Monday, June 25, 2018

Homily for the Nativity of the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John in the Orthodox Church

Today we celebrate the birthday of one of the most unusual and important people in the history of our faith:  St. John the Baptist.  He has the titles of prophet, forerunner, and baptist because he fulfilled all three roles, speaking the word of the Lord as he prepared the way for the coming of Christ, calling God’s people to repentance and baptism, and even baptizing the incarnate Son of God at the very moment when the Holy Trinity was revealed by the voice of the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove upon the Lord in the Jordan.  Even before St. John was born, he pointed to Christ, leaping in the womb of St. Elizabeth at the arrival of the pregnant Theotokos, who contained within her the Savior of the world.  
            John’s own birth was miraculous, as his parents were an old, childless Jewish couple.  We’ve heard that story before with Abraham and Sarah.  But even though Zacharias was a priest actually serving in the Temple when the Archangel Gabriel brought the news that Elizabeth would bear him a son, he did not believe the message.  “How shall I know this?  For I am an old man and my wife advanced in years,” he said. Zacharias used the exact same phrase that Abraham did in Genesis to question how he could know that God would make him the father of a multitude in the promised land.  Zacharias surely knew the story of Abraham, and he should have welcomed this wonderful news with faith and joy.  Instead, he doubted and was disciplined by losing the ability to speak until John was born.
            There had also been silence, no prophetic word from the Lord in Israel in hundreds of years, since the time of Malachi.  Now Zacharias the priest has no voice.    The evil King Herod was not really Jewish and ruled in collaboration with the pagan Romans.  Those holding the three offices fulfilled in Christ of prophet, priest, and king were vacant, silent, or illegitimate.  Now it was time for God to prepare the way for the coming of the true Messiah by means of a prophet like Elijah who would turn the hearts of the people back to the Lord.
            And what a prophet St. John was:   An ascetic who lived in the desert, subsisted on a diet of locusts and honey, and fearlessly called religious leaders, soldiers, tax-collectors, and even King Herod to turn from their sinful ways and to live righteously.  He eventually lost his head for criticizing the immorality of the royal family.  It’s not surprising that one sent to prepare the way for Jesus Christ was killed by those who loved their own power more than God.
            St. Elizabeth hid herself for the first five months of her pregnancy until Christ was conceived, for all the events surrounding John’s birth were preparatory to the coming of the Savior.  Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, spoke as a prophetess to the pregnant Theotokos even as John jumped within her:  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb…Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”   Zacharias himself came to believe the Archangel’s message, receiving his voice back when he wrote on a tablet to confirm that the baby should be named John, even though none of his relatives had that name.
            In his song of praise after the John’s birth, Zacharias blessed God for the salvation that would come in Jesus Christ in fulfillment of the original promise to Abraham.  He must have had some time to ponder what he and Elizabeth had in common with Abraham and Sarah during those months when he could not speak, and he finally saw the connection.  He would die a martyr when Herod’s troops could not find John to kill him in the slaughter of the innocents, when the king had all the little boys of Bethlehem and the surrounding regions murdered.  Elizabeth miraculously hid herself and John in a cave from this terror; after she died forty days later, the boy grew up in the wilderness, fed by angels and protected by God. 
            There’s certainly nothing about John the Baptist that is business as usual.  Not his ministry, his conception, his parents, or what was going on around him.  And that’s precisely the point we should ponder today, for God’s ways are not our ways, His salvation and blessing are not merely spiritually-charged extensions of our own habits, plans, and preferences.  He calls us to a Kingdom not of this world in which barren old married women give birth to great prophets and a righteous virgin carries the Son of God in her womb.  He overthrows political and religious leaders with little babies, pregnant women, and confused old men.   He prepares the way for the Messiah with a prophet who lived anything but a conventional or comfortable life. 
            The same God who worked in such outrageous ways through St. John and his parents continues to operate in our lives, our church, and our world.  And He calls each of us to do what Zacharias originally failed to do:  to believe and obey that salvation and blessing  really are for us, that we have a unique role to play in how the Lord redeems and heals His good creation, here and now, today, in our generation.
            Too often, we have sold ourselves and God short.  We have assumed that our faith does no more than support our prejudices and preconceived notions, and those of our society.  We have rested easy with our faith making us a bit more religious and perhaps less stressed out before life’s challenges.  Too rarely, however, have we taken Christ at His word to make us living icons of the Kingdom, participants in the divine nature by grace.  Yes, our Savior wants to make us perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, to make us shine like irons left in a holy fire.  He wants us to forgive those who have wronged us; to love our enemies; to care for Him in the needy, miserable, and outcast; to refuse to worship the false gods of power, wealth, and pleasure; and to treat everyone who bears His image and likeness with the same love that we would show to Him.
            John the Baptist is a reminder that we won’t be transformed by following business as usual.  We need a radical change, a spiritual rebirth, a new dependence on and openness to the power of a God who does not operate according to our preferences and agendas.  Instead of coming up with the usual excuses as to why we can’t believe and live as Christ taught, it’s time to be shaken out of our complacency. It’s time to recognize that what has brought us weakness, despair, and sorrow will simply continue to make more of the same.  A little bit of convenient religion on the margins of our lives may produce socially respectable people, but not those who manifest the heavenly kingdom even as they live in a corrupt world.
            The Jews of the first century desperately needed a wake-up call, and did they ever get one in St. John the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist!  We still need his shocking message and witness.  And even as Zacharias eventually came to his senses, we can too.  The Lord wants to replace our spiritual barrenness with an abundance of new life as a sign of the salvation of the world.  Let’s take Him at His word and live accordingly.  That’s the best way to celebrate the birthday of St. John.         

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Idolatry Leads to Anxiety: Homily for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost and the 3rd Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 5:1-10; Matthew 6:22-33
Ours is an age of anxiety.  Many people are overcome with worry about matters large and small.  Some certainly do need the help of physicians and psychological counselors in order to cope with their fears.  The sickness of our souls remains, however, at the very heart of all our collective and personal brokenness.  If our souls are not healthy, we will never find the peace that truly satisfies us as God’s children who bear His image and likeness.   
The Lord spoke of the health of our souls in terms of vision: “The eye is the lamp of the body.  So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”   Christ taught that, if our spiritual vision is clear and focused, we will see ourselves and our problems in light of God’s kingdom.   Then we will be able to serve our one true Master and gain strength for being at peace, regardless of the circumstances of our lives.
If our spiritual vision is clouded and unfocused, however, we will not have the strength to see our problems and challenges in light of the Kingdom.  We will instead stumble in the darkness to the point that we make the passing things of this life our constant obsessions, which is a path only to greater worry, anxiety, and fear.  For example, many people make money and possessions false gods for which they will sacrifice just about anything.  Jesus Christ teaches that we are not to worry about our food, drink, and clothing.  Instead, we are to trust that our Heavenly Father knows that we need these things.  “Seek first His kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
This teaching does not condemn reasonable provision for a decent life for ourselves and our families.  It does not deny that the necessities of life are God’s good blessings.  Instead, it gives us a clear example of how spiritual blindness enslaves us to idolatry, which leads only to constant worry.  Poverty, hunger, and famine are always possibilities in our world.  Economic depression, natural disaster, war, crime, disease, and disability are obvious threats to having adequate food, clothing, and shelter.  There is simply no way that we can protect ourselves completely from such dangers.  If we make the physical necessities of life our gods, we cannot avoid being consumed by worry about them. That kind of idolatry inevitably fuels anxiety.     
If the eyes of our souls are gaining clarity and focus, however, we will not blindly view life’s necessities as the highest good, and neither will we make the lack of them the greatest evil.  Instead, we will be illumined with the light of Christ to the point that we will see even the worst circumstances of life in this world as opportunities to serve our one true Master.  We will already participate in God’s reign as we learn to trust more fully that our Heavenly Father will provide what we need in this life and beyond. 
            When we struggle to see that God cares for us in the midst of our challenges, we must remember St. Paul’s example of using suffering and difficulty for growth in holiness:  “We also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance character, and character, hope.”  Not simply wishful thinking, Paul’s hope is grounded in “the love of God …poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit Who was given to us.”   Christ died for the ungodly, including us, and has sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts and souls to enlighten us with the glory of the Kingdom.  In this context, our difficulties and needs are opportunities for gaining greater healing for our souls.  We must use these tribulations to gain greater spiritual strength, clarity, and vision by growing in trust, humility, and patience.
When we are overcome with worry about any problem or threat in life, we must use our weakness as an opportunity to gain greater spiritual strength:  as a reminder to guard our thoughts as we turn our attention from obsessing about what we cannot change to an earnest, humble plea for the Lord’s healing mercy.  That is how we will open ourselves to greater participation in His life and, thus, find true peace.   
Some lose the joy of life because of worry fueled by the love of money; others become miserable because of domination by anger, fear, lust, gluttony, self-righteousness, or other passions.   These and all our other habitual sins are symptoms of our spiritual blindness, of our darkened souls which keep us from seeing ourselves, others, and the entire creation in the glorious light of the Kingdom.   As long as we remain in the dark, we will never see anything clearly and easily stumble and fall.  
            Those who are sick do not need relief only for their symptoms; they require healing from the causes of their disease. They need therapy that goes to the heart of the matter. We will find that kind of healing in the spiritual life by:  opening our souls to the light of Christ through daily prayer; reading the Bible and the lives and teachings of the Saints; and watching our minds and mouths to reject thoughts and words that are not pleasing to God.  We will find it by fasting in order to humble ourselves before the Lord and gain strength in refusing to be enslaved to selfish desires.  We will find it by taking confession on a regular basis as we embrace the mercy of the Lord through sincere repentance. We will find it by:  forgiving those who have wronged us and asking forgiveness of those we have wronged; giving generously of our time, attention, and resources to those in need; and attending the Divine Liturgy regularly as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ as often as possible.
This way of life is for our healing; it is for our good.  It is what is necessary for us to open our darkened souls to the brilliant light of Christ as we learn to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.  It is how we may gain the clarity and strength to serve our one true Master as we come to place our problems, fears, and worries in the context of trust in a Lord Who has conquered even death itself for our salvation purely out of love for His sons and daughters.
Regardless of the form that darkness takes in our lives, we must not despair.  Instead, we must use our weakness and pain as reminders to open ourselves to the light of Christ as best we can.   Stumbling around with our eyes closed is a good way to become disoriented and hurt ourselves.  All of us have probably learned from experience that nothing but brokenness, pain, and worry come from embracing spiritual blindness.  Since God created us in His image and likeness, we will never find ultimate satisfaction by looking for fulfillment in the passing things of this world.  Doing so will only make us miserable and weak.
Let us, then, open ourselves to the healing light of Christ, trusting that He will respond graciously to even our small, faltering steps to put our lives in the context of His Kingdom.  That is the ultimate cure for our worries.  If we trust primarily in ourselves and what we can get by using worldly things according to our own designs, we will inevitably be consumed by anxiety and fear.  But if we gain the spiritual clarity to behold all things in the light of His glory, we will know peace from the depths of our souls.  The One Who dwells in our hearts has conquered even death itself and made us participants in His eternal life.   He delivers us from slavery to the fears that are rooted in our blindness.  He makes it possible for us to experience already the joy of heaven even as we live and breathe in this world with all of its and our problems.  As the Lord said, “Seek first His kingdom and righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Everyday Holiness: Homily for the Sunday of All Saints in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:33-12:2; Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30

            If you are like me, sometimes when you read the lives of the saints you shake your head and think, “I could never do anything like that.” Many endured horrible tortures to the point of death because they refused to deny Christ.  Others denied themselves food, clothing, and shelter in ways that seem beyond the strength of human beings.  Some accepted insult and abuse while forgiving their tormentors and turning the other cheek in a fashion that seems not of this world.  As today’s epistle reading reminds us, the Old Testament saints endured such trials purely in anticipation of the coming of the Savior.  Most of us, who have received the fullness of the promise in Christ, cannot fathom how we could be nearly as faithful as was this cloud of witnesses who point us by their examples and prayers to commend our lives to Christ.

            On this Sunday of All Saints, we commemorate all those who have united themselves to the Lord to the point that they have become radiant with His holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit, including those whose are not formally canonized as saints by the Church.  The canonized saints are like the members of the hall of fame who stand as shining examples of obedience to the Lord. We celebrate them because their lives are such vivid icons of what it means for a human being to become a partaker of the divine nature by grace.  We do not know the names of all the saints, of course.  Not all who are illumined with the divine glory are known publically as such; of course, the point of holiness is never simply to draw attention to oneself.  It is, instead, to be faithful in offering our lives to Christ. Only He knows the names and number of those Who have done that, for He alone knows our hearts. 

            If we want to join their number, then we must attend carefully to Christ’s teachings today in the gospel reading.  “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father Who is in heaven.”  No doubt, these words concern the importance of remaining faithful to the Lord even in the face of fierce persecution.  Martyrs and confessors continue to refuse to deny Him, regardless of the physical abuse they suffer in many countries around the world.  But we would let ourselves off the hook by thinking that this teaching refers only to those who lives are literally at risk for being faithful Christians.  We must also ask whether we acknowledge Him before our neighbors every day of our lives in what we say and do. It is only our pride that makes us think that true faithfulness must be dramatic and spectacular.  Most of us struggle to be faithful even in our routine trials and temptations.  We will fail to unite ourselves to Christ in holiness if we fail to see that the most common challenges that we face are our opportunities to acknowledge that we belong to Him, and not simply to ourselves. 

            The Savior said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.”  There is nothing wrong, of course with loving our parents or our children, but if we are to become radiant with the holiness of God, we must keep even our strongest loves in proper order.  We must remember that our parents, children, and spouses are gifts of God to us. His love is obviously the ground of all love worthy of the name.  Our calling is not to worship people or make them ends in themselves, but to relate to them in a way that fulfills God’s gracious purposes for them and us.  If we make false gods out of others, we will make them miserable and probably drive them away. And since God created us in His image and likeness, we will learn the hard way that we will never find fulfillment in anyone but Him. 

            “People pleasing” is quite dangerous because it is ultimately a self-centered form of idolatry in which we crave the approval of others to the point that we will sacrifice anything for it.  Instead of offering even our most prized and intimate relationships to the Lord for His healing and blessing, we end up offering ourselves to others, willing to compromise our faithfulness for the sake of giving whomever we want to impress what we think they want.  That is not taking up our crosses, but sacrificing our obedience to the Savior in order to serve lesser gods.  And since what drives this attitude is our self-centered desire for the approval of others, it is ultimately a way of worshiping ourselves.

The Lord said that, “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My Name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold, and inherit eternal life.” That is not only a promise for those who have physically given up their families and possessions, but also for those who have made the less dramatic sacrifice of putting Christ first in how they treat and speak to their spouse, children, family members, and friends.  It is a promise for those who have denied themselves in order to have more time, energy, and resources to share with the poor, sick, and lonely.  It is a promise for those who turn away from self-centeredness by offering themselves to the Lord in daily prayer, regular worship, and conscientious fasting.

Too often we think that holiness occurs only within the context of the four walls of the Church.  If we are to take up our crosses and follow Christ, we must also learn to see the infinite opportunities of dying to self out of love for Him and our neighbors in our daily lives.  That means we must take a painfully honest look at ourselves.  For example, we may enjoy filling out minds with entertainment—such as news, social media, video games, film, etc.--that only inflames passions of worry, fear, hate, envy, and lust.  If so, we need to turn away from it as we focus on the words of the Jesus Prayer or at least something else that does not inflame our passions.  If we cannot learn to make such small sacrifices, we will never have the strength to make larger ones. 

Regardless of our age, we likely are close to people whose values and way of life are apparently not consistent with obedience to Christ.  Even as we must not condemn them personally, we must resist the subtle temptation to compromise our faithfulness to the Lord in what we say and do in order to gain their approval.   It is one thing to show everyone Christ’s love as best we can, but another to fail to acknowledge Him by engaging in conduct and conversation that contradict our primarily loyalty to Him.  That would be a form of putting other people, and ultimately ourselves, before God, which is a path only to greater weakness for them and us.  We must all discern mindfully and prayerfully whether we are acknowledging Christ in situations where it is much easier to act and speak as though He were not our Lord.  We must all be willing to take up the cross of obedience to Him even if it means that we will be met with disapproval.

“Many that are first will be last, and the last first.”  The Savior’s statement applies to all who have put Him first in their lives, for doing so requires sacrificing much that the world worships.  It is obviously the case for martyrs and confessors to this very day, but also applies to everyone who sacrifices, even in small ways, in order to seek first the Kingdom of God.  When we direct our time, energy, and attention to serve Christ, His Church, and our neighbors in whom He is present, we take a lower place in the estimation of the world.  When we refuse to sacrifice ourselves on the altars of conventional accounts of success and happiness, we embrace the humility of Christ.  Even when we do so in seemingly ordinary ways, we take step in running “with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”  That is how, we too, may join that great cloud of witnesses who have become radiant with the holiness of our Lord. Nothing dramatic or spectacular is required, but only true faithfulness.         

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Unity Through Wind, Flame, and Language: Homily for the Great Feast of Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Acts 2:1-11; John 7:37-52; 8:12
          On today’s great feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming upon the followers of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, which is the birthday of His Body, the Church.  After the Savior’s resurrection, He ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples so that they would not be cut off from Him and the new life that He brought to the world.  The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Holy Trinity, fully divine and eternal as are the Father and the Son.  By being filled with the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s followers participate personally and communally in the unity, power, and blessing of the very life of God by grace.
Unlike the period before Christ’s Passion, the disciples now no longer think of themselves as students of a mere teacher, prophet, or king.  They no longer struggle to accept the good news of His resurrection.  Instead, they experience the new life of the Kingdom as “rivers of living water” flowing from their hearts.  By the Spirit, they participate by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  God is not remote, distant, or removed from them; but present and active in their souls. By God’s presence in their hearts, they become truly who He created them to be in the divine image and likeness.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles as a group who were gathered together in obedience to the Lord’s command.  The same divine breath which first gave life to humanity comes upon them as a mighty wind.  The divine glory beheld by Moses in the burning bush now rests upon each of them personally as flames of fire.   The divided speech of the tower of Babel is now overcome by the miracle of speaking in different languages as a sign that everyone is invited to share in the life of the Lord.  Not the possession of any nation or group, this great feast manifests the fulfillment of God’s promises for the entire world and every human being.
God creates us all in His image with the calling to grow in His likeness, actually to become like Him in holiness.  This glorious participation in Him is made possible for us at Pentecost.  Human distinctions of every kind become irrelevant here, for all that matters is that we respond with faith, humility, love, and repentance as we embrace the Spirit poured out on the whole world and on every generation.
With the Holy Spirit present in our hearts, linking us together organically as one, our fallen, divided humanity is restored.  Just as Father, Son, and Spirit share a common life of love, unity, and holiness, we share a common life in Christ’s Body, the Church.   As particular people, we have the responsibility to believe, repent, and obey the Lord as we live faithfully each day and participate in the ministries of the Church.   As members of Christ’s Body, we are nurtured by worship, the sacraments, and spiritual instruction in our common life.   The Tradition of the Church is the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding us all into ever greater knowledge of and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.
We receive the Holy Spirit not as isolated individuals, but as persons in communion, in loving relationship with Christ and with one another in His Body, the Church.  The only proper way to celebrate Pentecost is to open ourselves as fully as possible to God’s healing, transforming power in our life together in a way that overcomes all worldly distinctions.  That is how we, despite all our problems and weaknesses, may become radiant with the divine glory as we celebrate this great feast of our salvation as living temples of the Holy Spirit.  That is how we too may experience “rivers of living water” that quench the thirst of our souls.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Ascending in Holiness Through the Body of Christ: Homily for the After-Feast of the Ascension and the Sunday of the First Ecumenical Council

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36; John 17:1-13
We are now in the season of the Ascension in the Orthodox Church, when we celebrate our Lord’s ascent into heaven forty days after His resurrection.  It is easy for us to pass over this feast without paying much attention because it comes between Pascha and Pentecost.  The danger of doing so, however, is that if we do not attend to the importance of uniting ourselves to Christ as He ascends into heavenly glory, we will have a very impoverished understanding of how to share in the eternal life of our Savior even as we remain in the world as we know it.

            Contrary to much popular opinion, the aim of Christianity is not simply to find a way for our souls to be in a better place after we die by escaping the limitations of our bodies.  Forty days after His resurrection, Christ ascended into heaven as a whole, complete human being with a glorified body that still bore the wounds from His crucifixion.  He remained fully human, even as He sat down at the right hand of the Father.  The Savior’s ministry did not end with His victory over death, but extends to making us participants by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  He raises us up not only from the tomb, but into heavenly glory in every dimension of our existence.  His Ascension manifests the complete fulfillment of what it means to be a human being in God’s image and likeness. 

            The good news of this season is that, even as we live and breathe in this world with all of its and our problems, we may participate already in the life of heaven.  We may ascend with Christ into the holiness for which He created us in the first place.  In praying to the Father, the Lord said, “And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom you have sent.”  The Savior has healed every aspect of our corruption and brought us into full, personal union with Himself, making us “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  He enables us truly to know God, not as an idea or concept, but through personal spiritual encounter.   By ascending in glory as the God-Man, He calls us all to embrace the blessedness of the Kingdom.   

            The question that the Ascension presents to each of us is whether we will answer that call by rising up with Him into the life of heaven even as our feet remain firmly planted on the ground.  If we do not do so, we simply cannot celebrate this feast with integrity. We celebrate feasts of the Lord by participating more fully in the particular dimension of the life of Christ that the feast manifests.   In this light, the Ascension is neither only a past memory nor a future hope, but an epiphany of what it means to unite ourselves to the Savior.  If we do not recognize the extraordinary calling presented to us by this feast, we will miss the point entirely.

            At the very heart of what it means to ascend with Christ in holiness is our participation in the life of His Body, the Church.  Next Sunday is the feast of Pentecost, when we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on our Lord’s followers, which transformed them into the Church.  The Lord prayed to the Father that His followers “may be one even as We are one.”   As hard as it may be to believe, our unity in faith, worship, and spiritual discipline in the Orthodox Church manifests the unity of the Persons of the Holy Trinity.  Our life together in the Church is our life in God, our unity with the Lord and one another in the new life of the Kingdom. He is the vine and we are the branches, organically sharing a common life with Him and one another.

            As our epistle reading makes clear, we must never take this unity for granted.  We must always been on guard against anything that would weaken the common life of the members of Christ’s Body.  St. Paul warned of those who would attack the Church like “fierce wolves” to divide the flock.  Paul lived a very difficult life, struggling for many years to build up and maintain the unity of the Church despite persecution, opposition from false teachers, and disagreement at times even with other apostles.  He supported himself through his own labor, even as he was consumed with the challenges of ministry. Through his many struggles, Paul showed “that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”  With all of his other cares, this saint did not neglect to share with the poor and needy.   

            St. Paul’s work was not easy, but his example shows us that a life of difficult challenges is no barrier to ascending with Christ into holiness.  Indeed, it was through his awareness of His own weakness and inadequacy before the problems that he faced that Paul knew the Lord’s strength and peace.  That is how he offered his life, literally to the point of martyrdom, for the well-being of the Church and became a great saint.  Remember that our Lord ascended in glory still bearing the wounds of crucifixion in His glorified body.  No matter how painful our wounds may be in any area of life, they do not preclude us from sharing in the holiness of the Savior.  They do not keep us from knowing God.  If anything, they should make us even more aware of our dependence on His mercy, of our weakness and need for His grace.  We will never ascend with Christ into heavenly glory purely on the basis of what we have earned by our own power or virtue.  The more that we know our brokenness and weakness, the more we will have the humility to expose even our deepest wounds to Him for healing that we cannot give ourselves.  In order to ascend with Him in holiness, we must recognize our own inability to rise up by ourselves from the weakness and corruption that remain so powerful in our lives.

            Today we also commemorate the 318 Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, at which the Church taught that the Son is truly divine, begotten of the Father eternally, and of the same nature or essence as Him.  This proclamation was necessary because the heretic Arius had denied the full divinity of Christ, and thus threatened to make it impossible to proclaim how the Lord could make us participants in eternal life by grace.  For only One Who is truly God may conquer death and enable us to ascend with Him into the divine glory.  If Christ were not truly the God-Man, He would not be able to share the divine life with us.  The rejection of Arius’ teaching by the Fathers of Nicaea is absolutely crucial for giving an account of how we may ascend with Christ, of how we may be united with Him and one another in His Body, the Church for our salvation.
            In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we ascend mystically into the eternal worship of the heavenly kingdom.  Our small offerings of bread and wine are fulfilled by the power of the Holy Spirit as the Body and Blood of Christ; we commune with Him as members of His own Body, even as His Bride.  We become not only “one flesh” with the Savior, but also with one another.  We grow in union with the Lord as we grow in union with our fellow members of His Body.  Like St. Paul, we must offer ourselves to Christ for the strengthening of the Church.  Despite our sufferings and imperfections, that is how we will unite ourselves to Him and one another in holiness; that is how we will receive healing and fulfillment beyond what we can give ourselves.  There is no other way to manifest the life of heaven in the midst of our world of division and corruption.   There is no other way to celebrate the Ascension than to embrace our calling to be one even as are the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, to Whom be glory, laud, and honor, now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.  

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Samaritan Woman and the End of Idolatrous Religion: Homily for the 5th Sunday of Pascha in the Orthodox Church

Acts 11:19-30; John 4:5-42
Christ is risen!
Sometimes we think that it is always good to be religious.  The problem with that assumption, however, is that human beings tend to make false gods out of whatever they want in this world.  When that happens, it is all too easy to identify ourselves with all that is right and good, and to condemn others as hated sinners for whom there is no hope.  Such distortions of religion do everyone concerned much more harm than good.
Today we celebrate that our Lord’s great victory over death is also a victory over corrupt forms of religion that would identify His Kingdom with any nation, people, or worldly agenda.  On this Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, the Church reminds us that the good news of our Risen Lord is not reserved for people of any particular ethnic heritage, for males, or for people with good reputations in their communities.   For His longest recorded conversation in the gospels was with a Samaritan woman who had had five husbands and was then with a man to whom she was not married.  Simply based on that description, she would have been the ultimate outsider, the perfect example of a wicked heretic with whom righteous Jews would have had nothing to do.
Christ, however, had nothing to do with self-righteous religious ideologies that made false gods out of worldly agendas.  That, of course, is why He was rejected by those who had distorted faith in the God of Israel into a way of gaining power for themselves over others.  Both the leaders of the Jews at that time and the Romans who crucified Him used religion for the sake of their own rule, and viewed those who were not members of their groups as enemies to be conquered.  The Romans were certainly much more successful in gaining power, but the Jews looked down upon the Gentiles, and especially the Samaritans, as being unworthy of God’s concern.
Such distorted forms of religion lead only to the grave.  They led to Christ’s crucifixion and to the deaths of the martyrs who refused to worship the gods of Rome.  They lead today to the deaths of those killed in the name of any religion as infidels or heretics.  The Savior took upon Himself the full force of such idolatrous religiosity, Himself being executed as One guilty of blasphemy.  When He rose triumphant over the grave and Hades, He ushered in the new day of a Kingdom in which the pathetic divisions of this world are overcome and made irrelevant.  As the God-Man, He shares His great victory with all who bear His image and likeness, regardless of any other human characteristic.  He calls us all to embrace the healing of our souls through faith in Him and to shine with the brilliant light of His eternal glory.
That is how the Samaritan woman at the well became Saint Photini, an evangelist who died as a great martyr for refusing to worship the false gods of Rome.  She stands as a shining example of how to enter into the joy of the resurrection.  In her conversation with Christ, she made no excuses about the brokenness of her life.  She genuinely sought to understand Who this unusual Jewish man was Who had asked her for a drink of water.  She opened her mind and her heart to Christ and then dared to tell her fellow Samaritans about Him.  She turned away from how she had lived previously to embrace a holy life focused on drawing others to the Lord.  Her sons and sisters joined her in making the ultimate witness for Christ at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero.
By the standards of religions that serve earthly goals for a select group of people, our Lord’s conversation with St. Photini makes no sense at all.   She was of the wrong ethnic and religious heritage, as well as a woman, but as St. Paul taught, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Gal. 3:28)  Her personal life was scandalous, which may be why she went to the well at noon in the heat of the day; perhaps the other Samaritan women wanted nothing to do with her.  But Christ said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32)  Her martyrdom, and that of her family members, gained them nothing in this world and served no nation or empire.  Yet by offering themselves to Christ even to the point of death, they opened themselves to the life of a Kingdom that overcomes even the worst that the corrupt powers of this world can accomplish.
It would be tragic for any of us not to follow the example of St. Photini into the joy of Pascha. If we have sinned gravely and have deep sorrow for how we have fallen short of God’s purposes for us, we must not use that awareness as an excuse to refuse Christ’s healing mercy.  When the Lord told her that he knew all about her five former husbands and current relationship, she said, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” and continued the conversation.  She did not make excuses or run away due to hurt pride.  She acknowledged the difficult truth about herself and did what it took to find healing.  We must do the same in the holy mystery of Confession, honestly naming our sins as we turn away from them through repentance.  That is how we will all enter more fully in to the joy of the resurrection, into the Lord’s victory over the corrosive power of sin in our lives.
Perhaps we have accepted ways of thinking that lead us to view others, whether we know them personally or not, as somehow absolutely cut off from God for whatever reason.  Maybe we have allowed anything from disagreement about politics to a history of past wrongs to shape our attitudes towards our neighbors, as though they are beyond hope for redemption.  If we think of them in that way, then we are the ones at risk of shutting ourselves out of the Kingdom.  As Christ warned the self-righteous religious leaders who rejected Him, “Tax-collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you.” (Matt. 21:31)  Today we commemorate a Samaritan woman with a checkered past who has gone before us into the Kingdom.  Her witness shows that we must exclude no one—no member of any nation or group, no matter what they have done—from the possibility of salvation by embracing our Risen Lord through faith and repentance.
Today’s epistle reading from Acts describes the establishment of the first Gentile church in Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians.  Especially as Antiochian Orthodox Christians, we must remember that our faith is not the possession of any nation or ethnic group.  It is not in the service of any worldly agenda.  If we are looking for a religion simply to help us get what we want in life on our own terms, we had better look elsewhere.  But if we want to join Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans and repentant adulterers, prostitutes, thieves, and murderers in the new day of a Kingdom in which slavery to the death-dealing ways of those who seek domination in this world is overcome through a cross and an empty tomb, then we are in exactly the right place.    Our Risen Lord has made Photini a glorious saint, and He will conquer all the corrupting forces of sin and death in our own souls if we will only respond to Him as she did.  That is what means to celebrate this glorious season of Pascha, for Christ is risen!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Healing Demands Humble Obedience: Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic in the Orthodox Church

Acts 9:32-42; John 5:1-15
            Christ is risen!

In this glorious season of Pascha, we continue to celebrate our Lord’s victory over death in His resurrection on the third day.  Today we proclaim that He liberates us not only from the grave, but also from the paralysis and weakness that keep us from living with the freedom and strength of His sons and daughters.  Our hope for sharing in the joy of the empty tomb is not reserved exclusively for the eschatological future, but includes our healing today from the diseases of soul that keep us stuck in suffering and pain.

            The man in today’s gospel reading was certainly stuck, as he had been waiting for 38 years for someone to put him in the pool where he could be healed.   Perhaps because it is possible to get used to just about anything after such a long time, the Lord asked what seemed like an obvious question, “Do you want to be healed?”  After a lifetime of being one of the blind, lamed, or paralyzed, a person might simply accept that that is who he or she is and try to make the best of it.  The Savior challenged the man by asking that question because he would have to obey the command “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk” as soon he was healed.  The Lord did for him what he could never have done by himself, but the man had to respond faithfully in order for that great blessing to become effective in his life.  It is clear that this fellow really wanted to be healed, for he obeyed even as he was criticized by legalists who said that it violated the Sabbath laws to walk around carrying a bed. 

            In order for us to find healing as those who are spiritually blind, lame, and paralyzed, we must embrace the good news of our Savior’s resurrection, of His victory over death and the corrupting power of sin.  We proclaim His resurrection not merely as an abstract truth or a unique event long ago, but as the very meaning of our lives.  We must learn to hear our Risen Lord asking each of us, “Do you want to be healed?”  Do you want to be set free from bondage to your sins and how they have weakened you throughout your life?  Even as we cannot raise ourselves from the grave, we cannot make ourselves participants in God’s holiness simply by trying really hard on our own terms.  But because of what Christ has done by conquering the tomb and the enslaving power of sin, we may share personally in the restoration of the human person in God’s image and likeness that He has worked. Like the paralyzed man in today’s gospel reading, we may embrace liberation from the corruptions of sin by responding to the Lord in faithful obedience.

            The good news of Pascha is that we do so, not by our own ability to fulfill the legal requirements of a religion, but by humbly uniting ourselves to Christ. He has triumphed over death and the paralyzing power of sin.  He has emptied the tomb.  So already as we live and breathe in this world, we may know the joy of His resurrection by rising up with Him into a new life of holiness.    

            Our own paralysis is probably not as obvious as was that of the man in today’s gospel reading, but it is equally as real.  We may be so used to the disabling power of our passions that we are hardly even aware of them anymore.  To the extent that we are aware, we may have given up hope for finding healing from them.  Perhaps for more than 38 years we have been beset by pride, anger, lust, envy, slander, or a refusal to forgive those who have wronged us. Perhaps we have found ways to become comfortable with our sins or simply to accept them as our personality traits. Perhaps we have tried to justify indulging our passions as a way of being true to ourselves; if so, we have chosen paralysis over true freedom.   

            The hard truth is that we cannot enter into the liberating joy of our Lord’s resurrection as long we refuse to rise, take up our beds, and walk.  To refuse to accept His healing is to refuse to embrace the good news of His resurrection.  Remember that the knowledge of God is personal and experiential.  We do not simply think, speak, or have emotions about Him, but truly participate in His life by grace.  In order to know Him, we must turn away from our addiction to sin in all dimensions of our lives.  That requires the humble obedience of getting up from our comfortable beds of sin and moving forward in a life that is truly human, that embodies what it means to live as one who bears God’s image and likeness.

            The paralyzed man surely struggled with fear and doubt as he stood up and began to walk around.  He had to give up what had become second nature to him in so many ways.  He had to think and act differently than he had throughout the course of his entire life.  He had to hear the criticism of those who told him it was wrong to walk around carrying his bed on the Sabbath.  He had a difficult road ahead of him as he learned to live in a totally different way than he was used to.  He may even have thought at times that it would have been easier to remain paralyzed.

            We have a lot to learn from his good example of obedience despite fear and discomfort.  Every step that we take for the healing of our souls presents similar challenges.  We are so accustomed to catering to our own weaknesses that we may be terrified at opening them to the healing strength of Christ.  It hurts to strengthen muscles that have become weak; the same is true for stretching those that have become tight.  In the Christian life, it is unfortunately much easier in the moment to remain weak and paralyzed than it is to do what is necessary to become healthy and strong. 

            It would not be surprising if the formerly paralyzed man actually stumbled and fell down at times, for he was not at all used to walking around.  We should not be surprised when we fall back into familiar sins of thought, word, and deed.   That is when we must commend ourselves to  the Risen Lord in Whose strength we are always able to rise up and take another step into the joy of the Kingdom.  The One Who rose from the dead provides the strength that we need in order to advance in the healing of our souls.  He graciously enables us to share more fully in His eternal life and to know the joy of His resurrection.

            This Pascha, let us turn our attention away from what we think we cannot do and toward what our Lord can do in us.  Let us stop defining ourselves by our own brokenness and weakness, and instead embrace the Savior’s victory over sin and death as the deep truth of our lives.  Regardless of our fears, worries, and lack of self-confidence about finding healing for our souls, let us simply offer ourselves to Him in humble obedience, time and time again.  That means turning away from the power of the grave and toward the blessedness of the Kingdom as we struggle to rise up from our sins into a new life of holiness. 

            The alternatives are clear.  To continue in sin is simply to weaken ourselves further, while to rise up in obedience is to embrace the holy strength that conquers even death itself.  If we believe in Christ’s resurrection, let us live the resurrection as we open ourselves to a liberating strength that can enable even a lifelong paralytic to walk around carrying his bed.  This man shows us how to receive healing from even the most debilitating sins:  humble obedience in response to the unfathomable mercy of the Lord.  And since Pascha manifests His mercy so powerfully, there could be no greater call to embrace the healing of our souls than what we celebrate in this blessed season—for Christ is risen!