Saturday, January 26, 2019

Tangible Holiness Through Personal Encounter with Christ: Homily for the Translation of the Relics of John Chrysostom and the 15th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 7:26-8:2; Luke 19:1-10
It is fair enough for people to ask why the Orthodox Christian faith inspires our loyalty.  There are so many other religions available to us, as well as non-religious perspectives according to which we could live our lives.  We are free to believe and live as we choose, so why should we identify ourselves with Jesus Christ and His Church?
From the earliest years of the faith, the example of how personal encounter with the Savior changes people has been a powerful witness.  The early Christians laid down their lives for Him as martyrs.  They shared their possessions such that the needs of every member of the community were met.  They crossed ethnic boundaries in shocking ways that manifested their unity in Christ. They cared for the sick during plagues and rescued children who had been abandoned by their parents.  In contrast to a decadent culture, they embraced chastity in a way appropriate to their vocations as married people, monastics, or widows.
Profound personal transformations certainly occurred during our Lord’s earthly ministry. Today’s gospel reading tells the memorable story of Zacchaeus, who responded to the Savior’s initiative by repudiating his dishonest, greedy way of life as a tax collector.  After Zacchaeus welcomed Christ into his home, others complained that “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”  In that time and place, it was scandalous for the Messiah to identify himself with such a corrupt person by accepting his hospitality.  In response to that charge, Zacchaeus spontaneously repented by giving half of his possessions to the poor and restoring what he had stolen four fold. We do not know the details of the Lord’s conversation with Zacchaeus, but it had such an impact on the tax collector that Christ proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”
The shocking transformation of Zacchaeus serves as testimony to the healing power of Christ in relation to some of the most powerful temptations that we experience.   Recall what St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy about the dangers of loving money:  “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Tim. 6:9-10)  It is one thing to be content with having the physical necessities of life, but quite another to seek the meaning of our lives in the comfort, status, and security usually associated with wealth in this world.
Personal experience teaches that possessions easily become our false gods, but they cannot ultimately satisfy us.  Wealthy and famous people may live in misery, while the humble poor may experience great joy. Those whose lives revolve around money and what it can buy will never be at peace, for there can be no guarantee about what tomorrow will bring. No matter how much or how little we have, worrying about keeping it and acquiring more often enslaves us to self-centered desire and obscures our vision of the needs of others.  It turns our trust away from God and toward an imaginary vision of ourselves as being self-sufficient. When, like Zacchaeus, we open our disordered relationship with money to Christ, we will turn away from self-centeredness to embrace generosity toward others. To live that way in the midst of such a materialistic culture will bear witnesses to the power of the Savior to make us already participants in a Kingdom not of this world.
Today we commemorate the recovery of the relics of St. John Chrysostom, who had died in exile in Armenia thirty years earlier due to the persecution of the Empress Eudoxia.  His casket would not be moved until a letter of apology from Emperor Theodosius the Younger was placed on it.  St. John’s body was found to be incorrupt and was placed on the patriarchal throne in Constantinople, where he was miraculously heard to say, “Peace be to all.”
The life of any saint is a brilliant icon of what happens when a human being becomes radiant with the holiness of God.  Since our basic human calling is to become like God in holiness, we should think of the saints simply as true human beings, not as a special class somehow separate from the challenges of life in the world as we know it.  It is by responding faithfully in the midst of those challenges that they become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  The ancient practice of honoring the relics or physical remains of a saint reflects our belief that the body of a Christian is a temple of the Holy Spirit and destined for resurrection into eternal life.  In the Old Testament, contact with the bones of the prophet Elisha raised a man from death. (2 Kings 13:21)  In Acts, handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched St. Paul worked miracles. (Acts 19:12)  It should not be surprising, then, that God continues to do great things through the relics of the saints.  These are signs that His salvation concerns the whole person and conquers even death itself.
In commemorating the translation of the relics of St. John Chrysostom, we must not simply marvel at the great events of past centuries.  Instead, we must recognize that God calls us all to the same holiness present in the lives and relics of the saints.  Like Zacchaeus, they were all imperfect people living in a world of corruption.  They all endured temptations and had to struggle for healing from self-centered desire in various forms.  At some point and in some way in their lives, they also repented like Zacchaeus in reorienting their lives to God as they did their best to set right what they had done wrong.  Like him, they responded to Christ’s gracious initiative in welcoming His healing and strength for charting a new course.
The change in Zacchaeus was profound and obvious.  It involved what he did with his money and power, and definitely impacted the people he encountered every day in practical ways.  He did not abandon the world, but began to live faithfully in it and to bless his neighbors.  The holiness of the saints is similarly tangible.  Chrysostom’s teaching, preaching, and prophetic service of the Church, for example, were clearly evident throughout his faithful ministry.  If we unite ourselves to Christ in holiness, we must also become living icons of what happens when a human person encounters the Savior.   He has held nothing back from us and gives us all countless opportunities to find the healing of our souls as we share more fully in His life by responding faithfully to our daily challenges.   Our calling, then, is to respond like Zacchaeus, Chrysostom, and all the saints in offering even the deeply disordered dimensions of our lives to Him for healing.
That is how we may provide a witness to the power of Jesus Christ to transform broken people like you and me into “partakers of the divine nature.”  We must become living relics of His salvation, living proof of what happens when people with all the weaknesses and problems common to humanity unite themselves in holiness to Him.  Ultimately, that is how we will give an account of our loyalty to Christ as the Savior.  It is only when we follow in the practical path of the saints that our lives will become signs of the good news heard by Zacchaeus:  “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Savior’s Healing of Whole Persons: Homily for the Twelfth Sunday of Luke and the Venerable Euthymios the Great in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 4:6-15; Luke 17:12-19
            Our generation is not alone in finding it difficult to appreciate the spiritual significance of the human body. Across the centuries, an abiding temptation for many is to believe that physical things simply cannot become holy.  Of course, that perspective often serves as an excuse to justify living as we please in daily life while giving God only our thoughts and feelings.  Whatever such a spiritual path may be, it is not the genuine Christian faith and lacks the power to heal us as the whole persons God created us to be.
Today’s gospel passage describes our Lord healing ten men who suffered from the dreaded disease of leprosy.  Christ’s healing ministry showed that His salvation encompasses every dimension of the human being:  body, soul, and spirit.  He demonstrated how His gracious love restores broken, weak people to their dignity in the image and likeness of God.  Were our bodies spiritually irrelevant, intrinsically evil, or otherwise not integral dimensions of who we are, the Savior would surely not have devoted Himself to blessing the sick.  But since we are creatures of flesh and blood in a world of death and decay, He restored people to health as an enacted icon of His gracious purposes for us all.  For He did not come merely to teach or even to forgive, but to restore and fulfill us as sons and daughters who truly share in His eternal life. He came to heal us in every way possible.
Perhaps we have heard stories of the Lord’s healing mercy so many times that we take them for granted.  Today’s particular account has a couple of details that should focus our attention.  First, the men whom Christ healed had leprosy, a dreaded disease that separated its victims from anyone who did not have it.  Notice that the men stood at a distance when they called out for healing, for they were considered dangerously unclean.  Here we have a sign of how easily our sins can separate us from others, including those we love the most in this life.  We may become overwhelmed with guilt and shame to the point that we would rather withdraw from relationships than confront the painful truth of how we have harmed them.  Unless we embrace the healing of Christ, the causes of our separation from one another will simply fester and weaken all concerned.  If He could cleanse people of leprosy and restore them to a normal life in first-century Palestine, we must not place limits on how He can heal us and our broken relationships today.  For that to happen, we must respond to Him with the humble faith of the Samaritan leper.
This is the second noteworthy detail:  The only one of the lepers who returned to thank Christ for healing him was a hated Samaritan, considered a foreigner and a heretic by the Jews.  After the man fell down before Him in gratitude, the Lord said, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”  This shocking detail reminds us that the Savior’s therapeutic ministry extended to those very much on the margins of society, to those outside the class of people considered neighbors.  Because He came to bring all people and the entire creation into the blessedness of the Kingdom of God, however, Christ’s mercy for suffering humanity extended also to him.  The Samaritan’s physical and social disability were signs of his need for healing and restoration that he could not give himself.  Out of deep gratitude for this completely unexpected and shocking blessing, the Samaritan alone returned to give thanks.  Consequently, he was healed that day in a way that extended beyond the merely physical.  His example should remind us of the importance of expressing gratitude to the Lord for His mercy and of extending that same mercy to the suffering people we are tempted to view as strangers and enemies.
Saint Paul knew that even a great apostle received the healing of Christ like an earthen vessel, like a container made of clay.  The great “transcendent power belongs to God and not to us,” for we are weak in so many ways.  He writes of “carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies. While we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”  Through his many sufferings as an apostle, Saint Paul became a living icon of the Savior’s victory over corruption in all its forms, including the grave.  By enduring abuse, imprisonment, and ultimately martyrdom, he gave testimony with his own flesh and blood to the One Who both rose from the dead and shares His eternal life with those who unite themselves to Him in humble faith.  By such a ministry, St. Paul became an instrument for others to receive grace and give thanks to God.
The apostle’s teaching and example remind us of the necessary place of the body for the healing of our souls.  We celebrated at Christmas the birth of our Lord as a human infant with the same physical characteristics as any other baby.  He had to become fully one of us in order to fulfill our vocation to become like Him in holiness as “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.   We commemorated His baptism at Theophany, for His physical immersion in the Jordan restored the entire creation to holiness and was the occasion for the revelation of the Holy Trinity.  As those who have been baptized into Christ’s death, we have died to sin and risen up with Him into a new life of holiness.  (Rom. 6:3-4)  It is simply impossible for us to respond faithfully to this high calling in a way that is somehow separate from our actions each day in our own flesh and blood.
There are different callings in life that point us on distinct pathways to the Kingdom.  Today we commemorate St. Euthymios the Great, an exemplary monastic who worked miracles, embraced rigorous asceticism, taught and led others wisely, and defended the Orthodox faith.  Much discipline and self-denial are required for such a way of life, for so many desires are rooted deeply within us and disoriented by our self-centeredness.  It would be a grave error, however, to think that only monks and nuns should undertake such struggles.  For example, to shut our eyes and ears when media and entertainment threaten to inflame our passions for sexual pleasure and hatred toward real or imagined enemies is a necessary form of spiritual vigilance for people in our culture today. To fast moderately serves the health of our souls and our bodies, as it gives us strength in controlling our desires for immediate satisfaction on our own terms.  And limiting our self-indulgence in food and drink just a bit should free up resources to give to the poor and needy in whom we encounter the Lord.
Since we are earthen vessels, we are weak and unworthy of the promise of healing that is ours in Jesus Christ.  That is why we must attend to how we are offering ourselves to Him practically so that we may gain the strength to turn away from everything that hinders us from sharing in His life as fully as possible.  We cannot separate our bodies from our souls; and in light of our Lord’s birth and baptism, the physical dimensions of life certainly do not have to separate us from Him.
Recall that through His healing of people suffering with leprosy, a Samaritan became an example of faith and gratitude.   Through the offering of the Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  Through the blessing of holy matrimony, the intimate relationship of man and woman is oriented toward the Kingdom as husband and wife become an icon of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  The Savior comes to heal us all in every dimension of our life as embodied persons who bear the divine image and likeness.  Remembering that we are flesh and blood, let us fall down before Him in thanks as we accept this great blessing for the healing of every dimension of our humanity:  body, soul, and spirit.