Homily for 6/6/21 – Encountering God

Acts 16:16-34  John 9:1-8

Orthodox Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs and practices – in fact these things are only secondary to the true nature of our faith.  Orthodox Christianity is at its core the encounter of man with God.  Everything that we do is to facilitate that encounter and everything that we believe, our theology, is the description of that personal encounter with God.  Today, like all the Sundays since Pascha, we read about a personal encounter with God.  This man who had been born blind encountered the God/man Jesus Christ and his darkness was turned to light; he was no longer blind but could see.  Jesus Christ is the Light of the world and where the source of the Light is, darkness can no longer exist.  When this man encountered God, his life was altered for no one can see God and be unchanged. 

We were created to live in union and communion with God, but because of the sin of Adam we are now estranged from God.  But God loved us so much that He could not tolerate that separation and so He Himself came to us and opened the way that we might again live in union and communion with Him.  His incarnation, His worldly life, His death and resurrection make it possible once again to encounter God face to face. But Jesus Christ no longer bodily walks the earth for after the resurrection, He ascended into heaven (as we will celebrate this coming week).  How then can we encounter Him face to face now?

Although our Lord ascended into heaven, He also sent to us the Holy Spirit Who fills us and who unites us to God.  Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Church – not the building, but the body of all believers – becomes the Body of Christ.  In the Church then, we encounter God face to face.  Today’s Gospel reveals to us a great deal about the nature of the Church and how we encounter God within her.

This miracle of the healing of the man born blind teaches us about the sacramental nature of the Church. When Jesus healed this man, He made some mud and put this mud on the eyes of the man who could not see and sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam.  Now Jesus was God and could have healed in an instant with only a word or even just a movement of His will, but He did not.  Instead He employed this elaborate ritual.  This is the same as the sacraments.  The sacraments have not only a spiritual element, the grace of God, they also have a physical element.  This is because we are not simply a soul trapped in a body or some kind of spiritual being with the illusion of a physical existence, but rather we are a unity of soul and body, of spiritual and physical.  In order to encounter God with the fullness of our being, we must do so in both the spiritual and physical realms, with both the soul and the body.  Thus when we receive the sacrament of Baptism, we not only receive the grace of God by which we are given new life, but we are also immersed in water that has been blessed.  Not only is the soul washed but the body as well.  Likewise in the sacrament of Chrismation, we are not just mysteriously filled with the Holy Spirit but we are anointed with the oil of Chrism as well.  We commune with God not only in spirit, but we also commune with the elements of His Body and His Blood under the form of bread and wine in the chalice.  It is likewise with all the sacraments, indeed with all the blessings we receive – there is a physical element and a spiritual element for we are creatures of both soul and body and we encounter God with the fullness of our being.

The healing of the blind man also instructs us as to the nature of our interaction with God in the Church.  It is not just God acting on us from the outside, but rather our interaction is a synergy of God with us.  We do not sit passively and idly by and wait for God to do something to us, rather we offer our own efforts to Him and act in concert and union with Him.  When Jesus had anointed the eyes of the blind man with clay, He then instructed him to go and wash.  It was necessary for this healing to occur for the man to act as well as for God to act.  He had to go and wash the clay from his eyes, bending his will to that of Christ and acting in obedience to the will of the Master.  Our interaction with God is one of synergy, of acting together, of bending our will to conform to His and then acting according to His will.  This blending of the divine and human actions, this synergy leads us into union and communion with God.  Our Christian life, our encounter with God is not passive – it requires that we act together with Him.

How then do we shape this synergetic action?  That is the next element of the Church about which this healing instructs us.  The Church gives to us, through Holy Tradition and through the lessons of Scripture, a course of life to follow.  There is a rhythm and routine to the life of the Church.  That rhythm is expressed in the times of prayer, both our private prayer rule and our public prayer in the services.  There are times to pray alone, times to pray together, times to pray for ourselves and one another.  We also experience this rhythm of the divine life in the feasts and fasts of the Church.  The way of life that we are given instructs us in works of righteousness – in charitable giving, in compassionate works, in loving our neighbor, in bearing one another’s burdens.  All of these things that we do are the actual working out of the Life of Christ in the Church. 

There are times when it might seem to some that the requirements of this life are just a bundle of rules that restrict our lives, but in fact the purpose is entirely different.  The practice of the life of Church is given to us for our health and salvation.  These are all instructions in how to act, what to do, how to live in order to conform our will to the will of God, in order to strengthen both body and soul so that we can live more fully in union with God.  This way of life is no different from a man who diets and exercises according to a certain regimen prescribed by a physician or trainer so that he might be more fit for some sport or other physical activity.  The Great Physician, Jesus Christ has prescribed for us the regimen of diet and exercise of the life of the Church so that we might become more fit to live in union and communion with Him.  We can choose whether or not to follow this regimen or how intensely to train, however the consequences of neglecting this life are that we do not prepare ourselves fully for life in the Kingdom of God and our desired union and communion with God (for which we should be preparing) is lost.  Do you love and desire God? then keep His commandments.  Live in the way that He has prepared for you so that you might be able to enter into His Kingdom.

When we do all these things, when we encounter God and are changed by that encounter, then we no longer quite fit in the fallen world.  Rather than rejoice with the blind man who was healed, the religious authorities reviled him and condemned him because this miracle did not occur according to their ideas of how God should act.  We too, if we follow Christ, will face difficulties and resistance from those in the world who demand that God act according to their rules.  When they see us acting according to the life of the Church rather than the life of the world, they may question us and even turn against us.  The same thing occurred to the Holy Apostles Paul and Silas as we heard in the epistle today.  They healed a woman tormented by a demon but were accused and reviled by those who valued the money that this woman’s torment brought them than they valued compassion and love for another human being. The values of the Kingdom of God, though they at times appear to be the same as worldly values, are in the end different and will come into conflict with the world.  Our encounter with God will change us and we will no longer walk according to the way of the world, but rather we will endure difficulty and resistance from the world when we forsake its ways for the path of salvation.

Finally the epistle reminds us of another characteristic of the Church and that is the communal nature of our faith.  We are not saved as individuals, but rather as a community.  When Paul and Silas were brought by the jailer to his home, he asked them how he might be saved.  Paul replied, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved and thy house.” And in the same night this man, and his entire household (wife, children, servants and all) was baptized.  We are saved as a part of the community of the saints, as a part of the family of the Church. It is not just “Jesus and me” but rather “Jesus and all of us”  Even the saints who have finished their course on this earth and who stand at the threshold of the Kingdom of Heaven are waiting for us, not yet entering into their reward until we are all united and enter together into the Kingdom of Heaven.  We are saved, not by ourselves, but together with the whole Church.  We encounter God together.

When we encounter God, we will encounter Him through the Church and the nature of this encounter is described for us today in the Scripture.  Our encounter is sacramental – that is it encompasses both body and soul, both our physical and spiritual nature.  Our encounter with God is synergetic – we act in concert with God, bending our will to His and then acting according to His will.  Our encounter with God is defined and given shape and form by the life of the Church.  The life of the Church is the life of Christ and as we adopt His life, we become more and more able to live in union and communion with Him.  Our encounter with God will put us at odds with the world, for the ways of the Lord are foolishness to the world.  The worldly life will lead us away from God, but the heavenly life will lead us into union and communion with God.  Finally our encounter with God is not individual but communal.  We encounter God as a part of the unity and community of the Church.  In all these ways we encounter God face to face and entering into his Kingdom, we live in union and communion with Him.

homily for 5/30/21 – To be a Christian

“…the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” (Acts 11:26)

Today we are commonly called (and call ourselves) Christians.  In fact it is not only those in the Orthodox Church who are called Christians, but additionally there are many religious confessions that are grouped under this name.  All of these groups differ from one another in some way.  What does it mean then to be a “Christian”?  Why do we continue to take that name to ourselves?

To be a Christian, at its most basic level, means to follow Jesus Christ.  Indeed the Gospel itself tells us that to follow Christ is necessary for our salvation (Mt 16:24).  In Antioch, as we heard in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the apostles had come to Antioch where a great number of gentiles had believed the preaching of the gospel.  There they spent a long time teaching those believers along with the whole Church how to follow Christ.  In speaking to the rich young ruler (Nicodemous) who had come to Him by night, Jesus taught the disciples that in order to be saved, one must first follow all the commandments (that is deny oneself), and then sell all that they have (that is to take up the cross) and to come and follow Him.  (Mt17).  To follow Christ means that we not only hear His teaching and accept its truth, but that we leave behind our former life of following sin and adopt a new way of life set before us by Jesus Christ.

After the resurrection, Jesus came to the disciples and told them, “…he that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Mk 16:16).  From this we see that we must first of all “believe” and that if we believe, we then must act on our belief (be baptized).  Here Jesus teaches the necessity not only of inner belief, but also of receiving the sacraments.  If we hear Him and believe His words, then the test of our belief is whether or not we put His words into practice in our lives.  If we do not act on our belief, then we do not truly believe.

In the Gospel of Luke we hear the disciples ask who can be saved and Jesus answers them, “Strive to enter in at the strait (i.e. narrow) gate; for many, I say unto you will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.” (Luke 13:24ff).  From this we learn that it is not a simple thing to follow Christ, but that to follow Him is a difficult task, one that demands from us effort and all our strength.  Even with all our strength, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is beyond us and it is only with the help of God (Mt 19:25&26) – that is by the action of the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit – that we can indeed successfully follow Him into the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the parable of the sheep and the shepherd, Jesus told his disciples, “I am the door; by me, if any man enter in, he shall be saved …” (Jn 10:9)  By comparing us to sheep He shows us the importance of following the One Who is the Shepherd, just as the sheep of the field follow their own leader who brings them into a safe pasture and who gives them water and who protects them within the walls of the sheepfold.  Sheep will always follow their leader and we, as rational sheep, have chosen to follow Christ by our belief.  But we must indeed follow Him and not just acknowledge His truth.  To follow Christ means to make changes in our lives: to leave behind the world and our former sinful ways; to adopt His values and priorities as our own; to act according to His will rather than our own.  We must not wander around seeking a pasture and sheepfold that suits our own whims and preferences, but rather follow the Good Shepherd into the pasture and sheepfold that He has established for us and with humility and meekness (setting aside our own pride and rationalizing) enter therein.  That pasture is the Gospel and the sheepfold is the Orthodox Church.  If we seek our own pasture and our own sheepfold then we are not following Christ, but only seeming to do so.  If we seek our own pasture and our own sheepfold then we do not believe in Christ, but rather we believe in ourselves and thus end up following ourselves rather than Him.   When Peter sought to come to Jesus walking on the water, he left behind the safety of the boat and ventured out across the waves.  But his faith faltered and he began to sink.  Calling out to be saved, Jesus was right there to lift him up; but then Jesus did not set him back on the surface of the sea and call the other disciples to follow Peter’s example, rather He put Peter back into the safety of the boat and also entered the boat Himself.  Peter was acting out of his own zeal and learned the dangers thereof.  But Jesus, by his actions, taught us all that our salvation is not to be found walking on our own on the surface of the sea, but in the safe confines of the ark of salvation (that is the Orthodox Church which He established, we are not saved alone, but together with the whole Church) which sails upon the sea life and wherein He also dwells with us.

In order to follow Christ we must also abandon our own provision that grows out of our own fallen reasoning and zeal, and accept the provision that He provides.  We must enter into the Church; receive from her the nourishment of the sacraments; embrace the life that she prescribes for us; conform our own lives to the will of Him who is our Shepherd.  To follow Christ means that we must abandon the ways of the world and follow the path of salvation that He has laid out for us through the life of the Church.

To be a Christian is to follow Christ.  To follow Christ is not mere belief – but it is a whole hearted belief that changes our actions, that changes our will, that demands that we conform our lives to His.  To follow Christ is not some simple acknowledgement that His teachings are true, but rather a radical act that begins with self-denial, passes through the cross and in the end demands we follow the path of complete self-sacrifice that He lays out for us.  To be a Christian can only be accomplished on this path which is revealed to us in the Church and in order to follow that path, we must enter the Church just as Jesus placed Peter in the safety of the boat.  To be a Christian can only be accomplished with the help of Christ Who pours out His grace upon us from the never-ending font of grace that is His Church.   To be a Christian, we must follow Christ as He leads us through the doors of the Church, to drink at the waters of grace which flow from the sacraments, to graze in the pasture of the teaching of the Apostles, to find safety in the walls of His sheepfold that is His One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

Homily for 5/16/21 – Are you ready?

Mark 15:43-16:20

Are you ready to meet Jesus? That may sound like a rather obvious question, but none the less, it is one that requires consideration.  Today we remember the Holy Myrrhbearers – those women who went to the tomb of Christ early in the morning on the first day of the week bringing spices with which to anoint the body of Jesus after He had been crucified and buried.  When they got to the tomb they found something that they did not at all expect; the tomb was open and empty;  the stone had been rolled away and an angel in shining white raiment announced to them the good news that Jesus had risen from the dead.  The women ran to tell the apostles all that they had seen, except for Mary Magdalene who remained weeping at the grave for the body of her Lord was missing.  In her grief, she turned and saw a Man standing nearby who she assumed to be the gardener.  She implored this man to show her where he had taken the body of Jesus.  As she wept, the man spoke to her, simply saying her name – and all at once she recognized that this was not the gardener, but this was her Lord, the one that she had longed to find.  Was Mary Magdalene ready to meet Jesus?  Not completely, for it took a few moments and a compassionate word for her to recognize who He was that stood before her.

The Gospel then tells us briefly of those who had met Jesus on the road to Emmaus.  They walked with Him and spoke about the crucifixion of the Lord, not realizing Who it was with Whom they were walking.  Even when they arrived at the place where they were staying and sat down to share a meal – still they did not recognize Him.  And then in the breaking of the bread, their eyes were opened and they saw the risen Lord and knew Him for Who He was.  Were these disciples ready to meet Jesus?  No; it took a long period of hearing Him teach them about the prophecies of scripture and to see Him do something familiar in the breaking of the bread before they recognized Him.

The Apostles themselves heard these various reports from the Myrrhbearing women who had seen the empty tomb and heard the good news from the angel; from Mary Magdalene herself who had seen the Lord. Peter and John themselves had even gone to the tomb and found it empty, just as the women had said, but they did not yet believe that He had risen from the dead.  They heard the report of those who had met Jesus on the road and how they had known Him in the breaking of the bread, but still were filled with doubt.  Finally Jesus Himself appeared to them as they sat at meat in the very room where He had celebrated with them the Passover and had given to them His Body and Blood.  And Jesus upbraided them – that is He scolded them – because of their unbelief.  Were they ready to meet Jesus? No; it took a lot of convincing, even the miraculous appearing of the Lord Himself for them to recognize Him.

And so I ask you again – are you ready to meet Jesus? Or would you like Mary Magdalene mistake him for the gardener, or like the disciples on the road to Emmaus for a stranger and fellow traveler.  Or perhaps, like the apostles, you discount and explain away the evidence before your eyes.  Are you ready to meet Jesus?

What does it take to get ready?  How do we prepare to meet the Risen Lord?  How can we recognize Him when He comes to us? To answer this question, let us look at what it took for those who were close to Him to recognize Him.  First, consider Mary Magdalene.  She would not let go of Jesus.  Even after He had died and been buried, she came at the first opportunity to care for Him as best she could.  When the body of the Lord was not to be found in the tomb, she did not leave, but remained, searching for Him, pursuing Him.  She was relentless, even addressing the One she thought to be the gardener asking Him to show her where he had taken the Body of the Lord.  This persistent and unrelenting pursuit of Jesus was what prepared her to finally see Him before her.  If she had given up or went back with the others, she would not have met Jesus there in the garden, but because she remained and continued to pursue Him, even after His death, she became one of the first witnesses of the Resurrection.  (Although it is not mentioned in the Gospel accounts, tradition tells us that there was only one person who met Jesus after His resurrection before Mary Magdalene, and that was the Virgin Mary.  She was the only one to recognize Him for who He was without any doubt or hesitation, but only with joy to see again her Son risen from the dead.) Because of Mary Magdalene’s intense and unrelenting pursuit of Christ, it only took a gentle and compassionate word – Jesus spoke to her, only calling her by name – and that was enough to open her eyes.  The One who she pursued had Himself come to her.  This is the first thing that we need to meet Jesus, a relentless and unstoppable pursuit to find Him, to follow Him, even to the Cross, to the tomb, through death itself – and He will come to us in the resurrection, calling us by the name that He has given us that only He knows.

Now we continue on to the disciples who were on the road to Emmaus.  This was a town not far from Jerusalem where these disciples and many followers of Christ were staying.  They spoke of Christ and were filled with sorrow at His death and it took a little more than a single word of compassion for them to see.  Jesus taught them as they walked, opening to them the law and the prophets and showing them that all these things were already foretold.  Even such divine and matchless teaching however were not enough for there was something else that needed to happen.  A spark was needed to light the candle of the soul and illumine the heart so that they could see what was before them.  That spark was found in the breaking of the bread.  Jesus took bread and broke it and gave it to them, just as He had done in the upper room at the Passover meal.  It took the flame of grace in the sacraments to kindle the divine fire in their hearts, enlightening them to see Him.  For these disciples there were two things that they required to behold Christ – the divine teaching of the scriptures and the grace of the sacraments.  This too we must acquire for ourselves.  First we must fill our minds and hearts with the divine teaching: read the Scripture, especially the Gospel, daily; read the writings of the fathers; listen to the hymns of the Church (especially in the services).  Fill yourself up with this divine food, this fuel for the divine fire.  And then the spark to kindle it all is in the sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Confession, Holy Communion and the others.   Receive the sacraments as often as possible, don’t put it off or think that you only need it once in a while.  The book of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that “they (those who had been baptized) continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship and in breaking of bread and in prayers” and “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread…with gladness of heart.”(2:42&48).  These Christians gathered together to hear the teaching of the apostles and for the breaking of the bread – that is to receive the Body and Blood of Christ – daily. Not even once a week as we are accustomed now, but daily.  Do not neglect this great source of grace – this kindling of the divine spark that is given to us freely in the divine teaching and in the sacraments.

Finally, let us look at the apostles themselves. They remained gathered together in Jerusalem, as the Lord had commanded them.  They had received directly the promise that He would rise from the dead.  And yet when they heard the news, the were filled with doubt and disbelief.  It was only when Jesus Himself appeared to them and scolded them that their hearts were opened and the grace of God began to burn brightly in them.  Sometimes we too need to be “scolded” by Christ in order to overcome our own weakness.  He may “scold” us in the hearing of the Gospel, or perhaps in the writings of a saint.  He may “scold” us by seeing the example of others or even by the simple words of a friend (or maybe an enemy) or a family member that will remind us of the way that we should go.  Do not brush these “scoldings” off as incidental or as uncomfortable reminders of the conscience.  Pay attention to these “scoldings” for they are the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to you in your heart calling you back to the path of salvation.

These are the things we need to be prepared to meet Jesus.  We need the unrelenting pursuit of Christ that Mary Magdalene exhibited.  We need to be filled with the apostolic teaching of the Gospel and the writings of the saints.  We need to receive the sacraments frequently. And sometimes we need to be “scolded” to get us back on the path of salvation.  Hold onto all these elements, put them into practice in your life and don’t give them up for any reason.  Pursue Christ, hear His words, receive the sacraments and when the Holy Spirit speaks to your heart, do not ignore it.  This is the way to meet Christ, to see the Resurrected Lord and to receive Him and be received by Him in His Kingdom.

homily for 4/18/21 – humility

Mark 10:32-45

Just as pride is the root of all the passions, the mother of all virtues is humility. This is the most essential quality to acquire in our spiritual life and yet it is also the most difficult.  “Of all the things for a man to learn, humility is the hardest.” (St Nicolai of Ochrid)  The reason for this is that the opposite of humility, pride, is so deeply ingrained in our fallen nature that even to grasp the concept of humility is difficult for mankind.  We all strive to appear greater and better than we are.  The grass of the field and the fish or birds or animals do not attempt this.  Why do we do this?  It is because we were, in reality, at one time greater and better than we are now and the shadow of this memory urges us to exaggeration of our greatness and goodness.  This pride is the result of the fall – when we, in the persons of our first parents, were no longer content with God’s provision and rebelled against His commandments.  Since that time, we have been afflicted with pride, that base desire to put ourselves above everyone and everything else – to become god without God; to become perhaps greater than God Himself.  This is the foolish delusion under which we live and it is this that makes humility so hard to grasp.

Our Lord, knowing that we would have great difficulty with humility, demonstrated it over and over again for us by His own actions.  He condescended to take on our flesh – the flesh of our disobedience.  He was born not in a palace as would befit His status, but in a cave.  He washed the feet of His disciples and then voluntarily accepted the bitter cup of His passion – the betrayal, arrest, false trial, mocking, beating and scourging; the cross, the nails, the spear and death. All this and more, He willingly took upon Himself, even though He is the Lord and Creator of all.  But even so, we still have a hard time with humility.  Not even His closest disciples could grasp this easily.  In the Gospel today we heard how Jesus told the disciples that He would be arrested, condemned to death, that He would be mocked, scourged and spit upon, that He would be killed and on the third day rise again from the dead.  Hearing this, one would expect that the apostles would be horrified.  In fact we read elsewhere that at one point the apostle Peter cried out, rebuking Jesus and saying, “this shall not be!”.  Peter was at least shocked at this idea, but did not understand Jesus’ willing self-abasement to undergo this suffering for the salvation of mankind.  In the Gospel that we read today, however, we see another reaction by the Apostles James and John that is even more off base than Peter’s.  Having heard Jesus say these things, they decided that this was the time to approach Him and ask to be given the honor of sitting at His side when He ascended to His glory as Messiah (thinking that this meant that He would become the King of Israel and throw off the yoke of the Roman overlord).   Jesus had just told them that He would suffer, and their greatest concern was to assure their places of honor in His administration.  The other apostles when they heard this became angry with James and John, not about the inappropriateness of their action, but because they were upset that James and John were trying to get an unfair advantage.  See how here, Jesus was trying to teach His disciples about humility by His own example and they missed the lesson entirely because of their pride. 

Humility is essential for our salvation and yet we often don’t even have a clue about our own pride.  Unless we humble ourselves and crucify our pride, we cannot follow Christ.  His path is the way of humility and that must be our way as well. Jesus responds first by asking, “Can you drink the cup that I must drink, can you be baptized with the baptism with which I will be baptized?”  In this He brought to their attention the suffering of which He had just spoken (and which they missed the first time) and indicated that if they wished to follow Him, that they would have to humble themselves as well.  Then, to illustrate His point He tells them, “Whosoever will be greatest among you must be the servant of all.” In other words, humility is the central core of the Kingdom of Heaven.  If we wish to be raised into the Kingdom of God, we must first acquire humility.  We must strive not to be better than others, but to serve others.  This is the hard lesson of humility, but it is a necessary lesson.

If you want to be saved, humble yourself.  Give up your whole self and lay it on the altar of sacrifice to our Lord.  Imitate the Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the Son of God, the Creator of the Universe and rightful King of all – and yet He set that all aside and submitted Himself to the suffering and difficulty of the incarnation.  He who is pure and holy put on the soiled garments of our flesh – the prison garments of convicted and condemned rebels.  He who is the King and Ruler of all accepted the life of a peasant living in a land that had been overrun by foreign conquerors.  He Who made all that exists in its perfection, constantly sought out the twisted and spoiled flesh of the blind, the lame, the deaf, the dumb, the demon possessed and the foolish, deceived slaves of passions in order to heal them and correct the damage that they had done to His perfect creation.  When men, in their proud foolishness, rejected Him, accused Him and crucified Him, He humbly accepted all this in order that we might be saved, if only we follow the same path of humility that He trod before us.

Today we also remember St Mary of Egypt and in her life we see a wonderful example of humility in the greeting between St Zosimas and St Mary. After finally catching up to Mary and throwing to her his own cloak that she could cover herself in modesty “Zosimas threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing.  She likewise bowed down before him and thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing.  And one word alone could be heard from Both: ‘Bless (me)’  After a while, the woman said to Zosimas: ‘Abba Zosimas, it is you who must give blessings and pray. You are dignified by the order of the priesthood and for many years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.’  This flung Zosimas into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her: ‘O mother, filled with the Spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent – for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before.  Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.’ Then giving way before the wish of the elder, the woman said: ‘Blessed God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls. ‘ Zosimas answered: ‘Amen. … Fulfill the unworthy petition of an old man and pray for me who am a sinner.’ She answered: ‘You who are a priest, Abba Zosimas, it is you who must pray for me for this is your calling. But as we must all be obedient, I will gladly do what you ask.’ And with the words she turned to the East, and raising her eyes to heaven and stretching out her hands she began to pray …”

Here is an example of humility.  Zosimas, who was a priest and who had lived many years as a monastic humbled himself before a strange wild-woman of the desert.  Even when she invoked his priesthood, he set aside that honor that he had been given before the obvious grace that she possessed.  She, on the other hand, who had prayed in the company of angels, who had been taught by the Holy Spirit, who lived in the presence of Christ, set aside her own sanctity and humbled herself before Zosmias because of His priesthood.  When He finally prevailed upon her to give the first blessing and to pray for him, she responded with a reference that we must all be obedient and so fulfilled his request to pray.  They became servants of one another by their humility.

This is how we must be to each other.  Rather than seeking to assert our own superiority (real or imagined) over one another, we have to humble ourselves and be obedient to one another.  There is no place in the community of the Church for pride, for exalting oneself, of considering oneself to be better than others.  Anything that we have that might lift us above one another – wealth, possessions, talent, skill, worldly position, even any holiness that we might have obtained – is not ours, but is given to us by God, it belongs to Him.  And so we set all this aside and stand before God together as servants of one another. 

We will soon finish Great Lent and enter into the struggles of Holy Week.  We will have our feet washed as it were, by Christ Himself; we will receive from Him His own very Body and Blood; we will be there as He is betrayed, arrested, beaten, mocked and nailed to the cross.  We will stand with His Mother and watch Him die; we will take His body from the cross and place it in a grave.  We will descend with Him into Hades.  Mourning the loss of our beloved, we will then be filled with the joy of His Resurrection and we will proclaim this triumph to the whole world.  But we can do none of this if we do not first humble ourselves, destroy our pride, become the servants of one another and follow Him. 

Homily for 4/4/21 – Sacrificing the Will

Today is the Lenten feast of the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord. Last night, towards the end of the vigil, the Life-giving Cross was brought out for veneration and it remains in the Church for the whole week for our help and encouragement. In this Cross there is a particle of the true Cross upon which Our Savior was crucified.  Thus when we venerate it here this week, we are mystically transported to the Holy Land, to Jerusalem, to Golgotha where the cross once stood.  And from Golgotha, it is only a short walk, a few hundred feet, to the tomb of the Lord where He rose from the dead. The Cross is brought out now to remind us that we have completed the first half of Great Lent. For those of us who have not started fasting as of yet, the Cross is a stern reminder that now is the time to get our act together and start, or Pascha will come and we will have missed this opportunity. For those of us who are fasting but may be feeling that we are weakening, the sanctity of the Cross strengthens us. And even for us who are not weakening but doing well, the Cross rewards us with Grace. After all, the Cross is our spiritual sword against the dark enemies that we encounter every day.

That the Cross is our weapon of salvation shows us how incredibly merciful the Lord is. In the Old Testament Scripture we see that the Cross was considered to be a curse. It was the diabolical invention of Satan to be used in the most horrific way for men to destroy each other.  The Savior takes this diabolical tool and sanctifies it with His blood by dying on it.  The Cross then becomes for us a sacred, holy relic that frees us from the influence of the devil if we use it as Christ did.  What incredible mercy of the Savior to take something that was developed to horrifically destroy us and make it our ladder into the kingdom of God!

How then can we use the Cross as our Lord did and gain this benefit?  When our Lord prepared Himself for the ordeal that He would face in giving His life for us, He went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray.  There He poured out His heart to the Father and felt, as God, the full force of the struggle that we face as His fallen creatures.  He knows our weakness, He knows our pain, He knows our shortcomings, He knows the temptation that we face both from our own fallen nature and from the demonic forces which confront us.  He knows these things first hand for having taken on our flesh, He experienced all that we experience, from moment of our birth to the instant of our death.  All of this He poured out in prayer and then, seeing the extreme suffering that awaited Him on this path of self sacrifice for us, He fell on His face saying, “O my Father, if it be possible let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as Thou wilt.”  And rising from His prayer He found the disciples sleeping and He roused them instructing them to watch and pray that they might not fall prey to temptation.  He returned again to His own prayer and again a second time said, “O my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.” (Matt 26:39-42)  In these two prayers we see the core of how He approached the cross and how we should likewise do so.  Jesus Christ is God incarnate – God, the Creator of all that is, took our flesh and assumed our whole life.  He saw joy and sorrow, He experienced everything that we do in this life.  He had a human will that reacted to all these things as would our own will.  At this moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, that human will was brought out and seeing what was ahead He cried out, “Let this cup pass from me.” And then comes the key moment of the Cross where He says, “and yet not my will but Thine be done.”  At that moment the human will of Christ is in perfect harmony with the divine will, even though that harmony will result in temporary suffering and death.

Here it is, the very thing that we need to adopt in our own lives in order to fully ascend the Cross with Christ in such a way that it becomes for us a sacred, holy relic that frees us from the influence of the devil.  The Cross is an altar of sacrifice and on that altar we offer the one thing that we have to offer – our will.  Coming to the Cross we can cry out with this very prayer, “not my will but Thine” sacrificing the one thing that separates us from complete harmony with God.  The Psalmist himself saw this a millennium before and cried out in the 50th Psalm, “the sacrifice for God is a broken heart, a heart that is broken and humbled God will not despise.”  Our own will, the very heart of our being as a free person and the pivot upon which we choose to follow Christ or not is the very thing that we must sacrifice. 

By offering up your own will you renounce what “I want” and instead embrace what God gives. This is the essence of the Cross as the symbol of our victory.  If we can do this, then we can walk the path of salvation in harmony with Jesus Christ.

Offering up the will means that we set aside our own desires and accept with joy that which God gives to us.  Until we set aside our own will, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible to see what God gives because we are so focused on what we want that we are unable to perceive anything else.  Everything that we see is colored by the lens of our own desires.  If something is good to us it is because that thing conforms to our desire and if it is bad, it is because it goes against our desire.  While still wrapped up in our own will, its hard to see things from any different perspective (and if we happen to be able to step out of ourselves for a moment and see something different, it remains impossible to act on it without first denying ourselves.)  In order to take this step of acceptance with joy of all that God gives, we first must bring our will into harmony with His.  That means giving up our own hopes and dreams and desires and goals and directing our will to only one goal – that of being with our Lord Jesus Christ.  If He is our only desire, then to follow Him instead of ourselves becomes the natural thing to do.

But such self sacrifice requires that we love God above all else and secondly that we trust Him to love us and to bring us to Himself.  That trust is important because what we are doing when we sacrifice our own will is that we are putting ourselves fully and completely in the hands of God.  We trust that He loves us and desires that we come into communion and union with Him.  Because He loves us, He also arranges our lives in such a way that everything works together for the purpose of bringing us to Himself.  For this reason the Apostle was able to say, “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28)  That “good” is the fulfillment of the one desire of the will that has been sacrificed to God – to be with Him.  Our all-powerful God brings every thing in our lives into the service of this one desire, to be with Him.  Knowing this, we can have confidence that every event, every joy, every sorrow, every moment of our lives is part of the path to be with God.  Thus no matter what happens, whether “good” or “bad” from a worldly point of view, we can embrace it and rejoice in it for that moment has brought us one step closer to Christ – our one and only true desire.

Here then is how we sacrifice our will on the altar of the Cross and offer it to our Lord Jesus Christ.  The prayer, “not my will but Thine be done” is the key to transforming the Cross from an instrument of torture and death into the symbol of our victory and the font of joy.  Sacrifice your will, set aside your own desires, your hopes and dreams and goals.  Replace your will with the will of God and embrace all that He brings to you in this life.  When your only love, your only desire is to be with Christ, then every moment of your life becomes one more step closer the realization of that desire.  Our Lord arranges every step of the way so that it brings us nearer to Him and having that confidence we can then embrace all that comes to us and accept it with joy for we are coming ever nearer to Jesus Christ.

This then is the path of the Cross; the path not of suffering and torture, but of joy and rejoicing.  Abandon yourself into the arms of Jesus Christ outstretched to receive you on the Cross and you will receive your desire for just as you have embraced Him, so will He embrace you.

Homily for 3/21/21 – Faith

Heb. 11:24-26, 32-12:2

We heard today in the Epistle a great deal about faith.  Faith indeed is important and today we celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” wherein we proclaim that our faith is indeed the only true faith.  What then is faith?  Why is it important?  The answer to these questions is contained even in the same epistle that we read from today.  In the previous chapter (Heb 10:23) we read the admonition of the Apostle: “Let  us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering” and then “For the just shall live by faith” and that we “believe to the saving of the soul.”   See what a central role the concept of “faith” has in our life.  The Apostle then continues at the beginning of this chapter (Heb 11:1) to define what faith is:  “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” and then he continues to give a multitude of examples of the importance of faith in our lives of which we heard but a few. (I would encourage all of you, when you return home, to read this entire segment from Hebrews 10:23 – 12:2).  But what does this all mean?  What exactly does it mean to “live by faith”?

To have faith is to believe in the truth of something and then to use that belief to make decisions about how to live.  Faith is basic to our lives.  If we have faith in our God then we believe that what God tells us is true and that it is a reliable guide for ordering our lives. What we believe about God matters and so having a reliable and definable belief about God is important.  Therefore, we believe in “One God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth… and in one Lord Jesus Christ…” and so on.  The Creed (the Symbol of Faith) is our statement of what we believe about God and what He has told us.  This is our faith, this is what we believe, this is the foundation of our lives.  If we have this faith then we can move on and use it make decisions about how to act, how to live, what is important and what is not, what is right and what is wrong.  Our faith in God is the root of all these things in our lives. 

We cannot directly perceive God and even if we could He is far beyond our ability to comprehend.  In order to “live by faith” in God, we therefore hold firmly onto the truth that God has revealed Himself to us through the law and the prophets and ultimately, by His incarnation which is the full, complete and perfect self-revelation of God to us.  Therefore if we wish to be saved (that is to be able to live in eternity in union and communion with God), we must follow the path that He sets out for us in this revelation.

The Apostle tells us further that no man is saved by works – that is, no man can sufficiently follow the instructions that God has given us for we all bear in ourselves the seed of corruption which implants the element of sin and imperfection in our every effort – but that we are saved by grace through faith.  What this means is that our transformation into His image and likeness is accomplished by the infusion of His grace which is acquired not by our own accomplishments, but by our faith.  And here we can begin to see what it means to “live by faith”.  God has given to us instructions about how to order our lives in, for example, the ten commandments.  But none of us can perfectly fulfill all these commandments as we are inherently sinful and imperfect.  But if we are saved by faith rather than works God judges us not on what we have accomplished, but rather by the process of our struggle.  Regardless of our failures, do we struggle to live according to those commandments?  Do we truly believe that they are the laws and standards by which we become like God?  When we fail to follow them, do we then fall into despair, give up and try some other path, or do we repent, with firm faith in God’s mercy and forgiveness, get up and continue on the path set before us by the commandments?  This is the life of faith – we believe that the commandments of God are the means by which we become like Him and so we strive with all our being to fulfill those commandments.  And when we fail (because we do fail almost continually) we have faith – that is we believe – that God Himself will be true to His promise to forgive us and cleanse us of the consequences of our sins if only we repent.  And so by faith, we repent and we return to the path of the commandments that He has set before us. 

Let us look at one of the examples that the Apostle puts before us – the example of Abraham.  Abraham lived before the law and therefore his righteousness could not be defined by the law.  His righteousness, however was defined by his life of faith.  Abraham believed God and followed God’s call to leave his father’s home and to journey to a strange land which God has promised to give to him and his descendants.  Abraham believed and acted according to his faith; he journeyed to the land of Canaan and there began to dwell.  Abraham had no children and yet God had promised him descendants.  Abraham continued in his faith that God would provide children until it seemed he and his wife Sarah were beyond the years of childbearing.  At some point then, Abraham’s faith waned, it wavered, and he made a plan to “help” God by his own efforts.  Sarah sent her slave, Hagar (who was still of childbearing age), to Abraham so that he could conceive a child with her that would then technically be Sarah’s child since Hagar was her slave (the idea of surrogate parenting is not at all new you see).  When God saw how Abraham’s faith waned, He Himself came to Abraham in the form of three angels and renewed Abraham’s faith with the promise that Sarah herself would conceive and bear a child.  Now if you are familiar with this event in the Old Testament (book of Genesis) you will remember that the plan of Abraham and Sarah to help God out with the child of Hagar turned out rather poorly and caused no end of difficulty for Abraham’s descendants, but that the child of the promise, Sarah’s son Isaac, did indeed work out rather well.  Here we see the example of faith which is strong, then wanes and results in a fall but that God provides the opportunity for Abraham to repent and to return to the path of faith.  God later tests Abraham’s faith again, telling him to sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise.  This time, Abraham’s faith did not waver and God provided a miraculous resolution. (Gen. 22:1-18)  Abraham lived by faith – even without the law – and his faith was counted unto him as righteousness.  God did not judge Abraham by his accomplishments (for as we see he wavered and fell away) but by his struggle.

This is our example of the life of faith.  We believe God and all that He has shown us through the law and the prophets and His incarnation.  We strive to follow the God/man Jesus Christ as best we can and when we fall, we do not despair, but we repent, get back up and continue to struggle to follow Christ. 

Today we celebrate the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” which marks the return of icons to the Church and the final defeat of the heresy of iconoclasm.  This event is expanded to celebrate the constant provision and care of God for His Church protecting her from every heresy that arises.  At the time of the 7th Ecumenical council, many heresies had arisen and been rejected: Arianism Nestorianism, Monophysitism (and all of its variants), Sabellianism, Gnosticism, Iconoclasm and so on.  The number and variety of these heretical movements is infinite – and many, although they were rejected by the Church continue in a variety of forms in the non-Orthodox Christian confessions.  For this reason it is necessary to hold fast to the Orthodox Christian faith and to reject others who claim to be Christian but hold to a different belief.  This is the true faith, this is the only true path that has been revealed to us by God.  In every other religion, sect and philosophy there is that element of error which prevents a person from truly following Christ, and which introduces a wrong turn that leads to a waning of faith such as Abraham experienced and finally a falling away from the path revealed by God. 

God loves you and wants you to enter into union and communion with Him.  He has shown you the way through the scripture – that is the law and the prophets – as well as through His own incarnation.  He calls us to live by faith in His revelation, to live according to His instruction. In His great love and compassion for us, He also sees our weakness, our infirmity, our imperfection that is inherent in us by the seed of corruption and sin that is buried in our fallen nature.  Therefore He calls us to live by faith – and judges us not on our accomplishments, but rather on our struggle – that is, on the process.  Today we are called to live by faith, to give to God our utmost.  And when we fail, when we fall, when we sin; we turn away from that failure, confess our sins and repent and God has promised that He will forgive us, that He will heal us and cleanse us of all unrighteousness and that He will lead us into His Kingdom.  My brothers and sisters, live by faith – every moment of your lives trusting in God, and He will lead you unfailingly into His eternal embrace.

homily for 3/7/21 – The Great Judgement

Matthew 25:31-46

The last two weeks, we have heard in the parables of the prodigal son and of the publican and Pharisee of the great mercy and compassion of God; how He hears our prayers, receives our repentance and freely forgives our sins, welcoming us back into His loving arms when we have sinned.  This great message of encouragement is the background that we need in order to hear that our God is also the great and final judge and that there awaits us, at the end of the world, a final and unalterable judgement.  On this Sunday we are instructed to remember the Great Judgement at the end of the world that we shall all face, when we will stand before the throne of God and present Him with the fruit of our lives on this earth, and return to Him the talents that He gave us along with the interest that we have gained by our spiritual labor – and we shall be judged by Him for all eternity. 

The Gospel that we heard today paints for us a picture of God on a throne with the sheep on His right and the goats on His left.  Those on His right He welcomes into His kingdom of glory while those on His left are consigned to the lake of fire prepared for the devil and his servants.  Truly this is a sobering picture, however let us look at another picture of this great event – that which was seen by the Holy Apostle and Evangelist John in the vision which was given Him by our Lord:

“And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.  And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.  And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.  And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Rev 20:11-15)

Consider this scene which is described for us by the Holy Apostle.  First we see a great white throne that descends from heaven – it is described as white for it shone with the divine light of the glory of the Lord.  From the context that the Apostle gives us we know that He Who sits upon the throne is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ.  We see Him now in His great glory from which even the heavens and the earth have “fled away”.  And the saint tells us that “there was found no place for them” that is for the heavens and earth by which he means the physical universe which we know.  At this moment the old cosmos is remade into something new and glorious which is described by the Apostle Paul saying, “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor entered into the heart of men the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” (1Cor 2:9)  This is the new heavens and the new earth that God has prepared for those who love Him.  Around this great throne every person who ever lived upon the earth from Adam until the last person born will be gathered.  All mankind will be resurrected and we will all stand before God as complete persons, body and soul, to be judged.  This scene is nearly unimaginable and truly befits the glory of God.

We are not told just how this great judgment takes place other than the reference “the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”  Here now we return to the words of our Lord in the Gospel we heard today for He tells us that already there is a division, even before the judgement begins.  The sheep are gathered on one side and the goats on the other.  This indicates  that there is some kind of “prejudgment” that takes place to which we are all subject.  This “prejudgment” is the particular judgment that we face at the time of our death.  Those in this life who have lived according to faith in the Gospel of our Lord are sent to dwell in paradise while those who live according to their own will await the judgment in the torments of hades, each one experiencing a foretaste of eternity.  The criteria of this judgment is “those things which are written in the books, according to their works.”  You see, my brothers and sisters, we are each writing our own book at this very moment and every day of our lives.  Each day we write a new page.  When we live righteously according to our faith, this is recorded in our book and when we fall away and sin, this too is recorded.  In order to remove those pages full of the black ink of our sins we must certainly repent and our merciful Lord seeing our repentance will tear those pages out of the book and destroy them.  But if we do not repent the black ink of sin remains and stains the whole of the page.

Hearing this we might think with the Apostles, “but who then can be saved?” for indeed we are all sinners and we all have fallen not once or twice but many times.  To this our Lord replies that we are saved not by our own power, but by His great mercy and compassion and says to us that even though all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, if we confess our sins and repent of our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.  Therefore, do not fall into despair, but remember the lessons of the mercy and compassion of our Lord which was given to us in the previous Sundays.

As for the contents of the books, we have only to look at today’s Gospel and there we are told that those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned are counted worthy to enter into the Kingdom of God.  It is not simply doing these things that brings us to this place, but rather that these actions are the physical manifestations and actions of those who love God with all their heart and love their neighbor as themselves.  These are the characteristics of God Himself and if we live according to our faith in Him, we too will do these things.  Therefore we know that we will be judged not simply according to our own works (for there is no one righteous) but rather according to living out of our faith in Christ.

Now let us take a moment and consider how it is that our Lord Jesus Christ, who forgave all men, even those who nailed Him to the cross, could also be the great Judge who condemns the wicked for eternity.  In the incarnation we have the first coming of Christ – God incarnate in this world in humility and as our loving Creator gently leading us onto the path of eternal life.  Then later, at this Great Judgement He is the King of all Who appears in glory, riding upon a great white horse, subduing His enemies and consigning them to eternal punishment.  How do we reconcile these two pictures?  Let us now consider another parable, that of the fig tree which did not produce:

“ He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? And he answering said unto him, Lord, let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it: And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down.”

This parable exactly explains the two comings of Christ.  Having created our first parents, God “planted” them in the Garden of Eden so that they might grow, produce fruit and mature and thus take their place in the heavenly choirs.  But by their own sin, they and all their progeny became infected with corruption and death.  Even so, God provided a cure for this illness so that they and all their children could be restored to their heavenly place.  A portion of mankind continued to follow God and to produce the fruit of righteousness, however others fell further away from God and were enslaved by their passions.  God allowed both the righteous and the sinful to grow together until the time of the harvest so that the righteous would have ample time to ripen and produce the fruit of righteousness.  As the time of the harvest neared God Himself came to “inspect” His crop and found that even the righteous were suffering and needed some TLC to fully ripen.  Instead of doing away with us God chose to “dig about” us and “dung” (that is fertilize) us by pouring out His grace upon us. This marks the first coming of Christ – this is God’s provision of TLC to allow mankind to ripen and produce the fruit of righteousness.  But still the time of the harvest will come, that is the second coming and the great judgement.  At that time He will judge each and all of us to see if we have produced fruit or if we remain barren. 

Too often we focus on the God/man Jesus Christ as the tender caregiver Who is working to nurture us and bring about fruit before the end, but we forget that He is also the Judge who will separate the fruitful from the barren, the sheep from the goats; and those who have the fruit of righteousness He will welcome into His Kingdom while those who are barren and have only their sins to offer will be banished to the lake of fire which is prepared for the devil and his servants.

Brothers and sisters, today we remember that there is indeed a great and final judgement coming.  Let us therefore work diligently, using well the riches of grace that are poured out upon us by the Holy Spirit that we might become fruit bearing trees which will be preserved and planted in the Kingdom of God.  Great Lent is nearly upon us – this is the time each year that we devote to our greatest spiritual struggle, this is the time that has the most promise for us to bear the fruit of righteousness.  Do not let this opportunity pass nor forget that God in His great love for us showers every good gift, every chance to bring forth this spiritual fruit and to be welcomed into His Kingdom.

homily for 2/21/21 – God’s promise of forgiveness

Luke 18:10-14

Today is the day that we begin to formally prepare for Great Lent.  This parable of the publican and Pharisee reminds us of the importance of humble repentance.  Indeed over the next 8 weeks or so we will hear a lot about repentance and humility, self-denial and taking up one’s cross, spiritual struggle and the labor of working out our salvation.  Before we begin that arduous task however, let us take a brief respite to look at something a little different. 

“The publican, standing afar off, wouldn’t lift up so much as his eyes to heaven, but smote upon his breast saying, God be merciful to me a sinner.  I tell this man went down to his house justified…”  Do you see it? Do you see the most beautiful and wonderful thing that is being shown to us?  “This man (was) justified” that is he was forgiven.  God’s unconditional forgiveness is the great promise that we can hold on to all during the rigors of the fast.  God loves us and He eagerly awaits our repentance.  He is there with His arms outstretched to us, ready to lift us up and bring us into the joy of His presence.  If we confess our sins, He is ready and willing to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  This is a great blessing and a great promise. 

When the Holy Apostle Peter came to Jesus walking on the water, he became overwhelmed by the violence of the wind and the sea around him and fear set in.  Peter began to sink.  He cried out at that moment, “Lord save me” and there was Jesus, at his side, lifting Peter out of the waves and setting him safely in the boat.  See how simple it was – all Peter had to do was to cry out, confessing his weakness and his need of the help of the Lord Jesus Christ, and there He is with outstretched arms, taking Peter out of danger and placing him in safety. 

There will be many times during the coming fast when we may well become overwhelmed by the violence of our sins and the whisperings of despair that the demons constantly suggest to us.  We will be sinking in the sea of our own fears, our own passions and our own weakness.  At that moment, cry out to our Lord Jesus Christ, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” and there He will be, ready to lift you out of the mire of your sins and to set you firmly in the safety of the ark of salvation – His own Church.

The Pharisee of the parable came to God and instead of confessing his own sinfulness and entrusting himself to the care of God, he began to tell God just how righteous he was on his own.  He did not see (of if he did he did not admit) his own sinfulness but instead bragged to God how he did not need God’s help because he was good enough (or even more than enough) on his own.  This is the condition of many in this world – they do not see (or do not admit) their own sins.  It is as if they are blind to their helpless condition.  This inability to see one’s own sins comes about by a lack of repentance.  We always need to cultivate a climate of repentance so we can maintain some sensitivity towards sin.  When a specific sinful state is prolonged , the initial sensitivity towards this sin disappears.  Very often, when a person sins, they immediately feel the shame and horror of their sin, even as they are still in the midst of the sinful act – but they cannot stop.  But if repentance is put off, or completely avoided, then we begin to harden inside and after a time, our sinful actions no longer faze us.  The truth is that we must be in a constant state of repentance. We must refresh our spirit of repentance day and night. In doing this we will maintain the necessary sensitivity and we will keep from falling into the abyss of corruption.  The great danger, when we have lost our sensitivity to sin is that we begin to blame God for our sins.  This shifting of blame starts very subtly as we first begin to blame others for our sin – someone else made me do this, it’s their fault not mine.  They need to repent not me.   When we notice these thoughts in our mind and heart that is a great danger sign.  We have already begun the process of hardening our heart.  As this shifting of blame continues we begin to find ways to blame God Himself for our sins, “God made me this way, it’s only natural that I do this.” and so on.  Beware such thinking for these thoughts only lead us away from the path of salvation and begin to tie us down and we become enslaved to our sin.

What to do?  How can I escape such a strong and subtle trap?  The answer is the great mystery of the grace of God. God will come to help the sinner as long as the state of the soul is not irreversible.  What makes it irreversible?  Only the lack of repentance.  All one needs to do is to humble himself and cry out with the publican “Lord have mercy on me a sinner!” and God’s grace is quick to act in us.  Hearing our cry for help, Our Lord rushes to our side, reaches out His hand to us and lifts us from the waves which threaten to overwhelm us.  Nothing can prevent Him from coming to us, nothing can hold Him back.  The only thing that we have to do is to turn to Him, confess our own weakness and helplessness and throw ourselves completely on His mercy.  At that moment that we turn to Him, He pours out His grace upon us, He heals the wounds that sin has inflicted upon us and He sets us again on the path of salvation.

Yes, the lessons of the dangers of pride and the blessed state of humility that are evident in the Gospel are important for us to learn today.  This parable should be before the eyes of your heart and in your mind all week long.  Read it every day this week in the morning and meditate upon in throughout the whole day.  Absorb everything that you can from it.  Especially note the firm promise of forgiveness and the immediate reaction of grace that is given to the publican and fix this promise in your heart so that it will be an anchor throughout the whole of Great Lent.  God loves you and desires your salvation, He has promised that He will provide for you all that you need.  All you need to do is to confess like the publican, your own helplessness and throw yourself into the loving and compassionate arms of our Lord Jesus Christ and He will forgive you, He will heal you, He will pour out His grace upon you and He will bring you into His presence to stand with the choir of the saints.  This is the promise of our God to you – do not let go of it or forget it, but hold onto it as your anchor for the coming struggle of Great Lent.

Homily for 2/7/21 – Martyrdom

Luke 21:12-19

Our Lord Jesus Christ spoke to his disciples prophesying the fall of Jerusalem and they asked Him, “when shall these things be, what sign will there be when these things come to pass?”  The Lord then began to tell them not only of the immanent destruction of Jerusalem (in 70 AD) but also of the signs of the end of the world and His second coming.  He spoke to them of wars and rumors of wars, of earthquakes, famines, pestilence (plague) and other “fearful sights and great signs”.  He then said to them, “But before all these things, they shall lay their hands on you and persecute you … some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated by all men for my names sake.”  Having given them this dire warning, He then spoke words of comfort, “But there shall not an hair of your head that shall perish. In your patience possess ye your souls.”

From the first martyrdom of the deacon Stephen, to the great persecutions of the pagan rulers, to strife and martyrdoms at the hands of heretics, to the oppression and martyrdoms of the Turkish yoke the words of the Lord proved themselves true again and again.  Even after these waves of martyrdom in the ancient world, the words of our Lord continue to show themselves true.  Always the Church and those who hold to belief in Jesus Christ are singled out, persecuted, imprisoned and even killed by those who live according to the way of the world. Today we recall the beginning of the most recent wave of persecution and martyrdom – we call to mind the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church.  Certainly this persecution begun under the communist yoke of the Russian revolution was pervasive and tragic, but it was not limited to Russia alone, nor did it end after the first wave of martyrs.  This persecution continued on in Russia and spread to other nations, from the Slavic lands of Eastern Europe (Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, etc) to the Christians throughout China.  Just as this persecution seems to have abated with the fall of the various communist governments in Russia and Eastern Europe, so now we begin to see it rise up again in the cultural revolution of the western nations (including the Americas). Those who hold to the Christian faith, believing in the words of our Lord Jesus Christ and attempting to live accordingly are increasingly considered to be ignorant, intolerant, unloving, bigoted, prejudiced and even evil.  This is not a political phenomenon – because all sides of the political spectrum participate in this persecution (all the while seeking to identify the other side as the true culprit).  This is the work of the evil one in the whole world.  It is not right against left, red against blue, conservative against liberal, or any other dichotomy that we are presented with in the political spectrum.  This is a struggle of the world (and the prince of this world, that is the devil) against Christ and His servants, and we are in the midst of it.

But hear the words of the Lord, “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.”  These are the concluding verses of the beatitudes that we sing at every liturgy before the Gospel is brought out.  And again from the Gospel reading of today, “And it shall turn to you for a testimony … I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist … But there shall not an hair of your head perish.”  In the midst of all this trial, all of this difficulty, we know that God Himself has us in His care, giving us all that is needed to remain steadfast in our confession and to protect us from all harm.  How is it you might ask that Jesus can say in one moment, “some of you they will cause to be put to death” and then almost immediately “not an hair of your head shall perish”?  This is not some inherent contradiction, but rather a reminder that we who follow Him do not have the perspective of the world.  Yes, we will suffer physically (some even quite horribly) and yes, some will even die – but this is of no importance.  God will give to us the strength to endure every persecution.  Remember that He tells us not to fear the one who can harm the body, but that we should instead fear the one who can kill the soul (that is we should only concern ourselves with God Himself and not with the things of this world.)  Any temporal difficulty, pain or suffering that we might face in this world for His sake, even the separation of the soul and body will be counted unto us for righteousness and will bring great eternal rewards in the Kingdom of heaven.  God’s concern for us is for the salvation of our soul and to bring us into His presence with joy and rejoicing in the Kingdom of heaven.  If we should enjoy earthly comforts and pleasures in this life – then glory to God; but if these comforts and pleasures are taken from us in this life, then remember that they are temporary and of limited duration and that they will be replaced by the eternal joys and pleasures of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Martyrdom is giving up our life so that we might receive in return the life of Christ.  For some that means a long life full of self denial and bearing one’s cross.  For others that means suffering and literal death for Christ. Whatever we are given in this life, remember that it is a gift from God which is meant to bring us to our salvation. We need to reorient ourselves so that we no longer look at our lives from the perspective of this world where comfort, pleasures, freedom from suffering and any discomfort let alone pain, the esteem and agreement of men, the acquisition of riches and other possessions, etc. are goal.  Instead let us count this world as temporary and remember that our true home is in heaven.  Let us set our goals on acquiring the gifts of God: mercy, life, love, joy, peace of soul and the other fruits of the Holy Spirit. This is the struggle that leads to martyrdom, but also it is the dichotomy that places even physical suffering and death as nothing, and which promises that not even a hair on our head will be harmed.

The New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church, whose memory we celebrate today, are the first wave of the martyrs of the modern world.  We know that we are their brothers and sisters and that they have borne the onset of this new episode of persecution and martyrdom that will face the Church in our lives and in the lives of our children and grandchildren.  Today more than ever before we need remember that we have embraced Christ and even more important that He has embraced us.  We have come to Him and He has received us.  He knows that we will face great difficulties, but He will give us the superhuman (let us say the divine) strength to endure, the wisdom and words to confess Him before men.  He has promised us that every pain, every sorrow, every moment of suffering borne for His sake in this mortal and temporal world will bring us in return great reward in heaven.  We don’t have to be famous (how many martyrs and saints remain unknown in this world?), we only have to be faithful.  Jesus said to us, “all those who endure to the end will be saved.”  This is the key, whether we suffer a literal and profound martyrdom or whether we live a long life of self-denial and bearing our cross – let us “endure to the end” that we might be saved.  Remember the final instruction of our Lord in the Gospel that we heard read today: “in your patience possess ye your souls.”

homily for 1/24/21 – Repent

Matthew 4:12-17

Every year at this time many of us go through a little ritual that involves making New Year’s resolutions that we hope will help us to become better persons or perhaps will establish a good habit or make us healthier or accomplish some other positive movement in our lives.  While this is an entirely secular ritual, it is very similar to what we are called to do as Christians.  We are called by Christ to change, to become new – and not just once a year, but every hour of every day.

After Jesus had been baptized by John in the Jordan, He withdrew into the wilderness to fast and pray.  There, He was tempted by the evil one and defeated him.  Jesus then departed to go north into Galilee of the Gentiles (further up the Jordan River on the shores of the Sea of Galilee) where He began to preach.  His message was the same as that of His forerunner the prophet and baptist John: “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

To repent means to turn away from something and leave it behind – it means to embark on a new path.  Often we equate repentance with sorrow for our sins, however they are not the same thing.  Repentance and sorrow do often go together, but they are not identical.  We can be sorry for our sins and yet not repent.  This is when we regret having sinned, we might even weep over our sins – but we do not turn away from our sins.  Too often this is the case for us when we realize that we have sinned – we regret having sinned, we maybe even wish we hadn’t sinned, we may even weep for our sins, but then we go right on sinning in exactly the same way.  We might excuse ourselves saying “I can’t help it.” or “It’s just a habit I have.” or some other expression of helplessness.  We might try to blame our behavior on someone else saying, “Well, if they had done that I would not have had to do what I did.” or “I had to do what I did in order to avoid hurting that other person.”  We all have excuses for our sins – excuses that only lead to continued sin. 

But Jesus calls us to do more than regret our sins or be sorry for our sins – He calls us to repent.  When, in response to the prophet Jonah’s teaching, the city of Ninevah turned from their sin the scripture tells us that “God repented” of His judgement.  He didn’t make a mistake that he regretted, nor did He feel sorry for threatening to destroy them.  God did repent – He turned away from His previous course of action and embarked on something different. Our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to repent, to turn away from our sin – leave it behind and never return to it and embark on a different path.  This is hard because it means that we have to give up something, maybe even something that we love.  Maybe we have to give up complaining, or having a temper tantrum, or eating and drinking too much.  Maybe we have to stop being callous towards others who we encounter, ignoring and neglecting them.  We have to stop doing evil and turn instead to do good.

Every sinful passion has its opposite virtue.  Pride is countered by humility, greed by generosity, gluttony by temperance and so on. The fathers teach us that the way to fight a particular sinful passion is to consciously practice its opposite virtue.  Therefore if you find that you are acquisitive and greedy, then force yourself to be generous and give not only what you were tempted to keep for yourself, but give more than that.  Our Lord told us that if someone takes our coat, we should give him our cloak as well – or if he should require us to go with him one mile, we should freely go with him two.  Such behavior not only breaks the power of the sinful passion, but it begins to establish in us the virtue that we strive to practice.  This is the kind of conscious spiritual warfare that we must engage in if we choose to repent.  Turn away from your old sin – stop doing it – and force yourself to practice the opposite virtue.

Now, before Jesus began His teaching, after He finished his time of prayer and fasting, the Gospel tells us: “At that time, when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, He departed into Galilee…”  This doesn’t sound like much – it’s more like a segue from the temptation to the beginning of the Lord’s public teaching – but St John Chrysostom doesn’t ignore this. He comments: “Jesus departs, teaching us to give place to wrath, and not to enter into temptation by going ahead and putting ourselves in danger.  If Christ, Who could do all things, departs and flees physically, there is all the more reason for us to flee from dangers and temptations.  It is not a sin to flee; the sin lies in a failure to fight and struggle bravely and steadfastly when temptation befalls one.” This is an important strategy that I think we too often fail to consider when seeking to repent.  Many times we have the thought that we have to bravely and grimly stand our ground and withstand all the fire and arrows of the tempters.  While that is certainly necessary at times, sometimes, it is better just to leave and go somewhere else.  Time and time again the Holy Apostle Paul tells his spiritual children to flee temptation: in various letters he says “flee fornication” “flee idolatry” “flee youthful lusts” and so on.  Certainly the Apostle would fight against temptation and sin, but there were times when it was best to flee.  If the temptation is too difficult for you, then flee from it – physically change your place, turn off the television or the computer, end a conversation and walk away, refuse to follow a certain train of thought.  Whatever it takes – separate yourself from the temptation.

Now there is another situation that sometimes arises that is downright foolish.  Sometimes a person may intentionally expose themselves to a temptation or purposefully go into a situation where they know they will be severely tempted.  Often there is this idea that by putting ourselves in such a situation, we show our faith in God to preserve us even in the greatest danger, but in fact what we are doing is simply acting in foolish pride, thinking that we are stronger, more holy, or more righteous than we actually are.  We forget that when the evil one tempted the Lord saying, “throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple for does not the scripture say that the angels will prevent even a hair of your head from being harmed.” that Jesus responded saying that we should not tempt (or try) the Lord our God.  It is a greater demonstration of faith in God to follow His example and His commandment than to foolishly put ourselves in harm’s way and hope that God will somehow protect us from our own foolishness.  Flee temptation – don’t run to it.

Brothers and sisters, let us hearken to the words of our Lord – let us repent.  Let us make a new spiritual resolution to turn away from our sins and embark on a different way of life.  Let us flee from temptation and turn instead to follow Christ.  This is the call of our Lord from the very beginning of His teaching, picking up the consistent message of the prophets and emphasizing it with His own voice: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

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