Source: The Word / February, 2011
Can one sermon change your life? I did not think so, but then it happened to me. The day I heard that sermon was the day I saw everything differently. The difference between what I knew before and what I came to know was huge. At the same time, the difference was also very subtle and seemingly small.
Three hundred campers and camp staff were packed into St. Ignatius Church at the Antiochian Village. The Village is an Orthodox summer camp in Western Pennsylvania where I had spent several years as a counselor and staff member before returning to spend ten years as the camp’s director. It had played a vital role in my growth as a human being, as an Orthodox Christian, and eventually as a priest. I had heard literally hundreds of sermons in my time at the Village, and by the time I heard that sermon, I had even given hundreds of sermons myself. But for me, that one sermon was different.
Fr. Anthony Hughes, who was assisting me at camp for two weeks, was giving the daily sermon that morning. To this day, I have no memory of what he said before or after, but I will never forget what he said in between: “God didn’t create you to love and serve Him. He created you so that He could love and serve you.”
I heard myself repeating his words in my head: “God didn’t create you to love and serve Him. He created you so that He could love and serve you.”
I had lived my entire Christian life up to that point thinking it was the other way around. And I was OK with it. It did not bother me that God made me to love and serve Him (as I had thought up until then). Though I was not always good at it, I was often happy to do it, and sometimes even excited at the thought of serving Him. And when I was happy and excited to serve Him, it was because I thought that was my purpose in life. I mean, doesn’t everyone know that? People have asked countless times: Why did God make us? And the answer is always the same: to love and serve Him.
Made To Love and Serve God … Right?
I had been so sure it was true! Had not Adam and Even been placed in the Garden of Eden to be its caretakers? Wasn’t Adam placed there to name all the animals, to care for the Garden and to stay away from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil? Wasn’t Eve created in order to be a “help” to Adam, so that together they could accomplish God’s will of doing the work He asked them to do and not doing the things that He told them were wrong?
And the story of Adam and Eve was just the ﬁrst of many examples of what I had understood in the Old Testament to be God creating His people in order for them to serve Him and do His will. He gave Abraham the job of starting a whole new nation, whose citizens were to be God’s servants. He called Moses to lead those people out of the bonds in which they found themselves while in Egypt and then gave him the Ten Commandments so he could instruct them on what they had to do to please God. When the people failed to do so and displeased Him, God gave the prophets the job of proclaiming His word to His people, correcting their errors and warning them of feeling His wrath if they did not.
And it was not just my reading of the Old Testament that had ingrained in me this idea of being created to serve God. When I would read or hear the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, I easily understood this as a new giving of God’s law. Jesus, like Moses, goes up a mountain to teach His people how they ought to live. I thought I understood His instructions well when He said we should be poor in spirit, we should be meek, and we should hunger and thirst after righteousness.
Only that morning, as I sat listening to Fr. Antony, I began to see things much, much differently: Jesus had not said that we should be merciful, that we should be pure in heart, and that we should be peacemakers. In fact, there is not a “should” in any of the Beatitudes. He simply said that when we mourned, we would be comforted. And when we were persecuted and reviled, He would reward us.
|A fragment of the icon of the creation of the world|
Promises, Not Commandments
“Would” and “should”: two words that are almost identical, and yet miles apart. Those Beatitudes, I began to see, were not commandments. They were promises: promises of what God wants for us. They were blessings (which is, after all, what “beatitudes” means): blessings God was hoping to shower upon us. He wants to do us good. He wants us to be His Sons and Daughters. He wants to be seen by us. He wants to show us mercy. He wants us to be ﬁlled. He wants to comfort us and to give us the whole earth as our inheritance. And ultimately, He wants to give us His Kingdom. Like Charlie at the end of “Willy Wonka,” He does not want to send us home with a box of chocolate or some other token gift. He wants to give us everything.
Made To Be Loved
So I sat listening to Fr. Antony saying that everyone who had taught that we were made in order to love and serve God had not gotten it right. And I began to realize that he was correct. In fact, I realized that God could not have made us to love and serve Him, because that would make Him no better than someone who could make His own slaves rather than going through the hassle of having to go to the slave market and buy them. I looked back on the story I thought I knew from the Bible about God and what He wants from His people, and instead I found the story of what God wants for His people.
In the book of Genesis, we read that God made everything and that it was good … until He made us. Then we are told that it was not just good: it was very good. He made us to be the best of all the things that He made: His very best creation, His masterpiece! Then we read that having made Adam, He realized something was “not good,” namely that Adam was alone (Genesis 2:18). The fact that it was “not good” was not because Adam could not fulﬁll all of God’s demands. Adam being alone was not bad for God – it was bad for Adam! And because God did not want anything to be bad for Adam, He created and gave him Eve, the masterpiece made from His masterpiece! In fact, the reason mankind was His masterpiece was because, out of all of the things that God had made, only with Adam and Eve did He use Himself as the pattern, designing them from Himself as the prototype! He wanted to give us humans the best He had. And being God, the best He could give was Himself.
And where does God place the newly-created human beings? Not out in the wilderness to suffer (that comes later), and not in the Garden just so that they can work in it. He places them there to enjoy it! He allows them to eat of all the trees in the entire Garden – except for one. And He even joins them on their evening strolls, walking with them in the “cool of the day.”
Living Like the People
We Were Made To Be
He made us because He loves us and wants to shower that love on us constantly, in every moment, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. He started by loving Adam and Eve and has not stopped loving each and every person who ever lived. Making us to be loved by Him, however, is not only why He made us; it is also how He made us. He made us to be able to receive His love. And when we do – when we really receive it and see it for what it is – we respond by living as we were made to live: like Him. When we receive His love – really receive it – we become it. We become His love. We become like Him.
The opposite is also true: when we are not acting like Him, we are really not accepting His love.
From Adam and Eve’s ﬁrst bite of the forbidden fruit until our most recent sins, when we sin we reject the love God offers us. All of His commandments, all of His expectations for us, are ways for us to receive His love, and having done so, to love as He loves. God’s law does not tell us primarily what we should or should not do. His commandments tell us who we are and who we are not. If God tells us to honor our father and mother (Ex. 20:12), it is because honoring the people God has chosen to love us and raise us only comes naturally when we see our parents as the gifts of God that they are. They do not even have to be perfect parents for us to honor them (which is good, since none of them are!). We see them as one more of the countless expressions of God’s love for us and, seeing that, we love and honor them. It is just who we are.
When we reject His love, we reject being who we really are. We reject Him. In so doing we ﬁnd ourselves cursed instead of blessed; instead of embracing righteousness, we embrace sin; and instead of accepting our salvation, we work for our own damnation. When we receive His love, we are blessed; we embrace righteousness; we accept our salvation.
When we receive God’s love, we see Him for who He is: the very personiﬁcation of love. God is love (1 John 4.8). And as He is, so are we. Being made to be loved – and being made (like Him) to be able to love – we love. That is our one and only calling, the one vocation we all share. There are variations of this one calling. We might be loved by God and love others in Boston, in Kentucky, in Albania, and so on. We might be loved by God and in turn love Sally or Bobby, or orphans, or prisoners. We might be loved by God and, as doctors, teachers, garbage collectors, and even priests, love others. These variations are countless, and it can be daunting trying to ﬁgure out which way to go. While that exploration is a good and noble task, we should never forget that these myriad possibilities are just that: a variety of ways to carry out our one calling. That calling is to receive the love God so richly pours out on us, and at such a great price.
Whenever we see an icon of Christ, whenever we see a cross, whenever we hear the Gospel read or open it and read it ourselves, if we do not see deep, abiding and limitless love coming from God to us, we are not looking. If we ﬁnd ourselves lonely, depressed, hopeless or scared, that also may be a sign we are not looking – not looking at the God who gazes adoringly at us, His Beloved, His Bride. If we do not see that He loves us to such an extent that being His Beloved deﬁnes who we are and why we are here, then we are not looking.
If we can see God for Who He really is, then we can become the people that we were created to be. So often we have such good intentions, to do the right thing and serve God as we think He would like us to. But so many times, like a car running on empty, we just cannot get there. Seeing God as love and seeing ourselves as His Beloved, made to be like Him, can inspire us and give us strength. As a slave, I might serve a master out of fear, but when he was not looking, I would try to get out of doing my work if I could get away with it. As a son of God, as one loved so deeply by Him, I cannot help but want to be who He made me to be.
Now this might sound simple and easy.
Simple? Yes. Easy? Not so much.
In fact, if we think about it, this just might be our one and only task. We have tried to avoid sin when we are tempted. We have tried to love those around us more. We have tried being more regular in our prayers. We have tried to fast better. More often than not, we have failed. Had we been made merely to serve God, we would do a lot better when we tried.
But if we were made to be served and loved – and we recognize and see God for Who He is as the
Lover of mankind – I think we will do the things we have so often failed to do: praying, fasting, avoiding sin and, yes, loving those around us.
Being made to be loved and served, and being made to love and serve might seem very close: one little grammatical change. Can it make that much of a difference? Like one sermon, it can make all the difference in the world.