Saturday, November 18, 2023

Becoming Living Temples of Christ, Who Is Our Peace: Homily for the Twenty-fourth Sunday After Pentecost & Ninth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church


Ephesians 2:14-22; Luke 12:16-21

 Having begun the Nativity Fast on November 15 in preparation to welcome the Savior at Christmas, today we anticipate the Feast of the Entrance into the Temple of the Most Holy Theotokos. Her elderly parents Joachim and Anna offered Mary to God by taking her to live in the Temple in Jerusalem as a young girl, where she grew up in prayer and purity as she prepared to become the Living Temple of the Lord in a unique and extraordinary way as His Virgin Mother.  This feast directs us to the good news of Christmas, as it is the first step in Mary’s life in becoming the Theotokos who gave birth to the Son of God for our salvation. 

Joachim and Anna had a long and difficult period of preparation to become parents, as they had been unable to have children for decades until God miraculously blessed them in old age to conceive.  They knew that their daughter was a blessing not simply for the happiness of their family, but for playing her part in fulfilling God’s purposes for the salvation of the world   Their patient faithfulness throughout their years of barrenness helped them gain the spiritual clarity to offer her to the Lord.  They knew that their marriage and family life were not simply about fulfilling their desires, but were blessings to be given back to God for the fulfillment of much higher purposes. 

Joachim, Anna, and the Theotokos are the complete opposites of the rich man in today’s gospel reading.  His only concern was to eat, drink, and enjoy himself because he had become so wealthy.  He was addicted to earthly pleasure, power, and success, and saw the meaning and purpose of his life only in those terms.  When God required his soul, however, the man’s true poverty was revealed, for the possessions and accomplishments of this life inevitably pass away and cannot save us.  This man’s horizons extended no further than his dreams of the large barns he planned to build in order to hold his crops.  Before the ultimate judgment of God, he was revealed to be a fool who had wasted his life on what could never truly heal or fulfill one who bore the divine image and likeness.  He had laid up treasure for himself, but was not rich toward God in any way. The problem was not simply that the man had possessions, but that he had made them his god, which is another way of saying that he worshipped only himself and surely was not concerned about the needs of his neighbors.  His barns were a temple of the greed to which he had offered his entire existence in a vain effort to satisfy his self-centered desires.   

In stark contrast, the Theotokos followed the righteous example of her parents.  She was prepared by a life of holiness to agree freely to become our Lord’s mother, even though she was an unmarried virgin who did not understand how such a thing could happen.  When she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” this young Palestinian Jewish girl bravely made a whole, complete offering of her life to God.  She did not ask what was in it for her in terms of money, power, or any kind of earthly success.  Unlike the rich fool in the parable, she was not blinded by passion and had the purity of soul to put receptivity to the Lord before all else.

The world is full of tragic circumstances today that are caused by people who are so enslaved to their self-centered desires that they think nothing is more important than doing whatever it takes to gratify their lust for possessions, power, and pleasure.   But even if they succeed in gaining the whole world, they will lose their souls because they have offered themselves to false gods which lack the power to heal people from the ravages of sin, let alone to raise anyone up from the tomb.   Those who serve such idols inevitably lack peace within their souls and act in ways that make peace with their neighbors, especially those they consider their enemies, impossible.   

In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul taught the Ephesians that “Christ is our peace, Who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that He might create in Himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the Cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.”  That is why Gentile Christians are now also part of the holy temple “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone…”  Though we had been “strangers” to the blessed heritage of the Hebrews, we are now built into the living temple of Christ’s Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Too many people today insist on preserving whatever “dividing wall of hostility” they can use to promote their vain desires for power, wealth, and other signs of worldly success.  Doing so  enables them to justify in their own minds how they refuse to pursue reconciliation with those who pose real or imagined threats to their dreams of earthly glory.  There are ways to “eat, drink, and be merry” that have nothing to do with food and beverage, but everything to do with impoverishing our souls by indulging in self-centeredness to the point that we cannot even imagine living according to the good news that Christ “has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” and brought peace to those “who were far off, and peace to those who were near.”

The Jewish Messiah Whose ministry extended to Samaritans, Roman centurions, Gentiles, the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed, and those viewed as hopeless cases of depravity has brought all with faith in Him into His Body, the Church, the living temple of God by the power of the Holy Spirit.  He worked that reconciliation through His great Self-offering on the Cross by which He has released us from bondage to the fear of death through His glorious resurrection on the third day.  If we want to pursue reconciliation with those we consider our enemies concerning any matter in this world, we must embrace our true identity as “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone.”  We must find healing for our souls as we embrace our identity as a holy temple of the Lord.  We must reorient the desires of our hearts toward His Kingdom and away from any version of worldly glory.  In other words, we must become like the Theotokos who offered herself fully and without reservation to receive the Savior.  We enter into His peace not by gaining wealth, power, or victory over enemies, but by offering ourselves to Him with complete receptivity, as she did.  

We are now in the Nativity Fast, the 40-day period during which we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Savior at Christmas.   The weeks of Advent call us to wrestle with the passions that threaten to make us so much like the rich fool that we become blind to the healing and peace brought by our Lord.  Far from obsessing about earthly cares and indulging in the richest and most satisfying foods, this is a season for fasting, confessing and repenting of our sins, giving generously to the needy, and intensifying our prayers.  It is a time for preparing to open our hearts to receive Christ more fully into our lives at His Nativity.  

 The Theotokos entered the Temple, living there for years in preparation to become the Son of God’s Living Temple through whom He took on flesh. The Nativity Fast provides us blessed opportunities to become more like that obscure Palestinian Jewish girl who said “Yes!” to God with every ounce of her being.  It calls us to become more like Joachim and Anna in the patient trust in God that enabled them to offer their long-awaited daughter to Him.  They show us how to enter the Temple by embracing the difficult struggle of learning to offer ourselves and all our blessings fully to the Lord. It is only by following their righteous example that we will gain the spiritual clarity to provide the world a much-needed sign that the Savior born at Christmas truly “has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” that we know all to well.   Let us use these weeks to find healing for our passions as we embrace our true identity as “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in Whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”



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