homily for 11/29/20 – peace on earth

Eph. 4:1-6

As we come into the holiday season, one of the recurring themes that we will hear and see over and over is the cry of the angels to the shepherds announcing the birth of the messiah – the appeal for “peace on earth” and “goodwill to men”.  Indeed this appeal is good and one to which we should pay attention.  But as we look around the world, we don’t really see this “peace on earth”, instead all around us there are “wars and rumors of war”.  Not only our own wars, but it seems as though everywhere that you look in the world someone is at war – there is some kind of strife and conflict and someone is in danger.  Then of course we have the wars on our streets with riots threatening the safety and well being of the people innocent or not who find that they are in the midst of hostility.  We have the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, the war on anything and everything that is perceived as a threat.  We live, now more than ever, in a “world at war”.  Even though there may not be a single global conflict (such as the “world wars” of the past century), still the whole outlook of the world, of all the people in the world is “war”.  And as if wars weren’t enough, now we have the “pestilence” of the coronavirus and the plague that makes us suspicious of one another and isolates us still further.  Nor do we see “good will toward men”.  In the aftermath of a contentious election, political strife still dominates our lives.  We accuse one another, we hold grudges against one another, we build emotional walls to keep others away.  Jealously we guard our privacy, our possessions, our rights, even our identities from those who would try and take these things away.  We treat others not with “good will” but with suspicion and fear.  The good news of the angelic choir announcing “peace on earth” and “good will to men” is drowned out by the clamor and ruin of war, natural disaster and pestilence; locked away outside the walls of our personal fortresses.

Whence does this war and fear and suspicion originate?  It comes from our sin – our sin which creates a condition of alone-ness of separateness from every other person.  We are divided from one another and so we are at war, we are afraid, we are suspicious of everything that is “not me.”  This isolation extends even to God Himself, our Creator, our Lord, our beloved Father.  He too is excluded from our lives and we are “at war” with Him, preserving our own ego and self-will from His transforming and all encompassing love.  This tragedy of separation, of isolation and hence of war and fear and suspicion is the heritage of our fallen and sinful nature.  How then can we be rescued, how can we be restored to the oneness and unity with God and our neighbor in which we were created?

Today in the Epistle to the Ephesians, we heard the word of the Apostle Paul, “walk worthy of [your] calling…endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace.  There is one body, one Spirit…, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”  Here he declares to us that the cure for our isolation and separation from God and one another is in the oneness and unity of life that we find only in Jesus Christ.  To live in that unity is our calling, it is our purpose and the destiny for which we were created.  We, who are alone, sacrifice ourselves, our self-will, our desires, our possessions, our lives of isolation and individuality – through self denial and ascending the cross with Christ, we give up these things and die to the world.  The exchange is that in having died to the world, we gain the life of Christ and are alive not only now in our own selves, but also alive to Jesus Christ, to the Kingdom of Heaven and to our fellow citizens there, the members of the one Body of Christ.  We give up our life of isolation and fear, and the wars and suspicions that come from it and instead we are given the life of Christ, full of light and love and unity with God and with our brethren.

Only in Jesus Christ is there truly “peace” and “good will” for only in Jesus Christ is there one-ness and unity.  He is our only help, our only hope.  He is the only source of peace and the only fountain of good will.  Through Him we are called to love God and to love our neighbor and it is His love and grace that fills us, enabling us to fulfill that calling.  It is the love of God that creates unity with God and it is the love of God that fills us and which creates unity with our neighbor.  These things we have in Christ and nowhere else.

Many years ago, prior to the second world war, the nation of Italy began to make war upon the tiny nation of Abyssnia (modern Ethiopia) in Africa.  This tiny nation was no match for the might of arms and modern weapons brought to bear by Italy and so in desperation the King of that tiny country came to the League of Nations to beg for international assistance.  But he was not heard and when he realized that no help would be forthcoming, he lifted up his hands to heaven and said, “O Lord of heaven and earth!  The nations of the earth have left your people unprotected.  We can expect help from nowhere.  You remain our only protector!”  And the Psalmist also reminds us, “put not your trust in the princes of men for in them there is no salvation … blessed is he whose hope is in the Lord.”

We are united to one another in Christ and in that unity we find true peace and goodwill.  This then is our calling, to live in unity within the kingdom of God.  We truly have “one body, one Spirit…, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.”  We are of one family, one body – that is the Body of Christ, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  Within the Church we are united to one another and whenever we create or maintain disunity or strife or scandal within the Body, then we are in error.  To cut ourselves off from the Church, through heresy or schism or simple rebellion, is to cut ourselves off from Jesus Christ and to deny the oneness of the life that He gives.  We are called not to hate and fear one another and to hold grudges against one another but rather we are called to love one another, to forgive one another (even 70×7).  When there is strife within the Body of Christ, we should strive to be the first to ask forgiveness, the first to offer the embrace of brotherly love.  It is in this spirit that the Apostle instructs us to “walk worthy of [your] calling, with lowliness (that is humility), gentleness, longsuffering, and bearing with one another in love”  All this is accomplished not by our own strength, our own ability, or our own will but instead it is accomplished by the one Holy Spirit Who dwells within us.  We share God Himself, the Holy Spirit living in us and this is the one Spirit of which the Apostles speaks.  United together in the one Body by the one Spirit we then naturally have one Lord – our Lord Jesus Christ.  We have one faith, that is the path of salvation that our one Lord Jesus Christ sets before us and we set foot on that path by sharing in one and the same baptism, the sacrament of rebirth by which we die to the world and are reborn into the Kingdom of God.  By this process of regeneration and healing, we are restored to the unity with which we were created, as the children of the one God and Father of us all.

Whenever you hear the angelic salutation, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” this holiday season let it bring to mind this great calling to which you have been called.  Peace and goodwill have come to us and are opened to us through our unity with the one Lord Jesus Christ, bound together by the one Holy Spirit and living in the family and household of the one God and Father of us all.

A Random thought: Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories abound!  And they all have one theme – that somehow, someone (or some group) who is powerhungry and secretive will hatch a plot to enslave all of us poor unsuspecting fools.  Whether this is simply by the introduction of a mysterious illness, or the infestation of electronic watchers in our homes and on our persons, or perhaps the introduction of a “microchip” into the body or doing away with cash or the corrupting of society or whatever, these theories abound.  And they are in fact probably all true to some extent (since the best lie is mostly true).  The point of these theories and our reaction to them is a distraction, to get us all caught up in exposing the truth and resisting the lie and protecting our possessions, rights and dignity and thereby to hide the real danger – that is the danger to our souls.

The perpetrator(s) of these plots, those powerful, secretive people, are seen as “evil” and the servants of the antichrist.  They are opening the door for the antichrist to come and dominate the world and to enslave all of us poor unsuspecting fools and lead us to hell and so we must oppose them.  And that is just wrong.

Yes, there may indeed be such a plot out there and there may be some evil person or persons who wish to enslave us. They may even be in league with the devil.  But do not fear them or what they can do.  They can enslave the body, but they cannot steal the soul.  Fear instead the one who we willingly will accept as our “savior” from these evil people who will deceive us into thinking that he is the deliverer from the antichrist, that he is our salvation.  Western Christianity and culture has been “prepped” for generations to beware the evil antichrist and his servants and to fight against him.  The prophecies have been interpreted and reinterpreted and enhanced and dissected and preached about the propagated over and over again until there is now no clarity and the message has been distorted and even destroyed.  But still we know that we have to watch out for the evil antichrist.  The devil, knowing all this (and in fact has very possibly been behind all this) will contrive to give to us exactly the antichrist that we have been waiting for – the antichrist of our fantasies and dreams.  And seeing this ultimate evil, we will oppose him with all our might and in the process neglect that which is truly important – the salvation of our souls.  We will turn from following Christ to opposing the antichrist (these are NOT the same thing).

And then, just as our opposition seems to be almost overwhelmed, there will appear a savior, one who will not only oppose this antichrist, but who will defeat him and set us all free from his oppression.  And then the “enemy of my enemy” will be received by one and all with relief and open arms.  All the opponents of the so called antichrist will embrace the new savior and even begin to consider him to be the Christ, the Savior of the world.  He will usher in a new prosperity, a new paradise and no one will oppose him, but they will willingly serve him as their liberator and savior.  And this so called “savior” will be the one whom we who love Christ should fear – for he will not destroy the body, but will indeed destroy the soul, for he is the true antichrist.  The true antichrist will defeat the false antichrist and all will be deceived and will sell their souls to him willingly .

The only way that we can avoid the deception of the evil one is to follow Christ.  We are not called to create or defend the perfect society; we are not here to preserve our rights and freedoms; we are here to work out our salvation in humility and repentance.  We are not here to shout defiant condemnations, but rather to quietly beg our Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on us, to confess our sins, to repent and weep over our sins.  This is the only way that we can avoid the deception of the evil one. 

Don’t get caught up in the fervor of exposing the deception of the evil plots of the super-rich and the super-powerful.  Don’t lose yourself in defending the things of this world (including your “rights”).  All these things are nothing more than a powerful distraction and deception pulling us away from the one thing needful. The devil is a liar and the father of lies; he is a master of deception.  If you spend your energy and time trying to understand his devices and expose him, then you too will be caught up in the web of deceit and will fall prey to him.  Don’t underestimate our enemy – he is more intelligent than you, he is stronger than you and much, much more deceitful that you could ever imagine.  Spend your energy, your time, your resources in repenting.  Sell all that you have, give it to the poor and follow Christ. Abandon the defenses against worldly enemies and instead flee to Christ.  Only by focusing on the Truth will the lie lose its power over you.  Forget the evil one, ignore him, and instead seek out the Truth, follow Him, join yourself to Him – this is the only way that we can be saved.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Homily for 11/15/2020 – God loves you

Ephesians 2:4-10

Luke 8:26-39

“And God, Who is rich in mercy, for His great love wherewith He has loved us…”

God loves you; God loves you so greatly that even while we were yet immersed in sin, still He came to us and delivered us and raised us up that He might show us the exceeding riches of His grace.  This is important to remember at all times, and especially in difficult times when it seems that God is far away.  Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, but, in our weakness we sometimes fail to perceive God’s closeness and care for us.

The God/man our Lord Jesus Christ came to city of the Gergesenes and was greeted not by the citizens of city, but by a naked, hostile, demon possessed madman who lived in among the graves of the dead for there was no place for him among the living.  Perhaps another person might have turned around and went to a more hospitable place, but Jesus approached the madman and looking beyond the fearsome exterior, He saw the tormented soul of this man and had compassion on him.  Jesus did not condemn this man, nor did He fear him, but He drove out the demons which were tormenting the man who then fled into a herd of swine grazing nearby.  The demons caused the swine to go into a frenzy, run off a nearby cliff and drown in the sea.  The pigs were lost, but the man was healed, now clothed and in his right mind.  Only at this point did the citizens of the town come out to see Jesus – and at seeing the former madman delivered of his madness and healed, they took almost no notice.  What they did see was that their herds of swine had run off the cliff into the sea and were drowned.  Rather than glorifying God that their neighbor was healed, they saw only their drowned swine and grieved the loss that those animals represented.  They asked Jesus to leave their city – to go back whence He had come because they didn’t want to risk losing even more than they already had.

Here is an example of God’s great love for us.  When He comes to us He is greeted by our nakedness (the nakedness that Adam and Eve tried to hide), by our hostility and rage, and by the ugliness of our situation.  His love is so great however, that He doesn’t go away waiting for us to get our act together, but reaches out even in the midst of our madness and rage and heals us.  He frees us from the tyranny of sin that has hold of us that He might then raise us up to heaven and share with us the riches of His grace – indeed that we might be filled with His divine Light and live in eternal union and communion with Him.

This loving-kindness of God towards us is not just a theoretical or general compassion for mankind, but it is personal to each of us.  When God comes to you, He sees past the ugliness of your sin, of your fear, of your enslavement and torment.  He is not driven away by your hostility toward Him.  He sees not the ugly exterior, but sees to the heart; He sees your pain; He sees your disappointment; He sees your fear, He sees your sorrow and despair.  He sees the one that He created, the one that He loves underneath all of that ugliness and hostility and He is moved by His divine Love and compassion.  He reaches out and releases you from your captivity and restores you to the path of salvation.  He gives you again the ability to choose Him and to leave behind your former life of enslavement.  Like the former madman, He clothes you with His grace and makes a place for you beside Himself.

God loves you and He has prepared a place for you.  That place is not only an idea or a hope, but a reality.  God showed us what He has planned for us – those “exceeding riches of grace” – in His Transfiguration.  The three apostles, Peter, James and John were granted a vision of our Lord appearing as a heavenly man in the company of the saints.  This is not only a demonstration of His glory and His divinity, but it is also a picture of our hope, our destiny, our salvation.  We too shall participate in His glory, we too shall shine with the divine light, as did He, we too shall be transformed in such a manner.  This is our salvation, the transformation, the transfiguration of our own being by being filled with the grace and light of the divine energies.  In this transformation we shall fully participate in the life of Christ and be united with Him.

This transformation is worked in us by the grace of God.  We acquire this grace by living the life of righteousness, the life that God provides for us through the Church.  St Seraphim related to his disciple, “As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, they are only the means for acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.” … “ God the Word, the God-Man, our Lord Jesus Christ, compares our life with a market, and the work of our life on earth He calls trading, and says to us all: ‘Trade till I come (Lk 19:13), redeeming the time, because the days are evil (Eph 5:16)’, that is to say, make the most of your time for getting heavenly blessings through earthly goods.  Earthly goods are good works done for Christ’s sake and conferring on us the grace of the All-Holy Spirit.”

Grace is the gift of God, it is not the “natural” result of works, but rather God uses our works to bestow His grace on us.  His grace is planted in our hearts, like the seed of the sower of which hear in the parable, and there it rests, growing and spreading in accordance with our cooperation with its actions.  Like the leaven hidden the lump of dough, that grace spreads throughout our whole being and begins the work of our transformation.  St Seraphim, in speaking about the effects of grace, describes grace as the light and warmth of the Holy Spirit.  It is light in that it enlightens the soul, opening our understanding and the eyes of the heart to perceive the presence of God, to hear His voice and comprehend His Truth.  It is the warmth of love for God and for our neighbor – a warmth so great that we are enabled even to love our enemies.  This grace is the light of Tabor, the light that shone so brightly from our Lord at His transfiguration that the apostles fell on their faces to the ground.  This same light of grace was evident on the face of the Prophet Moses when he descended from Mt Sinai having spoken with God and taking from His hand the tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments.  This same light of grace was seen millennia later in the face of St Seraphim as he spoke with his spiritual son. “Then Fr Seraphim took me very firmly by the shoulders and said: ‘We are both in the Spirit of God now, my dear.  Why don’t you look at me?’  I replied: ‘I cannot look Batiushka, because lightning is flashing from your eyes.  Your face has become brighter than the sun, and my eyes ache with pain.’  I glanced at his face and there came over me an even greater reverent awe.  Imagine in the center of the sun, in the dazzling light of its midday rays, the face of a man talking to you.  You see the movement of his lips and the changing expression of his eyes, you hear his voice, you feel someone holding your shoulders; yet you do not see his hands, you do not even see yourself or his figure, but only a blinding light spreading far around for several yards …” This visible light is only an outward evidence of the grace which abides in the hearts of the saints.  The fathers teach us that this miraculous light of grace is indeed the uncreated energies of our God – and by the presence of that grace in us, we are transformed, transfigured and we shine with the uncreated light of Christ and are united with God Himself, through grace participating in His life. 

When God comes to us He sees us naked, hostile, out of control and living in the graves as though dead.  There is nothing in us that would attract Him, and yet He loves us and reaches out to us.  He sees us not as we appear, ugly and repulsive, but He sees us as we can become when transformed by His grace.  He frees us from the passions and the sin which enslave us and offers us instead His grace.  All we have to do is reach out and begin to acquire that grace.  As we gather this grace, He himself will transform us.  This transformation is not anything we can do of our own strength; He accomplishes this by His grace.  We only act on our faith – faith that He loves us, faith that He is there to rescue us from our sins, faith that every time we reach out to Him, He is there ready to receive us.  By faith, we fast and pray; by faith we resist temptation; by faith we repent trusting that He is ready to forgive us; by faith we receive the sacraments.  By faith we gather His grace and we are transformed, no longer ugly, naked, hostile and living in darkness – but we are clothed with His divine light, we are filled with His love, we radiate the beauty of His countenance. 

While we were yet sinners – while we were still ugly, naked and hostile – Christ loved us and came to free us from our sin and to fill us with His grace, transforming us into His likeness and uniting us to Himself.  God loves you and desires your salvation.  He raises you up to sit in the heavenly places that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness towards you.

homily for 11/1/2020 – St Varus; Don’t live in fear

During the reign of the Roman Emperor Maximian, there was a great persecution of Christians.  The Emperor had issued a decree that anyone who would not offer sacrifice to the gods be put to death. There was a soldier in Egypt – the commander of the regiment at Tanis – who was a secret Christian.  Out of fear, he hid his faith in the One True God, but still when Christian prisoners were brought in to be martyred, out of Christian compassion, this soldier would bribe the guards to allow him to come in and care for the prisoners.  He would give them food to eat, clean their wounds and beg them to pray that the Lord Jesus Christ would have mercy upon him.  For a time, he was able to continue this compassionate service to those who were about to be martyred.  It happened that at one time seven teachers of the Christian faith who were desert dwellers were brought before the Prince, who finding them to be firm in their faith, had them flogged and thrown into prison.  As was his custom this soldier came to care for the prisoners and to beg them to pray for him.  These great teachers of the Christian faith themselves began to teach and strengthen the soldier, encouraging him to join them in their martyrdom.  They said to him, “Beloved, no one who is fearful can attain perfection, nor can he reap who does not sow.  … Come, O brother, and tread with us the path of martyrdom, which leads to the Master, Who looks down upon our struggles…”

Hearing these things the heart of this soldier was set afire with the love of God and he passed the whole night listening to the teaching of these elders and resolved to share in their martyrdom.  When morning was come and the guard came to take the prisoners back to the Prince to continue their torture, they were surprised to find the soldier still there.  When they asked him what he was doing there, he declared that he too was a Christian.  The guard then took six of the prisoners, the seventh having expired in the night from his wounds, and brought them before the Prince.  When the Prince saw that there were only six prisoners, he asked, “Where is the seventh?” Before an answer could be made, the soldier stepped in and declared, “I am the seventh.  The other has finished his course and now I am here to take his place, for I am a Christian.”  When the Prince heard this, he asked his servants “Who is this man?”  They replied “It is the soldier Varus, the commander of the company at Tanis.”  The Prince commanded that Varus be suspended from a tree and put to torture which was so severe that he rapidly approached death, calling out to the elders to pray for him one last time as he entered into the heavenly Kingdom.  This soldier martyr, Varus, is remembered today.  Just in time for his remembrance, his icon has been placed here on the wall of our Church. 

It is good to remember the words of the elders to the martyr as he cared for their wounds in prison, “no one who is fearful can attain perfection…”  Indeed this is true and a very important word for us today.  We seem to live our lives in a constant state of fear – fear for our health, fear for our safety, fear for our wealth, and so on.  In the end, we fear two things and that fear spreads to everything else.  We fear suffering and death.  But for a Christian this fear is unfounded for we are called to a life of suffering – we are called to take up our cross, to die and give up our lives for Jesus Christ.  Suffering, while it is not pleasant, is in fact the means by which our purification and perfection is accomplished.  For us to suffer for Christ is the sign of God’s working in us.  He has promised us that He will give us all that is necessary in this life and that He will not permit us to suffer unnecessarily or beyond our ability to bear the cross. As for the fear of death, let us recall the glorious Paschal troparion that we sang: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”  Death has been defeated, it’s power over us has been broken. Even though we will all undergo physical death in the separation of the soul from the body, that death holds no fear for us for it is through this door that we enter into the Kingdom of God.  The Holy Apostle Paul himself was torn between the need to remain in this life to care for the flock of Christ and his desire to depart to be with Christ.  This great desire came from the all-consuming love for God which filled his soul, and indeed his whole being.  Here is the antidote for fear; here is its opposite: love.  To love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind and with all our strength.  This perfect love then casts out fear and we need no longer fear suffering or death, we need no longer fear loss or sickness, we need no longer fear anything in the world for we know that God Himself loves us and provides for us all that we need and will bring us in the end into His Kingdom.  This kind of love gives us courage, boldness and confidence in the providence of God.

Now this does not mean that we should not stop doing that which is prudent or taking measures that are within our strength to avoid misfortune in this world.  All that we have, all that we are is a gift from God and it is now our responsibility to take care of that which He has given us and to use it for our salvation.  But no matter what we do, we must always remember that our efforts will never be sufficient, even to “protect” ourselves and that we must always rely upon God’s help and care for us.

An example of this kind of care and the unknowable provision of God is given to us in the second part of the life of the Martyr Varus.  After he was cut down from the tree where he died, the martyr’s body was thrown into the refuse pile to be devoured by beasts.  But there was in the city a Palestinian woman, the widow of a military officer who had died in Egypt. This woman, Cleopatra, was herself a Christian and having witnessed the martyrdom of Varus, came and took his body, burying it secretly under the floor of her house.  She prayed before his grave every day, keeping a lamp lit and offering incense to God on his behalf.  After some time she petitioned the Prince for permission to take her husband’s body and return to her home in Palestine there to bury him with her family.  Being granted this request, Cleopatra did not take the body of her husband, but rather took in its place the body of the Martyr Varus.  After she buried him in her home near Mt Tabor, she continued to keep a lamp lit at his grave to pray daily for his help.  At the grave of the Martyr, many were healed and soon the widow was able to build a Church nearby in his honor.  She had, at that time, an only son, John, who was nearly of age to enter military service himself.  She had arranged for her son to be accepted as an officer in the Roman army and he was given the insignia of his rank.  Before he could leave his home, however, his mother arranged for him to assist in carrying the relics of the Martyr Varus from his grave into the Church that had been built for him.  Cleopatra prayed before the relics of the Martyrs saying, “… ask God for that which is profitable for me and for mine only son.  I dare not ask for anything more than what the Lord Himself willeth, for He knoweth what is needful for us. May His good and perfect will be done in us.” Having secured the Martyr’s place a great feast was held; Cleopatra and her son served the guests waiting until all had eaten before they themselves took some food.  John suddenly began to fall very ill, unable even to eat and Cleopatra came to his side begging St Varus with tears to care for her son.  At midnight, however, her son died and she began to weep inconsolably.  Bitterly she cried out to the Martyr saying, “Is this how you rewarded me for my labors on your behalf?  Is this the succor which you have provided me? … Either give me my son back or take me as well without delay for I can endure this bitter sorrow no longer.”

Cleopatra remained weeping by the relics of the saint and there fell asleep.  As she slept, she beheld the Saint in a dream who had brought with him her son arrayed in shining white vesture, girded with golden belts and crowns upon their heads.  St Varus said to her, “Do you suppose that I have forgotten the good works you did on my behalf in Egypt and in this place? … I have prayed to the good God and in His ineffable kindness, He has numbered your son among the host of heaven.  Would you rather that he serve an earthly king and receive earthly rewards or that he serve the heavenly and eternal King?”  Awakening from her sleep Cleopatra’s sorrow was turned into joy and she herself sold all that she had and gave it to the poor, renouncing the world and living beside the Church, she served God in prayer and fasting for another seven years and was taken to join her son and the Holy Martyr in the presence of God.

What an unexpected turn of events!  The widow Cleopatra, begged the Martyr that he would pray to Christ God on behalf of herself and her son fully expecting that the next day her son would depart to his service in the Roman army and that he would then care for her in her old age.  But instead the providence of God was such that her son was taken not into the service of an earthly king but into the service of the Heavenly King and prepared to care for her not in her old age in the world but to care for her in eternity in the presence of God.  Everything that she had hoped for in this world was taken from her in the instant of her son’s death – but in exchange she received heavenly wealth and joy beyond measure when she embraced the will and provision of God.  This is our task as well, to take all that we have and to use it as well as we can (just as Cleopatra cared for herself and her son) but then to offer our efforts, our profits, our desires to God as a sacrifice and to embrace His provision.  If we do this, if we rely only upon God and gladly accept all that He gives to us, then we too will overcome fear with the love of God and will receive eternal heavenly joy which wipes away all the passing sorrow of this world. 

Do not live in fear – remember that God’s perfect love casts out all fear.  Therefore, strive to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and will all your strength. Ask God to give you  this divine love and He will not fail to do so.  Prepare yourself not for this world, but to stand in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven and offer to Him an unending sacrifice of praise.

Homily for 10/19/2020 – Faith and the Commandments of Christ

Luke 6:31-36

In his letter to the Hebrews, the Apostle Paul gives a final blessing, which we heard today.  He says, “May the God of Peace render you perfect in every good work, doing in you His will and that which is well pleasing to Him.”  The great thrust of this epistle has been to demonstrate how the Law and the Prophets lead to Christ and are fulfilled in Him and to emphasize the central necessity of faith by which we are saved.  Now here at the end, the Apostle asks God to render us perfect in the doing of His will – in other words he shifts the emphasis from faith to works.  But this is not really a shift – it is in fact a rendition of what the Apostle James also says that “faith without works is dead”.  We cannot have faith without works, nor can we have any works of righteousness, pleasing before God, without faith.  These two things go together.

Faith – that is what we believe – informs our works, it shapes how we live our life, what choices we make.  If indeed we believe Jesus Christ, then we will work diligently to order our lives according to His commandments and be careful to do that which He instructs us.  We have to have faith in order to have works which are effective and living.  However, if we say we have faith, but do not make that faith real in our lives by what we do and how we live, then our faith is nothing but empty words and has no real life.  Our works reflect our faith and they actualize our faith, making it real in ourselves.

The Apostle Paul here emphasizes the doing of God’s will – not just in a satisfactory manner, but in a perfect manner; “may God render you perfect in the doing of His will” he says.  And the way that he chooses to say this is also important for he makes that point that God is doing this work in you.  By ourselves, we are incapable of doing God’s will, but God Himself works in us, accomplishing for us that which is otherwise impossible – the perfect doing of His will.

Keeping this in mind, let us now hear the words of our Lord recorded in the Gospel,  He also calls us not to be “good enough” but to be perfect, surpassing the “goodness” of the world and instead striving for the likeness of the Divine perfection.  He takes three examples and shows us how it is that we, as His followers, must surpass the righteousness of the world.  “If you love those who love you what is remarkable about that for even sinners do this.” “If you do good things to those who are good to you what is remarkable about that for even sinners do the same.” And, “If you give to those who will repay, then what is remarkable about that for even sinners do the same.”  We are not called to this “average” righteousness, rather we are called by our Lord to surpass this righteousness for He says to us, “Love your enemies.” “Do good to those who hate you.” And “Give without hoping for any return”. 

We have been called to act no longer as men, but to act as God Himself acts.  The first line of the portion of the Gospel that we heard today is often quoted and has been made into a kind of motto for a worldly kind of goodness. “As you would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” or as we are more often likely to hear it phrased, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  This is the so-called golden rule which is at the heart of so much of the world’s ethics and morality.  In many other religions the same kind of principle can be found as a standard to which men should aspire in their relationships with others.  But as the world understands this, the doing of good is a kind of reciprocal thing – if you are nice to me, I’ll be nice to you and we’ll all get along fine.  But Jesus Christ shows us a more excellent way that goes far beyond “getting along”. He says to us not just to love those who love us – but love your enemies.  Don’t just do good to those who are good to you – but to do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you. Don’t just lend expecting a return – but give to every man that asks of you and if someone takes your goods away by force, don’t try to reclaim them from him.  This is the difference between being a “good person” and being a follower of Jesus Christ.  He says elsewhere to His disciples, “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  To be a Christian is nothing less than to be like God.  And this kind of life is not something we can do on our own – we have to depend on God to prefect this good work in us.

What then is the purpose of all this? Why do we aspire to such great heights?  Why do we go so overboard in ordering our lives? Again in the Gospel we heard our Lord say, “But love ye your enemies, do good, and lend hoping for nothing again; and your reward will be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest.”  Did you hear that – God intends for us to be His children, to share, in as much as it is possible, His own nature.  We are destined not only to be “like God” but to become gods by His grace which He bestows upon us as He Himself is God by nature.  He is Light and the source of all light and we shall be filled with that light so as to become, as it were, small lights within the Great Light.

If we follow Christ; if we have faith, that is if we believe Him and if we act on that faith making it real in our lives, then our lives are consumed with following the commandments of God – doing as He instructs – so that we can acquire that salvation which He freely offers to us.  We do not “earn” His grace by our works, rather He pours out His grace upon us and it is by our works that we are able reach out and take hold of it and use it in such a manner that we are filled with His light and transformed into His likeness.

It is not enough, however, to know that this is what we should do and to know that God has promised to make us His children.  That vision of union and communion with God must become for us a reality, something that we experience on a daily basis.  Without this reality, the vision will break down, we will not be strong enough to hold onto it.  How do we get this reality?  First by changing the way we see our lives.  Remember that everything in our lives comes to us from God and provides a means by which we can follow Him (or, if we mishandle it and do not respond in a God-pleasing manner, it becomes a doorway to sin).  For this reason whatever happens to us should be an opportunity to give thanks to God – even if it is something unpleasant.  When we see every event of our lives as the opportunity to draw near to God then our lives take on a new dimension – a spiritual dimension.  We have to change our values so that we no longer evaluate “good” and “bad” in terms of the world’s ideas, but rather we take on God’s perspective and that which is “good” is that which brings us closer to Him while that which is “bad” is that which becomes a barrier between us and Him.  Now that we have redefined our outlook and our values, it is time to change our behavior so that we are always looking to get what is good – we do those works that bring us good things.  And we are right back where we began with the relationship between faith and works.  It is our works that make our faith real – not only real to those around us but real to ourselves.  If you want to experience the reality of the Kingdom of God and God’s presence in your own life, then keep His commandments – live according to His will and you will begin to see how He brings to you the good things that draw you closer to Him. 

Keep this then in your mind and your heart – if you wish to follow Christ, then you must first begin with faith, with the “right belief” that informs your works.  Then you must act according to that faith to make it real in your life.  As you gain more and more experience in the reality of your faith, that is in the reality of the Kingdom of God in your life, then you will begin to see the fulfillment of God’s promise in yourself.  You will become a child of God, like Him not only in how you act or appear in the world, but also internally, in your soul where you will become filled with the light of His grace and become a bearer of His light immersed in His glory.

homily for 10/4/2020 – three steps of salvation

Mark 8:24-9:1

The Gospel selection that we heard today is one with which we are very familiar.  Our Lord set forth three steps which will lead us to salvation; “deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.”  These three simple steps encompass the whole of our Christian life and lead us into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Now we are all very familiar with the first step – to deny ourselves.  This is something that we are called to do more or less on a daily basis and about which we hear sermons and spiritual instructions regularly.  But for the moment, let’s not break down this saying to analyze each step, but let us today at the whole progression: Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Christ.  As one step leads to the next and they all fit together in a journey, so also these three steps fit together into a single whole.  For this it might be better to look at the whole process in reverse. 

Our salvation is indeed to “follow Christ” to become like Him and so if we are going to be like Him and follow Him, then we have to look at His own experience.  At the end of His earthly labors, He ascended into heaven to take up His place at the right hand of the Father (and remember that He ascended not as a pure spirit, but He ascended bodily as well opening the way for us to follow Him in His ascent to Heaven).  So the goal in “following Christ” is to ascend into Heaven into the eternal presence of God.  This then is the final result that we are striving for – to live in eternity surrounded by the presence of God.  But before His ascension, He also rose from the dead.  His glorious resurrection is the result of the defeat of sin, death and the devil – a struggle which took him into the heart of the realm of death, into hades, the stronghold of the evil one.  Thus if we would follow Him in His resurrection we too must descend first into hades and struggle with sin, death and the devil and participate in His victory.  This entails our own death – and here we refer not to our physical death, but to the death of our fallen, sinful, worldly nature – or as the apostle calls it, the “old man”.

This is where we find that middle step – the call to “take up your cross”.  In order to follow Christ, we must walk the path that He walked and that path involves dying to the world – voluntarily sacrificing ourselves for someone else (and in this case that “someone else” is none other than Jesus Christ).  Now no one really likes the idea of death, we all shy away from it – but death is the state to which we are called.  We have to die.  Death is a rather permanent state and this death to the world is no different.  We have to permanently renounce our worldly life and offer it as a sacrifice to Christ.  Here we have to make the firm choice to follow Christ rather than the world or our own desires – at this point there is a parting of the ways; we either continue with the world or we follow Christ.  So when we “take up our cross”, we make this choice to follow Christ knowing fully that it will mean our permanent and total renunciation of the world.  This step then leads us right into the midst of our spiritual struggle.  When our Lord Jesus Christ ascended the Cross and surrendered His life for us, He then descended into Hades and there entered into direct conflict with sin, death and the devil.  So also, when we ascend our cross, our spiritual struggle against sin, death and the devil begins. 

In this struggle we are not left on our own, but by making this decision to cling to Christ we have entered into a battle that He has already won.  Our struggle is not to defeat sin, death and the devil (that is already accomplished), but rather to assimilate Christ’s victory into our own selves.  We recognize that if we enter this struggle on our own, we are very quickly outmatched and overcome.  Only when we rely wholly and completely on our Lord Jesus Christ and depend on Him to make His victory real in us can we even begin to succeed in this struggle.  This is the spiritual warfare that we all experience as Christians.  We all know the difficulty of this struggle and it is only with the help of Christ that we are able to enter into His victory over sin, death and the devil.

But we do not take up the cross right away, but are led to that place by the very first step of our salvation – to deny ourselves.  Our Lord showed us this willing self-denial in His whole life.  In His divinity, He knew that He would suffer and die on the cross and yet He did not listen to the whispers of the flesh which He had taken on and of the demons who tried to turn Him aside.  Instead, knowing full well that His path would lead Him to the cross, He followed it without hesitation.  He could have turned aside from His path; He could have refused the cross; He could have called legions of angels to deliver Him from suffering – but He didn’t.  He could have manifested His divinity clearly and with power at any moment and diverted the course of history to His own liking – but He didn’t.  He denied Himself throughout His whole life and knowingly; He willingly walked the path that would lead Him to the cross – to death so that He might defeat sin, death and the devil on our behalf, so that He might rise again, so that he might ascend into heaven and open the path for us to follow.

So the first step is to “deny yourself” just as our Lord did.  Knowing fully that this step, this self-denial, will lead to the crisis point of making a decision to renounce the world and “take up your cross” facing an irrevocable death to the world – still we take it.  At each point we set aside our will and instead follow the path that our Lord has indicated for us in the Gospel.  We deny ourselves in many ways: we deny ourselves when we fast, we deny ourselves when we keep a rule of prayer, we deny ourselves when we obey our spouse or parents.  We deny ourselves when we resist temptation, we deny ourselves when we choose the narrow path of Christ over the wide gate of perdition.  This is where it all begins – when we deny ourselves and choose to follow Christ.

So we have three steps to salvation – to deny yourself, to take up your cross and to follow Christ.  Each step leads us deeper and deeper into the Kingdom of heaven and each step leads us closer to God Himself.  But each step also incites a reaction from the evil one and even from our own fallen nature (the so called “old man”).  When we begin, we start with simple things of self-denial like fasting and obedience – but this then leads to the more difficult warfare with the evil one which we experience when we take up our cross and die to the world.  But this death, this spiritual struggle leads to our resurrection – no longer living according to ourselves but now we live according to the life of Christ (it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me).  And this resurrection leads us to the ascension into heaven to stand before the throne of God to be enveloped in the light of His divinity.  This is our salvation – to live in eternal union and communion with God.

“Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me”. This is the call of Christ to us leading us out of this world step by step and into the Kingdom of God.  This is the path of salvation.

Last Days – 3/3

III. Pastoral Labors in the Last Days

How then do we, as Orthodox Christian clergy, as shepherds of the flock of Christ, as pastors and fathers to our spiritual children, respond to these deteriorated conditions of the last days?  First and foremost we must pray and intercede before the throne of God for each member of our flock.  As Our Lord was going to His crucifixion, He said to those in the crowd making a loud weeping and lamentation, “Weep not for me, weep for yourselves and your children…”(Lk 23:28) referring to the persecutions that would befall them.  So also we who are fathers should “weep for ourselves and for our children” that we might endure the coming spiritual storm and persevere in the face of the temptation and suffering of the last days.  In like manner all that we advise, instruct and encourage our spiritual children to do, we should do as well.

These signs of the last times are given to us as a signpost – a warning and reminder of what lies ahead.  It does no good to perseverate on trying to parse the hidden meaning of these signs, rather let us take them simply for what they are – a reminder that the last days are upon us and warning to prepare ourselves to stand fast in the Truth.  Therefore we must be watchful and attentive not only to the world around us but more importantly to ourselves.  The spiritual life should never be out of sight, and ever increasingly an element of consideration in everything that we do.  We can encourage our spiritual children to pay more attention to their spiritual health – giving it even more attention than they do to their physical health.  Therefore, simply attending to the routines of spiritual life – a prayer rule, regular attendance at services, almsgiving, confession and Holy Communion – plays a major role.  In addition to this, we can encourage our flocks to guard their own senses.  Pay attention to what you hear, what you see, the kinds of images, concepts and ideas that present themselves to you.  The less you allow yourself to be exposed to sinful stimuli, the less raw material there is within the soul for temptation to work upon.

At the same time as you limit the exposure to sinful material, one should also increase exposure to material that is spiritually positive and beneficial.  One of the primary sources of this material is, of course the Gospel.  This is especially important because of the pervasive presence of falsehood in our lives, having constant recourse to the Gospel is one way to counteract its effect.  Thus one of the important things that we must do is to encourage the daily reading of the Gospel among our flocks – even if it is just a little bit.  There are many ways to do this of course, following the daily lectionary for the Divine Liturgy, various monastic cell rules (such as that of Optina), or any other system of reading.  St Ignatii Brianchaninov writes in his instructions to novices (The Arena): “a monk (or any Christian) should occupy himself with all possible care and attention with the reading of the holy Gospel.  He should make such a study of the Gospel that it may always be present in his memory, and at every moral step he takes, for every act, for every thought, he may always have ready in his memory the teaching of the Gospel.”

Just reading the Gospel, however, is not enough – we must have the correct interpretation and understanding of the Gospel as well. St Ignatii continues in his instructions saying: “While reading the Gospel, the novice (Christian) should also read The Herald; that is, the explanation of the Gospel by Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Bulgaria.  The reading of The Herald is indispensable.  It is an aid to the right understanding of the Gospel, and consequently to the most exact practice of it.  Moreover, the rules of the Church require that Scripture should be understood as the holy Fathers explain it, and not at all arbitrarily.  By being guided in our understanding of the Gospel by the explanation of the holy Father, by the explanation received and used in the Church, we keep in the tradition of the holy Church.”

As priests we also must step in here and be diligent in our own preaching and teaching.  It is ever more necessary that our flocks are educated in the belief of the Orthodox Church.  Whereas it may have been possible in some times and some places to simply come to Church and receive the sacraments and thus work out one’s salvation, the nearer that we draw to the Last Day, the greater the necessity of knowing what it is that the Church teaches in order to counteract the prevalence of heretical teaching that becomes more and more a part of our daily lives.  We also need to ground our flocks in the traditions of the Church, (as much as I hate this term I will use it here) both “big T and little t” traditions – that is those traditions which are of dogmatic importance and those local traditional practices which serve as a cultural and local expression of the True Faith.  These traditions, no matter how big or small are the structures which create a safety net when our understanding fails and even when our wills weaken.

One of the things about which we must educate our flocks is an understanding of how we are detached from the world, how we, as Orthodox Christians, are called to live in the world but not to be of the world.  Consider the ocean – a world of water.  There are some creatures which live in the ocean and are of the ocean.  Such are the fish which swim in the ocean – they share its essence and draw their life from the water.  On the other hand there are also some sea creatures which live in the ocean but they are not of the ocean.  Whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, otters and so on are not of the ocean – they live in it and yet they draw their life from the air.  So we must also be as Christians living in the world but not being of the world, drawing our life from the heavenly grace of God.

As we instruct our flocks in this matter we must teach them how to separate themselves from the world, how to weaken the hold that the world has on them.  The first tactic that comes to hand is that of fasting.  They must know that fasting is not simply a rule that we fulfill in order to receive some spiritual payoff, rather it is a tool that we use to weaken the hold that the world has on us.  The tradition of the Church prescribes for us a very balanced regimen of fasting consisting of the 4 fast periods as well as the Wed and Friday fasts.  This balance between fasting and non-fasting times is necessary so that we are not overly weakened or led into despair.  We don’t need to invent new fasts – we simply can use the ones that have already been handed to us and encourage our spiritual children to engage in them more and more regularly.

At the same time as we weaken the hold of the world on us, we also have to increase our awareness of the providence of God.  We need to remember and to remind our spiritual children that it is God Who provides for us – not all that we want, but all that we need for our salvation.  The providence of God should be a recurring theme in our preaching.  Constant reference to the lives of the saints – especially the lives of the martyrs is very effective for we see the many miraculous means by which God provided for the saints rather than how they provided for themselves.  Martyrs were given strength to endure unimaginable torture – some were healed overnight, others were given food and drink, some were given words to speak and others simply the grace to remain silent.  Miracles occurred simply by their presence and prayer.  The more we can internalize the many ways that God provided for the saints who made no provision for themselves, the more easily we can let go of our own obsessive need to make sure we can “take care of ourselves”.

One of the greatest fears of mortal man is the fear of death.  The evil one uses this fear against us constantly – and as the specter of the persecution of Christians rises it will become an even greater source of temptation.  One of the consistent instructions of the great spiritual fathers of the Church is that we should have a constant remembrance of death.  Not only does this put the events of each day into a new and spiritual perspective and remind us of that which is most important, but it also serves to inoculate the Christian against the fear of death.  We fear death because we do not know it.  The more familiar we are with death, the less it elicits fear for we are no longer afraid of what we do not know, but we have prepared ourselves to enter into that which we do know.

The Gospel tells us that one of the conditions of the last days is that the love of many will grow cold.  In  order to combat this possibility in ourselves and in our flocks we must consciously work to exercise the love of God in us.  This means that we are constantly exerting ourselves to show love and compassion to our neighbors as we have been commanded in the Gospel. Every opportunity for almsgiving and charity should be taken and we should exhort our flocks to follow suit.  Teach by both word and example to be aggressive and proactive in giving – not sitting back and waiting for an appeal, but looking for opportunities to give, especially face to face and hand to hand. 

Beyond almsgiving, and perhaps even more important, let us forgive one another.  When my son was still in grade school, I tried to help moderate his eagerness to “first” everywhere, by suggesting that he try to be “first” to be “last”.  Granted that was a little abstract for a 6 year old, but it did have some good effect.  Now I encourage you to try to be “first” – “first” to forgive.  Don’t wait for someone else to be repentant before you forgive – don’t wait for them to “deserve” your forgiveness.  Be “first” to forgive.  By the same token encourage those in your spiritual care to be “first” to forgive as well.  I find that I spend a lot of time teaching people about forgiveness – that it is not a feeling, but rather an act of the will, a choice that they make.  It is also a choice that we do not make only once, but a choice that we make over and over again as often as necessary.  Be the first to choose to forgive, and whenever the remembrance of a wrong pops up – choose again to forgive.

Such forgiveness is essential to the work we must do in the Church to combat discord and heal schism.  Because the temptation to discord and schism will increase, we must also increase our efforts to combat it. This is accomplished first and foremost by forgiveness and compassion – praying not only for those who hate us and wrong us, but especially for those who disagree with us and who irritate us.  That prayer should not focus only on the other person, but rather we have to remember that the faults we see in others are a reflection of our own faults.  Therefore when we pray for others, we must also pray for ourselves.

In the last times, we know that we will also see a disintegration of family life due to the increase in self-centeredness.  Therefore as pastors we will have to work to support the marriages and families in our care.  In the world, it is family life which offers the most effective tool for practicing self-denial and for opening the self-absorbed person up to connecting with another person.  To that end we will have to be diligent in preparing people for marriage and once they are married to be diligent in inquiring about the state of the marriage and working with the couple to quickly correct any deterioration in the relationship.  Helping parents with the raising of children is critical – and in this current social culture it is necessary to teach parents how to discipline their children properly and effectively.  Too often parents either do not discipline at all or they discipline out of their own anger and frustration.  The priest can be a virtual member (a grandfather, a father, an uncle, a brother) of every family in his parish in some way and thus influence the state of the family from the inside.

Finally, (and I’ve saved the best for last) we have the sacraments.  Nothing can compare with the efficacy of the sacraments for the spiritual health and welfare of a person.  In such an increasingly hostile spiritual environment, as the last days progress, it is also increasingly vital for a person to participate in the sacraments frequently.  By frequent confession, we keep sin from nesting in the heart by rooting it out as frequently as it appears.  We also have the chance to encourage every small step and effort towards righteousness.  Because of the prevalence of addiction to pleasure in all of its forms, frequent confession also provides a venue to continue to press the attack and break the hold of an addictive pleasure on the soul. We have a multitude of small “sacramentals”, blessings, holy oil, holy water, prosphora, icons, and so on.  We should use these and teach their use much more frequently to help each person bring that spiritual blessing to every part of their daily lives. 

Of course the most powerful and most effective sacrament is that of the most Holy Body and most Precious Blood of our Lord.  I could say much about this but would only be repeating what our bishops have just said in their letter published following the recent Sobor.  Beyond the instructions given to us in this letter – which serve to reduce the unnecessary barriers to the sacraments to a minimum – I can only add the obvious suggestion to encourage more frequent communion in the lives of your spiritual children.

IV Conclusion

Now, I’m not telling any of you anything you don’t already know.  Without a doubt we do all the things that I suggested. There is nothing new here. However, as the time grows shorter, as we come closer to the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, it is necessary to do all these things with greater fervor and zeal, with greater attention and intensity.  The enemy of mankind is out to tear us away from the Church, to tear us away from Christ and as his time to do so grows shorter and shorter, he will double and redouble his efforts.  And we, who are called to care for the flock of Christ, who are charged with the welfare of the souls of our spiritual children – we must also double and redouble our own efforts. 

There is a prayer in the morning rule in which we implore our Lord “And may Satan not seize me, O Word, and boast that he has torn me from Thy hand and fold.  O Christ, my Savior, whether I will or not, save me.  Make haste, quick, quick, for I perish.”  When we say this prayer, it is not only for ourselves but for our flock, for our spiritual children as well.  We stand with Christ between them and the evil one who hungers for their souls.  Let us pray to God that we might prevent even the loss of one of these little ones and that we might stand before the throne of God at the Last Day and present to Him those whom He has entrusted to us.

References

Archimandrite Panteleimon, A Ray of Light, Holy Trinity Monastery

Dennis Engleman, Ultimate Things, Conciliar Press

Bishop Igantii Brianchaninov, The Arena, Holy Trinity Monastery

“On the Participation of the Faithful in the Eucharist”;  in English:

In Russian: http://www.pravmir.ru/ob-uchastii-vernyih-v-evharistii/

Last Days – 2/3

II – The Characteristics of People Living in the Last Times.

The scripture speaks volumes concerning the characteristics of those who will be living in the last times.  Let me read for you just a few of those descriptions:

“This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: … Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (2Tim 3:1-8)

“…there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts. These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit.” (Jude 18,19)

“And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” (Mt 24:10-12)

This last description from the Gospel of Matthew is particularly telling for it sums up everything by saying, “because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”  Archimandrite Panteleimon comments: “This means that sinful temptations and behavior will increase so much that they will entice many people into sinful lives.  Faith in Christ will barely exist, as the Lord Himself declared: ‘When the son of man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?’(Lk 18:8).”  The nearer that we approach the Last Day, the greater will be the sinful attraction of the world around us.  How can we not agree with this even by our own observation?  All of us in this room grew up without the constant assault of the internet and the instant communication that we take for granted now.  We can remember what it was like “back in the day” when it took time for the poison of sin to creep from one person to another and from one community to another. 

Again the recent history of our own Church gives us a good example.  There was time, in the memory of many of us I am sure, that we all received bulging packets of multipage open letters circulated by dissidents within the Church via the postal service.  Seeing the postmark, we could choose whether or not even to open the letter and read what was written.  And the reading and writing took time – time which allowed our better senses to moderate the inflammatory words on the page.  Also, for one to send out such missives, resources had to be invested to make (paper) copies, purchase mailing materials, pay for postage, and so on.  All these things slowed the spread of the infection of schism and outrage, limiting it somewhat.  But now, with instant electronic communication there is no time or resource involved in producing and disseminating missives (or video rants) of outrage and misinformation – no moderating influence of time and energy.  Such things pop up in social media or in email boxes with hardly a moment’s delay and the preview panel even removes the need to open the message – just read or watch without a moment for hesitation or reflection.

Add in television, radio and the print media (and the constant deterioration and descent into depravity broadcast thereby) and it is easy to see how our flocks are inundated with the constant barrage of tempting images, sounds, ideas and emotion.  These are the weeds planted by the evil one which seek to crowd out the Gospel and this is the most blatant condition that we as pastors have to face in providing guidance and help to our spiritual children.

In the letter of the Apostle Paul to his spiritual son Timothy quoted above, the very first thing that he says regarding that nature of people in the last days is that “men shall be lovers of their own selves…”  Self-love is prevalent in every sphere of our lives.  One of the largest and most popular section of any book or video store (whether “brick and mortar” or online) is the “self-help” section.  Here we find offerings on self-esteem, self-reliance, self-healing, self-knowledge, self-promotion, do-it-yourself, etc.  Almost any topic imaginable is presented as something to do with the self.  This love of self is the natural outgrowth of the humanism that pervades modern society and culture.  Because the humanist philosophy regards man and his reason as the highest good, then the natural outgrowth is that each individual regard himself: his own wants and desires, his own ideas and understanding, as the most important thing in the world.

This love of self effortlessly leads to the characteristic described by the Apostle as “lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.”  In order for a man to appease his own all important and all good desires, he then seeks out pleasure – looking for the “reward” that is rightfully his as the most important being in the universe.  As a result, be becomes addicted to pleasure, always seeking something more, something greater, something better.  That addiction quickly and inevitably leads to immorality and depravity.  Thus the man who would be god has now become the slave of his own passions and desires.  This addiction to pleasure and enslavement to his own passions soon crowds out any love or concern that he may have for anyone other than himself.  Everything becomes a tool by which he can feed his passions and scratch the itch of his desire.  Because he no longer cares for anyone but himself, he becomes unable to give the self-sacrificing love that is necessary to maintain any kind of relationship – including and especially that of marriage and family life.  One particularly grievous result of this deterioration of the person is the prevalence of sexual immorality in all of its forms – promiscuity, infidelity, adultery, polygamy, incest, pornography, homosexuality, masturbation.  None of these have anything to do with love and they have everything to do with satisfying the addiction to pleasure.

A second great characteristic of “love grown cold” is the rise of materialism.  Materialism in our lives has many different aspects a few of which are: it emphasizes dependence upon the things of this world, it inflates the importance of riches, it encourages greed and acquisitiveness.  This emphasis on that which is worldly blunts the spiritual awareness of the person – the more he is immersed in the world, the less acute his spiritual life and perception become.  The Holy Apostle Jude referenced this when he wrote: “These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit.”  The material man because he is focused only upon that which is “sensual” i.e. that which responds to his own senses, loses the ability to perceive that which is beyond his senses, i.e. that which is spiritual.  God, if He is allowed to be present at all, is reduced to a kind of divine shopkeeper or vending machine which dispenses not the grace-filled treasures of eternity, but which provides only worldly goods.  From this concept comes the “name it and claim it” school of spiritual prosperity equating material wealth with God’s favor and blessing.

The dependence on material things also leads to acquisitiveness and greed.  Humanism tells man that he has arrived – he doesn’t need any one else to look after him, he doesn’t need to (and in fact can’t reliably) depend on any outside resource.  In effect, humanism has eliminated “Our Father, Who art in heaven…” and replaced Him with “Our Maker Who has turned us loose…”  Since, now we have to rely upon ourselves for everything and since, now the material world contains everything of value, then it becomes a necessity of survival and advancement to accumulate as many material possessions as possible.  This drive to accumulate possessions becomes the passions of acquisitiveness and greed.  In the last days, man will cut himself off from the providence of God and thus be forced into providing for himself. At first his acquisitiveness will be driven by the desire to have plenty of what he considers good (not unlike the rich man of the parable who gathered all his goods into his barns and said to his soul, eat, drink and be merry…), however, that drive soon turns into fear – fear of not having enough, fear of being deprived, fear of suffering and death.

The combination of love of self and materialism brings forth a third characteristic of love grown cold.  This is the characteristic of self-reliance.  In the mind of modern man, God is no longer the provider and so man must become the provider, not only for himself, but also for the whole world.  The desire for paradise no longer is defined in terms of the immortal and spiritual life, but rather is redefined in material and earthly terms.  Man tries to create paradise on his own through political and social action.  His charity and “almsgiving” come not out of compassion for others, but rather out of the mistaken belief that he can create a “heaven on earth”.  Just as in the time of the incarnation of Christ, the Hebrews were no longer looking for a spiritual messiah, but an earthly messiah who would establish an earthly kingdom, so also in the last days more and more people cease looking for the Heavenly Kingdom and are willing to settle for an earthly paradise.

In a similar vein the “back to nature” movement draws upon this characteristic of materialistic self-reliance. As a caveat here, I’m not saying that one shouldn’t take care of their health – rather I’m talking about the kind of over-the-top fanatical adoption of anything touted as “natural”.  Thus we have those who advocate “Paleo” or “Mediterranean” or “Natural” or “Organic” diets to name but a few.  (As a side note, it is often interesting to note how often those who follow those diets with such rigor and strictness also find it difficult, if not impossible, to keep the fasts of the Church.)  There are advocates of “natural” child rearing theories, natural clothing, natural schooling.  Anything that is perceived as a product of the “artificial society” is rejected as bad.  All this derives from the idea that this life is the ultimate good and must be taken care of and preserved at any cost.

The apocalyptic fervor in our society that we noted earlier is also affected by this attitude of self-reliance. Rather than deepen one’s spiritual life and dependence upon God, a new breed of survivalist is born – stockpiling food, firearms and other “necessities”; building a refuge off the grid in which to wait out the social and natural chaos of Armageddon. The “end of the world” is no longer an end, but merely a transition to a new world, purged of all evil (as defined by the survivalist) and is meant only to be somehow endured or survived.  The chiliasm of many protestant confessions is part and parcel of this characteristic.

It is not only man and his society that is changed by the “abounding of iniquity”, but even the natural world is affected.  Many of you will recall the comments of Father (now Bishop) Irenei a few years ago addressing the question, “Does God Cause Earthquakes?”  In those comments he related the state of the natural world to weight of our sins.  As our sins increase they build up like a weight upon the natural world until the stress is too great and the natural world “breaks”.  Our Lord Himself alluded to this relation between the natural world and the spiritual world saying to the Pharisees that if the people (who were singing Hosanna at the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem) were to remain silent that the very stones themselves would cry out.  As the sinfulness of mankind increases, so also we will see an increase in the instability of the natural world. In the last days man will experience natural disasters on an unprecedented scale.  There will be earthquakes, floods, fires, disease, drought, and famine that affect not only a locality or region, but which will impact the whole world.  Large bodies of water will be poisoned and no longer capable of supporting life and fire will fall from the sky spreading wide swaths of destruction in its path.  These natural disasters will cause suffering and hardship to all the peoples of the world.

The great spiritual sign of the last times is that of the great apostasy from the faith.  The Gospel will be preached everywhere, but because of the multitude of personal opinion, the resurrection of ancient heresies into modern “confessions” or “denominations”, the missionary fervor of those deceived by false belief, and simple pride, the Gospel will be misunderstood, misrepresented, distorted and otherwise altered so that only those who are diligently searching for the Truth will be able to find it.  There will be, as the Gospel says, false Christs and false prophets all proclaiming a false understanding of the Gospel.  There will be a multitude of denominations, confessions and cults all claiming to be the Truth.  True Christians will be ridiculed and even persecuted simply for disagreeing with the mainstream ideas of toleration and the right to believe and practice whatever religion one chooses.  The ecumenical inertia will be hard to resist and many, even those who have the Truth, will be lulled into a lukewarm complacency of compromise when it comes to the Gospel.

The lure of sin will be great as will the thrust towards sensuality.  The urge to justify the satisfaction of the passions on one hand while being “spiritual” on the other will result in a religious mélange that somehow unites materialism with spirituality and gives a religious sheen to the satisfaction of every base urge and desire that arises from the soul of man.

Especially within the Orthodox Church the evil one will work to stir up discord, hoping to break apart this unassailable bulwark of Truth.  Differences in local tradition and practice which all along existed side by side will suddenly become matters of dogmatic importance.  We have seen this time and time again in our own lifetime and continue to see it play out on the stage of “world Orthodoxy” even today.  These disputes can, if we let them, create schism and division within the Church.  St Cyril of Jerusalem, even in his own time, foresaw this kind of situation saying, “The Savior says: ‘And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and hate one another’ (Mt 24:10). If you hear that bishops even unto bloodletting attack bishops, clergy against clergy, and laymen against laymen, do not be bewildered for this is foretold in the Scriptures.”  The devil promotes such discord among the flock of Christ to open the way into the hearts even of the faithful. Hate between brothers is already an invitation for the antichrist.

Last Days – Part 1/3

Dear Friends, I was doing some cleaning this week and came across a copy of this talk that I gave a few years ago. As I reread it, it seemed pertinent especially now with all the chaos and turmoil in the world – Fr David

Pastoral Issues in the Last Days (a talk given at the 2015 spring pastoral conference of the Western American Diocese)

I – The Last Times?

There is no lack of voices proclaiming the end of the world.  There has been a wave of apocalyptic movies, depicting the end of the world by natural or even human sources.  The destructive force of the world’s nuclear arsenals is often described in how many times over we could destroy ourselves.  Even something as simple as an ancient calendar running out of pages sparks a wave of hysteria that the world is coming to an end in some kind of mega-cataclysm (our “calendar” controversies were never so cool and seem quite tame by comparison).  There is an ongoing paranoia about “big brother” intruding into our lives via the digital data stream, stealing our most private thoughts and using them against us.  Various religious communities constantly preach about the coming apocalypse and pointing a warning finger here at some evil antichrist (usually someone with whom they disagree strongly) who is about to take over the world.  (I grew up in a mainline evangelical protestant church that held a yearly “prophecy conference” to expound on the true meaning of the Revelation of St John and worked to identify all the players – Russia, of course, was always one of the main servants of evil.)

Even in our own Church it seems that there has been a renewed sense that the end of the world is near.  Fr Seraphim Rose spoke and wrote often about the nearness of the end; St John is said to have mystically sensed the birth of the antichrist; the newly glorified elders of Mt Athos have all made some very detailed statements about the nearness of the last days.  The fall of the Soviet Union has only served to stoke the fires of the last days with the fulfillment of the various prophecies of the resurgence of Russia right before the coming of the antichrist.

With all of this interest in the last days, it provides us as pastors with an opportunity to consider what the particular pastoral needs of the last days are and how they affect our parish flock.  Taking that opportunity, I will take a few moments to look at the indicators of the last days and what they mean for us.  Then I will specifically focus on the characteristics of the society and people in the last days and the spiritual needs that arise from those characteristics.  Finally I will offer a few suggestions for pastoral  approaches and spiritual prescriptions that hopefully will address these particular needs.

First, let us consider the reality of the last days.  I heard a confession not long ago wherein a person said to me that he was upset about all of the turmoil that he sees in the world today.  In response, I pointed out to him that much of what we are seeing in the world around us has been foretold to us by our Lord in the Gospel and that these are signs of the last times to help us prepare for the coming of our Lord.  The timetable of the “last days”, I told him, began with the Ascension of our Lord into Heaven.  From that point on the days were numbered until the second coming of our Lord and each day since then takes us closer to the Last Day.  In a very large sense we are indeed in the “last days” and have been for the entire life of the Church.  Therefore it is not surprising to see throughout history and in every time and place these signs of the last times.  As the days and years pass, the time until the very Last Day and the second coming of our Lord is less and less and these signs become more and more intense and more and more real.

From the very beginning of the life of the Church, the enemy of mankind has attempted to destroy the Church through persecution and heresy.  Early in our history, the light of Christ was yet strong and those attempts, though intense, were thoroughly dispelled by the strong and clear presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who would be recognized as martyrs for Christ and saints of the Church.  The efforts of the evil one were hampered then by the “one who restrains”, who was put into the world to hold the influence and power of the evil one in check. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians (2Thess 2:3-8) describes the role of this “restrainer” quite clearly: “Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.  Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?  And now you know what is restraining, that he may be revealed in his own time.  For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains will do so until He is taken out of the way.  And then the lawless one will be revealed.”  The “restrainer” prevents the working of evil and lawlessness in the world by exerting control upon the society in which men live.  Only when this “restrainer” is removed will the evil one be able to work freely in the lives of men.  This “restrainer” has consistently been identified as the Orthodox Emperor (Tsar). St John Chrysostom wrote: “When Roman authority ceases, then [the antichrist] will come.  … As long as people will be afraid of [the Roman] government, no one will hasten to submit himself to antichrist; but after it has been destroyed, anarchy will abide, and he will strive to steal all, both human and divine authority.”  St Theophan (the Recluse) of Vysha expounded on the effects of the loss of the rule of Christian monarchy: “When the monarch falls and everywhere nations institute self-government (republics and democracies), then the antichrist will be able to act freely.  It will not be difficult for Satan to prepare voters to renounce Christ …Thus when such a social order is instituted everywhere, [it will be] easy for antichristian movements to appear…”

This is all very familiar ground for those of us in the Russian Church Abroad since a great deal of focus has been placed upon the martyrdom of the Tsar, the last Orthodox emperor, the ruler of the “Third Rome” as the final act of removing the “restrainer” from the world.  The fall of the Russian empire and the remaining Orthodox Monarchs in eastern Europe, notably Alexander I of Yugoslavia in 1934, eliminated the last Orthodox empires and societies in the world.  The evil one was now free of the limits imposed by this restraint.  Our own Fr Paul Volmensky in 1993 wrote: “the murder of Tsar Martyr Nicholas II … is a precise indicator that the Antichrist is at the door and behind him is the second coming of Christ and the Last day of Judgement.  The ‘with-holder’ has been taken out of the way and Satan works unbridled.” (OL 43:4 pp 2 & 6).  Fr Paul only echoes the words of Archimandrite Panteleimon of Holy Trinity Monastery, “The fall of Russia signaled a beginning to the pre-antichrist epoch through which we are currently living.  This cataclysm did away with the ‘restraining power’ in the world, setting Satan free from his temporary bondage.”  Clearly the teaching of the Church is that we have indeed entered this period of the last days during which the enemy of mankind reigns unchecked wreaking havoc among the societies of men.

Even though the removal of the “restrainer” (i.e. the Orthodox Russian monarchs) marked a significant change in the path of the world, the work of the evil one was already long begun.  The tools by which men would be enticed to reject Christ were already in place, particularly in the West from whence Roman authority had long since disappeared.  The most powerful tool which was implemented is that of natural humanism.  Beginning with the Renaissance, the concept of man as the measure of all things began to rise to prominence.  But even before the Renaissance, the Dark Ages paved the way for the coming of this new idea.  G. K. Chesterton in his “Life of Francis of Assisi” makes the point that in order for someone such as Francis to rise to prominence with his new and revolutionary spirituality, the old spirituality – i.e. traditional Christianity rooted in the teaching of the Apostles and writings of the Fathers of the Church – had to be dismantled.  It was not destroyed, but the essence of that spirituality was destroyed by the corruption of human sinfulness and eroded away by the unrelenting departure of the Roman pontiff from the true faith.  It was, as the apostle says, “the form of godliness but denying the power thereof” (2Tim 3:5).  It was necessary to destroy the old content of the form so that it might be filled by this new content – the new “power”.  The new “power” is not the power of God, but now the empty form of (Western) Christian society is filled with the power of man.

Since the Renaissance then, man, not God, has been the focus and measure of all things.  Man’s reason – his understanding – became the arbiter of truth (following the logical precepts of Aristotle to “prove” and “disprove” facts.)  What a man could see and hear for himself, what he could grasp with his mind – all this became the new “truth”.  Science, as it were, became the new theology.  Along with this elevation of the human intellect, the senses were also captivated by the overtly sensual worldly environment.  No longer did he look beyond this world (as we see in the icons) but rather his perception stopped with this world and brought with it the implication that this world is all there is.  Rather than push against this corruption of the spiritual life, the Roman Catholic Church embraced it and the Church became the bastion of secular learning and traded in the supernatural Gospel of Christ for the natural proclamations of science.  Everything (even the sacraments, even God Himself) could be reduced to logical, rational analysis because now man’s understanding had become the standard of truth.  There was no longer any room for a God which was above man’s understanding or beyond that which he could see, hear and grasp.

It was this humanistic philosophy which traded in mercy for justice; love and compassion for rights; revelation for reasoning; the rule of law took the place of the Kingdom of God.  This emphasis on justice, rights, reason and law gave birth to the idea of self-rule.  No longer would man accept a ruler appointed by God, rather he now usurped that prerogative of God and appointed his own ruler.  Power no longer came from God – power now came from the people.  The ruler is no longer accountable to God, he is now accountable to the people.  The whole array of western European and North American “self-governments” played right into the newly freed hands of the evil one.  Once the Orthodox monarchy was destroyed – the field was ripe for the import of the infection of self-rule.  And now we are precisely in the place predicted by St Theophan, that when such a system of self-rule is instituted, it will be easy for the antichrist to appear.

Humanism not only has its influence on governments, but also on the psyche of the people.  Now that the highest forms of beauty were no longer heavenly and beyond this world but were sensual and worldly, materialism in all its various manifestations began to take on a new importance.  Man has begun to offer up his birthright as a son of God and in return receives the porridge of sensual materialism.  With the advent of the theories of bio-evolution and natural selection, man is no longer seen as a special creation of God, but rather simply as an evolved ape – no different from any other animal. (I find it telling that in many of our prayers of repentance we find phrases such as “I have become like a beast – even worse than a beast…”)  No longer inspired to seek after heavenly riches (which since they cannot be seen, touched, tasted, proved or understood do not therefore exist) man will be compelled to gather earthly riches.  No longer having any security in the Kingdom of Heaven, he will seek to establish his own security in the world where thieves break in and steal and rust and moths corrupt.  Materialism has become rampant.  No longer can one even begin to understand the Gospel command to “go and sell all that you have, give it to the poor and come and follow Me (that is Christ)”  We object that this is not practical or realistic or that it doesn’t take into account our modern needs.  Our ability to trust God to provide all our needs is stunted. 

The material world, however, seems to be intent on satisfying us.  Material progress has never been greater.  Communication is instant across the globe, even our most foolish moments can be broadcast on social media sites to an audience our parents would never have dreamed possible, even for a major address by a great world leader.  We can manufacture almost anything that can be dreamt up in quantities that boggle the mind.  Labor saving devices are themselves being eliminated by other devices to save even the minimal labor required to use them.  Food is not only grown more productively and in greater quantities but in some cases it is simply manufactured bypassing the agricultural necessity altogether.  Even the poorest among us is fabulously rich beyond the wildest dreams of even our grandparents – and yet we want more.

Materialism subsequently leads to a greater and greater focus on sensual pleasure. If all that is of value is material in nature and if our human nature is peak and pinnacle of all that is good and true in the world, then material, human pleasure will also constitute the greatest good.  As a result humanity goes to greater and greater lengths to acquire pleasure.  We have become a society of pleasure seekers, looking for the next comfort, the next rush of adrenaline, the next surge of triumph.  Even negative events, when they result in strong emotional experiences become prized and desirable (especially, but not necessarily, if they can be experienced without lasting bodily damage.)  Since we have discounted any reality of the afterlife, even suicide becomes acceptable since a moment of intense pain will result in an eternity of relief from pain.

This desire for pleasure exhibits itself in a moral descent into greater and greater depths of debauchery.  What yesterday was spoken of only in whispers by uncultured and uncouth people is today proclaimed before as large an audience possible.  (For example, the movie “50 Shades of Grey” which deals in “acceptable”, consensual sexual deviance, dominance and sado-masichsim plays across the theater screens in living color mega images with digital clarity.)  Pornography of even a baser sort is instantly available in the “privacy of your own home” and caters to even the most twisted and corrupt tastes.  While we cry out loudly about protecting the rights of all people, we think nothing of cheating, stealing, lying and abusing our fellow man if it will give save us a few cents or cater to our leisure.  We cry out against slavery and yet think nothing of using others as slaves to maintain our own lifestyle.  Despite the heights of material success and wealth, there is no depth to which humanity has not plunged.  This is truly a sick society.  St Igantii Brianchaninov comments: “Universal debauchery, together with the most abundant progress which engendered it, will be the sign of the end of the age and approaching terrible judgment of Christ.”

Oddly enough, this empty and corrupt modern society has also engendered the world wide proclamation of the Gospel.  The Gospel message of the God/man Jesus Christ – His incarnation, death and resurrection – has gone to every corner of the world.  There can hardly be a person anywhere found who has not at least heard of Jesus Christ and Christianity.  This universal preaching of the Gospel is also a sign of the last days.  However, this sign of the universal preaching of the Gospel goes hand in hand with the coming of an apostasy greater than any other in the history of the Church.  There will be false Christs everywhere and every manner of false belief will be rampant.  How can this be?

The self-centered humanism of the Renaissance which has completely infected our culture and society is the culprit.  The pure and life-giving Gospel of Christ is presented through the tainted lenses of “common sense” and personal opinion.  As a result it is twisted and distorted even from the very moment that it is presented.  Is this not in accord with the parable of our Lord concerning the sower and seed?  The seeds of the Gospel, whenever possible are immediately scooped up by the demons, depriving the hearer even of the chance to take it in.  If, by some chance the Gospel does take root, it is faced with the fierce heat of ridicule and scientific analysis which serve to burn it up before it can take root.  If it does take root then the weeds of materialism crowd it out.  Only the few who tenaciously brave the efforts of the world and demons to destroy the seed of the Gospel will bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their lives.  In our world, the Gospel is everywhere – but it is side by side with and often covered over by the heretical ideas born out of human reason and compromised by the desire for comfort and pleasure.  The bright and pure light of the Orthodox faith continues to shine in the world undimmed and unabated but it is constricted by the world to an ever greater degree.

All of these things – the removal of the “one who restrains”; the rampant humanism; the materialism and moral decline; the universal spread of the Gospel along with unrivaled apostasy and a multitude of false Christs – are indicators pointing to the nearness of the Last Day.  We are indeed in the last days and while the end may come tomorrow or not for another millennium, we can say with confidence that we are nearer now than ever before.  But it doesn’t seem like things are so bad now does it?  Can we really say that the last days are upon us when everything seems so “normal”?

Many years ago, speaking to a group at a conference on the end times at our convent in Moss Beach, I made the comment “Satan is not stupid!”  Now that statement may sound kind of amusing and off topic, but it is in fact very serious and precisely to the point.  The devil is not unaware of the prophecies of our Lord Jesus Christ and of the Apostles, Fathers and saints concerning the last times.  He knows that we know that he is coming.  And so the great deceiver, the father of all lies, pulls out all the stops to hide his assault on the Church.   He will hide his actions by misdirection and lies as our Lord warned us, “There shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive even the elect.”(Mt 24:24).  Satan knows the prophecies and warnings concerning himself and will try, through this great deception to present false Christs (and false antichrists), false prophets and false fulfillment of prophecies.  The more specific expectations we have of how and when and who these prophecies are concerning – the more the evil one will give us exactly what we are looking for so that we will not see the truth. 

Over the whole deception, to confuse the issue even more, he will throw a fog of normalcy.  Our Lord pointed out that, “As it was in the days of Noah, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man.  They did eat, they drank, they married wives, they were given in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark and the flood came and destroyed them all.  Likewise also it was in the days of Lot; they did eat, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they builded … Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.” (Luke 17:26-30)   Archimandrite Panteleimon of Holy Trinity Monastery wrote: “This state [i.e. man’s sinfulness in the last days] for the most part will not be obvious to mankind at first glance.  Mankind will never admit itself to be a disciple of evil, even though it be drowning in evil.”  Life in the last days – even to the very day that the Lord comes will seem “normal” to most people.  Nothing will stand out; nothing will seem momentous; everything will seem to be as it always has been and will seem to be ready to continue far into the future.  The evil one does not want mankind to alert to anything remarkable that might awaken the world from its enslavement to sin. 

homily for 9/20/20: For God So Loved the World

John 3:13-17

On this Sunday before the Cross, we are reminded of the crucifixion.  We are reminded of the true scope and purpose of the crucifixion in the arena of this world.  This passage, or at least part of it, John 3:16, is well known thanks to the efforts of some groups of Christians who recognize it as a summary of the work of Christ.  But as we hear today, this one verse does not stand alone but fits into a context that illumines and explains the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross.

“No one has ascended into heaven but he who has descended.”  This play on words seems, at first hearing to be a bit obscure and difficult to understand – but it is no less than the declaration of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  In order for Him to ascend into heaven He must have first descended from heaven.  Only God originates in Heaven and thus for Jesus to have descended from heaven, He must be “true God of true God”.  He descended to this world by His incarnation, was born in a miraculous manner of a Virgin, and assumed every aspect of our life, including death, that in the end He might again ascend into heaven and take us with Him.  This simple statement then sets the stage for Who it is we are talking about.  This is not just some superman or demigod (as the Arians would have it) nor is this an angel or other creature – but this is God Himself Who had descended from Heaven and Who having assumed flesh will ascend again, taking with Himself those of us in the flesh who embrace Him.

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness…”  And here we are reminded that Jesus Christ has come to fulfill all of the law and the prophets.  Just as Moses lifted up the serpent, so Jesus Christ is lifted up.  When the Hebrew people were wandering in the wilderness leaving behind Egypt and traveling to the promised land, they were attacked by a horde of venomous snakes.  Many were bitten and fell sick and even died from the venom of these snakes.  God instructed Moses to make a brass serpent and lift it up on a pole so that those who were bitten could lift up their eyes and look upon this brass serpent and so be healed.  This Old Testament miracle, just like the miracles of the Gospel, serves to teach us about our spiritual lives.  The serpents that afflicted the people in the desert are the same as our own passions which war against us.  We are “bitten” by our passions and so fall sick and some even die due to the venom of sin that affects us when we fall under the power of our passions.  The healing from the effects of the passions is beyond us and so we must look to the One Who is without that venom – to the One Who is without sin.  In looking to the God/man Jesus Christ and placing our hope and faith in Him, we are delivered from the deadly effects of our sins and are healed from the bite of the serpent.  Just as the brass serpent was lifted up for the healing of the people in the wilderness – so is the Son of Man, that is Jesus Christ, lifted up on the Cross for our healing.

When Jesus began His teaching, showing Himself as God to the world, teaching the apostles (and through them teaching us) the path of salvation and the way into the Kingdom of God, at first He was tempted by the evil one.  At that time, on the Mount of Temptation, Jesus rejected the temptations of the devil which were linked to the passions of pride and love of pleasure.  But the devil does not just go away when we reject him once, but continues to tempt us in various ways and with various passions.  In causing Jesus to be lifted up upon the Cross the devil was tempting Him, this time with the passions of grief and anger.  But again Jesus rebuffed the tempter and rather than despair and turn in anger towards those who had tortured Him and would kill Him, Jesus forgave them.  The temptation of the Cross which had been meant as the means of Jesus’ defeat was instead conquered by Christ and became not the means of defeat, but the means and symbol of His victory – the victory over sin, death and the devil which He in turn bestows upon those who believe and put their hope in Him.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that those who believe on Him should have eternal life.”  This is the crown on the previous two verses which remind us Who Jesus Christ is (i.e. the incarnate God) and what He came to do (to fulfill the law and the prophets, to ascend the cross and so defeat sin, death and the devil and open the way for us to enter into the Kingdom of God)  The reason that God became man and dwelt among us and assumed our flesh as His own; and the reason that He then ascended the Cross and suffered death for our salvation; is summed up here for us.  God loves us – that is the reason for all that has gone before.  God loves us to such a degree that He Himself descended from heaven and came into the world.  He Himself was afflicted with our passions and being without sin Himself took on the venom of our sins that we might be healed.  He Himself suffered death on the Cross and by doing so destroyed death making the Cross the symbol of our victory that He won for us and making the Cross the key that opens the path to the Kingdom of Heaven.

“God sent His Son into the world not to condemn the world but that through Him the world might be saved.”  We know that any encounter with God is a small judgment.  Whenever we enter into His presence, whenever we see His hand in our lives, we are made aware of our own sinfulness and our own unworthiness before Him.  And so in order for Him Who is All-Holy to come into the world and not immediately bring judgment required a great measure of gentleness and meekness.  He had to become like us so that we could approach Him without fear.  He had to lower Himself and assume our flesh so that He could then walk the path of life with us and show us how to avoid the pitfalls of sin and how to be healed of those times when we did fall.  He joined Himself to us, even though we were still sinners, and assuming our sins, He pulled the poison of sin from us that we might be healed.  He joined Himself to us that we might join ourselves to Him.  Having joined ourselves to Himself, then, when He ascends to heaven, He takes us with Himself so that we might live in His eternal presence.

The Gospels tell us that God is love.  They also tell us that God is an all-consuming fire.  Thus to experience God’s love is to be in the midst of an all-consuming fire.   See how gentle is the coming of God to us in His incarnation.  He has set aside His nature as an all-consuming fire, and taken instead our nature as His own so that we might approach Him and be joined to Him.  The only way that we can survive the encounter with the all-consuming fire of God’s love is if we have ourselves taken on the same nature as the fire.   By joining Himself to us that we might be joined to Him, Jesus Christ has made this possible.  By becoming man like us, He has made it possible that we might become like Him.  Thus when we enter the fire of His love, we are not consumed but as the bush of old burned and was not consumed so we also have become like the fire Himself and so burn but are not burnt.  How great is love of God, but also how great is His gentleness, His meekness and His compassion. 

Because of His great love for us, so that we might approach Him, He descended from Heaven and became like us, taking on our flesh.  And finding us filled with the venom of sin, He was lifted up on the Cross that we might be healed and delivered from that venom.  Defeating sin, death and devil through the Cross He has turned our mourning into dancing and that which was meant for our defeat has become the symbol of our victory.  He has joined Himself to us and so opened the way into the Kingdom of Heaven so that we who join ourselves to Him might in turn ascend with Him into Heaven.  Therefore, this is the great love of God for us; He has given us the Cross, the key which opens the way to the kingdom of God, that we might not perish, but have eternal life and live with Him in His love throughout eternity.

Create your website at WordPress.com
Get started