Sunday, June 28, 2015

How to Respond to Contemporary American Culture with the Humble Faith of the Centurion: Homily on the Fourth Sunday of the Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 6:18-23
Matthew 8: 5-13

           Especially in our time and place, no one wants to be a servant, a slave, or held accountable to anything that they did not freely choose.  We are much more likely to want to be free from all constraints with total liberty to define ourselves and live on our own terms.  The problem, of course, is that we are also susceptible to falling into delusions about who we are before God and where the paths that we follow will lead us in life.  In the name of freedom, we easily enslave ourselves to our own desires and passions in ways that make it very hard to set things right once again.  
            St. Paul reminded the church in Rome that the abuse of freedom is quite serious business, as “the wages of sin is death.” Before their conversion, his largely Gentile audience had been slaves of sin with one level of depravity leading to another.  As we have all learned by bitter experience, one sin so often gives rise to another, usually more serious than the first.  But St. Paul teaches that those who have faith in Christ have become slaves of righteousness toward the end of sanctification, holiness, and eternal life.  They will find freedom, not by enslaving themselves to disordered desires and corrupt practices, but by embracing the healing of our humanity made possible through our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  As the Church has taught from its origins, there is a path that leads to our fulfillment in Christ, that makes us more fully participants in the eternal blessedness for which He created us.  This path makes us free to share in the very life of God and to shine with the light of heaven even as we live in the world.   
            The Roman centurion in today’s gospel lesson provides an example of how to follow this path to true freedom in Christ.  He showed trust and humility so profound that the Savior said that He had not found such faith in Israel.  In other words, an officer of a pagan army of occupation, someone despised and condemned by the Jews, showed great faith in the Messiah, the one expected to fulfill the ancient hopes of the Hebrew people.  As the Lord made clear, some will begin the path to eternal blessedness from very unlikely places, as Gentiles “from east and west,” while some “sons of the Kingdom” (presumably some of the Jews) will not inherit such blessings. As was often the case, Christ’s words here must have shocked and offended many people.  He did not make Himself popular by saying such things.
            The humble faith shown by the centurion is very far from the self-centeredness that so often passes for freedom in our culture.  First of all, this fellow cared about his lowly servant so much that he risked embarrassment, if not something worse from his own superiors, by asking for Christ’s help.  But he was not ashamed to lower himself to be point of being dependent on the aid of this Messiah.  He also confessed his sinfulness publicly by telling the Lord that he was unworthy to have Him enter his home.   Think about how astounding that statement was from a Roman officer to a Jewish rabbi, a person quite far beneath him in every way according to the standards of the empire that he served.   In this man’s humility, he had the spiritual clarity to know that Christ needed simply to say a word from a distance in order to heal the sick servant.  He had the humble faith necessary to follow the path to freedom from sin and death.   And because of that, the Lord granted his request and used him as an example of those from all over the world, even hated Gentiles, who would share in the heavenly banquet with the great patriarchs of the Old Testament.  Remember that Jews would never eat with Gentiles, but here is Christ predicting that some Gentiles will dine with the founding figures of the Hebrew people in the coming Kingdom—while some of the Jews will be shut out of the celebration.  What a radical and disturbing thing to say.
            We all need the humble faith of the centurion in order to respond in a spiritually healthy way to cultural trends in our society.  A great many things are legal, accepted, and even celebrated in our culture in the name of freedom that the Body of Christ does not bless as being paths to greater righteousness. Our faith teaches that using freedom contrary to God’s purposes does little more than weaken us spiritually and enslave us even more to corrupting passions and unholy desires. That is true in all areas of life, including sexual behavior, regardless of our particular temptations. The abuse of freedom makes us even more the slaves of sin. If we want to be faithful Christians, we must use our liberty to live in accordance with God’s purposes for us, not in ways contrary to them.
             The Supreme Court has made civil marriage between persons of the same sex legal throughout the United States. The Orthodox Church does not approach marriage in terms of arguments about civil rights or the principles of the American Constitution, but in terms of salvation.  Hence, the Church blesses only the marriage of one man and one woman for the growth of the spouses in righteousness as faithful servants of Jesus Christ, Who said "Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matt 19:4) That is how the eternal Word of God, Who created us male and female in the divine image and likeness, spoke of marriage.
            St. Paul wrote something very similar to the Ephesians (5:31-32): “’For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Along with many other types of sin, St. Paul describes desire for members of one’s own sex as a sign of humanity’s rebellion against God. (Rom. 1: 26-27)  And, of course, the union of man and woman is the only  kind of human relationship blessed with the capability of fulfilling God’s ancient commandment to “be fruitful and multiply,” bringing forth new life from the personal union of the spouses. (Gen. 1:28)  There is no basis in the Bible, the lives of the Saints, or any aspect of the Church’s tradition to bless other forms of marriage. 
How we approach the union of man and woman is part of the ancient and unchanging faith of the Orthodox Church, which we accept with the humble faith of the centurion.   He knew that he was unworthy to have Christ visit his home, and we are unworthy to take it upon ourselves to change the holy mystery of marriage or any other dimension of the path to the Kingdom that the Lord has given us.   Like the centurion, we may risk losing social standing or popularity due to faithfulness to the way of Christ.  We must remember, however, that Christians have sacrificed to follow the Lord from the very beginning of the faith.  Think for a moment about our suffering brothers and sisters in Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East, literally becoming martyrs and refugees because of their steadfast commitment to the Lord.
We must not feel sorry for ourselves due to changes in civil laws about marriage, but instead remember that Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world.  He calls us to become a city on a hill—a beacon in the night-- that attracts those who are sick and tired of slavery to sin to a new way of life, to the glorious freedom for righteousness of the children of God.  Current cultural trends demand greater faithfulness on our part, as well as vigilance against hypocrisy.     
With the humble faith the centurion, we must also remember that there is hope for every human being to enter the joy of the Kingdom.  The centurion was a hated foreigner, a despised Gentile in the army of occupation from a pagan empire.   The Romans were famous for their immorality and quite unclean from the perspective of the Jews.  But here we have Christ praising a Roman officer for his faith being superior to that of the Jews, together with a prediction that Gentiles will be guests at the heavenly banquet.  How amazing is that?  In other words, the Lord reminds us not to write off anyone, including those who presently order their lives in ways contrary to Christian teaching on matters of sex and anything else.
Judging the souls of other people is completely contradictory to the beautiful humility of the centurion.  That is God’s business, not ours, even when someone acts publically in ways contrary to our faith.  Whenever we are tempted to make ultimate pronouncements on others, and in effect to put ourselves in the place of the Lord at the Last Judgment, we are the ones who need to repent and should say the Jesus Prayer until that temptation goes away. Upholding the fullness of Christian teaching is one thing, while self-righteous judgment of particular people is quite another.  If we persist in that practice, we will shut ourselves out of the heavenly banquet.  As Christ said of the self-righteous in His day, “Prostitutes and tax collectors go into the Kingdom of God before you.”   (Matt. 21:31) Let us take that warning quite seriously.
            We should use everything in life for our salvation, for opening ourselves more fully to the healing and blessing of Jesus Christ.  Let us use current cultural trends as a reminder to become more faithful servants of righteousness, more faithful followers of our Lord on the blessed path to the Kingdom that He has given us in His Body, the Church.  We cannot control what others do and it is never our business to judge.  We must all press on with the humble faith of the centurion, trusting in Christ’s mercy as we pursue holiness in every dimension of our lives, no matter the cost or difficulty.  That is still the best way to witness for Christ in a world so terribly confused.  For if our lives do not shine forth with righteousness, no one will pay any attention to what we have to say about marriage or anything else.

            And why should they?  If we do not become living witnesses of a blessedness beyond the customs of mainstream culture, then we will have failed to manifest the joy of a Kingdom that calls all people to become who God created them to be in His image and likeness.    With the humility of the centurion, let us be faithful witnesses of what our Lord’s mercy can do with even the most unlikely guests at the heavenly banquet, including sinners like you and me. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Eyes Full of Light: Homily on the Remarkable Forgiveness Shown by the Mourners of Charleston on the Third Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 5:1-11
Matthew 6:22-33
The murders of several African-American Christians gathered at their church for Bible study in Charleston are truly horrible beyond words.  The comments of survivors and family members to the perpetrator at a legal hearing are truly merciful beyond words.  For in the midst of their terrible agony, they forgave the murderer, asked for God’s mercy upon him, and called him to turn to Christ in repentance.   He gave them terrible darkness, but they responded with brilliant light.
Jesus Christ taught that the eye of the soul, our spiritual vision, is all important.  If we are illumined by His light to the depths of our hearts, then we will see everyone and everything in light of His kingdom and righteousness.  We will seek Him first in all that we say and do.  In the reaction of those grieving family members, we see the light of Christ in astoundingly sharp contrast to the darkness that inspired such an obscene crime. 
St. Paul suffered for Christ to the point of death as a martyr.  He wrote of rejoicing in sufferings which ultimately give rise to hope “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”  Just as God enables martyrs to remain steadfast and even rejoice in their sufferings, He strengthened those grieving family members in Charleston to respond with grace, peace, and reconciliation that are simply not of this world.
Their example reminds us that the Christian life is not about living in society on its own terms, which usually amounts to little more than stumbling around in the darkness and serving false gods of one kind or another. Since Cain and Abel, people have found reasons to become blind to their brothers and sisters, so easily viewing them as enemies deserving only of death and even to think of murder as virtuous. In our world of corruption, everyone easily appears as a threat to everyone else and there is no limit to vengeance from generation to generation.
St. Paul reminds us that the way of Christ is totally different, for “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”  He speaks of us as “enemies…reconciled to God by the death of His Son…”  By turning away from Him ever since Adam and Eve, we had made ourselves the enemies of the Lord; but God was never our enemy.  Instead of destroying us or giving us what we deserved, the Father sent His Son to save us.  The Son offered Himself freely on the cross and rose in glory in order to bring us into  eternal life.  So as St. Paul wrote, “We also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received our reconciliation.” 
In the gracious response of the grieving family members of Charleston, we see a powerful icon of God’s love for enemies that should inspire us all to become more faithful Christians.  For if we claim to accept His mercy to us, how can we not extend it to others?  If we ask the Lord to forgive us our trespasses, how can we not forgive those who trespass against us?  How can we rest content with hatred of anyone in our hearts for any reason? 
Of course, most of us fall into holding grudges and remembering the wrongs of others for matters far smaller than mass murder.  We find ourselves serving more than one master with some frequency.  The eyes of our souls are not full of light and we do not see everyone and everything in light of His Kingdom and righteousness.  At times, we even get a perverse joy from defining ourselves over against our enemies, whether real or imagined.    
Consequently, we all need clearer and more focused spiritual vision.  We all need to enter more fully into reconciliation with our Lord, into His peace.  That is the only way that we will have the strength to love and forgive others from our hearts, no matter who they are or what they have done.  That is the only way we will learn to see every human being as a living icon of Christ and recognize that what we do to them, we do to our Lord.  That is the only way that the light of Christ will shine from our hearts and overcome the darkness with which we are all too familiar.
The Savior’s teaching about serving two masters gets to the heart of our problem.  Too often, we think of our faith as an optional addition to what is really important, to life as we want to live it in a secular world in which we have made God largely irrelevant.  We seek possessions, pleasure, and power more than we do God’s Kingdom and righteousness. That is obviously not the Orthodox Christian faith, but I am afraid that most of us fall into such ways of thinking and behaving more than we would like to admit.  In other words, we try to serve more than one master and the Lord is usually not the one who claims the greater loyalty.
If our goal is simply a conventional life in society, then that way of living may work well enough for a time.  But if we want to enter more fully into the peace and reconciliation of the Lord, we must not serve the false gods that only darken our hearts and wed us more closely to the very kind of anxiety and fear that are at the root of so much brokenness in our lives and relationships.
Unfortunately, we so often do exactly what Christ warns against, making idols of our life in the world:  our food, drink, clothing, and other possessions. That leads many to constant worry, for poverty, hunger, famine, crime, disease, war, and terrorism are always possibilities in the world as we know it.  There is no way that we can protect ourselves completely from dangers far beyond our control.  Too often, we cope with these worries by demonizing others and imagining that if our alleged enemies fail and our will is done then all will be well.  We can easily feel justified in doing whatever it takes to build ourselves up and put down whoever we think stands in our way as though we were our own saviors. 
Of course, that is the way of the blind leading the blind, of a profound lack of peace of with God, our neighbors, and even ourselves.  True reconciliation comes from the Lord’s cross and empty tomb.  It is a gift, not our accomplishment.  It shines through a life of mercy and forgiveness that overcomes fear, anxiety, and resentment.  It extends to even the most wretched evildoers of every generation, from those who crucified our Lord to those who kill His children today, whether in Charleston, the Middle East, or elsewhere, and actually think that they have done something good.
If we want to participate more fully in Christ’s peace and reconciliation, then we must use our worries and fears as reminders to call to God from our hearts for strength to put Him and His Kingdom first in our lives.  If we harbor hatred or judgment toward anyone, we must ask Christ to help us grow in showing others the same forgiveness that we ask Him to show to us. If we do not see Christ in anyone for any reason, we must ask Him to flood the eyes of our souls with His light and overcome the darkness that is within us.   
If we are tempted to fall into despair about the great problems of our time, we must remember that the Lord has never, and will never, abandon His Body, the Church, through which He calls the entire world to salvation. Even as He sustained the martyrs of the first century, He strengthens those who die for Him to this very day.  And in ways that go beyond rational understanding, He even empowers those who mourn to bless and forgive as He does.  By His unfathomable grace, even those who suffer terribly may know “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” and become full of light as they seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness.       

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Follow Me" Applies to Us All: Homily for the Second Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Romans 2:10-16
             Matthew 4: 18-23            
            In some ways, we may envy Peter, Andrew, James, and John for the clarity of their call.  On the day that Jesus Christ called them to leave everything behind and follow Him, there was no question what He wanted them to do.  The message was clear and they did as they were told.   
            Of course, that was only the beginning of their ministry as disciples and apostles.  As we know from reading the rest of the gospels, these men did not have a clear understanding of who Christ really was until after His resurrection.  Nothing in their background had prepared them for this unusual kind of Messiah or for the great sacrifices that following Him would require.  But on the day that the Lord called His first disciples, He did not require perfect understanding.  He asked only that they leave behind the life that they had known and take the first steps in following Him.
That was not a small thing, of course.  Imagine how hard it would be if Christ made very clear to you that He wanted you to give up the only occupation you had ever known, leave your family behind, and literally follow Him as He went around teaching, preaching, and healing the sick.  On that particular day, despite the enormity of this calling and their less than full understanding of it, these men did as they were told and became “fishers of men” for the Kingdom of God.   They were clearly chosen to be Christ’s disciples, but they certainly did not have it easy in any way for the rest of their lives.    
            It is a blessing and a challenge to have a strong and clear sense of what God wants you to do in life.  How many holy people—from the very first Christians until this very day—die as martyrs or suffer abuse and persecution for their faithfulness to Christ?  To take even small steps toward a holy life requires struggle, persistence, and a willingness to endure tension within our own souls and usually with other people.  To lead a righteous life requires loving God with every ounce of our being and our neighbors as ourselves.  Try to do that seriously and you will find yourself fighting many battles, especially in your own soul.
St. Paul was a Jewish convert to Christianity who knew that God had called the Hebrews for a unique role in the salvation of the world.   The Jews certainly had an advantage over the Gentiles because of all that God had revealed to them through Moses and the prophets.  But St. Paul also knew that God shows no partiality.  Hearing the Law without obeying it was of no benefit at all, even as Christ’s disciples would have gained nothing by ignoring Christ’s call to follow Him.  What matters is actually doing what God requires of us.
St. Paul knew that God had not abandoned the Gentiles, for He gave everyone a conscience, a knowledge of right and wrong engraved in our hearts; that is an important part of what it means to be a human being in God’s image and likeness.    So whether Jew or Gentile, whether according to the law of Moses or the dictates of conscience, St. Paul teaches that God holds us all accountable to the truth that we have received.  The question for every human being, then, is whether we obey the Lord according to what we know of His purposes for us.   
            He was under no illusion that the Jews had perfectly obeyed the Law or that the Gentiles had lived fully in accordance with conscience.  St.  Paul taught that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  No one is in the position to boast of a privileged status before the Lord or to judge another, for both Jew and Gentile (namely, all human beings) stand in need of grace and mercy to the depths of our souls.  Everyone is in need of a Savior Who conquers sin and death and brings us into the eternal life of God.
            That was certainly true our Lord’s disciples, who failed with some frequency to obey or even understand what Christ expected of them.  They largely abandoned Him at His arrest and crucifixion, and it was not until He appeared to them after His resurrection and gave them a measure of the Holy Spirit that their eyes were truly opened.  It was not until the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that they boldly and effectively became “fishers of men” whose preaching and miracle-working ministry brought multitudes into the life of Christ.    As a consequence of their apostolic ministry, they took up their crosses in suffering persecution, hardships of all kinds, and even death as martyrs.  The Lord did not call them to an easy life of special privilege, but to an extremely demanding one of sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom.
            At the end of the day, He does the same with us all.  Of course, the details will be different.  We are not fishermen in first-century Palestine or the very pillars of the Church in the sense that they were.  St. Paul surely did not have us in mind when he wrote to the Romans about Jews and Gentiles. It is possible to get so caught up in the particular callings and circumstances of others such that we miss the larger point. To be perfectly clear, the larger point is that we are all fully responsible for hearing and responding to God’s calling in our lives, no matter how imperfectly we understand it or how difficult it is to obey. 
In many ways, we have much less of an excuse than Christ’s first disciples, for we have the benefit of their example and of so many generations of faithful people who have gone before us in following Jesus Christ. As Orthodox Christians, we have received the fullness of God’s revelation in the ongoing life of the Church by the power of the Holy Spirit.  But instead of patting ourselves on the back and simply taking pride in these great blessings, we must humbly accept the great responsibility that they give us.     Like the Jews of old, we must remember that it is no great thing to be a recipient of God’s requirements if we do not actually do what He requires.  Like the Gentiles mentioned by St. Paul, we must remember that it is no accomplishment to have a conscience that leads us in the right direction if we do not actually follow it.  And our participation in the Church will be of no benefit to us if we ourselves do not become living witnesses of our Savior’s victory over sin and death in our daily lives.
In this season of the Apostles Fast, we want to become more like those blessed men who left everything behind in response to the Savior’s call, even though they often fell short.  Their understanding was imperfect and the same was true of their actions on many occasions.  But the Lord did not abandon or reject them, even when they abandoned Him.  He is merciful and calls us all to accept His mercy when we realize that we have not been doers of His will and have disregarded His calling. Like the apostles, we do not yet have perfect faith and obedience; but just like them, we are responsible to respond to the calling we have received as best we can.  To do so will never be easy or without sacrifice; we will often stumble along the path of discipleship.  But if we continue the journey with humble repentance, we will grow each step of the way in hearing Christ’s calling more clearly and in gaining the strength to obey Him more fully.
As hard as it is to believe, Jesus Christ calls each of us with the urgency that He called those first disciples and apostles.  We are every bit as responsible for obeying Him as they were, indeed even more responsible because we have the benefit of their example.  They had to wait three years for Christ’s resurrection and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, while we do not.  Far more than the Jews of the Old Testament or the ancient Gentiles, God has opened the eyes of our souls to know what He requires of us.  He has given us a great calling to share personally in His eternal and holy life.  There is no question about that.  The only question is how we will respond to the One Who says to each and every one of us: “Follow Me.” 


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Link to Podcast of Homily for Sunday of All Saints

Sunday of All Saints

June 10, 2015 Length: 10:36
Our contemporary culture forms many people who cannot imagine any purpose higher in life than the pursuit of self-centered pleasure on their own terms. Fr. Philip LeMasters explains that on the Sunday of All Saints, the Church reminds us that we are called to follow a very different and much better path.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

On Taking Up the Cross and Confessing Christ in Contemporary Culture: Homily for the Sunday of All Saints in the Orthodox Church

          We live in a time of great confusion. Our contemporary culture forms many people who cannot imagine any purpose in life higher than the pursuit of self-centered pleasure on their own terms.  For example, patient care for the dying and disabled, sacrifice to welcome and rear children conceived in inconvenient circumstances, and even basic sexual morality in singleness and marriage are often rejected today in ways that keep people from growing in God’s image and likeness. Our society produces too many people who love and fantasize about violence, worship money and what it can buy, disregard their needy neighbors, hate those who disagree with them, and recognize no standard higher than fulfilling their own immediate desires.   Such ways of living simply diminish us and enslave us to our passions.      
            On this Sunday of All Saints, the Church reminds us that we are called to follow a very different and much better path.  Last Sunday at Pentecost, we celebrated the descent of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has been poured out richly upon all in the Body of Christ, showing that God intends to dwell in the hearts and souls of human beings such that we all become partakers of the divine nature by grace.
Today we remember all those who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, whose lives have borne witness to the holiness of God.  The meaning of the word “saint” is holy, and surely most saints have not been officially canonized by the Church.  Nonetheless, they are known by God and glorified in the Kingdom because they embraced His transforming love and became beacons of light.  They followed the true and blessed path for which God created us as His sons and daughters; consequently, they became truly human in the divine likeness.   
In today’s gospel text, Jesus Christ teaches that He will confess us to His Father in heaven if we confess Him before other people.  But if we do not, He will not claim us before the Father.  He says that we must love Him more than anyone or anything else.  The persecuted Christians of the Middle East and elsewhere certainly follow His teaching when they become refugees, prisoners, and victims of torture, abuse, and execution for their faith in Him.  But we may wonder what our Lord’s words mean for those of us who live in places where we do not experience such obvious threats.  Do we have any hope of Christ acknowledging us before His Father when we do not suffer that kind of persecution?
 The good news of the gospel is that the Holy Spirit enables us all to become holy in whatever life circumstances we face.   The divine breath gave us life in the first place in God’s image and likeness and empowers us all to grow eternally in becoming more like Him, to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.  As hard as it is to believe, God calls us all to that kind of holiness.  He intends to make our lives shine with the glory of His Kingdom, right now and throughout all eternity. For that to happen, we must follow the path trod by all the saints, which is open to every human being in every generation.
Think about what Christ said concerning whether we confess Him before others.  That is relevant not only for circumstances of persecution, but also for every day of our lives.  Do we act and speak in ways that show we are united to Christ?  Are we living witnesses of His victory over sin and death?  Does the light of His resurrection shine through us by the power of Holy Spirit?  The hard truth is that, whenever Christ is not evident in us, we deny Him.   If we speak or act according to our own self-centered desires or the corrupt ways of the world, we indicate that we are not His.  That is to veer from the path to the Kingdom followed by all the saints; it is to turn away from what it means to be a human being in God’s image and likeness.  When we recognize we have done that, we must repent, reorienting our thoughts, words, and deeds toward Christ in humility.    
The Savior gives us an exacting standard to determine whether we are truly united with Him.  Namely, He says that those who love even family members more than Him are not worthy of Him.  Instead, we must take up our crosses and follow Him in order to be His.    As much as we do not like to hear it, even our deepest and most profound relationships in this life must be transformed by an even deeper and more profound allegiance to Christ if they are to become icons of the blessedness of the Kingdom.   Otherwise, they will become idols that diminish all concerned and keep us from fulfilling our high calling.
Family life by itself is not the salvation of the world.  The relationship between man and woman so easily becomes distorted and brings misery on them both, which is why there is so much divorce today.  Parents and children have it no easier, as witness child abuse, abortion, and the neglect of the elderly. When it comes to siblings, just remember Cain and Abel.  Even the best human inclinations so easily fall prey to the worst when they are not healed by sacrificial offering to the Lord. 
Christ went to the cross for us, bearing the consequences of all human corruption to the point of death, burial, and Hades in order to conquer them and bring us into eternal life through His resurrection.   The Father gave the Son and the Son offered Himself up on the cross for salvation.  That is the ultimate act of love.  If—together with our family members and loved ones-- we want to share in the new life that Christ has brought to the world, we must not make idols of any human being or relationship.  We must not pretend that they come before God or are fine just as they are.  No, we must offer our families and relationships to the Lord and bear the cross of sacrificing the idolatry even of our spouses, children, and parents. For like us, they are simply human beings and not God.  And if we make false gods of them, we will bring sorrow to them and ourselves.   We will bend everyone concerned out of shape, putting more weight on them than anyone can bear.  Instead, we must take up the cross of loving others according to God’s will for them and us.
Purely out of love, the Son went to the cross 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 will end up confessing some false god in place of Jesus Christ.  It is not as dramatic as worshiping an idol, but the spiritual significance is the same.  It is not the way of the saints, and it must not be our way if we want to open our lives to His glorious blessing and fulfillment.
 If we really love others, we will bear the cross for them and offer them to the Lord as best we can.  For example, when man and woman join in marriage in the Orthodox Church, they wear the crowns of the Kingdom, which are crowns of martyrdom.  Each dies to self in loving and serving Christ in the other.  We must not look for unrealistic romantic, financial, or social bliss in marriage, for that leads only to dissatisfaction and divorce.  The true calling of husband and wife is to make their life together an icon, a living image of the Kingdom of God.  Mutual forgiveness, patience, self-sacrifice, self-control, humility, and steadfast commitment are the signs of a holy marriage.  Faithful husbands and wives pray for and with one another.  Faithful fathers and mothers do the same with their children.  When families worship together and use their financial and other resources to serve God’s purposes in the world, they offer their common life 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, and it requires forgoing much that we may well desire.  In our age of internet pornography, promiscuity, and routine divorce, there is not much today that supports the holiness of marriage and family.  We face great struggles in fulfilling our calling to confess Jesus Christ as Lord with integrity each day in a world that worships pleasure, wealth, and selfishness.   Fortunately, the Holy Spirit strengthens us all to take up our crosses, which means confessing our Lord each day of our lives in all we say and do.  If we will do so, then we will open ourselves to His mercy and know already the peace and joy of a Kingdom not of this world together with all the saints who have gone before us.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

REVIEW: An Orthodox Response to “Same-Sex Unions” from Fr. Joseph Huneycutt

June 3, 2015 by  

What is the relationship between morality and the Eucharist? Do our actions, outside of the church building, define who we are in Christ? Essentially, does our bodily relationship with self and others affect our communion with the Other? These are the issues addressed by Fr Philip LeMasters in his book, Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage and Sex. Given that “same-sex unions” is the hot topic of the day, this review will center on chapter six of the book.
Midway down the opening paragraph of the chapter, “An Orthodox Response to ‘Same-Sex Unions,’” we read: “The question of Christianity’s proper stance on homosexuality is the most controversial and divisive issue facing churches in North America today” (p.79). This is a quote with which few Christians can quibble. Fireworks among foes and arm wrestling among friends might be found further down the page:
There is no question about the teaching of the Orthodox Church on homosexuality; namely, sexual relations between persons of the same sex are “sinful and contrary to God’s will. Orthodoxy maintains the living Tradition of the Church on the question of homosexuality. The Scriptures, writings of the Father, lives of the Saints, and the Liturgy provide no basis whatsoever for the endorsement of sexual relations between two people of the same sex under any circumstances. Consequently, there is no debate on this question in the Church (p.79).
Much has changed in America in the ten years since the book, Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage and Sex, was published (2004). For instance, in an Illinois Senate Debate that year, Barak Obama stated, “I don’t think marriage is a civil right.” He went on to state that gay people have rights …but marriage was not among them.[1]
One need not be a political news junkie to understand that Obama’s views have changed. When running for President in 2008, Candidate Obama stated: “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman.”[2] On May 9, 2012, Obama told an interviewer that he supported same-sex marriage.[3] Then, in 2015, one reads: “Calling state bans on same-sex marriage ‘incompatible with the Constitution,’ the Obama administration Friday filed a brief at the U.S. Supreme Court in support of couples who are making challenges in Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee.”[4]
Granted, Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage and Sex is not about politics or the evolving belief of the President of the United States. But with such attention directed from the nation’s “bully pulpit,” is it any wonder that many Americans – even those within the Orthodox Church – are questioning the Church’s teaching on human sexuality?
Traditional media outlets – radio, television, movies – and, especially, social media, not to mention politically-correct public school systems, have indoctrinated the next generation of Americans with the notion that love knows no boundaries, and neither should laws regulating marriage. The speed at which we have reached this erroneous notion is dizzying. These days, to question this mandated mantra is viewed as backward, hate speech, bullying. It is for this reason that this book, especially the chapter on “same-sex unions” is a must read by those who seek to understand why the Church believes as She does.
Detailing commonly heard arguments of “orientation” and even citing those who make a good case for the same, LeMasters lays out the timeless position of the Church that “a homosexual relationship is [incapable] of bringing human beings to participation in the Trinitarian love of God in ways that are truly parallel to marriage between a man and a woman” (p.81). The foundation of God-pleasing union detailed throughout the book is our union with God in the Eucharist. With this in mind, LeMasters asks, “Is a homosexual relationship of the sort that may be a foretaste of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb?” (p.81) He is here referring to the eschatological imagery which permeates the Church’s scriptural witness:
From Genesis through Revelation, there is a continuity of God’s purposes for the man-woman relationship that is a unique means of our participation in the life of the Trinity. When man and woman die to self in the conventional love of marriage, they live eucharistically and participate in the very life of God, even as they prepare for the Kingdom. The fulfillment of God’s intentions for our nature as man and woman is possible only in Christian marriage. Hence, relationships which do not fulfill our nature as man and woman before God may not be instruments of grace or a means of participating in God’s reign. For this to happen, grace would have to become the foe of creation; in a dualistic fashion, nature and grace would then be enemies, rather than dynamic categories which together shed light on our standing before God as creatures who have strayed from the Lord’s purposes for us and who need a spiritual healing which is beyond our own ability to effect. Manachaean dualism once more would rear its ugly head” (p.85).[5]
Gnosticism believes that the spiritual cannot mix with matter; it does not matter what you do in the sensible realm as long as you understand the spiritual realm. Gnosticism – with its emphasis on knowledge as the key to power, science and religion – is dualism. It leaves men free to practice immorality.
Those who argue that the biological distinctions between the sexes amount to no more than spiritually irrelevant plumbing have fallen prey to the Gnostic dangers of radically distinguishing the person from the body. A faith which places so much weight on the Body of Christ – in connection to the incarnation, the resurrection, the Church, and the Eucharist – must never dismiss the importance of the bodily differences of man and woman, as they have been revealed to have tremendous importance in the economy of salvation from the biblical period to the present. It is unthinkable for the Church to bless unions which are so clearly perversions of God’s intentions for man and woman (p.85).
A May 2015 Gallop poll reveals that 63% of Americans now find “same-sex unions” to be morally favorable (up 23% since the year 2000); furthermore:
The substantial increase in Americans’ views that gay and lesbian relations are morally acceptable coincide with a record-high level of support for same-sex marriage and views that being gay or lesbian is something a person is born with, rather than due to one’s upbringing or environment.
The public is now more accepting of sexual relations outside of marriage in general than at any point in the history of tracking these measures, including a 16-percentage-point increase in those saying that having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable, and a 15-point increase in the acceptability of sex between an unmarried man and woman. Clear majorities of Americans now say both are acceptable.[6]
If you couple this with the recent Pew Research Center findings that 71% of Americans identified as Christian in 2014 (down from 78% in 2007), one must assume that even those within the pews have redefined their moral beliefs based on a mandated politically-correct agenda rather than the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).”
Referring back to the chapter’s last quoted paragraph, above, no other conclusion can be reached than that many have indeed fallen into a Gnostic division of the body from the soul on the path to salvation. In other words, physical morality plays no part in the salvation of the soul. Such a belief is contrary to the witness of scripture, the fathers, and the saints of the Church. This deviation denies the witness of the Incarnation and distorts – nay destroys – a proper understanding of the Body of Christ as a communion of believers united in the Eucharist. Thus, as with any heresy, grace is denied.
God’s grace enables us for us the eschatological fulfillment and restoration of our nature, for the sharing of God’s reign through our participation in the life of the body of Christ. A homosexual relationship is not a fitting vehicle for coming to share more fully in God’s holiness. Regardless of arguments about whether homosexual activity is in any sense natural in our fallen world, Christians know the true nature of our sexuality if from what God has revealed about our creation and salvation as man and woman. Since grace restores and fulfills, but does not destroy our sexual nature as man and woman, to participate in homosexual relationships is to place oneself on a trajectory away from God’s gracious purposes for our sexuality. Hence, one who is not called to the vocation of heterosexual marriage should remain single and chaste, and take up the unique forms of ministry available to the celibate (p.87).
As with any review, there is a temptation to quote all the good stuff; alas, I have done some of this above. Yet, to fully understand the nature and import of Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage and Sex more than select quotes – or even the cited chapter on “same-sex unions” – is needed. While the issues discussed in the book have been politicized in contemporary society, they are not political but moral issues which have been politicized. Above all, Christians are called to remain true to the Faith revealed to us by God in the scripture, the fathers, and the witness of the saints. Fr Philip LeMaster’s book, Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage and Sex, explains and maintains this high calling.
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[1] Available: (accessed May 27, 2015)
[2] Available: (accessed May 27, 2015)
[3] Stein, Sam (May 9, 2012). “Obama Backs Gay Marriage”. Huffington Post.
[4] [March 6, 2015] (accessed May 27, 2015)
[5] Manichaeism: Manes (215-275) was a Persian and a Gnostic. He contrasted light and darkness, and maintained that Satan had hidden in man the particles of light, and that Jesus, Buddha, the Prophets, and Manes had been sent by God to help in the task of freeing men from the material and sensible world into the Light of Being. Manichaeism had a hierarchy, which distinguished the sensible, intellectual, and divine light. Manes was a proponent of knowledge of divine things, rather than faith. (Taken from an unpublished manuscript by the Rev. Dr. Charles Caldwell, 2010.)
[6] Available: (accessed May 27, 2015)