Sunday, May 27, 2018

Unity Through Wind, Flame, and Language: Homily for the Great Feast of Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Acts 2:1-11; John 7:37-52; 8:12
          On today’s great feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming upon the followers of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, which is the birthday of His Body, the Church.  After the Savior’s resurrection, He ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples so that they would not be cut off from Him and the new life that He brought to the world.  The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Holy Trinity, fully divine and eternal as are the Father and the Son.  By being filled with the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s followers participate personally and communally in the unity, power, and blessing of the very life of God by grace.
Unlike the period before Christ’s Passion, the disciples now no longer think of themselves as students of a mere teacher, prophet, or king.  They no longer struggle to accept the good news of His resurrection.  Instead, they experience the new life of the Kingdom as “rivers of living water” flowing from their hearts.  By the Spirit, they participate by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  God is not remote, distant, or removed from them; but present and active in their souls. By God’s presence in their hearts, they become truly who He created them to be in the divine image and likeness.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles as a group who were gathered together in obedience to the Lord’s command.  The same divine breath which first gave life to humanity comes upon them as a mighty wind.  The divine glory beheld by Moses in the burning bush now rests upon each of them personally as flames of fire.   The divided speech of the tower of Babel is now overcome by the miracle of speaking in different languages as a sign that everyone is invited to share in the life of the Lord.  Not the possession of any nation or group, this great feast manifests the fulfillment of God’s promises for the entire world and every human being.
God creates us all in His image with the calling to grow in His likeness, actually to become like Him in holiness.  This glorious participation in Him is made possible for us at Pentecost.  Human distinctions of every kind become irrelevant here, for all that matters is that we respond with faith, humility, love, and repentance as we embrace the Spirit poured out on the whole world and on every generation.
With the Holy Spirit present in our hearts, linking us together organically as one, our fallen, divided humanity is restored.  Just as Father, Son, and Spirit share a common life of love, unity, and holiness, we share a common life in Christ’s Body, the Church.   As particular people, we have the responsibility to believe, repent, and obey the Lord as we live faithfully each day and participate in the ministries of the Church.   As members of Christ’s Body, we are nurtured by worship, the sacraments, and spiritual instruction in our common life.   The Tradition of the Church is the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding us all into ever greater knowledge of and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.
We receive the Holy Spirit not as isolated individuals, but as persons in communion, in loving relationship with Christ and with one another in His Body, the Church.  The only proper way to celebrate Pentecost is to open ourselves as fully as possible to God’s healing, transforming power in our life together in a way that overcomes all worldly distinctions.  That is how we, despite all our problems and weaknesses, may become radiant with the divine glory as we celebrate this great feast of our salvation as living temples of the Holy Spirit.  That is how we too may experience “rivers of living water” that quench the thirst of our souls.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Ascending in Holiness Through the Body of Christ: Homily for the After-Feast of the Ascension and the Sunday of the First Ecumenical Council

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36; John 17:1-13
We are now in the season of the Ascension in the Orthodox Church, when we celebrate our Lord’s ascent into heaven forty days after His resurrection.  It is easy for us to pass over this feast without paying much attention because it comes between Pascha and Pentecost.  The danger of doing so, however, is that if we do not attend to the importance of uniting ourselves to Christ as He ascends into heavenly glory, we will have a very impoverished understanding of how to share in the eternal life of our Savior even as we remain in the world as we know it.

            Contrary to much popular opinion, the aim of Christianity is not simply to find a way for our souls to be in a better place after we die by escaping the limitations of our bodies.  Forty days after His resurrection, Christ ascended into heaven as a whole, complete human being with a glorified body that still bore the wounds from His crucifixion.  He remained fully human, even as He sat down at the right hand of the Father.  The Savior’s ministry did not end with His victory over death, but extends to making us participants by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  He raises us up not only from the tomb, but into heavenly glory in every dimension of our existence.  His Ascension manifests the complete fulfillment of what it means to be a human being in God’s image and likeness. 

            The good news of this season is that, even as we live and breathe in this world with all of its and our problems, we may participate already in the life of heaven.  We may ascend with Christ into the holiness for which He created us in the first place.  In praying to the Father, the Lord said, “And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom you have sent.”  The Savior has healed every aspect of our corruption and brought us into full, personal union with Himself, making us “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  He enables us truly to know God, not as an idea or concept, but through personal spiritual encounter.   By ascending in glory as the God-Man, He calls us all to embrace the blessedness of the Kingdom.   

            The question that the Ascension presents to each of us is whether we will answer that call by rising up with Him into the life of heaven even as our feet remain firmly planted on the ground.  If we do not do so, we simply cannot celebrate this feast with integrity. We celebrate feasts of the Lord by participating more fully in the particular dimension of the life of Christ that the feast manifests.   In this light, the Ascension is neither only a past memory nor a future hope, but an epiphany of what it means to unite ourselves to the Savior.  If we do not recognize the extraordinary calling presented to us by this feast, we will miss the point entirely.

            At the very heart of what it means to ascend with Christ in holiness is our participation in the life of His Body, the Church.  Next Sunday is the feast of Pentecost, when we commemorate the descent of the Holy Spirit on our Lord’s followers, which transformed them into the Church.  The Lord prayed to the Father that His followers “may be one even as We are one.”   As hard as it may be to believe, our unity in faith, worship, and spiritual discipline in the Orthodox Church manifests the unity of the Persons of the Holy Trinity.  Our life together in the Church is our life in God, our unity with the Lord and one another in the new life of the Kingdom. He is the vine and we are the branches, organically sharing a common life with Him and one another.

            As our epistle reading makes clear, we must never take this unity for granted.  We must always been on guard against anything that would weaken the common life of the members of Christ’s Body.  St. Paul warned of those who would attack the Church like “fierce wolves” to divide the flock.  Paul lived a very difficult life, struggling for many years to build up and maintain the unity of the Church despite persecution, opposition from false teachers, and disagreement at times even with other apostles.  He supported himself through his own labor, even as he was consumed with the challenges of ministry. Through his many struggles, Paul showed “that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”  With all of his other cares, this saint did not neglect to share with the poor and needy.   

            St. Paul’s work was not easy, but his example shows us that a life of difficult challenges is no barrier to ascending with Christ into holiness.  Indeed, it was through his awareness of His own weakness and inadequacy before the problems that he faced that Paul knew the Lord’s strength and peace.  That is how he offered his life, literally to the point of martyrdom, for the well-being of the Church and became a great saint.  Remember that our Lord ascended in glory still bearing the wounds of crucifixion in His glorified body.  No matter how painful our wounds may be in any area of life, they do not preclude us from sharing in the holiness of the Savior.  They do not keep us from knowing God.  If anything, they should make us even more aware of our dependence on His mercy, of our weakness and need for His grace.  We will never ascend with Christ into heavenly glory purely on the basis of what we have earned by our own power or virtue.  The more that we know our brokenness and weakness, the more we will have the humility to expose even our deepest wounds to Him for healing that we cannot give ourselves.  In order to ascend with Him in holiness, we must recognize our own inability to rise up by ourselves from the weakness and corruption that remain so powerful in our lives.

            Today we also commemorate the 318 Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, at which the Church taught that the Son is truly divine, begotten of the Father eternally, and of the same nature or essence as Him.  This proclamation was necessary because the heretic Arius had denied the full divinity of Christ, and thus threatened to make it impossible to proclaim how the Lord could make us participants in eternal life by grace.  For only One Who is truly God may conquer death and enable us to ascend with Him into the divine glory.  If Christ were not truly the God-Man, He would not be able to share the divine life with us.  The rejection of Arius’ teaching by the Fathers of Nicaea is absolutely crucial for giving an account of how we may ascend with Christ, of how we may be united with Him and one another in His Body, the Church for our salvation.
            In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we ascend mystically into the eternal worship of the heavenly kingdom.  Our small offerings of bread and wine are fulfilled by the power of the Holy Spirit as the Body and Blood of Christ; we commune with Him as members of His own Body, even as His Bride.  We become not only “one flesh” with the Savior, but also with one another.  We grow in union with the Lord as we grow in union with our fellow members of His Body.  Like St. Paul, we must offer ourselves to Christ for the strengthening of the Church.  Despite our sufferings and imperfections, that is how we will unite ourselves to Him and one another in holiness; that is how we will receive healing and fulfillment beyond what we can give ourselves.  There is no other way to manifest the life of heaven in the midst of our world of division and corruption.   There is no other way to celebrate the Ascension than to embrace our calling to be one even as are the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, One God, to Whom be glory, laud, and honor, now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.  

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Samaritan Woman and the End of Idolatrous Religion: Homily for the 5th Sunday of Pascha in the Orthodox Church

Acts 11:19-30; John 4:5-42
Christ is risen!
Sometimes we think that it is always good to be religious.  The problem with that assumption, however, is that human beings tend to make false gods out of whatever they want in this world.  When that happens, it is all too easy to identify ourselves with all that is right and good, and to condemn others as hated sinners for whom there is no hope.  Such distortions of religion do everyone concerned much more harm than good.
Today we celebrate that our Lord’s great victory over death is also a victory over corrupt forms of religion that would identify His Kingdom with any nation, people, or worldly agenda.  On this Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, the Church reminds us that the good news of our Risen Lord is not reserved for people of any particular ethnic heritage, for males, or for people with good reputations in their communities.   For His longest recorded conversation in the gospels was with a Samaritan woman who had had five husbands and was then with a man to whom she was not married.  Simply based on that description, she would have been the ultimate outsider, the perfect example of a wicked heretic with whom righteous Jews would have had nothing to do.
Christ, however, had nothing to do with self-righteous religious ideologies that made false gods out of worldly agendas.  That, of course, is why He was rejected by those who had distorted faith in the God of Israel into a way of gaining power for themselves over others.  Both the leaders of the Jews at that time and the Romans who crucified Him used religion for the sake of their own rule, and viewed those who were not members of their groups as enemies to be conquered.  The Romans were certainly much more successful in gaining power, but the Jews looked down upon the Gentiles, and especially the Samaritans, as being unworthy of God’s concern.
Such distorted forms of religion lead only to the grave.  They led to Christ’s crucifixion and to the deaths of the martyrs who refused to worship the gods of Rome.  They lead today to the deaths of those killed in the name of any religion as infidels or heretics.  The Savior took upon Himself the full force of such idolatrous religiosity, Himself being executed as One guilty of blasphemy.  When He rose triumphant over the grave and Hades, He ushered in the new day of a Kingdom in which the pathetic divisions of this world are overcome and made irrelevant.  As the God-Man, He shares His great victory with all who bear His image and likeness, regardless of any other human characteristic.  He calls us all to embrace the healing of our souls through faith in Him and to shine with the brilliant light of His eternal glory.
That is how the Samaritan woman at the well became Saint Photini, an evangelist who died as a great martyr for refusing to worship the false gods of Rome.  She stands as a shining example of how to enter into the joy of the resurrection.  In her conversation with Christ, she made no excuses about the brokenness of her life.  She genuinely sought to understand Who this unusual Jewish man was Who had asked her for a drink of water.  She opened her mind and her heart to Christ and then dared to tell her fellow Samaritans about Him.  She turned away from how she had lived previously to embrace a holy life focused on drawing others to the Lord.  Her sons and sisters joined her in making the ultimate witness for Christ at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero.
By the standards of religions that serve earthly goals for a select group of people, our Lord’s conversation with St. Photini makes no sense at all.   She was of the wrong ethnic and religious heritage, as well as a woman, but as St. Paul taught, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Gal. 3:28)  Her personal life was scandalous, which may be why she went to the well at noon in the heat of the day; perhaps the other Samaritan women wanted nothing to do with her.  But Christ said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32)  Her martyrdom, and that of her family members, gained them nothing in this world and served no nation or empire.  Yet by offering themselves to Christ even to the point of death, they opened themselves to the life of a Kingdom that overcomes even the worst that the corrupt powers of this world can accomplish.
It would be tragic for any of us not to follow the example of St. Photini into the joy of Pascha. If we have sinned gravely and have deep sorrow for how we have fallen short of God’s purposes for us, we must not use that awareness as an excuse to refuse Christ’s healing mercy.  When the Lord told her that he knew all about her five former husbands and current relationship, she said, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet” and continued the conversation.  She did not make excuses or run away due to hurt pride.  She acknowledged the difficult truth about herself and did what it took to find healing.  We must do the same in the holy mystery of Confession, honestly naming our sins as we turn away from them through repentance.  That is how we will all enter more fully in to the joy of the resurrection, into the Lord’s victory over the corrosive power of sin in our lives.
Perhaps we have accepted ways of thinking that lead us to view others, whether we know them personally or not, as somehow absolutely cut off from God for whatever reason.  Maybe we have allowed anything from disagreement about politics to a history of past wrongs to shape our attitudes towards our neighbors, as though they are beyond hope for redemption.  If we think of them in that way, then we are the ones at risk of shutting ourselves out of the Kingdom.  As Christ warned the self-righteous religious leaders who rejected Him, “Tax-collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom of God before you.” (Matt. 21:31)  Today we commemorate a Samaritan woman with a checkered past who has gone before us into the Kingdom.  Her witness shows that we must exclude no one—no member of any nation or group, no matter what they have done—from the possibility of salvation by embracing our Risen Lord through faith and repentance.
Today’s epistle reading from Acts describes the establishment of the first Gentile church in Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians.  Especially as Antiochian Orthodox Christians, we must remember that our faith is not the possession of any nation or ethnic group.  It is not in the service of any worldly agenda.  If we are looking for a religion simply to help us get what we want in life on our own terms, we had better look elsewhere.  But if we want to join Jews, Gentiles, and Samaritans and repentant adulterers, prostitutes, thieves, and murderers in the new day of a Kingdom in which slavery to the death-dealing ways of those who seek domination in this world is overcome through a cross and an empty tomb, then we are in exactly the right place.    Our Risen Lord has made Photini a glorious saint, and He will conquer all the corrupting forces of sin and death in our own souls if we will only respond to Him as she did.  That is what means to celebrate this glorious season of Pascha, for Christ is risen!