This homily was preached on Sunday morning, August 31, 2014,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.
Transcription by Katie Gleason.
Gospel Reading: Luke 18:9-14
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Our God is One.
Without this, we cannot be saved.
Without this, you cannot go to heaven.
Without this all of your virtues, become vices.
And all of your good works turn into dust.
This one thing is absolutely necessary, for your salvation.
And you say, “What is it? Is it baptism?”
Well, you could almost say that about baptism. We are told in Scripture that we need to be baptized for the remission of sins. Paul himself was told to go be baptized and have his sins washed away, calling upon the name of the Lord. It says in Mark that “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” Truly, if you are anywhere near a Orthodox priest, and you have the opportunity to seek baptism, and you despise it, you reject it, you’re in trouble.
But what about the victims of abortion, the over 50,000,000 that have been slaughtered in this country alone, since 1973? They haven’t been baptized. And yet the Church looks upon them as Holy Innocents, carried into the very bosom of our Lord.
We also look at some of the martyrs, who for whatever reason had not yet been baptized. But in the heat of persecution, they were called upon to deny the name of Christ. They refused, and they went to their deaths for the sake of the name of Jesus Christ. And they are now looked on in the Church as saints. It is called a “baptism of blood.”
So yes, water baptism is extremely important. It is normally the way through which God washes away our sins. But you can find these exceptions.
And you say, “Well, maybe it’s confession. Is this the one thing you have to have?”
Well, confession is very important. Again, if you’re anywhere near an Orthodox priest, and you have the opportunity to confess your sins to one of God’s priests and have absolution pronounced in your hearing, and you despise that, and you say, “Aww, I don’t want to have anything to do with that,” then you are in trouble. And you should fear.
And yet again, what about the unborn that die? What about the infant in the church, that has been baptized and has taken Communion, and has not reached an age when they can go to confession? What about the person who desires to take confession, but the priest just isn’t in town now, and you die before you have the opportunity? The mercy of God is great, so even with something as crucial and important as confession, there are exceptions.
And you say, “I know what it is. If it’s not baptism and it’s not confession, it has to be the Eucharist.”
In John 6, Jesus himself says, “Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of man, you have no life in you.” Its very, very important. The Eucharist is what the Early Church Fathers call “medicine of immortality, which keeps us from dying.” It is such an important sacrament that we are told in Scripture itself that if you partake of it unworthily, that God himself will make you sick, or he may even strike you dead. The Eucharist is crucial; the Eucharist is important.
And yet again, what about the martyrs who were baptized not in water but in their own blood, and had not yet taken the Eucharist? What about the unborn children, who die before they have a chance to take the Eucharist? What about the infant in the Orthodox church was baptized forty days after their birth — and let’s say it’s a baptism like our little Kelsey received — and the very next day that child is going to partake of their very first Communion. But after having been baptized, even after being Chrismated, what if that child before being able to partake of Communion has some sort of a medical problem and they die? Does that child go to hell because they were about to take Communion, but they just didn’t quite make it? No, the mercy of God allows for things like this.
The sacraments are very important! We need Baptism, we need Confession, we need Chrismation, we need the Eucharist. And yet even then, God recognizes that while that may be the way it works for 99% of the rest of us, there are those on the edges that God works with some other way.
Humility – Even Greater than a Sacrament
No, what I’m talking about today is not one of the sacraments. What I’m talking about today is something without which you cannot enter into heaven. It is something which God requires of you, even more importantly than he requires baptism, confession, chrismation, and even the Eucharist itself. If you don’t have this, you can forget about your salvation altogether. Its a little thing called Humility. If you don’t have a heart that is humble, I don’t care if you go to the Orthodox church for seventy years. I don’t care if you memorize all the Ecumenical Councils and their canons and the Old and New Testament of Scripture. I don’t care if you make a pilgrimage to every site in the world, and go to every monastery and every convent. I don’t care if you give all of your money to the poor. If you puff up your chest with pride and pat yourself on the back because of it, and feel that you have done God a favor by deigning to enter his kingdom, then you have not entered his kingdom.
A Story of Two Travelers
There’s a story told of two fellow travelers. They met up in a particular town, and they chatted and realized that they have the destination planned, so they decided that they would keep each other company and travel together. As they were beginning to leave the town they passed a stockyard, a cattle feedlot. And cows constantly doing what cows do, the smell was horrendous. And the breeze was just right, not so high that it would blow it away, and not so low that it would stay where it is, but it was blowing in just their direction at a nice leisurely pace. The first traveler could hardly stand it; he was pinching his nose and kind of wincing like this. The second traveler just kept walking, acting like there was no big deal.
A little ways farther down the road, they got to the very edge of the town, and there was a particular house that had a septic system which did not work very well at all. And there was literally raw sewage, solid waste, pouring out on to the yard. I mean, you could see it. And you could definitely smell it. And the path went by it, and it was worse than the whiff they had gotten from the cattle yard. And the first guy just really winced up and was covering his face and was starting to lean over, just having a hard time with it. He picked up his pace and started walking faster. The second traveler just walked along, didn’t flinch, didn’t wrinkle his nose.
They walked together for a few miles. And as they neared the next town, there was something that made the first guy literally wretch. The path took them right beside this three-day-old, maggot-infested, rotting corpse of a horse. And it had split open, and the stench was just filling the air. And it was so much worse then the cattle yard, and the sewage, that the first traveler just began throwing up. He just couldn’t handle it. He almost turned back and went back home, but he just, he just pushed though it. The second traveler just kept walking; he didn’t even flinch.
They came into town. And as they started walking into town, this absolutely beautiful woman, with a big smile on her face, her nose up in the air, was just walking and strutting by. And the first traveler kind of turned his head a little bit and looked. The second traveler just bent over and began to throw up, just holding his nose. He just couldn’t take it. The first traveler turned to the second traveler and said,
“Who are you? or what are you? You didn’t flinch at all when we walked by the stockyards. You didn’t even wrinkle your nose when we walked be the open sewage. And when we walked by that absolutely disgusting corpse of a horse, you acted like nothing was wrong. But now this good smelling, perfumed, beautiful woman in a dress walks by, smiling, and you start throwing up. What is wrong with you?”
And suddenly the second traveler allowed his disguise to fade away, and he rose to two feet higher then his previous height. And the light of God gleamed and shone out from him. And then the first traveler fell down to his knees, trembling, realizing he was in the presence of an angel. And the angel spoke with a very deep voice and he said,
“There is no stench that is such an abomination in the nostrils of God as pride. And that woman that just walked by was reeking with it.”
Pride = Death
You can faithfully walk with God for seventy years, you can be in church every time the doors are open, you can partake of all the sacraments, you can study the Bible day and night, you can pray seven times a day. And it only takes this one sin called pride. You puff out your chest a little bit, you pat yourself on the back for being so faithful and so good to God, for being so much more righteous than everybody else, for being so much smarter, for having studied more, for being more generous. And the same sin that was able to turn the angels into demons, and an archangel into the devil himself, will turn you in an instant from a saint, into the dammed. And you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Similarly, you can spend seventy years of your life in dissipation, and wickedness, and sin, never setting foot in a church, never partaking of a single sacrament, turning your back on Christ your entire life. But while there is still that window of time, that window of hope, if the Holy Spirit still pricks your heart, and if — even in those last moments of your of your life — you respond, and you begin to weep over your sins, and you fall down on your knees and even fall down on your face before God, and you realize that you come before him absolutely empty-handed, not boasting of a single book that you’ve read, or a single church service that you’ve attended, or a single penny that you gave to charity, but empty-handed, begging God for his mercy, because you know that you are a sinner and that you deserve hell, you could have spent your life in wickedness, you could be like the thief on the cross hanging there, knowing that you hang there because you deserve it because you’re a thief, and you simply turn to Christ and say, “Please remember me in your kingdom,” And in that emptiness, in that brokenness, in that humility before God, Jesus will turn to you and say to you, “I tell you this day, you shall be with me in Paradise.”
Three Differences Between the Pharisee and the Publican
There are some important differences between this pharisee, and this publican. The pharisee compares himself with the tax collector, but the tax collector compares himself with God.
Who do you compare yourself with? Your neighbor, your mom, your sister, your brother, your kids? If you do that, you might look pretty good in comparison. Try comparing yourself with Jesus. How well do you match up now? Are there any areas in your life, any at all, where you fall short of Jesus?
You may be an academic.
Are you smarter then Jesus?
Are you better read than him?
You may be generous.
Have you given more than him?
You may be devout.
Are you more devout than God?
The pharisee pats himself on the back, because he was better then the tax collector. The tax collector beat his breast and looked down to the ground, because he knew he was nowhere near the holiness of God.
Don’t compare yourself with your family members, with your neighbors, with the sinners on the 10:00 news. Don’t compare yourself with ISIS, and the Muslims, and think that because you’re closer to God than they are, that you deserve to go to heaven. Compare yourself with Christ, and then fall on your face before him, saying, “I am not worthy. Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
The pharisee and publican were also different, in that only one of them was humble enough to ask for something.
Did you notice that the pharisee in his prayer never asks for anything? He doesn’t ask for salvation, because he thinks he already has it. He just wants to go spend time with God in self-congratulation.
“Thank you, God, that I’m not like these Muslims over here, and these atheists over here, and these protestants over there, and these Buddhists over there. And even among the Orthodox, thank you Lord, that I’m not like all those nominal Orthodox that don’t really come to church every time that they can, and celebrate all the feasts. And you’re really lucky to have me. Thank you for making me so wonderful. I’m a really great part of your kingdom, Lord.”
He talked to God, and he thanked God, but he didn’t ask for anything because he thought he already had everything, which was only proof that he had nothing.
The tax-collector knew he was a sinner, he knew he deserved hell, he knew that if he were to take all his righteous deeds and pile them up, they wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans compared to the riches of heaven and communion with God. And so he didn’t even bring those up to God. He came with empty hands. He didn’t plead for a single righteous thing that he had ever done. He didn’t mention a single virtue. The tax-collector bowed his head to God and he asked for salvation. You can’t ask for something until you’ve become convinced that you need it. He knew that he needed God’s mercy. He knew that he needed salvation. He knew that he needed to be pardoned for his grievous sins.
Have you committed sins this week at all? Compared to Christ, how have you been for the past seven days? Is there anything you need to fall on your face before God and ask for him to forgive you for? If so, then do not approach him with the arrogance of the pharisee, but approach him with the humility of the tax-collector.
Its also important to notice another difference. Whereas the pharisee showed no mercy to the tax-collector, the tax-collector asked God for mercy.
And you say, “Well, we just talked about the fact that he asked for something.” Well, in prayer, we ask for things all the time. But its not always mercy that we are requesting. “Lord, please send me healing. I’m enduring such sickness, such pain, I can’t take it; please send healing. Lord, please fix my financial situation. I’m in such trouble, I don’t know what we’re going to do; please help.” These are all good prayers. We are humbling ourselves enough to ask for something. But it’s not enough to ask for healing, or to ask for money, or to ask for his blessings. We also need to ask for what the tax-collector requested. We need to ask for mercy.
For 2,000 years in its liturgy, the Church has prayed, “Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison, Kyrie Eleison.” “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” For 1,500 years the Church has been praying the Jesus prayer. “O Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. O Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. O Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
If you belong to him, if you are a part of his kingdom, then constantly — because you compare yourself to Christ — because you are willing to ask him for what you know that you need, one of the things you ask him for is mercy.
Mercy is Only for the Undeserving
And what does it mean to ask for mercy? Mercy can only — by definition — be given to the undeserving. If you deserve it, then it is not mercy.
So many of our prayers are filled with requests for favors, when our prayers should be filled with requests for mercy.
I have sinned. Therefore any sickness, or pain, or physical suffering that I endure, I can’t say I don’t deserve that.
I have sinned against God. Therefore any financial struggle that I endure, I can’t say I don’t deserve that.
I have sinned against the Creator of the universe. Therefore any problems that I have with relationships, with friends or family, I’m partially to blame for that. I can’t say I don’t deserve that.
See, sometimes we do compare ourselves with Christ, and realize that we fall short. Sometimes we are humble enough to ask God for things. And yet we stop short of asking for mercy, because in the back of our minds we still think,
“I’m not that bad. I mean, I know I’m not as good as Christ, But God sets the bar pretty low. I mean, you don’t have to be perfect to get into heaven. And I’m way better than the Muslims, I’m way better then the Baptists, and I’m way better then the Episcopalians. And even among the Orthodox, I know more about Orthodoxy than most people in the church, and I show up at church more often then most people do in the church, so you know, I’m pretty good. For the most part.”
And so then we ask,
“Lord, please grant me salvation. Please grant me entrance into your kingdom.”
And its good that we ask for that. But we don’t quite think of it as “mercy”, because in the back of our minds we think,
“You know, I’m just good enough, I’m decent enough, I’m loving enough to my family and to my kids, and I do enough good stuff for them, that really God should let me into heaven. Really he should, because I’m not that bad.”
And as long as you are thinking like that, you are failing to ask for mercy. You may be asking payment for good works, you may be asking for a favor, but you’re not asking for mercy.
Mercy is only given to the undeserving. And the only way God is going to give you heaven, is if you recognize in your gut that you don’t deserve to go there.
It is not just, “Lord, do me a favor and let me into heaven.”
It is not just, “Lord, let me into heaven, because that’s really what I deserve.”
No, it is, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Are you willing to call yourself a sinner? Are you willing to say out loud that you don’t deserve to go to heaven, that you are not good enough? That takes humility to do that, and without humility, you will not see the mercy of God. Humble yourself before the Lord, and he will lift you up.
We are told in today’s Gospel reading by Jesus himself, “Everyone who exalts himself will be put down, but everyone who humbles himself shall be exalted.”
Do you want to be exalted?
Do you want to be justified?
Do you want to be saved?
Do you want to enter the kingdom of heaven?
The only way up, is down.
The only way to ascend into the heavens is by getting on your knees.
The only way to the Ascension is the Cross.
The only way to Mount Olives is Gethsemane.
You must humble yourself before the Lord.
And so going through all this, going through this parable of the pharisee and the publican, a person may say,
“What is the use of the whole Church then? You’ve just said that I could be a faithful Orthodox Christian for seventy years, and then near the end of my life I could get puffed up with pride and lose everything, sort of like King Uzziah in the Old Testament, who was faithful to God for 52 years, and then he got puffed up with pride and decided he was going to pretend he was a priest. And God struck him with leprosy and he was banished, and ended up been buried among the lepers, and not even buried with the kings.”
“And you’ve told me that you can be wicked for seventy years, and never set foot in church, never love God, never do anything good, and that if you still have a heartbeat, if you still have breath, and if God should send his Holy Spirit to prick your heart and convict you, even then, if you choose to humble yourself before the Lord and beg for his mercy and forgiveness, that you can be saved.”
You can enter into the kingdom of heaven, just like King Manasseh in the Old Testament, who spent his entire life outdoing the wickedness of all the former kings of Israel. Not only did he worship pagan gods and encourage the worship of pagan gods, but he brought pagan idols — false gods — into the Jerusalem temple. You think a statue of Baal or Dagon is bad? how bout a statue of Dagon and Baal in the temple where Yahweh is supposed to be worshiped? Manasseh did this.
And if that wasn’t enough, do you know what else Manasseh did? He murdered the prophet Isaiah. He ordered him to be sawn in two, and not this way [horizontally], but they started between his legs and they sawed up [vertically] until they finally got up — once they got up around the heart and the neck area, he finally died. They tortured Isaiah to death by sawing him in two at the command of King Manasseh.
And you know where Manasseh is now? In heaven. In Scripture, we read the prayer of Manasseh, his prayer of humble repentance at the end of his life, when he recognized his great wickedness, and he poured out his heart before God and begged for mercy, just like this tax collector. And God had mercy on him and forgave him all his sin. And I have no doubt now that Manasseh is with the saints in heaven, even after having lived such a wicked life.
So you may rightfully ask,
“What do we need the Church for?”
Faithfully serve the Church your whole life, and pride can still send you to hell.
Live like the devil your whole life, and if you humble yourself and repent before your heart stops beating, you could still go to heaven.
First of all, we need to remember that you don’t know how much longer you have to live. God has given you no guarantee that you will spend seventy years on this earth. My niece Ashley was killed in a car accident at the age of seventeen. My brother Preston was killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of twenty-one. Our son Quincy died halfway into the pregnancy. He was dead before he was born.
There is nothing more presumptuous or arrogant than to say,
“Well, I’m going to live my life for the devil. And at the end of my life, before I die, then I’ll give the crumbs to God.”
If you were that prideful , if you were that arrogant, I wouldn’t bet any money that you’re going to make it to age seventy. You may die very quickly and unexpectedly. And then it will be too late for repentance. So the concept of turning your back on the Church on purpose, and living in sin on purpose, so that maybe you can repent when your old , that is only a path taking by the very arrogant. And as we have already said the very arrogant are those who do not enter the kingdom of God, unless they repent.
But there is something else that those of us who have chosen to be faithful, those of us who have chosen to be in the Church, those of us who believe that baptism washes our sins away. We believe that Chrismation gives us the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We believe that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ that washes away our sins, and is the medicine of immortality. We believe all these things. What can be said to us?
I would simply remind all of us that everything the Church does, from birth until your death, is calculated to help you on this path of humility. The Church knows how critical it is to have humility, how necessary it is to have humility. And everything the Church does for you is calculated for the sake of your humility.
The Church doesn’t say,
“Well, as soon as you decide you’re ready, as soon as you decide that you’ve learned enough, as soon as we agree that you know what you need to know . . . Ok, now that you’re twelve years old . . . now that you’re fifteen years old . . . Ok, we’ll let you join the Church.”
No. Your mom and your dad are Orthodox Christians. And they come together in love, and they have this child, and this child is born. And before the child learns its own name, before the child learns to speak, you give that child the name “Christian”. You baptize that child in the water, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And that child grows up in the midst of the Church, never presuming to say,
“Well, I’m Orthodox because I was smart enough to become Orthodox!”
Now, we who are first-generation converts have to struggle with those kind of thoughts. And we must struggle against them! But the normal life of the Church is for you to be born into the Church, and baptized in the Church as an infant, while you still have that helplessness, while you still have that humility. So that even when you’re a fifty-year-old man, you can’t say, “Well, I became Orthodox because I was smart enough,” or “holy enough.”
You can say,
“No, this is a great gift that was given to me, before I was even old enough to know what was going on.”
And then all of us, from the three year-old, to the seventy-three year-old, to the hundred-three year-old, can come down every week to the rail. And we don’t presumptuously walk all the way up to the altar and grab the chalice with our own hand, grab the Eucharist with our own hand, and feed ourselves. No! What do we do?
All of us, like little baby birds . . . we come forward, and it doesn’t matter if you are three year-old Kelsey, or if you are Russ. You come forward, and you kneel, and you open your mouth like a little bird, and you wait for somebody to feed you. Is there any humility in that?
There’s a reason the priest feeds you. That’s Christ feeding you. You don’t feed yourself. You don’t presume to touch the Eucharist yourself, or to go shovel it into your own mouth. You wait, like a little child, for Christ to feed you with his body and his blood. It is meant to teach humility.
It’s not just about learning what the right doctrines are. It’s also why you believe those are the right doctrines. I mean, is it possible that without help from the Church, you could sit down by yourself with Sola Scriptura, and just by reading the Bible, come to your own personal private conclusion that “Baptismal regeneration is true; we need baptism to be forgiven of our sins”? Yeah, you could do that.
On your own, could you study Scripture and come to the conclusion that we need to have infant baptism, and young-child Communion, and we need Bishops, Priests, and Deacons? Yeah, you could come to all these conclusions on your own. Many people have done so.
And those conclusions could be just as correct as the conclusions that the Church has come to, doctrines that the Church teaches.
But there’s still a big difference. Are you believing these things because you trust in your own reasoning powers, and in your own powers of study, and in your own brains, so much? Or do you believe these things because — just like you take the Eucharist — you also allow the Church to feed you the Word? You allow the Church to feed you the teachings of the Apostles.
Let’s just assume that by the grace of God, every person in this room has perfect theology, no errors whatsoever. That’s still not good enough. It’s not just a matter of knowing what the right answer is to a test question. It also matters why you think you got the right answer.
If your answer is, “I got the right answer because I studied enough and I’m smart enough, and I’ve got this figured out, and the Holy Ghost is with me,” then you’ve still got some work to do.
But you say,
“This is what the Church has taught for 2000 years. This is part of the Deposit of Faith handed down to us by Christ and the Apostles. I am not trusting in my own brain. I am not trusting in my own studies. I humble myself on my knees, before the teachings of the Holy Church, and that’s why I believe it’s true, not because I became convinced of it, but ultimately because I submit myself to the teachings of the Church.”
What about all this talk in the Orthodox Church about obedience? Now there’s an unamerican word if you ever heard one — unless we’re demanding other countries to obey us!
Americans are all about “independence” and “self sufficiency”. We’re “preppers”. We do it ourselves. We take care of ourselves. “I don’t need anybody else . . . ”
That’s fine and well if you’re just talking about stocking your freezer with deer meat, and canning corn and vegetables and pickles, and putting them away, so that you have food to eat. That’s fine.
But it’s not fine in the kingdom of God. You can go to hell alone, but you only get to heaven together, with each other. You can’t do it yourself. You’re not smart enough or holy enough to get yourself close to Christ and in heaven.
So it is built into the very fabric of the Church. You’re not supposed to come up with your own daily rule of prayer, but you go to your spiritual father, and you get it approved, and you talk to him, and he says, “Ok, this is what your daily rule of prayer should be.”
You don’t just decide for yourself, that you’re going to be a bishop or a priest, or pastor a church. No. You become a bishop or a priest or a deacon, you pastor a church, if the bishop tells you to.
We have the Church teaching us obedience to the leaders of the Church. We have the Church teaching us about obedience to the powers-that-be within society. We have the Church teaching us about obedience of wives to husbands. (There’s an unpopular topic!) Obedience of children to parents. (By what I’ve seen in America, that’s also a very unpopular topic.)
The Church teaches obedience, obedience, obedience. Why? It’s certainly not because the Church is trying to puff up the pride of the bishops and priests, even though that unfortunately happens all too often. The reason we are all put under obedience in the Orthodox Church, in so many different contexts, is because God is trying to teach us humility. And there’s nothing quite so humbling as taking orders.
Humility is Necessary for Salvation
So the next time you run into one more aspect of the Church that makes you feel humbled, one more thing about Orthodoxy that makes you feel like you’re taking orders rather than giving them, one more thing within the Church that makes you feel like, “They’re trying to make us submit to some authority, rather than decide for ourselves what to believe,” that’s because the Church knows that without humility, not one of us will enter the kingdom of heaven.
It’s not just about answering the questions right on a doctrinal exam.
It’s not just about the sacraments, even though they are very important.
It is about having your heart humbled before God, humbled before your brothers and sisters, so that — not just reeling it off your tongue by rote memory — but from your heart, you can actually participate in this liturgy, and in that prayer just before Communion, where we call ourselves the chief of sinners. Whenever you pray that just before Communion, do you actually believe it? Do you actually think of yourself as the chief of sinners? Or are you just saying words?
If you can’t look in the mirror and see a sinner, see somebody who is undeserving, if you can’t think for a second about actually humbling yourself before the teachings of the Church, doing what the Church commands, being obedient, letting the Church interpret Scripture for you instead of you just trusting in your own devices, if you can’t imagine doing any of this for a second, then it might be a pride problem.
And just remember, pride is the only sin it took to convert angels into demons, and an archangel into the devil. For pride, the angels lost heaven. But through humility, St. Augustine tells us, even lowly men can become like the angels.
Do you want salvation?
Do you want forgiveness?
Do you want joy?
Do you actually want to go to heaven?
Then in your mind, and in your heart, and even with your knees, humble yourself, for it is only through humility that we will see the face of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our God is one. Amen.
This homily was preached on Sunday morning, August 31, 2014,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.
Transcription by Katie Gleason.