During the first week of Lent we had readings that spoke of urgency in our lives. It is fitting, since Great Lent is a season of sober assessment of our characters and our lifestyle. The readings said such things as, “watch and pray,” “do not be weighed down with drunkenness,” “when you fast and when you give alms, do not show off,” “Have faith to move mountains” and, “seek and you will find.” Today we will read from the gospel which we read on Friday of the first week of Lent, during the Akathist.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:1–7)
We were always created for a life in Jesus Christ from the beginning. From the beginning, we were always going to do what we do now, just a much more perfect version of it. We were created to work. We were created to have families. We were always going to have the joy of nurturing and sharing a home. We were always going to have community. It was always part of God’s plan.
We were created to remain in Christ as we read today. We do the deeds of Jesus. We remain in those deeds. We are united to his actions. The Fathers call these actions his energies. We do what Jesus does: love, teach, pray. Our prayers spread Jesus’ healing. We do not fear death, as Jesus did not fear death. And so we are heroes who lay our lives down out of love for our families and our community and our world.
We were always going to sacrifice; it was God’s intention from the beginning. We were always going to offer our work to God. We were always going to make our world holy through prayer. That is human existence by default. It would be strange to describe it as supernatural. It is our nature. It is not just what we do now that Jesus has risen. Sacrifice is the beating heart of the energies of God as he reveals them to us. Jesus sacrifices so that we can sacrifice with him. We remain in the life of Jesus Christ.
This, by the way, is what is meant when the psalm says, “blessed art thou, o God, teach me thy statutes.” Or, “He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth. (1 Chronicles 16:14) or “Mount Zion rejoices, the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments.” (Psalm 48:11) The judgments and statutes of the Lord are an expression of the energies of God that we are invited to participate in.
God does not demand righteousness from us. God invites us because righteousness is what he wants for us. We can become united to God. This is called theosis in the Orthodox Church. The word theosis comes from theos which means God. We become divine by grace; gods by grace. The energies of God are part of God himself. We can perceive his energies. We see what God does and has done. What Jesus does express the energies of God and when we remain in Him we are journeying the path to theosis. This was always the point of creation. Theosis is what we were created for.
We were created dignified. We were created to be a royal priesthood. We were created to live in a worthy manner, to shine with the uncreated light, the Glory of God., We are icons of God – the image and likeness of God. We have that royal dignity and honour inside us. But sin corrupted the world. Sin made our work difficult and exhausting. The corruption of sin means our work may not succeed. Without Jesus Christ our work is futile. And we die in corruption. We were going to have the joy of working and building and creating, but in the sinful world we can destroy. We voluntarily stop acting in a worthy and dignified manner. We stop being kings and queens. Instead, we becomes slaves. We become slaves to our impulses, slaves to selfishness, slaves to despair and giving up before we have even tried.
Sin also corrupted our homes and the community. Sin made the home a place where we hurt people; a place where we resent people. We have the power to destroy this too, when we could be nurturing instead.And we do destroy them.
We are born into a community that does evil as well as good. Our families and our community have taught us what is right, but they also taught us by their bad example. Then we become the ones who set our bad example for children. We were hurt and we cause pain to others. We share in the corruption and death of everything. We are dying and we are killing through negligence, by contributing to the corruption and death of everything.
What will God do? When God looks at us in our misery he sees the real person he created. Imagine this analogy: Someone has an elderly relative with dementia. And they think to themselves, “I knew my mother back when she was healthy. She was smart and funny and loved everyone. I know who the real person was. She still is that person, but old age has clouded over that person.” Or when we see sickness causing someone’s body to wither away. We think, “I know what that person looked like before.” God sees us in our slavery and our clouded judgment, but he still sees the person he created. He sees the kings and queens who are capable of dignity and virtue, capable of true worship. But what will he do?
Saint Athanasius writes:
For the word [Jesus], realized that the corruption of human beings could not be undone in any other way except, by him dying. But he is immortal and the Son of the Father, the Word, was not able to die. For this reason he takes to himself a body capable of death in order … [to] be able to die on behalf of all. [i.e. he could lead us by offering his life and death to God as a gift, so that we can do the same thing with our lives and our deaths.] And through the Word who dwells in us, we can remain incorruptible, and so henceforth everyone may be free from the power of corruption by the grace of the resurrection [the resurrection proves to us that it works]. Because he “lead his own body to the slaughter” [like a lamb being sacrificed] as an offering [which is] holy and free from all blemish [requirements for animals which are sacrificed – the best of the best, giving generously with pure intention], he immediately abolished death from all like him, by the offering of a like. [He made it possible for anyone to escape from the control that death had over people, since they can do the same thing with their lives and their bodies as he did with his life and his body]. The corruption of death no longer controls humans because of the indwelling of the word.
[Jesus] being with all [of us] through the body that is like ours, since he is the incorruptible Son of God [he is immune from corruption], consequently [made it possible for all people to be] clothed … with incorruptibility in the promise concerning the resurrection [i.e. we are free from the fear of death because we know that God can give us life]. And now the very corruption of death [the power of suffering to control us] no longer [controls] human beings because of the Word who lives in us, in the one body [the Church]. As when a great king has entered some large city and made his dwelling in one of the houses in it, such a city is certainly made worthy of high honor, and no longer does any enemy or bandit descend upon it, but it is rather reckoned worthy of all care because of the king’s having taken residence in one of its houses; so also does it happen with the King of all. Coming himself into our realm, and dwelling in a body like the others, every [plot or attack] of the enemy against human beings is completely powerless [to make us do what it wants], and the corruption of death, which had prevailed formerly against them, is defeated.
When we say, “Where, O Death is your sting,” we mean that death can no longer terrorize us into causing others death. We mean that our own sickness and shame, our own grieving, our own trauma, our own past failures can no longer force us to contribute to the cycle of death because Jesus not only forgives us, he also grants us remission of sins. Remission means that we are being healed of our propensity towards sin. We are can stop.
Jesus gives us a church to worship in. Jesus gives us a new perspective in which all the people in our life provide us with relationships as the context in which we can do what we were always created to do, which is to work with Jesus. These relationships are the context in which we love those people together with Jesus. We become one with his energies; one with God.