Often, we think of God’s will as some overarching plan for our lives. We tend to focus on the big picture and forget that God’s will for us is revealed every day; it’s discerned through a daily, if not moment by moment relationship and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity through His Church. We can forget or willingly choose to forget that “Thy will be done” goes hand in hand with “give us this day our daily (super-substantial) bread,” feeding on Christ through the Sacraments. It’s necessary for those who love God, who desire salvation, to suspend their own opinions and preferences to learn God’s way, to continue to struggle, to change into the likeness of Christ. In this way, we learn to participate more and more in the Life that He is.
The word that St. Paul uses to describe this relationship of cooperation in today’s Epistle is “synergoi,” “synergy,” saying, “we are God’s fellow workers.” This is no 50/50 relationship: We aren’t equals with God. We cooperate with God’s work in us through our obedience to His teachings, to His Church, to the hierarchy, so that we can be pastored, in order that we may grow in Christ-likeness and change, conforming ourselves to God’s will. Obviously, this is a great challenge, but a necessary one if we’re to grow in Christ and be deified.
Allow me to give you an example: The priest, as father of all those communing members of the church he pastors, isn’t here to give you his ‘opinions’ about Christ, the Church, or the Orthodox Faith. Rather, he’s here to strive to love as Christ loves, to teach, to preach, to adjure as a father in Christ in keeping with the sure path that’s been entrusted to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. God loves us too much to leave us to our own devises! Instead, He gives us pastors, spiritual fathers, teachers accountable in His Church, to guide us—if we’re open to receiving their guidance. The tenets of Orthodoxy can be learned in books; the heart of Orthodoxy is learned thru humility and obedience, and thereby, through cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
In this way, St. Paul reminds us today: “no other foundation can anyone lay that that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” As I ‘build’ into you, I’m called and responsible to God, to my bishop, to give you the fullness of the truth of Christ, even if you struggle with it or, God forbid, reject it. Think, for example, of the call to come to Vespers, to make regular confession, to prepare to receive the Eucharist, to pray daily, to put Christ first and witness to the Truth He is, to come before Christ’s presence in the outward dress and inward humility we see in the icons of the Saints around us. These admonitions can all be challenging, but, they’re also necessary.
For our part, we’re each responsible for how we build on what we’ve received and the extent to which we’re willing to cooperate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives through the Church, given to us for us to grow and work out our salvation.
Healing, growth, salvation in Christ, requires a dynamic, active, ongoing relationship and communion with the living God—He who is Eternal Life. And so, realizing what’s at stake, we live with eternity before us, we prioritize the Kingdom of God over all that’s temporal and passing away so that we may become inheritors of that Kingdom and help others find their way into the Kingdom as well through our example and life of faith.
Our cooperation, our daily “yes” to God, is predicated on faith, or, at least, the desire for faith. And faith is one of those big concepts that often eludes us or can seem ambiguous. Faith means letting go of our control, our own wills, and trusting God, even as that’s a struggle. Taking a big step of faith can induce fear. The more pride we have, the more we can fear the spiritual surgery God may be doing in us to grow us in cooperation with His work in our lives for our salvation.
The disciples were in constant fear as they followed Jesus AND, they were in constant need of faith. They seem to be placed in one perilous situation after another. In today’s Gospel, we find them tossed about on the sea, the waves and the wind making them much afraid. To add to that, Christ comes walking to them on the storm-tossed waves. Imagine! They assume He’s a ghost.
Christ’s words to them are comforting: “It is I. Do not be afraid.” Literally, Christ says here, “I AM; He uses the divine name of God. Who else has the power over the laws of nature and the elements of nature? Still dubious, Peter calls out, “Lord, if it’s You, command me to come to You on the water.” The Lord commands and Peter comes. This is a big step of faith on Peter’s part. Peter walks on the water! We often forget this when we consider this passage. For a few steps, Peter exhibits the faith necessary to get to Christ. He keeps His focus on Christ.
When Peter gets distracted—in this case, by the winds and the waves, taking his focus off Christ, he begins to sink; he’s now in trouble; his faith has wavered. So it is with us: if we hope to build on the foundation that we’ve been entrusted in the Church—the new life in Christ that is our hope for eternal life—it demands our cooperation of faith, our willingness to trust God, which means trusting His Church, which is the ship He’s provided to safely guide us to His shore.
Faith means repenting when we do sin and immediately striving to get our focus back on Christ. But as Peter evidences to us: faith is hard work; it’s hard keeping our focus on Christ. But when we fail to do so, what are the consequences? We can become fearful yet again, bogged down in the mundane of the material world, our pride, our passions, our worldly preoccupations, our self-focus—and we ‘sink,’ we spiritually ‘sink’.
And so, God in His love for us, knows this about us, and shows us His mercy: He gives us the tools we need to help us keep our focus on Him, to repent, to cooperate with the work of healing, growth, and salvation He’s doing in us. These tools are our daily morning and evening prayers, the Jesus Prayer, calling on the Name of Christ throughout the day, fasting, which reminds us to hunger and thirst after God, all the divine services of the Church, the lives of the Saints, the Holy Scriptures, and the Sacraments—all of which He offers us and guides us in through His Church.
We don’t just need some of these tools, but of all of them. Being an Orthodox Christian means we don’t go it on our own; rather, we make use of the tools God has entrusted to us. We’re accountable, we’re repentant, so that we may continue to grow further up and further in our relationship and communion with Him.
What foundation are you building on? Are you making use of the ‘gold’ that Christ God gives you? It begins with cooperation and a teachable spirit, praying for an increase in faith, striving to keep our focus on Christ at all times. May each of us pray that through growth in faith, we may do the hard work of cooperating with God’s work in our lives, through obedience, humility, repentance, and love for God and His holy Church, making use of all the tools He’s entrusted to us. In this way, we’ll be among those who build on the foundation of Christ with ‘gold,’ and not as those who are saved, “as through fire” (I Cor. 3:15).