• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Saturating Oneself in the Presence of God

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

What is the kingdom of heaven?

How does one get there?

Why should one aspire for it?

In our gospel today Christ warns us to be cautious about the way we live our lives.

Where is our heart?

Do you remember the story of the Pied Piper? Long ago, a man arrived in a town who went by this name. On one crisp morning, he took out his pipe and piped away as he walked down the streets. Sure enough, at each house that he passed, children ran out and began to follow him, until all the children of the town trailed behind the piping piper. The townspeople still remember the sight of all their children, following along with the music, as they wandered off into the mountains and were never heard of again.

We often feel that we're so independent; we march by our own tune. But that is actually never the case. In one way or another, we’re actually very much like these children. We are all following a tune in our lives; walking along entranced by the piping of a piper.

The question for us is this: who is your Pied Piper? What melody most enchants your heart? What tune are you following?

In some cases, we might believe that Jesus is the Lord, but then we’re much more interested in what our friends think of us. Perhaps we know that God has called us to give Him everything, but when it comes down to it, that calling doesn’t feel nearly as important as this opportunity for a raise, which means we’ll be too busy to go to mass on Sunday mornings. Perhaps we know that to be a Christian one must die to oneself, but, in the end, ‘don’t tell me what to do,’ ‘it’s my way or the highway.’

In one way or another, we are all walking down a path, entranced by a tune in the air. Sometimes, that tune is the loud and intoxicating melody of the world, the flesh, or the devil. And other times, the tune that drives our life is the quiet and beautiful melody of our God calling us to join Him for eternity.

What tune are you following?

Where is your heart?

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

In this passage, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ, is challenging us to question our relationship with Him and our dedication to living out that relationship.

He begins by saying that many people call Him Lord, who will still have no part of His Kingdom.

This is a little jolting.

These strangers to God acknowledge Jesus to be their Lord, and this is no small matter.

Some people despise Jesus Christ. Some admit that He’s a good man and a wise prophet. And this group, which our scripture is describing, even goes further and acknowledges Jesus Christ to be the Lord and Messiah – and yet, even here, they fall short of earning the prize of eternity.

It is not enough to pay lip service; it is not enough to believe (in a merely rational way). One must do the will of the Father.

This is the entire message of the Epistle of James.

“What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works?” St. James asks, “Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, it if has no works, is dead…”

“You believe that God is one; you do well.” The apostle continues, “Even the demons believe – and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you shallow man, that faith apart from works is barren? …as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so faith apart from works is dead.”

That’s pretty straightforward (no wonder Martin Luther called the Book of James the “Book of Straw” and tried to remove it from the Bible…)

John 3:16 declares: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Very well, so all we have to do is believe in Jesus Christ. But what does it mean to “believe”?

With so many years of the reformation and the enlightenment behind us, we’ve often come to think of belief as a mere, rational declaration. “I believe, so that’s that.” But belief, in its biblical context, has very little to do with espousing doctrines. In the scriptures, to believe in something is to dedicate your entire body, mind, heart, and soul to it. Belief is not a one-time act. This is why it shouldn’t scandalize Christians when we have doubts about our faith, or even question the existence of God. To believe in God is to give your life to Him, even when you don’t feel Him, or when you mind starts playing tricks.

When I was at the recent conference in Virginia, one elderly priest, who has just recently retired, shared to us his journey in the priesthood. After decades of serving God at the altar, a series of life events brought him to the brink of despair. His wife has suffered for years with a crippling disease. His son died a heart-rending and inhumane death. And with these blows, this priest reached a point when he could no longer pray. His heart was broken, and he couldn’t even conjure up the slightest effort to ask God for help. But every Sunday, he came to church and celebrated the mass. His words were empty. Nothing meant anything to Him. When he said the mass, he told us, it was as if a white wall stood between him and God. But it was his duty to serve the mass, and he kept on coming back; he kept celebrating the liturgy week after week. And, with this unwavering faithfulness, barely clinging on to anything, that wall gradually melted away, and he found God once again.

This is faith.

This is what it means to believe.

Not words; but determination to do the will of God.

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

And what does it mean to do the will of the Father, and how can we do it?

At the start of this same sermon, Jesus Christ teaches, “I say unto you that except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

So, clearly, righteousness is the only door into heaven, and not just any righteousness. The scribes and Pharisees were the most upright people of the time. They did everything ‘right;’ putting into practice every dot and tittle of the law. But even they fell short of this call for righteousness that Jesus demands of us. So how then can we ever live up to these standards?

It sounds a little overwhelming doesn’t it? But it’s not. At least, it’s only overwhelming in its beauty and grace.

How can we do the will of the Father as God asks us?

On our own, all of our efforts are meaningless. It’s all vain. It won’t go anywhere and will end in disappointment and anger.

But with Him, and in Him, we will find salvation and sanctification.

He is righteous, and when we unite ourselves with Him, His righteousness pours into us and makes up for what is lacking.

The Lord explains, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.”

So often we strain to do good, and never truly bear fruit. The reason is, we have to become good first. And you can only do this by saturating yourself in the life-changing presence of God.

Some years back, an abbot on Mount Athos was asked to describe the spiritual life. He responded with a very brief and simple analogy. “Picture an infant in a mother’s womb,” he told the crowd. “In order to grow, that infant doesn’t need to do pushups or exercise, he quite simply needs to be in the womb. His mother will provide all the nourishment, and the infant will grow. This is the spiritual life. All we have to do is put ourselves in the womb of God. He will do the rest.”

This is the purpose of all good works.

Attending mass, receiving the sacraments, praying the rosary, saying morning and evening prayers, tithing, giving alms to the poor – in themselves, none of these will grant you any brownie points in heaven. But rather, these are all tools that the Church has given us to help us to place ourselves in the presence of God. This is what it means to live out the faith, it’s not about checking off a ‘to do’ list, its about straining to put yourself in the womb that is God, and there begin to mature into a fully living man or woman.

It’s simple.

So you sin and separate yourself from God. Then come as quickly as you can to confession. A doctor can’t heal you if you don’t bring yourself to the hospital. God won’t forgive you if you don’t come to Him first. And it isn’t enough to ask Him for forgiveness in the shower. You have to come to Him in person, and you do this by bringing yourself to the sacraments of the Church. The shadow of the confessional is the shadow of God – and there, in His presence, you will quite simply be changed.

If you find that you aren’t able to change a bad habit, or that you lack the strength or willingness to give more to God, then quite simply drag yourself to Him and tell him, “Here I am Lord, this is all I have to give.” And He’ll respond gently, “My son and daughter, that’s all I ever asked for…I have been waiting for you, just as you are, and now the true adventure can begin.”

What’s the point of it all?

It’s “union with God,” St. John Chrysostom tells us, “the heart absorbs the Lord and the Lord the heart, and two become one.”

In a homily on the Song of Songs, St. Gregory goes so far as to describe our relationship with God as the relationship between a drunkard and his drink. “The soul then says: ‘Bring me into the banqueting house. Spread over me the banner of love’ (Song of Songs 2:4)…[the soul’s] thirst has become so strong that she is no longer satisfied with the ‘cup of wisdom.’ St. Gregory explains, “The whole content of the cup poured into her mouth no longer seems able to quench her thirst. She asks to be taken to the cellar itself and apply her mouth to the rim of the vats themselves that are overflowing with intoxicating wine.”

The drunkard sets his lips to the cup of wine, and his thirst becomes unquenchable. He longs to be dissolved into the wine. In a similar way, as we get a taste of God, the appetite builds up, and we yearn for more and more, even to go down into the depths of the cellar.

This is the kind of relationship with God that Jesus Christ is inviting us to.

It is not easy, and is often terribly hard. But it is good. It is life filling, and the only thing in the world that will truly satisfy us.

“Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

Really, to say to Jesus Christ, “my lord, my lord,” but to never actually do His work, or to do it with only half-hearted efforts, is so very boring.

The real journey is when we say to the world and the devil, “Death thou art, and death shalt thou remain. The only life I want is the life with Jesus Christ.” This is the true romance and the grandest adventure, and it all comes down to one thing: our constant effort to bring ourselves to the presence of God, and there let Him do all the rest.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

3808 Seymour Road

Wichita Falls, TX, 76309