A homily for Epiphany III
Being Christian isn’t easy. It isn’t comfortable or convenient. And, for millions throughout history, being Christian has not been safe.
That’s what St Paul told St Timothy, whom we commemorate today. When Timothy was a teen, in his hometown St Paul was nearly stoned to death and then dragged from the city. Yet at that time the holy Apostle strengthened the shocked and frightened disciples and urged them to continue in the faith with these words: “Through many tribulations, we enter the kingdom of God.”
Let’s not go too quickly past those words. Paul says that the only way into the kingdom of heaven is through tribulation. But like St Paul, we shouldn’t focus on what others do to us, but on what Our Lord does for us; not with what we have to put up with, but what Our Lord gives us; and not zeroing in on the adversity but on the deliverance. St Paul sums up our life when he says: “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”
All means all. As St Ambrose reminds us: “All suffer persecution. There is no exception. Who can claim an exemption if the Lord Himself endured the testing of persecution” for our good? “There are many today who are secret martyrs for Christ,” who suffer persecution without protest or resistance because they know they model Christ and witness to faith by enduring injustice without complaint.
But visible persecution is not the only kind. Whenever we are tempted to give in to our ungodly desires, whenever our minds tell us to give up, whenever we avoid the hard path of prayer and holy living, of forgiveness and kind-speaking—then we are being persecuted invisibly. By the devil, and by our own flesh. For “the devil directs his many servants in their work of persecution…in the souls of individuals.” (St Ambrose)
Christianity isn’t easy. But we can see Our Lord’s glory while staring at the gory; and want Our Lord’s body and blood while seeing what it cost to bring it to this altar; and know that the Lord comes through when you can’t feel it. Because we understand that Christians walk in the path Jesus walked, following the Way He is—through suffering into glory, through death into life, through hell into heaven.
To be a Christian we need look at now through the lens of later; at what threatens by seeing what awaits us; at how much it asks by receiving how much Christ gives.
That takes faith. A faith that doesn’t lie down when things get tough. A faith that doesn’t give up when it feels defeated. And a faith that can swallow pride, and sacrifice what we are sure is necessary and right and good—even a faith that sacrifices our own carefully crafted identity.
But above all, being Christian means we look to Christ. Knowing that He alone can get us through. He alone can undo what’s been done to us, and untangle what we’ve done to ourselves. He alone is our help and our salvation.
That kind of faith requires humility. The humility that says, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” The humility that says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” And the humility that says, “Lord, I am not worthy.”
Some may see that not as humility, but as humiliation. Not as faith, but as groveling. Not as strength but as weakness.
Humility makes sense to a man suffering a debilitating disease, a man who has no hope, a man who is desperate; a man who is ostracized because he is a leper in Judaea. Yet even this man must humble himself to cry out to Christ. For pride says, “No one can help. All is hopeless. I’m cursed. Nothing will work.” Pride believes those words because pride makes us look only at ourselves—how much I hurt, what I can’t do, why no one meets my fears.
But humility says, “Lord, if you are willing.” Humility places everything in the Lord’s hand, knowing that He hears the cry of the poor and needy. And so, when life is hardest, we can say in true humility: “Despite my comforts, I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinks upon me. Thou art my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. Make haste to me, O God!” (Ps 39, 69)
How quickly Our Lord comes to our aid! For “He delivers the needy when he cries, the poor also, and him who has no helper.” (Ps 71) And so, without fear of contagion, Our Lord touches the leper and says, “I am willing. Be cleansed.”
We can understand the desperation of the poor and needy, the helpless and bed ridden. But a commander; a man who can run roughshod over people; a man who has servants; a man who is certainly privileged and among the elite—can he truly humble himself? Can he honestly say, “I am not worthy”?
Yet that is exactly what we must say. Not ordering God by our prayers, as if He is our servant who waits on us. Instead, we ought to pray this prayer: “Lord, I am not worthy. Have mercy on me. Help me because I cannot help myself, or anyone else. You know far better what is best for me—even if it is best that we stay as we are for many days, weeks, or months. I am not worthy to tell you how things should go. So only speak a word, and I shall trust that what you say is truth, what you give is health.”
That is the humility of the centurion. Yet it’s not easy to deny and put to death our instinct and passion, to control, to be impatient, to whine, and to protest and insist. And it’s not easy to refuse ourselves the pleasures we are sure we deserve, and the rights we know we’ve earned.
Yet being a Christian isn’t easy. It isn’t about comfort or convenience. And, it’s not about having no more rough times, no more worries, no more problems.
Being Christian means we need to confess our pride, repent of our complaining, and see that in every kind of ordeal, temporary or permanent, God hides His grace and calls us to a “new normal of greater piety, increased participation in the sacraments, and more love and service to our neighbor.” (Metropolitan Joseph)
But above all, being Christian means humbly accepting Our Lord’s will, trusting that He is arranging things—even pandemics and politics—for our salvation. And there’s the joy—that He is always there, always pulling us through, always doing what is best, and always leading us deeper into His love.
To this Lord Jesus Christ, by the prayers of St Timothy and of all the saints, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.
This way was blazed first by Our Lord, not just when He died, but even as He put up with the traps and restrictions of His own people. Let me be clear: Christ’s suffering does not mean that we won’t suffer, any more than His death and burial means we won’t die and be buried. What His passion does mean is that dealing with hard times is inseparable from the Christian life; and tribulation is our path to true intimacy with Our Lord God. Like any love story, real relationships grow and strengthen only when we work together through trying times.
24 January 2021