It happens fairly often. Friends or students tell me that they their churches have taught them that God is someone of whom they should be afraid because of the Lord’s wrath and anger toward sinners. Instead of the receiving the Good News of Christ’s mercy and love, they have heard only the bad news of judgment and condemnation. So they are usually pleasantly surprised to hear the Orthodox view of salvation as sharing in God’s life, love, and glory, of being united with the Holy Trinity, of theosis. They are relieved to know that God really does love us so much that He wants to bring us into His eternal life.
Last Sunday was the feast of Pentecost, when we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. The Spirit has been poured out richly upon all in the Body of Christ, which shows that God wants to dwell in the hearts and souls of human beings, that He wants to make us partakers of the divine nature by grace.
Today is the Sunday of All Saints, when we remember all of those who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, who have accepted and been transformed by our Lord and His love. The root meaning of the world “saint” is holy, and we are reminded today that most saints haven’t been officially given a title by the church or had their pictures painted on icons. But they are known by God and glorified in the Kingdom because in ways, perhaps known only to God, they entered into His holiness, they embraced His love and became beacons of light in our world.
But what does that have to do with you and me, who probably can’t imagine ourselves as saints? Well, the good news of the gospel is that we are all called to become holy, yes, actually to become saints. No matter who we are, what mistakes we have made in our lives, no matter what our circumstances are in terms of health, age, education, money, or anything else, we are all able to find the healing and fulfillment that the saints have known. We too are able to enter into the holiness of God, to receive and be changed by His love. He wants nothing more than to make our lives shine with the glory of His Kingdom, right now and throughout all eternity. Of course, it’s a journey, a process for all of us to become holy. It takes patience, persistence, humility, and a refusal to give up. Today’s gospel reading gives us some pointers on how to continue on this path to the Kingdom, how to open our hearts and souls as fully as possible to our Lord’s holiness.
First, Jesus Christ said that He will confess us to His Father in heaven if we confess Him before other people. But if we don’t, He won’t claim us before the Father. In some ways, we have it easy in America. It’s very unlikely that we will be called to confess our faith before a judge or government official who threatens to torture and kill us if we profess faith in Jesus Christ. But if we want to unite our lives to Christ, we must confess Him every day in word and deed in the small details of our lives.
Do we treat other people with the love, care, and the dignity that we would show to the Lord Himself? Do we speak to others in ways that are blessings to them, that help them experience peace and joy? Don’t think only of your friends or those whom you admire. What about people who don’t like you, who have wronged you in some way, whom you find it easy to judge and disregard, whom you just don’t like? The real test is how we treat them. We confess our faith when we live our faith. If we don’t act or talk like Christians, we deny Christ. We give the impression that we want no part of Him, we turn away from Him and judge ourselves. That’s not the way of the saints, however, and it must not be our way of living if we want to share in His life.
A second pointer that our gospel text gives us sounds really harsh. Christ tells us that we shouldn’t love family members more than we love Him. Instead, we have to take up our cross and follow Him. In order to understand this hard saying, we have to remember that our Lord went to the cross for us; He bore the consequences of all human sinfulness and corruption to the point of death, burial, and hades so that He could conquer them and bring us into eternal life through His resurrection. That is the ultimate act of love. If we want to share in the new life that He has brought to the world, we have to keep our blessings in perspective and not make idols of them. Instead, we must offer them to Father even as the Son offered Himself up on the cross.
We have to bear the cross of sacrificing the idolatry even of our spouses, children, parents, and other loved ones. For like us, they are simply human beings and not God. And if we make false gods of them, we will cause them and us many problems by acting as though they are the center of the universe. We will bend them and ourselves all out of shape, putting more weight on them and us than anyone can bear. Instead, we must take up the cross of loving others in God, for He is the source and standard of all love worthy of the name. Out of love, the Father gave the Son for the salvation of the world. That is sacrifice beyond what we can understand. And if we share in that love, we must sacrifice the ultimately self-centered illusion that we will find or give other people true fulfillment and happiness apart from Him. And if we put ourselves or others before faithfulness to the Lord, we end up confessing some false God rather than Jesus Christ. That’s not the way of the saints, and it must not be our way if we want to open our lives to His glory.
If we really love others in God, we will offer our relationships with them to the Lord as best we can; and by His mercy, they will become holy. That’s what’s best for them and for us; it works both ways. For example, parents shouldn’t live through their children or use them to meet their own goals, but instead guide them to become their true selves to the glory of God. Neither should we indulge our kids as though they are little gods, but we must do everything possible to help them grow into the full stature of Christ, to be those who love God with every ounce of their being and their neighbors as themselves. We offer our children to the Lord by how we rear them, how we treat them, how we speak to them, all toward the end that we and they will put God first in our lives.
The same is true of marriage. If we have an unrealistic romantic or financial or social ideal about marriage--and think that a spouse will meet all our needs and bring us complete fulfillment in life, we will miss the true calling of husband and wife to make their life together an icon, a living image of the Kingdom of God. Mutual forgiveness, patience, self-sacrifice, self-control, and steadfast commitment are the signs of a holy marriage. Faithful spouses pray for and with one another. Faithful parents do the same with their children. When families pray and worship and serve God together in His church, they make of their life together an offering to the Lord. They confess Jesus Christ to one another and the world. They open their lives to the holiness of God and follow in the way of the saints.
Yes, this kind of family life is a cross to bear; it’s not easy and we very often fall short of it. Unfortunately, there is not much in our culture today that supports this view of marriage and the family. We face the same struggles in fulfilling our calling to confess Jesus as Lord with integrity each day in all that we say and do. But these are the crosses that will make us holy, which little by little will purify our souls and open our lives to the healing grace of God.
Fortunately, we don’t become holy simply by our own power; if that were the case, we would have no hope for we know how weak we are. Instead, we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit with the strength given us by the boundless love of Christ, Who conquered sin and death through His cross and empty tomb. Together with all the saints, we will know His holiness and joy if we take up our cross, offer our lives and loved ones to Him, and confess Him in what we say and do each day.
No, this isn’t dramatic or flamboyant and we will sometimes wonder if we are making any progress at all; but it’s the way that ordinary people like you and me become saints. We fall down and we get up. We fall down and we get up. But whatever you do, don’t give up. Don’t despair. Through prayer, fasting, and repentance, continue to open your life to the healing power of the Holy Spirit and grow step by step in the holiness and love of God. That’s the only way to participate in the holiness and salvation of our Lord.