entreat Him earnestly to love us and to give us zeal for us to love Him too. (Wounded by Love, p. 154)

Mercy is Justice

“The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”   (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

“Since justice insists that all people get their due, and since mercy implies that at least some receive what is not their due, how can the two claims avoid contradiction?

Wisdom and Justice

The answer lies in the biblical understanding of our relation to God. He does not owe us our existence but grants it as sheer miraculous gift. There is nothing we could possibly do to compensate for this gift, to make it something deserved – not even to return it. We would be totally indebted even if we were unfallen. Sin hugely magnifies our obligation to the triune God. His deliverance of us from bondage through Israel and Christ and the church makes the debt absolute.

Elijah, Christ, Moses

In the deepest sense, therefore, God’s mercy precedes his justice and serves as its very basis.

His judgement is but the enforcement of his mercy: God insists that we live by the same merciful measure wherein we have been created and redeemed.  [Author JRR] Tolkien repeatedly demonstrates his understanding of this profound paradox that mercy is not contrary to justice but the true realization of it. Over and again we encounter characters who have done wrong and who deserve punishment, but who receive justice in the form of mercy – as their bad deeds often issue in surprisingly good things.” (Ralph C. Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien, pp 96-97)

SS Peter & Paul
“Mercy triumphs over judgment.”

(James 2:13)

The Rich Ruler and the Average Orthodox Parishioner

Sermon notes   15 January 2012        Luke 18:18-27

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’ And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”  So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.  And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”

 If we put this Gospel Lesson in a modern Orthodox context, it is possible to imagine the average Orthodox parishioner coming to confession and telling the priest, “I don’t really know what to confess for I haven’t murdered anyone, I haven’t committed adultery, I haven’t stolen anything or told any big lies.”

To that the priest can reply like Christ: “Good for you, then all you need to do is sell all you have and give it to the poor and go and follow Christ!”

How many of us would walk away from such a confession every bit as sorrowful as that certain ruler of the Gospel lesson?

For we might think highly of ourselves that we haven’t committed any major sins, and yet we pray constantly in the Church that we might spend the remaining time of  our life in repentance.

If however we are so unaware of what sins we might be committing, then we do need to do what Christ offered to that certain ruler:  sell all we have and distribute it to the poor and then follow Him.  Only once we have freed ourselves from our riches will we be able to follow Him.

Such in the challenge of today’s Gospel.  Maybe it really is “easier” for us to examine our consciences a bit more and to repent of our sins (to give our sinful ways away!) than it is for us to give up our wealth (however meager it may be).  It is easier for a camel to go through an eye of a needle than for the rich to enter into heaven.

In any before we go into confession and say we have nothing much to confess, we might want to examine our consciences, or be prepared to be told to sell all we have and then follow Christ.

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As a second point, consider Jesus’ words that where your treasurer is there your heart will be as well.  Our treasures are not always our “material wealth” or “prosperity.”  Sometimes the things we treasure in our hearts are our anger against someone, the unwillingness to forgive, our sexual lust, our greed, our self willfulness.   We treasure our time in front of our TVs and computers, pornography, alcohol, drugs, sex.   All of these things are our “riches” because we are determined to hold onto them and never give them up.

We can try to get around Jesus’ words by being exactly literal – I too have not committed adultery or stolen or committed murder.   But like the rich ruler, I may have stored up these other treasures in my heart.   And indeed holding a grudge and keeping your hatred is making that a treasure.  So sometimes the things we value and refuse to give up are obviously spiritually harmful too, yet we cling to them, our anger and lust, every bit as much as the ruler clung to his gold – to his detriment and to our own.

St. Paul offers us the more perfect way:

Baptism of St. Paul

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners‑‑of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.                  (1 Tim. 1:15-17)

St. Paul accepted a life time of repentance and was not ashamed to admit that he was the foremost of sinners because he also recognized this confession did not put him in God’s disfavor but rather in God’s grace.  He acknowledged his previous way of life was wrong and turned to God to change his personal sinful ways and to embrace the Way of God.

Christ Jesus Came to Save Sinners

St. Paul writes in 1 Tim. 1:15-17 –

Christ and the Prodigal Child

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners‑‑of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

St. Isaac the Syrian comments:

“Love sinners, but hate their works; and do not despise them for their faults, lest you be tempted by the same. Remember that you share the earthly nature of Adam and that you are clothed with his infirmity. Do not reprove those who are in need of your prayer, and do not withhold tender words of comfort from them, lest they perish and their souls be required of you; but do as the physicians, who cure the diseases which are more feverish with cooling remedies, and the more chilling with their opposites.” (St. Isaac in Introduction to Eastern Patristic Thought and Orthodox Theology by Constantine N. Tsirpanlis, pg. 202)

Jesus: Brother of Sinners

This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance,

that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,

of whom I am chief.”    (1 Timothy 1:15)

“I am touching here the mystery that Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake.  He left the house of his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through his cross to his Father’s home. All of this he did, not as a rebellious son, but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God.  Jesus, who told the story to those who criticized him for associating with sinners, himself lived the long and painful journey he describes.”   

 (Nouwen, Henri JM, The Return of the Prodigal Son:  A Story of Homecoming, pg 55)

God’s Longsuffering Love for Sinners

Sermon notes from  5 February 1989   The Canaanite Woman

Scripture Lessons:  1 Timothy 1:15-17,   Matthew 15:21-28

Christ saving the first among sinners: Adam & Eve

The Gospel Lesson of the Canaanite Woman is a story of hope for sinners, outcasts, non-believers and rejects. Even though we sometimes get stuck on the fact that Jesus behaves down right rudely to this woman, calling her “a dog!”, if we look closely at the story we can see wherein is the Good News.

The Jew expected the Messiah to save Jews and thus to reject the Canaanite women as Jesus appears to do. The Canaanites (Gentiles) expect the Jewish God not to help them and Jesus appears to fulfill this expectation. But Jesus breaks through the expectations, prejudices, limitations and beliefs of both Jew and Gentile, and shows His Power stretches to all, His salvation is for all, His Authority is over all. Therefore no one on earth should believe that God cannot or will not help/save them. There is hope even for the sinner and the unbeliever.

John 3:17  –  “For God did not send His Son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

St. Paul told us in his letter to Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” Despite the fact the Paul sees himself as the foremost of sinners, he knows he has been both saved by the Lord Jesus Christ and called to preach the Gospel of salvation to the nations. He knows acceptance by the Church, forgiveness, healing, support, patience, encouragement and love from the Church.   It was the members of the church who Paul so violently persecuted, but it was through the same church membership that Paul was healed, baptized, evangelized, forgiven, supported and encouraged.

St. Paul did not try to hide the fact that he violently sinned against God. He publicly acknowledged it, and he did find acceptance by the Church. Brothers and Sisters, the same should be true for each of us today. Thousands of people, including thousands of Christian people, turn to Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and such groups to help themselves acknowledge and confess their sins. But as God’s chosen people, as a group of sinners who have been accepted by Christ, it is our duty to help, support, encourage, love and accept each other, even with our sinful faults. We all face temptations, all struggle against the flesh, against evil desires, and here is one place we should be able to safely admit our faults and receive the healing and strengthening forgiveness of God’s community.

As your priest, I am in the sermons to exhort you, to challenge you, to encourage you, to strengthen you, to comfort you and to lead you. But, I am not set above you because of my personal holiness. Like St. Paul, I am a sinner. Like St. Paul, in my youth I opposed the Church and tried to get people to leave the Church. I wasted much of my younger days in drunken parties. So I know the enticement of sin. I am not here to be your judge, even though my message may make you feel God’s judgement. But I have a position in the Church to fulfill, as one whom Christ has come to save.

I too need your prayers and support, so that I can continue in my own struggle against temptation, selfishness, sinfulness, and the enticement of this world. I too need your support, encouragement and forgiveness so that I can teach you, guide you, preach to you, and be spiritual father to you. You are my family, my consolation, my strength and my joy.

The Parish Community

Therefore, I ask you to encourage one another in the fight against sin. Ask for each others prayers and pray for one another. Acknowledge your faults, trusting that the community will support you and accept you. Call each other during the week to offer a word of prayer, encouragement, love and hope, and also to seek the prayers of your Church community, to seek counsel, comfort and strength. Break the bonds of isolation and loneliness, call someone from the parish this week and see if you can meet a need of theirs or if they can meet a need that you have. Each of us should be able to find within this little community all of the support, love, healing, patience, acceptance, encouragement, strength and nourishment that we need to continue our life as Christians.