In the world, not of the world.
The Sunday after Theophany.
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6:01 PM 1/10/2011 — We can breath a little more easily now, that most of the holiday activity is behind us. We have been happy to see our relatives for the holidays, and some of us just as happy to see them go. So, maybe our lives can take a bit more of a relaxed pace. The Liturgy of the Church changes, too. Having presented to us the great mysteries of faith—the incarnation, the nativity, the Theophany of the Lord—now we see the focus of the liturgical texts change in character, as the lessons begin to present to us an account of what Jesus said and did. St. Matthew, in this morning’s Gospel lesson, gives us just one more dose of the theological—by reminding us of some of the Old Testament prophesies which Christ fulfilled—before leaving all that behind with the very down-to-earth and matter-of-fact statement, "From that time on, Jesus began to preach...."
And what did he preach? "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." With this simple message, the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth begins. What is worthy of our reflection today, as we struggle to recover from the turmoil and hyperactivity that the holidays impose upon us, is the brevity and practicality of our Lord’s message. The Immaculate Conception, the Nativity, the Theophany, the Circumcision.... Contemplating these lofty truths of the faith taxes our intellects to the point that we might mistake Christianity for an esoteric collection of theological dogmas about the nature of the Christ, with our principle duty being to believe in them. But who and what Jesus is is meaningful only in the context of what it is he does; and Christianity, while it certainly contains a set of dogmatic truths to which our minds must conform, is much more than that: it is also a way of life, to which our lives must conform. One is not a Christian simply by reason of what he believes, but by reason of how he lives.
We can venerate the Mother of God as she receives from the Angel the Divine commission to be the portal of salvation and give birth to God upon earth; we can adore the Infant in the cave at the Nativity; we can marvel and rejoice at the appearance of the dove and the announcement of the Father’s approval at the glorious Theophany of Christ. But the Gospel doesn’t stop there, and neither must we. Having experienced all of these things—bringing them about by his Divine will—Jesus the man now puts sandals on his feet, throws a pack on his back, and begins to trudge the width and breadth of Galilee preaching the evil of sin and the need to do good. And if we want to be counted as his followers, which we must, then we have to go along. The word, “Christian,” does not mean “believer in Christ,” although that is implied; what it really means is “follower of Christ.” And one cannot follow simply by believing and standing still. Following requires movement; it requires doing; it requires living.
To believe is easy. It doesn’t cost anything simply to believe. The Disciples of the Lord were all too eager to believe in him in the beginning. Having lived all their lives in subjection and destitution with nothing to give them hope, he could have told them he was Popeye the Sailor Man and they would have believed him. But there’s an interesting thing that happens in chapter six of St. John’s Gospel. All of a sudden Jesus starts to turn the tables on these so-called believers when he starts to outline for them exactly what price they will have to pay for believing in him, as he speaks about his own death and the persecutions to come. St. John sums up the whole episode with his characteristic and poetic economy of words, saying, "Many who had followed him, followed him no longer."
That’s a temptation that we all share. We can come here Sunday after Sunday, Holy Day after Holy Day, chanting beautiful hymns to God, performing glorious and complicated rituals, swearing to everything believed and taught by the Church of Christ, and all the while thinking that these are the things that make us Christians. But how are we living? What is it that we do when we’re not here? Do we actually live the way Jesus showed us and taught us to live—the way his Church continues to show us in his name through the Apostles? Are we really followers of Christ, or are we simply spectators in the bleachers, watching the world go by, contenting ourselves with the false security that we believe in all the right things?
The world in which we live does not make it easy to be a follower of Christ. Maybe we’re not under threat of being arrested, tortured and executed like our Lord’s own disciples were—like all Christians were for the first 300 years of our Church’s history; but certainly the values our Church believes and teaches, and the way of life we are supposed to follow as Christians, are not the values and the ways of the world around us. Christ asks us to live in the midst of this world without being a part of it; and that’s not easy. We are tempted every day, and often we fall. The Lord’s first words as a preacher should ring as clearly for us now as they did over 2000 years ago: "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand."
Father Michael Venditti