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!    

Saturday, March 31, 2018

It's Not About Getting What We Want: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9; John 12:1-18

Sometimes we have to wonder what people mean when they call themselves Christians.  So much is said and done today, and has been across the centuries, by those who identify themselves with the Lord with their words, but not with their deeds.  As a guard against self-righteousness, we must criticize ourselves first along these lines, not others.  If the spiritual of disciplines taught us nothing else this Lent, they should have made clear how hard we find it to deny ourselves for the sake of the Lord and the neighbors in whom we encounter Him.  Unfortunately, we usually find it far more appealing to worship ourselves than the One Who offered Himself fully on the Cross for our salvation.
To follow Jesus Christ to His Cross requires what is not appealing at all, for we must take up our crosses and die to self.  How much easier it is to worship the false gods of this world—such as power, pleasure, and wealth—than to join ourselves to His Self-offering “on behalf of all and for all.”  How much easier it is to hail Christ as a conquering King when we think that He has come to give us everything that we want on our own terms.  How subtle the temptation is to look to Him for the blessing of whatever we happen to want, which we assume must be holy and good simply because we want it.  The crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday longed for a new King David to give them what they wanted by defeating the Romans militarily and establishing an earthly kingdom.  In the short space of a few days, however, the same crowds that called out “Hosanna!” would shout “Crucify Him!” once it became clear that this Messiah was not interested in giving them what they desired.  He came to save the world, not to satisfy the wishes of any group wanting to use religion to gain power over others.   
Holy Week is not about getting what we want; it is not even about our prayer, fasting, almsgiving, or repentance.  It is, instead, about the Lord Who purely out of love for us took upon Himself the full consequences of our enslavement to the fear of death in order to deliver us through His destruction of Hades and glorious resurrection on the third day.  The One Who spoke the universe into existence submitted to being nailed to the Cross and left to die as a despised blasphemer and traitor.  He mourned for us all when He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, before raising him up.  Then He Himself condescended to enter into the tomb as a corpse, as one of the countless dead, in order to bring Adam and Eve into the eternal joy for which He created them in the first place.   He lowered Himself in order to raise us up to the Kingdom of Heaven.
The crowds on Palm Sunday were right to shout “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!”  But they were wrong to think that His kingship was of this world and according to the standards of earthly princes, politicians, and military leaders.  The Savior entered Jerusalem on a humble donkey.  He did not respond in kind to the attacks upon Him, and He certainly did not tell the powerful or anyone else what they wanted to hear.  He did not gather an army or strategize on how to become popular or influential.  Instead, He freely offered Himself as the Passover Lamb in order take away the sins of the world and deliver us from death.  He did not bring suffering upon others, but entered into it Himself.
In order to follow Christ to His Cross and empty tomb, we must disorient and inconvenience ourselves this week.  We must get out of our usual routines and go against our ingrained habits and preferences.  As much as possible, we must turn away from slavery to our earthly cares in order to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”  As St. Paul put it, “The Lord is at hand.”  This week is the time to refuse to abandon Him as He suffers and dies for us.  It is the time to do the very strange thing of following a Lord Who looks like a complete failure and disappointment according to conventional expectations.  But it is precisely through His apparent weakness that the Savior manifests a strength that vastly overwhelms even the worst that the corrupt powers of this age can do.  For He rises triumphantly over them on the third day.
This coming week is the time to unite ourselves to Christ as He offers Himself in free obedience for our salvation.  We celebrate His entrance as the Messiah into Jerusalem today not in the sense of welcoming a new earthly ruler, but as the One Who opens the eternal blessedness of the Kingdom of God to us all.  He does so not simply as a great spiritual teacher or religious leader, but as the eternal Son of God Who spoke the universe into existence.  Not even the Cross, not even Hades, not even the tomb, can hold Him captive. 
Because of the great profundity and mystery of the Lord’s Passion, it will take time and energy for us to open our hearts to Him this week. Our faith is not about abstract ideas that we can grasp in an instant, but true spiritual knowledge and experience in which there is always infinite room for growth.  In order for us to embrace more fully the deep truth of Holy Week, we must abide with Christ, mindfully refusing to turn away even as He is rejected, condemned, tortured, killed, and buried.  The sobering reality of this week is that there is no other way to prepare to behold the brilliant light of the Savior’s resurrection than to face the darkness that led to the Cross, a darkness still all too present in our world and in our own souls. There is so much that tempts us to look for our fulfillment in the false gods of power, pleasure, and wealth. The best way to overcome the threat of such blindness this week is to turn the attention away from ourselves and to the Lord Who stopped at nothing, not even the pit of Hades, in order to make us participants in His eternal life.

As He hung on the Cross dying, this Messiah prayed to the Father for the forgiveness of the religious and civilized people who thought that killing Him was a godly and patriotic thing to do.  We cannot understand that kind of love rationally, which is precisely why we need Holy Week.  We need to enter into the deep mystery of our salvation so that we will not reject our Christ in His Passion, but instead follow Him faithfully.  That is how we will prepare to embrace the unfathomable joy of His great victory from the depths of our souls throughout this blessed week.   “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel.” 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Lent is About Offering, Not Achieving: Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:16-30

            The most dangerous temptations are usually the most subtle ones because we think we are doing something good even as we are not. When it comes to the spiritual disciplines of Lent, we must be especially on guard against the temptation to make the season simply about ourselves.  If our focus is simply on the quality of our prayers, our fasting, our almsgiving, and our repentance, we will miss the point of this season without even noticing it.    For Lent is not about achieving a new “personal best” in our religious observance, but about preparing to follow Christ to His Passion.  As the Lord told His disciples at the conclusion of today’s gospel reading: “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”
            There is no way to enter into the great mystery of His Self-offering without offering ourselves to Him in those for whom He offered Himself.  He died and rose again for the salvation of the world; and if we want to take up our crosses and follow Him, we must gain the spiritual strength to offer ourselves for the blessing and healing of the people we encounter daily.  We serve Him in them, and cannot say truthfully that we love God unless we love and serve them.  Love in this sense is not a sentimental feeling, but an offering of ourselves for their and our good.  
                 In today’s gospel reading, the Lord bemoaned the spiritual weakness of the disciples because they were unable to deliver the boy from the power of evil.  He identified their lack of faith, prayer, and fasting as the reason they were not able to help him.  The point was not that they had simply failed to keep up their spiritual disciplines, but that they had failed the young man by not developing the strength to offer themselves for his salvation.  In this way, of course, they had also failed Christ.    
            All of us have relationships in which we are just like those disciples.  We lack the spiritual health to offer ourselves to others for their healing and blessing.  Whether in our own homes, at work, or in passing encounters with strangers, we treat and speak to others in ways that have little in common with our Lord’s Self-offering for the salvation of the world.   We do that because we have not offered ourselves to Christ in humble faith and repentance for the healing of our souls.  Consequently, we serve our own self-centered desires more than the needs of our neighbors.
            The boy’s father cried out with tears to the Savior, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”  Humbled by his son’s suffering and his own inadequacy to help him, this man was not trying to use religion to glorify himself in any way.  With painful honesty, he confessed his imperfect faith to the Lord for the sake of his son.  His concern was not about himself, but about his boy.  He was not afraid to expose his deep pain to Christ, and that was when his son was healed.  
            In the remaining weeks of Lent, we must be on guard against the temptation to view our spiritual disciplines in self-centered ways, as though they were simply exercises in religious self-improvement.   Instead, we must use them to unite ourselves more fully to the Savior’s Self-offering for the salvation of the world.  As we pray, fast, and repent, we open ourselves to the Lord’s gracious healing of our souls, by which He will enable us to manifest His blessing to the people we encounter every day.
We must pray fervently and persistently for Him to heal them according to His mercy, not according to our own desires or limited understanding of what is best. Fasting will strengthen our prayer as we refuse to satisfy our own self-centered wills in order to make room for Him to empower our souls.  We must repent by treating and speaking to our spouses, children, parents, friends, and coworkers in ways not governed by our passions, but by His love. Remember that love in this sense is not simply about warm feelings, but about offering ourselves and others to Christ for their and our salvation.  It does not mean telling people what they want to hear or granting requests that diminish them or us as God’s children. It does mean relating to others in a way that helps all concerned to open their lives to Christ’s healing and blessing.
            When we recognize that we lack the spiritual strength to relate to our neighbors in this way, we must make the plea of the father our own:  “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”  Through such painfully honest humility, we will turn our attention away from how well we think we are doing in our Lenten observance and toward following our Lord in dying to self for the sake of others.  For this blessed season of repentance is not focused merely on making us more religious, but on enabling us to enter into the awesome mystery of the Savior’s Passion. We must offer ourselves in repentance in order to follow Him to His great Self-offering.   Christ said to the disciples, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.” That is where Lent leads, and it has nothing to do with self-centered religious observance. It has everything to do with dying to self for the sake of others. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Not Being Ashamed of the Cross: Homily for the Adoration of the Holy Cross (3rd Sunday of Lent) in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1

Today we do something that makes no sense at all apart from the resurrection of our Lord, for we adore the Cross on which He died.  The Romans executed traitors on crosses in order to make an example of what happened to people who dared to oppose them.  Death on a cross was a long, painful process in which the victim was helpless before his tormentors and displayed to the world as a pathetic failure by every human standard.  After having been betrayed by Judas, denied three times by Peter, and handed over to the pagan Romans by the corrupt leaders of His own people, the Son of God was nailed to the Cross and left to die.  Had He not risen in glory on the third day, no one would think of it as anything other than a horrible means of death.
             Because the Savior freely offered Himself for the salvation of the world on the Cross, we adore it today as a weapon of peace and a trophy invincible, for by the Cross He has conquered death and made us participants in life eternal.  Unlike all the kingdoms and weapons of this world, the Cross alone does not perpetuate our slavery to the fear of death.  It does not invite us to believe that the false gods of power, pleasure, and wealth are our only hope and must be defended at all costs.  It does not promise salvation through the shed blood of our enemies.  No, the Messiah shed His own blood as He entered into death in order to destroy it by rising in glory from Hades and the tomb.  Instead of causing others to suffer, He accepted the horribly painful end of His earthly life for our sake.  And as He died, He even prayed to the Father for the forgiveness of those who killed Him.    
             Christ had warned His disciples that if they were ashamed of Him, He would be ashamed of them.  He said that as He taught them to take up their own crosses and lose their lives out of faithfulness to Him.  Not to be ashamed of the Savior Who died on the Cross requires that we take up our own crosses as we die to all that separates us from sharing in His eternal, holy life.
           Now that we are halfway through Lent, the challenges posed by our spiritual disciplines should have opened our eyes just a bit to how far we still have to go in not being ashamed of our Lord.  We have a long way to go in emptying ourselves out of love for our neighbors, including those that are difficult to love.  We have a long way to go in gaining strength to deny our own desires in order to put the needs of others before our own.  We have a long way to go in putting aside our own pride in order to offer ourselves to Him in free obedience.  
            Through the Cross, Christ shows us that true life does not come through responding in kind to our enemies or making the protection of our own interests the highest good.  He demonstrates that true power often looks like weakness according to the standards of our corrupt world.  He calls us to destroy the idols we have welcomed into our hearts as we join ourselves to His great Self-offering for our salvation.  
            In the remaining weeks of Lent, we must stop being ashamed of the Cross in how we live.  We must save our lives by losing them in the service of our Lord and those in whom we encounter Him daily.  We must crucify the passions and habits of thought, word, and deed that keep us enslaved to the fear of death.  As we prepare to follow Him to His Passion by prayer, fasting, generosity to the needy, and forgiveness, we must learn to bear our own crosses, for the only way to life is through dying to the distorting power of sin in our souls.  We do that through humble repentance every time that we gain the strength to say “no” to ourselves in order to say “yes” to God.
There is no way around this uncomfortable truth:  To save our lives, we must lose them.  Instead of being ashamed of the Cross, we must bear witness to the One who offered Himself fully on it for our salvation by how we live each day.  That means to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him as we struggle to die to all that would separate us from embracing the blessed, eternal life that the Savior has brought to the world.  There is simply no other way to be a Christian and to prepare ourselves to enter into the holy joy of Pascha.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Overcoming Paralysis Through Humble Repentance: Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 1:10-2:3; Mark 2:1-12

            Imagine how you would react if you went to the doctor to be cured of a disease and were told in response “Your sins are forgiven.”  You would probably look for another physician pretty quickly.  We seek medical care in order to regain our health, not to be forgiven for wrongs we have done.  How sad, then, when we approach Christ wanting only forgiveness without the healing of our souls. 
            Jesus Christ’s deliverance of the paralyzed man demonstrates that we should not ask of Him only forgiveness in the sense of being let off the hook for breaking a law.  The Savior did not come to settle a legal account with fallen humanity, but to restore us as the unique persons He created us to be in His image and likeness.  He came mercifully to release us from bondage to our own idolatrous self-centeredness and all its corrosive effects.  To accept His healing, however, we must open our weak souls to His healing strength.  We must accept through humble repentance the grace by which He enables us to rise up from the comfortable bed of our passions to walk forward in holiness.
            If we had only a written law or a set of expectations for how God wanted us to live, perhaps it would make sense to want only forgiveness for how we had not met those standards.  But since our Lord is the God-Man in Whom humanity and divinity are united in one Person, He enables us to participate personally, in every dimension of our existence, in His salvation.  Though we are by nature human beings and not God, His gracious divine energies enable us to share in His eternal life in ways that heal, restore, and fulfill us as those called to become like Him in holiness.  That, of course, is what it means to become fully human.
            Today we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, a great bishop, monastic, and theologian of the 14th century.  He defended the experience of hesychast monks who, through deep prayer of the heart and asceticism, were able to see the Uncreated Light of God that the Apostles beheld at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor.  St. Gregory taught that we know God by participating in His gracious divine energies as we are transformed in holiness in every aspect of our existence.  The point is not simply to have ideas or feelings about God, but to experience true personal union with the Lord. 
            If we have pursued the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and forgiveness with any seriousness at all, we will have learned something about our own weakness.  These practices reveal how hard it is to control our own thoughts, words, and deeds. Struggles with physical health, family relationships, and life circumstances also show us that we are much like the paralyzed man in our inability to overcome so many of the problems that we encounter.  The ultimate paralysis, of course, is death itself, which our Lord conquered in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  As we prepare to follow our Savior to His Passion, we must know our own weakness in order to receive His glorious strength.  
Christ calls us, like the paralyzed man, to rise, take up our bed, and walk forward in a life of holiness; that is how we accept His merciful healing.  There no way to find deliverance from all the maladies that keep us enslaved to sin and death other than to receive His grace by confessing our sins and doing what is necessary to reorient lives toward Him.  If we do not obey His command, we will remain stuck in the comfortable bed of weakness and only become more paralyzed.  In the remaining weeks of Lent, let us all embrace the Lord’s strength by pressing forward in repentance as we open even the weakest, darkest dimensions of our lives to His healing light.  That is how we will find not only forgiveness, but also our fulfillment as unique persons in the process of becoming radiant with the holiness of God by grace.  That is what it means to be healed and to become truly human in His image and likeness.