Sunday, August 21, 2016

How to Avoid Sinking: Homily for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost and the 9th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

I Corinthians 3:9-17; Matthew 14:22-34
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that we are totally self-sufficient and able to live exactly as we please with no serious consequences.  Self-reliance, independence, and freedom certainly have their places, but they also have their limits and must be kept in proper perspective.  We must develop these qualities in light of who we are before God, if we are to flourish as His beloved sons and daughters.  
            That is precisely what Peter did not do in today’s gospel reading, however.   As he miraculously walked on the water with Jesus Christ, he did not accept the reality of who he was in relation to the Lord.  He turned his trust away from the One Who was enabling him to do what he could never do on his own, to walk on the water.  Instead, he focused on the wind and the waves and his own weakness, and began to sink.  It had apparently not sunk into Peter’s mind that he was walking on the waves purely because the Son of God had enabled him to do so.  As he turned away from trusting the Lord and relied only on himself, he began to sink like a stone.  As we all know, that is simply the reality of what happens to a human being who tries to walk on the water by his own power.  
                Something similar would happen to a building that was not squarely grounded on a solid foundation.  It would collapse under its own weight. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians, our one true foundation in life is the same Son of God Who spoke the universe into existence, became the Second Adam to restore our corrupt humanity, and Who conquered death in His third-day resurrection. He is the very basis of our existence and our hope for salvation. 
                Whenever we use our freedom as an excuse to turn away from Him and to trust only in our own desires and abilities, we turn away from our true selves.  We cut ourselves off from the truth, reality, and power that are necessary for us to flourish as those created in the image and likeness of God.  If we are honest, we will see that it does not take much at all to put us in our place, to show us that living by our own designs is a path that leads only to weakness and despair.  That is why Peter started to sink when he focused more on the stormy sea than on the Lord.  Our ultimate choice, which we make every moment of our lives, is whether to entrust ourselves to the merciful, transformative power of the Savior.  He alone provides the path to true freedom from slavery to our passions and ultimately from death. 
            It is no accident that Peter’s fear in that moment was focused on death.  He was a fisherman and knew that someone in his situation was about to drown, but he at least had the presence of mind to call out “Lord, save me.”  The circumstances that we face due to our lack of faith may not be quite so clear, but the meaning is the same.  When we step away from the one true foundation, we choose the pain of death instead of the joy of the empty tomb.  When we nourish hate and anger toward others, we murder them in our hearts.  When we embrace lustful thoughts, we enslave ourselves to immoral desires and commit adultery.  When we refuse to forgive others, we harden our hearts and make it impossible to accept God’s forgiveness for our own sins.   When we do not serve our neighbors in need, we disregard the Lord Himself.  No, we do not have to do anything nearly as dramatic as Peter did in order to start sinking into the depths. 
            Of course, some will justify drowning in sin in the name of being true to themselves.  Here is where Orthodox Christianity insists that human beings are not mere bundles of freedom who are made to find fulfillment wherever and however they happen to desire.  Instead, the Lord has made us in His image and likeness.  It is our very nature to be united with God in holiness.  Unfortunately, our common corruption has gravely distorted our ability to fulfill that righteous vocation.  That is why we so easily worship money, power, pleasure, and getting our own way.  It why we so easily make success in the world on our own terms a false god.  And even as we become more and more enslaved to our self-centered desires and illusions, we may truly believe that we are doing the right thing.  That is simply a sign that we are diminishing ourselves even further.
             In this light, we must all seriously discern whether we are really being true to ourselves as those created in God’s image and likeness and whose one true foundation is Jesus Christ.  Are we being true to ourselves as God’s temple in whom the Holy Spirit dwells?  Are we being true to ourselves as those who have put on Christ in baptism and who are nourished by His Body and Blood in Holy Communion?  If not, then we are living a lie that puts major roadblocks between us and the holy joy that it is our nature to seek.
            When Christ enabled Peter to walk on the water, He gave us an icon or image of what it means to share in His life by grace.  He showed us that human beings may participate already in His victory over sin and death, that in Him we may know a blessed freedom that enables us to overcome even the darkest and most powerful temptations.  As we grow in personal union with our risen Lord, He heals us from corruption and empowers us for a life of holiness.  In Him, we find infinitely greater fulfillment than in a life of slavery to our self-centered desires and illusions.  That is what it means for us to walk with Him across the stormy seas of our lives.
                St. Paul reminded the Corinthians that they were “God’s fellow workers; God’s field, God’s building.”  If the workers on a building site become careless and do not ground the structure on its foundation, the project will likely collapse. The same is true of us.  We must all wrestle with the question of whether we are cooperating with the Lord as we build the project of our lives.  He calls us to be His holy temple, and we must all resist the temptation to become distracted from fulfilling that high calling.  A temple is a place where we offer ourselves to God in holiness.  That is the most fundamental calling of our lives which fulfills God’s purposes for creating us in the first place.  It is only by offering ourselves for union with Christ in holiness that we become participants in the eternal life and blessedness for which He brought us into existence. 

            Let us use our freedom to become God’s fellow workers in making ourselves holy temples.  Let us embrace the divine power that enables us to walk across the stormy seas of our lives, even to share in the Savior’s victory over sin and death.  We will be able to do so only when we embrace personally the glorious truth that our nature and purpose is to grow in holiness and union with the Lord.  Anything less is a path to the despair of sinking like a stone or collapsing like an ill-constructed building under its own weight.  True freedom comes in accepting who we are in God’s image and likeness, His beloved sons and daughters, and living accordingly.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

How to Share in the Glory of Christ's Resurrection: Homily for the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28

At the very heart of our faith as Orthodox Christians is the good news that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  He truly died and was buried as a human being, but Hades and the grave could not contain Him as God.  Because He is risen, those who die enter into His presence as they await the resurrection of the body and the Last Judgment.  Those who have loved and served Him experience paradise already as a foretaste of heaven, for they are with the Lord to Whom they united themselves during their lifetimes.  Our Savior rose as a whole person with a glorified body and then ascended into heaven forty days later. That is how He has made it possible for us all to share in the eternal joy of the heavenly kingdom.
As St. Paul wrote in today’s epistle lesson, Christ rose and ascended because, though He is fully divine, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name which is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  Our Lord has made it possible for us to participate in His heavenly glory by lowering Himself to become one of us, and thereby conquering sin and death on our behalf.
This great feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos shows how we may all come to share in the eternal life of our Lord. At the end of the Mother of God’s earthly life, the Apostles were miraculously assembled in her presence. St. Thomas, however, arrived three days late.  When her tomb was opened for him to pay his last respects, her body was not there.  Even as she was the first to accept Christ into her life—and in a unique way into her womb as His virgin mother—she was the first to follow Him as a whole, complete person into the Kingdom of Heaven.  Her Dormition is an icon of our hope for eternal life.
            In order to see the connection between this feast and our hope, we must remember that the Virgin Mary is as fully human as the rest of us.   We call her “Theotokos” because she is the “Bearer” or “Mother of God.” The One to Whom she gave birth is our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  In order for Him to be truly human, He had to have a mother like the rest of us.  From ancient times, Christians have honored her with this title for that very reason.  The only ones who refused to call her Theotokos were those who did not believe in the divinity of the child born to her, such as the heretic Nestorius. By overreacting to various abuses in the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, Protestant traditions have downplayed and often ignored her unique role in our salvation.  In contrast, the Orthodox Church makes a clear distinction between worship and honor or veneration.  We worship only God, but we honor or venerate those whose lives are shining examples of God’s holiness.  The honor that we give them magnifies the glory of God Who has done great things through them.   Properly honoring the Theotokos in no way distracts us from worshiping her Son, but inspires us all the more to welcome Him into our lives as she did.  And since she followed Him into the heavenly kingdom at her Dormition, how could we not ask for her prayers even as we celebrate her wonderful example of loving and serving the Lord?  Remember that He performed His first miraculous sign in St. John’s gospel, turning water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee, at His mother’s request.   
It is no accident, of course, that the Theotokos is a woman, for obviously only a woman could be the mother of our Savior.  Her unique role in our salvation reminds us that God creates us male and female in the divine image and likeness, and uses both sexes together to bring salvation to the world.  The Church knows the Theotokos as “the New Eve” through whom the Son of God became “the Second Adam.”  The first Eve came from the body of the first Adam, while the Second Adam became a human being through the body of the New Eve.  The imagery of male and female continues with the Church as the Bride of Christ, born from the blood and water which flowed from the Lord’s body at His crucifixion.  They symbolize the Eucharist and baptism through which we share in the life of our Lord.  He is the Groom and we, the Church, are His bride.  The biblical drama of salvation culminates in the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelation, which fulfills so much imagery from Christ’s teaching and ministry about the marriage banquet as a sign of the Kingdom of God.
           Today’s gospel reading reminds us that the Theotokos prepared to follow her Son into eternal life by attending to the one thing needful, by hearing and obeying the word of the Lord.  As she said to the Archangel Gabriel in response to her unique vocation to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  Through her obedience, she gives life to the One Who conquers death.  She risks her life and reputation by agreeing in humble faith to do something totally unheard of in becoming a virgin mother.  In a world where slavery to the passions so easily dominates the circumstances surrounding conception and childbirth, she bears the Savior in complete purity.  None of this was her idea or plan; it was God’s.  But she obeyed in humility, nonetheless.
The particulars of our callings are different from that of the Theotokos, but the underlying truth is the same.  Namely, we become participants in the eternal life of our Lord by obeying Him in humble faith, by opening our lives to Him such that His holy glory shines through us.  She became the living temple of the Lord in a unique way when she contained within her own body the Son of God.  Remember, however, that we also become temples of the Holy Spirit by the presence of Christ in our hearts.  We are living members of His own Body, the Church.  We receive His Body and Blood into ours.   We, too, are called to give life to Christ in this world, to allow Him to become incarnate in us and in all that we say, do, and think.
            In all these ways, the Theotokos stands as a clear and relevant model for each and every one of us, regardless of the circumstances of our lives.   Married, single, widowed, or divorced, we must all keep a close watch on our thoughts and desires, especially concerning the relationship between man and woman.  If not, they will control us instead of us controlling how we respond to them. No matter how busy or distracting our lives may be, we must devote ourselves to prayer and reading the Scriptures daily. If not, we will end up putting the world before God without even noticing it.  Above all else, we must become close to Christ, uniting ourselves to Him in obedient love.  That means doing our best to live as we know He wants us to, not because of a law, but because we want His life to become ours.  We want His holiness to shine through us.  That is how to prepare to enter joyfully into His presence when we depart this life. 
            The feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos calls us to enter mystically into the Kingdom of Heaven as we celebrate her following her Son into eternal life.  It should not be surprising that one who had welcomed Christ into her life so profoundly was in turn welcomed by Him.  Inspired by her great example, “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2) That is how we will prepare, by God’s grace, to follow the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary into eternal life.  She shows us how to respond to the good news of His resurrection which, of course, is the basis of our hope to participate in the blessed joy of the heavenly kingdom. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  Those who live that truth are already in the presence of the One Who died, rose from the grave, and ascended into heaven.  They are united to the Savior in holy love and experience a foretaste of heavenly glory.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Opening the Eyes of our Souls to the Brilliant Light of Christ: Homily for the 7th Sunday After Pentecost, the 7th Sunday of Matthew, and the After-Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ

Romans 15:1-7; Matthew 9:27-35

Have you ever noticed how we often use our ability to see as an image for our ability to understand?  We say “as you can see” when we mean “as you can understand.” And we say that people are blind to the truth in order to express that they do not know the truth.  There is a deep connection between seeing and knowing.  

            Yesterday we celebrated a great feast that focuses on human beings actually seeing and knowing God.  At our Lord’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, He revealed His divine glory to Peter, James, and John.  His face shone like the sun and His clothes became as white as light itself.  Moses and Elijah appeared with Him, until a cloud overshadowed them and the voice of the Father proclaimed, “This is my Beloved Son with Whom I am well pleased:  Hear Him.”  The disciples had understandably fallen to the ground before this overwhelming revelation, but the Savior told them to “Rise, and have no fear.”  Then they saw only the Lord Himself. (Matt. 17:1-9)

            We may think that the change that occurred at the Transfiguration was in Christ’s appearance, but it was actually in the spiritual eyes of the disciples.  The Lord enabled them to behold His unchanging, eternal divine glory to the extent that they were able in order to prepare them for His Passion, so that they would know that His suffering was voluntary.  For He is truly the Lamb of God Who offered Himself freely on the cross out of love for the salvation of the world. That is how He conquered sin and death, bringing corrupt humanity into eternal life through His glorious resurrection on the third day.

            The Transfiguration is not simply an event that occurred two thousand years ago, but the greatest manifestation of what it means to unite ourselves with Christ.  For to know Him is not simply to affirm certain ideas or words about Him, however true they may be.  To know Christ is to experience and encounter Him as the eternal Son of God from the depths of our souls.  It is to see and know Him for Who He really is as we share in His life by grace.  We enter mystically into the Transfiguration when we are transformed personally by His divine energies and shine with His holy light.

In today’s gospel lesson, Christ restored the sight of two blind beggars who had called out to Him as the Jewish Messiah, saying “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” When these men came to Him, He asked: “Do you believe that I am able to do this? They said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord.’ Then He touched their eyes, saying, ‘According to your faith be it done to you.’ And their eyes were opened.”

This passage has much in common with the Transfiguration, for in both we read of Christ opening the eyes of the blind.  Both concern Jews who lacked full understanding of Who the Lord is as the Son of God, as they thought of the Messiah as an especially blessed human being, not as divine.  Moses and Elijah represented the Old Testament law and the prophets, but Christ’s superiority to them was revealed when the voice of the Father identified Him as His Beloved Son.  At the end of the vision, only Christ remains.  He is not simply the Son of David as a righteous ruler, but “Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made…”

Both our gospel text and the Transfiguration also concern people who need healing beyond their own power.   In this regard, the disciples represent us all who have turned away from the deep personal union with God for which He created us in His image and likeness.  Our sins have darkened, distorted, and clouded the eyes of our souls.  Left to our own devices, we would never behold the glory of God.  Spiritually, we all come to Christ like the blind men, calling out for His mercy to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.  Those men did not have a full understanding of Who Christ was, but the Savior did not require that in order to restore their sight.  He asked only if they believed that He was able to help them.  When they answered “yes,” He said “According to your faith be it done to you.”   

            The Lord treated Peter, James, and John in a similarly generous way.  These disciples did not have a full comprehension of Who Christ was until after His resurrection.  Nonetheless, He mercifully revealed His divine glory to them.  They had at least enough faith at the time for this vision to be of spiritual benefit.  It was through this experience that they were prepared to receive the good news of the resurrection and to proclaim the gospel to the world.  In this sense, we can see that St. Paul bases his call for humble compassion on the example of Christ: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.’”  He enlightened the disciples at His Transfiguration for the healing of their souls, which enabled them in turn to enlighten and serve others.

            We all suffer from badly distorted vision in our relationship with God, other people, and even ourselves.  Our spiritual vision is weak because we have become content with darkness and weakness in our souls.  Instead of doing all that we can to grow in the divine likeness in response to our Lord’s mercy, we have preferred to stumble around in the night of our passions.  Too often, we are the blind leading the blind who together fall into a pit.   

            The good news, however, is that Christ has become one of us in His infinite mercy so that we may become partakers of the divine nature, so that we participate personally in the eternal and holy life for which He created us.  If we will call out to Him in humble faith and repentance, He will restore our spiritual vision as surely as He healed the eyes of the blind.  All that they had to do was to ask and to believe as best they could.

We can be sure that those men were not expressing a casual emotion by calling out to Him, but instead opening the wretchedness of their lives for healing with every ounce of their being.  We must do the same thing daily by cultivating a settled habit of prayer in which we open our hearts and minds to the Lord for healing and strength that are beyond our own ability.  Prayer is not simply thinking about God, but being fully present to Him.  It is true spiritual knowledge of God, not simply having religious ideas or feelings. As hard as it is to believe, true prayer is opening the eyes of our souls to the same divine glory beheld by the disciples at the Transfiguration.  It is how we may become illumined with the gracious divine energies like an iron left in the fire.

Even as we cannot expect a room to be full of light unless we uncover the windows, we cannot expect the eyes of our souls to be illumined unless we offer our lives to God in prayer.  We all like to convince ourselves that we have better things to do, but can anyone really not spend at least a few minutes each day in focused prayer?  We can all offer the Jesus Prayer quietly and meditatively many times during our daily routines: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  Whenever you are tempted not to pray, remember that prayer is how you open the darkness of your soul to the brilliant light of Christ.  It is how, like those blind men, you present yourself in faith for His healing.  Though we do not yet have the eyes to see it, prayer is how we may behold the radiance of the only-begotten Son of the Father as truly as did the disciples on Mount Tabor.  Prayer is the most basic practice of the Christian life, and absolutely necessary if we want to stop wandering around in the dark.  It is how we ourselves may be transfigured by the mercy of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.