Sunday, July 24, 2016
Sunday, July 17, 2016
Purity of Heart and of Life: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox Church
Titus 3:8-15; Matthew 5:14-19
Have you ever found yourself devoting too much time and energy to matters over which you have no real control? It is easy to give in to that temptation today because there are so many deeply troubling things going on in the world, in our nation, and in our families. In our age of the internet, social media, and 24-hour television news, it is not hard to become obsessed with very large questions about terrorism, politics, and other matters. The reality, of course, is that there is not much that we can do as particular people to change the course of world events. Though we have much more influence on family and friends, we still usually cannot make people do what we want. Often we struggle even to make ourselves do this or that. It is a pity, then, for us to waste our lives in pretending that our will must be done.
Jesus Christ did not even attempt to rule the world, or any of its inhabitants, by conventional means. He did not accept the dominant narratives of His day about how to solve big problems. He was not a member of the competing factions of the Herodians, the Zealots, the Pharisees, or the Sadducees. Instead, He took an entirely different path, calling His disciples to be the light of the world, which meant that their lives were to shine with holiness such that others would give thanks to the Father for them. They would share in His holiness, not by relaxing or disregarding the requirements of the Old Testament law, but by fulfilling them. For example, they would not only refrain from committing murder, but from anger and insult. They would not only refuse to commit adultery, but would purify themselves from lust. They would not limit their vengeance to “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but would turn the other cheek when insulted and love, forgive, and bless their enemies. They would seek to be perfect as their Father in heaven is perfect.
Whether in first-century Palestine or today, to live that way is to be the light of the world. It is to shed light amidst the darkness such that others will give thanks for our witness and be drawn to the Lord. It is also to be out of step with what is easy and conventional. It is to take a difficult and demanding path that is not nearly as popular as the ways of those who tell people what they want to hear. Many of the Jews had wanted a successful political and military leader who would wage a holy war against the Romans, but our Savior called people to a Kingdom not of this world. He praised the faith of a Roman centurion, said good things about the hated Samaritans, and offended representatives of all the different factions of His own people. There was nothing conventional or expected about His ministry and teaching.
Today many in our cultural want a vague spirituality that requires virtually nothing of them and simply provides a coping mechanism for helping them feel better about themselves. Some want a faith that serves whatever political agenda they happen to like. Whatever kinds of religions those would be, they have nothing in common with the way of a Lord Who called people to take up their crosses and follow Him, not to pamper themselves by giving in to every self-centered desire for pleasure or power. Such forms of spirituality are not the light of the world. No, they are simply “the world” which is already darkened by those who want to make God in their own image and likeness. They are doing the same thing as did the Pharisees and the other groups who refused to accept Christ’s message.
The Lord said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them…Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Contrary to popular opinion, Christ did not tell His followers simply to have certain feelings or hold particular opinions, and then live however they wanted. He did not teach some kind of generic spiritual path focused merely on reducing stress or becoming a productive member of society. No, He called for a purity of heart that would be visibly displayed in how people lived their lives every day, especially in regard to the most common and most difficult challenges that human beings face. That kind of purity means loving, forgiving, and blessing even those who have wronged us and our loved ones most deeply. It means keeping our hearts free from addiction to pleasure and self-centered desire, and disciplining ourselves in living accordingly. It means learning to see Him even in those whom the world tells us are not our people, those unworthy of our care or concern. It means modeling a way of life that shines with holy glory amidst all the darkness and brokenness that surround us.
St. Paul reminded St. Titus to encourage his people to focus their time and energy on doing good deeds and helping people in urgent need. He warned against getting caught up in “stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels over the law, for they are unprofitable and futile.” The particulars of our distractions are different, but the point is still the same. To be faithful to Jesus Christ requires devoting ourselves to living as He taught and modeled. To be faithful to Him also requires believing the faith handed down in His Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit since Pentecost. Faith and faithfulness are two sides of the same coin. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by anything from living and believing as our Lord taught, we will lose the ability to become the light of the world. Whatever kind of religion we pursue, it will be a form of the darkness and corruption that the world already knows all too well.
We remember today the 630 Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, who affirmed that Jesus Christ is one Person with two natures, being fully divine and fully human. They recognized that only the God-Man is able to make human beings participants in the divine life by grace. We cannot use the excuse that the Lord’s teachings are impossible for human beings, for our struggles and weaknesses are no stranger to Him. His gospel is not designed for disembodied spirits, but for those who live in the same world in which He was tempted, faced fierce opposition, and was killed by His enemies. Remember that He prayed for them from the Cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And then through His glorious resurrection, He brought light and life even to the darkest tomb.
Our only hope to become the light of the world is for His divine glory to illumine us. For that to happen, we must refuse to be distracted from serving Him faithfully in the matters that really are up to us in our daily lives. Whether His light is in us is revealed especially in how we treat our enemies, those in need around us (especially those we are inclined to ignore, neglect, or fear), and how we respond to the self-centered desires for pleasure that threaten to darken our hearts in so many ways. When we find ourselves worrying obsessively over matters that are well beyond us, we should persistently turn the eyes of our souls back to Him in prayer, calling for His mercy on all concerned. And then we should get back to doing the good deeds that so obviously need to be done on behalf of our families, our neighbors, and our parish. Then we should also get back to guarding our hearts from corrupting influences, refusing even to pay attention to tempting thoughts.
The more that we direct our time and energy to serving Christ in our immediate circumstances, the less inclination we will have to allow darkness into our hearts. The more faithful we are in living this way, the more His light will shine through us to the world. And the more those who are sick and tired of the world’s darkness will be drawn to the light as they “see your good works and give glory to your Father Who is in heaven.” That is what it means to be the light of the world and a sign of its salvation.
Saturday, July 9, 2016
The Divine Strength of Those Who Are Full of Light: Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Matthew and Commemoration of St. Joseph of Damascus in the Orthodox Church
2 Timothy 2:1-10; Matthew 6:22-33
There are some who think that the way of Christ is a crutch for the weak, a source of support for wimps, cowards, and losers to make themselves feel better about their wretched condition. Of course, that attitude reflects only the weakness of those who are spiritually blind, who are enslaved to their own lust for power and refusal to show mercy to their neighbors in their suffering. Instead of embracing the darkness by worshiping the false gods of domination and vengeance, faithful Christians open themselves to the divine strength that can make even our most bitter challenges points of entry into the blessedness of the Kingdom.
It should go without saying that we all know pain, sorrow, and the lack of peace all too well. Terrorist attacks in our own country and abroad, wars seemingly without end, murder and other forms of violence and injustice, racial and political strife, the sufferings of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East and elsewhere who are persecuted for their faith and forced to leave their homelands, our own loss of loved ones, and other difficult personal problems tempt us today to allow darkness to take over souls. It is easy and often appealing to fill our hearts with hatred, fear, and despair by accepting the lie that we will find salvation by damning others, returning evil for evil, and abandoning hope. But to do so would be to turn away from the victory over death and sin that Christ accomplished through His cross and empty tomb. It is also to repudiate the transforming power of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost, Whose fruits are “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” As St. Paul wrote, “Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:22-24)
In order to crucify our corruption and open the eyes of our souls to the brilliant light of Christ in the midst of all the temptations that beset us, we must have the dogged determination of soldiers, athletes, and farmers. St. Paul used those examples with St. Timothy because they are all very demanding undertakings that require daily discipline, sacrifice, and perseverance. No one can succeed in those vocations by taking it easy, giving in to self-centered desires, or giving up out of fear. He told Timothy to “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” That is not because it is somehow pleasing to God for us to suffer, but because living a faithful Christian life requires us to struggle for the healing of our souls and in the service of our neighbors, especially as we resist the temptations that threaten to consume us. There will be some pain involved, for we must take up our crosses in obedience to the way of our Lord. Our faith requires pressing on in faithfulness each day, regardless of the cost.
Today we commemorate St. Joseph of Damascus, a priest who was martyred during anti-Christian riots in 1860. In the midst of violent attacks by mobs that killed 2,500 people, he jumped from rooftop to rooftop in order to hear confessions and serve Communion to elderly and sick people who could not leave their homes. He recounted to them the lives of the martyrs in preparation for what was to come. After the cathedral where Christians had gathered was burned with those trapped inside perishing, St. Joseph roamed the streets looking for others to whom he could minister. He consumed what remained of the Lord’s Body and Blood before a mob hacked him to death with axes, after which his body was dragged through the streets and thrown in the city dump.
No doubt, the vicious persecutors felt powerful on that day, but they were actually the weakest of all, enslaved to their passions and totally blind to the basic humanity of their neighbors, not to mention to the merciful way of the Lord. Christ said, “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!” The example of St. .Joseph of Damascus shines in brilliant contrast to the darkened souls who rushed to murder him and so many others. He did not try to run away from certain death or think only of himself or his family. He “share[d] in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus” as he ministered as best he could to His people. He, like all the martyrs, shines with light as an icon of the great strength that the Lord provides to sustain us through even the greatest challenges of life, even through death itself.
Most Christians do not become martyrs in the sense of literally being killed for their faith. Christ calls us all, however, to die to our tendency to embrace the darkness of sin and passion instead of His holy light. We may all do that in response to the seemingly small challenges and temptations that we face daily. For whether we acknowledge it or not, we face every day of our lives a more subtle version of the test faced by the martyrs. Namely, will we refuse to abandon our Lord? As the Savior said, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Christ tells us here that worshipping money, wealth, and possessions is a form of idolatry that turns us away from serving Him. No, that is not a temptation only felt by extremely wealthy people, for He then says “do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink; nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not the soul more than food, and the body more than clothing?” We worship a false god whenever our souls are so darkened that we no longer trust in the Lord’s mercy to sustain us through life, but instead become obsessed with establishing and protecting ourselves on our own terms and by our own methods. That is not a path to peace, but only to worry and fear. As the Lord taught, “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his stature?” He is the One Who has conquered death, but we still worry as though everything were up to us, as though we could solve all our problems and those of our families and the world. That is simply an illusion that appeals to us because the eyes of our souls are not yet fully illumined with the light of Christ. And giving in to it leads only to idolatry, anxiety, and disappointment.
Christ said, “[D]o not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” None of us can predict or control fully what will happen in the world, our families, or our own lives. But we do know that if we purify our hearts and souls with the dogged determination of soldiers, athletes, and farmers, we will gain the spiritual clarity and strength that are necessary to serve Christ through whatever challenges we and our loved ones will face. We will avoid the appealing temptation to surrender in weakness to our passions, anxieties, and fears when we mindfully reject the thoughts and desires that encourage us to place our commitment to anyone or anything before our commitment to the Lord. When we look to St. Joseph of Damascus and all the martyrs, we will remember that the path we follow is not one of responding in kind to those who threaten us or being overwhelmed by fear, but instead one of courageously seeing first God’s Kingdom and His righteousness. That is how, even in the midst of all the darkness that surrounds us, we may become radiant with the divine glory and filled with holy light as a sign of the salvation of the world.
Monday, July 4, 2016
Saturday, June 25, 2016
Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30
It is tempting to think that what we read about in the Scriptures and the history of the Church occurred in a world so different from ours that it has become irrelevant. This Sunday of All Saints reminds us that our Lord’s fundamental calling to every generation does not change, but challenges the assumptions of every culture and the preferences of every human being. That calling is to participate personally in the holiness of God and to seek first His Kingdom, regardless of the cost.
When we hear today of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who are killed, abused, or become refugees due to their faithfulness to Jesus Christ, His words from today’s gospel reading should come to mind: “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. But many that are first will be last, and the last first.” When we hear of terrorist attacks upon churches, the kidnapping of bishops and priests, and other atrocities, we should recall the graphic descriptions in Hebrews of the suffering of the Old Testament saints who hoped for the Messiah: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”
The first saints recognized by the Church were martyrs and confessors, people who accepted death or severe physical suffering instead of denying their Savior. As St. Polycarp said when urged to save his life by denying Christ, "For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" Whether at the hands of the pagan Romans, Persian and Islamic empires, Communists, Fascists, ISIS or other terrorist groups, countless Christians have made—and continue to make-- the ultimate witness for the Lord. According to His promise, He will acknowledge them before the Father because they acknowledged Him in the most profound way possible.
For Orthodox Christians, the saints are not dead figures from the past, but alive in Christ. There is one Church in heaven and on earth, and we are members of the Body of Christ together with them. They are the white-robed martyrs around the throne of God who worship Him eternally. We pray and worship God together with them, asking for their intercessions and seeking to follow their example of holiness. As our epistle reading states, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.” As shining examples of what it means to love and serve Christ, the saints inspire us to ever greater faithfulness to Him. They are living proof that He has conquered death and that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we may participate personally in His holy and eternal life. They point us to Him.
On this Sunday of All Saints, we commemorate all those who have entered in holiness into this great cloud of witnesses, especially those whose names we do not know. The Holy Spirit has revealed the names of many saints to the Church for our edification, but that is hardly an exhaustive list. And since humility is a necessary quality of holiness, that should not be surprising. When we remember the harsh realities of martyrdom and persecution through which they bore witness, it becomes immediately clear that the saintly path is not one of self-exaltation or pride. No, it is how those who are last --those who give up even life, family, and the most basic necessities—become first in a Kingdom not of this world.
Regardless of the country or time period in which we live, Christ calls us—no less than the martyrs and confessors—to acknowledge Him before others, to love Him even more than our families, and to take up our crosses. Today He calls us to be faithful witnesses to Him in a culture that has little place for principled self-restraint of any kind. We live in a time when many worship at the altars of immediate gratification and self-indulgence in every area of life. The selfishness, anger, hatred, and violence that we see so often in our culture reflect a failure to control our passions, which is a symptom of our collective disdain for putting anything or anyone before doing or saying whatever we feel like at the moment. Holiness in the relationship between man and woman, as well as faithful self-sacrifice in rearing children, are strange goals in our age of promiscuity and pornography, when many see no higher standard in life than fulfilling whatever desires they happen to have at the moment. Gluttony, greed, and trying obsessively to get what we want when we want it make many so spiritually and morally weak that they probably cannot even imagine living otherwise. And the fact that we celebrate these ways of thinking and living in the name of freedom or being true to ourselves makes them all the more dangerous.
To be true to ourselves as human beings means to become holy, to direct all our desires to their ultimate fulfillment in the Lord, and to be healed from our self-imposed slavery to self-centered desire. The saints are icons of what it means to be true to ourselves as those created in God’s image and likeness. The martyrs and confessors are shining examples of how to love and serve Christ above all else, and to order all our other attachments in light of our most fundamental commitment to Him. Their example calls us to acknowledge Him each day by living in this way. We acknowledge Him by taking up our crosses as we resist the pervasive temptations in our culture to worship ourselves, our possessions, our pleasures, and our loved ones. It may seem strange for Christ to warn against loving family members more than Him, but think for a moment how destructive it is for anyone to become a false god to another person. That kind of idolatry leads only to abuse, disappointment, and despair; we diminish ourselves and others when we do that. We distort marriage, family, and sex when we make them ends in themselves. It is far better to serve Christ in our family members through prayer, encouragement, and self-denial. That is how we and our loved ones will find fulfillment, blessing, and joy together as God’s children.
Our path to holiness will likely be through our daily struggle to be faithful in small ways that few will notice or celebrate. The question is not whether to serve God through grand gestures or extraordinary circumstances, but whether there is something of the martyr and the confessor in each of us. That means dying to our self-centeredness out of love for Christ. That means loving people in Christ, ordering our relationships such that they fulfill His purposes for us and them, even when that requires suffering. And it means turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, even when we risk being rejected, criticized, or ignored for being out of step with the ways of the world.
No, that is not easy. But when we remember the martyrs and confessors and all that they endured—and still endure-- for faithfulness to Christ, we should have confident hope that the same Lord Who strengthened them even to the shedding of blood will surely not abandon us in our smaller struggles each day. And unless we are faithful in small challenges, we will never be prepared for the large ones. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.” It is through His love, mercy, and grace that we too may share in the holiness that shines so brightly in all the saints.
Sunday, June 19, 2016
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 Jesus, 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 the new life that He has brought to the world. The Holy Spirit is, of course, 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 a 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 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 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 so that everyone can hear and understand the praise 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. As those corrupted by sin and death, however, fulfilling that vocation is beyond our ability. Only God is God, and our only hope is to share by grace in His eternal life. This glorious participation in the divine life is made possible to 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 receive 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 participate in the ministries of the Church and live faithfully each day. As members of Christ’s Body, we are nurtured by worship, the sacraments, and spiritual instruction in our common life. The holy Tradition of the Church is the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding the Body into ever greater knowledge of and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.
For 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 all areas of our lives. That is how we may become radiant with the divine glory as we celebrate this great feast of our salvation as living temples of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Saturday, June 11, 2016
On Not Escaping the World, But Being Holy in It: Homily for the Sunday After the Ascension in the Orthodox Church
Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
It is so easy to diminish ourselves by serving the false gods of pleasure, power, and pride. It is so tempting to allow our pursuit of these passions to obscure the holy calling that we have as those created in the image and likeness of God. Our Lord’s Ascension into heaven, forty days after His resurrection, makes clear that we find true fulfillment as human beings by participating in His blessed, eternal life. Anything else falls well short.
Jesus Christ has fulfilled our ancient calling to grow in the likeness of God, for in Him humanity and divinity are united in one Person. In His Ascension, He goes up into heaven as the God-Man, sharing in the glory that He had with the Father and the Holy Spirit from eternity. Rising with His body and bearing the wounds of His crucifixion, He brings us with Him into the divine glory. Here is a brilliant icon of our salvation that makes clear that our Lord has raised us, not only from the grave and Hades, but into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. Here is a clear sign of the completion of our vocation to become partakers of the divine nature by grace.
Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, who proclaimed that the One Who brings human beings into the eternal life of God is Himself truly divine and eternal: the only begotten Son of the Father. They recognized that even the best angel, prophet, or teacher could not do that, for only One Who is divine and eternal can bring us into the divine, eternal life of the Holy Trinity. That is a key reason why the Council of Nicaea rejected the teaching of the heretic Arius, who did not think that the Son was fully or eternally God. That is why the Orthodox Church has always disagreed with those who seek to reduce Christ to a great religious teacher or moral example, or who view the Kingdom of God as a mere extension of an earthly kingdom of whatever kind. Our salvation comes not merely through instruction or social change, but through the New Adam Who conquers death and ascends to heavenly glory as the God-Man.
Even if we know the words of the Nicene Creed by heart, we may still be tempted to turn Christ into a Savior who fits with our preconceived notions about what we would like from a religion. After all, it is much easier to follow a Lord Who serves our own pursuit of pleasure, power, and pride than it is to embrace One Who calls us to holiness in every dimension of our existence. Even as He is fully divine, He is also fully human. He went up into heaven with a glorified human body. To share in His life is to share in His holiness in ways that make us shine with the divine glory in body, soul, and spirit in the world as we know it. That does not mean becoming less human, but becoming more truly ourselves in God’s image and likeness.
Some think that salvation will come to the world through changes of this or that kind in politics, culture, or economics. Others focus their hopes on changing how people think, feel, or otherwise adjust themselves in relation to various challenges in life. Some ways of addressing such matters are clearly better than others, but none of them fulfills our vocation to be in God’s image and likeness. None of them conquers death and makes us participants in the eternal life of our Lord. None of them can ascend to heaven.
Contrary to some popular notions, ascending with Christ to heavenly glory is not about escaping or abandoning the world, its people, or its problems. The Lord said to His Father concerning His disciples: ”I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.” (John 17: 15) He prayed for their holiness: “Sanctify them by Your truth.” (John 17: 17) Christ’s prayer shows that we find the fulfillment of our humanity when we unite ourselves with Him through a holy life, when we become radiant with the divine brilliance in how we live in this world in tangible, practical ways.
St. Paul is a good example of what such a life looks like. He obviously did not place his own personal tranquility above the needs of others or the ministry of God’s Kingdom. He was beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and ultimately killed for his faith in Christ. He dealt with difficult challenges of all kinds in the churches that he founded and oversaw. In today’s reading from Acts, he warned the elders “that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.” That is certainly not the way of life of someone who thought that religion was a way to escape from problems and difficulties.
St. Paul also said that he “coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you 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.’” This apostle manifested his union with Christ by living in a Christ-like way, taking up his cross and serving others, regardless of the cost. That is how he was sanctified in God’s truth and came to know the holy joy of true participation in the divine life to the depths of his soul.
St. Paul’s background as a fierce persecutor of Christians before his conversion did not keep him from ascending to holiness in Christ Jesus. Neither was he held back in this regard by the multitude of grave and even life-threatening challenges that he faced throughout his ministry. After the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness,” St. Paul wrote “I take pleasure in weaknesses, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor. 12: 9-10)
Like the apostle, we will ascend with Christ in holiness as we offer our weaknesses, failings, and challenges to Him, struggling as best we can to be faithful as we call on His infinite mercy. Unlike some commercialized forms of spirituality, genuine Christianity is not about making us happy on our own terms or somehow convincing ourselves that all is well when it is not. Instead, it is about being sanctified, becoming holy, by uniting every dimension of our life to Christ, including those which we find so hard to offer to Him for healing.
When doing so reveals our weakness, we will be in the position to receive the strength of the One of Who created us in His image and likeness, and Who has united humanity and divinity in His own Person. To ascend in holiness in Him is the fulfillment of what it means to be a human being. It not to escape the world, but to enter into the holy glory for which He made us by turning away from evil and corruption. An angel, a prophet, a political leader, or any mere creature could not do that for us sinners. No, that is something only God can do, and something that we can participate in only if we, like St. Paul, offer ourselves to the Lord in humble obedience amidst the pains and challenges of life in the world as we know it, including our own personal brokenness. That is how we may ascend in Christ to heavenly glory, not by escaping the world, but by opening our weakness to His strength.