THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST was manifested to Moses on Sinai in great power. The prophet Elias, trusting in the Almighty One, called down fire from heaven to consume his offerings. The leaders of Israel, seeking to glorify this God of power and might, built one temple after another. Jews flocked there on the great feasts to experience the presence of their wondrous God.
Then there came One from Galilee, far from the Holy City and its splendors, to proclaim the Kingdom of God. He surrounded himself with a few fishermen, who would be joined by tax collectors, partisans, and an assortment of people whom He had healed of various diseases. He proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was at hand and then ushered in that kingdom in a way that even His own followers could not comprehend: the way of the cross.
Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders ridiculed Jesus’ claims to kingship. When the charge against Him – the “King of the Jews” – was placed over His head on the cross it was done in mockery. But God’s power is not a matter of thunder and lightning; rather it is the power of love overcoming hate. That is why the cross set up on Holy Friday in our churches displays a title different from the one written by Pilate. Christ on the cross, we proclaim, is “the King of Glory.” The cross is the throne of love, seat of the kingdom of love. We reverence the cross but often do not comprehend the power in it.
As Christ predicted, His first followers would go from place to place in the then-known world “fishing for men.” They went to the major cities of the Roman Empire and beyond where Jews had settled. These hubs of civilization had their established religious centers: synagogues, temples, altars. The apostles did not “compete” by building larger temples or more elaborate altars. Instead of the power of these established religions they had only the Gospel, and that in what St. Paul called “earthen vessels” (2 Corinthians 4:7): a few unremarkable provincial tradesmen, harassed and persecuted, who claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead.
As the cross replaced the temple as the center of the Holy City of Jerusalem so too the One whom the apostles preached replaced the gods of the Roman pantheon. In time temples became churches and even the great city of Rome would take pride in the tombs of the apostles and martyrs, rather than those of its emperor-gods, as the source of their true life.
The Treasure We Have Inherited
History is filled with tales of the offspring of great leaders or heroes who squandered the inheritance they had received. Some saw themselves as great because their ancestors had been great, when in reality they themselves were weak and selfish. Their unworthiness soon became evident to all. Thus the son of St. Vladimir the Great has become known to history as Sviatopolk the Accursed.
We are the spiritual heirs of Peter and the other Apostles. Our Churches are the daughters of the Apostolic Churches whose missionaries left their homelands to introduce new people to the Gospel or to preserve the faith of people wandering in alien lands. We have become so comfortable in our inheritance that we may take this treasure of divine life as ours by right.
In our contemporary age we have even come to communicate with God in a casual – and ultimately superficial – way. We are so at home in the church that we have ceased to see it as holy ground. Unlike Peter, who shrank in fear when confronted by the Holy One, we often think, “Well, we should see God’s power manifested too!” As the Apostles bargained with Christ, “Show us the Father – that will be enough for us” (John 14:6) and like the scribes and Pharisees, whom Christ called “An evil and adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:38-39), we seek for a sign – a healing, a vision, a miraculous icon – “that we may believe.” After all, we’ve heard it all before and are unmoved.
When Peter first encountered the power in Christ’s love he recoiled out of his own sinfulness. He deeply felt his own unworthiness to be such a direct and personal recipient of God’s favor. And he was right: he was not worthy that God should intervene in his life. But Peter had yet to learn the depth of God’s compassion for His creatures. God does not give us “what we deserve,” but what His love ordains. He does not abandon us to a hell of our own making: He leads us through it to Himself. God’s purpose for Peter was that he be a “fisher of men” and worthiness had nothing to do with it. Divine grace, as it is described in the Byzantine ordination services, “heals what is infirm and supplies what is wanting.”
When God works marvelously in people’s lives – as He still does today – it is for the same reason that He worked with Peter: to prompt us to repentance. When Peter was unexpectedly confronted with Christ’s love in power, he repented and turned his life in a new direction. All of us, like Peter, are unworthy of the gifts we have received: even the very gift of life itself. But the love of God covers the nakedness of our weaknesses and ushers us into the inner chamber of communion with God through the mystery of Christ among us.
Eighth Homily on 2 Corinthians