Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Martyrdom of Not Defining Ourselves by Our Passions and Sins: Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost and the Sixth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 9:6-11; Luke 8:26-39
             A great deal is at stake in how we understand ourselves.  How others see us is up to them, but the self-definitions that we accept will shape us all profoundly.  If we identify ourselves in ways that obscure what it means to be a human person in God’s image and likeness, our spiritual vision will be out of focus.  But if our eyes are opened to the truth, we will be able to see clearly as we pursue the healing of our souls.
The wretched man in today’s gospel lesson identified himself to Christ as “Legion” because so many demons tormented him that he had lost any sense of his true self.  He did not even live a recognizably human life, as he had dwelt alone and naked in a cemetery for a long time.  The Savior’s mercy for this fellow was so profound that He took the initiative in giving him his life back.  The transformation was so shocking that the people of the region asked Christ to leave, for they were profoundly disturbed to see the man “clothed and in his right mind.”  He understandably wanted to go away with the Lord, for it would have been quite difficult for people to learn to relate to him as a neighbor and not as a dreaded monster.  He must also have been embarrassed by his former state.  Christ refused, however, and told him to “Return to your home, and declare all that God has done for you.”  Surely, there could be no greater sign of the Lord’s saving power than the witness of someone so visibly restored to the dignity of a child of God.
We must resist the temptation to think that such an extraordinary account has little to do with us.  The Lord’s deliverance of the demon-possessed man is a sign of His healing mercy for all humanity.  The Son of God became a human person in our world of corruption in order to liberate us all from living naked among the tombs.  Our first parents stripped themselves of the divine glory through prideful disobedience; that is when we became enslaved to the fear of death, which is the wages of sin.  Instead of fulfilling their basic calling to become more like God in holiness, they looked for fulfillment in gratifying their self-centered desires.  Such passions easily distort our sense of what it means to be ourselves, for we tend to accept as our standard whatever seems to come naturally in our world of corruption.  We may not call ourselves “Legion,” but all too often we are not even aware of how our thoughts, desires, words, and deeds hinder us from embracing more fully our true identity as those called to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  We will find our true selves only by uniting ourselves in holiness to Christ from the depths of our hearts, for He is the New Adam Who embodies what it means to be truly human in the divine image and likeness.
Doing so means that we must deliberately reject the temptation to define ourselves in terms of our passions, temptations, and sins.  It means that we must turn away from the idolatry of making a false god in our own image in order to justify ourselves in believing and living however we want.  What is functional in fulfilling our self-centered desires in this world of corruption has nothing in   common with what is necessary for gaining the spiritual clarity to embrace the restoration and fulfillment of our humanity in Christ.  As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the one “who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly” and the one “who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”  The more we unite ourselves to Christ in His great Self-Offering, the more fully open we will be to His healing of our souls.  Doing so requires the sacrifice of taking up our crosses as we die to the distortions of self that have become second nature to us.  Doing so requires a form of martyrdom in which we struggle to bear witness to the Savior’s victory over the power of sin and death in His glorious resurrection.  That is precisely what the formerly demon-possessed man did when, after his deliverance, he obeyed the Lord’s difficult instruction to “Return to your home, and declare all that God has done for you.”
Today we commemorate the Great Martyr Artemius, a Christian and a high-ranking military official serving under the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate.  When Artemius saw the torture of two Christian priests at the order of the pagan emperor, he boldly denounced Julian and told him, “Your death is near.” Julian then stripped Artemius of his military rank and had him brutally tortured.  The Lord appeared to Artemius in prison, healing him and strengthening him to endure further abuse before he was beheaded.  The wicked emperor Julian soon died while fighting the Persians, as the saint had foretold.
The Great Martyr Artemius knew that his identity was not as a servant of any empire or human ruler, but of the Lord.  He refused to allow attachment to power, success, or even life in this world to turn him away from fulfilling his vocation.  Like other martyrs, Saint Artemius was not simply a person of strong willpower, but someone so deeply united to Christ that he received divine strength to make the ultimate witness to the Savior’s victory over the very worst that the forces of evil can do.
Our paths to the Kingdom will probably be different from those of the martyrs, but the Savior empowers each of us to find the healing of our souls as we bear witness to His fulfillment of the human person in the divine image and likeness.  Christ does not call us to some vague spirituality that merely blesses people in fulfilling whatever desires they happen to have.  His Kingdom remains not of this world, even when we do our worst to distort religion into a tool for advancing the self-serving agenda of any group or individual, no matter how allegedly noble.  Until the coming fullness of the heavenly reign, there will be profound tension between the way of Christ and the way of the world.  He calls those who share in His life to find healing from corruption in all its forms, regardless of how strong our temptations may be to refuse to offer ourselves to Him fully. The journey to growth in holiness is never ending and goes to the very heart of us all.  Instead of trying to make it less demanding as we stumble along the way, we must continue pressing on as best we can, calling out humbly for the Lord’s mercy and strength as we become better living icons of His salvation.
The Christian life requires following the difficult path of taking up our crosses as we die to the stranglehold of the passions on our souls.  That is how we may all find liberation from the misery of being naked, alone, enslaved to the fear of death, and profoundly confused about our identity before God.  It is how we may stop diminishing ourselves according to the legion of our temptations and sins as we do the hard work of becoming more truly ourselves in Christ.  The martyrs refused to worship false gods and we must also, especially those that masquerade as being virtuous in the eyes of our culture.  They refused to let any attachments or inclinations keep them from making the ultimate witness to the Lord’s victory over the grave.  Their sufferings became their entryway into the blessedness of the heavenly kingdom. In the circumstances of our lives, we must do the same as we open even the darkest and more painful dimensions of our souls to the brilliant and healing light of Christ.  That is how we, like the man formerly called Legion, will find ourselves “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in [our] right mind[s].”  That is how we will become our true selves in Him.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Transfigured Sight and Speech: Homily for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost and the Seventh Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 15:1-7; Matthew 9:27-35
          It has never been hard to find people who view Jesus Christ in a many different ways.  Some use His name as a curse word or otherwise mock Him.  Some make Him in their own image as an advocate of whatever agenda they prize most in life.  Some view Him as a teacher or prophet to be admired, but not as the Son of God to be worshiped. Today’s gospel reading presents Him in a radically different way as One Who restores sight to blind beggars and the ability to speak to a man who had been possessed by a demon. Christ is not simply a miracle worker, of course, but the Savior of the world Who, as St. Paul wrote, has welcomed us for the glory of God.
We will soon celebrate the feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, when the spiritual eyes of Peter, James, and John were opened to behold Christ’s divine glory to the extent that human beings are able to do so.  The blind beggars in our gospel reading were Jews who asked for mercy from the Son of David, a Jewish term for the Messiah, who they believed to be a very righteous human being who could work miracles.  Even though their faith was far from perfect, as symbolized by their blindness, the Lord had mercy on them and restored their sight.  The Transfiguration displays the full meaning of this miracle, for the God-Man enables us not merely to see the things of this world, but to know His divine glory.  Like the beggars, the disciples were Jews who had expected a purely human Messiah, not the Son of God.  Though they did not understand Who He was until after His resurrection, they also received their sight from the Lord when their souls were flooded with the brilliant light of His divinity.
We recently began the Dormition Fast, which leads to the feast of the falling asleep in Christ of the Most Holy Theotokos on August 15.  Her life on earth ended, but three days after her burial the tomb was found to be empty, as she was the first to follow her Son into the heavenly kingdom as a whole person:  body, soul, and spirit.  During this period, we abstain from the richest and most satisfying foods and devote ourselves to intensified prayer because we want to become more like the Theotokos, the first and model Christian who received the Savior into her life in a unique way and stands as a shining example for us all.  If we want to behold the light of Christ from the depths of our souls, we must humble ourselves and become blind to the temptation to find the ultimate meaning and purpose of our lives anywhere other than in Him.
That is precisely what the Theotokos did by saying “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word” in response to the message of the Archangel Gabriel that God had chosen her to be the virgin mother of His Son.  In that moment, she opened her life fully and completely to Him.  Despite seeing Christ rejected and killed, the Theotokos always remained faithful, refusing to abandon Him at His crucifixion and being one of the myrrh-bearing women who went to anoint His dead body.  She was the first to hear from the angel the news of resurrection, even as she was obviously the first to hear of His incarnation in her womb.  Especially during the Dormition Fast, we focus on becoming like her in spiritual vision.
In today’s gospel reading, the Lord also cast a demon out of a man and restored his ability to speak.  This fellow was a Gentile, which is why the people responded, “’Never was anything like this seen in Israel,’” while “the Pharisees said, ‘He casts out demons by the prince of demons.’” St. Paul made clear to the Christians in Rome, both Jewish and Gentile in heritage, that “together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  No longer enslaved to idolatry with their mouths unable to glorify God, Gentiles may know and glorify the Lord every bit as much as the descendants of Abraham, for the ancient promises extend to all who have faith in the Messiah.  The Holy Spirit has united the divided tongues of the tower of Babel such that people of all cultures and backgrounds may join together in the praise of God as members of the household of faith.
Sight and speech are both profoundly important human abilities.  Christ restored sight to many blind people and often used images of light, darkness, and vision to convey the good news of salvation.  The point was not simply to describe the importance of seeing things in this world, but ultimately to call us to know Him through union in holiness from the depths of our souls.  Precisely because she was so radiant with the divine light, the Theotokos could proclaim the prophetic words of the Magnificat, which begins:  “My soul magnifies the Lord; And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid; For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” She spoke truthfully in light of her spiritual clarity and experiential knowledge of God.
Except when we fall into hypocrisy, our words generally reveal the true state of our souls.  Perhaps that is why the Scriptures contain many warnings about the dangers associated with running our mouths.  We read in the Psalms, “Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips.” (Ps. 141:3)   Christ taught that we will have to give an account for every idle word that we speak, “For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”  (Matt. 12:36) It is not what goes into our mouths, but what comes out of them that defiles us. (Matt. 15:11)  As St. James wrote, the tongue is small, powerful, and very difficult to control: “It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (Jas. 3:6)  When we speak words of cursing, condemnation, and corruption, we reveal our spiritual blindness, our lack of full transparency before God.
Of course, we should monitor our speech as best we can, and it is better to keep our mouths shut when we have an evil thought about someone than to share it with them or others.     More fundamentally, however, we should see our wicked words as a symptom of the sickness of our souls.  In order to gain the spiritual integrity to speak only in ways that glorify God and bless others, the light of Christ must fill our hearts.  We must become radiant with the gracious divine energies if we are to speak in a way that manifests the holiness of God.
Let us use the Dormition Fast to become more like the Theotokos in receptivity to the Lord as we unite ourselves to Him in holiness.  We must be transfigured from the depths of our souls, as she is, if we are to gain the strength necessary to glorify God and bless our neighbors in all that we say and do.  That is why we must humble ourselves by fasting in order to gain strength to redirect our hearts from gratification of self-centered desire to their true fulfillment in God.  That is why we must become fully present before God in prayer each day as we open ourselves to His presence in our lives.  That is why we must focus on serving our neighbors and not on pleasing ourselves.  That is why we must confess and repent of sins that keep us wedded to the darkness.  By persistently orienting ourselves to God in this way, we will become more personally receptive to the gracious divine energies and gain the spiritual clarity to behold the glory of the Lord and to speak and act accordingly.  The Feast of Christ’s Transfiguration calls each of us to nothing less than to be transfigured in holiness and shine brilliantly by grace with the light of heaven. Let us look to the Theotokos as the greatest example of a human being doing precisely that.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Learning from the Example of Saint Timon and the Orthodox Christians of Syria: Homily for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost and the Sixth Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Romans 12:6-14; Matthew 9:1-8
          Today is “St. Timon Sunday” in our Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America, when we make an offering in support of our brothers and sisters in the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran in Syria. Under the guidance of His Eminence, Metropolitan Saba, the Archdiocese does all that it can to show the love of Christ to the victims of the brutal conflict of the last several years.  The support provided by our Diocese has helped to fund a medical clinic and a pharmacy, and to make possible future plans for a kindergarten, a youth camp, and a monastery. Tragically, hundreds of thousands have died from the violence and millions are refugees or internally displaced persons. The human cost of such devastation is beyond calculation.  Of course, we continue to pray in every service for Metropolitan Paul and Archbishop John, who were abducted in Syria in 2013.
We commemorate St. Timon today as one of the seventy apostles sent out by the Lord and one of the original deacons mentioned in Acts (Acts 6:5).  He was the first bishop of what is now the city of Bosra, and he died as a martyr for Christ.  He played a key role in evangelizing a region where our Lord Himself often ministered (Matt.4:25) and where St. Paul took refuge after he escaped from Damascus following his conversion. (Gal. 1:15-18)   Especially as Antiochian Orthodox Christians, we must give thanks for how St. Timon’s ministry enabled the Church to flourish in ways from which we benefit to this very day.  God used his work, along with that of so many generations of faithful Christians in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, to bring us into the fullness of the faith in the Orthodox Church.
In St. Timon’s ministry, as well as in the witness of Orthodox Christians in that part of the world across the centuries, we find a clear example of obedience to St. Paul’s teaching in today’s epistle reading:  “Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Since the rise of Islam in the 7th century, Christians in the region have carried a heavy cross as a “tolerated” minority community typically enduring persistent discrimination mixed with periods of brutal oppression. Throughout history and in our own time, many Middle Eastern martyrs and confessors have refused to deny Christ, regardless of the cost.
The ministries of the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran extend benevolence to anyone in need, as is typical of philanthropic efforts of the Orthodox Church, such as International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).  True Christians are not tribalistic and concerned only with the needs of people like them, either religiously or in other ways.   Even as God’s love extends to all, those who are truly in Christ will share His love with everyone, especially those they are inclined for whatever reason to view as enemies and strangers.   “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” is a difficult teaching to obey, but remains a fundamental characteristic of the Christian life in all times and places.
Instead of responding in kind to their persecutors, the Christians of the Middle East continue to show their enemies the love of Christ.  In this regard, our brothers and sisters in Syria provide a powerful example of following the Lord’s instruction to the paralyzed man in today’s gospel reading:  “Rise, take up your bed and go home.”  Christ’s restoration of the man’s ability to walk was a sign of His forgiveness of the man’s sins, of the healing of the corruption of his soul.  The Lord commanded this fellow to get up and move on with his life by taking steps that were probably difficult for someone used to being paralyzed.
It is easy for anyone, including Christians, to remain paralyzed by fear, hatred, and resentment against those who have wronged us.  In a fallen world in which Cain murdered his brother Abel, we find it strangely appealing to define ourselves over against those we consider “the other.”  Whether as particular people or members of groups, we so often find ways to justify treating them as the embodiment of evil while we pat ourselves on the back for our great virtue.  Since we each confess ourselves to be the chief of sinners in preparation to receive Communion, that attitude toward anyone is a sign of a spiritual disease for which we need healing.  The ministries of the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran, and more generally the witness of Christians in the Middle East, stand as clear examples of refusing to remain paralyzed by the corruptions of sin.  For instead of seeking vengeance for historic and contemporary wrongs, or at least ignoring the sufferings of those who are not part of the Christian community, they take difficult steps to love all their needy neighbors as Christ has loved them.  In doing so, they move forward in a life of holiness and provide a brilliant icon of the peaceable reconciliation of the Kingdom of God.  They take the steps they can to embrace the healing of the human person that the Savior has brought to the world.
It is possible, of course, to look at any large problem and to think that nothing we could do could possibly make much of a difference.  Part of the reason that we may think that way is our own pride, for we assume that only something really great and impressive is worthy of our attention.  That is also a way of excusing ourselves from the responsibility to rise up from our comfortable bed of spiritual weakness to take the faltering steps we are capable of toward the Kingdom of God.  The Christians in Rome to whom St. Paul wrote were not powerful, wealthy, or famous.  Nonetheless, he called them to be faithful in how they treated one another and those outside the community of faith.  Despite what our prideful thoughts tell us, our calling is not to be in charge of the world and somehow to make history turn out right according to our own designs.  It is simply to be faithful in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. If we refuse to offer our time, talents, and energy to serve Christ and our neighbors because we are waiting for a greater or more prominent opportunity, we will be in the same situation as the paralyzed man would have been had he refused to get out of his bed.  It requires humility to accept the circumstances of our lives as the context in which we will find our salvation.  And if we are not faithful in small things, we will never learn to be faithful in larger ones.
On “St. Timon’s Sunday,” we have the opportunity to offer what we can to God for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Syria. This is our opportunity to obey St. Paul’s instructions to “contribute to the needs of the saints” and give “in liberality.” Our participation in this offering over the years has enabled the Archdiocese of Bosra-Hauran to minister to the great needs of the residents of the area in practical, tangible ways such as a medical clinic and a pharmacy.  This offering is also our opportunity to rise up from our beds of self-centeredness in gratitude as we give in support of those from whom we have received the great blessing of the Orthodox Christian faith.
If we are truly in Christ, we will not define ourselves essentially in terms of nationality, politics, race, class, or any other merely human distinction, but as members of His Body, the Church, in which such matters are irrelevant.  If we are finding the healing of our souls in Christ, His love toward enemies, foreigners, and anyone in misery will become characteristic of us.  We will pursue the path to His Kingdom by taking the humble steps we can toward becoming more like Him in holiness as we follow the example  of St. Timon and the many generations of Middle Eastern Christians who have taken up their crosses in faithfulness to Christ and love toward their neighbors.  By sharing our resources with them even in small ways, we will open our hearts more fully to the Savior Who not only forgives our sins, but empowers us to become living icons of His merciful love.  Let us use this opportunity to serve Him in our brothers and sisters in Syria for our salvation.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

On Serving One, Not Two, Masters: Homily for the Great Martyr Kyriaki of Nicomedia and the Third Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 3:23-4:5; Matthew 6:22-33
          Today we celebrate the memory of the Holy Great Martyr Kyriaki, who gave the ultimate witness for Jesus Christ by refusing to worship pagan gods and giving up her life after suffering brutal persecution from the Roman Empire.  A beautiful young virgin, Kyriaki came from a wealthy family, but she refused the offer of marriage to the son of a magistrate who wanted their money.  The magistrate then denounced the family as Christians to the Emperor Diocletian.  Even when offered great riches and marriage to one of the emperor’s relatives if she would worship the pagan gods, Kyriaki refused and miraculously survived horrible tortures from four different rulers.  The Lord appeared to her and healed her wounds.  The next day her prayers destroyed a pagan temple, and the wild beasts to which she was later thrown would not attack her. Kyriaki gave up her soul right before she was to be beheaded.
If we want a powerful example of obedience to Christ’s teaching that one cannot serve two masters, we need to look no further than the witness of the St. Kyriaki.  She had wealth from her family, great beauty, and a way to become powerful, prominent, and even wealthier by worshiping false gods.  The eye of her soul was so pure, however, that she knew Christ not as a religious figure from the past, but as God.  Because she was filled with the divine light, she saw clearly that the blessings of this life must not become idols that would turn her away from the Lord.  Because they are His gifts to us, she knew that we must offer them and ourselves faithfully to Christ, recognizing that there is nothing more important than seeking “first His Kingdom and His righteousness.”
The witness of St. Kyriaki provides an especially vivid portrait of what is at stake in recognizing that we cannot serve two masters.  It is not hard at all to see that she faced a clear choice between the Lord and the things of the world.  Where we tend to fall into trouble is when our choices are less clear, when the contrast between faithfulness and idolatry is not as stark.  In our time and place, it is unlikely that someone will straightforwardly promise us great wealth and power if we will deny Christ and worship another god.  It is far more likely that we will endure subtle temptations to put fulfilling our self-centered desires before obedience to the Lord.  Because the eyes of our souls are not pure and clear, there is much darkness in our hearts.  We lack the spiritual vision clearly to see ourselves and all the circumstances of our lives before God.  Without recognizing what we are doing, we often blindly stumble into worshiping the false gods of pride, pleasure, and possessions.  Instead of learning to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” with the trust that “all these things shall be yours as well,” we easily fall into the trap of serving idols even as we think that we are being faithful to the Lord.
Saint Paul reminded the Galatians that to be in Christ as children of God is not a matter of obeying a mere code of conduct.  Through baptism, we put on Christ like a garment such that the distinctions between people as we know them in this world lack ultimate spiritual significance.  Christ adopts us as His children by faith and heirs to the ancient promise to Abraham, regardless of the outward circumstances of our lives. The transformation does not concern simply outward behavior, but goes to the heart.  The ultimate question for us all is whether we are becoming radiant with the gracious divine energies of God from the depths of our souls.  If we are, then we will gain the spiritual clarity to discern when temptations arise that would turn us away from faithfulness to the Lord.  That is how we will learn to see clearly when a false master threatens to turn us into idolaters.
We must be especially on guard, then, against the temptation to equate faithfulness to Christ with simply doing this or that good deed or holding an opinion on any issue.  It is possible to check off all the right boxes in terms of our behavior or ideas, but still to make our faith simply a means of trying to get what we want on our own terms in this world. Throughout history in ways small and great, many have fallen prey to the temptation to use Christianity to serve their own pride and desire for power, pleasure, and possessions. It is possible to distort even the most obvious dimensions of true discipleship into ways of serving ourselves and our agendas over those we consider our, and perhaps even God’s, enemies.
As St. Paul taught, being in Christ may not be reduced to outward obedience to a religious or moral law.  It is, instead, to be so united with Him in holy love that the eyes of our souls are filled with His brilliant light as every dimension of our life becomes radiant with His gracious divine energies. The more illumined we are in Him, the more we will see ourselves and all the blessings and challenges of this world in relation to Him.  This is not a healing that we can earn or give ourselves, for we are justified by faith in a God we not cannot control or make in our image.  We must, however, cooperate with our Lord’s mercy as we deliberately open our darkened souls to the healing light of Christ.
Doing so requires that, like St. Kyriaki, we make sacrifices that demand something of us.  She did not become a glorious saint by doing what was easy or popular or somehow figuring out how to consider herself a Christian while worshiping false gods just a bit.  No, she bravely drew a line and refused to cross it, no matter what.  If we want to acquire the spiritual vision necessary to seek first our Lord’s kingdom and righteousness in a world full of temptations, we must all mindfully turn away from thoughts, words, and deeds that we have made false gods.  We must recognize that we have been trying to serve two masters and that we must make painful choices in order to offer ourselves to Christ for healing.
In order to discern what those choices are, we must mindfully embrace the basic spiritual disciplines of the Christian life, such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, regular confession of sins, and asking for and extending forgiveness to others.  We must be vigilant against wasting our time and energy in entertainment, conversations, relationships, or other activities that threaten to enslave us even further to our own self-centered desires.  Like St. Kyriaki, we must dare to be out of step with cultural trends that present the good life as being contrary to denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following our Savior.  His way has never been easy or popular, though many continue to identify themselves with Him while making the world their false god.  Instead of trying to use Christ to raise ourselves up over against anyone or any group, we must simply be faithful as we keep the eyes of our souls wide open to the presence of the Lord.  The more He illumines us with His holy light, the more we will be able to recognize, name, and reject the particular forms of darkness that threaten to blind us to the glory of His kingdom.  By pursuing this path faithfully, we will learn to see all the blessings and challenges of life in light of Christ as we turn away from worshiping false gods and serve Him as our true Master. That is how we too may follow along the path of the Holy Great Martyr Kyriaki and all the saints.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Receiving and Giving Freely, Like the Apostles: Homily for the Synaxis of the Twelve Apostles in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 4:9-16; Matthew 9:36-10:8
            Today we commemorate the twelve apostles, looking to them as examples of faithfulness to the Savior.  As with many aspects of our faith, we may be so familiar with them that we take their ministry for granted and do not see how their witness has much to do with us.  After all, they were our Lord’s disciples during His earthly ministry and did not fully understand Who He was until after His resurrection.  Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they then shepherded the Church as they fulfilled Christ’s command to  “preach…‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”  They all struggled and suffered greatly in faithfulness to the Lord in their ministries, with St. John the Theologian being the only one not dying as a martyr.  That is how they became glorious saints.

If we ever find ourselves thinking that others should praise us for serving Christ, we must look to their example as people who abandoned the comforts of a conventional life to follow a Messiah Who Himself was rejected and condemned by respectable religious and political leaders.  The Savior’s message was such a threat to their power that they crucified Him as a public example of what happened to those who got in their way and threatened the order of society.  As Christ foretold, “the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.” (Jn 16: 2) It is not surprising that the apostles who continued our Lord’s ministry met deaths like His.  They obeyed literally the Savior’s teaching to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Him.
The way of Christ was certainly not popular or celebrated during their lifetimes.  To the contrary, it was a path to persecution, imprisonment, torture, and death.  In contrast to false teachers who tried to use their position for self-glorification, St. Paul knew that true apostles are like people on death row.  They came across as fools wasting their lives in the service of a dead rabbi.  They lacked the basic necessities of life, often being hungry, thirsty, and homeless.  People often treated them as so much garbage with no human dignity at all.

The way of the apostles was not to respond in kind to their enemies, but to manifest the merciful love of the Savior.  Even as He prayed for the forgiveness of those who killed Him and did not respond with violence toward His enemies, St. Paul writes that “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate.”  The disciples are members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and manifest His ministry as shepherds of the flock. Their work is not their own, but Christ’s.  That is why St. Paul could say with integrity “I urge you, then, be imitators of me.”  His life had become an enacted icon of the Savior.  As he wrote elsewhere, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”  (Gal. 2:20)

No matter what our particular calling in the life of the Church may be, all who are members of the Body of Christ have the same fundamental obligation to become beautiful living icons of our Lord.  People should be able to look at any one of us and see a vibrant image of the healing of the human person in God’s image and likeness that our Savior has worked for the salvation of the world.  The apostles are examples for us all in this regard, regardless of the differences between the particulars of their callings and ours.  We have the benefit of their examples and of countless saints who have followed in their way, and must not excuse ourselves from faithfully fulfilling our common vocation.
Christ said to the apostles, “You received without paying, give without pay.”  All the more does His admonition apply to us, who have received the infinite blessings of the ministries of the Church, not as a reward for good behavior, but purely due to the mercy of our Lord.  There is a strong temptation to make our life in the Church all about ourselves, as though God’s salvation were our personal possession to be used for our own comfort and satisfaction.  The apostles certainly rejected the temptation to reduce the Body of Christ to an ethnically defined organization that excluded Gentiles.  They condemned efforts to make the Church the possession of the wealthy and powerful of this world.  They did not compromise the requirements of discipleship in order to give themselves power or to go along with every inclination of the people of their time and place.

Had their religion been something they had invented or earned, they could have done with it as they pleased.  Our Lord’s salvation, however, is not a product of this world or a commodity to be divided up or bought and sold according to conventional human designs.  He has conquered death, the wages of sin, by His own death and resurrection.  We share in His life by grace, which means that we are always in the position of those who have “received without paying.”  Consequently, we must “give without pay” and refuse to make our participation in the Body of Christ a matter of serving ourselves or getting what we want.  If we are truly in Christ, then His life will become our own; our character will conform to His.  He is the vine and we are the branches.  (Jn. 15:5)  Since He offered up Himself freely for our sake, we must offer ourselves in His Body, the Church.

Across the centuries, countless Christians have done so by following the apostles in literally dying for Christ as martyrs.  They have borne witness that the life in Christ has nothing at all to do with a self-serving religion that gives us what we want on our own terms in the world as we know it.   Such martyrdom is a particular calling that requires a God-given strength beyond human will power.  Dying physically is not, however, the only way to bear witness to our Lord, for there are many ways of giving ourselves freely in obedience to His command to take up our crosses. In order to give up the self-centeredness that so easily corrupts everything from our life in the Church to our marriages and use of time and money, we must bear the cross of devoting ourselves to basic spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  These are not reserved only for certain penitential periods of the year, but should always be characteristic of our lives.

How else will we gain the spiritual clarity to discern how the Lord is calling us to serve Him in the Church and in the world?  We must mindfully open our hearts to God in prayer each day, tuning out our usual distractions in order to be fully present before Him.  We must discipline our appetites regularly so that we will not become slaves of self-indulgence in food, drink, or other pleasures.  We must learn to love and serve Christ in our neighbors by being generous with our time, energy, and resources in relation to their needs.

These practices sound simple and easy, but anyone who has taken even small steps to embrace them knows that that is not the case.  If we want to follow in the glorious way of the apostles, we must gain the strength to do so by taking the small steps of which we are capable in giving ourselves freely to the Lord in the service of His Church and of the people we encounter every day.  We have no lack of opportunities to do so.  By responding to those opportunities as best we presently can, we will learn to take up our crosses and take our place among the countless witnesses to the saving mercy of our Lord.  We have received without paying.  Let us give in the same way.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Acknowledging Christ by Loving Our Enemies: Homily for the Sunday of All Saints in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:33-12:2; Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30
             Some of us grew up in churches that gave as little attention as possible to the saints out of fear that honoring those who served our Lord so faithfully would somehow distract us from worshiping only Him.  Today’s reading from Hebrews makes exactly the opposite point, for the “great cloud of witnesses” inspires us to “lay aside every weight” and to “run with perseverance the race that is set before us” as we look to the Lord “Jesus, the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”  In other words, the saints are living witnesses of Christ’s healing of the human person in the divine image and likeness.  Instead of somehow distracting us, they inspire us to a life of holiness, for they show that it is possible to share so fully in the life of our Lord that we become radiant with His gracious divine energies.
That is true of the saints of the Old Testament, who had not yet received the fullness of God’s promise in the coming of the Messiah, and it is all the more the case for those who have borne witness to Christ across the centuries by  refusing to deny Him even to point of death.  The root meaning of the word “martyr” is witness, and there is no more powerful way to give testimony to the truth of our Lord’s victory over death than to offer up one’s life out of faithfulness to Him.  From the first century to the present day, countless people have endured death rather than deny their Savior.   He said, “Many that are first will be last, and the last first.”  And who appears lower in the eyes of the world than those who abandon everything—family, reputation, possessions, and even life itself—out of faithfulness to One Who was rejected and condemned?
We surely do not know the names of all those who have made the ultimate witness for Christ to the point of shedding their own blood.   Nonetheless, we commemorate them today together with all who have become beautiful living icons illumined with the divine glory like an iron left in a roaring fire.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, it is possible for everyone created in God’s image and likeness to become a saint, to participate personally in Christ’s healing and restoration of the human person.  Indeed, that is what it means to become truly human, for He breathed life into us from the dust of the earth in order that we might become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.
Such perfection is an infinite goal and we should not think in terms of meeting some objective standard, but of sharing ever more fully in the life of Christ as the distinctive persons He created us to be.  He calls us all to acknowledge Him before others.  If we do so, He will acknowledge us before His Father.  But if we deny Him, He will deny us.  We acknowledge our crucified, risen, and ascended Savior when we take up our crosses and follow Him, which means putting faithfulness to Him above all else.  Even those we love most in this life, such as our family members, cannot conquer death or heal our souls.  If we look to other people for fulfillment in life, we will make them and ourselves miserable.  As those created in God’s image and likeness, we will never find fulfillment in anyone or anything other than Him.
In a world that encourages us to make money, pleasure, and power the standards of success, we must recognize that obedience to the Savior’s call to acknowledge Him by taking up our crosses will never make us first in its eyes. He certainly took the place of the last when He ascended the Cross as One condemned as an irreligious blasphemer by the leaders of the Jews and a failed traitor in the eyes of the Romans.  Across the centuries, martyrs have endured the worst forms of torture and abuse before literally losing their lives out of fidelity to Him.  They became, and in some places today continue to become, the very last in the world as we know it in order to wear the crowns of the heavenly kingdom.
Instead of romanticizing the martyrs after hearing the stories of their lives so many times, we must regain the ability to be shocked by their profound witness.  These are people who loved their families and children every bit as much as we do.  They enjoyed the normal blessings of life and likely had the same hopes and dreams for contentment in future years as we do.  But when the only way that they could continue pursuing conventional life goals was by denying the Savior and worshiping a false god of whatever kind, they steadfastly refused.  The Lord was with them, enabling them to remain faithful when it was well beyond normal human strength to bear up under the worst forms of torture and abuse, even to the point of death.
Their witness teaches that it really is possible to be faithful to our Lord, even when it is sorely tempting to turn away from Him for whatever reason.  They made the ultimate witness to Christ not simply because they had a lot of will power and a high pain tolerance, but because they opened themselves to Him by the power of the Holy Spirit from the depths of their hearts.  That is not a matter of magic or a fit of emotion, but of uniting ourselves to Christ in humble faith and repentance such that His life becomes present in ours.  If we are truly in Him, then we will take up our crosses in faithfulness to the One Who ascended the Cross for our salvation.
If we wonder what cross we need to take up in order to acknowledge Him before others, a necessary place to start is with loving our enemies.  St. Silouan the Athonite saw the love of enemies as a clear sign of the healing presence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.  He taught that when the soul “grows humble, the Lord gives her His grace, and then she prays for her enemies as for herself, and sheds scalding tears for the whole world.”  We must learn humility in order to pray for our enemies because of the strong temptation to self-righteous judgment.  That means we must abandon our prideful illusions of somehow being justified in condemning others and obsessing about their faults, which is simply a distraction from recognizing the truth about the weakness of our own souls.  Christ came not to destroy sinners, but to save them.  He said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” of those who nailed Him to the Cross as He died on it.  If we are truly conforming ourselves to Him by the power of the Holy Spirit, His merciful love will become characteristic of us.  There is no better indication of whether we are finding the healing of our souls than in how we respond to those we consider our foes.
Many today think that it is a sign of weakness to love and forgive as Christ did because they value their own power, reputation, or interests in this world before running “the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”  If we are truly in Him, then we must risk being last in the eyes of the world in order to enter into the joy of His Kingdom.  Instead of holding grudges, plotting for revenge, and figuring out how to gain victory over them, we must pray for the Lord’s merciful blessing on those who have wronged us.  We must ask God to forgive our sins by their prayers, for we know our own spiritual brokenness with much greater clarity than we could possibly know anyone else’s.  Regular use of the Jesus Prayer is a powerful tool for turning our hearts to God in true humility and away from the self-righteous judgment of others.
As we commemorate all the saints who have borne witness to Christ, let us gain the strength to follow their righteous example by embracing the path of humble forgiveness.  Let us acknowledge Him by how we treat those who have wronged us, for nothing else so clearly reveals the true state of our souls.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

More Powerful than Water, Wind, and Fire: 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 share personally and communally in the unity, power, and blessing of the very life of God by participation in His gracious divine energies.
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 shocking news of His death and resurrection.  Instead, they experience the new life of the Kingdom as “rivers of living water” flowing from their hearts.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, they share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  God is not remote, distant, or removed from them; but present and active in their souls. That is how they become who God created them to be in the divine image and likeness.
At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles as a group gathered together in obedience to the Lord’s command.  The same divine breath which first gave life to the human person 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, which means to become like Him in holiness through the power of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost.   Human distinctions of every kind become irrelevant here, for all that matters is that we respond with faith, humility, love, and repentance.
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 Holy 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 and obey the Lord as we seek to live faithfully each day and participate fully 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.   Through the Church, the Holy Spirit brings us into ever greater participation in the life of God.
We receive the Holy Spirit not as isolated individuals living on our own terms, 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.
No area of our lives is off limits from the sanctifying presence of the Holy Spirit, unless we refuse to open it to Him.  That would be tragic, of course, for because of Pentecost we may become radiant with the divine glory as His living temples in every dimension of our existence. That is how we too may experience “rivers of living water” that quench the thirst of our dry, parched souls.  This Pentecost, let us all become wide open to the healing power and presence of God, Who alone can satisfy our deepest desires and make us shine brilliantly with the light of His eternal glory.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Ascending with Christ into Heavenly, Not Earthly, Glory: Homily for the Sunday After the Ascension and Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in the Orthodox Church

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36; John 17:1-13

            Forty days after His glorious resurrection, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ ascended in glory into heaven and sat at the right hand of God the Father.  He did so as One Who is fully divine and fully human, One Person with two natures. He ascended with His glorified, resurrected body which still bore the wounds of His crucifixion.  The Ascension shows that through Him our humanity has come to participate by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  He has made us “partakers of the divine nature” who may share in His fulfillment of what it means to be a human person in God’s image and likeness.
Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea.  They rejected the teaching of Arius that Jesus Christ was not truly divine, but a kind of lesser god created by the Father at a certain point.  The Council declared, as we confess to this day in the Nicene Creed, that our Savior is “the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds. Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made.”  The Fathers of Nicaea saw clearly that the One Who brought us into the eternal life of God must Himself be eternal and divine.  Only God could make human persons “partakers of the divine nature” by grace. 
Had Christ been merely a creature or an especially impressive religious teacher or example, He would have remained captive to the corruptions of the world as we know it.  He could have taught and inspired people, but would not have been able to conquer death or make a path for us to find the fulfillment of our humanity in the Holy Trinity.  Those who water down the faith to the point of viewing the Savior as simply an excellent human being make it impossible to acknowledge Christ as the One Who has truly united humanity and divinity in Himself.  We can learn a lot from great teachers and examples, but only the Son of God can make us participants in life eternal.  Only He could say to the Father, “glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory which I had with You before the world was made.”  
            The divine glory displayed in Christ’s ascension is entirely different from the power and fame that people find so appealing in our world of corruption.  At some level, we all know how weak and insignificant we are in the larger scheme of things.  That is why we so easily make false gods of just about anything that can distract us from recognizing the truth about ourselves, including the inevitability of death.  Putting our ultimate trust in nations, rulers, and riches—or our health, appearance, talents, and relationships--or any created thing leads inevitably to idolatry, for it is a form of worshiping a false god, regardless of whether we call it a religion. Doing so will also lead us to demonize our enemies, real and imagined, because it often makes us feel better about ourselves by comparison when we have someone else to condemn.  That is surely one of the reasons that so many people in our culture have become slaves to anger and hatred toward those they view as their rivals or opponents in a zero-sum game for getting all the glory by being on the right side.
            The glory of our ascended Lord is the complete opposite of such pathetic and perverse efforts to build ourselves up at the expense of others. Remember that He ascended only after descending, only after dying on the Cross, being buried in a tomb, and descending into Hades.  He rose from the dead because He had humbled Himself to the point of accepting rejection, torture, and crucifixion as a blasphemer and a traitor.  He was mocked as a failure and made a public example of what happened to people who dared to challenge the authority of Rome, even though His Kingdom is clearly not of this world.  He completely repudiated earthly glory in order to make a way for us into the brilliant joy of heaven. 
Christ endured all this, not simply as a religious teacher or virtuous person, but truly as the eternal Son of God Who spoke the universe into existence. Let that sink in for a moment, for the unfathomable humility of the Savior destroys our usual assumptions about what it means to be high and mighty. The divine glory revealed so powerfully at His ascension shines brilliantly in contrast to what passes for honor in a world that typically chooses to remain in the dark night of the tomb.  If we dare to identify ourselves with Him, we must open the eyes of our souls to the light of His heavenly glory and refuse to wander in spiritual blindness.  In order to celebrate the Ascension with integrity, we must ascend with Him into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity even as we live and breathe with our bodies in a world that remains very far from the fullness of His Kingdom.
By rising into heavenly glory as the God-Man, He has shared His gracious divine energies with us.  He shows us what it means to be truly human in the divine image and likeness.   In order to unite ourselves to Him, we must reorient our desires for fulfillment, meaning, and joy to the One Who overcame the worst the darkened world could do in order make us participants in the eternal day of His heavenly reign.  The contrast between the heights of heaven and the mundane realities of our lives is obviously very great. The point of division is not, however, that we are ordinary people with common problems who belong to a very small parish.  It is, instead, that we have not united ourselves to Christ in holiness to the point that every dimension of our life in this world has become a brilliant icon of His salvation.         
Of course, that is a very high goal which no one may claim to have fulfilled.  God is infinitely holy and the journey to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect is truly eternal. 
No matter where we are on that path, we must all ask our ourselves quite seriously whether we are ascending with Him into greater holiness as we go through our daily lives, face whatever set of challenges we have, and respond to the constant barrage of temptations to put our trust elsewhere.  It may be easy to attend services, sing in praise of the Ascension, and call ourselves Christians, but it is much more demanding to conform ourselves to Christ such that His radiant glory shines through us. 
            We should not dream of performing grand gestures of holiness, for that would likely lead us into prideful fantasies.  Instead, we do well to focus on taking the small steps that we are capable of right now in relation to the people around us and the circumstances with which we are familiar.   That means humbling ourselves to put the needs of others before our own preferences in our families, friendships, and workplaces, as well as in our parish.
Christ prayed to the Father that His followers “may be one, even as We are one.”  We will never ascend in holiness if we think that we relate to God as isolated individuals with a religion that concerns only what we do when we are alone.  The Church is one and we are members of Christ’s Body together.  He ascended with His body and we will too by serving Him in the Church as we do what needs to be done for the flourishing of our small parish.  We ascend into the heavenly Kingdom whenever we “lay aside all earthly cares” in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.  Nourished by His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, let us join ourselves to the great Self-offering of the Savior in our common life, for it is only in Him—our risen and ascended Lord—that we may enter into the heavenly glory for which He created us in His image and likeness.  He has already ascended.  Let us go up with Him together.  

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Hope for Us Who Dwell in Darkness: Homily for the Sunday of the Blind Man in the Orthodox Church

Acts 16:16-34; John 9:1-38 
 Christ is Risen!
             It is usually a good idea to follow the old saying, “Look before you leap.”  We can get into a lot of trouble by acting before we have a good understanding of our circumstances and of what is likely to come from our actions.  The blind man in today’s gospel reading, however, was in a very different situation.  Because of blindness, he could not look at all.  Christ acted on him by putting clay on his eyes and telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam.  This fellow did not know who the Lord was, but because his sight was restored after he obeyed that command, the man said that He was a prophet.  It is not until the end of the passage that the Savior revealed Himself as the Son of God; then the man believed and worshiped Him.  At that point, the eye of the man’s soul was opened to know Christ in His divine glory.

In our reading from Acts, we encounter another man who dwelt in darkness.  The Roman jailer was ready to kill himself when an earthquake opened the doors of the prison and broke the chains of the prisoners.  Knowing that he would be executed for failing to keep the prison secure, the wretched man was about to take his own life with his sword.  He was in one of the darkest spots imaginable at that point, when St. Paul assured him that the prisoners had not escaped.  We read that “the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out and said, ‘Men, what must I do to be saved?’  And they said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’”  That is what this fellow did.  He was baptized along with his whole family. After washing the apostles’ wounds, the man took them to his home and served them food.  Then he “rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.”  Like the blind man in the gospel reading, the jailer had his eyes opened to know Christ in His divine glory.

The men in our readings were not deliberately on a journey for spiritual fulfillment.  They were not investigating their religious options and seeing which one suited them the best.  Neither seems to have been focused on much more than the day-to-day realities of their lives when the light of Christ came upon them.  It was surely just another Sabbath day for the blind man when the Savior’s healing restored His sight in such a miraculous fashion that he found himself in the middle of a controversy so fierce that he was cast out of the synagogue simply for having a positive view of the Lord Who had healed him.  The jailer had fulfilled his responsibilities in securing the prisoners when an earthquake set them all free in a way reminiscent of the Lord’s victory over Hades, which set free the captives of death.  They were both shocked and disoriented by these events.  The predictable lives they had known were over and they found themselves in unfamiliar, distributing circumstances. They both asked questions as they came to faith.  The formerly blind man asked Who the Son of God was so that he could believe in Him.  The jailer asked how to be saved.  These were not theoretical questions for them, but truly practical matters of life and death.

As we prepare to conclude our celebration of Pascha in the coming week, we must remember that the Savior’s resurrection is neither a theological concept nor a reward that we receive for being religious people.  The good news that “Christ is Risen!” is even more extraordinary than a man blind from birth gaining his sight or a jailer finding that all his prisoners are still there after having been set free by an earthquake.  But in order to open our eyes to the shocking brilliance of the empty tomb, we need to ponder the examples of human beings who suddenly found themselves, through no fault or credit of their own, in the life-changing circumstance of encountering Jesus Christ.  The formerly blind man had originally thought that Christ was a prophet who had worked a great miracle of healing.  The jailer was a pagan Roman and there is no telling what, if anything, he knew about the Lord before asking Paul and Silas what he had to do in order to be saved.  The Savior changed their lives radically and in ways that they could neither predict nor control.

We will be guilty of trying to make God in our own image if we think we can calculate with precision why and how the brilliant light of the resurrection shines in particular ways in our world of darkness.  Remember the conversion of St. Paul, who thought that his miraculous conversion, as “the chief of sinners,” was merely a sign that “Christ Jesus might display His immense patience as an example for those who would believe in Him and receive eternal life.” (1 Tim. 1:15-16)  In other words, if the Lord could save Paul, then there is hope for us all.  That was a very modest and humble affirmation on his part.

When Christ was asked whose sin was responsible for the man being born blind, He answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.  I must work the works of Him Who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”  If we spend our time and energy obsessing about the effects of our sins or those of others, we will end up blindly focusing on ourselves and other people in a way that will only enslave us further to spiritual darkness.  Our Risen Lord is the Light of the world.  He has illumined even the tomb, making it an entrance into the glory of His eternal life.  Pascha teaches us that our participation by grace in the joy of His resurrection is no more a matter of what we deserve or even understand than was the healing of the blind man or the strange set of circumstances that led to the conversion of the jailer.  Their stories are not primarily about them as particular people, but about how our Lord restored them to the sublime dignity of those who share in His life by grace.

The blind man did not respond with questions and reservations driven by fear about the future course of his life.  He simply obeyed, washed, and saw, then he moved forward to encounter challenges he could never have anticipated.  The jailer did not ask how the earthquake that freed the prisoners related to this or that in his life experience. Terrified to the point of taking his own life, he simply asked how to be saved once he realized that the captives had not escaped.  We must learn from their examples not to get so caught up in our own thoughts, emotions, worries, and fears that we distract ourselves from doing what it takes to open the eyes of our souls more fully to the brilliant light of Christ.  The question of the jailer, “Men, what must I do to be saved?” is not a one-time question with an abstract answer, but concerns the ongoing journey of becoming radiant with the divine energies of our Lord as we become more like Him in holiness.  We must continuously discern the answer to that question through our full participation in the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church as we enter more fully into the holy mystery of our salvation and turn away from habits of thought, word, and deed that tempt us to choose death over life.  As those who were born spiritually blind and have been illumined through the washing of Baptism and the anointing of Chrismation, we must persist in turning away from the darkness in our souls as we embrace the light of the resurrection more fully.

Our Risen Lord has conquered Hades, death, and the tomb, and now nothing can keep us from shining with the brilliant light of holiness other than our own choice to persist in blindness. Even though the season of Pascha soon concludes, we may always live in the new day of His resurrection.  Like the men in today’s readings, let us urgently embrace the Savior as we disorient ourselves from the darkness and turn toward the Light of the world, for Christ is Risen!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

The Light of the Christ Illumines Even Samaritans and Gentiles: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

Acts 11:19-30; John 4:5-42
Christ is Risen!
There is a lot of truth in the saying that familiarity breeds contempt.  It is possible for even the best things in life to become so familiar that we become blind to their true importance. We can do that even with our celebration of the Savior’s victory over death, as though the Paschal season were simply about singing joyful hymns and enjoying rich food.  It is certainly possible to reduce any dimension of the life of Church to a mere cultural observance that we assume is only for some people, usually those we think are like us in some particular way.  Both today’s gospel and epistle readings challenge us, however, to consider how the good news of the resurrection impacts the world in a way that is so unfamiliar as to be unsettling, and which challenges our assumptions about who God’s people are.
The Samaritan woman certainly took nothing for granted about Jesus Christ.  The Jews viewed the Samaritans as heretics who had intermarried with Gentiles, and they had nothing to do with them; as well, men did not strike up conversations with women in public in that time and place.  So when the Lord asked her for a drink of water and engaged her in an extended theological discussion, she was completely surprised.  He knew the details of her broken personal history and obviously related to her very differently than had the men in her community.  This encounter made such an impression that “she left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.  Can this be the Christ?’” She  did something quite shocking herself in that moment, proclaiming to her fellow Samaritans that this Jewish rabbi was the Messiah. “Many Samaritans from that city believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He said to me all that I ever did.’  So when the Samaritans came to Him, they asked Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days.  And many more believed because of His words.  They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.’”
A Samaritan woman with an immoral lifestyle became the Great Martyr Photini, an unlikely evangelist whose testimony led many in her village to belief in Christ. Her transformation occurred because she received by faith the living water of which the Savior spoke, “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”   Here is a foreshadowing of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, for she is empowered from the depths of her soul to participate in the healing of the human person that our Risen Lord has brought to the world.  As we chanted at Great Vespers last night about Photini after her encounter with Christ, “that chaste woman hastened at once to the city and said to the crowds: Come and see Christ the Lord, the Savior of our souls.”  Yes, she was truly restored to the dignity of a beloved child of God in the divine image and likeness.
Remember that in the chapter of John’s gospel right before the Lord’s conversation with Photini, He spoke with the Pharisee Nicodemus, an expert in the Jewish law.  At that point, Nicodemus could not understand even the most basic points of the Lord’s teaching.  How shocking, then, that a Samaritan woman with a notorious past came to faith so quickly and even preached to others.  Through her witness, the Lord Himself spent two days in a Samaritan village, which must have been the last thing that anyone expected the Jewish Messiah to do.  His salvation does not operate according to the conventional categories of this world, but transcends and subverts them.  How odd:  Great religious teachers miss the point, while disgraced women from despised communities become glorious saints.
Our reading from Acts describes the foundation of the first Gentile church in Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians.  It took a good bit of debate and discernment for the Church to determine how to respond to Gentiles who wanted to become Christians, for the origins of the faith are so clearly in Judaism.  At the council held by the apostles in Acts 15: 8-9, St. Peter said of the Gentile Christians, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us.  He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.”  That, of course, is a very good description of what the Lord had done with St. Photini.  The letter to the Gentile Christians from that council did not require them to become circumcised or convert to Judaism, but “to abstain from food sacrificed to idols…and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:20) It is not surprising that the Jewish Christian leaders of the Church made a point of reminding Gentile converts to distance themselves from forms of spiritual and moral corruption so common in their culture.
The inclusion of Samaritans like Photini and Gentiles like the original Antiochian believers provides a powerful sign that the resurrection of Christ is not about business as usual in a world where people divide up according to all kinds of human characteristics.  When we do that, we define ourselves over against enemies, real and imagined, and tend to think that all the evil and wickedness are on the side of those we oppose.  Among the many dangers of such ways of thinking is that we easily become the self-righteous judges of others and inflame our own passions to the point that we see neither ourselves nor our neighbors clearly.  A Jew of the first century would typically have viewed Photini as a terrible sinner who did the wretched kinds of things expected of Samaritans.  The apostles could have easily put up almost insurmountable roadblocks to keep the Gentiles at arm’s length.  That the Church developed very differently is an indication that it is not simply another human institution of a world enslaved to the fear of death, but truly the Body of our Risen Lord in Whom “strangers and foreigners” become “fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household of God” by the power of the Holy Spirit.  (Eph. 2:19)  As St. Paul taught, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Gal. 3:28)  He offers living water to all people who come to Him in humble faith as did St. Photini, the Samaritan woman.
Like her, we all encounter Christ as people with a history of personal brokenness in thought, word, and deed.  We may doubt, however, whether the Savior’s victory over death, the wages of sin, may truly become active in us.  The Church highlights the example of so many notorious sinners who have become great saints by receiving the Lord’s mercy through repentance.  Perhaps we have heard their stories so many times that we take them for granted and assume that, after their conversion, they were no longer troubled by temptations, doubts, and sorrow for their failings.  That would be an unrealistic assumption, of course.  Remember that St. Mary of Egypt spent her first seventeen years in the desert in fierce struggle with passions for all that she had left behind.  She said of this period, “Darkness after darkness, misery after misery stood about me, a sinner.”  If we are genuinely embracing the new life our Risen Lord, we will face battles in our own souls as we turn away from the darkness of the tomb and toward the brilliant light of His kingdom.
As the eyes of our souls gain the focus to behold His radiant glory more fully, the darkness within us will become all the more apparent.  We will then be like Photini when the Savior mentioned her history with men.  Instead of shutting down in shame or making excuses, she simply said, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet” as she continued to open herself to the healing mercy of the Lord through faith.  If we truly believe that Christ has conquered death, the wages of sin, then we must become as courageous as she was in offering even the most painfully broken dimensions of lives to the Savior for healing.  Like her, let us do so with the confident hope of those who know that something worth living and dying for has come into the world, for Christ is Risen!