In Romans, St. Paul gives us two images: servants of righteousness and servants of sin, telling us we are a slave to whatever we offer ourselves (Rom. 6:16,18,20). If to God and godly things, then we are servants of righteousness, if to the world and distractions, then we are servants of sin.
There’s a familiar story of the Centurion that we read yesterday in church that illustrates what St. Paul is talking about (Matt. 8:5-13). The Centurion had such great faith in Christ that he said, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under my roof.” His statement was incorporated into one of the pre-communion prayers attributed to St. John Chrysostom. Somebody who is a servant of righteousness, like the Centurion, will see themselves as being completely unworthy of Christ.
But what does it look like when we are servants of sin? There’s another passage in the Gospels of a Pharisee who invited Jesus over for dinner (Luke 7:36-39). When a woman washed His feet with her tears and hair, the Pharisee, rather than being moved by her deep repentance, judges both her and Christ. This story shows how when we are a servant of sin, not only are we blind to our own faults, but we judge God and the way that He is bringing salvation to others.
BEING UNDER AUTHORITY
Turning back to the Centurion as the icon of being a servant of righteousness, we remember his statement, “I am a man under authority, and I have others under my authority.” Let’s look at the first part of that – a man under authority. Those who live in righteousness live under the authority of God. The authority of God is like a protective umbrella or canopy over us. Being under God’s authority does not make us invulnerable from attack or hardships, however, it gives us the grace, strength, and fortitude to withstand anything that happens. The opposite could be said as well. When we step out from underneath God’s authority, then we open ourselves up to even more attack. We don’t have the grace or strength to withstand the enemy’s onslaught, and so we begin falling apart.
There are practical ways that we can say with the Centurion, I am a man under authority. First, we can obey the Gospel commandments. That involves reading the Scripture, reading patristic commentary on the Scripture, and then living out the Gospel. Being a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven requires that we begin to live by its rules, even as we sojourn on this earth.
Secondly, we should obey spiritual authority. Unlike what culture is telling us right now, obedience is in fact a virtue (I saw one meme recently stating “Obedience is not a virtue” and equating obedience to Nazis). Part of the Gospel message is that we obey spiritual authority, Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you (Heb. 13:17).
One of the friends of the Apostles, St. Ignatius of Antioch who died in martyrdom shortly after St. John the Apostle’s death, wrote, Give heed to the bishop, that God also may give heed to you. That is, listen to your bishop so that God will listen to your prayers. The inverse could also be said: Don’t listen to your bishop and God will not listen to your prayers. St. Ignatius continues, I am devoted to those who obey the bishop, the presbyters (priests), and the deacons. May I be with them in the presence of God. So, we can see that in both the Scriptures and Apostolic Tradition, obedience to spiritual authorities is required of all Christians.
In this strange time when some Orthodox internet personalities encourage disobedience to bishops (and therefore to God), it is important that we hold fast to the Christian Faith, which has never encouraged rebellion against spiritual authorities. Granted, there have been times when many of the bishops were teaching heresy, but those times were rare and often occurred due to politics in the Byzantine Empire.
We cannot say like the Centurion, “I am a man under authority” if we rebel against Church authority. Instead, our lot will be with the Pharisees. This lesson is one of the hardest for us Orthodox Christians in the West to grasp. We are fiercely independent and are willing to obey insofar as the bishops tell us to do things that we want to do or that we agree with. But as I’ve written previously, such obedience is not particularly virtuous.
THOSE UNDER OUR AUTHORITY
So that is how we live under God’s authority: we read the Bible, we obey the Gospel commandments, and we obey our Church leadership. But what about the next part, where he says, “I have those under my authority”? Here we understand the spiritual interpretation for servants of righteousness to be that he has his body and his passions in check. That doesn’t necessarily mean reaching a state of perfection, but that our passions are not unruly, and our body does not bark commands at us that we rush to obey. Such a state of self-control is commanded by the Gospel for us (Gal. 5:23).
God created us with a natural hierarchy. The spirit is to rule the soul and mind, which in turn should rule the body. After the fall in the Garden of Eden, that got turned upside down. Now, our bodies pretty much run the show, demanding food, sex, and comfort.
During the fasts, our bodies rebel, demanding we give into cravings. We are tempted all the time – especially here in America – to eat immoderately because food is cheap and highly available. When sexual urges come, we have a hard time keeping them in check because we allow our minds to wander, our eyes to see inappropriate TV shows, videos, and images. In this way, the body and mind are in charge instead of the spirit.
We idolize comfort. One recent example of this that comes to mind is wearing face masks. They’re hot, uncomfortable, and everybody hates wearing them. Because we idolize comfort and our self-will, we rebel against and fight those who tell us to wear a mask, whether Church or civil authorities. Such action defies two Gospel commandments to obey our Church authorities (Heb. 13:17, Deut. 17:12) and to obey civil authority (Rom. 13:1, Titus 3:1, 1 Pet. 2:13-15, Matt. 22:20-21). I’ve seen all kinds of strange and convoluted arguments using pseudo-science and bad interpretations of the US Constitution to justify rebellion. Ultimately though, it comes from idolizing both our comfort and our ego. The ego hates being told what to do, and it’s amazing the efforts we’ll make to justify following it rather than God.
My brothers and sisters, it should not be this way. We are called to be heavenly creatures, sons of righteousness, children of God filled with the Holy Spirit and peace of God. Our way of life should reveal love, joy, peace, kindness, self-control, and every other fruit of the Spirit (cf. Gal. 5:22-23).
We are to be under authority and have our bodies and minds under our spirit’s authority. Instead though, we (myself included) are tossed about by our bodies cravings, our mind’s egotism, and by distractions that keep us from prayer (especially in the form of cell phones and electronics that beep and we immediately attend to them as if we were their servants). Instead, let us be masters of our bodies, our minds, and our time – not becoming servants of unheavenly things but of heaven.
Let us submit to the spiritual authorities God has placed over us, and in that way, find the grace, peace, and inner strength we need to overcome the struggles each day brings. In this way, when we see God at the chalice or anywhere else, we will say with the Centurion, “I’m not worthy that You would enter under the roof of my soul.” And our Lord will speak the word, and the servant (that is our body, mind, will, and every part of us) will find healing and wholeness as it comes under our authority which, in turn, is under the authority of God.
One small caveat: I realize spiritual abuse is a real thing and that there have been recent examples of monks who demand strict obedience, claim to be clairvoyant, arrange marriages, and inflict much spiritual harm. Such people should be avoided at all costs. Obedience to spiritual authority is not blind obedience.
Generally though, when decrees come from a council or a letter is written by a bishop to his entire diocese, spiritual harm is not inflicted nor is manipulation occurring. I remember one incident in the life of St. Porphyrios where he mystically entered the book of Revelation with St. John the Evangelist. When he “came back to earth,” they asked him what he saw and experienced. He would say nothing except, “When the Antichrist comes, the bishops will recognize him.” They will then warn the flock. That is one of the reasons God has placed our bishops over us, the sheep: to guard us from spiritual wolves and protect us from danger. If, during this time they seem a little over-protective, bear with them. God places in their heart a deep desire to save and protect their flock. This is their calling.
This message was originally delivered as a homily on the Gospel and Epistle readings for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. Below is a video of my homily: