Mark Twain is supposed to have said that "it’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts that I do understand." In other words, we have more than enough already to stay busy with in the Christian life—we don’t need to go looking for new challenges.
Christ Himself reminded the Apostles that He had already taught them all that they should need: “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of God.” And though we find it hard to believe, that statement now applies to all of us who have entered into the fullness of the Orthodox Church. We share, with all the other members of the Body, the great responsibility of being faithful to what the Lord has revealed. Today’s gospel text reminds us all of the importance of being responsible for what we have received, for growing in the faith and bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God.
Jesus Christ spoke of the word of God like seed cast upon the ground. Some seeds never even begin to grow because they fall along the wayside and are eaten by birds. And some who hear the good news of Christ do likewise, for they never even believe. Some seeds just begin to grow, but the sprouts die as soon as they spring up because they landed on rocks and couldn’t grow roots or receive nourishment. And some who believe at first fall away quickly, for they never seriously opened themselves to the strength received through regular prayer, worship, fasting, repentance, communion, and all the other means of support for the Christian life as taught by the Church—including the good deeds toward our neighbors that St. Paul wrote of in today’s epistle.
Then there are seeds that grow into plants that do take root; they seem to be healthy, but are eventually choked by thorns and weeds. And some who make a good beginning in the Christian life find themselves so distracted by their worries, riches, pleasures, and passions that they allow their faith to be destroyed. A gardener who is too distracted by other activities to look out for weeds will probably not be very successful. Likewise, a Christian who is inattentive to the dangers posed by anger, greed, pride, lust, spiritual laziness, or other passions will not last very long. But some seeds fall on good ground, grow nicely, and yield a large crop. And some Christians not only hear the word of the Lord, but keep it in their hearts and lives, and bear fruit with patience.
Now in case all this gardening imagery becomes a bit too much, let’s be crystal clear: As Orthodox Christians, we have received the fullness of God’s truth, the mystery of the Kingdom of God. We have put on Christ in baptism, been sealed by the Holy Spirit in chrismation, and nourished by the Lord’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Christ Himself forgives us when we repent in confession. In His Body, the Church, we are taught the whole, complete faith of the apostles. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the Saints, who inspire us by their examples and help us by their prayers. In every Divine Liturgy, we join them and the entire heavenly host in the worship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is no question what we have received in Jesus Christ: our salvation, our fulfillment, as partakers in the divine nature.
There is a question, however, about how we will respond to what we have been given. Will we take our faith for granted and decide that there are more important matters than prayer, repentance, and serving others in the name of Christ? Will we allow our spiritual life to become sick and weak, and ultimately die, because we are too lazy or distracted to fight our passions and accept the healing and strength which the Lord gives us through His Church? Will we rest content with bearing no fruit at all for the Kingdom? If so, we betray and reject Christ and shut ourselves out of His life.
St. Paul warned in his letter to St. Titus against letting foolish disputes, pointless arguments, or anything else distract us from good works, from meeting the urgent needs of others, from bearing fruit in the Christian life. We don’t have to be experts in the New Testament to know that St. Paul was always writing churches to remind them to focus on Jesus Christ, to turn away from all the nonsense that tempts us from faithfulness to Him, that threatens to waste our time and energy on anything that separates us from the Lord, from loving relationships with our brothers and sisters, and from the building up of His Church.
The question which we all face, no matter what particular set of challenges we face in life, is whether we will grow into the full stature of Christ. Namely, will we build into our daily schedules opportunities to find the strength of the Lord through prayer, Bible reading, fasting, and service toward those around us? Will we repent through confession on a regular basis and whenever we are aware of grave sin in our lives? Barring extraordinary circumstances, will we attend Liturgy on Sundays and Feast Days? Will we do all that we can to direct our attention away from anything that inflames our passions and toward that which helps us grow in holiness? Will we become so busy with good works that we have no time or energy for foolish arguments or other pointless distractions? If so, then we will be like the seed that landed on good soil, got proper nutrition, and produced a bumper crop. And we will know already the joy of the kingdom of heaven.
That, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is the will of the Lord for each and every one of us. Young or old, male or female, priest or layperson, it does not matter. We have all received the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and we all have the ability to respond to our Lord’s great mercy with repentance, love, and faithfulness in our daily lives, regardless of the circumstances we face. And, yes, that really is true for each and every one of us, no matter what sins we have committed and no matter what our problems may be. Remember St. Mary of Egypt, a wicked prostitute who later became an example of righteousness. Recall St. Peter, who denied Christ before His crucifixion, and then became the most senior bishop of the early church, a powerful evangelist, and a great martyr. Bring to mind King David, St. Paul, and countless others who turned away from evil to embrace the mercy of the Lord and find new life in Him.
Maybe we feel this morning like we have done our best to kill the seed that Christ has planted in our souls. Perhaps we have had a spiritual draught or can’t even see a sprout because of all the weeds in our lives; maybe we feel pretty far from bearing fruit, building up the church, or serving our neighbors. If that’s the case, we should remember that the mystery of the Kingdom of God is all about mercy toward sinners like you and me. In Christ Jesus, there is always hope, there is always the promise of a new life with the blessing and peace of the Kingdom. No matter how far we have to grow in the Christian life, He is with us, ready to heal our sicknesses, to strengthen us in our weakness, to calm our passions, to enable us to serve Him in our neighbors and in His Body, the church.
So in repentance and humility, it’s time for us all to become responsible for the great gift of salvation, the mystery of the Kingdom, that is ours in Jesus Christ. Instead of taking the Lord for granted, it’s time for us to root out everything in our lives that tempts us from responding to Him with a good heart, keeping His word, and bearing fruit with patience.
And then we will be like the seed that fell on good ground and flourished, becoming a blessing to the world and a sign of God’s salvation, of the great mystery of His redemptive love that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
Thank you Fr Philip for an excellent presentation of the Gospel truth tied in with St Paul's epistle.
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