Romans 15:1-7; Matthew 9:27-35
So much of what passes for religion in our culture is very self-centered. Some develop a spirituality to help them feel a certain way, while others want to use God to promote political and moral agendas in their own image. Their nation or their people then becomes the highest good. Regardless of the particulars, those who make their faith all about themselves will end up worshiping a false god of their own creation.
One of the reasons that our Lord’s ministry in first-century Palestine was so shocking is that He blessed not only His fellow Jews, the chosen people of the Old Testament, but also the Gentiles. That is what He did in today’s gospel reading. The blind men were obviously Jews who called to Him using a traditional title for the Messiah, “Son of David.” But the crowds said “Never was anything like this seen in Israel” because the demon-possessed man He enabled to speak was not a Jew, but a Gentile. The Jews of that time had overlooked the clear teaching of the Old Testament that God would bless the entire world through them and draw all nations to Himself. That is why the crowds were so surprised, for they did not expect the Jewish Messiah to help anyone outside their own community.
This past week we celebrated the feast day of the Prophet Elijah. The gospel reading for that day described the shocking scene of what happened when Christ reminded the people of His hometown that God had once sent Elijah to help a Gentile woman during a famine, which also affected many Jews. He also mentioned that God sent the Prophet Elisha to heal a Syrian of leprosy when many Jews suffered from that disease. Do you remember what the people of our Savior’s hometown did when He told those stories? They tried to kill Him by throwing Him off a cliff, for they had no use for a Messiah Who cared about foreigners and enemies. (Luke 4: 22-30) Here we have a clear and terrifying portrait of where the hatred and rejection of other people in the name of God leads: to the hatred and rejection of the Lord Himself.
Thank God, the Orthodox Church from her origins has recognized that our Lord’s mercy extends to all who call upon Him with faith, love, and humble repentance, regardless of their background or heritage. We read in Acts of the founding of the first Gentile church in Antioch, where our Lord’s followers were first called Christians. (Acts 11:19-26) That same awareness that God’s salvation is not limited by nationality, race, culture, or any other human division remains characteristic of the Antiochian Orthodox Church to this day. Very few of the members of our parish are of Arab or Middle Eastern descent, yet we have all been welcomed as full members of the Body of Christ. The very existence of Orthodox churches in unlikely places like Abilene reflects the same universal evangelistic spirit that we read about in Acts. Regardless of human ancestry, we are all one in the Savior Who came to bless and heal the entire world.
As members of the Christ’s Body, we must not rest content with receiving our Lord’s mercy through the ministries of those who have shared the faith with us. We must not fall into a self-centered distortion of religion in which we seek simply to please ourselves. Instead, we must serve and strengthen those who suffer and struggle, especially in the homeland of our faith in Syria. Today in our Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America we take up a collection for the relief of our brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran. We do so as we remember St. Timon, one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus Christ and one of the original deacons mentioned in Acts (Acts 6:5). St. Timon was the first bishop of what is now the city of Bosra, and he died as a martyr. He played a key role in evangelizing a region where our Lord Himself often ministered (Matt.4:25) and where St. Paul took refuge after he escaped from Damascus following his conversion. (Gal. 1:15-18)
In the very same region from which we have received the great blessings of the Orthodox Christian faith, hundreds of thousands have died and millions have become refugees due to six years of brutal armed conflict. In Bosra-Hauran, many towns and parishes have been abandoned, and His Eminence Metropolitan SABA leads the Church in doing everything possible to care for those in need. As with the relief programs of the Patriarchate of Antioch and IOCC, these efforts extend to all who suffer, regardless of religious affiliation or anything else. Even as our Savior’s mercy extended both to blind Jewish beggars and to demon-possessed Gentiles, the Orthodox of Syria strive to show His love to all their neighbors as best they can.
It is surely impossible for us to understand fully how difficult it is to do so in a setting of ongoing war, sectarian strife, and humanitarian catastrophe. Despite the problems of our own society and our own personal struggles, our hearts must go out to the people of Syria as they suffer in ways well beyond our own experience or knowledge. In response to their plight, we must follow St. Paul’s advice “not to please ourselves” but for “each of us to please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself…” If we are truly in communion with Christ, then His selfless love must become characteristic of us. The healing of our souls is neither a legal transaction nor a storm of emotion, but our transformation in holiness as we participate ever more fully in the eternal life of our Lord by grace. By offering a portion of our resources to help our brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran, we unite ourselves more fully to our Savior. In the parable of the last judgment in St. Matthew’s gospel, those who enter into the Kingdom of Heaven are those who ministered to Christ in their needy neighbors. “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25: 31-46) The application to St. Timon Sunday should be obvious. Here is an opportunity to do precisely that for the very people from whom we have received the fullness of the Orthodox Christian faith.
Contrary to dominant perspectives in our culture, true religion is not about finding ways to feel better about ourselves. Neither is it a means to gain worldly power and influence. Instead, it is a calling to respond to the universal love of God by embracing a life of holiness, a life in full personal union with Jesus Christ. He calls everyone to respond to His mercy in ways not limited by nationality, race, class, politics or any other human characteristic. That is an important part of the reason that His ministry was so shocking to the Jews of first-century Palestine. It is why true Christianity remains offensive to those who worship their own prejudices and agendas to this very day. It is also why those who limit their list of neighbors to those who are like them in conventional human ways are at grave risk of turning away from Christ. If they end up serving only themselves and those like them, they will be in the same position as those who thought they were justified in trying to throw the Lord off a cliff.
The way of Christ, and of His Church since her origins, is characterized by a holy love that wants to bless and save the entire world. In our Savior, there are no foreigners and strangers. And in His Church, even people who live on the other side of the globe are members of our own family. We must support them by our constant prayers and generous offerings on their behalf. When we do so, we show proper thanks to those who welcomed us into the Orthodox Church. When we do so, we reject self-centered distortions of the faith that tempt us to the idolatry of putting culture, politics, and nationality before the way of our Savior. When we do so, we follow the Lord Whose mercy extended both to blind Jewish beggars and to demon-possessed Gentiles. For us all, that is the path to the Kingdom of God.