Rights or Righteousness?Fr. Barnabas Powell
Real inspiration isn’t easy! In fact, I’ve become suspicious of the real lasting power of inspiration based on mere sentiment or even “good intentions.” It just always seems to be reduced to nothing more than making someone else “feel” better about “inspiring” someone else. And the sentiment seems to disappear in an instant when “real life” sets in.
So, is inspiration really possible? Yes, I think it is, but it has to be transfigured, as all life has to be transfigured in Jesus Christ. It has to become “exhortation.” I love that word, because it conveys something deeper than mere sentiment to actual transformation. To exhort is to encourage based on deep love for the other, and having only the other’s best interest at heart. There is no selfish or “marketing” motivation in mind by the exhorter. It is based purely on the care of the other and the desire to see the other being the free person she was created to be. True exhortation is always completely selfless. And, it’s based on a truth deeper than mere moral behavior. It’s the difference between rights and righteousness.
Look at our lesson today in Galatians 4:22-27
“BRETHREN, Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and shout, you who are not in travail; for the children of the desolate one are many more than the children of her that is married.”
These Galatians had been captured by the merely “moralistic” heresy of the Judaizers, a group of early believers in Christ who were convinced you had to become a Jew then become a Christian to ever be in the Church. They insisted on all the old rules and regulations of Judaism imposing them on even the Gentile converts to the Christian faith. St. Paul heard of this situation in the church he had planted there and he writes the serious letter to the Galatians in an attempt to correct their false notion of the purpose of faith. He clearly teaches them that the purpose of the faith isn’t merely to “reform” our behavior and make us “good” people, but something much more radical is offered to those of us who follow the Christian message of God becoming flesh so that we might become like Christ! This message of the Christian faith is a complete break with the old and an initiation of the timeless purpose for which God had created humanity in the first place: not to be good, but to become a partaker of the very Divine Nature. This is what the Orthodox faith calls “theosis.” This is the purpose of our spiritual labors. This is the goal of our love. This is the center of our practice of a purposeful Orthodoxy. Not merely the “behavior modification” of a better moralism (which only feeds a self righteous attitude) but the actual “transfiguration of we humans to become “like” Jesus Christ!
Sounds pretty impossible, doesn’t it? That’s because it is! But “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” (Luke 18:27) And this vision, this ultimate purpose for you and me is absolutely necessary if we are ever going to escape the slavery of an “earthbound” focus on my “rights” and ascend to the actual dignity of becoming righteous. After all, our faith calls us to say we are each the chiefest of sinners. I will never ascend to my true dignity until I, like Christ, empty myself of my ego and pride so that I might be filled with His New Life!
Today, do you see the faith as merely some moral code meant to make you a “good neighbor” or a “good husband” or a “good wife” or a “good worker?” Are you enslaved by this time-bound smallness that keeps you both discouraged about your “progress” or making excuses that “well, I’m not as bad as ______.” It’s time to escape the dead end of doing “good” and enter into the hard work of being made “righteous” by practicing the faith from a motivation of love and not mere moralistic “progress.” Our egos have to succumb to the awesome humility of Christ and our actions have to become the byproduct of our spiritual labor to be Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. This Sunday is “Back to Church Sunday” at our parish in Cumming, GA. We are making a concerted effort to encourage the distantly connected to draw closer to the Church and embrace a purposeful Orthodoxy. May God grant all of us a hunger to be and not merely just to do!