The Progress Principle
Fr. Gregory Hallam · January 31, 2014
How can we progress in our lives as Christians? What principle gives us the ability to progress in our lives? Trying to answer that question, Fr. Dn. Emmanuel called this sermon “The Progress Principle.” The sermon included a science illustration about how catalysts work. This YouTube video will show you the same experiment.
Last year I was very slow in sending out Christmas cards. My wife suggested that now, in late January, instead of wishing friends a happy Christmas for 2013, it was more appropriate to send cards that read: “Best wishes for a warm Spring in 2014.” She could have added: “Best wishes for a Lent filled with purpose” or “Best wishes for a joyful Pascha.” However, during the last few days I have tackled this problem. For all those people whom I never see I have sent a single 2013 Christmas letter by email; and for those who do not have emails, I am, as the saying goes, “working on it.”
The gospel and epistle for today are very much about people who have problems and are trying to tackle those problems, whether the problems are little problems like my slowness in sending out Christmas cards, or big problems like Zacchaeus who is a chief tax collector—that is, to be blunt—a big crook who is stealing a lot of money from a lot of people—or like St. Timothy who is trying to guide the people of Ephesus to Christ. Whatever our problems, Zacchaeus, St. Timothy and you and I are all confronted with the same question: How can we progress in our lives as Christians? What principle gives us the ability to progress in our lives? Trying to answer that question, I’ve called this sermon “The Progress Principle.”
The Greek word for “progress” is prokopé which can also be translated as “striking forward.” That, I believe, is what we are all trying to do in our lives—to progress, to strike forward, to achieve some purpose or service in our lives. For you children, your purpose is, happily, to grow up. You can achieve it naturally, by being yourself and praying and seeking to find out how best to live your own lives. Sylvia and I have a license plate on our car that ends with “PBU.” We remember those letters with the phrase “Please be you.” You can’t be someone else, whatever your age, you have to work on being you. In the epistle for today from the fourth chapter of the Pastoral Letter, First Timothy, St. Paul tells St. Timothy, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love [and] faith, show yourself an example of those who believe. . . . Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you.”
Children, consider this idea for a moment: It is entirely possible that you as a group of young people can show us older people how to believe more deeply in Christ, how to discover the gift of listening, how to live with joy. Perhaps we should consider bringing all of those people who are over 70 in our congregation to sit in the front and listen carefully to the sermon, just in the position you children are now in. That would be different, wouldn’t it? Do you think that would be a good idea—for everyone over 70 to sit in front? . . . All those over 70 could then engage in a dialogue with the preacher about whether what he was saying made sense—a very exciting possibility. In any event, what St. Paul is saying to the entire Church in Ephesus is that St. Timothy, like you children, may be young, but he knows what he is doing, and he is worth listening to. So remember, children, “Please be you”—as young as you are—and help us older people to know Christ better.
Now, the chief tax collector Zacchaeus is in a big mess. Everyone knows he is stealing money; and they hate him. However, what is important here is that Zacchaeus himself knows he is stealing money; and he knows he shouldn’t do it. So what does he do? He climbs a tree to see Christ. Zacchaeus tries to find out more about who Christ is. Christ looks up and sees Zacchaeus; and Christ says, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” When we seek to know more about Christ, whatever our past sins Christ says to us: “Today I must stay at your house.” In other words, today I—Christ—would like to be your guest, to offer you the Mysteries of Holy Communion and to teach you more about being a Christian.
St. Timothy is in a quite different position from Zacchaeus. He is one of Christ’s most devoted followers; and St. Paul says of St. Timothy in the third chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians, “I have no one like him . . .[he] will genuinely be concerned for your welfare.” But even a holy person such as St. Timothy is still told by St. Paul to “pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere . . . .” That applies to each of us—whatever our ages or understanding of Christ. So how precisely then, do we persevere? How do we progress in our Christian lives?
First, we must be nourished—that is, encouraged to grow—nourished by our love of Christ and His love for us, nourished by our friendships with each other, encouraged to grow by our desire to serve others and our willingness to accept service from others, when we need it. The Harvard-based educators, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, suggest in their book, The Progress Principle (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2011) that as human beings we want others to respect, encourage, support and trust us. “When they do, we [experience] the positive emotions of joy, pride, and . . . love” (pp. 130-132).
Second, we need catalysts to progress in our Christian lives. In chemistry a catalyst is a substance that begins or speeds up a chemical reaction. Father Gregory is going to demonstrate a catalyst. . . . Did the catalyst change? No. So what doesn’t change in our own lives? What is the same “yesterday and today and forever” in the words of Hebrews, Chapter 13? Jesus Christ! It is Christ who has the power to begin action in our lives and to give us the ability to progress in the Christian life. Change in our Christian lives begins with the catalyst of Christ Himself. As St. Paul writes to St. Timothy in the epistle for today: “We have fixed our hope on the living God, [that is Christ] who is the Saviour of all . . . especially of believers.” So, to conclude, Christ acts as a catalyst who has the power to save every human being, but He especially saves each of us who believe that our lives will progress best with Him.
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.