Sunday sermon on the Epistle of Saint Paul to Corinthians (1:21-2:4)
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“He Who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us is God, Who has sealed us and given us the Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.”
This is the first sentence of the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Corinthians that we just heard Matthew read. This sentence will also be the focus of today’s sermon, specifically the establishment in Christ, the sealing with the Holy Spirit, and the guarantee given.
First, God establishes us in Christ. He establishes our relationship with each other and with Christ. And this leads to the formation of the Church. Therefore, God establishes the Church. That’s a very important point because it seems that we tend to forget this basic fact of our faith.
It’s not a government, or a bunch of bishops, or people with by-laws who establish the Church. It is God, and the Church is His organization.
Some governments, like in this country, may have laws that protect the Church, laws that grant freedom of religion. But those laws are only in place to protect the people from thugs in that same government. It is not up to the civil authorities to establish the Church or tell it how to run itself.
The bishops, or the clergy in general, likewise do not establish the Church. The clergy are as much in need of salvation, which is achieved in the Church, as anyone else. The clergy, like everyone else within the Church, have a specific task, which in their case consists of guiding the flock entrusted to them by God.
And the laypeople with their by-laws do not establish the Church. The by-laws, at most, help in some administrative functions, as long as they conform to the unshakable tradition of the Church.
Second, God has sealed us. I don’t know how popular seals or stamps are today when contracts are signed, but in the old days, the seal was more important than the signature. The seal was the sign of ownership. So God sealing us is His mark on human life, it is the sign that we belong to Him.
From the earliest times in the Church, this seal has been the sign of cross. In the baptismal service, the newly-baptized Christian is anointed with the holy oil (called the chrism) in the form of the cross on the forehead, face, ears, chest, back, hands, feet. This anointing is explicitly called the seal, as the priest says with each anointing, “The Seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” We are sealed by God for God.
This anointing is a sign of God's continued protection for those who belong to Him. We are not sealed because it a nice, cute custom. We are sealed because now God is our Helper and Protector. The seal is also not magic. Like any seal, it can be lost or violated. For this reason, we pray at baptism that the newly-baptized will preserve the seal pure to the end of his/her life.
And in order to preserve God’s stamp, we constantly remind ourselves Whose we are. That’s why, for example, we cross ourselves so often – while coming to church, praying in church, at home during prayers, before meals... The sign of the cross we make over ourselves is the prayer to the Holy Spirit for the divine protection, as well as a reminder that we carry God’s seal upon ourselves, in our hearts, as Saint Paul says.
I can never forget one moment when I worked in a Greek restaurant back in college. There was one family that would come in from time to time. They came one busy weekend evening, the restaurant was packed, but they got a table. When their food arrived, they prayed over the food, aloud, blessed the food, and crossed themselves.
Even now, recounting this episode, it seems wild. But why would something that is part of our life, integral to our life as Christians, something like making the sign of a cross over ourselves, reminding Whose we are, in a public place be wild? It’s not like we are ashamed to show off other symbols and signs of our belonging to some or other organization.
If I wear a t-shirt with something on it, I am proclaiming to all around me that I am part of that group, or that at least I want to be part of them. We wear all sorts of pins – from the flag of the US to the “voted” sticker. Are these more important or simply less embarrassing to display publicly, unlike the sign of the cross?
Whose are we? Who has sealed our hearts? I think our actions say that louder than our thoughts.
God’s seal is our protection, but it also needs to be protected in order to remain undefiled. However, if it was that simple to preserve the seal inviolate, then it would not be special, it would not even be worth doing at all. To keep the seal protected we need to be constantly in our baptism.
And what is baptism? Baptism is a conversion and repentance. Someone once told me that our parish does not have converts. Nonsense, I said, if we had no converts than we would not be a Church. In fact, every one of us here is a convert. Nobody, ever, is born Orthodox Christian. Nobody is born already baptized.
Baptism is a conversion, conversion from our old and sinful ways of the fallen world to the new and salvific ways that Christ offers us. And repentance is a realization, acknowledgement, confession, and firm determination to change from old ways to the new ones. That’s how we preserve God’s seal in us, that’s how we are always mindful of Whose we are.
And third, the gift of the Holy Spirit that we are given at baptism, during the chrismation, is the guarantee by God of the certainty of the contract on His part. God made a covenant with humanity, a contract.
And the Holy Spirit is given as a guarantee that He will not break it. The Holy Spirit is the pledge of something that is to come, namely the eternal life with God in His Kingdom. But it is also a down payment, which already signifies a presumption of ultimate possession.
For instance, when we make a down payment on a house, we begin to reside in it immediately. The house is ours and will remain that way for as long as we pay the mortgage. Similarly, the down payment of the Holy Spirit tells us that we are God’s and will remain so because God, unlike us sometimes, is able to make the payments all the time.
And the gift of the Holy Spirit is really a gift. Our Father is giving our own down payment, as well as the full payment through Christ’s suffering, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. From God’s side, the deal is sealed. He is going all in on us, and I think that’s a good sign.
He’s established the Church for us to work on our relationship with Christ and each other. He has sealed us, marking us as His own. And He has guaranteed the whole thing by giving the Holy Spirit.
So on our part of the deal, we need to remember Whose we are and sign ourselves with the right seal – the one of the cross, and give glory and honor and worship only to One Who truly deserves – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God.
This sermon was inspired and based on a sermon by Fr Patrick Reardon, "One Verb and Two Nouns."