How to Avoid Sinking: Homily for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

I Corinthians 3:9-17; Matthew 14:22-34

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that we are
totally self-sufficient and able to live exactly as we
please with no serious consequences. Self-reliance,
independence, and freedom certainly have their places, but
they also have their limits and must be kept in proper
perspective. We must develop these qualities in light of
who we are before God, if we are to flourish as His
beloved sons and daughters.

That is precisely what Peter did not do in today’s
Gospel reading, however. As he miraculously walked on the
water with Jesus Christ, he did not accept the reality of
who he was in relation to the Lord. He turned his trust
away from the One Who was enabling him to do what he could
never do on his own, to walk on the water. Instead, he
focused on the wind and the waves and his own weakness,
and began to sink. It had apparently not sunk into
Peter’s mind that he was walking on the waves purely
because the Son of God had enabled him to do so. As he
turned away from trusting the Lord and relied only on
himself, he began to sink like a stone. As we all know,
that is simply the reality of what happens to a human
being who tries to walk on the water by his own power.

Something similar would happen to a building that was not
squarely grounded on a solid foundation. It would collapse
under its own weight. As St. Paul reminded the
Corinthians, our one true foundation in life is the same
Son of God Who spoke the universe into existence, became
the Second Adam to restore our corrupt humanity, and Who
conquered death in His third-day resurrection. He is the
very basis of our existence and our hope for salvation.

Whenever we use our freedom
as an excuse to turn away from Him and to trust only in
our own desires and abilities, we turn away from our true
selves. We cut ourselves off from the truth, reality, and
power that are necessary for us to flourish as those
created in the image and likeness of God. If we are
honest, we will see that it does not take much at all to
put us in our place, to show us that living by our own
designs is a path that leads only to weakness and despair.
That is why Peter started to sink when he focused more on
the stormy sea than on the Lord. Our ultimate choice,
which we make every moment of our lives, is whether to
entrust ourselves to the merciful, transformative power of
the Savior. He alone provides the path to true freedom
from slavery to our passions and ultimately from death.

It is no accident that Peter’s fear in that moment
was focused on death. He was a fisherman and knew that
someone in his situation was about to drown, but he at
least had the presence of mind to call out “Lord,
save me.” The circumstances that we face due to our
lack of faith may not be quite so clear, but the meaning
is the same. When we step away from the one true
foundation, we choose the pain of death instead of the joy
of the empty tomb. When we nourish hate and anger toward
others, we murder them in our hearts. When we embrace
lustful thoughts, we enslave ourselves to immoral desires
and commit adultery. When we refuse to forgive
others, we harden our hearts and make it impossible to
accept God’s forgiveness for our own sins. When we
do not serve our neighbors in need, we disregard the Lord
Himself. No, we do not have to do anything nearly as
dramatic as Peter did in order to start sinking into the
depths.

Of course, some will justify drowning in sin in the
name of being true to themselves. Here is where Orthodox
Christianity insists that human beings are not mere
bundles of freedom who are made to find fulfillment
wherever and however they happen to desire. Instead, the
Lord has made us in His image and likeness. It is our very
nature to be united with God in holiness. Unfortunately,
our common corruption has gravely distorted our ability to
fulfill that righteous vocation. That is why we so easily
worship money, power, pleasure, and getting our own way.
It is why we so easily make success in the world on our
own terms a false god. And even as we become more and more
enslaved to our self-centered desires and illusions, we
may truly believe that we are doing the right thing. That
is simply a sign that we are diminishing ourselves even
further.

In this light, we must all seriously discern whether we
are really being true to ourselves as those created in
God’s image and likeness and whose one true
foundation is Jesus Christ. Are we being true to ourselves
as God’s temple in whom the Holy Spirit dwells? Are
we being true to ourselves as those who have put on Christ
in Baptism
and who are nourished by His Body and Blood in Holy
Communion? If not, then we are living a lie that puts
major roadblocks between us and the holy joy that it is
our nature to seek.

When Christ enabled Peter to walk on the water, He gave us
an icon or image of what it means to share in His life by
grace. He showed us that human beings may participate
already in His victory over sin and death, that in Him we
may know a blessed freedom that enables us to overcome
even the darkest and most powerful temptations. As we grow
in personal union with our risen Lord, He heals us from
corruption and empowers us for a life of holiness. In Him,
we find infinitely greater fulfillment than in a life of
slavery to our self-centered desires and illusions. That
is what it means for us to walk with Him across the stormy
seas of our lives.

St. Paul reminded the Corinthians that they were
“God’s fellow workers; God’s field,
God’s building.” If the workers on a building
site become careless and do not ground the structure on
its foundation, the project will likely collapse. The same
is true of us. We must all wrestle with the question of
whether we are cooperating with the Lord as we build the
project of our lives. He calls us to be His holy temple,
and we must all resist the temptation to become distracted
from fulfilling that high calling. A temple is a place
where we offer ourselves to God in holiness. That is the
most fundamental calling of our lives which fulfills
God’s purposes for creating us in the first place.
It is only by offering ourselves for union with Christ in
holiness that we become participants in the eternal life
and blessedness for which He brought us into existence.

Let us use our freedom to become God’s fellow
workers in making ourselves holy temples. Let us embrace
the divine power that enables us to walk across the stormy
seas of our lives, even to share in the Savior’s
victory over sin and death. We will be able to do so only
when we embrace personally the glorious truth that our
nature and purpose is to grow in holiness and union with
the Lord. Anything less is a path to the despair of
sinking like a stone or collapsing like an ill-constructed
building under its own weight. True freedom comes in
accepting who we are in God’s image and likeness,
His beloved sons and daughters, and living accordingly.

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