19 November 2019

What if I were holy? Homily for the Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday of the Sower, at the Divine Liturgy, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 10th November 2019

St Paul tells the Galatians to look beyond the besetting temptation of religion to reduce it to a matter of things we do, rather than what we are. (Galatians 2.16-20)

It never ceases to amaze me how harsh some people are to comment on the transgressions of others. The anger ranges from mistakes and unsatisfactory habits in execution, to denunciation of people’s entire lives before God. Now, we are supposed to tolerate those who boss other people, those who are quick to show us up. After all, they may be right in what they say. But Christ says that we are not to return the favour. We are not to be the ones to bully people into conformity to our wills, or into cause the silent resignation of depression in the Church which is supposed to be the abode of joy. But then, with an answer for everything, we might say: “Love the sinner, hate the sin”. I have no time for this. It is not in the words of Christ. It is saying, “I love you in theory, but not in practice”. And it reveals something even uglier. It is boasting about your own virtue, how good you are at keeping commands - observing the rules, yet letting yourself off your own sin.

Everyone I know who is like this is deluded, a hypocrite covering up their own shortcomings. St Paul says he himself is so much rubbish (cf Philippians 3.8), the least of the apostles (I Corinthians 15.9), the greatest of sinners (I Timothy 1.15). I find this rings true. Some people are very holy. Some people are very good at being sinners. Most of us are rubbish at being both. We can’t even sin successfully. This is why in our Liturgy, we constantly say, “Lord have mercy” – not because we are craven and despairing about our trap in sin, but because we know God is merciful, “helps, saves” and bears with us. The last words of our Liturgy are all we need to know: “He is good and He loves mankind. Amen.” So St Paul says to those who are wrapped up in regulation, bossing people on what to do and bolstering up the image of their perfection that hides their true weakness, that it is not about deeds and acts and laws – or, we might say, my conduct, morality, behaviour or attitude. It is about me who have Christ living in me in place of myself, you that have Christ living in you in place of you. He tells the Corinthians, Christ does not want the things that you offer, the things you do, the things you have. He wants the thing that is you (II Corinthians 12.14).

So, he can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” This is not some pale imitation of Christ. Consider this question. “What would I do if I were Jesus Christ?” Then ask this one instead: “What would Christ do if He were me? Who would Christ be if He were me?” “What would holiness look like if it were shaped like me?” No wonder we say, “Lord have mercy,” at the prospect. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man,” says St Peter (Luke 5.8) after he has seen the Lord bring about the miraculous draught of fishes. But that is the point: He will never depart from a sinful person. Christ’s is no love in theory, but not in practice. He remains, for the purpose of seeing through the work of forgiveness, going back to square one every time, repairing with patience and not with a word of condemnation, sowing the seed again and again, until there is redemption, by way of sacrifice in one world, to bring a new one through resurrection.

The most alarming aside in the parable of the Sower, today’s Gospel (Luke 8.5-15), is where the seed fell among thorns and grew up with it. We know this is what we Christian disciples have to contend with, and what Christ has to deal with. How can it be that we who sin, who fall short in so many ways, are also none other than the same people who look like Christ. Who would Christ be if He were me? Well, if St Paul is right that it is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives in me, then the answer is that Christ intends to look like me. And if it is true that I, even I, am to be holy – what would that holiness look like? It is not a sufficient response to that momentous question to say, “Depart from me for I am a sinner”. We have to see this one through, because Christ is seeing it through.

Will Christ take one look at us and say to Himself, “That person is stony ground; no seed will grow there?” Will He say, “That one is so choked up with sin that there will be no good fruit coming off that tree; write it off”? Does He say, “But some of those look good – I will concentrate my efforts on them”? No, He will not.

Each one of us at the moment is a mix of the Word of God growing from the good seed, with the thorns and weeds that thrive in us just as much. Often we cannot tell the difference. But think of it like this. In one way, the Icons are wood, cloth, egg, pigment, art. But image and spirit are never apart from incarnation and created physical form. We venerate, touch and kiss not a representation of an idea or a memory; we touch the Mystery itself. And it is not the saints who live, but Christ who lives in them. In the same way, at our Liturgy we will take bread and wine. And, during the course of our action, we will see it is the Lord, making Himself known in the Breaking of the Bread. Not a remembrance or a symbol, but God with Us Who has promised to be with us to the end of time. And because He is seen in the Bread and the Cup, He comes to be seen in those Who share them. Thus it is not we who live any more, but Christ Who lives within us.

Take a look at yourself and each other. Quickly you will see a character with personality, talents, flaws, irritating habits, kind gifts, heroic virtues, hidden badness. Do not judge them for this, for this is what they judge about you too. Instead, see the life of faith which hopes that all this, even the good, will be surpassed. See Christ growing from His seed, not the weeds and thorns. Imagine the other person as an icon painted with paint on wood, but brought to life by a Mystery operating within. Imagine the other and yourself as the living Presence of Christ, Who has come into each one by the Eucharist - here to change you not from being you, but into what Christ looks like when He is in you. Imagine you and one another – whatever the appearance – as already being made holy, not as a way of justifying your bad hits and misses, but to reveal the virtue of Christ being moulded into you as your own.

God does not want us to be pale imitations of Christ, who hand over their personalities to an imaginary ideal, or who hide themselves behind a religious fa├žade, whose only sharp edge is to judge other people. He wants the person He created, not something else, to be a new presentation of Christ in the world, the forgiving Redeemer, to recreate it.

It is clear that St Paul is a character full of personality – difficult to some, an inspiration to others, a thorn in people’s side, a rival vying for his leadership and teaching to prevail, a spiritual man who was a sinner. Galatia and Corinth would not have been formed as Christian Churches without him, as someone in whom Christ was now living in full force. So let us live as he did, sinners who even fail at that, who keep God’s commandments but patiently, with a good deal of self-criticism and wise humility rather than condemnation of others or ourselves, and a belief that, despite all appearances to the contrary, Christ wants me to be me - not the person I should be in theory, since only the real me will become the object of His love in practice. He wants me to be me, so that in me He may be Christ Who is all in all.