Maximus Confessor

Maximus Confessor

Matthew 6:7-15

by Daniel Harrell

If you’ve been a Christian for a long time then you’ve been saying the Lord’s Prayer for a long time. I use the verb “say” rather than “pray” since for most of us long-timers, our over-familiarity with the Lord’s prayer lets all sorts of other thoughts waft through our minds as we rotely intone these words each Sunday. Usually the only time we pay attention is when we visit other churches; wondering whether they are “trespassers” or “debtors.” Here we remove the ambiguity by going with “sinners,” making some visitors squirm a bit. But we might as well say it like it is. Except that the words Jesus uses here are not the customary words for sins and sinners. Our pew Bible goes with “debts and debtors” because the words used are ones that imply obligation and gratitude more than simply sin. They underscore the assertion within the prayer that somehow our being gladly forgiven by God is contingent on our forgiveness of all those who have hurt and offended us (a point Jesus makes clear when he instructs right after the prayer, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Of course this is unrealistic and thus a good reason to recite rather than actually pray the Lord’s prayer.

As you heard this morning’s Scripture read, you likely caught another couple of deviations from the well-worn King James version, both in verse 13 (thanks to Park Street Church’s Gordon Hugenberger for some of his insights on this). Rather than “deliver us not into temptation,” we heard “do not bring us to the time of trial.” And then, instead of “deliver us from evil” we heard “rescue us from the evil one.” While the word for temptation can mean that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would God ever lead anybody into temptation? OK, so he did lead Jesus into temptation, but Jesus was a much better Christian than any of us are. He could take it. In fact, Christian theology insists Jesus had to take it. As the book of Hebrews declares, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Unfortunately for us, praying for God to not lead us into temptation is a waste of time. It never works. Every day we’re tempted to do something we shouldn’t do, and unlike Jesus, we usually give in. And God lets it happen. Maybe we need to be praying for something else.

Evil is similar to temptation. We encounter it everyday too. Evil’s existence remains the foremost argument against the existence of God. If God is good, how can evil happen? But as with temptation, for some reason, God allows not only a snake in the grass but satanic access to his people all through the pages of Scripture. Not only does the Lord let the serpent infest the garden of Eden and mess up that paradise, but he lets Satan broker a deal to ruin the Job’s life. Christians may write these accounts off as wisdom teachings to ease the dissonance, but you can’t do that with the gospels. In Luke, for instance, just before Peter thrice denied Jesus’ existence, Jesus says that Satan asked for permission to “sift you like wheat.” “Wheat” is an oft-employed allusion to having your faith put on trial, and the “you” is actually plural, meaning that Satan has asked permission to sift everybody, not just Peter. More disturbing is the fact that Jesus, like God, grants Satan the permission, with the only caveat being that he’ll say a prayer for Peter so that once Peter turned back, he’d strengthen his fellow disciples. Repentance means to “turn back” and it is always followed by grace. And if you’ve ever really experienced grace, you’re always stronger for it. In this way, God exploits Satan for his own purposes.

Satan gets access to Judas too, but with less favorable results. Judas betrays Jesus and never turns back, showing himself to be worthless chaff rather than wheat (though God ultimately exploited Satan’s intentions here too). Enlightened congregations don’t like hearing about Satan, what with the whole pitchfork, horns and pointy tail imagery. And Satan probably likes it that way. But not Jesus. Knowing our hearts, that given the chance most of us would end up more like Judas than Peter, Jesus has us pray that we not even go there: “lead us not into a time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.” Of course there are times when trials come anyway, even when we sincerely pray otherwise. But like with Peter, those times may be necessary. As Maximus the Confessor wrote in his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, “When you suffer intensely from [failure and] disgrace, realize that this can be of great benefit to you, for disgrace is God’s way of driving pride away.”

Maximus Confessor believed that by praying  the Lord’s Prayer we step into the very inner life of God. We get access to the Trinitarian communication between Jesus and the Father through the Holy Spirit. The words may feel rote most Sundays, but we’ll take them to our deathbeds. In the end, because Jesus prayed them, these words are our assurance of kingdom come, God’s will as done, sins forgiven and the Evil One forever defeated. They preview our own deification, to use Maximus’ words; that is, our own redemption into the likeness of Jesus. In the end, God makes us actual partakers of the divine nature” according to Peter; “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” according to Jesus.

Maximus Confessor is this morning’s Church Father starting with the Letter M, the second of three personalities whose lives and work significantly shaped the faith we confess today. Last Sunday we took an ironic look at Marcion of Sinope, ironic because it was in opposition to Marcion that the church settled on what we now know as our Bible. Next Sunday we’ll literally look at the art of Michelangelo, the inspired creator of some of the world’s most enduring beauty.

Inasmuch as Scripture speaks of “running the race” as an analogy for faithfulness   (and this being the last day of the London Olympics), we might describe Maximus Confessor as the Usain Bolt of his day. Historians regard him as the “most significant theologian of the seventh century,” with one historian going so far as to single him out as “the century’s only productive thinker.” Nobody else even makes it onto the platform. However given all that Maximus had to endure, we might better compare him to Manteo Mitchell. For one, you probably don’t know who Manteo Mitchell is. But if you do, then you know that while Bolt was setting world records, Mitchell broke his leg while running to qualify in the preliminary round of the 4X400-meter relay–and kept on running. If he had stopped, the United States would have been ineligible for Friday’s final and the silver medal it eventually won. “I didn’t want to let my team down, so I just ran on it,” Mitchell said. Confronted with crippling opposition his whole life, Maximus kept on running too.

Maximus is one of the few personalities embraced by both Eastern and Western branches of Christendom–by Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants alike. He was born to well-to-do parents in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), went to all the best schools, and as a young man secured a prominent position in the court of the Byzantine Emperor. However, after just three years on the job, he resigned to become a monk, much to the consternation of his family and the Emperor. Though it’s not as if folks thought Maximus threw his life away, giving up on his talents to pray and make jam and jelly all day. To be monk in the seventh century was to step into the furiously contentious fray of theology. In those days, the fights were not over the economy, the role of government or Chick-fil-a sandwiches. Instead, people ferociously fought over the true identity of Jesus.

As Christians so many centuries since, we easily affirm Jesus as one person with two natures, human and divine. And this doesn’t bother us, maybe because like saying the Lord’s prayer, we don’t really think about the implications. How is it possible for a human being to be fully God? On the one hand, Jesus was clearly a flesh and blood person, like you and me. A historical figure, he was born and walked and talked and ate and did most everything else we humans do. On the other hand, Jesus was God incarnate, and thus he did things no human ever did—talked to demons, walked on water, fed multitudes, changed the weather and raised the dead. If a man is God, is he really a man? God’s not a man. And God doesn’t sin. But what man doesn’t sin? God doesn’t die. But Jesus died. How can Jesus be God?

Early Christians tried all sorts of options for making this work, from Jesus having a split personality to his being a human body with a divine soul or even one where Jesus’ presence on earth was more like a mirage. Predictably, the debate devolved into the various sides labeling the other as heretics. It wasn’t until the Council of Chalcedon convened in the fifth century that the matter was technically resolved. Led by Pope Leo the Great (one of last summer’s Letter L’s), the Council concluded the importance of Jesus’ uniqueness as the one and only person ever with two natures. Strange to be sure,  but no stranger than the Doctrine of Trinity affirming God as three persons with one nature.

Yet just because the Church decided it didn’t mean that everybody suddenly went along with it. The conflict raged on for the next three centuries so that by the seventh century, weary of the conflict, many felt the time had come for compromise. Fine, they said, Jesus had two natures, divine and human, but only one will, the will of God. Jesus had a human nature alright (making the Chalcedonians happy), just not one that could do what it wanted (to the satisfaction of everyone else). Except for Maximus. How do you compromise on reality? It’d be like saying the earth is flat, or in our day, that this summer wasn’t really that hot. A fully human nature has to have a fully human will or it’s not fully human. And if Jesus was not fully human then he could not be genuinely tempted. And if he could not be genuinely tempted then he could not be genuinely obedient. If he could not be genuinely obedient then the cross is a joke and we’re still stuck in our sins and humanity remains unredeemed.

But Jesus was tempted: by the Evil One in the desert, by the Evil One who through Peter’s mouth enticed him to stay away from the cross, and by the Evil One in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus submits his human will to God’s will and obediently takes the cruciform way of injustice for the sake of grace. God’s will was done in every case. To pray “thy will be done” is not always a prayer for harps and heavenly bliss. It is also a frightening prayer for the hard road of righteousness. To pray for God’s will is to pray for the courage and faith to yield to it, whatever it might be. Maximus wrote that such submission to God is possible only through loving God, a love that mysteriously blends affection with fear. “Fear devoid of affection ends up as hatred,” he wrote. But “affection without prudent fear ends up as presumption. …. The mystery of salvation belongs to those who desire it, not to those who are forced to submit to it.”

For Maximus, the ultimate expression of love is worship. To worship is to submit gladly. In worship, as the instruments swell, as songs are sung and prayers are prayed, all in the presence of a community and surrounded by beauty, we can get caught up, literally and powerfully, to places of heavenly rapture where submission and love are indistinguishable. According to Maximus, to worship God does his will on earth as it is in heaven. It makes us like the angels whose constant worship of God infuses everything else. Even to the point of solving our fiercest conflicts. “Who knows,” Maximus asked, “how God is made flesh and yet remains God?” And then answering his own question, he wrote, “Only faith understands, adoring the Lord in silence.” By silence, Maximus meant that inexpressible wonder that worship evokes; that place where words no longer work. Not even the words of orthodox theology, for which Maximus contended and suffered his whole life, could adequately encompass the mystery of faith. He wrote, “The perfect mind is the one that through genuine faith supremely knows in supreme ignorance the supremely unknowable.” Faith is like love–to overanalyze it only ruins it. Some realities can only be known on our knees.

In regard to the Lord’s Prayer, Maximus wrote, “The aim of the prayer should direct us to the mystery of deification so that we might know from what things Jesus’ own submission through the flesh kept us away and from whence and where he brought up the strength of his gracious hand for those of us who had reached lowest point of the universe where the weight of sin had confined us. Let us love more intensely the one who wisely prepared for us such a salvation. By what we do let us show that the Lord’s prayer is fulfilled, and manifest and proclaim that by grace God is truly Our Father who art in heaven and whose will is done. Let us show clearly that we do not at all have as a father of our life the Evil One who, by the dishonorable passions, always tries to impose tyrannically his dominion over nature. Let us not unwittingly exchange life for death.”

Maximus’ refusal to budge on the two natures of Jesus by going along with the “one will” solution led to his eventual exile, arrest, trial and conviction. His tongue, by which he had gone on confessing two wills in Christ, and his right hand, with which he refused to sign the compromise doctrine, were cut off. His title “Confessor” testifies to his steadfastness in confessing what has endured as the faith of the whole church regarding Jesus: fully human like us and fully God for us, on earth as it is in heaven.