Saturday, May 23, 2015

American Christianity Declines as the Martyrs of the Middle East Bear Powerful Witness to Christ: Homily for the Sunday After the Ascension

           A recent survey of Americans about religion is getting a lot of attention, especially because it shows that fewer people now identify themselves as Christians and more consider themselves unaffiliated with any religion.  Perhaps at least part of the reason for these declines is that many people have not found something worth living and dying for in the churches with which they are familiar.   
            Their experience reflects the failure of so much Christianity in our culture to embody with integrity the good news that we celebrate during this season of the Ascension, which invites us to participate personally in the fulfillment of our humanity in the risen and ascended Savior.The Lord went up into heaven forty days after His resurrection. In Him, humanity and divinity are united in one Person; He rises into heaven as the God-Man.   His Ascension shows that 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 us into that glory with Him.  The Ascension is a brilliant icon of our salvation, for it makes clear that our Lord has raised us in all dimensions of our existence—not only from the tomb, not only from Hades—but into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  In the ascended Christ, we truly become participants in God, partakers of the divine nature by grace even as we live and breathe in a world that so often forgets the One Who spoke it into existence.
            The Ascension reminds us that Orthodoxy is not an “I’ll Fly Away” religion that excludes holiness and union with the Lord from life as know it.  The point is not to escape our bodies or any dimension of earthly reality, but to offer every aspect of our life to Christ for blessing such that we already experience the life of heaven even in a world that increasingly thinks of God as irrelevant.   He ascended with His glorified body, and we “look for the resurrection of the dead and life of the world to come” as the ultimate fulfillment of His good creation.
            The Ascension also reminds us that Jesus Christ is not merely a great teacher or example or even an angel or lesser god.  As the Fathers of the First Ecumenical 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.   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 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.  Only One who is truly both God and human can bring us into the life of God as our Savior.
            Perhaps some today find Christianity irrelevant to their lives because they have never seriously encountered the Orthodox experience of Jesus Christ.  Many in our culture seem to think of the Lord as little more than a good teacher and example with a message not that much different from that of secular and other religious figures.   We do not have to be geniuses to figure out that it is possible to be a nice person and a good citizen without being a Christian or religious at all.
            Like Arius, many throughout the centuries have made Christ in their own image as an exemplary human being according to whatever standard they found appealing in their time and place.  While that might be useful for some cultural or political agendas, such interpretations quickly fade when people figure out that they can achieve their worldly ends quite well without a little religious icing on the cake of what is really important to them.  At best, this attitude produces a wimpy faith that does not last and most people will not take seriously. 
            In contrast, Orthodoxy maintains the ancient faith of the Church that Jesus Christ, the God-Man, has conquered death in His resurrection, ascended into heaven, and made us participants by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  We must never seek to water-down our faith in the Savior in an attempt to make following Him popular, easy, or fully in harmony with our culture.  Should it be surprising that to ascend with Him to a life of holiness in our corrupt world will demand discipline, sacrifice, and being out of step with many trends?  Would it not be strange if offering our lives for blessing to the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord were as easy and ultimately insignificant as simply being nice or fitting in well with social norms? 
            Sometimes looking at other cultures helps us see our own situation more clearly.  To this very day, many Christians in the Middle East (Orthodox, as well as others) lay down their lives as martyrs for their faith in Jesus Christ.  In that region and in other parts of the world, our brothers and sisters suffer persecution, abuse, and harassment from oppressive governments and hostile groups that want to eliminate them and their faith.  Communism and fascism made countless martyrs during the 20th century.  The same is true of the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides at the hands of the Turks that began a hundred years ago.
            Few in our culture recognize that many millions of Christians have died for their faith over the last century. Thousands continue to do so each year.  Like the martyrs of the early Church, they do not go to their deaths out of loyalty to a mere human teacher or an example of how to be a moral or pleasant person.  They certainly do not do so because being a Christian brings them any kind of cultural or worldly advantage.  No, they simply refuse to abandon a Lord Whom they know as God, Who has conquered death, ascended into heaven, and Who has strengthened them to share in His eternal life even as they literally follow Him to the cross.
            Remember that, in a matter of days, Christ’s disciples went from total despair and defeat at His crucifixion to the astounding joy of the empty tomb and the amazing sight of His Ascension. These were life-changing experiences that gave them the strength to sacrifice their own lives for the Lord.  Generations of martyrs do not give their lives for even the best teachers and good examples, but the power of the risen and ascended Son of God continues in the Church, especially in the witness of the martyrs to this day who share in a victory that is not of this world.
            The early Christian teacher Tertullian wrote that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  In ways that may seem surprising, people in the early history of the faith were drawn by the witness of those who gave up their lives for Christ.  Perhaps they sensed that something different, something new, something truly worth living and dying for had led the martyrs to their great sacrifice.  That is apparently what they wanted in their own lives.  Many people still do today.   
            As we celebrate the Ascension, we should recognize that what we have to offer the world is our witness that the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord has brought us into the eternal life that He shares with His Father and the Holy Spirit.  His divine glory shines in the witness of the martyrs to this day, and must shine through us in ways that go beyond what even the best teacher, example, or political activist could inspire.  We must demonstrate with integrity that He is worth living and dying for in a culture where so many make the world their god.  We will do so by ascending with Him to lives of brilliant holiness even as our feet remain planted firmly on the ground.    

            He calls us to become living icons in ways that attract others to the joy, blessedness, and fulfillment of the Kingdom.  He enables us to live in this world as those who already have experienced its salvation.  He commands us to radiate the divine glory in which He has made us participants.  If we do so, we will bear witness to the truth of the Ascension, and many in our culture will be drawn to our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ for the first time.   And by His grace, they will see that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Opening the Eyes of our Souls to the Light of the Resurrection: Homily for the Sunday of the Blind Man in the Orthodox Church

              Probably all of us have the ability to know at a glance whether something looks right in some area of our work, our hobbies, or interactions with others.  By long experience of trial and error, we learn to see some things quite clearly.  We develop a good eye for them.    
            The glorious season of Pascha has opened the eyes of our souls in a very different way.   Like the blind man whom Jesus Christ healed in today’s gospel text, we share a lack of spiritual vision that cannot be overcome by more experience of the world as we know it.  For this blindness is a symptom of our collective and personal turning away from the union with God for which He created us.  It is the consequence of our continuing to prefer the ways of death to the ways of life.  We may learn to make out the shadows of the tomb, but that is nothing compared with beholding the divine glory.  Learning how to stumble around in a world of death has nothing in common with sharing in the joy of Christ’s resurrection.   
            The jailer in today’s reading from Acts provides a striking example of this kind of blindness, for he was ready to kill himself rather than endure the penalty that awaited him for letting his prisoners escape.  He knew how things worked in the Roman Empire.  When St. Paul assured him that he had nothing to fear for they were all still in their cells, the jailer was so shaken that he asked what he needed to do in order to be saved. In other words, he came to recognize his blindness and wanted to leave behind the pitch black tomb of death and to enter into the light.     
            Jesus Christ’s resurrection made that possible for him, for us, and for the entire universe.   He has given life to the dead, restored sight to the blind, and made even the dark prison of the tomb a gateway to the brilliant light of life eternal.  He enables us to see, to know, and to participate in the divine glory for which He made us in His image and likeness.  He has set us free from the bondage of our sins and of the misery that we have brought upon ourselves.  The good news of this season is that we may rise up in Him from these darkened, pointless ways of living to the light, truth, and joy of the Kingdom of Heaven.  We may share in Christ’s eternal life, in His victory over sin and death, even now.  But in order to do so, we must follow the example of the blind man in today’s gospel reading.
            Notice that he had to actually obey the Lord’s instructions in order to regain his sight.  Christ put clay on the man’s eyes and told him to wash in the pool of Siloam from which water was taken for rites of purification at the Temple.  He did so and he could see.  This washing reminds us of baptism in which we enter into Christ’s death in order to rise with Him into the new life of the Kingdom.  Even as Christ put clay on this man’s eyes, He puts a robe of light on us in baptism. “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27)  He clothes us with the glory of His divinized humanity, fulfilling our calling as those made in the image and likeness of God.  This is also what Christ did for the jailer who had been ready to kill himself, but then believed and was baptized along with his family. He had been ready to embrace death, but then entered into life.   Like the blind man, he was set free from darkness and beheld the light.  
            The Lord enabled both men to begin a new life, but note that what we read about them describes only the beginning of their journeys.  Like the rest of us, they had a long road before them.  They still had to live faithfully each day and intentionally turn away from the darkness in order to open themselves more fully to the light.  They had to cleanse and focus the eyes of their souls in order to sharpen their spiritual vision, to grow in their personal participation in and knowledge of the Lord.             
            Christ said “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  (Matt. 5:8)  Purity of heart was surely a goal for these men as much as it is for us, and we have certainly not yet attained it.  We do not yet have the eyes to see with clarity how the darkness has obscured our full participation in the brilliant light of the resurrection.  If our goal were simply to become a bit more functional in daily life or to succeed by the standards of our culture, that would not be much of a problem. A little conventional religion can serve those mundane aims well. Our goal is quite different, however.  We want to become radiant with the divine glory like an iron left in the fire.  We want to see, know, and participate in God by grace, to become partakers of the divine nature. (2 Pet. 1:4)  
           For that to happen, we must purify our hearts by turning away from all the dark and deadly influences of sin in our lives.  None of us has perfect knowledge of our sins, of course, but we all know them well enough to keep us more than busy with repentance.  In other words, Christ has restored our spiritual vision in baptism such that, despite our imperfection and distorted spiritual vision, we all have enough knowledge of Him to know generally where we fall short and where we need to grow.  Instead of despairing that we are not at the heights of spiritual perfection, we simply need to do what we presently have the spiritual strength to do in turning away from death and toward life.  In words, we must with humility take the steps we are capable of taking as we reject obvious corruption in our lives and embrace faith, hope, and love. By uniting ourselves to Christ even in these small ways, we open ourselves to His purifying presence in our hearts.  We invite Him to cleanse and clarify the eyes of our souls such that we will know Him more fully.   And the more we know Him, the more His holiness and purity will become characteristic of us.
            On this last Sunday of Pascha, let us all open ourselves to the brilliant light of our Lord and glorify Christ Who is risen from the dead.  Let us radiate the joy, holiness, and blessedness of His resurrection.  Let us be so filled with the divine glory that darkness can find no place in us to hide.  Then we will truly have the eyes to see Him and to become living witnesses of the good news that Christ is Risen!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Power of Conversation with Enemies and Strangers: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

Christ is Risen!           
            The world today has more than a little in common with the time and place in which Jesus Christ ministered. Both in the first and the twenty-first century, people easily divide up into groups that hate one another and view their enemies as less than human.  If someone is of the wrong religion, political party, or ethnic group or stands on the opposite side of some issue, too many respond simply with condemnation.
            We may wonder, then, how to demonstrate the new life of our Savior’s resurrection in a time when severe disagreements and divisions are so common—both in our own country and around the world.  Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman provides a challenging example of how to interact with even the most unlikely people, of how to overcome the barriers that exist between those who consider themselves simply enemies.  
             Remember that the Jews hated the Samaritans as religious and ethnic half-breeds because they had mixed the ethnic heritage and the religion of Israel with that of other peoples.  No self-respecting Jew would have anything to do with a Samaritan, much less ask one for a drink of water.  The Samaritans knew that, but Christ did the unthinkable by striking up a conversation and asking the woman for a favor.   As a result of this unlikely conversation, a Samaritan woman came to recognize Him as the Messiah, to believe in Him, and to lead many of her own people to the faith.  She ultimately became Saint Photini, an evangelist and martyr with the title “Equal to the Apostles.”
            Not only did the Jews look down on the Samaritans, but the gender roles of the day meant that Jewish men simply did not speak with women in public.  But this Messiah did not allow cultural divisions to shut off the Samaritan woman from His saving presence or her calling as an evangelist. 
            To make things even more complicated, this particular woman had been married five times and was then living with a man outside of marriage.  She may have gone to the well at noon, an unusual time to do so, because the other women of her village did not want to associate with her.  The Lord knew these details, but did not condemn, judge, or ignore her as a result.  Perhaps because He treated her as a beloved child of God, she acknowledged to Him the truth about her life and they continued speaking about spiritual matters.  
 Photini showed bravery in telling the men of her village that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.  Not only would they have been shocked for a woman, especially one of her reputation, to speak to them about God, they would probably also be astounded to hear that a Jewish rabbi was a Messiah for them as Samaritans.  Being inspired by the shocking ways in which Christ had reached out to her, she reached out in surprising ways to her own people.
We will miss the good news of Pascha if we think that the blessing of Christ’s resurrection is only for people we think of as being on “our side” of any religious, moral, or political divide.    As sinners ourselves whose only hope is in the abundant mercy of Jesus Christ, we have no right to exclude anyone from the possibility of embracing the new life of the empty tomb, even if they presently believe and act in ways contrary to God’s purposes.
St. Paul urged the Corinthians to hold the members of their church accountable for grave sin, but said that it was no concern of his to judge those outside. (1 Cor. 5:12)  It is one thing to acknowledge the truth about the behavior of people who are outside the life of the church, but another to appoint ourselves as the judges of their souls or to treat anyone as though they are beyond redemption. Remember that Paul himself was a persecutor of Christians before the Risen Lord appeared to Him and made him an apostle.
Jesus Christ Himself took the initiative in bringing the blessing of His kingdom to a Samaritan woman with an immoral lifestyle.  We learn from the Lord’s conversation with St. Photini that we must not treat anyone as a hopeless case or as  somehow unworthy of Christ-like love, no matter what they have done or what they currently think, say, or do.   Though it is business as usual in our corrupt world, it is not genuinely Christian to isolate ourselves from those whose lives seem especially broken and off course—or even perverse and godless.   If we respond with hatred, judgment, or stony silence to those we deem unworthy, we turn away from Christ’s ministry of bringing new life to the whole world.    For which of us has the right to cast the first stone of self-righteous condemnation at another?  Our Savior never condoned sin of any kind and neither should we.  He told the truth even when it was uncomfortable, as He did with Photini about her marital problems. But He did so not to condemn, but to save.  He came to bring sinners to repentance, to heal the sick, to give sight to the blind.  He died and rose again for the salvation of all created in His image and likeness, of the entire world.  He has made great saints of murderers, adulterers, and idol- worshipers who have called on His mercy and ultimately changed their lives.   
So when we have the opportunity to show compassion or friendship or encouragement to someone who seems very far from following Jesus Christ, we should do so.  We should treat them as Christ treated the Samaritan woman.  To do anything less is to place our own limits on the power of the Risen Lord to bring salvation to the world—and it is to refuse to follow in the way of the One Who conquered death.    
St. Photini is also a powerful example for each of us as we struggle with our own sins, passions, bad habits, and weaknesses.  Sometimes the burden of our sinfulness is great and we are tempted to despair of ever finding peace and healing in our lives.  We can become obsessed with our own unworthiness, perhaps viewing ourselves more as those condemned by a harsh law than as the broken and weak whom Christ’s mercy can heal.  If we are not careful, this way of thinking can lead us away from the Church, for the guilt and frustration of failure are hard to bear, and we often would simply rather not be reminded of it.
St. Photini was no stranger to such failures, but she learned to keep her eyes on the prize of the new life in Christ.   Perhaps her experiences had taught her humility. She knew she was a sinner and must have been thrilled finally to be on a path that would take her in a different direction.   We do not know the details, but she surely faced struggles, temptations, and reminders of the scandal that she had made of her life.  Some people probably continued to view her in a very judgmental light.  Perhaps her own thoughts and memories threatened to condemn her at times.  For all of us, some things are hard to forget.
Despite these obstacles, this Samaritan woman became a glorious saint, an evangelist equal to the apostles and ultimately a martyr.  If she could pass over from sin to righteousness, from death to life, in Christ Jesus, then we can, too.  The great blessing of Pascha comes to us all, and we have countless opportunities in our families, our marriages, our parish, our friendships, and our workplace or school to participate more fully in the Lord’s victory over sin and death.
 No matter what we have done in the past, no matter our present weaknesses and challenges, no matter what anyone thinks or says about us, we must remember that the Son of God has conquered death in order to bless, heal, and save us. Like the Samaritan woman, we must acknowledge our brokenness and turn to Christ with faith, love, and hope for a new life, and then continue on the journey of discipleship, even when we stumble or are tempted to give up. 

During this season of Pascha, we know that life eternal has sprung from an empty tomb purely as the result of our Lord’s love and mercy.   The good news of Pascha extends to the Samaritan women of our day and even to you and me. So let us treat them as He treated her and, together with them, come to participate more fully in the brilliant light of the Resurrection. 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ignore the Critics and Rise Up with Christ: Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic in the Orthodox Church

Christ is Risen!
            On this fourth Sunday of the season of Pascha, we remember Jesus Christ’s healing of someone who must have been very disappointed and frustrated, for he had been paralyzed for 38 years, probably his entire life.  He would see others healed miraculously in a nearby pool of water, but this poor fellow had no one to help him get into it when the angel stirred the water. So there he lay, helpless and without hope.       This event occurred during the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which commemorated the giving of the law through Moses.  The Lord Jesus saw this poor man, lying near one of the gates to the temple area, and He simply asked him if he wanted to be healed.  When the man explained that he had no one to help him into the healing pool, Christ said, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” and he did so.
            This healing occurred on the Sabbath day, when the Old Testament law indicated that no work was to be done, so some criticized the man for walking around and carrying his bed. In response to their questions, it became clear that this man did not even know the name of the One who had healed him.  But then the Lord found him and said, “See, you have been made well.  Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”
            This season of Pascha invites us all to receive healing and strength as we experience our Risen Lord’s victory over sin and death in our own lives.  Pascha calls us to participate in the great blessing that Christ’s resurrection has brought to the world and to be transformed by it.  We know that we are too much like the paralyzed man, weakened to the point of slavery to our habitual sins, to our disordered desires and habits of thought, word, and deed that keep us from knowing personally the joyful freedom for which the Lord created us in His image and likeness.
            We know how we should live, but we often lack the strength to do so. We have been weighed down by sins all too familiar to us, sometimes for much longer than thirty-eight years.  We may have given up hope that we will ever be free of anger, greed, lust, pride, self-righteous judgment, sloth or other sins that we know all too well.  Despite good intentions, we have lacked the power to change; the disappointing truth is that we are paralyzed by our sins and weakened by a lifetime of giving in to temptation.  We may even have accepted the lie so popular in our society that being true to ourselves means indulging any and all desires for pleasure, whether they involve money, sex, power, or anything else.    That is not the way to liberation, however, but only to an even greater inability to gain strength and health in the Christian life.    
            The good news of Pascha is that the Risen Lord calls every single one of us to “Rise, take up your bed and walk.”  His blessing is not for a select few, but for the whole world.  The Lord has mercy on those who do not even know His name, like the paralyzed man.  He asks only whether we want to be healed; and to those who will accept His mercy, He promises a new life and the strength to live it.
            Some will criticize us, however, for carrying our beds on the Sabbath, for they do not want us to move forward for the glory of God.  Our finding healing from sin and strength for holiness threatens those who do not want to change, who are comfortable with their own corruption. When they criticize us, we should do our best simply to ignore them and not let them distract us.
            Often, however, our own thoughts tell us that God would never forgive, heal, or bless us.  Our own thoughts can paralyze us with a burden of guilt and fear that makes us think that we are fooling ourselves to believe that Christ’s victory really applies to us.
            We need to get in the habit of recognizing such thoughts for what they are:  temptations designed to keep us the slaves of sin.  Fortunately, they have only the power in our souls and lives that we give them.  In His glorious Resurrection, Christ conquered death and sin, leaving the tomb and Hades empty.  Our tempting thoughts are fundamentally empty also in that they have no substance or reality other than what we—in our spiritual weakness—insist on giving them.  Just as the paralyzed man trusted and obeyed Christ--and left his fears, worries, and miserable past experience behind—we can too by accepting the reality and truth of the Savior’s victory.  His Resurrection has conquered all and is far more real and powerful than any corrupting thought, feeling, or inclination.  We should do our best to ignore these temptations and instead humbly turn our attention to the Lord.
            He gives us all the strength to rise, take up our beds, and walk.  No, that is not always easy to do.  Perhaps the bed that we will carry includes our ongoing temptations, the spiritual and moral weaknesses that we have brought upon ourselves, and the burdens of living in a broken world with broken people.  We all bear burdens for which we did not ask, as did the paralyzed man.  At the end of the day, how or why we have become weak and corrupt is irrelevant.  What is important is that the Lord says to us all through His Resurrection, “Rise, take up your bed, and walk.”  Did you notice He said that as a command, as an instruction. Had the fellow not obeyed this command, he would have remained on his bed and never would have experienced the new strength and freedom that Christ gave him.
              Everyone one of us is in his position with the freedom to disregard the Lord, if we choose. We can say that our sinfulness and weakness are more real and powerful than Christ’s healing mercy, but that would be to fall into a weird kind of idolatry in which our sin reigns supreme even over God.  If we have even a spark of genuine faith in Christ, then we have no option other than to do precisely what the paralyzed man did when he rose, picked up his bed, and began to walk into a future he did not know and could not predict, but that the Lord had enabled and commanded Him to embrace. 
            Of course, this was only the beginning of that man’s journey, not its end.  Remember that Christ said to him, “See, you have been made well.  Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”  Unfortunately, it is always possible that we will turn back from the blessed power and healing of the Savior to return to the weakness and despair of sin.  We may paralyze ourselves once more by turning away from the only One Who can conquer sin and death.  We are like someone healed of paralysis who cannot escape the habit of staying in bed. So we lie down again in our bed of habitual sins and weaknesses.  But fortunately for us, the Lord is merciful.  He always asks us, “Do you want to be healed?”  And if we respond with truthfulness and humility, He has compassion on us, assures us of His forgiveness and strength, and commands us again to rise, take up our beds, and walk.
             We may fall back into our paralysis more times than we can count.  We may fall down ten thousand times, but Christ is always there to raise us up and give us a share in His eternal life.  Through this journey of humble repentance, we do find healing.  The course of our struggle is upward; the paralysis decreases; our souls are strengthened as we struggle to press forward in faithfulness.  We may be unaware of that progress, for the more spiritual strength we gain, the more clearly we will see that we have a very long way to go in order to be fully healed.  We remain dependent upon His mercy and strength every step of the way both in this life and in the next.

            So as we celebrate this Paschal season, let us joyfully obey His command to rise from all the sins that weigh us down.  Let us refuse to believe that the lies of our own thoughts are somehow more powerful than the good news of the empty tomb.  Let us follow the example of the paralytic in rising, taking up our beds, and walking into the new life our Savior’s Resurrection has brought to the world, for He has truly conquered sin and death.