Passion Before Commandments

“Are we still of any use?” Bonhoeffer asked in one of his letters from prison before he was executed by the Nazis. I think it was Archimedes who said, δός μοι που στώ και κινήσω την γήν. If a few people really believed the words of Jesus and were guided by him, the world would be a very different and much better place for humanity, for all life and for the planet itself. Without even knowing it, most people are waiting for the word that will unbind them and set them free. Even though the word has been spoken, 2000 years ago! I can only pray that the time of hearing will come. It comes today, in the Gospel reading.

The man asks a religious question and Jesus answers with a religious answer. The man likes the religious answer, it fits the way he sees himself, a good religious man. But then Jesus goes beyond religion, beyond morality, beyond even the commandments of holy scripture! This is where Bonhoeffer’s question comes into play. Are we really of any use? Does the world need Bible-quoting Christians? Even the disciples could not comprehend where Jesus was going in his words to the man. Notice how the Gospel reading quickly brings us back to religion and the religious obsession with salvation. Well, who can be saved? The disciples ask in exasperation. With God anything is possible: Jesus almost brushes off the answer to them. He already knows that’s what people want. They want heaven and assurances that they are in. That’s how it began with the man’s question, and that’s where it finishes with the disciples’ question. The transformative vision at the heart of today’s reading is quickly forgotten. Religion wins the day. And that’s why nothing has really changed in 2,000 years of the church’s existence.

Perfection? Nah, I don’t care about perfection, it costs too much to follow Christ, I have to give up too much. I’m just happy if I get into heaven, even by a side door! If you want to live by laws and regulations and commandments, by all means do so. But if you want your life to go deeper and higher, then throw everything away and follow Christ. And don’t mistake what Jesus said to the man as a commandment. He is not commanding the man. He is not replacing one set of commandments with another one!

The saints walked lightly on the earth. Their carbon footprint was almost zero, if you want to put it in contemporary terms. In volume 2 of the Philokalia in the standard Greek edition there is a beautiful pencil-drawn icon of Abba Philemon, who lived perhaps around the year 600, that shows the simplicity of life that Jesus also lived, in touch with the earth with a lightness of step, in open communion with the trees and birds and in the midst of the ruins of civilization, represented by a solitary Corinthian column in the background. (Here is my photo of that page in the Philokalia.)

Someone asked Philemon why he lived such a strict, disciplined life. His answer was beautiful. He could have said, I’m obeying the rules that monks should live by. No, instead he said: “Believe me, my son, God has placed such eagerness and passion for my rule in my soul that I lack the strength to satisfy the longing within me. Yet longing for God and hope of the blessing held in store triumph over bodily weakness.” His rule of life, not a rule given to him to obey. He lived the way he lived not in obedience to some rules or commandments, but from longing and passion for God: τοσαύτην προθυμίαν και πόθον… It’s all in words of passion, longing, love, eagerness – nothing legalistic. Similarly, in the same second volume of Philokalia, I read words of St Thalassios: Πόθος προς Θεόν ολικώς τεταμένος, Θεώ και αλλήλοις σενδεσμεί τους ποθούντας. Again, language of longing and passion: “An all-embracing and intense longing for God binds those who experience it both to God and to one another.”

When people ask me about religious rules of fasting, communion, and many other things, I’m sometimes tempted to tell them: Only one thing is needful – which is what Jesus told the busy-body Martha. Only one thing is needful: Be passionate for God. Desire to walk with Christ and to be united with his passion for truth and justice. This is what Jesus is saying to the young man in today’s Gospel reading. It’s not about commandments and rules. Those will take care of themselves if you have passion for God – for God, not for God’s rules. Passion for God comes first. And the commandments of God will then naturally fall into place.

And so when Jesus tells the man to go sell everything and give it to the poor, he wants to show the man what holds him back from following Christ, what keeps him bound to anxieties and fears. Liberate yourself, love God and trust Christ not to lead you astray. We live in an age of lies, including Big Lies. But Jesus is no liar. He makes no empty promises. His goal was and always is to liberate people. Jesus gives us the strength to face the lies that keep us from following him. The power that wealth has on some people is based on a lie. All the things and attachments that keep us from seeing what Abba Philemon and St Thalassios saw are lies. Jesus gives us the key: Free yourself by being passionate for God. Everything then falls into place. And this is the word, this is the promise, that people long to hear without even knowing it. It’s for freedom that we have been created.

The above was my sermon on Sept 4th, 2022.

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