Unless the LORD builds the house…1
Archpriest Sergiy Baranov
St. John of Kronstadt Cathedral of Gai
October 29, 2023
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!
Today the Church commemorates the holy centurion Longinus. He was one of the soldiers who crucified our Lord. They were crucifying Jesus with a sense of right and justice. They were sincere. All of a sudden, this tormentor, this soldier, this cold hearted man of war who served in the army and did it really proficiently. It is said that Roman soldiers could crucify skilfully and aptly, they could do it in an incredibly precise way. They defended their motherland not only on battlefields, but when it was an internal conflict they were devoted to their imperator until the end.
This soldier, who had been serving in the army righteously just recently, changed his attitude all at once. Immediately, when Jesus was dying on the cross, writhing with pain and agony, when Jesus was crying on the cross. He cried out these words, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”2 The Lord died and the earth trembled, nature itself showed Who had just died and what had happened. At this moment, this soldier experienced a great change, it was like everything turned upside down. One minute ago, he was a tormentor but in a moment he turned into a disciple of Christ, devoted to God until death.
Sometimes I try to put myself in this time and place. How would I live through the coming of God? Unfortunately or maybe fortunately. Unfortunately, and I do speak sincerely, maybe I would not recognise God as well. Imagine, a man lives in a society for thirty, thirty-three years, he is among us, he looks like us, he does not really stand out. Someone knows Him personally, someone knows His family or comes across Him. And all of a sudden this man says, “I am the Son of God”. Well, try to put yourselves at this time span. What were Israelites saying, in what way did they think, how did they perceive it? “He is crazy. He is insane.” Suddenly He became superior and proclaimed Himself as the Son of God. So, they think earthly, objectively and act in this way as well. It is a great blasphemy when a man proclaims himself as the Son of God, equal to Our Heavenly Father because He says these words, “I and My Father are one.”3 Blasphemy, sacrilege. In those severe times, when there were really strict rules, you could be killed immediately for this. He blasphemes, He dishonours God, He dares to compare Himself with God, He joins Himself with God and says, “I and My Father are one.”
Two thousand years passed and now Christianity is established in the whole world, and it is a part of world culture indeed. But back then, the Israelites had the Old Testament culture and it was a really earthy kind of culture. Look at those morals: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.4 So called human fairness. But suddenly this Man comes and proclaims Himself as the Son of God, and now their world perception is upside down. “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”5 People cannot understand, cannot swallow it. Not only do they not understand it but feel angry about it, they rebel. They rebel to such an extent that they crucify Lord at the end. But having already crucified Him, they could not calm down, and, staying there under the cross, they were spitting at Him. This Man was writhing with pain and agony so let Him just die but even at that moment, but no…
We can understand them in an earthly way. This Man blasphemes, He calls Himself as Son of God. But how can we understand Him in a different way, if all these events were supernatural? What kind of man should there be to see the humankind in Him and that this humankind is full of God? So I can see humankind but I cannot see God. The same is now. The whole universe is filled with God, the whole universe is filled with the Wisdom of God but we cannot see it. Sometimes we cannot see His wisdom. Sometimes we say to a non-believer who cannot see spiritual at all, “Look how our universe is balanced, how it is built, how precise it is, like the most complicated watch mechanism.” Someone created this gear wheel, started it and calculated the number of gear teeth to make it move, not to cumber but to push this mechanism. Our space is an extremely complicated being. There should be an Architect, Who…
How can something be created? First, you conjure up an idea in your head. Then this idea should be implemented into a project. Then workers build the construction according to this project and follow it precisely. If they deviate from the project, there will be cracks. Or even worse, it will be ruined. So, there is an Architect of all this world harmony.
You say it to a non-believer but he says, “It is just nature.” I ask immediately, “But nature, is it who or what?” If nature is only “what” then “what” cannot create wisdom, it can only be created by “who.” How can we understand it? There are half of the people who are from the period of the Soviet Union. We were like insane at that time, as God said, “Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive.”6 We looked at obvious things and understood nothing at all. Israeli people looked at Christ and saw nothing.
You know, I do not blaspheme, but as a sinful man, I understand the Israeli people. Unfortunately, if I put myself in that time span, I would see nothing as well. Or even worse, I would be among these tormentors and with a sense of righteous anger would think: how can this Man blaspheme God! I could be one of them.
What should there be to be able to see God? What do we need now to see God?
Someone mightsay, “We need the simplicity of Apostles. Clerisy was fastuous about their knowledge, Pharisees, Sadducees, but God came to simple Apostles and their simple heart accepted the Gospel easily.” But again I doubt it. How many dumb things do we do in our life because of our simplicity? We do dumb things with this simplicity of our soul. I think it is not only simplicity that we need here. Maybe simplicity is just a small detail. It has been thirty years already that I am a priest and I’ve come to this conclusion “Unless the LORD does, no one can do nothing. You may read all religious books and even learn the Gospel by heart. You will learn the text but will not be able to understand it. Or even worse, you will distort the meaning of it and understand it as you wish. It will be your own Gospel, not God but your own god, whom you create yourself. If God does not touch your heart and mind, you will understand nothing. Or even worse, you will get it wrong.
Once a woman told me, “Father Sergiy, it is so difficult to save your soul if you do not understand where the truth is.” I said, “It is not that scary. The scariest thing ever is when you know where the truth is and you go there as an armoured train, but the truth is not there in the end.” When you are sure where the truth is, but it is not actually there, then you are mistaken. “Do not put your trust in princes, nor in a son of man, in whom there is no help.”7 However, the most important thing is not to trust yourself. Do not trust your mind and your heart. Do not trust even your sincereness. Do not trust your repentance. All of these are distorted by sin. “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labour in vain to build it.” If God does not touch our mind, we will not understand anything. So put your mind to the background. I do not want to say that you should switch it off at all, God gave it to us for some reason. We should understand that we use our brain for quite earthy reasons: how to calculate the family budget, work, and bring up children. But in spiritual life we face very subtle things. The wisest disciple is not the one who learns something by himself but the one who seeks a teacher. Our teacher is God. Jesus, Jesus, enlighten my mind. I think that I understand everything but in fact, after all, I can see that I understand nothing and I ruined everything again.
What happened with centurion Longinus? Did he see something? We may say that he saw how nature trembled. But what, had no one seen this natural phenomenon at that time before? So, it was not about natural phenomenon. For some obscure reason, in this crowd of people, God chose this centurion and touched his heart. All of a sudden, his spiritual eyes were opened and he started to see.
One of the most readable prayers in Church is “O Heavenly King” which is addressed to the Holy Spirit. O Heavenly King, – we ask, – come and dwell in us,
and cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, o Good One. The Holy Spirit enlightens us, He saves us. It is not us who save, it is not us who enlighten. We are enlightened not by reading or studying but by the Holy Spirit.
Look how humbly the leper speaks in the Gospel. He comes and says these wonderful words. These words could not be made up and I am saying this for those who think that the Gospel was written intentionally. So the leper does not come to the Lord and say, “Heal me.” But how does he say it? “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean.”8 Look at this amazing humbleness. Not “Heal me” (Father Sergiy is shaking his fists). Very often, we come, write notes and demand from God, “Heal me, heal.” Once father George told me someone gave him a soul-paper about selling a flat. In a week this person came back, “No one even called!” You might have been sleeping all this week, father George. Look at the attitude which is completely different, “If You want, You may heal me.” Lord, if You are willing, You can solve the problem with my flat.
We do not properly understand our going to Church. That is great! I came to church. That is great! I got faith. I started keeping to the commandments of God. But it is not you! If not God Who touched your heart, you would go on walking about Gai and walk past church, you would not even look towards our temple. So God does something with us. When you do understand that it is not your merit but it is the mercy of the Lord that He chose you among millions of people, that is what happened to Longinus. In this case, you experience some affection, to tears, and there is no place for ignorance and vanity. “Thank you Lord, You are dragging me by the ears, You are dragging me and I am yet resisting. God, let me come next Sunday?” “But I invite you today.” “I have guests today, let me come next Sunday.” Look what He says next, “All right. Let it be next Sunday. But next Sunday we are going to have something else again.
The allegory of God and us, insane children, is the father of a prodigal son. He is not just sitting and waiting. Look, He cannot even wait, He leaves house, they tell Him, “Look, your ragged son, who drank himself broke, is coming. Not only did he drink himself broke, but he undermined your reputation because everybody knows whose son he is. And he defames your name, humiliates it. And this… piece of crap is coming back.” The Father cannot wait and He heads toward his son. Only then the son comes to himself and says, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”9 “If You are willing, You can make me clean.”
It was a miracle what happened to Longinus. But it was not the merit of Longinus, it was the great mercy of the Lord. Each of us experienced this miracle—we wandered to church. But it was not for our merit, it was the great mercy of the Lord. We came but we behave inappropriately. But He bears, He bears and heads toward us. Glory to Him, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen!