by Fr. Andrew Harmon
If St. Paul could speak to you today, I think he might say to you, “Have you been baptized?” And when you answered “yes” he would say, “Then you are freed from sin. You are no longer enslaved to sin.”
In Luke 8, the Gospel writer tells us about a woman with a serious illness-she had been bleeding severely for 12 years. She had tried everything to get well, had been to many doctors, but nothing helped. She was still sick. She had only one hope left, that Jesus Christ could heal her. And so she decided to get to Jesus to seek healing. She was going to get to Him even if He was surrounded by a close-pressing crowd. “As He went, the people pressed around Him.” But the woman was committed to getting to Him. And so she somehow pressed herself through that crowd. “And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and could not be healed by anyone, came up behind Him.” The crowding was so intense that the woman couldn’t get around to the front of Jesus so she could ask Him face to face to heal her. But she wouldn’t let that stop her. She squeezed through from behind until she had gotten as close as she could get, and then she did all she could do. She stretched out her arm through the crowd and managed to just touch Jesus’ robe with her fingertips-she “came up behind Him and touched the fringe of His garment.”
That was all she could do—touch his robe. So she did it and it worked! “...and immediately her flow of blood ceased.” She was healed on the spot! She had been so ill for so long. No one could help her-except Jesus. She went to Him, she touched Him, and she was healed.
I wish to use this beautiful story today as a springboard to talk about the healing that we need. I’m not talking about healing of physical illnesses, but about something worse than physical illnesses. I’m talking about being healed from sin. Sin is a worse problem for us than any physical problems we might have. St. John Chrysostom, our great father among the Saints, said this, “Only one thing is truly sad-sin.” Physical illnesses can be bad, but there is always somewhere a bright side to the story. With sin, there is no bright side, only sadness.
What sin do you need to be healed of?
Step one: Worry about your sins, not those of someone else
You may respond by saying by something like this—“Sure, I’m not perfect. I suppose I’ve got a few little sins, but nothing much. Certainly not nearly so bad as....” And then names could be filled in of people that we think are worse sinners than we are. But we shouldn’t worry about other people’s sins, only about our own.
Being a bill collector must be a most unpleasant job, calling people on the phone to tell them they’re behind on some bill or payment. I’m sure bill collectors frequently get a response like this: “Why are you calling me? I hardly owe anything compared to some other people-call them!” And the bill collector has to respond politely, but firmly, “Sir, there may be others in arrears, but I’m only calling about your bill.” So, step one in our getting healed from our sins is to only worry about our own sins, not those of other people.
Step two: Believe you can be free
Step two in having the Lord heal us from sin is to believe that we can be freed from the particular sin we wish to get rid of. God can forgive you. And God can change you. As Orthodox Christians, we don’t believe that a person has to keep sinning. The Saints didn’t keep sinning. They stopped sinning and became holy. And you don’t have to keep sinning, either.
In Romans 6, St. Paul writes that when we are baptized we die with Christ and are resurrected with Christ. And he says that when we died with Christ in Holy Baptism, we were set free from sin. As St. Paul wrote in verse 7 of chapter 6: “For he who has died is freed from sin.” And in the context of that passage he is definitely talking about how we die with Christ in baptism, not our physical deaths. And in verse 6, St. Paul wrote that we are baptized so that “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.”
If St. Paul could speak to you today, I think he might say to you---“Have you been baptized?” And when you answered “yes” he would say, “Then you are freed from sin. You are no longer enslaved to sin.” And the Church Fathers, as they interpret Romans 6, are clear about this. As baptized Christians we don’t have to sin. We may sin, but it’s a matter of our choosing to do so; we don’t have to. We are not slaves. We are free. In baptism, God gave us His power through His Holy Spirit (“the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit” as we say in the ceremony). And that power of God in us is powerful enough so that we are free to not sin.
You have that power of God in you if you were baptized, but maybe you haven’t been using it. A few years back in one of our big cities there was a woman known as “Garbage Mary." She was called this because she was seen every day picking through garbage cans and dumpsters looking for food. She was very thin, emaciated really, dirty, and wore not much more than rags. Those that saw her little apartment said it was a horrible, run-down place. She lived like this for years and became quite well known as “Garbage Mary." Then she became ill and had to be hospitalized. People in her neighborhood knew she had cats and reported this to the authorities. To make sure the cats didn’t starve while Mary was in the hospital the authorities went into her apartment. They found the cats and fed them but as they did a little investigating they found something else. Under the worn mattress of her bed, Garbage Mary had stashed away cash, stocks and bonds she had gotten when she was young. They added up to about a million dollars! And she had never used any of it.
Are we, spiritually speaking, like Garbage Mary? Having a wealth of spiritual power with us, but not using it? Just going ahead through life sinning away when God has given us the power and grace to stop sinning? I’m afraid so. And to change this sad situation, we have to take action.
The woman in Luke 8 knew that Jesus Christ had the power to heal her. So she decided to act and make use of His power. She forced her way through the crowd to get to Him and touched His robe.
The woman acted because she believed. So step two is to believe. And that leads right to step three.
Step three: take action
As you prepare to take action, sometimes a question comes up. What if I have more than one sin? Join the crowd! Pick the one or two sins in your life that are causing you the most trouble and concentrate on those first. You can concentrate on the rest later.
Make a personal commitment to beat the sin, having faith that because you are baptized, God’s power is with you to give you victory.
And then you “go to work”…… Let’s pick one sin to use as an example. I’ll pick one that I’m sure none of you have ever committed---the sin of gossip. Oh, some of you have done that?
Well, then I guess you can relate to this example! Now if gossip isn’t your particular weakness, just plug in yours whenever I use the word “gossip” in the next few minutes. Maybe your besetting sin is anger, or gluttony, or dishonesty, etc. The following still applies.
What I will do is to give you a general outline of how you can use God’s power to combat your sin-the details will vary for everyone, it can be quite involved in some such situations, it’s not something that easily pops into a simple outline. But I will try to give you a broad overview of the fight you need to make.
1. Go to Confession. There you will get some advice on your specific struggle with your particular sin (assuming you tell the priest some specifics!). The priest can give you advice tailor-made for your own struggle. And go frequently enough to Confession while the struggle is on so that a sense of accountability develops, because accountability will help you in the struggle, knowing you will soon again be talking to someone about your struggle helps you with your struggle. Don’t think priests are going to be surprised and shocked that you have sins to confess. Priests have sins, too (I doubt if you’re very surprised to hear that!) and go to Confession, too. They need advice and accountability just like you do.
2. Talk to a friend or mentor about your struggle, someone that is wise and sympathetic and can stay confidential. Again, more accountability results from this and that’s good!
3. Pray and self-examine every morning and night, at least. In the morning, think about the day ahead and what struggles you will face. Will I be tempted to gossip today? I’m going to spend some time with Aunt Mabel and she loves to talk about people. And am I going to be able to keep my mouth shut about some news I heard about someone? Figure out where “the crunch” will come today and brace yourself to not gossip when the situation arises. Pray hard for God to help you to not gossip and figure out exactly what you will do when the situation arises-and say some more prayers silently right when you’re with Aunt Mabel!
Then before you go to bed, review the day and pray some more. Did you have a victorious day or did you gossip? What caused you to give in? How can you do better next time? Pray and ask God to forgive you for when you sinned, to help you to be wiser and stronger the next day, and thank Him for what victories you had.
4. Analyze the temptations you face. When are you tempted to gossip? Where are you tempted to gossip? With whom are you tempted to gossip? What situations may you just have to avoid? Not so many visits to see Aunt Mabel, maybe. What situations can you still enter into as long as you stay aware enough of the battle you’re in with gossip? As you analyze, renew your decision to not let others-whether gossipers or the demons who tempt you-run your life for you. No one can make you gossip, no one can make you sin. So, in the Lord, take charge of your life.
5. Realize that it takes time to have victory. Some days you’ll do well and some days you’ll blow it and need to ask God to forgive you. Watch for small improvements from day to day, such as “Today I was tempted to gossip three times. It used to be I would have gossiped all three times. Today I did better and only sinned once.” Little improvements over a period of time will add up to your being different. And eventually, some day, hopefully only a little ways in the future, you will be able to say to yourself in all humility—”Thanks be to God! He has helped me and now I don’t gossip anymore.”
6. And then once you are free from the sin of gossip, God will speak to you through your conscience and say, “Now that you don’t gossip anymore, how about that other sin that you still have?” And then you get to start the whole process over again! That is a very good thing, as you continually go through this process and get rid of one sin after another, you are becoming a holy person!
It does take action. To just think how nice it would be to quit sinning, or to just talk about it, won’t help at all. We have to act. To quote St. John Chysostom again, “How is that sin can rule you? It’s not because sin is so powerful; it’s because you are so lazy!”
So, don’t be lazy about your sins, but take action!
And as you act, it’s important to remember, know, and believe what the Bible and Holy Tradition say-you don’t have to sin. You died to sin when you got baptized. Now the Holy Spirit is in you and He gives you the power to not sin.
But sin is still very, very strong. If we give it an inch in our lives, it takes a mile. And sin makes us forget what we know about the power of God.
Two pastors were visiting and started talking about a third pastor they knew well who usually joined them for coffee. But he was gone for good. The third pastor had gotten involved in an adulterous affair, got caught, and had been defrocked. One pastor said to another, “He seemed such an intelligent man. How did he think he could have gotten away with it? He was too smart for that.” The second pastor responded, “He was smart, but sin makes people stupid.”
Don’t let sin make you stupid. Stay smart. Remember what St. Paul says in Romans 6-we were baptized so “we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” If you were baptized you need be no slave to sin. You don’t have to sin. Allow Christ to heal you of your sin. Not just forgive you, but heal you so that the sin is gone.
The woman in the Gospel reading knew and believed that Christ could heal her. So she did what it took. Be like her-know, believe, and remember that Jesus Christ can heal you of your sin. And you can stop the sin. Act on that belief as the woman acted on her belief by touching Christ’s robe.
Fr. Andrew Harmon offered this homily on November 6, 2011, at his parish, St. Matthew the Evangelist Orthodox Church, North Royalton, Ohio.