Sermons of Metropolitan Anthony of New York
Temples of the Living God
Ninth Sunday of Matthew
12/25 August 2013
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is very, very difficult for us, especially with our shallow and unsettled minds, to conceive, to understand, to comprehend what we heard today from our father St. Paul: "You are temples of the living God." What an extraordinary statement. What an extraordinary blessing, and assessment of what a human soul is. What an extraordinary word was spoken by he who is the first after the One, as the Church has called him, our father St. Paul. The first after the One, the One being of course Jesus Christ Himself.
This former Pharisee, this former persecutor of the Church, this former person whom, just at the hearing of his name, the Christians feared. So was his anger, so was his wrath against the Church of God. And yet now we see this change, which is from the right hand of the Most High, that this persecutor of the Church becomes the spokesman, beyond the Gospels, of the life of Jesus Christ and of how we are supposed to live. So when he says that we are temples of the living God, we must take him at his word. For he was raised up to the third heaven. He was raised up and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for man to utter, which are actually beyond utterance, but which he seeks to give to us as a great gift from the living God. He seeks to give us of this incredible knowledge that he had, in words that we can understand. And yet even though we can understand them, I'm afraid that we understand them rather superficially, or we take them as some sort of artistic license, and some sort of narrative hyperbole. And we do not understand that St. Paul was not given to rhetorical heights, but everything that he said is not only true on its surface, but even deeper. As we learn, as we are illumined by the Holy Spirit, as we learn through reading, through listening, through prayer and fasting and almsgiving, we learn that these things that our holy father St. Paul told us are not simply hyperbole or rhetoric, but are the truth. And what is the truth? The Truth is Christ Jesus.
So when he tells us that we are temples of the living God, we must take him at his word. Because he is also backed up by the testimony of our holy Apostle St. John, who was a theologian, not by diplomas, but because he was beloved and loved our Savior. And leaning upon His breast at the Mystical Supper, the depths of theology were revealed to him. And he said that this Light - "I am the Light," said Jesus - this Light illumines every man that cometh into the world. Every man; no exceptions. Every man.
But here is the difficulty: that light that is within us, do we choose to feed it? You know the little spark that we get, the little fire that we try to make with sticks or whatever primitive means we have. And all of a sudden there is a little spark. And slowly, slowly the person who knows how to do this feeds this spark, first of all with little leaves, and then slowly as it grows he feeds it with larger twigs, and then with larger and ever larger twigs until finally it becomes a roaring fire fed by logs. This light has the potential of becoming a roaring fire within us. Or, do we choose to blow out, to stifle, to smother that light, because it annoys us, it judges us, censures us in our evil deeds? Which is it to be?
So just as this temple, and every temple of God is holy, you are holy. But we have also seen temples which have been profaned. We have seen our churches as they are still standing - those that are still standing - after they have been destroyed by the enemies of our Holy Faith. We have seen them and they are kept that way by the enemies of our Holy Faith so that we may go and like the Israelites of old, by the rivers of Babylon we weep when we remember, when we remember Zion. For Zion is everywhere, the holy Mountain is everywhere where Christians gather. And we weep when we see these temples destroyed. We see the Holy Tables overturned; we see the icons burned, broken; the chandeliers, the beautiful things that the Christians offer so that they might beautify the temple of the living God, this earthly temple, this temporary temple.
We have seen things like that. Even in Orthodox countries we have seen things like that. And it comes to my mind, my trip to the ancient citadel of Mistra, just outside of the present city of Sparta. An extraordinary place, full of churches. And you go into them, and you see that they have become nesting places for bats, and owls, and birds of the night. Swallows have built their nests where the Holy of Holies used to be. And they are left that way, even in our motherland Greece, because they are archaeological sites. Only in one place in Mistra do we see the church even approaching the wonder, the grandeur that it had at the time when it was occupied by Orthodox Christians. And that is in the magnificent Church of Pantanassa, which has been given over to the guardianship to a small sisterhood of nuns who are in our Holy Synod. The Synodia of Mother Averkia, which has been charged with the protection of that church. And in that great church, usually once a year, twice a year, the dignitaries of the state church come and serve, because it still maintains the ability to be served in. But underneath this great church, which our sisters - wonderful, wonderful women - is a little chapel of St. Panteleimon, underneath the church, almost like in a cave. And in that little chapel the Orthodox nuns, and a true Orthodox priest may come there to serve their Services, the Services of the true Orthodox Church where they might take Holy Communion, whenever a priest can come.
But I was there, and I saw the overturned Holy Tables and the blind eyes of the Iconostas in other churches. And I would have to have been of stone not to weep by this river of Babylon, by this place of exile even within the boundaries of our Orthodox motherland.
If the punishment in the life to come for someone who has profaned a church, a holy place, has taken it by violence and has ruined it; if a person like that has to give an answer, a terrible account to God - because this little church here, as small as it is, is a place that is dedicated to the living God. There are angels here, the saints are here, our Savior Christ is here. And wherever Christ is of course His Father and the Holy Spirit are also with Him. If we are guilty of profaning such a place, and making it common, and making it a ruin, how much more will we have to account for if we have profaned the temple of the living God that is our soul, and its seat, its throne, our heart? How much more of an account will we have to give, if because of our superficiality, because of our thoughtlessness, because of our lack of a sense of duty, a lack of a sense of understanding of what is to come after this life; because we have become accustomed to the commonplace of churches that we can reach with maybe an hour's journey at the most. We have become accustomed to being able to find a place to worship; we have become accustomed to the idea that the soul is something that will be separated from the body, and then who knows at our death.
It is this superficiality of even those of us who have made an Orthodox confession of Faith, who have come from the Holy Font of the womb of the Church, and have been born again by water and the Spirit. How much more will we have to give an account for on that Day of Judgment if we have ruined and profaned ourselves, who are not temporary temples like this one is, but rather our immortal temples, immortal by grace: the souls of each of us? If we have profaned them with evil acts; if we have profaned them with lack of love; if we have profaned them with lack of pity for those less fortunate than ourselves. We have not loved Jesus, not sought to come to Him, and even if we have it happens to us like it happened to St. Peter. For although he tried in his brashness to come to Christ, as he saw the wind boisterous he started to doubt. But he had the good sense to call out, "Lord, help me." This description in Holy Scripture has become one of the favorite subjects of the Orthodox Christian iconographer: that image of Jesus Christ holding out His hand to take hold of Peter as he is falling through, about to drown in the waves.
Let us not be superficial; let us not make our faith and its practice a commonplace. Let us not think that somehow, by some magical way, because our grandmothers and grandfathers were pious people, that we also will be taken up into the heavens with them. A wise man once said, "God has no grandchildren." We must all become children directly of the living God, through the Holy Mysteries, through our faith, through our deep understanding every moment of our lives. That is why St. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing, the whole of our life dedicated to Christ our God.
May it be, may it be that on that day we will be able to give an account to our Savior unto our salvation. May it be on that day that the temple of our soul is unsullied, is clean, is decorated and ornamented with works of faith. May it be that on that day we will have the courage and the boldness to say, "I am yours, Jesus. Look, look at my heart, look at my soul. Open the books, open the books of my conscience and see there that, yes I have sinned, but I have repented, and I have ceased doing those things that were blotches on the page of my conscience, and I no longer have returned to them, but I have true repentance."
May it be so in that day, because there is nothing more precious than our salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord. To Him, to His Father, to the Holy Spirit, to the Trinity Which has saved us be glory and honor unto the ages of ages. Amen.