Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

The true worth of man. The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford

A University sermon preached in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford
22 October 1967


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Autumn 1967 has also seen the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian revolution. There is not space in these notes to do any justice to the many reflections to which this occasion must give rise. It is tragic, however, that a movement which is carried out in the name of humanity should have so often offended against the essential dignity of man. We can only regard with sorrow the continued and renewed pressure and persecution against Christians in the Soviet Union, and unite ourselves more deeply with our brothers in Christ, who witness against such odds to the reality of their faith in God.

It is a curious fact, that had it not been for the revolution, our Fellowship could never have come into existence in its present form. How much the Western Christian world owes to the contribution of those Russians who left their own land and have continued to witness to Orthodoxy in the West, it would be difficult to assess. But their presence seems to be one of the significant factors in the whole present break up of the embattled positions of Catholic and Protestant in Western Christendom and the creation of a more hopeful climate of reconciliation.

The University Sermon preached in Oxford by Metropolitan Anthony, which we print in this number, constituted something of an event in the life of the University. Not only was it the first time that an Orthodox bishop had been invited to preach on such occasion, the sermon, with its evident reference to two of the most burning theological questions of the day, was received by a very large congregation with the close attention which it merited.

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Two notions have come to the fore, since the war perhaps more than in the years that preceded it, the notion of the greatness of man, of his significance both for us men and for God; and the notion of human solidarity. And these are two points on which I wish to say a few words. In doing so we will have to measure how far we dare value the significance of men, and how far we dare go in our solidarity; that is, how great our daring can be and also what are its limits.

For centuries, as it seems, within the Church we have tried to make our God as great as we could, by making man small. This can be seen even in works of art in which the Lord Jesus Christ is represented great and his creatures very small indeed at his feet. The intention was to show how great God was, and yet it has resulted in the false, mistaken, almost blasphemous view that man is small, or in the denial of this God who treats men as though they were of no value. And these two reactions are equally wrong. The one belongs to people who claim to be children of God, God’s own chosen people, who are the Church. They have managed by doing this to make themselves as small as the image they have of men, and their communities as small and lacking in scope and greatness as their constitutive parts. The other attitude we find outside the Church, among the agnostics, the rationalists and the atheists; and we are responsible for these two attitudes and we shall be accountable for both in history and at the day of judgment. And yet this is not the vision of God about man.

When we try to understand the value which God himself attaches to man we see that we are bought at a high price, that the value which God attaches to man is all the life and all the death, the tragic death, of the only begotten Son upon the Cross. This is what God thinks of man, of his friend, created by him in order to be his companion of eternity. Again, when we turn to the gospel, to the parable of the Prodigal son, we see this man who had fallen away from the greatness of his sonship, of his vocation, coming back to his father. On his way he prepares his confession. He is ready to admit that he has sinned against heaven and against his father. He is prepared to recognise that he is no longer worthy of being called a son. And yet, when he meets his father, his father allows him to make half of his confession, to recognise that he is unworthy, that he is a sinner, that he has sinned against heaven and against him; but as to allowing him to ask a place in the kingdom on terms lower than those of sonship, ‘let me be like one of thy hired servants’, this he does not allow. He stops him at a moment when the young man has recognised his unworthiness, but he is not prepared to allow his son to establish new terms of worthiness, unworthy of the primeval, original and eternal relationship to which he is called. He can be an unworthy son; he can be a repentant son; he can come back to the father’s house, but only as his son. Unworthy though he be as a son he can never become a worthy hireling.

And this is the way in which God looks at man – in terms of the sonship offered us in the Incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, implied in the act of creation and in our calling to become par-takers of the divine nature, to become sons by adoption in the only begotten Son and in the only Son; to become, in the very words of Irenaeus of Lyons, the only begotten son in the total Christ.

This is our vocation. This is what we are called to. And nothing less than this is acceptable to the Lord. Now, this vision of man is something which is incompatible with the small vision we so often acquire from false teaching and from a slavish approach to the Lord. And this is why the outer world cannot receive our message because this message has become false, because no-one who knows the spirit of man within himself will ever be prepared to be treated as though he was lower than what he knows he is. Man is the point of encounter between the believer and the unbeliever, between the faithful and the man who is godless, provided we are prepared for an encounter and for a common thinking. You remember the passage in the Book of Acts in which we are told of S. Paul discovering in Athens an altar dedicated to the unknown God. Isn’t this unknown God man? In our time he seems to be so more than ever. Those who have repudiated God and rejected Christ have made man their god, the measure of all things. And indeed they are right as against the falsified image which at times is offered them. They have made man into their god and they have put him on the altar; but this man whom they have made into their god is an idol. It is a two-dimensional man, a prisoner of the two dimensions of time and space. This man made into a god is not a man with depth. It is a man as we see him in practical, ordinary, empirical life before we discover that man has a depth. He is seized in these two coordinates, he has volume, be occupies space, he has shape; he is tangible and visible but he has no content. In a way one may say that he belongs to the world of geometry in which one can speak of volumes, but these volumes are empty; there is nothing to be said about what is within these volumes. And man considered only in terms of space and time in this two-dimensional system appears to us only as a shell, an outer shape. He is a presence and we are related to his presence. His presence may be pleasant or unpleasant. There is no depth to plumb, there is no depth we can investigate or even perceive, because the depth of man is neither within time nor within space; it cannot be found there.

When the Scriptures tell us that the heart of man is deep they speak of that depth which escapes geometry, which is a third dimension of eternity and immensity – that dimension which is God’s own dimension. And so when man is put on the altar to be worshipped but only as a historic event developing in time and space, there is nothing to worship in him. He can be big; he can outgrow his stature. He may become one of those very fine idols of the early civilizations, but he will never have greatness, because greatness does not reside in size. It is only if man has this third dimension, invisible, intangible, the dimension of depth and of content, this dimension in infinity and eternity, that there is more to man than the visible, and then even in his humiliation man becomes great. Even defeated he may be greater than the one who seemingly defeats him.

The revelation of God in Christ, or the absolute dimension of eternity and immensity in Christ, is coupled with the revelation of defeat and humiliation. To those who either in the pagan world or in the Hebrew tradition thought of God as vested with all the imaginable greatness of man, who saw in God the sum total of all their aspirations, all their goals, all they admired in the created, the revelation of God in Christ was an insult and a blasphemy, something they could hardly bear because the great transcendental victorious God whom they had imagined and who is described with such beauty, for instance, and power by the friends of Job, that God appears to them as helpless, defenseless, vulnerable, defeated and therefore contemptible. And yet, in him we find final greatness because in all that, in his seeming defeat, we see the victory of love, a love which invested to the last point, to the last possibility, perhaps beyond possibility, if we think in our terms of reference, remains undefeated and victorious. No one, says Christ, takes my life from me. I give it freely. No one has greater love than he who will lay down his life for his friends. Apparent defeat, perfect victory of love, tested to the last limit.

This man, Jesus Christ, we also put on the altar. He is also the measure of all things for us. But he has a quite different quality than the poor idol which we are called to adore and to whom we are called to sacrifice ourselves and others by a godless world. So we Christians can meet the unbeliever; we can meet those who search and those who do not yet search, in the image of man. But we must be prepared to claim that man is greater than the wildest imagination of the unbeliever. Our pride in man is greater than the pride of those who want to make man as big as possible in the two-dimensional world out of which God is excluded. And yet, it is on this point, on the vision of man, that we can meet all those who claim that man has a right to be great and to be worshipped, because we worship one who is man; we bow down before him; he is our God.

And now I come to the second point of our meditation. How far can we feel final, total, definitive solidarity with those who deny the existence of the very possibility of this dimension of greatness and depth? St. Paul in his time, speaking of the Jews, was prepared to be excluded from the presence of God, if only that could make it possible for the people of God to be saved in its entirety. Can we go further, and can we together with Christ and not against him, together with God and not against him, say, ‘let our life be the ransom of the life of the world’. And when I say ‘the life’ I do not mean the temporary existence but all the total destiny of mankind. Can we be prepared to take the final risk of solidarity, either salvation together or lose all things together? A Christian can have no other attitude to things except that of Christ himself: of God revealed in Christ within human history, within the becoming and the tragedy and the glory of the destiny of mankind. And so let us cast a glance at the kind of solidarity which God in Christ accepts with men.

The solidarity begins at the moment of creation when the word of God calls all things into being and when man is called, not to a transitory ephemeral existence, not as an experiment, but is called to be, and to be for ever the companion of eternity of the living God. This is the moment when God and man find themselves linked together, if I may use this word, by and within the same risk, because it is at the creation that God takes upon himself not only the consequences of having created man but the consequences also of what man will make of time and of eternity. Throughout the Bible we see the way in which God never renounces either responsibility or solidarity with man; how he bears one after the other the various situations which man creates; how he adjusts himself to them in order to work out our salvation, which is the final fulfillment of man’s vocation. But the essential event, the essential act of solidarity is the incarnation of the Word of God. God becomes man. He enters into history. One may say, he acquires a temporal destiny; he becomes part and parcel of a becoming. But how far does this solidarity go? Usually in our sermons we underline, or we hear people say, that he became partaker of all that was man’s condition except sin. And if we ask what are these things he became partaker of, we are told that it is the limitations of time and space and the conditions of human life, tiredness, and hunger and thirst and anguish and isolation and loneliness and hatred and persecution and in the end death upon the cross. But when we have said this we seem to overlook something which is subjacent to all this, something which seems to me more important than any of these things. Yes, Christ accepts finally not only human life but human death. But what does this imply? How far does this solidarity go?

If you turn to Scripture you will see that death and sin, that is death and severance from God, death and the loss of God, what one can call etymologically atheism, are inseparably linked. The fact of not having a God is at the root of death. S. Maximus the Confessor, in one of his writings, brings it out in a most striking way; speaking of the Incarnation, he says that in the very moment of the conception of Christ, even in his humanity Christ was immortal, because one cannot conceive of a human flesh united to the Godhead and capable of death. Further, when we speak of the crucifixion we are aware of the fact that the death of Christ upon the Cross was an impossible tearing apart of an immortal soul and an immortal body; it was not the fading away of life; it was a dramatic, an impossible event inflicted by the will of God on the one who was both equally and perfectly God and man. But then the words of Christ upon the Cross acquire a significance that is deeper and more terrifying than anything which we have made of them. When the Lord says ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’, it is a moment in which, metaphysically, in an unspeakable way, in a way for which we cannot account because we can account for nothing in the mystery of Christ, Jesus nailed to the Cross loses the consciousness of his union with God. He can die, because he, free of sin, becomes at that moment fully partaker of the destiny of man, and he also is left without God, and having no God he dies. This is also what is signified in the Apostles’ Creed when it says ‘He descended into hell’. Hell in the Hebrew tradition was the place where God was not; he went into the depth of this absence of God and he died. Here is the measure of a divine solidarity with us, not only the shedding of blood, not only the death on the Cross, but the very condition of this death upon the Cross, of this death altogether, the loss of God. And here we see that there is not one atheist in the world, whether ideological or, if I may put it this way, gastric – if you take S. Paul’s word that some have made their belly into their gods – no atheist has ever gone into the loss of God, into atheism, in the way in which Christ has gone into it, has experienced it and has died of it – he, immortal in his humanity as in his divinity. This is far beyond any other form of solidarity. This is the full measure of ”Christ’s and God’s love for men in what God is prepared to do, and the measure of how far he is prepared to go in his oneness with us. But then again, when we think of men, of those men who are not of the Church, of those men who are outside of it, who have turned against it because of us, because the name of God is blasphemed among the nations for our sake, then we can see how far we dare to go, and how great our daring must be.

Our solidarity must be with Christ first, and in him with all men to the last point, to the full measure of life and death. Only then, if we accept this, can we, each of us, and can the congregation of all faithful people, the people of God, grow into what it was in Christ and into what it was in the Apostles, into a group of people whose vision was greater than the vision of the world, whose scope was greater than the scope of the world so that the Church in the beginning could contain all these, could be partakers of all those things which were the condition of man, and therefore could lead mankind into salvation. And this is not the state in which we are. We have grown small because we have made our God into an idol and ourselves into slaves. We must recapture the sense of the greatness of that God revealed in Christ and the greatness of man revealed by him. And then the world may begin to believe and we may become co-workers of God for the salvation of all things. Amen.


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