Gospel Reading

Matthew 5:17-48

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 21 “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; 26 truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny. 27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. 31 “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33 “Again you have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil. 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Revised Standard Version)

Reflection Points

Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Second Sunday of Great Lent, Sunday of the Expulsion), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:

What is Sin?

Expulsion Sunday places us at the very beginning. The created order, including Adam and Eve, was spoken into existence by the very Word of God, but our harmony with the world and the communion we enjoyed with our Creator was ruptured because of sin. As a result, Adam and Eve, who are a type of all of us, were expelled from paradise and access to the Tree of Life was blocked. The world operated differently, but the Creator’s plan was intact. Through Jesus Christ, the new Adam (see I Corinthians 15:45), there is forgiveness of sin. By way of baptism, we are placed on the journey back to the Garden to commune with our Creator, once again given access to the Tree of Life.

Many people understand sin to be behavioral, tantamount to crime, and forgiveness as God’s gift that frees us from punishment for those crimes. But this is a gross reduction of a much more profound reality. The third century Egyptian church father St. Athanasius, who shaped much of eastern theology, including that of the Armenian Church, describes sin as the absence of life or existence, a process of corruption, a movement toward non-being or death (see Romans 6:23), which is the antithesis of God, the source of life. Simply put, sin is not a legal problem, but an existential, or ontological one. That is, sin is a condition, much like a disease. Consider the Armenian word for sin “meghk.” It is always plural. Therefore, the line of reasoning that sin is something to be numbered or measured, such as rules or behaviors, is impossible within the Armenian tradition.

In this sense, sin is broken communion with God and with one another, a voluntary movement away from God, which manifests itself in the broken things in our lives. We hurt and kill each other. We hurt and destroy creation. We are weak and easily enslaved to powerful things such as drugs, alcohol, money, careers, pornography, and even technology. We are dominated and oppressed by things that draw us away from life-giving communion with Jesus Christ such as greed, envy, lust, anger, and even false views of success. We become blind to the presence of God in the world, in our lives, and in the lives of others. So whenever we confess our sins, what should concern us is not broken rules, but broken communion, which results in what we read/confess in our general confession (Khosdovanank) during Badarak.

In the same manner, forgiveness is not the righting of a legal wrong or a rule broken. Rather it is that which unbinds, liberates, and sets us free from all of the things which prevent us from knowing God and being in communion with him. It is the restoration of our true existence and the healing of our condition, the disease of sin. It unites and makes us whole, brings us back into communion with God and with one another. In Armenian, the word for salvation is “prgootyoon,” which means to liberate, to set free. From what do we need to be freed, as a parish, as individuals? What binds and enslaves us? How can this understanding of sin compel us to turn toward God and desire deeper union with him?

Examination of Conscience

Often we are barely aware we are bound by sin in the first place. During Great Lent, spend some quiet time with God and examine your conscience in order to get a pulse as to our level of intimacy with God. The Armenian word for sin – meghk – also carries the connotation of harm, i.e. sin is the harm we cause to ourselves, to each other, and to creation. As one Orthodox theologian put it:

When we sin, or even when we are involved in sin, we become bound. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the cause of the sin. There is a binding that occurs because we ourselves were the victim of a sin. There is a binding that occurs because we simply witness the sin. There is even a form of binding that occurs to the whole of humanity because of the diminishment of even one of its members. If everyone were somehow only responsible for their own actions the world would be quite different. As it is, the action of one involves the binding of all. Adam’s sin has left us bound ever since. We are not being held legally responsible for Adam’s action. We are existentially and ontologically bound by Adam’s sin.

If one spouse has a continuing problem of lying to another spouse, the solution is not simply to stop the act of lying or to conceal oneself in a non-tempting environment. Rather, the spouse simply needs to love his/her spouse. Likewise, the solution to the problem of our constant back-turning to God is not simply behavior modification, albeit building new habits can be a good start, but simply to love God, to respond to his unconditional love for us. Therefore, one shouldn’t think of the following questions as an exercise in behavior modification, rather a turning toward our natural state of being, a return to our first Love, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is why they are categorized as Loving God, Loving Our Neighbor, and Loving Our Selves. Carefully pondering this list of questions, then, should help us focus on our communion with God and what interrupts it over and over due to the harm and damage we cause, witness, and receive, how we are bound and how we need to be freed. In his second letter to the Corinthians St. Paul writes the following vital imperative:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (13:5)

Thankfully, Jesus is just like the father of the prodigal son, waiting with open arms for his children to return. Then comes the feast…

Loving God

  • Do I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength?
  • Do I really believe in God, or just go through the motions?
  • Do I really love God above all else or have I given first place to other things such as career, spouse, family, money, material possessions, personal reputation, image, or legacy?
  • Have I concentrated my time, efforts, and thoughts on the things of the world rather than or more than on the things pertaining to eternal life?
  • Do I pray on a regular and daily basis?
  • Do I read, study, or meditate on the Holy Scriptures regularly and daily?
  • Do I rush through prayers, Scripture readings, and spiritual literature?
  • Do I seek the will of God in all things?
  • Do I rebel against what I know to be God’s will, and the Christian life?
  • Have I placed my trust in things such as horoscopes, occult practices, and superstitions?
  • Have I been willfully absent from Badarak?
  • Have I neglected to share Holy Communion regularly?
  • Do I diligently prepare for Holy Communion with confession, prayer, and fasting?
  • Do I diligently observe the fasts and seasons of the Church?
  • Have I fasted properly in my heart, realizing a hunger for God, rather than legalistically or just to follow tradition?
  • Have I denied a truth of Christianity out of concern for the respect or opinion of others?
  • Have I preferred and chosen to believe what society teaches over what the Church teaches?
  • Do I regularly and cheerfully contribute a sacrificial portion of my money, time, and talent to the Church for God’s service?
  • Have I used the name of God carelessly, or irreverently at any time?
  • Have I mistreated animals or unnecessarily destroyed or harmed the environment? Am I a faithful steward of God’s creation?
  • Is my faith as firm as it always was or as strong and mature as it should be?
  • Do I give in to temptation easily? Thoughtlessly?
  • Do I set before myself the holy life of Jesus and try to imitate him?
  • Can others, looking at me, learn something of the example of Jesus Christ?

Loving Our Neighbor

  • How do I treat the people around me? Am I conscious of how my words and actions affect others?
  • Do I regard others with love and compassion?
  • Have I betrayed the confidence of another person?
  • Have I spread gossip or scandal about anyone?
  • Have I disclosed to anybody the sins of another, or done anything else to harm another in his/her reputation?
  • Have I made careless statements or spoken evil of anyone?
  • Do I put people down? Do I look for their faults?
  • Do I condescend and talk down to others?
  • Do I think myself better than others – spiritually, economically, ethnically?
  • Do I mock or make fun of others? Have I called anyone by an injurious or humiliating name?
  • Do I try to control or manipulate others?
  • Have I caused or fostered enmity between others?
  • Have I oppressed anyone, or treated anyone with arrogance and contempt, or refused to speak to anyone?
  • Do I bear any anger, resentment, bitterness, or hatred in my heart toward anyone? Against whom am I holding a grudge?
  • Am I withholding forgiveness from anyone? Who do I need to forgive?
  • Do I envy and bear jealousy toward anyone?
  • Do I use and objectify others for my own pleasure or advantage? For sex, profit, or anything else which depersonalizes him or her?
  • Have I done anything impure with another person?
  • Do I honor the commitments I have made to others?
  • Have I honored and respected my parents, clergy, teachers, civil servants, and all persons older than myself?
  • Have I been selfish with what is entrusted to me?
  • Have I stolen anything?
  • Do I covet other people’s things?
  • Have I ignored someone who needed help or failed to defend someone who was being treated unjustly or cruelly?
  • Have I failed to respond to those who are in need: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the imprisoned, the homeless, the ill, the troubled, the afflicted, the depressed, or those with other needs that I could help?

Loving Our Selves

  • Have I been lazy, idle, or wasteful of time?
  • How am I self-centered, egotistical, or self-absorbed?
  • Do I take care of myself, physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually?
  • Am I obsessed about my self, my image, my appearance, my desires, and my agenda?
  • Do I get despondent, depressed, or despairing?
  • Do I beat myself up and indulge in self-hatred or self-pity?
  • Do I have low self-esteem or think myself worthless?
  • Do I engage in addictive behaviors? How do I try to console myself when I’m feeling down?
  • Do I have anger and resentment, rage, and other strong emotions suppressed within me?
  • Have I willfully entertained impure thoughts and desires?
  • Have I talked about lewd things or remained in the company of others who talked about them?
  • How am I a hypocrite? What kind of facade do I put up?
  • Am I sincerely willing to change aspects of my life so that they will be more in keeping with the Gospel?
  • Have I confessed all the sins I have committed? Is there any other sin which I am ashamed to tell?

Confession is difficult, whether to God or a priest, because it takes strength to look in the mirror and be honest with ourselves. If all of this sounds too difficult, embarrassing, arduous, painful, or negative, perhaps the words of St. John Chrysostom will motivate us to confess and repent with proper perspective, with healing as the result:

Even if you do not confess, God is not ignorant of the deed, since he knew it before it was committed. Why then do you not speak of it? Does the transgression become heavier by the confession? No, it becomes lighter and less troublesome. And this is why he wants you to confess: not that you should be punished, but that you should be forgiven; not that he may learn your sin—how could that be, since he has seen it?—but that you may learn what favor he bestows. He wishes you to learn the greatness of his grace, so that you may praise him perfectly, that you may be slower to sin, that you may be quicker to virtue. And if you do not confess the greatness of the need, you will not understand the enormous magnitude of his grace.

*The above questions are mostly an adaptation or quoted from already circulated resources

Origin of Sin

What is the source or origin of sin? Interestingly, and perhaps contrary to popular belief, the Armenian Church does not teach the doctrine of “Original Sin” taught by some Christian traditions, that as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve, each human individual from the moment of conception is sinful by nature, and therefore guilty before God prior to any willful action. This notion is based on a legal, moral, personalized understanding of sin, one which the Armenian Church, as well as other Eastern traditions, did not adopt.

We believe that sin is not just a human condition, but pervades the entire created order, the cosmos. The consequences of Adam’s sin are inherited – a world dominated by death and corruption, out of communion with its Creator and in need of healing and restoration. Although we can’t escape this contaminated, diseased world, we are in and part of a world that Jesus is making right, a cosmos he is bringing back into union with himself. Sin is an external affliction (see the Հրաժարիմք), and what goes in is able to come out, but we can also do what is good and holy in spite of the sin that surrounds us.

In fact, we are created to not want to be a part of the corruption that surrounds, influences, and dominates. This may surprise us, especially as we momentarily witness human beings behaving selfishly. Elevation of the ego and the desire for autonomy seem to be the default mode and “nature” of humanity, but Christians for centuries have taught we are inherently good, created in the image of God, created for communion with him. When we are honest and not living a false version of ourselves, communion with God, to share his existence and to live holy lives, is the deepest desire of every human being.

So who or what is the progenitor of sin? From Scripture we read,

But through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his party experience it. (Wisdom 2:24)

St. Gregory of Narek also credits Satan as the source of sin in one of his prayers:

And for the serpent that brought the bitter poison of death, by whom the universe was betrayed into evil… (Prayer 90 E)

St. Gregory of Datev echoes the same idea in one of his sermons when he summarizes the story of the Garden:

The greatest of all sins is jealousy…it was Satan who committed pride and envy. After all, he was proud and turned against God’s glory; so he was deprived of his honor and from the angelic ranks and fell to earth. Then, he was envious of Adam’s glory. He overcame Adam, ousted him from exquisite, death-free paradise, and caused him to inherit a world that produced thorns and curses. This is why envy is worse than all other sins; it makes a person into Satan’s collaborator and likeness. As the wise [St. Gregory Nazianzus] said, God did not create death; rather, death entered the world through the deceiver’s jealousy, and whoever runs after it has his portion in its rate [of pay].

We are still capable of living holy lives, but as mortal and corruptible, we are susceptible to the influence of Satan which dulls our senses and perception of what is good. We are distracted by the wrong tree and continually lust after food that is not good for us. But when we renounce, give up, or resign from Satan’s bag of tricks (խաբէութենէ), there is no internal hold on us.

Of course, we are still accountable and responsible to turn toward God and away from sin. Repentance, the practice of penance, should be as natural to a Christian as breathing – a perpetual recalibration of our life to bring it into better alignment with God’s love and will for us. Repentance is a turning from anything that distracts us from “undivided devotion to the Lord” (I Corinthians 7:35) – how we think, how we live, how we insist on being our own masters, creators of our own world, how we craft God in our image. Even if we are not sinful by nature, we participate in Adam’s sin insofar as we imitate it. And who hasn’t? In his Epistle to the Romans (3:23), St. Paul reminds us “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

How can we apply to our lives what St. Gregory of Datev preached, as a parish community, as individuals? Do we realize how poisonous envy is as St. Gregory of Narek says in his prayer? In what ways can we build the habit of practicing penance during Great Lent so that it lasts beyond these 40 days? How can we keep ourselves more accountable to each other? Although we have inherited a world corrupted by Satan, thankfully it is a world in which the Cross was already in the plan, a world in which Jesus conquered the sin and death that was set in motion. From the Zhamamood,

You, the unchangeable One, became man and you were crucified, O Christ our God, and you trampled down death by death.

Journey to the Garden

During Great Lent, focus on our hope as Christians. We not only don’t need to hide from God and cover ourselves in shame, but it is impossible to do so. God, still speaking through the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, tells us about his immense presence that fills the world:

As Lord God I am near…and not a distant God. Is it possible for man to flee and hide from me in his covering, that I may not see him? Are not the heavens and earth filled by me? (23:23-24)

In other words, God is near and available to us, whether we run or not. That should be comforting news, because he is not a God waiting to punish or strike us down given the first opportunity, but a God who stretches out his healing hand of mercy and forgiveness. What are we covering up in shame from a God who is already aware and also ready and willing to heal and forgive our shame?

We know that sin and death exist, whether or not the origin, cause, or process of its transmission is clear and agreed upon. More importantly, we know that our proper mode of existence, the promise of divine life, is restored through the Holy Font. And so as the Church, we understand sin and the story of the expulsion from the Garden through the lens of baptism. St. Gregory of Narek writes:

That original likeness is stolen from you as by breaking the law in the Garden of Eden. But by the light of the baptismal font the breath of the Holy Spirit is received and the image is restored to God’s likeness.” (Prayer 46 C)

That is why we celebrate Badarak. Today, through the Church, by virtue of our baptism, we are graced with access to the Garden, but our baptism must be lived out. That is the journey of faith, the uneasy return to paradise. Along that journey, when we celebrate Badarak and share the Body and Blood of Christ, we taste the fruit of the Kingdom of God, the Tree of Life, which is the Cross of Jesus Christ. Again, in the words of St. Gregory of Narek:

And also by being spread upon the tree of death, you spread us upon it as well, and thanks to this great mystery united us with the tree of life. (Prayer 93 B)

By Dn. Eric Vozzy