Imagine something with me for a moment. Let’s pretend that you are sitting on the couch or in your favorite chair, cup of coffee at your side, reading the morning paper (I know, no one reads the paper anymore, indulge me). You’re on page four, reading a story about a house fire in a nearby community where a family barely made it out alive when, suddenly, as your eyes go to the next sentence, the typical third-person, objective journalistic prose gives way to second-person, direct speech, beginning with your name!
...the family escaped but the house is considered a total loss. According to investigators, the fire started in the basement where faulty wiring is thought to be to blame. John! It is your house that is on fire! You need to wake up! You don't have much time!
And you turn from the paper to see wisps of smoke coming from beneath the basement door.
Sounds strange, I know, like something out of a movie, or a premise for a psychological thriller. My purpose with this little fantasy is not cinematic or literary or even psychological, though, but spiritual.
For many of us, reading or hearing the Scriptures has become the sort of religious duty that we undertake almost somnambulistically, like reading the newspaper. We are casual observers, spectators with a third-person distance from the events being described, occasionally perhaps clucking our tongue or shaking our heads in sadness, but never really awake like one being addressed directly. When this happens and we don’t read and hear the Scriptures with the attention that we call for in the Divine Liturgy – “Let us attend!“ – we glide easily over those divinely planted bumps in the road that have been put there to rouse us from our lethargy. We stop our ears to the very words that could rouse us from the comfort that kills.
Take, for example, the Gospel reading from Tuesday of this past week: "For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12.48). What could be more startling to those of us living in modern America than that! We have been told since we were born that our lives are our own, that we have rights and freedoms, that we can do and be whatever we want, self-determined little gods and goddesses with capital "C" Choices to make as we see fit, all in the pursuit of our own happiness. And yet here, in the middle of our nice, modern story, comes a direct address from none other than Jesus saying, in effect, "Wake up! Your life isn't yours to dispense with as you please, all in the pursuit of your individual happiness and choice. You have been given much, and you are expected to do much with it. You will answer for your life. Live wisely. Live for the Kingdom of Heaven!"
This doesn't fit with our modern narrative at all. And it's true, in fact: they can't both be right, Jesus and this secular gospel of Individualism. Not that lots and lots of preachers and so-called teachers don't try and make these fundamentally disparate stories gel into one, single narrative. But the result is always (to paraphrase the Apostle Paul in Gal.1.6-7) a different gospel, a perversion of the gospel of Christ, and, as such, damnable. Damnable because, quite simply, it won't save us, being merely a thin veil over the same old self-love and idolatry that got us here in the first place.
What is needed, if we are going to be saved, is precisely to be saved from the old lie that has now become canonized as our near-sacred story, and to be set free into the true liberty of the children of God which is, paradoxically, a freely-chosen bondage to Christ. We take his yoke - his Gospel and his commandments - upon us because we believe that only he can lead us out of this hell of individualism with its false promises of happiness into the only true beauty, joy and gladness which is the Kingdom of Heaven.
With love in Christ,