Sunday, 9 March 2014

Sermon for the 2nd Saturday of Lent: Enter Through the Narrow Gate

Sermon for the Second Saturday of Lent 08/03/14

"Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.

"Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. (
Matthew 7:13-21)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

The Gospel today speaks of three negatives and three positives. We are warned against the wide gate, false prophets and false disciples whilst at the same time being told to look for the narrow gate, true prophets and true disciples amongst the faithful. These three choices almost make up a three step guide to finding the path of our Salvation in Christ through his Apostolic Church.

The first of these choices that we approach is the warning of the wide gate of destruction, compared to the narrow gate of life. At first glance, this choice already seems problematic to us since, as humans, we would naturally head to the easiest and quickest gate rather than the difficult one. We would not queue for a checkout when another is open, we would not walk through swamps to a friend’s house when there is a path, so the concept of heading to the narrow and difficult gate instead of the wide one seems almost alien to our modern sentiments. 

Though it defies worldly logic, it is a common message of our faith. It is in this that we hear an echo of Christ telling his disciples that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it,” which again defies all worldly logic. Why would trying to save your life mean that you lose it? Though in our daily life we follow this path of seeking spiritual fulfilment by denying the world’s offers of lifestyle and fulfilment.

In a way, the message becomes most relevant to us during this time of Lent, when we are called to take our minds from physical fulfilment in exchange for spiritual fulfilment. Saint Basil the Great speaks of the value of this fast when he calls it “food for the soul” as opposed to food for the body. In this he reminds us that taking the narrow and difficult path by denying the easy fulfilments in life, such as raiding the fridge, is to be prepared to receive the bounties of the Kingdom of God.

When we struggle in our difficulties, it also is important to remember that there are those who took a far more difficult and narrow path, and lost their lives, with many more doing it in the modern day. Saint Stephen the Protomartyr and all those since him could have easily denied their faith and walked through the wide gate, denying Christ and facing destruction. Yet they took up the ultimate sacrifice. Their willingness to die for their faith defied all worldly logic, though was not in vain, since as Father Matthew the Poor reminds us “Every Martyrdom carries with it a resurrection” echoing today’s message that the most difficult gate is often the one which leads to life.

The second part of the Gospel this week makes the comparison between the false prophets who are “ferocious wolves” that willcome to you in sheep’s clothing” and the true prophets of God. This warning also comes with advice on how to recognise these, giving a metaphor to explain these two and their works.

The Metaphor explains that “every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” reminding of that the practice and doctrine produced by someone in the name of God is a likely indicator of whether they follow their own path. This was a clear cut method of recognising God’s work in the first Century, as we see in both the Book of Acts; when Gamaliel tells the Jews to judge the Apostles by the success of their mission, sharing the sentiments of today’s Gospel that “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” We also see this applied in the Didache when they list the traits of someone who is a false prophet based on their approaches to their mission. 

Throughout the Church there have always been false teachers, the many writings against heresies have demonstrated this. We have seen the teachings of Arius, Nestorius, Eutyches and others try to strangle the Church, only to be condemned by the true teachers of Orthodoxy such as Athanasius, Cyril and Severus. The fruits of these vines speak for themselves in the manner that the Gospel states, drawing us to seek them for our spiritual food instead of the false teachers of the world. It is by this fruit that we see that the Orthodox faith is indeed supported by the True teachers of the faith, helping us to know that it is the True Bride of Christ and that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” 

In our own lives, we also need to make sure that what we produce is the fruit of good labour and that we are not the thistles and thorn bushes which Christ warns of. During our fast we need to make sure that we do not become like the Pharisees who wore their faith on the outside but had little fruit to show for it. When fasting, we should take the advice of Abba Isidore and remind ourselves that during Lent “It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself." If we hold the fast but do not gain from it, then we may as well not fast. This leads us to our final crossroad on this threefold Gospel reading, the true and false disciples. 

Of the three topics, this is easily the most difficult to approach and the personal to write about. The first looked at our lifestyles, the second at our influence and now the third speaks of us. As well as this, there is no warning or metaphor or explanation to guide us on how to know the true follower, simply the point that the true follower is “only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

When seeking to understand God’s will for us, we have a number of sources we can search. We can look in scripture to find inspiration, we can seek the words of the Church Fathers, we can ask our own clergy or we can pray on the matter, hoping that of those who cry “lord, lord”, we will be amongst those who find the Kingdom. This is again a struggle we will face and can be tempted to avoid though, as the Russian writer Philaret of Moscow write, “If you live without struggle and without hope of becoming holy, you are Christians only in name and not in essence.” Remembering this fact we must seek God in all humility, following the narrow path and the true teachers of his faith. Only then will we understand how to be Christians in truth and not just in name.

In this Gospel message we learn three important pieces of information to guide us through our lives. Firstly we are told that the path of the Christian faith will not be easy and that we should expect to be burdened. We are then told that not all of the advice we are given will be true, that many will try to sway us from God. Lastly we are told that in order to find the Kingdom of God we should do God’s will and contemplate the meaning of this in our prayers and actions.

Rest assured, if we plan our spiritual life as we would any long journey by accepting to carry the weight we are given, seeking good guidance and following the path we are shown, we will reach our goal of being able to call ourselves true followers of Christ in substance and not just in name. 

Sermon by Dcn Daniel on 2nd Saturday of Lent 2014. St George & St Paul the Hermit Orthodox Church, London

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