Saturday, May 23, 2015

American Christianity Declines as the Martyrs of the Middle East Bear Powerful Witness to Christ: Homily for the Sunday After the Ascension

           A recent survey of Americans about religion is getting a lot of attention, especially because it shows that fewer people now identify themselves as Christians and more consider themselves unaffiliated with any religion.  Perhaps at least part of the reason for these declines is that many people have not found something worth living and dying for in the churches with which they are familiar.   
            Their experience reflects the failure of so much Christianity in our culture to embody with integrity the good news that we celebrate during this season of the Ascension, which invites us to participate personally in the fulfillment of our humanity in the risen and ascended Savior.The Lord went up into heaven forty days after His resurrection. In Him, humanity and divinity are united in one Person; He rises into heaven as the God-Man.   His Ascension shows that the Son shares in the glory that He had with the Father and the Holy Spirit before the creation of the world.
            And He brings us into that glory with Him.  The Ascension is a brilliant icon of our salvation, for it makes clear that our Lord has raised us in all dimensions of our existence—not only from the tomb, not only from Hades—but into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  In the ascended Christ, we truly become participants in God, partakers of the divine nature by grace even as we live and breathe in a world that so often forgets the One Who spoke it into existence.
            The Ascension reminds us that Orthodoxy is not an “I’ll Fly Away” religion that excludes holiness and union with the Lord from life as know it.  The point is not to escape our bodies or any dimension of earthly reality, but to offer every aspect of our life to Christ for blessing such that we already experience the life of heaven even in a world that increasingly thinks of God as irrelevant.   He ascended with His glorified body, and we “look for the resurrection of the dead and life of the world to come” as the ultimate fulfillment of His good creation.
            The Ascension also reminds us that Jesus Christ is not merely a great teacher or example or even an angel or lesser god.  As the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea proclaimed, He is light of light, very God of very God, of one essence with the Father, the only begotten Son of God.   Only One who is truly divine and eternal can ascend into heaven and bring us into the divine, eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  That is why the Council of Nicaea rejected the teaching of Arius, who did not think that the Son was fully divine.   That is why the Orthodox Church has always disagreed with those who deny our Lord’s full divinity or His full humanity.  Only One who is truly both God and human can bring us into the life of God as our Savior.
            Perhaps some today find Christianity irrelevant to their lives because they have never seriously encountered the Orthodox experience of Jesus Christ.  Many in our culture seem to think of the Lord as little more than a good teacher and example with a message not that much different from that of secular and other religious figures.   We do not have to be geniuses to figure out that it is possible to be a nice person and a good citizen without being a Christian or religious at all.
            Like Arius, many throughout the centuries have made Christ in their own image as an exemplary human being according to whatever standard they found appealing in their time and place.  While that might be useful for some cultural or political agendas, such interpretations quickly fade when people figure out that they can achieve their worldly ends quite well without a little religious icing on the cake of what is really important to them.  At best, this attitude produces a wimpy faith that does not last and most people will not take seriously. 
            In contrast, Orthodoxy maintains the ancient faith of the Church that Jesus Christ, the God-Man, has conquered death in His resurrection, ascended into heaven, and made us participants by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  We must never seek to water-down our faith in the Savior in an attempt to make following Him popular, easy, or fully in harmony with our culture.  Should it be surprising that to ascend with Him to a life of holiness in our corrupt world will demand discipline, sacrifice, and being out of step with many trends?  Would it not be strange if offering our lives for blessing to the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord were as easy and ultimately insignificant as simply being nice or fitting in well with social norms? 
            Sometimes looking at other cultures helps us see our own situation more clearly.  To this very day, many Christians in the Middle East (Orthodox, as well as others) lay down their lives as martyrs for their faith in Jesus Christ.  In that region and in other parts of the world, our brothers and sisters suffer persecution, abuse, and harassment from oppressive governments and hostile groups that want to eliminate them and their faith.  Communism and fascism made countless martyrs during the 20th century.  The same is true of the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides at the hands of the Turks that began a hundred years ago.
            Few in our culture recognize that many millions of Christians have died for their faith over the last century. Thousands continue to do so each year.  Like the martyrs of the early Church, they do not go to their deaths out of loyalty to a mere human teacher or an example of how to be a moral or pleasant person.  They certainly do not do so because being a Christian brings them any kind of cultural or worldly advantage.  No, they simply refuse to abandon a Lord Whom they know as God, Who has conquered death, ascended into heaven, and Who has strengthened them to share in His eternal life even as they literally follow Him to the cross.
            Remember that, in a matter of days, Christ’s disciples went from total despair and defeat at His crucifixion to the astounding joy of the empty tomb and the amazing sight of His Ascension. These were life-changing experiences that gave them the strength to sacrifice their own lives for the Lord.  Generations of martyrs do not give their lives for even the best teachers and good examples, but the power of the risen and ascended Son of God continues in the Church, especially in the witness of the martyrs to this day who share in a victory that is not of this world.
            The early Christian teacher Tertullian wrote that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  In ways that may seem surprising, people in the early history of the faith were drawn by the witness of those who gave up their lives for Christ.  Perhaps they sensed that something different, something new, something truly worth living and dying for had led the martyrs to their great sacrifice.  That is apparently what they wanted in their own lives.  Many people still do today.   
            As we celebrate the Ascension, we should recognize that what we have to offer the world is our witness that the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord has brought us into the eternal life that He shares with His Father and the Holy Spirit.  His divine glory shines in the witness of the martyrs to this day, and must shine through us in ways that go behind what even the best teacher, example, or political activist could inspire.  We must demonstrate with integrity that He is worth living and dying for in a culture where so many make the world their god.  We will do so by ascending with Him to lives of brilliant holiness even as our feet remain planted firmly on the ground.    

            He calls us to become living icons in ways that attract others to the joy, blessedness, and fulfillment of the Kingdom.  He enables us to live in this world as those who already have experienced its salvation.  He commands us to radiate the divine glory in which He has made us participants.  If we do so, we will bear witness to the truth of the Ascension, and many in our culture will be drawn to our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ for the first time.   And by His grace, they will see that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Opening the Eyes of our Souls to the Light of the Resurrection: Homily for the Sunday of the Blind Man in the Orthodox Church

              Probably all of us have the ability to know at a glance whether something looks right in some area of our work, our hobbies, or interactions with others.  By long experience of trial and error, we learn to see some things quite clearly.  We develop a good eye for them.    
            The glorious season of Pascha has opened the eyes of our souls in a very different way.   Like the blind man whom Jesus Christ healed in today’s gospel text, we share a lack of spiritual vision that cannot be overcome by more experience of the world as we know it.  For this blindness is a symptom of our collective and personal turning away from the union with God for which He created us.  It is the consequence of our continuing to prefer the ways of death to the ways of life.  We may learn to make out the shadows of the tomb, but that is nothing compared with beholding the divine glory.  Learning how to stumble around in a world of death has nothing in common with sharing in the joy of Christ’s resurrection.   
            The jailer in today’s reading from Acts provides a striking example of this kind of blindness, for he was ready to kill himself rather than endure the penalty that awaited him for letting his prisoners escape.  He knew how things worked in the Roman Empire.  When St. Paul assured him that he had nothing to fear for they were all still in their cells, the jailer was so shaken that he asked what he needed to do in order to be saved. In other words, he came to recognize his blindness and wanted to leave behind the pitch black tomb of death and to enter into the light.     
            Jesus Christ’s resurrection made that possible for him, for us, and for the entire universe.   He has given life to the dead, restored sight to the blind, and made even the dark prison of the tomb a gateway to the brilliant light of life eternal.  He enables us to see, to know, and to participate in the divine glory for which He made us in His image and likeness.  He has set us free from the bondage of our sins and of the misery that we have brought upon ourselves.  The good news of this season is that we may rise up in Him from these darkened, pointless ways of living to the light, truth, and joy of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We may share in Christ’s eternal life, in His victory over sin and death, even now.  But in order to do so, we must follow the example of the blind man in today’s gospel reading.
            Notice that he had to actually obey the Lord’s instructions in order to regain his sight.  Christ put clay on the man’s eyes and told him to wash in the pool of Siloam from which water was taken for rites of purification at the Temple.  He did so and he could see.  This washing reminds us of baptism in which we enter into Christ’s death in order to rise with Him into the new life of the Kingdom.  Even as Christ put clay on this man’s eyes, He puts a robe of light on us in baptism. “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27)  He clothes us with the glory of His divinized humanity, fulfilling our calling as those made in the image and likeness of God.  This is also what Christ did for the jailer who had been ready to kill himself, but then believed and was baptized along with his family. He had been ready to embrace death, but then entered into life.   Like the blind man, he was set free from darkness and beheld the light.  
            The Lord enabled both men to begin a new life, but note that what we read about them describes only the beginning of their journeys.  Like the rest of us, they had a long road before them.  They still had to live faithfully each day and intentionally turn away from the darkness in order to open themselves more fully to the light.  They had to cleanse and focus the eyes of their souls in order to sharpen their spiritual vision, to grow in their personal participation in and knowledge of the Lord.             
            Christ said “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  (Matt. 5:8)  Purity of heart was surely a goal for these men as much as it is for us, and we have certainly not yet attained it.  We do not yet have the eyes to see with clarity how the darkness has obscured our full participation in the brilliant light of the resurrection.  If our goal were simply to become a bit more functional in daily life or to succeed by the standards of our culture, that would not be much of a problem. A little conventional religion can serve those mundane aims well. Our goal is quite different, however.  We want to become radiant with the divine glory like an iron left in the fire.  We want to see, know, and participate in God by grace, to become partakers of the divine nature. (2 Pet. 1:4)  
           For that to happen, we must purify our hearts by turning away from all the dark and deadly influences of sin in our lives.  None of us has perfect knowledge of our sins, of course, but we all know them well enough to keep us more than busy with repentance.  In other words, Christ has restored our spiritual vision in baptism such that, despite our imperfection and distorted spiritual vision, we all have enough knowledge of Him to know generally where we fall short and where we need to grow.  Instead of despairing that we are not at the heights of spiritual perfection, we simply need to do what we presently have the spiritual strength to do in turning away from death and toward life.  In words, we must with humility take the steps we are capable of taking as we reject obvious corruption in our lives and embrace faith, hope, and love. By uniting ourselves to Christ even in these small ways, we open ourselves to His purifying presence in our hearts.  We invite Him to cleanse and clarify the eyes of our souls such that we will know Him more fully.   And the more we know Him, the more His holiness and purity will become characteristic of us.
            On this last Sunday of Pascha, let us all open ourselves to the brilliant light of our Lord and glorify Christ Who is risen from the dead.  Let us radiate the joy, holiness, and blessedness of His resurrection.  Let us be so filled with the divine glory that darkness can find no place in us to hide.  Then we will truly have the eyes to see Him and to become living witnesses of the good news that Christ is Risen!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Power of Conversation with Enemies and Strangers: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

Christ is Risen!           
            The world today has more than a little in common with the time and place in which Jesus Christ ministered. Both in the first and the twenty-first century, people easily divide up into groups that hate one another and view their enemies as less than human.  If someone is of the wrong religion, political party, or ethnic group or stands on the opposite side of some issue, too many respond simply with condemnation.
            We may wonder, then, how to demonstrate the new life of our Savior’s resurrection in a time when severe disagreements and divisions are so common—both in our own country and around the world.  Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman provides a challenging example of how to interact with even the most unlikely people, of how to overcome the barriers that exist between those who consider themselves simply enemies.  
             Remember that the Jews hated the Samaritans as religious and ethnic half-breeds because they had mixed the ethnic heritage and the religion of Israel with that of other peoples.  No self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with a Samaritan, much less ask one for a drink of water.  The Samaritans knew that, but Christ did the unthinkable by striking up a conversation and asking the woman for a favor.   As a result of this unlikely conversation, a Samaritan woman came to recognize Him as the Messiah, to believe in Him, and to lead many of her own people to the faith.  She ultimately became Saint Photini, an evangelist and martyr with the title “Equal to the Apostles.”
            Not only did the Jews look down on the Samaritans, but the gender roles of the day meant that Jewish men simply did not speak with women in public.  But this Messiah did not allow cultural divisions to shut off the Samaritan woman from His saving presence or her calling as an evangelist. 
            To make things even more complicated, this particular woman had been married five times and was then living with a man outside of marriage.  She may have gone to the well at noon, an unusual time to do so, because the other women of her village did not want to associate with her.  The Lord knew these details, but did not condemn, judge, or ignore her as a result.  Perhaps because He treated her as a beloved child of God, she acknowledged to Him the truth about her life and they continued speaking about spiritual matters.  
 Photini showed bravery in telling the men of her village that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.  Not only would they have been shocked for a woman, especially one of her reputation, to speak to them about God, they would probably also be astounded to hear that a Jewish rabbi was a Messiah for them as Samaritans.  Being inspired by the shocking ways in which Christ had reached out to her, she reached out in surprising ways to her own people.
We will miss the good news of Pascha if we think that the blessing of Christ’s resurrection is only for people we think of as being on “our side” of any religious, moral, or political divide.    As sinners ourselves whose only hope is in the abundant mercy of Jesus Christ, we have no right to exclude anyone from the possibility of embracing the new life of the empty tomb, even if they presently believe and act in ways contrary to God’s purposes.
St. Paul urged the Corinthians to hold the members of their church accountable for grave sin, but said that it was no concern of his to judge those outside. (1 Cor. 5:12)  It is one thing to acknowledge the truth about the behavior of people who are outside the life of the church, but another to appoint ourselves as the judges of their souls or to treat anyone as though they are beyond redemption. Remember that Paul himself was a persecutor of Christians before the Risen Lord appeared to Him and made him an apostle.
Jesus Christ Himself took the initiative in bringing the blessing of His kingdom to a Samaritan woman with an immoral lifestyle.  We learn from the Lord’s conversation with St. Photini that we must not treat anyone as a hopeless case or as  somehow unworthy of Christ-like love, no matter what they have done or what they currently think, say, or do.   Though it is business as usual in our corrupt world, it is not genuinely Christian to isolate ourselves from those whose lives seem especially broken and off course—or even perverse and godless.   If we respond with hatred, judgment, or stony silence to those we deem unworthy, we turn away from Christ’s ministry of bringing new life to the whole world.    For which of us has the right to cast the first stone of self-righteous condemnation at another?  Our Savior never condoned sin of any kind and neither should we.  He told the truth even when it was uncomfortable, as He did with Photini about her marital problems. But He did so not to condemn, but to save.  He came to bring sinners to repentance, to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind.  He died and rose again for the salvation of all created in His image and likeness, of the entire world.  He has made great saints of murderers, adulterers, and idol- worshipers who have called on His mercy and ultimately changed their lives.   
So when we have the opportunity to show compassion or friendship or encouragement to someone who seems very far from following Jesus Christ, we should do so.  We should treat them as Christ treated the Samaritan woman.  To do anything less is to place our own limits on the power of the Risen Lord to bring salvation to the world—and it is to refuse to follow in the way of the One Who conquered death.    
St. Photini is also a powerful example for each of us as we struggle with our own sins, passions, bad habits, and weaknesses.  Sometimes the burden of our sinfulness is great and we are tempted to despair of ever finding peace and healing in our lives.  We can become obsessed with our own unworthiness, perhaps viewing ourselves more as those condemned by a harsh law than as the broken and weak whom Christ’s mercy can heal.  If we are not careful, this way of thinking can lead us away from the Church, for the guilt and frustration of failure are hard to bear, and we often would simply rather not be reminded of it.
St. Photini was no stranger to such failures, but she learned to keep her eyes on the prize of the new life in Christ.   Perhaps her experiences had taught her humility. She knew she was a sinner and must have been thrilled finally to be on a path that would take her in a different direction.   We do not know the details, but she surely faced struggles, temptations, and reminders of the scandal that she had made of her life.  Some people probably continued to view her in a very judgmental light.  Perhaps her own thoughts and memories threatened to condemn her at times.  For all of us, some things are hard to forget.
Despite these obstacles, this Samaritan woman became a glorious saint, an evangelist equal to the apostles and ultimately a martyr.  If she could pass over from sin to righteousness, from death to life, in Christ Jesus, then we can, too.  The great blessing of Pascha comes to us all, and we have countless opportunities in our families, our marriages, our parish, our friendships, and our workplace or school to participate more fully in the Lord’s victory over sin and death.
 No matter what we have done in the past, no matter our present weaknesses and challenges, no matter what anyone thinks or says about us, we must remember that the Son of God has conquered death in order to bless, heal, and save us. Like the Samaritan woman, we must acknowledge our brokenness and turn to Christ with faith, love, and hope for a new life, and then continue on the journey of discipleship, even when we stumble or are tempted to give up. 

During this season of Pascha, we know that life eternal has sprung from an empty tomb purely as the result of our Lord’s love and mercy.   The good news of Pascha extends to the Samaritan women of our day and even to you and me. So let us treat them as He treated her and, together with them, come to participate more fully in the brilliant light of the Resurrection. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ignore the Critics and Rise Up with Christ: Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic in the Orthodox Church

Christ is Risen!
            On this fourth Sunday of the season of Pascha, we remember Jesus Christ’s healing of someone who must have been very disappointed and frustrated, for he had been paralyzed for 38 years, probably his entire life.  He would see others healed miraculously in a nearby pool of water, but this poor fellow had no one to help him get into it when the angel stirred the water. So there he lay, helpless and without hope.       This event occurred during the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which commemorated the giving of the law through Moses.  The Lord Jesus saw this poor man, lying near one of the gates to the temple area, and He simply asked him if he wanted to be healed.  When the man explained that he had no one to help him into the healing pool, Christ said, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” and he did so.
            This healing occurred on the Sabbath day, when the Old Testament law indicated that no work was to be done, so some criticized the man for walking around and carrying his bed. In response to their questions, it became clear that this man did not even know the name of the One who had healed him.  But then the Lord found him and said, “See, you have been made well.  Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”
            This season of Pascha invites us all to receive healing and strength as we experience our Risen Lord’s victory over sin and death in our own lives.  Pascha calls us to participate in the great blessing that Christ’s resurrection has brought to the world and to be transformed by it.  We know that we are too much like the paralyzed man, weakened to the point of slavery to our habitual sins, to our disordered desires and habits of thought, word, and deed that keep us from knowing personally the joyful freedom for which the Lord created us in His image and likeness.
            We know how we should live, but we often lack the strength to do so. We have been weighed down by sins all too familiar to us, sometimes for much longer than thirty-eight years.  We may have given up hope that we will ever be free of anger, greed, lust, pride, self-righteous judgment, sloth or other sins that we know all too well.  Despite good intentions, we have lacked the power to change; the disappointing truth is that we are paralyzed by our sins and weakened by a lifetime of giving in to temptation.  We may even have accepted the lie so popular in our society that being true to ourselves means indulging any and all desires for pleasure, whether they involve money, sex, power, or anything else.    That is not the way to liberation, however, but only to an even greater inability to gain strength and health in the Christian life.    
            The good news of Pascha is that the Risen Lord calls every single one of us to “Rise, take up your bed and walk.”  His blessing is not for a select few, but for the whole world.  The Lord has mercy on those who do not even know His name, like the paralyzed man.  He asks only whether we want to be healed; and to those who will accept His mercy, He promises a new life and the strength to live it.
            Some will criticize us, however, for carrying our beds on the Sabbath, for they do not want us to move forward for the glory of God.  Our finding healing from sin and strength for holiness threatens those who do not want to change, who are comfortable with their own corruption. When they criticize us, we should do our best simply to ignore them and not let them distract us.
            Often, however, our own thoughts tell us that God would never forgive, heal, or bless us.  Our own thoughts can paralyze us with a burden of guilt and fear that makes us think that we are fooling ourselves to believe that Christ’s victory really applies to us.
            We need to get in the habit of recognizing such thoughts for what they are:  temptations designed to keep us the slaves of sin.  Fortunately, they have only the power in our souls and lives that we give them.  In His glorious Resurrection, Christ conquered death and sin, leaving the tomb and Hades empty.  Our tempting thoughts are fundamentally empty also in that they have no substance or reality other than what we—in our spiritual weakness—insist on giving them.  Just as the paralyzed man trusted and obeyed Christ--and left his fears, worries, and miserable past experience behind—we can too by accepting the reality and truth of the Savior’s victory.  His Resurrection has conquered all and is far more real and powerful than any corrupting thought, feeling, or inclination.  We should do our best to ignore these temptations and instead humbly turn our attention to the Lord.
            He gives us all the strength to rise, take up our beds, and walk.  No, that is not always easy to do.  Perhaps the bed that we will carry includes our ongoing temptations, the spiritual and moral weaknesses that we have brought upon ourselves, and the burdens of living in a broken world with broken people.  We all bear burdens for which we did not ask, as did the paralyzed man.  At the end of the day, how or why we have become weak and corrupt is irrelevant.  What is important is that the Lord says to us all through His Resurrection, “Rise, take up your bed, and walk.”  Did you notice He said that as a command, as an instruction. Had the fellow not obeyed this command, he would have remained on his bed and never would have experienced the new strength and freedom that Christ gave him.
              Everyone one of us is in his position with the freedom to disregard the Lord, if we choose. We can say that our sinfulness and weakness are more real and powerful than Christ’s healing mercy, but that would be to fall into a weird kind of idolatry in which our sin reigns supreme even over God.  If we have even a spark of genuine faith in Christ, then we have no option other than to do precisely what the paralyzed man did when he rose, picked up his bed, and began to walk into a future he did not know and could not predict, but that the Lord had enabled and commanded Him to embrace. 
            Of course, this was only the beginning of that man’s journey, not its end.  Remember that Christ said to him, “See, you have been made well.  Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”  Unfortunately, it is always possible that we will turn back from the blessed power and healing of the Savior to return to the weakness and despair of sin.  We may paralyze ourselves once more by turning away from the only One Who can conquer sin and death.  We are like someone healed of paralysis who cannot escape the habit of staying in bed. So we lie down again in our bed of habitual sins and weaknesses.  But fortunately for us, the Lord is merciful.  He always asks us, “Do you want to be healed?”  And if we respond with truthfulness and humility, He has compassion on us, assures us of His forgiveness and strength, and commands us again to rise, take up our beds, and walk.
             We may fall back into our paralysis more times than we can count.  We may fall down ten thousand times, but Christ is always there to raise us up and give us a share in His eternal life.  Through this journey of humble repentance, we do find healing.  The course of our struggle is upward; the paralysis decreases; our souls are strengthened as we struggle to press forward in faithfulness.  We may be unaware of that progress, for the more spiritual strength we gain, the more clearly we will see that we have a very long way to go in order to be fully healed.  We remain dependent upon His mercy and strength every step of the way both in this life and in the next.

            So as we celebrate this Paschal season, let us joyfully obey His command to rise from all the sins that weigh us down.  Let us refuse to believe that the lies of our own thoughts are somehow more powerful than the good news of the empty tomb.  Let us follow the example of the paralytic in rising, taking up our beds, and walking into the new life our Savior’s Resurrection has brought to the world, for He has truly conquered sin and death.        

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Humble Service and Beholding the Resurrection: Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Pious Joseph of Arimathea, and Righteous Nicodemus

Christ is Risen!
            Sometimes gaining knowledge requires more than than sitting around and thinking; sometimes we actually have to do something.  There is much in life that we must learn by experience, not simply by pondering ideas or memorizing facts.
            The good news of Pascha is like that, for after several weeks of intensified prayer, fasting, and repentance, we followed Christ to the agony of the Cross and then to the joy of His Resurrection.  As we continue in the season of Pascha, our celebration of the new life that the Lord has brought to the world has only begun.  Instead of thinking that we already know well enough the concept of His Resurrection, our Savior calls us to grow daily in our participation in His victory over sin, death, and all that separates us from life eternal.  He did not die and rise again in order to give us abstract theological ideas, but to raise us from death to life, from corruption to holiness, and to make us partakers by grace of the divine nature.       
            Those who were at the empty tomb on Easter morning as the first witnesses of the Resurrection show us how to embrace the good news of this season.  They heard the word of the angel: “He is Risen.  He is not here…Go tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
            Notice that these first witnesses of our salvation were women who went to the tomb with oil and spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus Christ.  They obviously did not expect the tomb to be empty.  They were heart-broken, afraid, and terribly disappointed that their Lord had been killed.  But they had the strength to offer Him one last act of love:  to anoint His body properly for burial.  Just imagine the risks that they took, publically identifying themselves with the Lord at His crucifixion and then going to the tomb of One executed as a traitor in the wee hours of Sunday morning.  With a courage born of love, they put aside concerns about their personal safety. And as they did so, these women-- Mary the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna and others whose names we do not know--received the greatest news in the universe, the resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  Yes, the angelic proclamation of Pascha came first to the Theotokos, even as she was the first to hear from the Archangel the good news of the Incarnation.
            The male disciples did not believe their testimony at first, even as St. Joseph the Betrothed was at first skeptical of the circumstances of the Lord’s virgin conception. But with the balance between man and woman that we see throughout the unfolding of our salvation, we remember two men today along with the blessed women:  Sts. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, prominent Jewish leaders who were also secret followers of Jesus Christ.   This Joseph risked his position and possibly his life by asking Pilate for the Savior’s body, even as Joseph the Betrothed had risked his life during the flight to Egypt to escape the persecution of the wicked King Herod.  Nicodemus, who had understood the Lord so poorly in a conversation recorded near the beginning of St. John’s gospel, came to faith and joined Joseph of Arimathea in wrapping the Lord in linen with spices and placing Him in a tomb.  
            Like the myrrh-bearing women, these men must have been terribly sad and afraid.  Their hopes had been cruelly crushed; their world turned upside down.  Not only had their Lord died, He was the victim of public rejection, humiliation, and capital punishment.  Nonetheless, these women and men did what needed to be done, despite the risk to themselves from the authorities and their own pain.  They served their Christ in the only way still available to them by caring for His body.
            Before Jesus Christ’s death, He washed the feet of His disciples in order to show them what it meant to serve in humility as He did.  The myrrh-bearers were not present that evening, but they followed the Lord’s example of service better than anyone else. Perhaps they were not there because they had already learned the centrality of humble service in how they cared for the Lord throughout His ministry.  Regardless, their selfless devotion put them in the place where they would be the first to receive the good news of the Resurrection, the first to share in the joy of Pascha.  We have a lot to learn from them, for if we want to experience our Lord’s victory over death and corruption in all its forms, we must do as they did by serving Him in humility.
            Fortunately, we have no lack of opportunities to serve Christ, in His Body, the Church, by doing the thousand small tasks that need to be done for the flourishing of our parish.  We may serve Him also in every needy and miserable person we encounter, as well as in our own families when we put the needs of our spouses, children, parents, and other loved ones before our own.  We will know and experience the new life of our Risen Lord by serving Him in ways already available to us.  We usually do not have to look far at all in order to find them or to find Him.
            Today’s reading from Acts also shows the importance of humble service through the deacons ordained to oversee the distribution of bread to the needy widows.  The word deacon means “servant” and we read that, after the deacons began their ministry, “the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”  The passage shows the centrality of humble service for the flourishing of Christ’s Body.    
            It may be tempting, of course, to think that going out of our way to serve our Risen Lord in the Church, our neighbors, or even our families is for those with money, time, and health to spare—those who have no problems and just need something to do with their spare time.  But on this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women and Saints Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, we simply cannot use that excuse.  They served Christ when their world was falling apart and they had more problems than we can imagine; as they mourned and despaired, they literally risked their lives and safety to do what needed to be done, even though they did not expect to find an empty tomb.  And in doing so, the women opened themselves to receive the greatest blessing imaginable as the first witnesses of their Lord’s victory over death and sin.
             If we want to enter into the glory of this season, if we want to embrace a power and strength that conquers even the grave and our darkest fears, we must follow the example of those courageous and loving women and men who left behind their comfort zones in order to serve our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  No, a life of courageous love for our Savior—however we encounter Him-- is not easy, but it remains the only path that will enable us to know, and participate personally in, the good news of His resurrection on the third day.  If we want Pascha to be more than a cultural celebration or the reminder of an idea, we must enter into the Savior’s great triumph by living lives that bear witness to His victory over all the ways of sin and death, including the self-centeredness and laziness that we all use to excuse ourselves from serving the Lord in His Church, our families, and in the people around us every day of our lives.    
            In Lent, we fasted, attended additional services, prostrated ourselves in prayer, gave to the needy, mended broken relationships, and otherwise did what we could to repent, to reorient our lives toward Christ in preparation to follow Him to His Cross.  Now that we are celebrating this glorious season of the Resurrection, something is also required of us:  that we actually live the new life that the Risen Lord has brought to the world.  That is how we will know by personal experience the joy of Pascha, even as the Myrrh-Bearing Women heard the message of the angel and saw that the tomb was empty.  We too must celebrate this glorious season by serving our Savior with practical acts of humble love, if we want to behold the wonder of His Resurrection and to know Him, not as an abstract idea, but as the Redeemer of the world and the Victor over death.  If we follow the example of those holy women and Sts. Joseph and Nicodemus, we will surely be headed in the right direction.     


Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Risen Lord Is Truly With Us! Homily for Thomas Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Acts 5:12-20; St. John 20:19-31
Christ is Risen!
On this Sunday of St. Thomas, we have only begun our celebration of Pascha, of our Lord’s victory over death through His glorious resurrection on the third day.   Since we are all too well adjusted to the darkened world of sin and corruption, it takes time for us to enter into the joy of the empty tomb, to adjust our spiritual vision to the brilliant light of our Savior’s triumph.  Thankfully, the season of Pascha provides us with forty days to grow in our personal participation in the blessed truth that Christ is risen from the dead—and, in Him, we are too.
Jesus Christ is risen with His Body as a whole, complete human being who is also God.  That is why Hades and the tomb could not hold Him captive and also why His resurrection is such good news for us. We share in His resurrection already through our participation in His Body, the Church.  His Body and Blood strengthen us to participate more fully in His glorious, eternal life in every Divine Liturgy. When we receive “the medicine of immortality,” the One Who has conquered the grave nourishes, heals, and transforms us more fully for the life of heaven even as we live and breathe on the earth.
Of course, the holy mystery of the Eucharist is a miracle and beyond human explanation. We were baptized into His death in order to rise with Him into the true life for which He originally created us. Through all the holy mysteries of His Body, the Church, we share ever more fully in the good news of this season.  We call the celebration of His resurrection “Pascha,” which means Passover, because Jesus Christ is our Passover from death to life.  Our entire life in His Body, the Church, is an ongoing participation in the new day of the Kingdom that He has begun, which should transform every dimension of our lives, seven days a week, the whole year round.
There is certainly something new in Christ’s followers in our readings today from the Acts of the Apostles.  In the gospels, the disciples so often misunderstood the Lord and were not able to minister effectively in His name.  They doubted the testimony of the women who heard of the resurrection from the angel at the tomb and generally abandoned Christ at His arrest and crucifixion.  But in Acts, they perform so many signs and wonders that the sick trust that they will be healed by the mere shadow of St. Peter falling on them.  Multitudes of sick and demon-possessed people sought out the apostles, who healed them all. What on earth has happened to that formerly confused and doubting group?
The answer is clear:  Christ has conquered sin and death in their lives.  He empowers them to manifest the glory of His resurrection when He says:  “Peace be to you.  As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”  They share in their own lives in the salvation of the Lord. He lives in them and they live in Him.  Christ is the vine, and they are the branches.  They are members of the Body of which He is the Head.  His victory over sin, the grave, and all human corruption is now theirs; the change in their lives is clear and evident for all to see.
We may wonder, however, if the same is really true of us. Does Christ’s victory over sin and death really transform our lives?  Is the Risen Lord just as present for us as He was to the disciples?   We would probably find that hard to believe for we have not seen the Risen Jesus as the apostles did, miraculously present with a glorified body that still bore His wounds.   No, we were not there then, but He is here now. Remember what the Lord said to St. Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Just as doubting and fearful disciples became faithful, bold preachers and wonderworkers, the Savior calls and enables us to know personally the healing and transforming power of His resurrection.   In the holy mystery of the Eucharist, Christ is truly present with us just as He was when He showed St. Thomas His wounds.  We commune with the Risen Lord when we receive Communion.  We unite ourselves to the glory of His resurrection when we receive His Body and Blood, offered for our salvation and raised in glory.  If we receive Him in this way, we must also live with Him and shine forth with the glorious victory over sin and death revealed on the day of Pascha.  He wants us not only to celebrate this joyful season with services, songs, and feasting, but most profoundly with holiness, with a newly empowered life that shines with heavenly light.
We may want to excuse ourselves from this high calling, of course.  In contrast with the brilliant light of Pascha, we may see the darkness and brokenness in our lives all too well.  Christ has conquered sin and death, but we all still bear their wounds in so many ways; and sometimes we wonder if this glorious news of life eternal really applies to us with all our struggles, pains, weaknesses, and failings.
We may have a romanticized and unrealistic view of what living the life of the resurrection actually means.  Some think that true holiness means escape from all pains and problems, from involvement in anything that is not totally separate from life in the world as we know it, or a kind of perpetual retreat from reality.  But notice, for example, that when the risen Lord appears to His disciples, He still bears His wounds.  He was not raised as a ghost or a spirit, but as the God-Man, a whole human being with a body that bore the consequences of the battle He fought for us.  His horrible wounds were part of Who He freely chose to become for our sake, and He arose victorious with them.  He took these wounds upon Himself purely out of love for us and has used them to defeat death itself, the wages of sin and our ancient foe that has brought human beings misery and despair from generation to generation.
There is more to sharing in the glory of eternal life than simply acknowledging or singing about Christ’s resurrection.  To participate fully in the Lord’s great victory is an eternal journey, a process of growing in holiness, and none of us is anywhere near completing it.  Nonetheless, we must recognize that Christ rose again to bring the dead to life, to heal our wounds, to save sinners, and to transform all who bear His image and likeness.  He rose to heal the world, not to escape it.  No matter how weak, sick, and corrupt we are, His divine mercy extends to us personally.  He intends to bless and save us all.  The good news of Pascha is that we are no longer the slaves of sin and death.  Now evil only has the power in our lives that we allow it to have; the same is true of the fear of death, violence, suffering, and all the other works of darkness that can so easily dominate, distort, and destroy us.  These harsh realities are part of the world as we know it, but our Savior’s empty tomb shows that they too are essentially empty, that they too have been conquered, and that our calling is to becoming living witnesses of this blessed freedom each day of our lives in every thought, word, and deed.
So no matter how difficult our struggles are or how weak we feel before them, let us rejoice in the resurrection of Christ.  No matter how far short we have fallen from faithfulness in any way, let us embrace the new life brought to the world by the empty tomb.  And let us also embrace one another, forgive all offenses, and pray for and bless our enemies, for Christ’s resurrection has conquered death and sin, which are the very roots of all estrangement, hatred, and brokenness in our relationships with other people.
Through the holy mysteries of His Body, the Church, our risen Savior enables us all to pass over from death to life.  Now the challenge is for each of us to live in the righteous joy of Christ’s resurrection, to make His victory ours, and to recognize that nothing separates us from His holiness other than our own stubborn refusal to share in His great triumph.   So let us celebrate Pascha not by only singing “Christ is Risen,” but also by actually living and experiencing the new life that His empty tomb has brought to the world.  For He is with us just as truly as He was with the St. Thomas and other disciples, and He wants to make as big a difference in our lives as He did in theirs.  That is the good news that we celebrate during the season of Pascha.
Christ is Risen!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

We Must Enter into Christ's Death In Order to Rise with Him: A Homily Near the End of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

          We go to great lengths to insulate ourselves from the realities of suffering and death.  Consequently, people who experience profound loss and sorrow often find themselves alone.  Surely, it is difficult to be in the presence of those in great pain of any kind, especially those who are dying, for we often feel helpless before them and are reminded of our own mortality.  At some level, we know that something similar is in store for us.   
            Perhaps these tendencies have at least something to do with why so few of our Lord’s followers stood at the foot of His cross as He suffered and died.  The Theotokos, the other women, and St. John refused to abandon Him, but the rest of the disciples fled in fear.  Surely, they had good reason to be afraid for it had to be dangerous to be associated publically with someone who was crucified as a traitor to the Romans after being rejected as a blasphemer by the leaders of the Jews. But the Theotokos, the other righteous women, and St. John did not flee.  They refused to allow their shock and sorrow to cause them to abandon their Savior, even in the midst of His horrible suffering and death.
            The season of Great Lent gives each of us blessed opportunities to become like those who remained at the foot of the Cross, who endured the agony of beholding our Lord’s self-offering for the life of the world.  We will soon enter quite profoundly into the mystery of our salvation in as we journey with Christ from the raising of Lazarus to His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where in a matter of days He is rejected and condemned by those He came to save. We will chant “Today is hung upon the tree He who hung the earth upon the waters.”  We will not merely remember His crucifixion as a past historical event during the services of Great and Holy Friday; no, as we read the Passion Gospels and place Christ on the Cross, we enter into the eternal present of the divine love that stops at nothing, not even death, the tomb, and Hades, in order to bring us—and the entire creation—into the eternal blessedness for which He breathed life into us in the first place and for which He spoke the universe into existence.   
            So we are not only figuratively in the place of those who stood at the foot of the Cross.  We really are there, even as we are really guests at the heavenly banquet in every Divine Liturgy. Is it surprising, then, that we need several weeks of preparation in order to have the spiritual strength and clarity necessary to abide with the God-Man as He suffers and dies for us?  “The King of Angels...Who wrapped the heavens with clouds” humbles Himself to the point of accepting hatred, torture, and cruel public execution purely out of love for all of us who have rejected Him time and again.  He even asks the Father to forgive His tormenters for “they know not what they do.”  This is not the death of a mere teacher or example,   but the slaughter of the true Passover Lamb, the Incarnate Son of God Who is fully divine and fully human.  If we shy away from the suffering and death of those we encounter daily, how much more will we shake with holy fear before the death of the Alpha and Omega of the universe? How much more will we say “This is no place for me!” and run away from the Cross? 
            Perhaps we feel justified in doing so because we have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. Our Lord will rise victorious on the third day.   Who does not want to shout “Christ is Risen!” as soon as possible? The problem, of course, is that we cannot enter into the great mystery of His resurrection unless we first participate in His death.  Even as our Savior tramples down death by death, we too must die to death, to the corruption and decay that our following in the way of Adam and Eve has brought about in our own lives.  That means death to sin however it has taken root in us, however it has distorted and disfigured us as living icons of our Lord.   A once beautiful painting loses nothing but its ugliness from an expert restoration that reveals its original beauty.  The same is true for us when we turn away from all that separates us from growing evermore like God as partakers of the divine nature.  That is the fulfillment of the ancient, true, and beautiful vocation to which Lent calls us.
The Christian life begins with baptism into the Lord’s death as we die to sin and rise with Him into newness of life.  We put on Christ in baptism and regain the robe of light that Adam lost.  That is, of course, only the beginning of the journey to become radiant with the divine energies like an iron left in the fire.  Unfortunately, we so easily return to the ways of the first Adam, preferring the darkness of our own corruption to the brilliant light of God’s glory.  
  As Christ taught, we must persevere in dying to death by taking up our crosses and losing our lives in order to save them.  We must struggle each day to die to the corrupting effects of sin and embrace more fully the holy joy which our Lord’s cross has brought to the world.  As St. Paul writes, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:24)  Slavery to self-centered desires is never a path to joy, but only to addiction to self-imposed misery which will never satisfy us.  God did not create us for the tomb of slavery to ourselves, but for the eternal joy appropriate to those who join themselves to His self-offering in free obedience as beloved sons and daughters of the Most High.
And that is what Great Lent is for.  By devoting ourselves to prayer, by fasting from rich food and anything else to which we have an unhealthy attachment, by sharing our resources and attention with the needy, by forgiving our enemies and healing broken relationships, by humbly confessing our sins and reorienting our lives toward Christ, by embracing the practices of this season, we crucify our passions and desires.  We advance in putting to death the morbid distortions of sin in our lives.  We open ourselves at least a bit more fully to the victory over sin and death that Jesus Christ has accomplished through His Cross.  We take up our crosses and follow Him one step at a time.  We participate in His trampling down death by death when we use the spiritual disciplines of Lent to trample down the pernicious power of the passions in our lives.  The more we unite ourselves to our Lord’s Cross in these ways, the more we will  know the Cross as victory, not as a defeat--as the path to joy, not to despair. 
The disciples surely fled the crucifixion in large part because they had no hope.  They thought that it was all over for Jesus Christ and for them as His followers.  Perhaps we are tempted to abandon our friends and loved ones in their final years or hours, or in other times of great pain, because we see no future for them or ultimately for ourselves.  That may be the way it is with the first Adam, but it is surely not with the Second Adam Who brings life from the very depths of Hades, light from the darkness of the tomb, and unspeakable joy from the worst despair.       
            Here is the key point:  If we do not enter into the reality of our Savior’s crucifixion, we will find it impossible to celebrate Pascha as much more than a cultural festival with rich food. If we do not make progress in  crucifying our passions this Lent, we will lack the spiritual clarity to see our Lord’s Cross as much more than an unwelcome reminder of our own pain and suffering in the world as we know it.  In effect, we will abandon Him in fear like the disciples who fled and miss the entire meaning of this penitential season, as well as of Pascha.
But those who take up their crosses and die to the ways of death in their lives will do something very different.  They will abide at the foot of the Cross and participate in the deep mystery of salvation in ways too profound for words.  They will not then run away in fear, but with the Most Holy Theotokos and all the Saints, will enter personally into the joy before which even Hades and the tomb are powerless.  That is the great promise of this blessed season of Great Lent.  If we will join ourselves to our Lord’s self-offering on His Precious and Life-Giving Cross, if we will truly enter into His death, then we too will know the indescribable joy that comes on the third day.