Today is the 6th Sunday of Matthew.
I don’t know if you remember which other Sunday we read this gospel reading. It is the second Sunday of Great Lent. When we celebrate the holy memory of Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica. And it was placed in the first weeks of Great Lent, because as you may see, from the reading, it has to do with repentance. Great lent is a period of spiritual struggle and repentance, but also, in this period of summer, when this ecclesiastical year is ending – you know that the ecclesiastical year begins on September 1 and ends on August 31, so we are actually about at the end of the ecclesiastical year. The Church places again this gospel reading today, so that to urge us to repentance, to teach us again what is repentance. And what is actually the spiritual life. When we speak about repentance, we speak about the Christian life.
So if we read the story, we can read about the healing of a paralytic. Christ is in his own city, and when the evangelist speaks about Jesus, and his own city, he means Capernaum always, because Capernaum was a city, in the shore of the lake of Gennesaret, and it was the center of the mission work of Jesus. Many times I tell you that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, was raised up in Nazareth, but He lived in Capernaum. He had many missionary trips around Palestine, but the center of His missionary work was Capernaum. Jesus is in His own city, in Capernaum. And He is inside a house, and He is preaching. And during the sermon of Jesus, all the people see something amazing. Four persons, carrying a paralytic on his bed, break the roof of the house, and then they lower the man in front of Jesus. What He will do?
Jesus does not ask the paralytic about his faith. He sees the faith of the four friends of the paralytic man. Jesus pulls a surprise and thus again a miracle becomes a parable.The first words that Jesus says are, “Your sins are forgiven.” And this is a scandal for some of the people who were present at that time, for the Pharisees and the Scribes. They think – they don’t say it with their mouths – but they think with their minds: “How is it possible for a man to forgive sins?” God is the only one who can forgive sins. The Scribes and Pharisees never told something, just they thought something, and Jesus knows what is happening, because He can read the hearts, He can read the minds.. so He gives a response to these people.. And what does He say? What is easier to say, to say to someone “Your sins are forgiven” or to say to him “Rise and walk”? Of course, all of us, we will answer to Jesus, the most difficult thing is, to say to a paralytic, “Rise and walk.” Because we want to see the healing, because we want to see something extraordinary. We don’t care for what is happening in our souls or in our hearts. What is the meaning of forgiveness of sins? If I say to you “your sins are forgiven,” so what? For all of us the majestic thing is to say to someone who is sick, especially to one who is paralytic, “Rise and walk,” and to see him to rise and walk. Jesus has another opinion. What does He say? The most difficult thing is to forgive the sins of someone, not to give to him his health. We will explain why Jesus says this, and of course to show, as Saint Matthew explains to us, to show that Jesus has the power not only to heal someone but also to forgive sins. He’s the only one who has this authority. He says to the paralytic: “Rise and walk.” And immediately the paralytic rises and walks. And the healing of the body acts as a parable, a symbol of the authority of Jesus to forgive sins. It’s something that you cannot see. You can see the healing of the body, but behind this is hidden the healing of the soul.
So, why Jesus says that it is more difficult to forgive sins than to heal a body? When we speak about sin, what do we mean? To understand what sin is, it is not only to think about it in a moral way, that we did something bad. What is the meaning of this? Who is the one who will judge what is good and what is bad? And what actually is good and bad? There is a huge discussion about this, especially in philosophy. For us, the Christians, sin is something existential – meaning, another way of life. A way of life that is strange and far away from the life that God created. To understand this, we must have in our minds the theological term that the Holy Fathers use, in Greek. The term that they used to express the term of sin, is amartia. The Greek word amartia means to fail. It does not only have moral meaning; it does not mean that I sin in a moral way. It means that if I shoot someone, if I miss the mark, I am failing. In Greek, that’s the meaning of amartano – I have sinned. I failed, I missed the mark. This is the original meaning, and this is also the theological meaning. Why? Because the purpose of man, the purpose of the creation of man, was to live along with God. To become god, by the grace of God. And to participate in the life of God, in the community of life of the Holy Trinity. The beautiful picture that Moses gives us in the book of Genesis, is that man is placed into a garden. Paradise means garden, a beautiful garden, and every afternoon, God walks into this garden so that to meet with man. This is the life that God created for man, for everyone of us. But we failed. We lost the purpose of our lives, when we said to God that we don’t need Him, we can live by our own self. So we don’t mean the sin in a moral way only, but something that is existential, because we have distorted our own nature. When you have been created to participate in the Light of God, the glory of God, and you chose something else, you distort your nature. And this is what we live, our experience of life.
So now, when we speak about the human nature, we don’t speak actually about the original nature that God created for us. We speak about this distorted human nature, that we altered in the Paradise, with our sins. Sometimes we can see that some people say we cannot fight against our sinful passions. We cannot change ourselves. We cannot change and do something better in our lives. They are right. Do you know why? Because they speak about this distorted nature. If you read carefully the Holy Fathers, you can see that actually now, the expressions that we have now in our soul are the expressions of the distorted nature. And they speak about a second nature, that we added to the original nature that God created for us. Saint Paul named it as the “old self,” the “old man,” that everyone has inside of him. During the baptism, what we denounce? We denounce our own old man, the man of sin, that we have inside us. And the Christian life, when we speak about ascesis, when we speak about spiritual life and spiritual struggle, is what? To control this distorted nature, to control this “old man” of sin, to control our sinful passions, and to reveal the true nature, the beauty of the true nature. God does not add to us something new, we have it already. This is a gift that we have it, but we have to clean it, to reveal it again, to reveal again the glory of this nature.
And know we come to Forgiveness. Synhoro in Greek means I make place for someone else to be with me. To share the same place with someone. This is the original meaning of forgiveness in Greek, and the theological term for forgiveness. First, I make place for God to come and to stay, to live with me. To accept God back, and of course to live with God. And then the second thing, and this is more difficult, is to make place for my brothers and sisters, to live with me. Because this is something that has to do with our spiritual struggle. It’s not easy to accept someone else in our lives. We know only the life of separation. The life of pride and egoism, not the life of sharing, the life that Christ demands from us, the life of love.
So, when we speak, when Christ speaks about forgiveness, we have to understand what He means. When He speaks about sin, He speaks about the distortion of our own nature.
First, we have to acknowledge that our nature is distorted. Second, that God is here to give to us forgiveness, to give to us the healing from this distortion, and to help us to reveal again the glory of our nature. And of course to invite us again, to live with Him. For now God is present here among us, and He calls us to live with Him. And where can we experience this taste of life? Where can we experience this participation in the life of God? Inside His Church. When we speak about repentance, we mean actually to return back. Return back to where? You can say to me: to God. And where is God? Where can you find God? We need something to see, because we have material bodies. We have senses. So we have to sense something in order to understand it, to comprehend it. Christ gave us His Church. Not only as an idea, but also as a place, so that in this place, to find the grace, to find the forgiveness, and to find this foretaste of the new life. Inside the Church. Saint John Chrysostom says the Church is a hospital. For the Church, sin actually is an illness, an illness of the soul and of the body, the body and the soul are actually connected; there is a unity. We cannot separate the soul and the body. Inside the Church, we are asking for our own healing, and of course we have this foretaste of the participation in the Kingdom of God. This is something new. It’s not possible to understand the meaning of this, if you don’t live it, if you don’t have any experience of this. And this is the problem for all of us. Sometimes we, the Christians, don’t have the experience of living inside the Church, living the Christian life through the sacraments. We think it is symbolical, an abstract spirituality. But it’s not symbolical. It’s something existential. It’s something that makes us again to participate in the life of Christ, the life of God, through Christ, through the grace of Christ. This is the meaning of forgiveness. When Jesus says to the paralytic today, “I forgive you,” that means, I invite you, to live with me. And we know that Christ is not a mere man, He is God – that’s make the difference.
Saint Gregory Palamas, and this is for the end, gives us an allegorical interpretation of this text as well. That has to do with our own spiritual condition and situation in life. He says that we have to see in the person of the paralytic ourselves. Because sin is a spiritual paralysis. And we have to find our healing only from Jesus. But we need four friends, four ways of how to get close to Jesus. The first is self-condemnation. The acknowledgement that I have sins, that I have sinful passions, that I have weaknesses. It’s not easy. It’s the first step and it’s not easy. Because it’s the most difficult thing to acknowledge that you have sins. That you are not perfect. We say all of us, we are good persons. Yes, you are, but also you have sins, and you have sinful passions. Sometimes I say to some people, “You are good because you say that you have not killed someone, or you have not stolen something”; but I see you when you drive, and someone comes and closes in to your car, and I see your reaction there. And then tell me if you don’t have any sinful passions, if you do not have any weaknesses in you. Because in this situation, simple situation, you can see what your soul expresses, and what comes out of your own mouth, and without any prior thought. This is a simple way, just to understand that all of us, we have weaknesses. Smaller or bigger. And of course, we must have this knowledge so that to ask for repentance and to confess to Christ our own sins. This is the second step, we have to confess our sins to Christ. That means that before Christ, I have to present my humility, to acknowledge my sins and to ask for forgiveness. Many times Jesus, when someone goes to Him, asks: “What do you want?” It’s what He says to everyone of us. “You come here, but what do you want?” Confess your sins, and ask for forgiveness. Just simple. Saint Gregory adds other two things: the renunciation of the sin and prayer. Don’t continue the sinful way of life, because what is the reward, if you confess your sin, and you continue to serve the sinful passions? You have to struggle against them. There is not a magical way to change yourself. To renounce your sins, means to struggle against them, against the sinful passions, and to change them to virtues. Read Saint Paul, especially his epistle today, the epistle to the Romans, to understand what he says, how to change your sinful passions to virtues: this is the Christian life. And of course the last thing, is prayer to Christ. Not just to pray with words to Christ, but to live in Christ. Not to say before Christ I confess my sins, and then to return to the secular world and to your sins. Prayer means to live with Christ, inside His Church. There I can find sanctification, I can find holiness, I can find the new life.
Saint Gregory Palamas says also, that sometimes, if we want to help ourselves, we have to let down the roof tiles, and this is the symbol of human reasoning. Sometimes we have to put down our human reasoning against the faith in God. Faith in God is a way of life. It’s not just a belief, it’s a way of life. It’s experience. I can prove it through many examples from the Bible and the lives of the Saints. Just I say to you one thing. The example of Abraham. What did God says to Abraham? “Go and leave your town.” And Jesus says that this was the faith of Abraham, because he heard and obeyed God. This is faith, to do something that God has commanded, it’s a way of life, a new experience. When we speak about the Christian life, actually we speak about faith. Faith is just an idea, something like an emotion. It’s a new way of life. For this reason, sometimes we have to put down the reasoning, and put in our hearts, the faith, the experience that comes after the meeting and living with God inside His Holy Church.
And just for the end, just to understand how faith changes people in reality. Today we celebrate the holy memory of a soldier saint. His name is Procopius. He is a great martyr who lived at the end of the 3rd century. He was an idolater. Because he was from a Senatorial family and a good officer in the Roman army, the Emperor named him as the Duke of Alexandria in Egypt, and sent him to persecute the Christians. During the the journey to Alexandria, Christ revealed Himself to this young officer. His original name was Neanias, in Greek means “young man”. And He revealed Himself and He asked him, “why do you go to Alexandria? Why do you want to persecute my disciples?” And the young officer changed his mind, and he became a Christian. He came to Alexandria, he asked to be baptised by the Bishop of Alexandria. He was betrayed to the Emperor by his mother. His mother was an idolater, he was the wife of a Roman senator, and she betrayed her son to the Emperor. And Procopius was arrested, was tortured, harshly, and he saw again Christ for the second time in the prison, who said to him: “From now on your name will be Procopius.” Procopius in Greek means progress. “Because you changed your life and through your faith and your confession, many people will become Christians.” Before the martyrdom of Procopius, not only his mother believed in Christ, but also ten of his mother’s friends, ten women from the senatorial rank, and many of the people in the city of Scythopolis, where Procopius martyred for Christ. And you can see, someone who is an idolater, a persecutor of Christians. How it is possible through faith, to change his mind and his life, and not only to sacrifice his life for Christ, but also through his faith and confession, to convert many others to become Christians. You can say, it’s not possible for today to have such examples of Christian life. Why? Maybe because we don’t have the same fervent love for Christ. Maybe we don’t have the same experience of the Christian life.
That is enough for today! Blessed Sunday!
(sermon by Metropolitan Nektarios of Hong Kong and South East Asia at Saint Luke Orthodox Cathedral in Hong Kong)