4th Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on Understanding and Facing Sin

St. Paul proclaims in today’s Epistle, “The wages of sin is death,”.  Sin is one of the most misunderstood concepts in Christianity today.  In some non-Orthodox circles, sin is identified with legal transgression, salvation with justification and atonement, or ‘appeasement,’ of God.  Others, of a Calvinistic persuasion, assert one cannot lose his salvation no matter what IFone is among the “elect,” regardless of one’s sins.    

The Catholic understanding of ‘original sin’ asserts that we’re all guiltyat conception of Adam’s sin.  According to this perspective, salvation is about becoming individually ‘justified’, righteous, before God, constantly making up for that collective sin, or, in the case of the Neo-Protestants, believing that Christ died to ‘pay the price” for us, to right the scales of justice tipped against us, and there’s nothing else we need to do.  And there are a host of other notions.  

Contrast these theories with our Orthodox belief: sin isn’t participation in collective guilt, but rather, the belief that through the Fall, we’re born into an environment where the inclination to sin is so strong that all succumb.  We share in the consequencesof that first sin rather than its guilt.  At face value, this may seem a minor distinction, but it’s one that has great consequence.

Sin for us as Orthodox is understood as ‘missing the mark,’ that is, failing to live up to our God-given calling and purpose in life—to live to His glory, indeed, to be glorified as His adopted children, co-heirs with Christ.  We’re not created as objects of wrath, but as objects of love—invited into a relationship, a participation, communion in the life God Himself is as Holy Trinity.

Sin is likewise described in the Orthodox faith as sickness for the reason St. Paul states in today’s Epistle: “sin leads to death.”  In order to have the capacity to love, of returning and giving love, we must be free to choose or reject that love, to experience that love, which is life with God.  Rejection of that life, of Him who alone is “the Life of the world,” of that calling for which we were created to live in Him, is what we call, sin,but it is also to choose death, separation from life.  Our choice to sin leads us away from relationship, communion with Christ God.  An earthly life lived apart from communion with God is in actuality a living death.

The Western concepts of sin lead us  to a dead-end street with no way out in which the goal becomes “an egocentric fear of transgression,” and/or the tendency to gloss over sin or to reach an accommodation with it,” as Orthodox theologian, Christos Yannaras, has put it.  It’s as if we’re saying: “O, no big deal, I’m really a ‘good person,’ or, it was only a ‘white’ lie, a little one, or, “everyone does it…” Such thinking leads us to avoid recognizing the consequences of sin and its sad effect on us; it keeps us from being liberated from sin in sacramental confession.  

When the focus is on us, and we have to strive on our own to be justified, being judged by our sins, having upset the scales of justice, or become overwhelmed trying to ‘make up’ for those sins or their guilt, then we’re still lost, we’ve no way out, but to pretend that we’re basically ‘good’ people,’ that we aren’t the sinners we are, in need of the Savior who alone grants us healing from a terrible disease that would otherwise lead to our death, separation from God.

If being ‘good’ is the measure of our salvation, then we’re all lost. Christ proclaims, “Nooneis goodbutOne, that is, God.” (Matt. 19:17).  What seems like a “feel good” boost, saying we’re good (enough) to ignore sin and its consequences, actually makes us and keeps us spiritually sick, because it ignores our need for God, for our only Savior, for a real change in our thinking, our behavior, that leads to our healing and salvation thru the cathartic spiritually regenerating act of repentance and forgiveness.

Our very real, honest, recognition of sin, and our repentance and confession of that sin, that ‘missing the mark,’ is the key to our liberation from its hold on us and the key to becoming fellow victors with Christ over sin and death.  Only in this way, are we able to give our sins over to the One who can forgive us of them, our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, who triumphed over sin and death on the cross through His three-day resurrection.  

It’s only in recognizing the truth about ourselves and our need for God—that we cannot become righteous or ‘good enough’ on our own to inherit life with God, that we’re not ‘good enough’ as we are—that we begin to desire a change.  We recognize that we’ve missed the mark and failed to be what we’re each called to be, that we have somewhere, Someone, to turn to, Jesus Christ, to heal us, grow us, and save us. 

By owning and grounding our identity, our self worth, in who we are in Christ God, as those called to be fellow heirs with all the Saints, participating in the Body of Christ through the Sacramental life, we become step by step through repentance, those servants of God and children of God we’re called to be.  

This effort demands a cooperation on our part with the work of the Holy Spirit in us.  We neither believe that nothing we do makes any difference because our guilt remains, nor do we believe that we’re ‘good enough’ and that there’s nothing really left to do.  Both are grave errors.

Existing as an autonomous individual, even a ‘good’ one, doesn’t save us from corruption and death.  But taking refuge in the Church, acting out our repentance through prayer and confession, communing with God, step by step sets us free from sin’s hold on us.  For this reason, we confess our sins regularly, not to purge ourselves of guilt or be justified, but to be set free of their debilitating effect, to be healed of their spreading sickness, to learn to avoid sin in the future, to be reunited to Christ God and capable of upward growth in communion and love with Him.  

To this end, I strongly recommend using a “Self-Examination” before confession from time to time. By asking ourselves deep questions about our sins, we can come to better understand the root causes of them, we can lay them at the feet of Christ and find healing from them.  Looking at ourselves in the mirror is difficult, humbling, but in confronting the reality of our sin-sickness, we can do battle with them.  When diagnosed with a curable disease, it does us no good to bury our heads in the sand. Rather, we follow the prescribed treatment to find the healing that’s been passed down to us for 2,000 years now.

Because confession is humbling, it’s also an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work in us, to help us take a step of faith in becoming more of who God created us to be—holy men and women.  We see such humility exemplified in all the Saints.  We think of St. John the Baptist and Forerunner, who says, “He (Christ) must increase and I must decrease” (John 3).  And we see this humility in today’s centurion from the Gospel in Matthew 8, a great leader in the eyes of the State, who says to the Lord, “I am not worthy that You should come under my roof, but only speak a word, and my servant will be healed.”  

When we repent, we’re humbling ourselves before God, we’re being freed from the weight of sin, healed of its hold on us, oriented again to the new life we’re given being baptized into Christ; we’re enabled and equipped to live more fervently, more abundantly for God.  This is His desire and mercy for each of us.  

So, we take refuge in the Church where we’re given meaning and purpose for our lives, an identity not grounded on this passing, transient world, but an identity, a purpose, grounded in God who alone is eternal.  St. John Chrysostom asks in this regard, “Have you sinned?  Come to the church and have them cleansed. However often you fall on your journey, as many times as that may be, you pick yourself up; in the same way, as many times as you sin, repent just as often.  Do not lose hope or be lazy, that you may not lose your hope in the heavenly good things prepared for us… Here is the hospital; not a tribunal. Forgiveness is conveyed here… Come and see: repentance will save you.”  

May we each take seriously this exhortation by St. John so that understanding sin, we can avail ourselves more fully of Christ’s cure.  Glory to Jesus Christ!

Fr. Robert Miclean
Holy Archangels Orthodox Church

Sunday, July 14, 2019
Epistle:            Romans 6:18-23
Gospel:            Matthew 8:5-13