St. Paul tells the Romans that he is speaking to them in an allegorical sense because they are weak people, but he’s speaking to them of freedom and of slavery. He tells them that before they found Christ, they were slaves to their passions. They were slaves to the elemental spirits of the world. They were slaves to the earth from which they were taken. He tells them that before they found Christ, they were wholly owned by their own unbridled lusts. And he says to them, “These things that dragged you to and fro, that tormented you, what profit, what fruit did you have? In what way did you benefit by them? You experienced temporary satisfactions of earthly passions, which by the law of diminishing return then demanded greater and greater needs for physical satisfaction. You received honor which only led to the desire for more honor. You understood the meaning that power corrupts, and that greater power corrupts greatly, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whatever it was you possessed in your own name, it was not your servant, it was your master. It was something that controlled, that owned, that manipulated, that possessed, and that corrupted you.” But he said, “Now, in a human sense of speaking, you have become slaves to Jesus Christ.”
We in our culture of freedoms and rights, and especially in the post-slavery era of Western civilization – which was never a thing that Western civilization practiced until it was taught to them by the Muselman – we now bridle at the word slavery. We’re shocked by that word. “What about my freedom?” Well, indeed, brothers and sisters, the slavery that are under to God is a voluntary slavery. It is a slavery from which any day we can choose to be released. We can return to the corruption of the flesh, to the freedom of immorality, which is no freedom at all but is itself slavery to matter and passions.
But what does it mean, then, to be a slave to righteousness? To be a slave to anything means to be owned by it, so to be a slave of righteousness means to be owned by righteousness. To be a slave to God means to belong to God. And what does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be a person bound for eternal life in the kingdom of heaven, but to have subjected ourselves to slavery to righteousness, having voluntarily sold ourselves not to the passions and lusts of the flesh, but having delivered ourselves from that earthly nature which held our flesh and spirit captive, and now consigned our souls to the Spirit of God, to the Spirit of liberty? We now possess the freedom to be truly human beings.
Two saints are celebrated today. Both of these men were men who sought to be slaves to righteousness. They are both men who handed their lives over to God, but who had an idea what God was going to do with their lives. One of them is St. Athanasius of Athos, a young man whose parents died at an early age and who was raised by a pious nun, an aunt. Being brought up in her presence, he did nothing but imitate her life of prayer, and fasting, and self denial. The other was St. Sergius of Radonezh, who from his infancy showed a great proclivity to serve and to love God and to suffer for his sake. Both of these men wanted one then. What they wanted – and it was a righteous desire – was to give up everything that you think you want. To give up possessions, to give up security, to give up power, to give up gregariousness and being surrounded by friends, to give up reputation. They wanted ultimately to disappear into the desert somewhere, whether it was the far side of Mt. Athos, or the woods of Muskovy, and to never be seen again. To live there, to pray, to communicate God through His angels, through His saints, through nature, until only their bones were left there and their souls were reunited to Him.
But since both of these men made themselves slaves to God, to righteousness, and not to their own will, God made of each of them something other than what he wanted to be. St. Athanasius, going to the far side of Athos and making his little hut in a place that was remote and deserted, the most inhospitable place, found himself gathering disciples. People who came to be taught by him, to be instructed by him, to simply be in his presence. And, to each man, he taught the art of living as a hermit. But they’d gather together and offer the liturgies, and finally built a catholicon, and it was in the completion of this catholicon that St. Athanasius gave his soul over to God. We are told that on the day when the dome was raised that he and his six disciples and his architect climbed up on the roof of the building, and as they stood there, there was a shaking and the building fell, and that the six, together with him, all died – the six immediately, and him a few hours later. But he had been called by God to end his life at that point, after having done something he never wanted to do, and that was to build a community and to erect a structure. So today we celebrate his soul fleeing away to God taking with him that little band of disciples. And we celebrate that great monastery which has been erected there on Mt. Athos for a thousand and some years in memory of his prayer there.
And St. Sergei wanted to flee into the woods. He wanted to be a person with God, to pray for the world, and to be in contact with it by his intercessions on behalf of the Christian people. Not to be esteemed by them. In fact, he found himself surrounded, surrounded by disciples, so that a bigger and bigger monastery arose there. And when finally a bishop prevailed up him to allow himself to be ordained – because there’s a saying among the really pious monks in history: “Flee from women and from bishops, because one wants to make you a husband and the other wants to make you a priest.” But giving in to the order, to the command, to the direction of his hierarch, telling him that his monks needed to have the divine services held on the holy days and on Sundays, he allowed himself to be ordained. And you know what happened immediately? His own brother, who had come to join him in the monastery, then became jealous. As soon as he found that his brother was jealous, St. Sergei fled from the monastery, went back in the woods, and tried to regain his solitude. But it wasn’t what God wanted. He had not made himself a slave to Sergei’ pious desires, dreams, and delusions. He had made himself a slave to God and to righteousness, so he returned and forgave those who had envied him, only allowing himself to return on the condition that nothing be held against those who had been jealous of him and who had murmured about his elevation to the priesthood. In time, it was through his holy prayers and intercession, and his good advice, that the Russian land was saved from the Tartars, and ultimately probably from Islam. It was by his prayers that the faith was established in the Far North. You know, when you read the Psalms, it says, “We have heard of it in Mishach, we have found it in the field of Jaar.” Mishach is the far north. The word Muscovy comes from that Hebrew word. It means, “So far north that nobody should ever live there.” But the people had to flee there because they were being tormented by their enemies, their foes. They had to hide and find freedom in the woods. And to that state, grace was given through Sergei.
Two men today then, two men who having freed themselves from slavery to the passions and lusts, desires of the flesh and the delusions of the mind, then allowed themselves also to be freed from their own pious aspirations in this world, and instead accepted God’s will for themselves and became founders of great institutions. One of a monastery on Mt. Athos, and the other of the Holy Trinity of Lavra and in a very real sense, of the whole Muscovite church.
Through the prayers of these men and their examples may we also set ourselves free from slavery to the passions and lusts of the flesh, in which there is no profit, and become slaves of righteousness, for the wages, at the end of the day, that are paid into our hands by sin are a handful of dirt, a boxful of bones. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord, to Him be glory forever and unto ages of ages. Amen