So often in our generation, we have been taught that we should celebrate who we are, regardless of everything else. The multitudes cry out, “God made me who I am, why should He judge me for it.” The self-help gurus, the new-agers, the occultists, the humanists; so many teach us to rejoice and celebrate who we are naturally, to look inside ourselves, to seek the answers to our own happiness within ourselves. Even those well meaning individuals who seek to do this, however, do so to our detriment. In seeking to build up our confidence, they get us instead to build up temples to ourselves and worship at the altars of vanity. John Climacus refers to self-esteem as “the beginning and completion of the passions.” In the Book of Sirach, we read the strong warning, “do not set your heart on your possessions, and do not say, ‘I am independent,’ Do not follow yourself and your strength so as to walk in the desires of your heart.” (Sirach 5:1-2).
See, all too often, this concept of constantly building up self-esteem leads to the statement that “my God would never…” You can complete this statement with whatever modern cliche you would like; ultimately it comes down to the statement, “my God would never disagree with me.” It can be political, social, economical; it could be something as simple as “my God would never punish someone for ___,” it all comes back to the same thought. There is something that you think is acceptable and someone has shown where God says it isn’t, so you get defensive. I often warn my brothers and sisters, if your god never disagrees with you; then be careful of who your god is. No man whose essence is mortal has ever been so perfect in righteousness as to never do anything out of alignment with all that God demands of us. In fact, God promises us that we will disagree with Him. In the Prophet Isaiah, we read, the words of the Lord, “My counsels are not your counsels, neither are my ways your ways. But as heaven is distant from the earth, so is My way distant from your way and your thoughts from My mind.” (Isaiah 55:8-9). See, it’s this idea that trying to use reason alone will never bring us to God, trying to understand the ways of an infinite God with our finite minds will never lead us to Him. And, when we try to do that, what we end up doing in trying to bring God down to our level is instead create a god that looks a lot like us; we create a god that is fully in agreement with everything we believe. A god that matches our political, social, economic positions; a god that is indiscernable from our own opinions about things. Instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to create in us a new heart, constantly renewing our minds daily, making us more Christ-like; we begin with ourselves and make Christ much more us-like. In the West especially we are guilty of this; our Christ looks much more like the American dream than the God of Scripture. Consider this, what is the American Church’s opinion of Jesus’ commands to asceticism and almsgiving, repentance, compassion, mercy, peace, obedience? How often do we consider ourselves blessed when we receive a promotion at work, and why? Is it because then we have more to give? Or is it because now we can take the extra nice vacation and buy the newest television, the newest cell phone, that nice new car that we have been coveting on social media for the last two years?
See, in our generation, those commands, those spiritual disciplines to asceticism, to almsgiving, mercy, compassion, repentance, obedience, etc get sacrificed on the altar of greed. And that greed is taught to us by the wisdom of the age, and then theologically justified with terms like “works-based salvation.” We’re taught that salvation is a one time event and to add anything onto that salvation is heresy, and yet, in Scripture, we’re constantly told to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul exhorts the brethern, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:58). James tells us multiple times that “faith without works is dead.” Paul also tells us that “I discipline my body and bring it into submission, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:27). See, over and over again, it’s this idea that there are things that are a part of our salvation, things that we, through the grace of God, are enabled to do, but that they are a part of our salvation. The idea of salvation is that we are saved from our sins, not for them, and, as Peter teaches us, “whoever suffers in the flesh has ceased from sin.” (1 Peter 4:1). We’re taught that fasting is not part of our salvation, and yet Jesus stated that “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting.” (Matthew 6:16-17). Notice, it’s not if, but when you fast. Jesus expected that His followers would do so.
“Anyone who would come after Me, let him deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow Me.” (Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23) Jesus taught. Dying to ourselves, to our own goals, desires, dreams. This is central to Jesus’ teaching, stated in three of the four Gospels, and yet, to do so directly contradicts the message of our generation to “be the best you you can be.” To do that means to seek to perfect your own fleshly urges. The gambler becomes the best him he can be when he wins; the fornicator the best him he can be when lost in the throes of immorality. No, contrary to the wisdom of the age, Jesus teaches us that the only way to enter the kingdom is to die and be born again, of the Spirit and of water. To die to the very self that the world teaches us to embrace. He teaches us that “any man who follows sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34). St Paul teaches us that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (2 Corinthians 5:17). And what does this new creation look like? “Behold, the old things have passed away; all things have become new.” In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul describes this passing, “The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God. Neither fornicators, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers…and such were some of you. But you were washed.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). When we were in the world, we were partakers of those fleshly temptations, but when we were baptized, we were washed of those sins; their power over us was removed, and by the grace of God, we can become more and more like Him. I heard a great lesson the other day about sin. Sin means literally to miss the mark. And the mark is Christ. So, the question isn’t “is this wrong,” the question has to be, “is this Christ?” In modern terms, the goal isn’t just to not lose, it’s to win. Is your goal in your marriage just to not get divorced, or is it to have a healthy marriage? Is your goal legally to not get arrested, or to not break the law? So, if the goal of Christianity is “Christ formed in you,” why would your goal be to just not go to hell? No, it’s to put to death all of the old habits, the old sins, the old ways and to be reborn, to be formed into the image of Christ. To put to death the old man and be reborn in the Spirit. The Psalmist sings that “as far as the east is from the west, so He removes our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 102:12 LXX). Notice that it’s not the penalty alone of our sins that He removes from us, but the very sins themselves.
The first thing Jesus does when He meets Simon in the flesh is to give him a new identity. He says, “you are Simon, the son of Jonah. Now you shall be called Cephas, which translates ‘a stone’.” Thus, we see quite literally in the life of Simon that the first thing Jesus does when Simon comes to Him is to give him this new identity. Simon, son of Jonah, becomes Cephas (or Petrus in Greek), the follower of Jesus, adopted son of the most High. This is an interesting facet of our faith which I fear has been all but lost in Western Christianity and something that we should be weary of. So often, when we turn to the faith, we update our wardrobe (maybe), our music playlists (sometimes), our movie catalogue and our status on social media; but otherwise our lives remain unchanged. In other traditions, the very name of the person who has turned to the faith is changed, usually after a saint or other figure from Church history. Families disown them, governments seek to harm them, but it’s all worth it to them, because they are willing to sacrifice literally everything to become a follower of Christ.
We need to deeply evaluate ourselves, our lives, our faith. Have we truly died to ourselves? Are we denying ourselves? Does the God that we worship look like the God of Scripture, or does he look an awful lot like us? The first thing Jesus did was give Simon a new identity; have we allowed Him to do the same for us? Or are we still clinging on to the person that we were; obeying the desires and the wills of the flesh? If we have truly surrendered our old selves and died to ourselves, then any power that sin has over us is gone, thus if we continue to sin it is of our own willful decision. “As far as the east is from the west, He will separate us from our transgressions.” Knowing that His offer of grace and salvation is available, have we fully accepted it? Or do we suppose that He will allow us to continue to pervert His grace into the freedom to sin? Sirach strongly admonishes us, “Do not be so confident of atonement that you add sin to sin; and do not say ‘His compassion is great; He will atone for the multitude of my sins,” for both mercy and wrath come from Him; and His anger rests on sinners. Do not delay to turn to the Lord” (Sirach 5:5-7).
May we all turn unto the Lord, leaving behind our earthly passions and laying aside all earthly cares. May we reach ever outward to the Holy Spirit for guidance in the things of the Spirit, seeking to be conformed to the image of Christ. The Christian walk is the walk of salvation, the walk of being healed, the walk of becoming more like Christ. My brothers and sisters, let us make Christ our mark, and let us conceive the idea that when we contemplate something, we not ask if it is wrong, but rather is it Christ. And let us remember that, with that being the case, if it is not Christ, then it is wrong. Consider how much it would effect your life, your relationships, your daily mindset; if you were to view everything beginning with Christ. Is it wrong to ignore the homeless man asking for money, or is it Christ-like to ignore the homeless man? Is it wrong to watch that movie, or is it Christlike to watch that movie? Is it wrong to flirt with that person at work, or is it Christlike? The Spirit will guide you, if you allow Him, to grow further and further into the image of Christ. To separate us from our transgressions and to help us to walk with Jesus in our lives, not only for two hours after a convicting sermon on Sunday, but every day of our lives. Let us allow the Spirit to change us, to create in us a new heart, to renew our minds and to cast off the old man. And then, we will understand the grace of God on His terms, not ours.
May the peace of the Lord be with you, my beloved brothers and sisters.