Metropolitan Dionysios of Servia and Kozani †
My beloved Christians,
Sanctity is a distinguishing feature and obligation of Christians. Christian means a holy person. And holy means pure, clean, sincere and lambent in body and soul, that is in outlook and feelings, in words and deeds, in wishes and desires, in interactions and relationships. Every day, Christians who say the ‘Our Father’ remember their obligation to be holy, because those who wish to be children of God shouldn’t forget that God doesn’t want his children to be unrepentant sinners.
Let’s listen to today’s Epistle reading, in which Saint Paul talks about sanctity as related to God’s promises. ‘Brethren, you are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people”. “Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty”. Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and execute holiness in the fear of God’.
My beloved brothers and sisters, the Church honors the saints, that is those who have stood out because of their faith and the purity of their life. Every year, the Church celebrates the memory of the saints, asks for their prayers and intercessions to God and presents them before our eyes as living examples of faith and virtue. The feasts and commemorations of the saints are excellent opportunities for us to recognize the continuum and unity of the Church, both here and in heaven, in times gone by and today, so that we may learn at the school of the practical application of the teachings of the Gospel. The life and experience of the saints are the guide for us to become holy, too, and at the same time they’re confirmation that the Gospel isn’t impracticable, nor that holiness is unachievable. The saints whom the Church honors are much more than mere examples for us to imitate: as Saint Paul writes today, they’re ‘temples of the living God’. And as Saint Basil the Great teaches, they’re ‘animate images’ of God. And if you want to see what the holy Scriptures say, i.e. that we were made ‘in the image and likeness of God’, you’ll do so in the saints of the Church. But, while the Church keeps us close to the saints, devoting every day of the year to the commemoration of one or more of them so that we can sanctify our life and bear in mind our obligation, we’re probably left with the feeling that holiness is a long way off for us, that it’s a feat that used to be achieved in the old days, and that the number of saints is now fixed, since the time of the martyrs and ascetics in a bygone era. So holiness, according to our way of thinking, is like those old objects that you see or study or admire in various museums.
But holiness, my Christians friends, isn’t an objet d’art in a museum: it’s the today of the Church, it’s the distinct feature and obligation of believers in every era. It’s the Church which isn’t only ‘one’, ‘catholic’ and ‘apostolic; it’s also ‘holy’. We believe and confess the holy Church in all times, past and present and in all places, in heaven and on earth. Does it bother you that there’s an abundance of sin in the world? Does it shock you that you see shortcomings, very great ones, in fact, among the faithful and even among the shepherds of the Church? Don’t judge by the face of things and don’t let yourself be fooled: there are lots of saints among us today, even if we don’t see them- martyrs and the blessed who work at holiness. Because holiness never exists on earth in its perfect form, since there’s no limit and end to the spiritual and moral completion [perfection] of the saints. When Saint Paul talks about ‘executing (‘epitelountes’) holiness’, he means that we become more holy day by day. Holiness doesn’t have an end and a finish line; it’s a path forward to a completion, the path of sinners along the road to salvation. This is why, when the Church celebrates the memory of a martyr, it says ‘Finished (‘teleioutai’) by the sword’ and when it commemorates a blessed ascetic it says ‘Finished in peace’. This ‘finished’ doesn’t mean that the saint reached the end (‘telos’) of his or her earthly life, but that that they reached a degree of completion (‘teleiosis’) in their course of the spiritual and moral life*.
But when Saint Paul says ‘executing holiness’, my brothers and sisters, he adds ‘in fear of God’. Saint Peter says the same thing in one of his epistles: ‘live in reverent fear during the time of your exile’[Peter 1, 1,17]. What they want to say is that holiness can’t be achieved except through fear of God. Because, as Saint Basil the Great teaches, sin ‘occurs because of the absence of the fear of God’. When the fear of God is absent, then neither holiness nor virtue can stand and unscrupulous people don’t recognize or have boundaries on their sinful desires nor a rein on their criminal actions. This, again, is why holy Scripture says: ‘The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord’; the basis of reverence and virtue, that is holiness, is fear of the Lord. A distinctive feature of the saints is that they fear; all the saints have fear of God deeply rooted within them. Fear, of course, isn’t a noble feeling, except when it’s fear of God. Fear of God rescues us from all other fear; those who fear God have nothing else to fear. But people don’t fear God and so are overwhelmed by many other fears. These aren’t the fears of holiness but the fears of sin. The fear that comes from holiness goes before us and holds us back so that we don’t fall and don’t sin. The fear from sin follows behind us and comes after we’ve broken God’s law. It’s a chastisement and a sense of guilt and the expectation of the just punishment which is to come. Saint John the Theologian says that fear ‘involves hell’. This is the fear from sin. In other words, this is the fear of the just punishment that awaits us; we fear and are ashamed, just like the First-Formed in paradise after their disobedience. Yet even this fear can be beneficial, so long as it leads to repentance. But what can you say about those who’ve gone beyond the boundaries of fear? Those who don’t fear either before or after? These are hardened people, and their heart’s become stone. But there are others who hear the Evangelist say ‘there is no fear in love’ and that ‘perfect love drives out fear’. In other words, that if you love, you won’t fear because real love expels fear. They hear the Evangelist say these words and think that they can cast out fear of God, because they, supposedly, have love. But nobody, my Christian friends, attains love unless they start with fear. Not fear of anything and everything, but fear of God. Love is holiness, i.e. the virtue of the saints. But no-one prospers in holiness and attains perfect love unless they have the fear of God within them. Saint Paul says this clearly and leaves no room for argument: ‘execute holiness in the fear of God’.
My beloved Christians,
Holiness isn’t merely a human achievement; it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit and is produced by the tree of the fear of God, rooted in the glebe of faith. Believe and have fear of God and he’ll give you the strength to be a saint. Where there’s no fear of God, people don’t execute holiness, they don’t prosper in virtue and they don’t ascend the ladder of their completion one rung at a time. On the contrary, they justify sin as being a natural thing and instead of ascending and becoming increasingly holy, they fall and end every day more sinful than the one before. Since they don’t have any fear of God they’re unrepentant and, given their lack of repentance, they don’t have divine grace. If you’re unrepentant, you close the door to divine grace. Holiness is redemptive, because no-one is saved unless they’re holy. So let us, too, have fear of God, so that we can execute holiness and find salvation with all the saints. Amen.
* It’s impossible adequately to convey the subtlety of Metropolitan Dionysios’ argument here. It all depends on the Greek root ‘tel-’, of which there are four derivatives in the sermon. Thus, ‘epi-tel-eo’ ‘means to bring to completion’, ‘to execute’; ‘tel-eioutai’ (for the saints) means ‘finished’ or ‘completed’; ‘tel-os’ means ‘end’; and ‘tel-eiosis’ means ‘completion’ or ‘perfection’, but not in the modern sense of being entirely without fault or defect: the saints have completed the requirements for holiness that Paul describes, but their ‘perfection’ will know no limit.