The Gospel and the Epistle for this Sunday of Cheesefare prepare us to begin Lent tomorrow. The Gospel from St Matthew, Chapter 6, Verses 14 to 21 urges us not to seek to be noticed when we fast; and the epistle from Romans, Chapter 13, Verse 11 to Chapter 14, Verse 4, encourages us not to judge one another in the context of what we eat, but rather to be deeply aware that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” This link between fasting and salvation remains important for us today as Orthodox Christians as it was to Christians and Jews in the first century Roman Empire. An important question is present for us in this link between fasting and salvation: In what way does the Orthodox Church link fasting and salvation? The answer is rather surprising, because we do not draw closer to salvation the more we fast.
At the time of Christ, devout Jews, especially the Pharisees, wanted everyone to know how much they were fasting, so they tried to be noticed by not washing their faces and looking as if they were hungry. At that time, many Jews who had become followers of Christ were not yet sure which of the Old Testament laws and dietary restrictions they should follow; and some Jewish Christians were worried that meat sold in the markets might have been sacrificed to idols. Later, when St Paul wrote the book of Romans, probably between the years A.D. 55 to 57, less than thirty years after the death of Christ, which is usually dated between A.D. 30 to 36, there were still different ideas about how Christians should fast. Neither St Matthew nor St Paul laid down rules about how each Christian should fast. In fact, St Paul emphasised that it was appropriate for Christians to decide for themselves how they should fast. In the epistle that we have just heard, St Paul wrote: “The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.”
St Paul’s emphasis upon not judging each other remains true for us today. Just as God accepted the Christians of the first century as they made their own decisions about how to fast, He accepts us as we make our decisions about how to fast. So if precisely how much you fasted was not the crucial question for St Paul, what was important? St Paul took the long view. He rightly saw the life, death and resurrection of Christ as the central events of human history, or as he phrased it, “the time”—the time “to awaken from sleep; for now salvation is nearer to us than when we first believed.” St Paul was looking forward to the return of the risen Christ to earth. Because the life, death and resurrection of Christ had occurred, each Christian needed to prepare for “salvation.” That preparation consisted of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ,” as St Paul phrased in Chapter 13, Verse 14.
As many Church Fathers have explained, St Paul is writing here of the Second Coming of Christ. However, as a Biblical note points out: This text “does not mean that the early Christians believed that [Christ] would return within a few years and thus were mistaken. Rather, they regarded the death and resurrection of Christ as the crucial events of history that began the last days. Since the next great event in God’s redemptive plan is the second coming of [Christ], ‘the night,’ no matter how long chronologically it may last is ‘almost gone.’” Several Church Fathers stressed that this action of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ” is not something that occurs in chronological time, but an attitude and an action that occurs within each of us as we accept the Lordship of Christ over our lives, the right of Christ to guide us, the ability of Christ to lead us into the fullness of life.
Diodore, a bishop of Tarsus in the fourth century and a teacher of St John Chrysostom, reflected that: “When we realize what the advantages of good works are, the message of salvation became easier to understand than it was when we first believed. For when we believed in Christ we did not immediately acquire an exact understanding of what we should be doing, nor was it clear to us what we should stop doing and what we should continue doing.” Diodore, who instructed St John Chrysostom—one of the great saints and teachers of the Church—so well, is taking this very passage and saying to us in essence: “Apply these words to yourself. You—because of the way you are living today—are now finding it easier to understand the Christian life than when you first believed.” Diodore’s precise interpretation of this passage from St Paul is, and I quote: “’The day’ is the time of this life which remains to us, in which we can do good works. … This text [To put on Christ] means that we should imitate Christ in what we do and show Him to others in the way we behave.”
Ambrosiaster, originally thought to be St Ambrose, the fourth century bishop of Milan, but whose identity is now not known, also applies these verses of St Paul to each of us as baptised Christians. In his Commentary on Paul’s Epistles, Ambrosiaster wrote: “It is clear that if we live well after baptism and strive for love we are not far from the reward of a promised resurrection. For the good life of a Christian is the sign of future salvation. For when a person is baptised he is forgiven but not rewarded. Later, as he walks in newness of life, he is near to eternal life.”
To conclude, I have found preparing this sermon very helpful, because I, like many other Christians, had thought that the early Christians were confused and expected Christ to return in their lifetimes. However, according to both contemporary Biblical exegesis and several Church Fathers, that is not the correct interpretation. St Paul and other authors of the books of the New Testament are telling us something quite different. They are suggesting the possibility that Christ is going to return in your lifetime and in my lifetime, old as I am, 75 this month. The nature of Christ’s return will be within me and within you. We are now ready to put on Christ within ourselves in how we live as baptised Orthodox Christians. St Paul is guiding us well. In the midst of our many different ways of fasting this Lent let us focus on the reality that here at St Aidan’s Antiochian Orthodox Church the time has come within each of us “to awaken from sleep; for salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Father Deacon Emmanuel Kahn