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!

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Overcoming the Paralysis Caused by the Fear of Death: Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic in the Orthodox Church

Acts 9:32-42; John 5:1-15
Christ is Risen!
We all face difficult circumstances in our lives that we are tempted to think will never change.  Sometimes we lose hope of gaining health and strength when we have been sick and weak in body or soul.  Problems in marriage, family life, or other relationships may seem beyond healing or repair.  Before the difficulties of our lives, let alone the persistent problems of the world, we can easily feel helpless.
In today’s gospel lesson, the blind, lame, and paralyzed people who waited to be healed at the pool of water outside the Temple certainly felt that way.  Most probably despaired of ever being healed, for they lacked the ability to move themselves into the water at the right time.  The man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years had no one to help him get there, and he obviously could not move himself.  The Jews had a Temple in which animals were sacrificed, and the pool provided water for washing lambs before they were slaughtered.  This scene occurs at the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which commemorated Moses receiving the Law, which had been given by angels.
Fallen humanity, however, remained spiritually weak and sick, and enslaved ultimately to death.   In such a corrupt state, we lacked the strength to fulfill our calling to become like God in holiness, and certainly could not overcome the ultimate paralysis of the grave. The Law was surely both a blessing and a cause of frustration for the Jews, for it lacked the ability to heal the soul. The sacrificial system of the Temple foreshadowed the great Self-Offering of our Lord on the Cross, for He is the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.  It did not, however, deliver anyone from bondage to death, the wages of sin.
The paralyzed man represents us all who lack the power to move ourselves to complete healing of body, soul, and spirit. He did not even call out to Christ to help him; instead, the Lord reached out to him, asking what may seem to be an odd question, “Do you want to be healed?”  Why would anyone who had endured thirty-eight years of paralysis not want to be made well?    Recall, however, how easy it is to adapt to our maladies and passions, to become accustomed to whatever forms of corruption have become second nature to us.  To be healed requires something very different, for we must obey the Lord’s command: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  That means cooperating with the gracious divine energies of our merciful Lord as we rise up in obedience such that we are transformed personally to become more like Him in holiness.  Doing so is never as easy as lying comfortably in bed.  To receive personally our Lord’s healing requires getting out of our comfort zones.
The man in today’s gospel reading would never have found healing had he chosen to remain as he had been for thirty-eight years. Lying still for a long time makes us weak and unable to rise up and walk on our own.  The same will be true of us spiritually if we do not embrace the struggle to cooperate with the mercy of the Lord by serving Him as faithfully as we presently have the strength to do.  That is how we open ourselves to receive His healing, regardless of how weak we have made ourselves.  The paralyzed man would have rejected his healing had he refused to accept the struggle of standing up, carrying his bed, and walking.  After a lifetime of not moving, doing so must have been difficult and quite scary.  He had learned how to survive as an invalid, but now the Savior was directing him to a very different life, the challenges of which he could not predict.
Perhaps we look at the prospect of a life of obedience to Christ as being difficult and scary, for we have become accustomed to living as people enslaved to self-centered desire fueled by the fear of death.  If we think that the measure of our lives extends no further than the period of our physical existence on Earth, then the temptation will be great to indulge ourselves in whatever pleasures make life more bearable and distract us from despair about our ultimate fate.  But because “Christ is Risen!,” we must not continue in the weakness that comes from doing whatever it takes to distract us from fear of the grave and the insecurities it produces. Instead, we must do whatever it takes to share more fully in the ultimate healing of the human person in God’s image and likeness that our Savior has accomplished through His glorious resurrection on the third day.  We must live as those who already know the joy of life eternal as we look for the coming fullness of the Kingdom of God.
We will open ourselves to the healing and strength necessary to live in the joy of the resurrection by participating in the life in the Church, which is the Body of Christ.  In our reading from Acts, St. Peter heals a paralyzed man and commands him to get up.   He even raises a woman from death.  Peter did not do this by his own power or authority, but because the Risen Lord was working through him.  He said to the paralyzed man, “Jesus Christ heals you…”  Throughout Acts, we read of how the Lord works through the Church to enable people to participate personally in the new life brought by His empty tomb.
In baptism, Jesus Christ heals us as we die to sin and rise with Him into a new life of holiness.  In the Eucharist, the Risen Lord nourishes us with His own Body and Blood as we participate already in the Messianic Banquet.  In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we enter mystically in the eternal worship of the Heavenly Kingdom.  Because we fall short of fully embracing the healing and holy joy of His resurrection, the Savior forgives our sins when we humbly repent in Confession.  By offering our time, energy, and resources to support the ministries of the Church and participate more fully in our life together in Him, we find liberation from the isolation of self-centeredness and enter more fully into the abundant generosity of the Lord. He shares His life with us through the Church and we must share a common life in Him as we love, serve, and forgive one another.  In order to gain the strength to move forward in a life of holiness, we must unite ourselves to Christ in His Body through regular, conscientious participation in the Holy Mysteries and doing all that we can to strengthen our common life.
Apart from the Lord’s resurrection, there would be no Church, and it is through our participation in the Church that we may enter more fully into the eternal life of the resurrection.  We celebrate Pascha by participating personally in the Lord’s victory over Hades and the grave, and there is simply no way to do that which does not require obedience to the command that Christ gave to the paralyzed man.  That is how we will find healing from our maladies of soul that are driven by slavery to the fear of death.   Because of the resurrection, we may all rise up from our comfortable beds of sins and provide the world a sign that something radically new has come into the world through the Savior’s Cross and empty tomb.  Not by our own power, but by embracing His, we may all find fulfillment and transformation that we could never give ourselves.  All that we must do is to want to be healed, to unite ourselves to the Risen Lord in His Body, and to move forward in holiness as we serve Him in the world as a sign that “Christ is Risen!”

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Bearing Witness to the Resurrection in our Bodies: Homily for Thomas Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Acts 5:12-20; John 20:19-31
Christ is Risen!

Today we continue to celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ on the third day.  He is our Pascha, our Passover, from death to life, for Hades and the grave could not contain the God-Man Who shares with us His victory over death.  He has made even the tomb a pathway to the glory of life eternal. As He said to Martha before He raised Lazarus, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25)

The Savior was able to rise in glory because He was born, lived, and died with a human body just like ours.  When He rose from the dead, He did so as a whole person with a glorified body which still bore the wounds His crucifixion.  Thomas doubted the news of the resurrection because he was not present when the Risen Lord first appeared to the disciples and said that he would not believe unless he saw and touched His wounds.  When the Savior appeared again eight days later, He told Thomas to do precisely that.  Thomas responded by recognizing Him as “My Lord and my God!”

This exchange with Thomas reminds us of the profound importance of Christ’s bodily resurrection to the Christian faith.  Indeed, it is impossible to give a plausible account of the origins of the Christianity apart from the reality of the Lord’s rising from the dead.  He certainly died on the Cross, as Roman centurions were professional executioners who knew what they were doing and would lose their own lives if they let a victim escape.  The disciples fled in fear at the Lord’s arrest with Peter, the head disciple, denying Him three times.  The women showed greater love and courage by going to the tomb in order to anoint Christ’s dead body.  It is clear, however, that they all acted in response to His death and showed no hope of His resurrection.  Remember that the idea that someone would rise from the dead was as outrageous, if not more so, in that time and place than it is in ours.  No one associated being the Messiah with dying on a Cross and resurrecting.  Since the apostles later died as witnesses to their belief in the Lord’s rising, it is absurd to say that they had concocted the story.  Countless generations of martyrs have likewise made the ultimate testimony to the Lord’s victory over death with a strength and peace that are not of this world.

As St. Paul taught, “[I]f Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith.” (1 Cor. 15:14)  The Savior proclaimed His divinity by forgiving sins and saying that He and the Father are one (John 10:30) and that “before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)  The high priest asked Him at His arrest, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Christ responded, “I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14: 61-62)  The Savior foretold His death and resurrection many times, though the disciples never got the point.  If One Who claimed to be God was wrong in predicting His resurrection and simply decayed in the tomb like anyone else who died, the Christian faith would never have appeared.  There would be no Church and no reason for anyone to remember Jesus Christ as anything but a failed Messiah with grandiose delusions about being divine.

Our faith is not in warm feelings or sentimental memories about someone who lived a long time ago.  It is not in a vague notion of a dead person being with us in spirit or in the abiding relevance of ancient moral teachings for our lives.  To proclaim that “Christ is Risen!” is to confess the reality of the God-Man’s victory over death as whole Person, of His bodily resurrection which is our hope for “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” as we confess in the Nicene Creed.  To quote Saint Paul again, “[I]if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15: 17-19)  If Christ did not rise from the dead, then St. Paul was a fool for dying out of faithfulness to Him.  He became a Christian only after the Risen Lord miraculously appeared to Him in blinding light on the road to Damascus   It is impossible to make sense of this Pharisee who zealously persecuted Christians becoming one without belief in the reality of the Savior’s resurrection.

Hope for eternal life is not reserved only for the coming fullness of the Kingdom, but also concerns how we live in the world as we know it with our bodies and in relation to others.  Having been empowered by the Risen Lord through the gift of the Holy Spirit, the apostles ministered by healing the suffering bodies of the sick as they bore witness to the restoration of the whole human person through His resurrection.  Even the pagan critics of the early Christians marveled at how they risked their lives to care for people with contagious diseases during plagues.  They rescued infants abandoned by their parents to death, slavery, or other terrible fates, which was a common practice among the Romans to dispose of children they did not want to raise.  Instead of aborting unborn children in the womb, they welcomed them as neighbors to love and blessings from God.  In a time when desperately poor people had no more dignity than so much garbage left on the side of the road, the early Christians shared their resources sacrificially with them.  In a culture where a master could abuse the body of a slave literally however he chose, the Church knew that in Christ   “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)

The differences in the bodies of men and women remain, but Christians must treat everyone, regardless of sex or social standing, as someone who bears the dignity of a living icon of Christ.  He was raised in the body and how we treat anyone’s body, including our own, is how we treat Him.  St. Paul condemned the sexual immorality of the Corinthians by reminding them that, “By His power God raised the Lord from the dead, and He will raise us also.  Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ Himself?...Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Cor. 6: 14-20)  The same early generations of Christians that produced so many martyrs stood in stark contrast to the decadence of pagan society.  Their example of chastity, through abstinence for singles and fidelity for husbands and wives in marriage, reflected both the holiness of the body as revealed through Christ’s resurrection and how He has delivered us from slavery to even the most deeply rooted self-centered desires.

Because “Christ is Risen!,” we must unite ourselves to Him in holiness in every dimension of our being, including especially how we live in our bodies.  The more that we do so, the more that we will learn to see our neighbors, no matter who they are or what they believe, as persons called to find the fullness of their humanity in Him every bit as much as we are.  The best witness that we can make to others is to become living proof of the healing and fulfillment that the Savior has brought to the world by offering His own Flesh and Blood.  That is how He conquered Hades and the grave, and has restored fallen humanity to the sublime dignity of “partakers of the divine nature” through grace.   Let us not, then, simply sing Christ’s resurrection, but become living icons of the holy joy He shares with us through His risen and glorified Body.  Our faith makes no sense apart from the Savior’s rising from the tomb as a whole, embodied Person. Could the same be said of our lives?  Let us bear witness to Christ, our Pascha, as we live and breathe in a world that desperately needs a sign of hope for liberation from darkness and despair, for Christ is Risen!