It's Time to Act
“Let him do anything but act. No amount of piety in his imagination will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. Let him do anything but act.” This is the guidance of Screwtape, who is a senior demon training his junior demon nephew on how to lead Christians away from God. “Let him do anything but act. Keep his good intentions in his mind. Keep them in his thoughts. But keep them away from any concrete action. Let him do anything but act.”
Over the past five weeks, we have been having two engaging Bible Study/Book Study groups meeting on Wednesday mornings and evenings reading CS Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. This book basically describes the spiritual battle going on inside each one of us and warns us to become aware of how the evil one tries to deceive us, confuse us, and do whatever he can to lead us away from any authentic connection to God, away from following God’s desires.
Surely the devil doesn’t want us to know about God at all, but surely if we do learn about God or even call ourselves followers of Jesus, then he doesn’t want us to “act out” in following Christ’s commandments. For example, we can theoretically talk about love for one another and even love for our enemies, but Satan will try to keep us from actually doing acts of love for one another and even for those who hurt us. Or we may talk about our upcoming Great Lenten journey and we may learn about all the beautiful spiritual traditions related to this Fasting period, but the devil will try to keep us from actually following the holy traditions which can open up our hearts and minds and lead us to encounter God in a fresh, new way.
I begin with this warning about the deception of the evil one when he whispers “Let him do anything BUT act” to help us be on guard, stay awake and attentive and listen to how the Church calls us to action in today’s Epistle and Gospel readings!
First in the Epistle, we hear Saint Paul’s advice to the Christians in Corinth who were struggling with whether they were allowed to eat food that was offered to idols. The Apostle warns “Food will not bring us closer to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do eat.” Ultimately, he teaches how it isn’t food itself, and whether we eat it or not, that will bring us closer to God. How we approach food, however, will help us in our spiritual journey towards God. And this is what fasting is all about - approaching food in a healthy, spiritual way!
We read this passage today because we are partially entering into the Great Lenten Season. We call today Meat-fare Sunday because it’s supposed to be the last day we eatmeat until Pascha. No meat for the next 56 days! No meat starting today and next Sunday will be the last day to eat cheese and dairy. We then fully enter our Lenten journey on Clean Monday, March 15th.
What does it mean to approach food in a spiritual way? Why do we fast since Saint Paul clearly says “Food will not bring us closer to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat and no better off if we do eat?” We need to clearly understand fasting as a tool, not the goal, and if used properly, this tool opens up our hearts and minds to encounter God in a clearer way. The primary purpose of fasting is to make us conscious of God. True fasting involves real hunger, denying ourselves food and being hungry at times. Fasting can humble us and makes us aware of our dependance on God. Second, fasting helps us develop self-discipline which we can then apply to other areas of our lives, disciplining ourselves to overcome our sinful habits. Third, fasting creates an open space within our hearts and souls where we can encounter God in a new way. Throughout history the faithful have opened themselves up to divine illumination during times of fasting. Finally, fasting helps us free ourselves from the dictatorship of flesh over spirit. Jesus warned his disciplines in the Garden of Gethsemane, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Don’t approach fasting as something negative but as something positive and joyful! We deny ourselves in order to free ourselves, to open ourselves up to God in a new way!
Thus, the first call to action we hear today is to begin the fast! The devil will tempt us to simply talk about the fast, debate about the fast, judge others as they fast or do not fast, or keep the fast in our mind but not to actually engage in the fast. “Let them do anything but act.” I want us all, however, to make the commitment today to fast!!!
In the Gospel reading, we hear another much more fundamental call to action which stands at the center of our entire faith. All our theology and beliefs will mean little if we don’t heed the words of our Lord in the parable of the Last Judgment. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me… just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers or sisters you did it to me.”
Every week we talk, in one form or another, about the greatest commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor. Loving God and loving the other make up the essence of our faith. What we become aware of, however, is that these two great loves truly reflect one love; we can equate the two commandments with one another. Jesus makes very clear in this parable whatever we do to the least, the most marginalized, to the most despised of society we are doing to Jesus Himself.
We often highlight how all people are created in the image and likeness of God. When we choose to ignore, reject, despise or hate someone else, anyone else, we are choosing to ignore, reject, despise and hate Jesus Christ Himself!
What always strikes me whenever I read the Gospel of the Last Judgment is how both the righteous and the condemned express surprise. The righteous ask in astonishment, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison and minister to you?” Throughout their lives they’ve reached out to the marginalized in society not in a calculated manner, not because they thought they would get some reward. They simply showed love to others because divine love overflowed from within and that’s what you naturally do for those in need - whether it’s family, friends, or the most marginalized stranger. In the same way the condemned are shocked when they confess, “When did we see you in need, Lord? If we would have known it was you, we would surely have reached out to you!!!” Yet, that’s the point. Their love was limited. They loved others and helped others IF they knew them. Their love wasn’t boundlessly overflowing like the righteous.
Just like in last week’s story of the Prodigal Son, we noted how the older son lived with the father but never became like the father, he chose not to understand the father’s unconditional mercy, grace and love because his heart wasn’t open to truly receiving this gift of God. In like manner, many Christians today simply choose not to understand Jesus saying. ‘I was hungry and you didn’t give me anything to eat. I was naked and you didn’t clothe me. I was sick and you didn’t visit me.’ Our Lord put an equal sign between Himself and anyone in need. He can’t make it more clear and direct than this!
Thus, our question today is whether we will just listen to this story and keep it in our mind with good intentions, or whether we will respond to this parable and go out today and concretely take care of Jesus in the most marginalized people.
Remember, the devil is whispering in our ears “Let him do anything BUT act. Let him think about it all he wants. Just keep it out of his will.”
Today, we hear Saint Paul’s words which help us understand the role of food and fasting and we hear our Lord Jesus’ words which clearly tell us how to act. It’s not enough to know about what we are supposed to do, the question is whether we will respond and act in concrete ways! Begin the Fast and make today the last day of eating meat until Pascha. Begin preparing for our final Judgment and start taking care in concrete ways of the hungry, thirsty, naked and all the marginalized of society. It’s time to no longer simply think and talk about things but to act!
Facing Our Uncertain Future
THE SIGN OF THE CROSS
Our Orthodox Faith
A Prayer During the Coronavirus