Saturday, June 28, 2014

There Is Hope for Us All: Homily for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in the Orthodox Church

            None of us can tell the story of our lives without pointing to particular persons we have known and who have shaped us.  In our families and friendships, people are not interchangeable, for we are all unique in our relationships with one another and with God.  We play particular roles that are colored by our character, personal history, and distinctive blend of strengths and weaknesses.  That is also how it is in the life of the Church.  Particular people matter.   
        Today we celebrate two of the most glorious Saints of the Christian faith.  They are both pillars of the Church, apostles, and martyrs whose unique personalities and experiences have made decisive and permanent contributions to the Body of Christ.  Saint Peter was the head disciple whose confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” is the rock on which Christ, our true foundation, has built His Church.    The gospels describe Peter’s presence at so many crucial moments in the ministry of the Lord, including at His arrest when Peter, who had so clearly confessed Him earlier and vowed never to abandon Him, denied Him three times.  Of course, the risen Christ restored Peter by asking him three times if he loved Him and giving him the command to feed His sheep as a shepherd of the flock of Christians.  And in the book of Acts, we see Peter boldly proclaiming the good news, performing miracles, and playing a key role in welcoming Gentiles into the Church.   After serving as the first bishop of Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians, then he went to serve in Rome.  Peter was crucified there upside down for his faith in Jesus Christ, for by Peter’s own request he was unworthy to die in the same way as His Savior.
        That St. Paul plays a glorious role in the formation of the faith is obvious to anyone who knows the New Testament, for he wrote so much of it.   He traveled for decades founding and supporting churches, especially among Gentiles.  Paul himself was Jewish and had been a strict Pharisee who had persecuted Christians.  But on the road to Damascus, the risen Lord appeared to Him in a blinding light and called him to repentance and the shocking ministry of bringing Gentiles into the Body of Christ through faith, not circumcision and obedience to the Old Testament law.  Perhaps more than anyone else, Paul made clear that the Christian faith is not a sect of Judaism primarily for people of a particular ethnic and religious heritage, but instead good news for all people, regardless of their ancestry. 
        As today’s epistle passage reminds us, Paul’s ministry was not easy by any stretch of the imagination.  He was beaten, imprisoned, humiliated, and ultimately martyred in Rome for his faith in Jesus Christ.  He knew both the heights of spiritual ecstasy and the chronic challenge of a “thorn in the flesh” that God did not remove, despite his three-fold request.  Whatever that thorn may have been, Paul learned through his sufferings the sufficiency of God’s strength for him.  God’s “strength is made perfect in (Paul’s) weakness.“  As the apostle said of himself, “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
        When we study the lives of these two great saints, we do not see people who made no mistakes or who were rich, famous, or without problems.  These were real human beings who fell short, repented, grew over time in their understanding, and faced such opposition that both suffered capital punishment at the hands of the pagan Romans.  They gained absolutely no worldly advantages by their faithful ministry, but their selfless service strengthened the Church in ways too numerous to count.  We are here today as Orthodox Christians because of what God did through them and so many other lesser known apostles, martyrs, and evangelists across the ages.
        In order to celebrate worthily the feast day of Sts. Peter and Paul, we must go beyond praising them with our words.  We must participate personally in the holiness so evident in them.  In other words, we must become like them in a way appropriate to our particular calling and location.  For just as God used a fisherman and a Pharisee with given sets of strengths and weaknesses to His glory, He intends to do likewise with each of us.  The first century is long gone, but there is plenty of time left in the twenty-first century for us to hear and respond to the same risen Lord who called Peter to feed His sheep and Paul to become a missionary to the Gentiles.  Like the Ephesians to whom Paul wrote, we too have become “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone…” (Eph. 2:19-20)
        Each generation is like a new story added to the building or a new branch growing on a tree.  Even as we find our personal history in the previous generations of our families, we take our spiritual life from the living history of what the Holy Spirit has done through each generation in the life of the Church.  We are called to make present in our day the same faithfulness that we see in those who have gone before us, but we do so as unique, unrepeatable persons called to grow in the divine likeness and to find the fullness of our identity through union with the Lord like an iron left in the fire.  Just as a fisherman and a Pharisee became radiant with the divine energies through their repentance and steadfast dedication to Christ, the same can be true of us.
        We may think, however, that we are simply too sinful to achieve such spiritual heights.  We know that we fall short and may be ashamed even to think of becoming like these great saints.   Remember for just a moment, however, that Peter denied Christ three times at His arrest and Paul persecuted Christians to the point of death.  If they can repent, follow Jesus Christ faithfully, and have such exalted roles in the life of the Church, who are we to excuse ourselves from whatever God wants of us in our families, our parish, our work, or whatever it might be?  In all likelihood, we will live and serve in obscurity and face obstacles much smaller than the brutal persecution these great saints endured. 
        As well, we may be tempted to think that they were so much stronger than we are.  Remember that St. Paul found God’s strength precisely in his weakness, in his infirmities and pains that opened his life to the gracious power of God.  St. Peter must have felt weak when the Lord said “Get behind me, Satan” to him when he tried to explain to Christ that He would not be rejected and killed.  And could there be any greater moment of weakness than when the disciple who boasted that he would never abandon the Savior did so at his arrest by denying Him three times?
        Our moments of weakness are probably less dramatic, but they are no less real.  We find it hard to do the basics of the Christian life: forgive our enemies; pray each day and fast regularly; attend the Divine Liturgy and other services of the Church whenever possible; take Confession on a regular basis and especially when we have a guilty conscience about a grave sin; give generously to the poor; visit the sick and lonely; and guard our hearts and minds from the moral decay that permeates our culture. 
        When we are aware of our weaknesses, we are in the perfect place to follow in the way of the fisherman and the Pharisee who in humble repentance found a strength that makes up what is lacking, heals infirmities, and even conquers sin and death.   Let us not use a false sense of humility to excuse ourselves from true discipleship as we celebrate the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul.  Instead, we must follow their example as the unique people we are, with all our strengths, failings, and peculiarities, for from the very beginning of the faith, that is the only way that anyone has become a saint.           

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Fast, Pray, and Leave Behind Your Nets:Homily for the Apostles Fast on the Second Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

           The services, practices, and calendars of the Orthodox Church can be hard for people in our time and place to understand.  Some will use their confusion as an excuse to disregard them and suffer spiritually as a result.  So it is a good to get to the heart of the matter, to speak plainly and openly about what the rhythms of the Church mean for our lives.  For the mission of the Body of Christ is not to preserve a set of esoteric rituals and rules, but to bring the entire world into the great salvation worked by our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  
            As I hope everyone knows by now, we are currently in the Apostles Fast, one of the most ancient fasting periods in the Church that extends from the Monday after All Saints until the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29.  The Sunday of All Saints comes a week after Pentecost, which reminds us that we are all enabled to share in the holiness of God by the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Yes, the very purpose of our lives is to acquire the Holy Spirit.  But in order to do that, we have to become like our Lord’s apostles, who left behind their nets in order to become fishers of men.  Sts. Peter and Paul, along with all the disciples except John the evangelist, died as martyrs, making the ultimate witness for the Savior’s victory over death.  They were prepared to do so by decades of self-denial in putting God first in their lives.  They left all that was comfortable and familiar to obey the command of the Lord “Come follow Me.”   And if we are to develop the spiritual strength and maturity necessary to respond faithfully to His will for us, we must also die to self and gain a measure of freedom from the nets in which we are entangled, whatever they may be.
            The Apostles Fast fulfills what the Lord said in response to the question about why His disciples did not fast during His earthly ministry:  “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.” (Matt. 9:15) Christ ascended into heaven forty days after Hi s resurrection, but then sent the Holy Spirit to His followers at Pentecost.  Now, after celebrating Pentecost, is when we fast in order to humble ourselves before God and to fight our passions so that we will gain the spiritual strength that we see so clearly in Sts. Peter and Paul, as well as in all the apostles.  Like them, we want to hear and respond to Christ’s command to us, whatever it may be.  We want to be able to turn aside from distractions, obsessions, and habits that hold us back from living the lives to which our Savior calls us.
            For Orthodox Christians, fasting is not reserved only for special seasons of the year, for outside of a few celebratory exceptions,  Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days on which those who are physically able abstain from meat, dairy products, fish, wine, and olive oil.  We fast on Fridays in commemoration of our Lord’s crucifixion and on Wednesdays in commemoration of His betrayal.  In the prayers and hymns of the Church, Wednesdays and Fridays are both associated with the cross, so it makes perfect sense that these are days on which we deny ourselves just a bit by taking up  the cross of self-denial and humility in remembrance of the unbelievably profound sacrificial offering made by our Lord Himself for our salvation.
            Just as we should not resist temptation only during Lent, we should not attempt to reserve fasting only for penitential periods, such as Lent, Advent (the Nativity Fast), the Dormition, or the Apostles Fast.  If we do so, we may find it impossibly hard to fast then from anything at all for several days or weeks at a time.  Likewise, may find it impossibly hard to reject any self-centered desire if we are used to making a god out of our taste buds, stomachs, and self-centered desires.  If we want to be faithful disciples, we have to leave our nets behind every day.  We have to take up our crosses all the time, often when we least expect to have to do so.  So we must always be prepared.  Two thousand years of experience has taught Orthodox Christians that regular fasting is a source of great strength for doing so.  This is not, of course, because God is impressed by hunger or dietary changes.  It is, however, because we all need to grow in humility and to turn aside from anything that weakens our ability to say “yes” to the Lord.  Especially if we find fasting difficult and frustrating, we must persevere in it every fast day.  It is precisely through struggles that reveal our weakness and spiritual sickness that we are able like all the repentant sinners who have become saints to open ourselves to the mercy and healing of Jesus Christ from the depths of our hearts and souls.  
            Too often in our culture, we think that we have done our religious duty simply by being present in a church service on Sunday.  If the service lasts more than an hour, we may think that we have really impressed God. As Orthodox Christians, we know that we should attend the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and major feast days whenever possible. (Of course, it is also beneficial to pray with the Church at vespers and orthros.) Doing so is the very first step of Christian faithfulness, for corporate worship constitutes the Body of Christ and enables us to enter into heavenly worship even now.  But coming to services is only the beginning of our journey.  God calls us to participate fully in the heavenly liturgy every day, every moment, with every thought, word, and deed, regardless of where we are.  That is why we must all devote time and energy each day of our lives to prayer in a regular, disciplined way if we want to become faithful Christians.  It is why even a few minutes of Bible reading, studying the life of a saint, other spiritual reading, or listening to recordings of Orthodox chant is so important for us all.  We are bombarded constantly by messages from our culture, as well as by our own thoughts and the words and actions of others, that are usually not spiritually beneficial. Unless we cultivate a regular habit of prayer and of focusing on the things of God in our daily lives, we will have little of hope of hearing, let alone responding faithfully to, our Lord’s calling.  
            Let us all take advantage of the remaining week of the Apostles Fast to humble ourselves before the Lord as we devote ourselves to prayer and fasting in ways appropriate to our health, age, and life circumstance.  Let us all leave the nets of our spiritual laziness and other excuses behind in order to cultivate just a bit of that spiritual clarity and devotion that shines so brightly in Sts. Peter and Paul and all the other apostles, saints, and martyrs who heard and obeyed the calling of our Lord.  He is surely calling each and every one of us to serve Him in some way.  The only the question is whether we have the ears to hear and the spiritual strength to leave behind all that keeps us from following Him.       

Thursday, June 5, 2014

All Hell Breaks Loose: Orthodox Christian Thoughts on the High Incidence of Rape on American College Campuses


            The shocking statistics on the number of American female college students who are victims of rape provide a window on the moral and spiritual corruption of our society.  Especially when seen in the context of the culture of promiscuity, drunkenness, and illicit drugs prevalent on many campuses today, the high incidence of such assaults makes glaringly obvious that something profoundly important is missing from our age of alleged liberation and equality between the sexes.
            A key dimension of the problem is that mainstream American society now acknowledges no moral standard other than consent between adults when it comes to sex.  Most college students are adults only in a legal sense—not in terms of maturity, judgment, or understanding the consequences of their actions.   Throw in hormones, insecurity, consumption of substances that impair judgment, and misguided understandings of masculinity; it is not hard to predict the results.  Of course, communication on such matters between men and women often remains a challenge even under the best circumstances for full-grown, sober adults.  Since consent requires effective communication, rational thought, and knowledge of the consequences of one’s actions, it is not likely to be found among drunk teenagers away from home for the first time and living among strangers.
              If consent is the only relevant factor in the ethics of sex and nothing intrinsically right or wrong is at stake in these matters, I fear that few will take them seriously in our age of hedonistic self-indulgence.  American youth grow up in a culture where music, movies, television, and the internet celebrate promiscuity and graphic violence even as they deride chastity, even in what is considered fairly tame programming.   Many consider pornography a harmless form of entertainment with no recognition of its damaging, addicting effects that put major roadblocks in the pursuit of a decent, not to mention a holy, life.  Throw in the large number of parents who indulge their children, shelter them from even small struggles and failures, and consequently hamper their moral development.  It is not surprising that all hell often breaks loose as a result.
Too many people in our society do not develop decent moral character in large part because they were not brought up in a morally serious fashion that puts their actions in the larger context of right and wrong.  Of course, too many Christians across the centuries have accommodated their faith to cultural standards and personal failings that fall short of the fullness of the way of Christ.  It is especially troubling today, however, that much contemporary American culture has lost even the most basic presuppositions of moral decency, let alone the pursuit of holiness.   The same is true of some Christian communities.  Not unlike the sexual libertines whom St. Paul opposed in Corinth, mainstream culture is increasingly blind to any level of gravity about sex that extends further than the minimal requirement of consent, as though anyone really knows what they are getting into when it comes to the impact of these matters on those involved.
In a legal sense, of course, consent is essential to distinguish between rape and other acts of sexual union, regardless of their moral or spiritual significance.  But the concept of consent is often too weak to translate into the control of powerful passions for pleasure or domination, as the statistics about rape on college campuses reveal.   The more our society convinces itself that traditional sexual morality is passé, the more the virtues necessary to direct and restrain our energies in this regard will be lacking.  The less we recognize that sex is part of  the unique glory of husband  and wife who, in the usual course of things, together bring new people into the world through their embodied love for one another, the more the passions of whoever is the stronger will have their way.  It is sadly true in dimly lit fraternity parties and in much public discourse about what now passes for the ethics of marriage, family, and sex.   When truth goes out the window, raw power reigns supreme.
From an Orthodox Christian perspective, that is hardly the appropriate context to have or think about sex.  For starters, it is outside of marriage.  In holy matrimony, man and woman join intimately for their salvation and the fulfillment of God’s purposes for them, their children, the Church, and the rest of the world.   It is not the stuff of random encounters between the inebriated or of heinous assault, but a holy offering that impacts every dimension of one’s life “both now and ever and unto ages of ages.”  How sad that our culture has produced so many people today who lack the moral and spiritual vision necessary to recognize the sanctity and gravity of the intimate union of those created male and female in God’s image and likeness.         
          Rape is worse than a mere violation of consent, of course, for it horribly wounds a beloved child of God.  It also grossly distorts the intimate, life-giving joining of two as one flesh and manifests a total breakdown of the man-woman relationship. It is an icon of blasphemy that displays hatred of the Lord and our neighbors and harms all concerned in the most profound ways.  It is as far from faithfulness to Jesus Christ as one can get.
These words may make little sense to those who believe that the further progress of the sexual revolution is the answer to society’s ills, as though freedom from traditional moral norms is all we need. Those not blinded by ideology will acknowledge, however, that the problems we face go much deeper than political slogans of any kind. Orthodox Christians must do the hard work of forming boys and girls, and their parents and everyone else in the Church, in chastity, self-restraint, and true love for God and neighbor that make both assault and promiscuity unthinkable.  We must model fidelity and self-sacrifice in marriage and childrearing, as well as purity in singleness, in ways that demonstrate with integrity a genuine alternative to the decadence so common today.  Our witness will then attract others to the virtuous and holy life for which all of us, male and female alike, were created, whether we are married or not.  For true evangelism concerns not only what we say, but more importantly how we live.    

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Let Us Ascend with the God-Man: Homily for the Feast of the Ascension in the Orthodox Church

            Sometimes we are all set our sights too low, expecting too little of ourselves and others.  We sell ourselves short and do a disservice not only to ourselves but to everyone around us.  When we aim low, we cannot expect to achieve high goals or to become the people God calls us to be.  The season of the Ascension is a powerful antidote to such low expectations, for it reveals the great glory and dignity that Jesus Christ has given us.  Through our Lord’s Ascension, we rise with Him literally to the heights of the heavenly Kingdom.
            Forty days after His resurrection, the Son of God ascended into heaven.   In Him, humanity and divinity are united in one Person; He goes up into heaven as the God-Man.   The Son shares in the glory that He had with the Father and the Holy Spirit before the creation of the world.  And He brings our humanity into that glory with Him.  There is perhaps no more powerful sign of our salvation than the Ascension, for it makes clear that our Lord has raised us—not only from the tomb, not only from hades—but into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  Our calling to become participants in God, partakers of the divine nature by grace, is fulfilled in our ascended Lord.
            The Ascension also makes clear that Jesus Christ is not merely a great teacher or example or even an angel or lesser god.  As the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea proclaimed, He is light of light, very God of very God, of one essence with the Father, the only begotten Son of God.   For only One who is truly divine and eternal can ascend into heaven and bring us into the divine, eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  That is why the Council of Nicaea rejected the teaching of the heretic Arius, who did not think that the Son was fully divine.   That is why the Orthodox Church has always disagreed with those who deny our Lord’s full divinity or His full humanity.  For only One who is truly both God and human can bring humans into the life of God.
            Unfortunately, we often view Jesus Christ and ourselves in ways that reflect our low expectations.  If we want a Savior who merely teaches and models a good life, we might become a bit better by listening to Him.  But human teachers and examples cannot conquer death and cannot raise us with them into eternal life.  Many continue to want a Lord in their own image:  a teacher of secret spiritual truths to an elite club; a social or political activist of whatever ideology; or a philosopher who speaks with wisdom.  There are those in every generation who claim to discover a secret Jesus who looks pretty much like them and their preferred way of life.   
            Countless martyrs going back to the original disciples, however, did not go to their deaths out of loyalty to just another teacher or politician. They looked death in the eye and did not blink because they knew that their Lord was God, that He had conquered death and would share His victory with them in heaven.  In a matter of days, Christ’s disciples went from total despair and defeat at His crucifixion to the astounding joy of Pascha and Pentecost.  These were life-changing experiences that gave them the strength to sacrifice their own lives for the Lord.  Even the most admired human beings die and are usually forgotten; generations of martyrs do not give their lives for them.  But the life of the risen and ascended Son of God continues in the Church, especially in the witness of the martyrs who share in a victory that is not of this world.
            We share in the eternal life of Christ through His Body, the Church.  The Son prayed to the Father that His followers “may be one as We are…that they all may be one, as You, Father are in Me, and I in You; that they may also be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.  And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one…”
            Here is a very high, very exalted view of what it means to be a human being in the image and likeness of God.  In Christ’s Body, the Church, we are to be one in Him, showing forth the unity of holiness and love that are characteristic of the Holy Trinity.  Christ has given us His glory, a share in life eternal, the life to which He has ascended as the Son of God. And that glory, that eternal life, is never an individual undertaking; it is the life of unity in Christ, of His Body, of which we are all members by baptism. 
            No doubt, we all fall short of the fullness of life in Christ.  We often would rather not ascend in Him to a life of holiness, for we prefer to do things which are beneath us, which are not fitting for those created in the image and likeness of God, for those called to live the life of heaven even now.   Instead of dwelling on what is true, noble, just, and pure, we too often dwell on what inflames our passions, our self-centered desires.  Instead of recognizing that our salvation is a life together in the Body of Christ, we try to live as isolated individuals, continuing the division from one another that has beset humanity since Adam and Eve.  Instead of seeing that we participate in Christ through our brothers and sisters in the faith, our neighbors, and every human being whom we encounter, we define ourselves over against one another and thus make ourselves less than truly human in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity.
            It might be possible to follow the guidance of a teacher in isolation from others, on our own terms, according to whatever private interpretations seem right to us.  But it is impossible to embrace the fullness of life in our Risen and Ascended Lord as  isolated individuals as though our faith means whatever we want it to mean.  We can interpret the words of a merely human teacher however we want, but the One Who has conquered death and ascended into heaven requires something different. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the Alpha and Omega of the universe.  The point is not to try to make Him in our image, to water Him down into someone Whom we can accept and understand on the terms of our own culture or preferences.  Instead, the point is to fall before Him in worship, to accept in humility the great blessing of the resurrected, ascended life which He gives us, and to live faithfully in the unity of the Church as we grow in Him.
            Let us celebrate the Ascension, then, by embracing the great dignity that is ours in the God-Man Who has gone up to heaven.  Let us pay close attention to our thoughts, words, and deeds, and do only that which help us live as those called to the glory of the Kingdom.  Let us make of our life in the Church an icon of the Holy Trinity, a Communion of love and holiness, for we are truly members of a Body whose life is in one another.  Let us treat every human being we meet with the same love and care that we would show to the Lord Himself.  
            Yes, we really can live this way because we are not simply following the teachings of a human being; instead, we are participating even now in the eternal life of the One Who has conquered death, the tomb, and hades, and taken our humanity into heaven.  If Jesus Christ can do that, we may put no limits on what He can do with us. For the Lord has ascended into heaven, and He will take us with Him if we will only embrace—with faith, humility and repentance-- the great glory that He has brought to us as those created in His image and likeness.

            This is not a message for a few select souls or for people with no problems who seem to have everything in life.  It is good news for us all, no matter how broken, imperfect, and difficult our lives may be.  Christ rose again and ascended with His wounds for our salvation.  He turned death itself into a pathway to eternal life, and He can transform  even our worst struggles and pains into our greater personal participation in the new life of the Kingdom.  No, we cannot do that by ourselves any more than we can raise the dead or rise to heaven by our own power.  But in our ascended Lord, all things are possible.  Were He simply a great human personality kept alive only in our memories, we would have no hope beyond the world as we know it.  But in the God-Man Who conquers death for our sake and deifies our humanity, we may live even now the life of heaven as a foretaste of the eternal peace and joy that are not of this world.  That is what He calls and enables each and every one of us to do through a life of holiness in His Body, the Church.  Yes, He has ascended in glory.  The only question is whether we will follow Him.