Sunday, July 16, 2017

Shining with His Light: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Matthew 5:14-19

              In just about anything we do in life, it is helpful at times to sit back and ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve.  Unless we have a clear purpose in mind, we are probably not going to get very far in anything.  By taking a hard look at ourselves, we may find that there is a disconnect between our goals and our actions.  If so, some adjustments are in order.
            What Jesus Christ told His followers in today’s gospel lesson certainly challenged them to take a hard look at themselves and change their expectations. He made clear that He was not calling them to join a nationalistic campaign for Israel’s liberation from the Romans, as most Jews then expected the Messiah to do. Instead, they would have to abandon their dreams of using Him to gain power.  They would not conquer with an army, a revolution, or a political party, but were to become the light of the world by becoming holy.  That holiness would not be the result of obedience merely to the externals of the law as interpreted by the Pharisees, but would instead reflect its fulfillment to the depths of their souls.
By teaching in the following verses that the commandment against murder extended to prohibit anger and insult, Christ showed that He called His followers to a purity of heart that would enable them to see God.  He did the same by insisting that the law against adultery also condemned lust.  He called the disciples to embody the fulfillment of the ultimate purpose of the law:  to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.  It is in that context that the Savior taught that we must go beyond “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and instead love, forgive, and bless even our enemies.   Whether in first-century Palestine or today, those who live this way will be a light to the world as they provide a vivid example of a holy life that stands in stark contrast to the usual ways of our age.  It will be as impossible to hide the brilliance of their souls as it is to hide a shining lamp in a dark room.
Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which met at Chalcedon.  This council taught that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, being fully divine and fully human. It is only by confessing that He is both perfectly God and perfectly man that it is possible to give an account of how He is the Savior Who brings human beings into the eternal life of God.  For if He is not truly one of us, even as He is divine, how can He make human beings “partakers of the divine nature” who shine with holiness like an iron left in the fire?  Christ enables us to become the light of the world by becoming radiant with His light, by being illuminated with His gracious divine energies.  He is able to share His holiness with us because He is both fully God and fully human.  This is not simply a point from ancient Church history, but the bedrock of our faith and our hope. 
It is also the most basic reason that we must all take a hard look at ourselves and adjust how we think and live as Christians.  For if we truly believe that the eternal Son of God has become fully one of us and makes us participants in His eternal life, then His holiness must become characteristic of our lives.  Anything less than that is a distortion of what it means be a person in communion with our Lord. His true humanity enables us to become truly human as the fulfillment of our creation in His image and likeness.  That is why we speak so much of theosis in the Orthodox Church as the process of being united with God in holiness.
If we have made any progress at all in this journey of the healing of our souls, we will immediately be aware of how poorly we have answered this call.  The greater spiritual clarity we acquire, the more open our eyes will be to how far we are from shining brilliantly with the light of holiness.  So if our reaction to this high vision is along the lines of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner,” we are in the perfect place to embrace more fully our identity as the light of the world.  That is the case because humility is absolutely essential to opening ourselves to the gracious divine energies of our Lord.  Consider again His interpretation of the laws against murder and adultery.  If they referred only to the physical actions of taking life or being unfaithful to a spouse, many could congratulate themselves for not breaking them.  But when they extend to condemn anger, insult, and lust, our illusions of self-righteousness immediately fall away.  The same is true about loving our enemies, for Christ calls us to go beyond limiting our vengeance to turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, and loving as our Father loves the just and unjust. We probably do not have to have much spiritual clarity to see that we are not there yet.
Were Jesus Christ simply another religious or moral teacher, these high requirements would probably lead us to despair and give up.  Rules tell us what to do, but do not give us the strength to obey them.  But because Christ is both divine and human, He provides more than a set of instructions.  For precisely through our awareness of how far short we have fallen from meeting these standards, He heals and strengthens us to serve Him more faithfully. The calling to holiness is not about meeting abstract rules by our own power, but about being united with a Person by grace.  Even as He has made great saints out of so many sinners who kneeled in humility before Him, His transforming mercy extends also to us.  That is a sign of hope for us all.  Who would have thought that Zacchaeus, a notorious tax collector, or Photini, a Samaritan woman of questionable reputation, would become shining lights of the world?   They did not do so because of perfect obedience to the law.  Far from it, they came to see their own brokenness through personal encounters with Jesus Christ.  Their humble acceptance of the distance between themselves and the Lord enabled them to grow closer to Him, to open their lives to a divine healing that they could never have given themselves.  
They show that, as we fall before Christ in humility, He will raise us up to participate personally in His holiness in ways that simply cannot be known except through repentance.  If we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the God-Man Who has come to make us participants in His healing of every dimension of our humanity, then we must follow the example of all the sinners who have become saints by opening themselves to participate in our Lord’s holiness. Instead of worrying about whether we will get our lives in perfect order according to our own standards, we must simply do what we have the sight and strength to do today in serving Him as we know we should.  St. Paul reminded St. Titus to tell the people to avoid foolish arguments, do good deeds, and meet urgent needs.  If we fill our lives with the things we know we should be doing and ignore the temptation to become distracted by nonsense, He will enable us to become light to the world.  Since He Himself is the Light, the more closely united we are to Christ, the more brilliantly our lives will become signs of the fulfillment of His purposes for the entire creation.    
Perhaps one of the reasons many people do not take the faith seriously today is that the lives of so many Christians do not manifest Christ’s healing and blessing of our humanity.  If we are not living icons of His fulfillment of the law and the prophets, then we are very poor witnesses to our Lord.  As Orthodox Christians who have received the fullness of the Church’s teaching about Jesus Christ as God and man, we have no excuse to accept distorted views of what faithfulness to Him means such that we excuse ourselves from the vocation to holiness.  Even as He did with His first disciples, He calls us to adjust our lives to be in line with His gracious purposes for those created in His image and likeness. As we turn away from all distractions, let us keep focused on shining the light of Christ so that others will give thanks to God and be drawn to the new day of His Kingdom. There is no other way to bear true witness to the Savior Who is both fully human and divine, for He came to enable us to shine with His holy light in our darkened world.  



Sunday, July 9, 2017

Delivered by Mercy, Not Law: Homily for the 5th Sunday of Matthew and the 5th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

         

Romans 10:1-10;  Matthew 8:28-9:1

           We live in a time in which many people feel lonely and isolated, even if they are around others on a regular basis at home, work, and other settings.  Sometimes that is because we hold ourselves back emotionally from the possibility of being rejected or harmed.  Such separation is a symptom of the estrangement from God and one another which Jesus Christ came to heal.      
           The demon-possessed men in today’s gospel reading represent Gentiles who were enslaved to the worship of idols and false gods.  Their deliverance shows that Christ’s salvation is for all people, including those separated from others by the power of evil in their lives.  When He set them free from their miserable isolation, the Lord required nothing of them in advance; instead, He graciously liberated them from the degrading forces of evil and restored them to a truly human existence.  Here we see an implication of St. Paul’s instruction to the Romans: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”  At the very heart of our faith is not a requirement for meeting an objective standard; instead, the unlimited mercy of God is the very foundation of our life and extends even to demon-possessed Gentiles, as well as to you and me.  
            The Orthodox Church has many rules, many canons, traditions, and practices.  But at the heart of our faith and common life is not the obedience of law, for we are not called to be like the Pharisees of old.  Instead, we are called, as St. Paul teaches, to confess with our mouths the Lord Jesus and to believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead; if we do so, we will be saved.  “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
            Of course, there are no magic words that can heal our souls. Instead of creating a new law, St. Paul points to the deep truth of what it means to commend all our life to Christ our God.  It means that we trust in Him as whole persons. As we offer our lives to Him, our words, deeds, and thoughts will come to embody the new life that He has brought to the world.  That is how we open ourselves to receiving His transforming grace.  That is how, like the demon-possessed men in today’s reading, we too may become living icons of the mercy of Jesus Christ.
Remember that He did not require the Gergesene demoniacs to earn their deliverance; neither does He require that of us. Instead, the Savior has graciously taken upon Himself the consequences of all human corruption and sin to the point of death, burial and descent to Hades so that He could conquer them all in His glorious third-day resurrection.  He has ascended into heaven with full, complete glorified humanity and sent the Holy Spirit to empower His Body, the Church, of which we are members.  He lives within our hearts by the Holy Spirit, casting out our demons, forgiving our sins, and enabling us to share in His eternal life even now as healed and transformed persons in relationship with Him and one another.  By His grace, Christ restores us to the dignity and freedom of those who bear the divine image and likeness.
            Those particular men were set free from the control of demons, but that was surely only the beginning of their lives in Christ.  Even though their deliverance was quite dramatic, it was only a start and they surely had to press on from there to resist temptation, to grow in holiness, and to learn to love and serve Him in their neighbors.   They certainly had old fears and habits to overcome.  And the same is true of us.  Our salvation is a process, an ongoing journey of sharing more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.  We must confess Christ more fully each day as we find greater healing, as we more fully manifest His victory over sin and death in our own lives.     
            If our religion were about meeting the requirements of a law, we could meet the standard and not think about it anymore.  We could check off a box and move on to something else; perhaps then it would make sense to condemn others who did not measure up.  But Orthodox Christianity is not about rules and regulations, but instead about growing in relationship with a Person, our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.  It is about sharing in His blessedness, about partaking in His divine nature by grace.  And because God is eternal and infinite and beyond even our best attempts to define and control Him, there is no upward limit on what it means to unite ourselves to Him.  
            So we are constantly as much in need of Christ’s mercy as were those demon-possessed fellows. We say the Jesus Prayer precisely because we are sinners in need of Him.  The more we are healed by His grace, the more aware we will be of our brokenness and weakness.   The more we open our lives to Christ, the more clearly we will see how far we have yet to go, how undeserving we are, how grateful we must be before an infinitely holy God Who will stop at nothing—not even the cross—in order to bring us into His blessed kingdom.
            The formerly demon-possessed men could claim no credit for their deliverance.  They could only marvel at their great blessing and do their best to live lives worthy of what Christ had done for them.  We all face the same challenge:  to live in ways that reflect what our Lord has done for us, to bear witness to the healing and fulfillment that He has brought to our lives, and to continue to open ourselves more fully to His salvation.
That means that we must all continue to struggle against whatever evil thoughts, habits, words, and deeds threaten to separate us from the Lord and one another. We will not do that perfectly, for we get side-tracked and distracted from fulfilling our vocation each day.  That is precisely why we need to build holy habits—like attending services, praying daily, fasting regularly, and giving generously to the needy-- into our lives.  We need to wake up and stay alert, for the ultimate choice of our lives is an ongoing challenge.  At stake is whether we will grow in relationship with Christ by faith, repentance, and humility:  by a life that confesses what He has done and is doing for us. The other alternative is to return to the graveyard, to the isolation and slavery of worshiping the false gods of our own will.  Our choice is not whether to obey a law, but whether we will embrace deliverance and healing.  If we turn away from Christ, we do so as isolated individuals who prefer our own will to His, who would rather decay in the loneliness of a cemetery—of a dark tomb-- than share in the blessed banquet of the Kingdom.   But if we offer ourselves to the Lord, we enter into eternal joy through His Body, the Church; we become members of Him through our life together.  The standards and practices of the Church help us to grow in relationship with Him and with one another.  They sustain our faith, and help us grow in freedom from our slavery to the power of sin in our lives.  They enable us to do what we cannot do alone as isolated individuals who hide in fear from God and one another.
            So like those Gergesene demoniacs, it is time for us to leave behind the graveyard of evil and instead become who we are called to be in Jesus Christ.  It is time to embrace our true identity as those created in God’s image and likeness and called to become partakers of the divine nature. By sincere faith, honest confession, and genuine repentance, let us accept the infinite mercy of the One who loves us so much that He conquered sin and death in order to bring us from the despair of the tomb into the joy of the Kingdom.  Now is the time to turn our backs on the degrading delusions of idolatry and to enter into the unspeakable blessedness to which He calls us.  Now is the time to confess and believe in Christ as we offer every dimension of our lives to Him for deliverance and transformation that know no bounds.  Now is the time to turn from the isolated misery of sin for the joyful communion of those who have been set free through the mercy of Jesus Christ.   


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Hearing and Responding to "Follow Me": Homily for the Second Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

        
   Matthew 4:18-23

              Two weeks ago we celebrated the great feast of Pentecost at which the Holy Spirit descended upon our Lord’s followers, making them members of His Body, the Church.  A week ago we celebrated the Sunday of All Saints, remembering all those who have become living icons of our Lord’s salvation by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Since then, we have begun the Apostles Fast, a period in which we embrace a fairly light discipline of self-restraint in our diets in order to gain the spiritual strength that we need to become more like the apostles who responded faithfully to Christ’s command “Follow Me.”    
            When the disciples first heard that command, they were involved in their daily work as fishermen.  But the Savior called them to the fulfillment of their fishing, for they were to learn how to catch people for the Kingdom, how to draw them into the blessing of God’s salvation.  That required leaving their homes and occupations in order literally to follow Christ around in His ministry and to learn from His teaching and example as best they could.  Of course, it was not until after His resurrection that they really understood who He was and were empowered by the Holy Spirit for their unique ministry.
            Nonetheless, it was essential that the first disciples obeyed the command to leave home and follow the Messiah.  Even though their understanding was quite limited, they were prepared by their close association with Christ for what was to come.  Had they not obeyed that initial command, they would not have become His disciples. Literally leaving home and following Christ were necessary dimensions of their preparation to unite themselves with the risen Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit, as well as for their leadership of the Church.  Their discipleship provided the context within which they would find the healing of their souls.
            We live well after Christ called His first followers to leave their nets and become fishers of men.  Many centuries have passed since the day of Pentecost when our ascended Lord sent the Holy Spirit to empower the Church.  As members of the Body of Christ, however, we participate in the eternal truth and reality of these events.  They are present to us in the life of the Church, especially as we enter into the heavenly banquet in the Divine Liturgy.  That means that He calls us as He called them.  That means that He enables us to share in His life as He did for those gathered at Pentecost.  The Apostles Fast provides us all with a good opportunity to consider whether we are placing our lives in a context that enables us to follow their example of faithfulness to the Lord.   
            Even small acts of self-denial, such as abstaining from meat in the Apostles Fast, remind us that our strength comes from God, not from our own will being accomplished or our desires for pleasure being fulfilled.  We humble ourselves when we put our own preferences for food or anything else aside in order to orient ourselves more fully to the Kingdom.  Fasting periods are times of training, of learning to say “no” to our self-centeredness so that we will find it easier to say “yes” to Christ, especially when He calls us to follow Him in ways that challenge our inclinations to place our own comfort and desires before the demands of serving Him faithfully.
            In some ways, we may think that the disciples had it easy when Christ walked up to them and told them straightforwardly what to do.  They had to leave home and their livelihood, but at least the Lord made that crystal clear to them.  Our challenge is a bit different because we encounter Him in our hearts and souls, which are not pure and so easily misinterpret what He wants us to do.  We typically get so caught up in our thoughts and self-centered desires that we hear only what we want to hear.  It is much more appealing to make God in our own image than to take up the cross of truly becoming more like Him in holiness.  It is so tempting to fill our minds with whatever fuels our passions such that we have little interest in devoting ourselves to prayer, Bible reading, or the lives and teachings of the Saints.  It is so easy to fill our eyes and ears with entertainment that denigrates the holiness of the intimate union of man and woman, that celebrates violence and hatred, and that worships at the altar of money and what it can buy.
            In so many ways, we are caught up in nets that make it difficult for us to follow the example of the apostles who left everything behind in order to follow Christ.  The good news, however, is that we have all we need in the life of the Church in order to hear and respond faithfully to the call of our Lord.  The path that leads to the healing of our souls is open to all and quite obvious.  We have died to sin in baptism and risen with Christ into a new life of holiness.  We have received the Holy Spirit personally in chrismation and are nourished with “the medicine of immortality,” our Lord’s own Body and Blood, in the Eucharist.  When we fall short of living faithfully as those who are in Christ, He Himself receives us through repentance and forgives us through Confession.  Through our life together in the Church, we have innumerable opportunities to serve and love Him in one another.   In a world so obviously corrupted by the worship of the false gods of power, pleasure, and possessions, we have tremendous resources in the Church for a radically different way of living in which self-righteous judgment and self-centered indulgence have no place at all.
            It is tempting to think that all this is fine for the Saints, but not for people like you and me who have spent decades weakening ourselves spiritually in one way or another.  We all bear the burdens of our brokenness, both personally and collectively.  The Church is a hospital for us all, and the therapy is not always easy or pleasant.  Old habits are hard to break, and pursuing a life of holiness can be as difficult as undergoing physical therapy for muscles that have grown weak through disuse or become mangled by disease or accident.  So it is rarely going to be easy or appealing for us to embrace the healing of our souls.  Work and sacrifice are required, but this is not simply a journey of self-help.  It is, instead, always a matter of opening ourselves as fully as possible to the gracious healing energies of the Holy Spirit by embracing the humble path of discipleship as best we have the strength to do at this point in our journey. 
            It really is a simple path.  If you want to discern faithfully what Christ is calling you to do in life, devote at least a few minutes regularly each day to prayer.  As your physical health allows, fast as best you can according to the guidelines of the Church.  Give as generously as you can to the needy and in support of the Church’s ministries.  Read the Bible each day and turn your attention away from entertainment that inflames your passions.  Learn more about the teaching and example of the Saints and give less attention to the rich and famous of this world.  Confess your sins in humility and strive to reorient your life to Christ.  Pray for those who have offended you every day and do your best to mend broken relationships.  Ask forgiveness of those you have wronged.  When someone asks for your forgiveness, give it readily.  Pray for the departed and for everyone in need.  Refuse to judge anyone else and focus on repenting of your own sins.  Prepare to receive the Eucharist with prayer, fasting, and regular Confession.
Do these things persistently throughout your life as you call upon the mercy of the Lord with the humility of the Jesus Prayer.  If you do so, you will be able to hear and respond to His command “Follow Me.”  And, by His grace, you may even become a Saint.



Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ascending with Wounds into Heavenly Glory: Homily for the Sunday After the Ascension in the Orthodox Church


John 17:1-13
With all the problems in the world today, as well as the challenges in our own lives and families, it is tempting to lose hope.  It is easy to think that the best we can do is simply to cope with the difficulties that we face from day to day.  We may think that there is no alternative to living in terms of whatever helps us make it through the day in the world as we know it.
            During this season of the Ascension, the Church calls us to an entirely different way of responding to our persistent challenges.  Our Savior did not only conquer death through His glorious resurrection, He also ascended into heaven with a glorified body that still bore the wounds of the crucifixion.  Now He sits at the right hand of the Father in eternal glory as the God-Man in Whom the very causes of our corruption are healed.  The Ascension fulfills our original vocation as human beings to become like God in holiness. Even as we are baptized into His death and rise up with Him into eternal life, Christ calls us to ascend with Him into the Kingdom of Heaven.  He makes us participants by grace in the blessed communion shared by the Holy Trinity.
That is not only a future hope, but also a present reality for the members of Christ’s Body, the Church, whom He nourishes with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we enter mystically into the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb.  When we unite ourselves to our Lord’s great Self-Offering, we offer ourselves as participants in His complete restoration of the human being and of the creation itself.  We offer not only bread and wine in the Liturgy, but ourselves and every dimension of our lives in the world for fulfillment as we share personally in His eternal life.  Because our Lord has ascended in glory as a complete human being Who is also divine, we may participate even now in such profound blessedness.  That is His will for each and every one of us.     
In order to do that, we must ascend with the Lord Who conquered death, “the wages of sin,” and brought even the wounds of crucifixion with Him as He sat down at the right hand of the Father in eternal glory. Instead of using our wounds, or those of our society and world, as reasons to think that God is cruel, irrelevant, or does not even exist, we must see the Ascension as a clear sign that death, destruction, and decay will not have the last word.  They do not shut us off from the blessedness that transcends what this world provides on its own terms.  Instead, it is in the midst of our deepest pains that we know the brokenness of our lives and relationships and find the strength to offer ourselves more fully to the Lord as we actually are in this world of corruption.
As long as we fool ourselves into thinking that all is well when we live according to our passions and familiar self-centered desires and habits, we will not be able to ascend with Christ.  For it is always the case that we must die to sin in order to rise up in holiness, that we must humbly repent in order to receive our Lord’s gracious healing.  He ascended after rising from the tomb, and we will ascend with Him when we share in the glory of His resurrection by turning away from the corrupting effects of sin and death.  If we remain wedded to them, we will remain captive to the distorted ways of the first Adam, the ways of this fallen world.  But if we die to them by uniting ourselves to our Lord in His journey from the cross to the heights of heaven, we will participate already in eternal blessedness even as we walk on this earth.
As the 318 Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea knew, only One Who is truly God is able to raise us up from captivity to this world of death into heavenly glory.  If Christ were merely a creature, He could never make us participants in the eternal life of God.  If He were not truly divine, His Body, the Church, would be simply another social organization operating like any other group.  But because He is “very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father by Whom all things were made” while also being fully human, every dimension of our humanity may become radiant with the brilliance of heaven through Him.
The Lord ascended with His glorified and wounded body.  Those wounds did not compromise His divinity or holiness, of course.  Indeed, it was through them that He conquered death and made clear that He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.  And our wounds, no matter what they are, do not shut us out of the Kingdom.  We must, however, offer those wounds to Him, opening them to the healing light of His gracious divine energies.  When they are the results of our sins, we must confess and repent in humility.  When they are not, we must learn to make them points of contact for ascending with Christ in holiness.  That requires that we learn to see what our wounds reveal about our lives, our relationships, and our world, no matter how difficult that is.   We then can make them entrances into heavenly glory when they become opportunities to grow in “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23) By offering even our darkest struggles to the Lord, we will ascend with Him to personal participation in His healing of our humanity.   
The same is true of our common life in the Church.  We will provide no credible witness to our neighbors if we do not visibly manifest a life of holiness that stands in stark contrast to the corrupt ways of a world enslaved to the fear of death.  We will not be able to speak of the Ascension with integrity unless we, as a community, become a living icon of loving union in Christ such that we are one in righteousness.  Both as a community and as particular people, we must be on guard against anything in our lives that distracts us from strengthening the Church as a sign that Christ has ascended and really does enable us all to rise up with Him into the life of heaven.  Anything that would hold us back from that high vision has no place in our lives, individually or collectively.  The more that we live out our unity in pursuing such a life, the more integrity we will have in inviting friends, neighbors, and strangers to join us as we enter in each Divine Liturgy into the heavenly banquet.  If we do not display the joy of the Ascension in our own lives each day, then we are very poor witnesses to the fullness of the Orthodox Christian faith.  The world already has enough religious organizations that do little more than help people feel better about themselves as they cope with life’s problems.  We must be something very different.  

Contrary to what many people in our culture think, the mission of the Church is not to provide us a means of escaping the world and its problems.  It is not to distract us for a couple of hours each week from our challenges or to make us think that they are somehow not real.  It is not to work us up into an emotional state that helps us feel better about ourselves.  Instead, the Body of Christ is to be a brilliant icon of what happens when this world, and its inhabitants with all their wounds, enters into heavenly glory.  Anything less is a failure to manifest in our common life the communion of love shared by the Holy Trinity. So let us all offer every aspect of our lives to our Lord Who has ascended in glory so that we may participate fully by grace in the joy that He shares eternally with His Unoriginate Father and the All-Holy and Good and Life-Giving Spirit, to Whom be all glory, laud, and honor, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.             

Sunday, May 21, 2017

We Must Obey in Order to See: Homily for the Sunday of the Blind Man in the Orthodox Church

John 9:1-38
             Christ is Risen!  
             Seeing is believing.  There are many things in life that we will not accept unless we see them with our own eyes.  And there are some things that we have to learn how to see because they are not obvious to the untrained eye.  It often takes experience to see something rightly, to understand its true significance.  If that is true in everyday life, it is all the more the case in how we know God.
            We began our celebration of Pascha several weeks ago when we saw the light of a flame in the darkness of midnight.  Until the brilliant light of the Savior’s resurrection, humanity wandered in spiritual blindness as a result of being enslaved to corruption.  “The wages of sin is death,” and the darkness of the tomb had reigned supreme since the fall of Adam and Eve.  Like the man born blind in today’s gospel reading, our capacity to participate in the blessed holiness for which we were created was grossly deformed.   Enslaved to the fear of death and cast out of Paradise, we were all held prisoner by the darkness of the tomb which extended to the depths of our souls.   
            In sharp contrast to that darkness, we celebrate in this glorious season of Pascha that the light of Christ shines even from the grave and extends to the darkest dimensions of our lives and relationships.  To be radiant with the light of the resurrection is what it means to know God.  To know Him is not merely to have religious ideas or emotions about Him, but truly to share by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  It is to have the eyes of our souls cleansed, to have our minds illumined such that we move from darkness to light.  The change is certainly not in our Lord, but in us who rise with Him from death to life, from the dark night of sin to the brilliant light of holiness.   
            This great blessing is not something that we give ourselves, but which our Lord has made possible as the God-Man Who unites divinity and humanity in Himself.  That is how He heals us, personally taking upon Himself all the consequences of our corruption, even to the point of death, in order to conquer them through His resurrection.  He brings every dimension and capability of the human person into His divine life, making us radiant with the holy glory that we share by grace.  That is what it means to be truly human in His image and likeness.
When Christ spat on the ground and made clay to anoint the eyes of the blind man, He gave us a sign of how He restored us through His Incarnation, His entry into our world of flesh and blood, which was necessary for our healing.  The blind man’s sight was restored when he obeyed Christ’s command to wash in water, which is a sign of how He illumines us in baptism.  Of course, we are baptized into the Lord’s death in order to rise up with Him into a life of holiness.
Our spiritual sight is not restored by denying our bodily limitations or the reality of the physical struggles that we face, whether illness, poverty, or anything else.  Instead, our Risen Lord heals our souls when we offer ourselves fully to Him in obedience.  The blind man in today’s gospel lesson did what the Lord told to Him to do, walking to the pool of Siloam and washing off the clay from His eyes.  He had to obey Christ’s command by doing something that involved his whole person.  That is how he overcame the blindness with which he had been born. Even though he thought of the Lord as only a prophet at that point, the man quickly professed faith in Him when the Lord told him His true identity.  As Christ said of Himself as the Son of God to the man, “You have seen Him, and it is He who speaks to you.”
            As Orthodox Christians, we routinely make bold claims about seeing the true light and beholding the resurrection of Christ.  We employ the sense of sight in the worship of God with icons, crosses, candles, vestments, and in many other ways.  We put on Christ like a garment in baptism and are filled personally with the Holy Spirit in chrismation.  We receive our Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion, as we participate already in the Heavenly Banquet.  He is the Bridegroom and, as His Church, we are His Bride and members of His own Body.  We do not think of Him as only a prophet or a righteous man, but know that He is truly the Son of God.  There is no question, then, that He has restored our sight, giving us all the ability to embrace Him from the depths of our souls.  He has done for us what we could never do simply by ourselves, even as someone born blind could never give himself sight.
            Imagine how great our responsibility is, then, to open the eyes of our souls as fully as possible to the light of Christ.  For as He is infinitely holy, there is no upward limit to the holiness to which He calls us.  Even as the healing of our bodies is a process that requires our cooperation and effort, the same is true with the healing of our souls.  The blind man had to exercise what little faith he had at first by obeying Christ’s command.   That was how he put himself in the place to receive such a miraculous blessing.  And though we do not know the rest of his story, that was surely only the beginning of his journey.  He had to live as one whose eyes had been opened by the mercy of the Lord.
If we are truly to enter into the holy joy of Pascha, we must follow the example of the man born blind.  Our spiritual vision remains far from perfect, but our Risen Lord has given us all that we need to become radiant with His brilliant and holy light.  That happens when we know and experience Him from the depths of our souls, which requires offering ourselves to Him through humble obedience in our daily lives. That means joining ourselves to His great victory over death by opening even the darkest and most difficult areas of our personalities and relationships to His healing light.  There is no way to do that without living as our Lord taught, which means turning away from all that obscures His light in us, from all that keeps us captive to the darkened ways of sin and corruption that we find so appealing.   
As we prepare to move from Pascha to the Ascension, let us discern where we persist in darkness and what we need to do in order to obey our Lord more faithfully as we rise with Him from the grave to the heights of heavenly glory.  Let us grow in our personal participation by grace in the life of Christ by living daily as those who have beheld the glory of His resurrection and who have seen the true light.  The Savior has already done the miraculous for us by conquering death.   Now it is our responsibility to respond faithfully as we open ourselves to the Light Who shines so brightly that He overcomes even the darkest tomb.  And as hard as it is to believe, He will illumine even the darkest and most corrupt dimension of our lives, if we will only offer ourselves to Him in humble, trusting obedience each day.
  The good news of Pascha is not confined to a season of the year, but is always the fundamental truth of our life in Christ.  Now we must live as those who have been blessed to behold the glory of the resurrection.  Now we must remove every obstacle to embracing personally the brilliant, radiant light of the empty tomb.  Now we must live with all the holy joy of a man born blind who can finally see the light.  That is what it means to know God and to be truly human in His image and likeness, for Christ is Risen!  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Courage to Face the Truth: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

John 4:5-42
Christ is Risen!
It is strangely appealing to define ourselves by our failures, especially when others know that we have stumbled and treat us poorly as a result.  As well, our own pride often causes us to lose perspective such that we obsess about how we do not measure up to whatever illusion of perfection we have accepted.  People are often their own harshest critics in ways that are not healthy at all.
            On this Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, we celebrate that our Lord’s great victory over death enables us to be free from defining ourselves by our sins or by how other people may view us.   He rises in glory not only over the tomb and Hades, but over all the distortions of the beauty of the human person created in His image and likeness. Today we commemorate that His salvation extends to our most painful failings and to the harsh judgments of others upon us. Even such difficult circumstances may become points of entry into the joy of the empty tomb.
            The woman at the well certainly knew what it was like to be defined by others as someone who did not measure up.  She was a Samaritan, and therefore rejected by the Jews as a heretic and a member of a despised group that had intermarried with Gentiles.  She herself had been married five times and was now with a man to whom she was not married, which may have been why she went to draw water at the unlikely time of high noon.  Perhaps she went to the well in the heat of the day in order to avoid the other Samaritan women who wanted nothing to do with someone like her.  
            Imagine her surprise, then, when the Savior asked her for a drink of water and then engaged in a conversation about spiritual matters with her.  Jewish men simply did not strike up conversations with women in that time and place, and consuming food or drink from a Samaritan was out of the question.  How even more shocking it is that Jesus Christ’s conversation with her is the longest recorded between Him and any one person in the four gospels.  He spoke straightforwardly to her and did not shy away from uncomfortable truths that hit her where she lived.  But instead of shutting down the conversation or running away in fear, this Samaritan woman told the people of her village about Christ.  As a result, many of her neighbors came to believe in the Lord.
            This Samaritan woman is known in the Church as St. Photini, which means “the enlightened one.”  Through the Savior’s conversation with her, Photini became an evangelist who boldly shared the good news, even to her Samaritan neighbors who were surely used to viewing her in anything but spiritual terms.  That took tremendous courage.  Photini was not only brave in preaching to them, but ultimately in responding to the persecution of the pagan Roman emperor Nero, to whom she said “O most impious of the blind, you profligate and stupid man! Do you think me so deluded that I would consent to renounce my Lord Christ and instead offer sacrifice to idols as blind as you?”  The Great Martyr Photini refused to back down and gave the ultimate witness to Christ’s victory over death by laying down her life for Him.  The Savior had set her free even from fear of the grave.
            Too many of us today flee in shame from uncomfortable truths, whether we encounter them in our own thoughts or in the opinions of others.  Too many of us define ourselves by our failings, weaknesses, and temptations.  Too many of us accept some unrealistic cultural standard of “the good life” as the norm we must meet in order to be worthwhile.  Thank God, St. Photini the Great Martyr did none of that. In response to her shocking encounter with the Savior, she humbly acknowledged the truth about her brokenness; she did not react defensively or make excuses.  She did not end the conversation or run away in shame.  Instead, she was open to the healing of her soul, to the possibility of a new and restored life through the mercy of the Lord.  This was such a great blessing to her that she immediately shared the good news with the people of her village and refused to stop, even to the point of laying down her life.
            In this joyous season of Pascha, we celebrate that Christ’s victory over death delivers us from all the corrupting effects of sin, including our deeply ingrained habits of thought and action that distract us from facing the truth about ourselves.  By setting us free from bondage to the fear of death, our Risen Lord enables us to make even our most bitter failures points of entry into the new day of His eternal life.  He has conquered death, the wages of sin, which means that our sins now have only the power over us that we allow them to have.  When, like St. Photini, we acknowledge them straightforwardly and turn away from them, we participate personally in the good news of Pascha.  We rise from death to life as we enter into the joy of the empty tomb.  But when we proudly refuse to confess or repent of our sins, we remain in slavery to our self-centered illusions of perfection, to our sense of shame that we do not live up to the standards that we think we must meet in order to be worthwhile.
In other words, we insist on being our own saviors.  But since we cannot conquer death or heal our own souls, that is nothing but foolish pride that keeps us bound to the fear of death, to the terror of realizing how weak we are before the challenges we encounter both within our own minds and in relation to others. Our failures and weaknesses are not good in and of themselves, but we put them to good use when we let them open our eyes to the truth of who we are, of where we stand before the Lord.  If we will use them as ways to humble ourselves without making excuses or otherwise blinding ourselves to what they reveal about us, then we will put ourselves in the blessed place of St. Photini, who was thirsty for strength and healing that she knew she could not give herself, for “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” from the depths of her soul.
Like her, we must refuse to be paralyzed by guilt and shame before others and in our own minds.  Then we will take our attention off whether we measure up to some self-imposed standard and instead focus on receiving the healing mercy of Jesus Christ.  No matter what we have done, no matter how distorted and corrupt any dimension of our life may be, no matter how anyone else treats or views us, Christ is able to raise us up with Him from death to life.  That is not only a future promise, but a present reality.  He rose in glory with His wounds still visible, and no wound that we or others have inflicted puts us beyond the good news of His resurrection.  In this glorious season of Pascha, let us all become like the Great Martyr Photini by embracing enthusiastically the new life that the Savior has brought to the world, for Christ is Risen!
           
   
   
  
            

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Healed to Rise Up and Walk: Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic in the Orthodox Church


Acts 9:32-42; John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen! 

            We do not like to be dragged down or held back by problems that we cannot solve.  Whether it is our own health, a broken relationship with others, or a complex set of circumstances over which we have little control, it is very frustrating to know our weakness before seemingly insurmountable challenges. 

            That is surely how the invalids, blind, lame, and paralyzed felt as they waited for the chance to be healed by being the first to reach the pool of water troubled by the angel.  Due to their illnesses, many must have despaired over ever being healed.  The man who had been paralyzed for 38 years was one of those, for there was no one to help him move toward the water.  Here we have an image of humanity before the coming of Christ.  The Jews had a Temple in which animals were sacrificed, and the pool provided water for washing lambs before they were offered to God.  This scene occurs at the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which commemorated Moses receiving the Law, which was given by angels. 

Fallen humanity, however, remained spiritually weak and sick.  They lacked the strength to fulfill God’s requirements, and certainly could not conquer death, the wages of sin for all those who have fallen short of the glory of God.  The sacrificial system of the Temple foreshadowed the great Self-Offering of our Lord on the Cross, but did not heal anyone from the ravages of spiritual corruption or raise anyone from the grave.  It was a great blessing for the Jews to have the Law, but surely also a tremendous frustration not to have the strength to obey it fully.  Only Christ Himself fulfilled the Law, which is why He can call and empower us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)    

In contrast, the paralyzed man represents all who lack the power to move themselves to complete healing, to find the fulfillment of our common human calling to become like God in holiness. Notice that he did not call out to Christ to help him; instead, the Lord reached out to him, asking “Do you want to be healed?”  That may seem like a strange question, for presumably anyone waiting by a pool for healing after 38 years of illness would want to be made well.  But think for a moment about how we have all learned to adapt to our favorite sins, how we have become comfortable with whatever forms of corruption have become second nature to us over the years.  By virtue of coming to Church, we are apparently religious people, but that does not mean that we truly want to be healed.  For to be healed means obeying the Lord’s command to this fellow: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  It requires making the effort to rise up in obedience, to be transformed personally in how we live each day, and to grow in holiness.   

It would not have sufficed for that man to have remained on his bed and have warm feelings about how Christ had healed him. Just as anyone who lies motionless for a long time will become weak and unable to rise up and walk on his own power, the same will be true of us spiritually if we try to rest content with simply believing ideas about God or having positive emotions about Him.  If we are not gaining strength by actually serving Him faithfully, we will become paralyzed and unable to cooperate with our Lord’s gracious healing energies.  Any spiritual health that we claim in that state will be a figment of our imagination.

The good news is that the Lord does not simply provide us with a set of rules to follow or services to perform.  He makes us participants in Himself by grace.  He unites us to Himself, raising us up with Him from slavery to sin and death to the great dignity of those who share in His eternal life. The Savior makes us members of His own Body, the Church.  He is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride.  He makes us radiant in holiness, like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.  That is how He heals us such that we have the strength to obey His command to get up from our bed of corruption and move forward in a blessed life of holiness.

Though we may not yet have the eyes to see it, this healing and strengthening of our humanity happens to this day through our life in the Church.  In our reading from Acts, St. Peter heals a paralyzed man and commands him to get up.   He even raises a woman from death.  Peter did not do this by his own power or authority, but because the Lord was working through him.  He said to the paralyzed man, “Jesus Christ heals you…”  Throughout Acts, we read of how the Lord works through His Body, the Church, to enable people to participate personally in the new life of the resurrection that He shares with us by grace.

That is not, however, a life of merely having our names on a church membership roll or of calling ourselves Orthodox Christians. If our faithfulness extends only that far, we will become as weak as a person who remains immobile in bed and refuses to stand up and walk.  We must not be like those poor souls waiting by the pool for someone else to move them into the healing water.  On His own gracious initiative, Jesus Christ has given each of us the strength to overcome the paralysis of sin through His resurrection.  He does not simply give us commands; He gives us Himself.  And our life in His Body, the Church is truly our participation in Him.      

We receive His healing of our souls when we humbly repent of our sins in Confession.  We are nourished for the life of the Kingdom by His Body and Blood in Holy Communion.  When we offer our time, energy, and resources to support the ministries of the Church, we rise up from selfishness to participate in the abundant generosity of the Lord. When we stop thinking of ourselves as isolated individuals and instead as members of a Body with a common life in Christ, we will be able to love and serve one another in ways that will open us to His strength personally and collectively in powerful ways. 

In the joy of the resurrection, we must learn to see that embracing our life together in Christ is an essential dimension of obeying His command to “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  He calls each of us to turn away from the paralyzing weakness of selfishness and laziness that would make whatever sins we have become comfortable with appear more important than serving Him in His Body, the Church, where the glory and power of the resurrection are fully present.

Think about that for a moment.  Pascha is not an isolated event that happened long ago, but an entrance into the new day of the Kingdom of Heaven which is fully open to us in the worship and common life of this parish. The Savior calls each of us, weakened and held back by the corruptions of sin, to get up and move forward in the blessed life for which He made us in His image and likeness.  That is why He died and rose again, to raise us up with Him for a life of holiness, to restore us to the ancient dignity of Paradise.  May this season of Pascha be our entrance as a parish into the joy of the Kingdom. That will happen when we rise up, from whatever corruptions are holding us back, to a life of obedience in serving Him and one another in His Body, the Church.  That is the only way to answer the question that He asks each of us today and every day: “Do you want to be healed?”

Christ is Risen!


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Serving Even When We Do Not Get What We Want: Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women in the Orthodox Church


Acts 6: 1-7; Mark 15:43-16:8

Christ is Risen!          

We live in a time in which it is easy to think of ourselves as isolated individuals whose purpose in life is to get whatever we happen to want. Personal freedom is a great blessing from God, but since Adam and Eve we have abused it by thinking and acting as though fulfilling our immediate desires is the only thing that really matters. Our Lord Jesus Christ conquered the corrupting consequences of that prideful, selfish attitude in His glorious resurrection.  Raising us up with him from slavery to all the distortions of our souls that root in the fear of death, He has restored our true identity as His beloved sons and daughters, making us members of His own Body.

            Today we celebrate those who, in moments of great personal crisis, did not think only of themselves, but instead ministered to the Body of our Lord with selfless love.  With broken hearts and in terrible shock and grief, the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna, and others whose names we do not know went early in the morning to the tomb of Christ in order to anoint His Body.  They had not anticipated the resurrection and expected to find Him in the grave like anyone else who had died.  By doing what they could to show one last act of love to the Savior, the myrrh-bearing women opened themselves to the tremendous blessing of being the first to hear from the angel the good news of the resurrection. 

            Along with them, we also remember today Joseph of Arimathea, who bravely asked Pilate for the Body of the Lord and took Him down from the cross with his own hands.  Nicodemus helped Joseph bury Him.  These were both prominent Jewish leaders who surely risked a great deal by associating themselves with One Who had been rejected as a blasphemer and publically crucified as a traitor. 

            In the events of our Lord’s Passion, none of His followers had received what they had wanted or expected.  John was the only disciple to stand at the foot the cross, for the others had run away in fear.  Peter, the head disciple, had denied the Savior three times.  They were disappointed and shocked that their Messiah had failed to satisfy them by setting up an earthly kingdom; instead, He had been killed by His enemies.  They believed that death had been the final word on Jesus of Nazareth.  And probably out of a mixture of fear, disappointment, and the belief that He could do nothing else for them, they simply fled.

            The myrrh-bearers, along with Joseph and Nicodemus, were surely just as grieved as the disciples. They had not gotten what they had wanted either.  But they resisted the temptation to think only about themselves.  Notice that they responded very differently from the disciples because they still kept their focus on serving Jesus Christ as best they could.  And that meant doing the sorrowful task of giving their departed Lord and friend a decent burial.  They probably all put themselves in danger by identifying publically with One Who had just been crucified.  They must have all struggled not to be paralyzed by fear and pain.  Still, they found the courage and strength not to focus on themselves, but on showing love to Christ as best they could.

            Our reading today from Acts describes something similar in the early years of the Church’s life. The Christians in Jerusalem had shared all things in common and provided food daily to the widows.  A problem arose when the widows of Greek cultural heritage complained that they were being neglected. We know from Acts and many other New Testament writings that disagreements and struggles between different groups of people have existed in the Church from its earliest days.  Instead of the apostles attempting to solve the problem directly, they created the office of deacon, which literally means “servant.”  The community chose seven men to fulfill the role of servants who would directly manage such practical issues in the Church.  Following their ordination and ministry of service, we read that “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”

            These first deacons have a lot in common with the women and men we commemorate today, for they also cared for the Body of the Lord when they served the Church.  They addressed the physical needs of the members of the Body of Christ, directly entering into what must have been a stressful situation of conflict in the Church.  Instead of leaving the problem to others or ignoring it, they took it on.  By undertaking that ministry, they may not have been getting what they had wanted.  If they had thought that the Church would be a place of perfect peace or that they could devote themselves to cultivating spiritual experiences on their own terms, they may have been surprised to find themselves organizing a fair distribution of food to the widows.  Regardless of anything else, they accepted their new ministry and performed it faithfully for the flourishing of the Church.

            As we continue to celebrate our Savior’s great victory over death on this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, it should be clear that the new life He has brought into the world requires our active faithfulness, regardless of whether we think that we are getting what we want. The first Christians definitely did not get what they wanted at the Lord’s Passion, because He had something far better in store for them.  It would have been much easier to follow a Messiah like King David who would establish a great earthly reign and give them worldly power.  It was infinitely more difficult to take the dead Christ down from the cross, bury Him in a tomb, and then go to anoint the Body still bearing the wounds of torture and crucifixion.  But it was through the courageous, humble, and loving service of those actions that a certain group of women opened themselves to receive the unbelievably good news of the resurrection.

            We should learn from their holy example that the way to participate in the joy of the empty tomb is in serving Our Lord in His Body.  It is in putting aside our preferences in order to love Him in the members of the His Body, the Church.  That includes addressing all the practical challenges that any parish faces:  from cutting the grass and teaching Sunday School to chanting and caring for the needy.  And since the Savior identified Himself with every person in need, this calling extends to every area of our lives and every person we encounter.  As the apostles knew when they ordained the first deacons, no one can perform every ministry in the Church.  No one of us has to do it all.  But we must all use our gifts to do what needs to be done for the flourishing of the Church, even if it is not what we would prefer to do.  In other words, all of us need to get over the self-centered individualism that so easily leads to making God in our own image and judging Him by our own standards.

            Just as Joseph, Nicodemus, the myrrh-bearing women, and the first deacons did not flee when their hopes were dashed, we must not abandon His Body the Church when our desires go unfulfilled, when our problems do not go away, and when God does not give us everything we want.  Like them, we will participate more fully in the joy of eternal life by getting over ourselves and doing what needs to be done in loving and serving our Lord in our parish, our neighbors, and our families.  Pascha is not about fulfilling the plans and desires of individuals, but about how something far greater, and totally unexpected, came into the world through their bitter disappointment.  If we will love and serve Christ even in the midst of our most difficult struggles in life, then we also will be healed of our prideful selfishness and become more fully who our Lord has enabled us to be through His glorious resurrection.  We will then be in the place where it is possible to hear the good and completely surprising news that what He has in store for those who love and serve Him is far better than anything we can ever come up with on our own, for Christ is Risen!   
   


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Belief in the Resurrection Requires Commitment: Homily for the Sunday of St. Thomas the Apostle and St. George the Great Martyr in the Orthodox Church


John 20:19-31
As we continue to celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, we remember today how Thomas was transformed from a skeptic into a believer, and ultimately into a martyr who gave the ultimate witness for His Savior’s great victory over death.  Since Thomas was not present when the risen Christ first appeared to the disciples, he doubted their testimony.  That is why we know him as “doubting Thomas,” but we should also remember how the apostles had doubted the testimony of the women who first heard the news of the resurrection from the angel.  No one had anticipated the Lord’s rising, and the news of someone’s resurrection from the dead after public crucifixion and burial for three days was simply outrageous.
People of that time and place were more familiar with death than most of us are today.  In comparison with our society, their infant mortality rates were much higher, their lifespans were usually much shorter, and they themselves prepared the bodies of their loved ones for burial. They knew all about death.  As well, they knew that Roman soldiers were seasoned professional experts in administering a long, painful execution.  Joseph of Arimathea removed the Lord’s dead body from the cross and, with the help of Nicodemus, buried Him.  The women went to the tomb very early on Sunday morning in order to anoint the Savior’s dead body.  None of them had any illusions about what death meant.  There could have been nothing more shocking to them in the world than the unexpected and unbelievably good news that “Christ is risen!”  And quite understandably, Thomas did not believe in the resurrection until the Lord appeared to Him, still bearing His wounds, and invited Him to touch His Body.  Then Thomas confessed the risen Christ as “My Lord and my God!”
We should not be surprised that many people today continue to doubt the truth of Christ’s resurrection.  Such a unique and astonishing event is a great challenge to accept, for it is contrary to what we know about death in this world.  But perhaps it is precisely the difficulty of believing in the resurrection that invites us to deep, personal faith in our Savior’s great victory over the grave.  We do not need much faith in order to agree that water freezes at a certain temperature, as a little experimentation with a thermometer will remove all doubt.  We do not need much faith in order to believe that it is better to lead a morally decent life than one characterized by dishonesty and murder.  In one way or another, virtually all cultures and religions teach that.  But if we are going to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who rose victorious over death and made even the grave an entryway to the eternal life of the Heavenly Kingdom, then we need the kind of faith that takes root to the very depths of our souls. 
That kind of faith is not like the rational certainty that we have about the temperature at which water freezes.  Instead, it is the kind of faith that requires trust in giving our lives to that which is not obvious; it requires profound commitment and sacrifice.  For example, the love of spouses for one another and for their children is not a rational theory based on objective experimentation or historical research.  It is known only through experience; it becomes real through a thousand acts of putting one another and the children before themselves.  It changes them.  It requires a kind of martyrdom, of dying to self for the sake of others.  There is a depth of love in marriage and family that it is simply impossible to know and experience without such sacrifice.   
The same is true of our knowledge of the Lord’s resurrection.  To say the least, it would be very hard to give an account of the origins of Christianity without Him actually rising in glory.  A few questions make this point clear.  For example, why would His followers have made up such an unbelievable story about a dead man, and then gone to their deaths out of faithfulness to a lie about a failed Messiah?  Why would they have concocted a story in which women, who were not viewed as reliable witnesses in that culture, provided the foundational testimony to such an astounding miracle?  Had they made up the resurrection, why would they have included in the gospels so much material that describes how they totally misunderstood Christ’s prediction of His own death and resurrection and then abandoned Him at the crucifixion?  Apart from the truth of His resurrection, the rise of the Christian faith makes no sense.
Nonetheless, many skeptics will, like Thomas, still be doubtful that something so contrary to our experience of the world actually happened.  Here we must remember that Thomas came to faith not due to rational arguments or historical research, but because of seeing the risen Lord before His own eyes.  Since we live after the Ascension, we do not see Him in that way today.  But the root meaning of the word martyr is “witness,” and from the very origins of the faith countless people have given the ultimate witness to the Savior’s victory over death by going to their deaths out of faithfulness to Him.  All the apostles, with the exception of John, did so.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  Their powerful example has, and still does, bear witness to the truth of Christ’s resurrection.  In them, we see the Savior’s victory over death with our own eyes.
Today we also commemorate the Great Martyr George the Trophy-Bearer, a respected soldier who boldly denounced the Roman emperor Diocletian for persecuting Christians.  For refusing to worship pagan gods, St. George endured horrible tortures and laid down His life for Christ.  From the apostolic age to today, countless Christians have done what St. George did in showing steadfast personal commitment to the Lord literally to the point of death.  They do so because they know the truth of Christ’s resurrection, not as an abstract idea or merely something that they accepted as having happened long ago, but as the real spiritual experience of participating in eternal life.  They see the Body of Christ, the Church, bearing witness to a life that shines brilliantly in holiness in contrast to the darkness of the world.  Even when they died as a result, the early Christians cared for the sick with contagious diseases.  They rescued abandoned children, gave generously to the poor, and pursued chastity in the relationship between man and woman. They refused to worship other gods, even when that led to certain torture and death. They loved and forgave their enemies, even as the persecuted Christians of the Middle East do to this very day in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and many other countries.   
            We may not be physical martyrs in the sense that they are, but we still must bear witness to the resurrection of Christ.  We do that by providing evidence of His victory over death in how we live our lives.  Thomas came to faith when He saw the glorified Body of the Risen Lord.  We must live as those who have passed over in Him from slavery to sin and death to the glorious freedom of eternal life.  Our lives must shine brightly with the holy joy of the resurrection if anyone is to believe that “Christ is risen!”
Indeed, we ourselves will not truly believe that glorious news unless we personally rise with Him from death to life, from sin to holiness. True faith in the risen Lord is not a mere idea, but requires deep personal commitment and self-sacrifice.  His astounding victory is neither a rational concept nor just another truth of the natural world known by experimentation.  To know His resurrection is to know Him, and that requires dying to self out of love from the depths of our souls.  It requires a form of martyrdom, an offering of our flesh and blood to the One Who makes us mystical participants in His Flesh and Blood in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist.  Even as we receive Him as our Lord and our God, let us bear witness to His glorious resurrection in how we live each day.  That is the only way to follow Thomas in moving from doubt to true faith.  It is the only way to say with integrity “Christ is risen!”

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Time to Offer Ourselves to the Savior Who Offered Himself for Us: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9
John 12:1-18

Sometimes it is not enough to have ideas or speak words, no matter how true they are.   There are circumstances that require us to act in order to respond properly to them.  There are challenges in life that we must enter into personally if we are really going to engage them.    They require us to invest ourselves in them fully; otherwise, we end up fooling only ourselves.
Palm Sunday is like that.  Jesus Christ had to enter into Jerusalem, being hailed as a conquering hero after raising Lazarus from the dead, in order to fulfill His ministry as the true Passover Lamb Who takes away the sins of the world.  That was the only way to make clear the radical difference between the anticipated earthly king of the Jews and the One Who reigns from the Cross and a tomb that ultimately cannot contain Him.  The Savior did not simply think about going from being celebrated as a righteous military leader to being killed as a blasphemous traitor within the short space of a few days.  He actually experienced it in order to set us free from the fear of death and make us participants in His eternal life.  He did so purely out of love for us.  When He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, He was mourning for us all who are enslaved to the misery of corruption and decay in all its forms. Christ’s love is not limited to a feeling or an idea, for He literally laid down His life in order to restore us to the holy joy for which He created us in the first place.    
That kind of love requires commitment, action, and self-sacrifice.  The Lord offered Himself completely, without reservation of any kind, to set right all that had marred and distorted our original beauty as those created in God’s image and likeness. He rejected the temptation to play to the desire of the crowds for a conventional ruler, and instead won His great victory in the most shocking way possible through His own rejection, death, burial, and resurrection.  He entered into it all in order to heal, bless, and save fallen humanity, indeed the entire creation.    
The Savior had raised Lazarus from the dead, thus showing that He is the resurrection and the life.  Lazarus’ sister Mary prophetically anointed Christ for burial, even as those who saw Him as a threat to their power plotted to kill both Him and Lazarus.  In contrast, the One Who offered Himself as the true Passover Lamb sought no earthly power at all.  Even as the crowds welcomed Him with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” in hopes of liberation from Rome by a ruler like King David, this Messiah rode into town on a humble donkey.  He is not a fearsome warrior, but the Prince of Peace.
Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem not merely as a great human being, but as the Son of God.  Being fully aware of the rejection, torture, and death that would come in the next few days, the eternal Word Who spoke the universe into existence went into Jerusalem as a lamb led to the slaughter.  He knew exactly what He was doing and what others would do to Him.  Out of love for us, He intentionally offered Himself as a ransom in order to set us free from slavery to the fear of the death and all its malign effects.   
            Our Lord is not some kind of distant god who delights in making others suffer.  He is not a typical political or national leader who wants only to build up his own power and glory.  He is not a self-righteous legalist keeping score of who deserves punishment or a reward.  Instead, He freely takes upon Himself the worst and most painful dimensions of life in our world of corruption in humility beyond our understanding.  The same Son of God Who wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus will Himself lie in a tomb and descend even to Hades in order to look for His ancient friends Adam and Eve, lifting them up from the pit and bringing them to the blessedness for which He made them in His image and likeness.  In doing so, He sets us all free from slavery to sin and death.  
            That is how Jesus Christ has enacted our salvation, how He has accomplished it through His own flesh and blood.  It is an understatement to say that His death and resurrection required His personal participation.  He gave Himself fully, without reservation of any kind, in order to save us.  And if we want to know His salvation, if we want to know Him, that will require our personal participation also.
Holy Week invites us to participate personally in the deep mystery of the Savior’s great victory on our behalf. Through the services of the Church, we participate mystically in the triumphant entry of the Prince of Peace into Jerusalem, even though He triumphs in a way that still makes no sense according to the standards by which we usually live our lives.  This week we will prepare to receive the Bridegroom when He comes to invite us into the joy of the Kingdom. We will receive His Body and Blood as He institutes the Holy Eucharist on the night in which He was betrayed.  We will follow Him as He is rejected, abused, and crucified—as He dies, is buried, and descends to Hades.  We will sing dirges at His tomb and then stand in awe when that same tomb is empty and He arises in glory.
Holy Week enacts truths so profound that merely describing them with words or thoughts does not do them justice.  In order to enter into them, we must participate personally as whole, embodied persons who bow down and worship His Passion.  That means changing our schedules and routines as much as humanly possible in order to invest ourselves in the services of the Church.  It means not taking our Lord’s great Self-offering and victory over death for granted as an idea or a course of events that we already understand.  It means investing ourselves in Him by turning from our usual excuses, obsessions, and distractions to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”  As St. Paul put it, “The Lord is at hand.”  So we should “have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”   
Now is the time to lay aside our earthly cares as we make faithfulness to our Savior the highest priority of our lives this week.  He did not shrink from going to the Cross for us, and we must not abandon Him by saying that we already know what happened two thousand years ago or simply have better things to do.  No, we must enter into the deep mystery of our salvation by investing ourselves as fully as possible in the journey of our Savior from the welcoming crowds of Sunday to those that yelled “Crucify Him!” on Friday.  We must kneel in humility at the foot of the Cross and sing lamentations at His grave if we are to have the eyes to behold the brilliant glory of a Savior Who rises in victory.  This week is one of those times not to rely on mere thoughts, feelings, or good intentions.  It is a time to act, to be committed, and to refuse to ignore the One who conquers death and Hades for our salvation. It is a time to offer ourselves to the Lord Who offered Himself for us purely out of love.