Acts 13:14, 43-52
Revelation 7:9, 14b-17
In the beginning of the book of Revelation there is a sevenfold series of messages to the churches of Asia minor and each message ends with a promise offered to “the one who conquers.” The reward is some variation on the theme of salvation offered by Christ, as in “to everyone who conquers I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in paradise” (Rev 2:7). In the reading for this Sunday, John presents us with an image of Christ seated upon his throne in the kingdom of heaven where he leads those who hear his voice “to springs of life-giving water.” But what does it mean to conquer and enter into this heavenly reward?
I have recently been reading from the sayings of the desert fathers, and reflecting on how Antony and the other early monks went out into the Egyptian desert to do battle with the evil thoughts and inclinations – or as they put it, with the demons – that they discovered within themselves. As Benedict states it in his Rule, the monastic is called “to do battle under the Lord Christ, the true King” (RB, Prologue). The asceticism that these monks undertook in order to direct their energies to contemplation of God and the struggles for moral perfection, or that Paul and Barnabas and the early Christians endured for the sake of the Gospel in Acts, are all undertaken in the hopes of conquering and entering into the kingdom of God promised by Christ.
And yet there is an inherent paradox in this drive within the Christian to conquer and attain one’s reward, for strictly speaking no human is capable of achieving such a lofty end by her own effort. Thus, the struggle for perfection has more to do with surrender than effort. Thomas Merton puts it well:
I am coming to think that God…loves and helps best those who are so beat and have so much nothing when they come to die that it is almost as if they had persevered in nothing but had gradually lost everything, piece by piece, until there was nothing left but God. Hence perseverance is not hanging on but letting go.
Thus, the moral and spiritual perfection sought by the Christian is a lifelong endeavor at letting go, of letting the self be stripped away until God’s light shines out clearly. It is for this reason that moral platitudes in teaching the moral life are mostly useless. What ultimately must be endured is the stripping away of the false self and allowing the original image of God to shine forth, and this calls for endurance in one thing only – surrender.