Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sacrificing in Order to Bear Fruit: Homily for the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council and the 4th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
            In last Saturday’s football game at McMurry University, the home team was behind at half-time even though they were favored to win.  The coach had noticed that the players had not seemed to enjoy playing during the first half and told them to remember to have fun in the remainder of the game.  He reminded them that ultimately that was why they played their sport:  to go out there and have some fun.  Well, they did have fun in the second half as they came from behind to win.
In just about any area of life, we can get into trouble when we forget why got into it in the first place.  It is so easy to become distracted and confused to the point that we become blind before the most obvious truths.  It is tempting to get so caught up in matters of secondary importance that we simply miss the point, not only of an activity, but of our lives.
With His explanation of the parable of the sower, Jesus Christ instructed the disciples to think of themselves as plants that have grown from seed cast upon the ground.  Why would someone throw seed on the soil?  In this context, it was done in hope that they would take root, grow, and bear fruit. That is the most obvious reason that someone plants a garden:  in order to enjoy the growth of healthy plants.  And that is why we have all embraced the fullness of Orthodox Christianity:  to become mature plants that bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God.  In other words, we have come to Christ and His Church for the fulfillment of our most basic calling as those who bear the divine image and likeness.  We want to be united with God in holiness.  We want to find the healing of our souls.  That is in no way selfish, for doing so requires dying to self out of love for our Lord and our neighbors in so many ways.
Just like we can easily get distracted in any tense and frustrating situation, we usually find it very hard to remain focused on what is necessary to grow spiritually and bear fruit for the Kingdom.  Some are quite enthusiastic about the faith at first, but then fall away when the new wears off and they realize that growing in holiness is a long, difficult road that requires sacrificial commitment for the long haul.  Others last longer, but are overcome by “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” which they allow to dominate them, to become more real to them than the joy of sharing more fully in the life of Christ.
The world as we know it is full of distractions, and who does not have to devote significant attention to matters as pressing as sickness, paying the bills, and challenges of all kinds in our families and in our world?  To use the imagery of the parable, if gardeners wait until they have no distractions or problems of any kind, most of them will never even begin to prepare the soil.  But even if they do prepare the soil and then later allow themselves to become so distracted that they do not water the plants and protect them from weeds and pests, they will likely never have healthy plants that bear good fruit.  Just like athletes enjoying playing their sport still have to concentrate on what they are doing, gardeners who take pleasure in their work must pay attention and refuse to become distracted.
The same is true for us, if we are to abide in Christ, share more fully in His blessed life, and bear fruit for the Kingdom.  Instead of allowing whatever is going on in our lives to separate us from Him, we must make our daily cares points of contact with Him, opportunities to gain strength for living faithfully with our challenges.   That is just as true when things are going well as when they are going badly.  Even as we must not fall prey to the temptation to allow enjoying good times to become a false god, we must not allow even the darkest and most difficult problems in our lives to lead us to despair.  A garden neglected by someone who is too busy having parties to care for it probably looks just like a garden neglected by someone who is too sick to tend it. The result is the same: dead plants that ultimately dry up and blow away.  And no matter what it is that keeps us from preparing the spiritual soil of our lives, from pulling out the weeds of our souls by the roots, and from receiving the nourishment that we need in order to flourish in the Christian life, the result will be the same.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul reminded St. Titus to instruct his people not to waste their time with foolish distractions, such as arguments over pointless things with contentious people.  He wrote, “And let our people learn to apply themselves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.”  Addressing real problems that we can actually do something about is far more spiritually beneficial than getting worked up about nonsense or matters that we cannot change.  In today’s world of constant news and social media, it is tempting to get caught up in ceaseless worry about all kinds of things and to define ourselves in terms of how popular culture divides us up as this group against that group. And it is often much more appealing to brood about our own persistent personal problems than to turn our attention to serving God and our neighbors.
The problem, then, is how little time, energy, and attention we will have left to offer to the Lord for the healing of our souls and the fulfillment of His purposes for the world.  Just as gardeners so overcome with worrying about other matters will probably not provide adequate care to their plants, we will not give adequate care to our relationship with Christ if we are so obsessed with other things that basic spiritual disciplines become afterthoughts that we admire, but do not practice.  People who do not sacrifice so that they can advance in any endeavor probably will not make much progress.  If we are not sacrificing other objects of our attention in order to pray at home and at Church on a regular basis, to share our resources and time with the poor and lonely, and to fill our minds with the Scriptures and other beneficial spiritual reading, we really cannot expect to become healthy plants that bear good fruit in the Lord’s garden.  If we are not struggling to keep our mouths shut when we want to speak in anger or judgment, to turn the other cheek when we are insulted and to forgive our enemies, and to gain the strength to overcome our many addictions to our self-centered desires, we cannot really hope to find healing for our souls.
Gardeners do not earn a good crop by their dedicated labors, but their diligent work opens their little plot of land to the power of the natural world.  Faithful Christians do not earn the healing of their souls by conscientious practice of the spiritual disciples, but that is how they open themselves to the gracious divine energies of our Lord.   Amidst all the other appealing things that we could be doing, we must invest ourselves each day in what we know it takes to participate more fully in the life of Christ.   We must refuse to be distracted from the one thing needful of hearing and obeying the Word of God, for He is the One in Whom we will find the fulfillment of our most fundamental desire as human beings:  to be united with God in holiness.
If we stay focused on Christ, and do what it takes to unite ourselves more fully to Him each day, then we will be like the good seed in the parable who “hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  No, that will not happen by accident, but by persistently turning away from all that would threaten to keep us from bearing good fruit for the Kingdom of God.  It will happen by persistently investing ourselves in what it takes to flourish in the garden of the Lord.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sharing the Mercy We Have Received as God's Temple: Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost & Second Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Luke 6:31-36

How we see ourselves plays a very important role in how we live.  Many people define themselves in light of their own weaknesses in ways that keep them chained to whatever shattered personal history they may have.  It is easy to weigh ourselves down with ways of thinking that hold us in bondage, especially when we think that there is no possibility of us changing.  When we do that, we simply enslave ourselves further to a distorted perspective on where we stand before God and in relation to others.

When St. Paul addressed the Gentile Christians of Corinth as “the temple of the living God,” he was doing something no one would have anticipated.  As his letters to the Corinthians make clear, they were converts from paganism who had to be corrected from their tendency to fall back into old ways of living on everything from worshiping false gods to engaging in sexual immorality.  Not only were they Gentiles, they apparently continued to fall back into the very ways of living that the Jews associated with the perversions of strangers and foreigners.   

The Old Testament contains many warnings to the Jews to have nothing to do with Gentiles.  That is why St. Paul quotes Hebrew prophets admonishing the Jews to be entirely separate from the corrupt ways of other peoples.  What is so shocking, of course, is that he now applies that instruction to the Gentile Christians of Corinth.  Those who were hated and feared for their immorality and paganism are now themselves “the temple of the living God” in Jesus Christ.  They are His people, His sons and daughters, to whom the promises of Abraham have been extended through faith.  Because of this great dignity, St. Paul tells them to be clean “from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”

No matter how debauched the Corinthians had been before becoming Christians, and no matter how gravely they had sinned since their baptism, the Apostle urges them to remember who they are in Jesus Christ and to live accordingly.  He calls them to refuse to define themselves by their sins, past or present.  The point is not how they have fallen short or what particular temptations they face.  The point is to accept in humility who they are by the grace of God and no longer to give any place to sin and corruption in their lives.  Whatever does not belong in God’s holy temple does not belong in them, for their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.  St. Paul calls them to live according to the high calling and dignity that is theirs in Jesus Christ, not according to whatever sins have enslaved them in the past or still threaten to distract them from offering every dimension of their lives to the Lord.

We may be tempted to think that those Corinthian converts had it easier than we do.  After all, they lived in a world in which it was obvious who the false gods were.  The ways of the pagan culture were diametrically opposed to those of the Church in many ways.  But as the problems St. Paul had to address in Corinth indicate, there was actually nothing easy at all about being a Christian in that time and place.  Though they take different forms, the challenges of taking up our crosses and following the Lord are always with us; and no generation navigates them perfectly.

In today’s gospel reading, the Savior teaches that we must do something that seems impossibly hard in every generation, namely, loving our enemies.  He reminds us not to define ourselves by what seems easy or even natural in our world of corruption by simply being nice to those who are nice to us.  Even terrorists and gangsters do that, of course.  There is no great virtue in loving those from whom we expect love in return.  Far more challenging is the calling not to be defined by the disagreeable actions and words of others or by how we are inclined to respond to them.  Even as the Corinthian Christians were sorely tempted to return to what was comfortable and convenient to them in light of their pagan past, we will find it much easier to hate and condemn our enemies than to be generous, kind, and forgiving toward them.  There is much in our culture, and much that somehow passes for Christianity in our society, that would tell us we are perfectly justified in allowing fear, resentment, and self-righteous judgment to shape how we respond both to particular people and to certain groups.  Those who worship the false gods of worldly power and self-centeredness may think that loving their friends and hating their enemies helps them get what they want.  Because they set their sights so slow, they may be right—at least for a time.  Even terrorists and gangsters will have a measure of success by their own standards. 

But what on earth should that have to do with us, who by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ have become “the temple of the living God”?  Our goal is not to achieve this or that earthly goal like another interest group or faction, but to become “merciful, even as your father is merciful.”  Our goal is to live as sons and daughters of the Lord, cleansed from every stain, and to “make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” 

We are just like the Gentile Christians of Corinth who, purely by God’s grace, moved from aliens to heirs, from hated foreigners to those who have inherited the promises to Abraham in Jesus Christ.  We must separate ourselves, then, from much that is appealing to us in our culture, from much that would keep us enslaved to old habits.  We must shut our ears to voices that associate strength with bondage to the passions of anger and hatred, as though it is somehow virtuous to hold grudges and refuse to forgive.  We must shut our eyes to the habit of seeing as neighbors only those who are like us in how we look, how we live, or how we believe.  Thank God, His mercy extends even to sinners like you and me.  If that is the case, then how can we refuse to extend mercy to anyone?  Did not Christ die and rise again in order to save the entire world, including those who nailed Him to the Cross?  Even as there are no limits to His love, there should be no limits to ours.   If we judge others by merely human standards of any kind, we fall well short of showing to others the same mercy that we want for ourselves.

There is no limit to the holiness to which our Savior calls each and every one of us.  We are all weakened by our own sins and those of others.  We may find it impossible to believe that our lives will ever manifest the holiness of God’s temple.  That was surely true of St. Paul before his conversion, as well as of the Gentile Christians who came to faith from pagan backgrounds.  Our culture teaches us primarily to believe in ourselves, but we must primarily believe in the healing mercy of our Savior, which extends even to the most unlikely candidates “to make holiness perfect in the fear of God.”  If before such a high calling, you feel as unworthy as a Corinthian pagan, then thank God for that profound insight and use it for your humility. For we never stand before the Lord based on what we deserve.

The best way to thank Him for His mercy is to extend that same mercy to others, which is possible only if we refuse to define ourselves as anything but His beloved sons and daughters, as His holy temple.  The more we embrace this blessed calling, the more strength we will have to turn away from everything that would separate us from fulfilling our vocation to become like God in holiness.  In some ways, the message is really very simple.  We are the temple of God by His grace.  It is time we started living like it as we show love, do good, and extend mercy to neighbors who need His grace just as much as we do.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Finding Healing Through Sacrifice: Homily for the Sunday After the Exaltation of the Cross in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 2:16-20 ; Mark 8:34-9:1
Today we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  It may seem strange that we devote certain periods of the Church year especially to the Cross because it is so characteristic of our entire life in Christ.  No matter what else is going on in the Church or in our own lives, we are never done with the Cross, for our Savior calls us—just as He did His original disciples—to take up our crosses and follow Him each and every day.  That is not a command limited to certain days or periods, for it is a calling that permeates the Christian life.      
            Our Lord’s disciples, like the other Jews of that time, had apparently expected a Messiah who would have had nothing to do with a cross.  They wanted a successful ruler, someone like King David, who would destroy Israel’s enemies and give them privileged positions of power in a new political order.  So they could not accept His clear word that He would be rejected, suffer, die, and rise again.  When St. Peter actually tried to correct Him on this point, Christ called him “Satan” and said that he was thinking in human terms, not God’s.  To place the pursuit of worldly power over faithful obedience was a temptation Christ had faced during His forty days of preparation in the desert before His public ministry began.  Then that same temptation came from the head disciple, and the Lord let St. Peter know in no uncertain terms that He must serve God and not the powers of this world. To place worldly success over sacrificial obedience was, and is, simply the work of the devil. 
              The Savior told the disciples what they did not want to hear:  that they too must take up their crosses and lose their lives in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  The same is true for us, for whatever false gods we are tempted to serve cannot conquer sin and death or bring healing to our souls.  To serve them is to become their slaves and to receive nothing in return but weakness and despair.  The word of the Cross is that we too must lose ourselves in the service of the Kingdom in order to participate personally in our Lord’s great victory and blessing, both now and for eternity. 
            Though we do not like to acknowledge it, true holiness contradicts conventional standards of success in our corrupt world.  The way of the Cross judges all nations, people, and cultures, and makes clear how they fall short.  The witness of the martyrs from the origins of the faith right up until today in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and elsewhere makes that especially clear.  But let us not think that taking up the cross is reserved only for those called to make the ultimate sacrifice.  For He calls every one of us to become a living martyr by dying to our sinfulness, to how we have wounded ourselves, our relationships, and our world.  To turn away from corruption in any of its forms is to take up the cross.  We do not want to hear it, but if we want to share in the joy of Christ’s resurrection, we must first participate in the struggle, pain, and sacrifice of crucifixion.
           That does not mean convincing ourselves that we are being persecuted for our faith whenever someone criticizes or disagrees with us.  It does not mean having a “martyr complex” in which we sacrifice in order to gain sympathy from others.   We must never distort our faith into a way of getting what we want from others, a habit of feeling sorry for ourselves, or a means of justifying hatred or resentment towards anyone for any reason.  If we crucify others even in our thoughts for whatever reason, we turn away from the true Cross. Instead, our calling is to follow the example of our Lord in forgiving even those who hate and reject us.  
          The One Who offered up Himself calls us to crucify our own sinful desires and actions, the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor.  That is very hard to do in a culture that celebrates self-centeredness and self-indulgence.  In the name of being true to ourselves, many today justify everything from adultery and promiscuity to abusing and abandoning their own children. If any of their desires goes unfulfilled, many feel justified in falling into anger, hatred, and even violence toward those who offend them.  Many people are such slaves to their own desires that there is no limit to their wrath when those desires are not met.  Of course, this is simply a form of idolatry, of worshiping ourselves instead of the One who went to the Cross for our salvation.      
            If we are honest, we will confess that living that way simply makes us miserable, ashamed, and even more enslaved to our passions.   Contrary to popular option, it is a path toward ever greater weakness, not toward strength of any kind.  It may seem possible to gain the whole world for a time by living that way, but those who do still end up losing their souls.    
Saint Paul said of himself, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ Who lives in me.”  By dying to his sins, St. Paul became a living icon of the Lord.  Our Savior’s glorification of humanity was made present in his life.  He became truly himself in the divine image and likeness by sharing in the Lord’s death and resurrection.  The same is true of all the Saints, of all those who have manifested in their own lives the holiness of our Lord, whether they died as martyrs or not.      
In our culture, it is not hard to find false substitutes for taking up our crosses and following our Lord.  We may think that simply expressing ourselves is somehow really virtuous.   But true holiness is much more demanding than stating an opinion, “liking” a post on social media, or putting a bumper sticker on our car.  For example, it is much harder to give of our time, energy, and resources to help a troubled or needy person than it is to agree with the idea of helping others.  It is much more difficult to live a life of chastity and purity as man and woman in our decadent culture than it is to call for moral decency in society or to criticize others whose struggles we do not know.  Most of us have more than enough work to do in purifying our own hearts before we start worrying too much about how others are doing.
Regardless of how correct we may be on any issue or problem, words and thoughts alone will not help us die to the power of sin in our lives, especially if they inflame passions such as self-righteous pride or judgment toward particular people.  In order for our faith to be more than a reflection of how we think or feel, we must act in ways that require self-sacrifice and help to purify our hearts.  We must actually follow Christ in our daily lives by taking up our crosses.  
We may do so by enduring sickness or other persistent personal challenges and disappointments with patience, humility, and deep trust that the Lord will not abandon us.  There is no “one size fits all” journey to the Kingdom, no legal definition, even as the Saints include people of so many different life circumstances and personalities.  Regardless of our situation, we all have the opportunity to bear our crosses in relation to the particular challenges that we face. Most of us do not need to go looking for spiritual challenges; if we will open our eyes, we will see that they are right before us.   
Christ calls us all to live as those who are not ashamed of His Cross.  That means that we must take practical, tangible steps every day in order to die to the corrupting influence of sin so that we may participate more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world.  If we do not, then we deny our Lord and His Cross.  If we do not, we worship the false god of self because we refuse to place obedience to the way of the Savior over obedience to our own self-centered desires.  Our ultimate choice is not between this or that opinion or idea, but between uniting ourselves to our Lord in His great Self-Offering and simply serving ourselves. One is a path to life, while the other leads only to the grave. 
 If we ever think that we are serving the Lord faithfully when we are not sacrificing to bear our crosses, then we should think again.  We must not commemorate the Cross only in certain periods of the Church year, but every day of our lives in how we live, how we treat others, and how we respond to our temptations, weaknesses, and chronic challenges.  The Savior offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross for the salvation of the world, and it is only by taking up the cross of dying to sin’s corruption in our lives that we will share in the great victory that He worked through it. He conquered death in His glorious resurrection on the third day. We will participate personally in His great triumph only if we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Him.  That is what it means to be one of His disciples.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Becoming a New Creation Through the Cross: Homily for the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Holy Cross & the After-Feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 6:11-18; John 3:13-17
Most people probably think of birth and death as totally different and unrelated things.  We often associate one with great joy and hope, while the other is simply a sorrowful ending.  If we think simply in terms of our experience in this world of corruption, then it makes sense to view them in that way.  But if we place them in the context of what our Lord has accomplished through His Cross, then we will understand them very differently.
            Today we continue to celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos even as we anticipate the feast of the Elevation of the Cross later this week.  That we magnify the Cross should not be surprising to anyone who knows anything about Christianity, for it is through His great Self-Offering on the Cross that our Savior took the full consequences of sin and death upon Himself, and thus conquered them in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  His death is our entryway into the new life of the Kingdom, into the “eighth day” of the new creation.
The importance of the birth of the Virgin Mary may be a bit more obscure, however. Perhaps the place to begin understanding the importance of her birth is with our first parents, Adam and Eve.  By choosing to satisfy their own prideful desires instead of fulfilling their calling to become ever more like God in holiness, they ushered in the cycle of birth and death that has enslaved every generation.  But instead of leaving us captive to corruption, God prepared across the centuries to restore us to the ancient dignity for which He created us in the first place. Joachim and Anna were a righteous, elderly Jewish couple who, like Abraham and Sarah, longed for a child.  God heard their fervent prayers and gave them Mary, whom they dedicated to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem.  That is where she grew up in preparation to become the Living Temple of the Lord when she miraculously contained Christ in her womb.
We call Mary “Theotokos” precisely because the One Whom she bore is truly divine, the eternal Son of God.  We call her the New Eve because she gave birth to the New Adam in Whom our calling to become like God in holiness is fulfilled.  As the God-Man, He united humanity and divinity in Himself, making it possible for us to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  The first Eve chose her own will over God’s and gave birth to those enslaved to death, beginning with Cain and Abel.  The New Eve said “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word” and gave birth to the One Who conquered death. 
As St. Paul knew, Christ’s healing of our fallen humanity is so profound that we become through Him “a new creation.”  The references to Adam and Eve are especially fitting in this context, for we cannot understand the gravity of our healing if we do not recognize the depths of our sickness.  Unlike the Judaizers who wanted Gentile converts to be circumcised, St. Paul saw that corrupt humanity, whether Jew or Gentile, was enslaved to death, the wages of sin.  Our problem is not so slight that we need only a few rituals or rules to improve us.  No, as the Savior told Nicodemus, we need to be reborn.  We need to move from death to life.  That is why Christ offered Himself in free obedience on the Cross:  in order to raise us up from the tomb as participants in the eternal life for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  He did not come to condemn the world, but to save it—and all of us-- as a new creation.
The good news of Christ’s salvation is so glorious that we do not want to leave out any dimension of how He has set right all that has gone wrong with humanity across the ages.  We want to tell this beautiful story in full detail--past, present and future.  Since He had to be a real human being in order to save real human beings, Jesus Christ had to have a mother.  At one level, that is simply a fact of what it means to be human.  But as we know from St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, He also had to have a mother who freely welcomed Him into her life.  He had to have a mother who chose to obey God’s calling to her, even though she could not have possibly known all that her agreement would mean.  Mary did not know how a virgin could become pregnant and give birth while remaining a virgin.  Well, who does?  But her humble, trusting obedience played a crucial role in how salvation came into the world.  He could not have been the God-Man unless he was born of a woman.  He could not have become the Second Adam were it not for the consent of the New Eve.
The Theotokos’ birth resonates beautifully with so much Old Testament imagery.  She was miraculously conceived by an elderly couple whose barrenness represents the pain and despair of a world enslaved to sin and death.  Joachim and Anna could not overcome childlessness by themselves, even as we cannot overcome the grave by our own power.   God’s blessing on their intimate union in conceiving the Theotokos is a sign of the healing of the frustrations of the relationship between man and woman, which also result from the rebellion of our first parents.  Like Abraham and Sarah, they had to wait for a very long time, but finally God gave them a child. As Hannah did with Samuel, they gave the child to God in the Temple, where she grew up in preparation to receive Christ into her life in a unique way as His Living Temple. The promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ and extend to all with faith in Him.  The Theotokos’ birth is a crucial dimension of how God prepared for the fulfillment of those promises.  We cannot tell the story of Christ without also telling hers.
 If we want the best example of what it means to become “a new creation” in Him, we need only look to her as the first and model Christian who, like St. Paul, did not “glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”  Nothing about the Theotokos’ life was a conventional religious accomplishment that drew the praise of others at the time.   She is the mother of One Who was crucified as a blasphemer and a traitor. She saw Him on the Cross with her own eyes.  As St. Symeon told the Theotokos at Christ’s presentation in the Temple, “a sword will pierce your soul as well.” (Luke 2:35) But it was precisely through the horror of the Cross that the Savior brought the world into the new day of the Kingdom.  He makes us “a new creation” not by giving us mere rules and rituals by which we can try make ourselves worthy or respectable, but by enabling us to become participants in the great victory He won through His crucifixion and resurrection.
In order to accept that high calling, we must be willing to die to all that holds us back from playing our role in fulfilling God’s purposes for the new creation.  Like Joachim and Anna, we must be prayerful and patient.  Like the Theotokos, we must say “yes” even when we cannot have a full understanding of what it will mean to obey.  In all things, we must unite ourselves to the Lord in His great Self-Offering on the Cross, and refuse to base our lives on anything or anyone else.  We should remove from our lives anything that we cannot offer to Him for blessing.  We should welcome into our lives every opportunity to become more like Him in holiness.  In other words, we should move in Him from death to life.  The point is not to become conventionally religious or morally impressive, but to embrace the salvation He worked on the Cross that extends to you and me, as well as to the rest of the world.   For His death truly is our life, our birth into the new creation of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Rejecting Self-Centered Idolatry Through Love for Christ and Our Neighbors: Homily for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost and the 13th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 16:13-24; Matthew 21:33-42
                      As with anything else in life, it is possible to make religion simply a means of getting what we want.  Self-centeredness is a subtle temptation that so easily distorts even our highest commitments.  We must be constantly on guard against making everything about ourselves, for otherwise we will easily fall into a form of idolatry in which we attempt to use God and everyone around us for our own purposes.
That is what the tenants did in our Lord’s parable of the vineyard.  They did not own the vineyard, but were leasing it out with the arrangement that the landlord would get his fruit at harvest time.  But when he sent servants to collect the fruit, the tenants beat and killed them.  They did the same thing to the next group of servants that he sent, and ultimately killed the landlord’s son because they wanted to take his inheritance.  In other words, they wanted not only all the fruit, but the vineyard itself.  They showed no respect for anyone and would stop at nothing to fulfill their greedy desires.
Christ spoke this parable against the Sadducees and Pharisees in the days leading up to His crucifixion.  Right before this parable, St. Matthew reports that the Lord said that tax collectors and prostitutes would enter the Kingdom of God before those who had so terribly distorted the faith of Israel for the sake of their own power.  He had also recently cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem by chasing out those who had made God’s house a den of thieves. The religious leaders of the Jews rejected Him as the Messiah, handing Him over to crucifixion by the Romans, because He was a threat to their influence, status, and goals.  In doing so, the Lord foretold in the parable that they were rejecting the corner stone, the very foundation, of their life in God.
In today’s epistle reading, St. Paul calls the Gentile Christians of Corinth to a very different way of life. They were not physical descendants of the Hebrews of the Old Testament, but had become their spiritual heirs through faith in Christ.  The promises to Abraham have been extended and fulfilled in our Lord, Who is the Savior of all Who turn to Him with humble faith and repentance. As those grafted into the olive tree of Israel, the Gentile Christians stood on the one true foundation of Christ, the true Corner Stone, in Whom even strangers and foreigners have become “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” (1 Pet. 2:9)
St. Paul exhorts them to “be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, and be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”  As a former Pharisee, he knew how easily even the best religious teachings and practices may be distorted by self-centeredness, pride, and a desire for power over others.  The Corinthians had massive spiritual problems, but he holds up to them the example of “the household of Stephanas” in their devotion “to the service of the saints.”  He reminds the people to obey and honor those who embody such faithfulness.  He stresses the importance of keeping love for Christ at the heart of their common life: “If anyone has no love for the Lord, let him be accursed.”  St. Paul knew that the Corinthians desperately needed good examples to follow, even as he knew how the faith could be so easily distorted by those driven by self-love instead of love for Christ.  He instructed the Corinthians to be on guard against anything that distracted them from loving God with every ounce of their being and loving their neighbors as themselves.   And, of course, the Lord Himself had taught that, if we love Him, we will keep His commandments.  (John 14:15)
The contrast between the selfishness of the tenants in the parable and the way of life to which Christ calls us could not be more stark.  On the one hand, we encounter those who are so consumed with selfishness and disregard for others that they will even kill innocent people.  The Lord spoke this parable against those who rejected and crucified Him in the name of their religion and nation.  They were the respectable religious leaders of their day and enjoyed their position and influence.  They wanted a Messiah who served their agendas, and they could not tolerate One Who showed compassion to sinners, blessed Gentiles and Samaritans, and proclaimed a Kingdom not of this world in which “the last will be the first, and the first will be last.” (Matt. 20:16)   So just as the tenants in the parable killed the son of the landlord in order to get what they wanted, those who had corrupted the faith of Israel conspired to kill the Son of God.
Here we have a reminder of where the self-centered distortion of religion inevitably leads: to an idolatry so profound that it rejects the true God.  It not only refuses to worship Him, but does its best to reject Him completely, to make Him totally irrelevant to how we live our lives.  The danger, of course, is that it is so easy to keep up the illusion that we are serving God even as we reject Him, when we do so in the name of religion. That is why the idolaters of every generation who place nation, race, or any group or goal before the way of Christ may actually believe that they serve the Lord in Whom “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) In reality, however, we turn away from Him and bring judgment upon ourselves when we proclaim our righteousness even as we fail to see His image and likeness in every human person.  Like the Sadducees and Pharisees of old, we will end up rejecting the true Corner Stone of our life in God if we live that way. 
His Eminence, Metropolitan JOSEPH, has directed all the parishes of our Archdiocese to take up a collection this month for the victims of Hurricane Harvey.  The lives of millions of people have been disrupted by the storm and thousands have lost their homes and livelihoods.  It has been inspiring to see so many average people in boats and trucks doing what they can to rescue complete strangers out of the goodness of their hearts.  Even though our parish is small and can barely meet its own budget, we must all do what we can to give sacrificially to love and serve Christ in those who have become “the least of these” as a result of this great disaster.
Of course, we are not billionaires who can give massive amounts and meet great needs.  Instead, we are like the disciples with their few loaves and fish before a hungry multitude of thousands.  Like them, we simply have to offer to Him what we can, trusting that He will make it an abundant blessing in ways that we never could by our own power.
We must also remember the impact upon ourselves of making whatever small donations we can to help our needy neighbors.  The Church has always known that almsgiving is a powerful tool for fighting self-centeredness, for helping us learn to redirect our love from ourselves to the Lord and our neighbors.  It is a way of investing ourselves in the life of the Kingdom and of offering ourselves for the fulfillment of God’s purposes in the world.  In doing so, we guard against the selfish distortion of religion that we see in those who rejected Christ in the first century and those who reject Him today by worshiping nation, politics, race, money, or any other human goal.  By offering even a small portion of our resources out of love for Christ in our neighbors, we open ourselves more fully to the eternal life of the One Who offered Himself on the Cross for the salvation of the entire world.   He is love, and we unite ourselves more fully to Him when we put off serving our own desires in order to meet the needs of others with humble faith.
So unlike the tenants in the parable, let us offer the fruit of our labors to the Lord out of obedient love.  That is how we will find healing from the self-centeredness that can so easily turn religion into nothing but idolatry.  If we do not want to end up rejecting Christ in the name of a corrupt religion, we must follow St. Paul’s advice: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, and be strong.  Let all that you do be done in love.”

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Grace Overcomes Shame: Homily for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost and the 12th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians. 15:1-11; Matthew 19:16-26
We all need a good wake-up call from time to time.  It is easy to shut our eyes to the truth and to become blind to what is actually going on in our lives.  On the question of where we stand in relation to God, it sometimes takes a real shock to wake us up.  And once our eyes are opened a bit to truths we do not particularly like, we have to be careful not to run away in shame and despair.
            The rich young ruler in today’s gospel text had apparently fallen into the illusion that he had perfectly obeyed God’s requirements.  He must have had a very superficial understanding of them, of course, to say that he had already mastered them.  We know from Christ’s interpretation of the commandments in the Sermon on the Mount that they call us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.  And who can claim to have achieved that?  The Lord shocked this fellow out of his illusions of holiness by giving him a commandment that he would find impossibly hard to obey.  “Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  The Savior gave him this test because the man loved his wealth so much.  He went away in sorrow because his eyes had been opened to how he was devoted more to himself and his money than to God and his neighbors.  The Lord did not condemn him, but told the surprised disciples that “with God all things are possible,” even the salvation of someone so strongly tempted to the idolatry of wealth.
            St. Paul had something in common with the superficial righteousness of the rich young ruler, for he had been a Pharisee who had persecuted the Church.  He had been an expert in the kind of self-righteous, hypocritical legalism that Christ so clearly rejected.  The Lord opened his eyes to the truth by blinding him on the road to Damascus, and He then empowered Paul for a ministry no one could have anticipated for a former Pharisee as the apostle to the Gentiles. The Lord had made Paul an apostle by miraculously appearing to him, even though Paul knew that he in no way deserved such a high honor.  Indeed, he referred to himself as the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). But instead of being paralyzed by shame, Paul accepted that “by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain.”  He knew that whatever he accomplished was not somehow his own achievement, but the grace of God working through him.
            St. Paul recognized that the grace he had received was not something he had earned or deserved in any way.  Grace is a divine energy of our Lord; it is His healing mercy that we receive through faith, repentance, and love.  To receive grace is to share in His life as much as is possible for human beings.  When we think of our salvation in those terms, the focus moves from what we can accomplish by our own power and toward what our Lord is doing through us.  Of course, we must cooperate with His gracious presence in our lives, but we must never fall into the fantasy of thinking that the healing of our souls is simply or even primarily about what we can accomplish by trying really hard according to our own designs.
            St. Paul learned that decisively when the Lord appeared to him in blinding light on the road to Damascus.  How could he have taken credit for such a miracle?  And Paul must have wondered often how he had been blessed to move from being a persecutor of the Church to one of its greatest leaders.  In today’s epistle lesson, he reminds us to have the humility to accept the reality of our lives as he did.  “But by the grace of God I am what I am” writes Paul.  He knew that his life in Christ was not a reward for perfect behavior, but a sign of the Lord’s great mercy even for the chief of sinners.  Perhaps that is why, unlike the rich young ruler, Paul did not go away in sorrow when he recognized the weakness and brokenness of his soul.  Instead, he used this awareness to open himself in humility to the Lord Who died and rose again in order to save people who could not save themselves.   
            If we pay attention at all to the prayers, services, teachings, and readings of the Orthodox Church, we will know that we are nowhere near mastering what God requires of us.  Our vocation to holiness is infinite, for we are called to become radiant with the transforming energies of our Lord, shining like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.   And since the fullness of that transformation means being perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, this is obviously not a goal that we can ever say that we have met. Whenever we need a guard against self-righteousness, we do not have to look very hard in order to find it.
            Many of us, however, do not struggle so much with self-righteousness as with despair.  When we hear such high descriptions of a holy life or learn about the good example of the Saints, we may be overcome with shame at the brokenness of our lives and with a sense of hopelessness that we could ever become pleasing to God.  We may become just like the rich young ruler who could not accept the severe tension between Christ’s command and his own desires and habits.
To do so reflects a subtle form of pride, for shame is essentially the hurt pride of not being able to get over ourselves.  It is a form of distorted self-love that cannot humbly accept that we all stand in constant need of the Lord’s mercy as the chief of sinners.  It is a refusal to forgive ourselves for not being perfect on our own terms.  It is the obsession of judging ourselves by our own standards.  And since the focus remains squarely upon us and not on Christ, it is not surprising that this kind of shame leads to despair.  As long as we are paralyzed by self-love, we will never open ourselves to the healing mercies of our Lord.  And there is no way that we can conquer the power of sin and death in our lives by our own ability.
            St. Paul shows us a far better way to respond to our deep regret about our sins and personal brokenness.  If anyone had reason to despair of finding healing in Christ, it would have been this former Pharisee and persecutor of the Church.  But instead of judging himself by his own standards, Paul used the awareness of his grave sins to open himself to receive the unfathomable mercy of the Lord, which extended even to the likes of him.  He gave up self-righteous illusions about making himself worthy and instead relied on the mercy of the One at work through him.
“With God, all things are possible,” even for someone like St. Paul to become radiant with holiness by grace. The same is true for the rich young rulers of the world, for those who have had their illusions of perfection shattered, and for those who cannot imagine how God’s mercy could ever extend to them.  To become like Paul, we must crucify our shame and despair, confessing with that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). That is really the only way to get over ourselves and in humility to become participants in His great victory over sin and death.  If we choose obsession with our own failures instead of humble faith in the Lord’s mercy, we turn away from the healing of our souls that the Savior extends to those who come to Him with faith, repentance, and love. How tragic it would be for us to reject Him out of the wounded pride that is our shame.  How truly blessed it is to say with Paul that “by the grace of God I am what I am,” even as we trust in the divine mercy that we definitely do not deserve.  That is the only way not to walk away in sorrow when we see the truth of where we stand before the Lord.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Transfigured in Humility: Homily for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost and the 10th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 4:9-16; Matthew 17:14-23

It is always easier to identify other people’s weaknesses than to take a close look at our own.  That is primarily because of our pride, our addiction to self-centeredness that makes us not want to give up whatever exalted illusions about ourselves have taken root in our souls.  It is perhaps the most subtle of temptations, for we can become proud even of how well we think that we confess and repent of our sins. 

            St. Paul blasted the pride of the factions in Corinth by reminding them what a true apostle looked like.  Instead of basking in religious glory, true servants of the Lord looked like fools, weak and dishonored by earthly standards.  Just think for a moment about St. Paul’s life, from his astounding conversion to Christianity to his constant suffering for the Church and ultimately his death as a martyr.  He must have appeared insane to most people in his time and place.  But it was because of the true humility of putting faithfulness to Jesus Christ first in his life that St. Paul could say with integrity to the Corinthians that they should imitate him.     

            In our gospel reading today, the Lord challenged the wounded pride of the disciples, who were disappointed that they had lacked the spiritual authority to cast out the demon and heal the boy.  Imagine how humbling it must have been for them to hear the Messiah say, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you?  How long am I to bear with you?”  He set them straight by saying that they had no faith, not even as much as a tiny mustard seed.  Instead of wondering why they could not work miracles, they needed to humble themselves through prayer and fasting if they were to be transfigured such that they would gain authority over the powers of evil.  

            As we conclude our celebration of the Transfiguration of the Lord today, our Scripture readings remind us of the dangers of presuming that we already shine brightly with the light of Christ.   Too often we assume that success according to some worldly standard is the same thing as holiness.  But when we take a close look at the lives of the saints, we do not see merely a good life according to passing cultural expectations of whatever kind.  Instead, we see people who embody humility in ways that should make us all earnestly confess and repent of our pride.

Since we are preparing through fasting to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, it is especially fitting today to remember her extraordinary example of humility and obedience.  The Theotokos agreed to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God, something that made absolutely no sense according to normal ways of thinking in our world.  She became His Temple in a unique way when Christ was in her womb, and then she loved and served Him throughout His life and ministry, including through His death and resurrection. She is the first and model Christian.  At the end of the Mother of God’s earthly life, the Apostles were miraculously assembled in her presence. St. Thomas, however, arrived three days late.  When her tomb was opened for him to pay his last respects, her body was not there.  Even as she was the first to accept Christ into her life, she was the first to follow Him as a whole, complete person into the Kingdom of Heaven.  She leads the way for us as Christians in this world and in the world to come.

We pray and fast in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition because we want to become more like her.   There is surely no better way to become transfigured by the gracious divine energies of our Savior than to imitate His Mother.  She grew up in purity in the Temple at Jerusalem, where she was fed by angels.  She is the epitome of the prayer and fasting that the Lord said His disciples needed in order to open themselves to His divine power.  That is how she developed the spiritual clarity and strength to say “yes” to the astounding message that she was to become the Virgin Mother of the Son of God.  Of course, her story makes no sense according to the conventional standards of the world.  Even more so than St. Paul, the Theotokos is a “fool for Christ’s sake” because many people then, as now, scoff at her virgin conception of the Savior.   The same is surely true about the miraculous characteristics of her Dormition.

 The question that we all face is whether we will proudly cling to our own illusions about ourselves and our place in the world as we stand before the holy mystery of Jesus Christ, the Son of God Who shines eternally with brilliant light that we do not yet have the eyes behold.  His glory is not yet obvious to us.  That is why it requires faith to fall before Him in humble repentance as we open ourselves to His gracious healing power from the depths of our souls through prayer and fasting.

In order to turn away from self-centeredness to Christ-centeredness, we must become fools who devote time and energy each day to commune with a Lord we do not see with our eyes in the world as we know it.  So we must pray.  We must go against society’s expectations and our own desires by regularly refusing to indulge our taste buds and stomachs with the richest and most satisfying foods. In other words, we must fast.   We must act in ways that will appear crazy in the eyes of many people today, such as reserving sexual intimacy only for marriage as blessed in the Church and refusing to consume pornography or any other media or entertainment that inflames our passions.  We must give generously to the poor, forgive our enemies, welcome the stranger, and refuse to allow stupid distinctions between people—such as politics or race-- to keep us from treating every human being—from the womb to the tomb-- as one created in God’s image and likeness.  No matter what may be popular or appealing, we must sacrifice to live as those being transfigured in holiness by God’s grace.

We must come to terms with the fact that doing so is never easy and will always be a struggle.  There is much in all of us that prefers the darkness of sin to the light of holiness.  We would often rather be miserable in prideful isolation than embrace the healing mercy of Christ in humility.  We would often prefer forms of religion accommodated to worldly success and well-being than to the kind of sacrificial obedience that we see in the Theotokos, St. Paul, and all the saints.  But at the end of the day, we have to decide whether we would rather be part of a “faithless and perverse generation” that cowers in fearful weakness before the corruptions of evil in our lives or like the young Palestinian Jewish girl who changed the history of the universe by bravely saying “yes” to a calling that seemed, and still seems, insane by the standards of the corrupt world.

Let us conclude our celebration of the Transfiguration by opening ourselves to the strength and holiness of our Savior, which shone so brightly throughout the life of the Theotokos.  In order to do that, we must humbly focus on uniting ourselves to Christ as we disregard temptations to self-centeredness in any form and to worrying about the conventional wisdom of our society.  If we want, by God’s grace, to shine with holy light, we must first become fools who, through prayer and fasting, simply want to love and serve our Lord with every ounce of our being.  In other words, we need to become like His Mother, the first and model Christian who has shown us how to welcome the Savior into our lives and to follow Him into the glory of the heavenly Kingdom.  Remember this:  To follow her example is to be transfigured.  


Monday, August 7, 2017

Seeing is Believing: Homily for the Transfiguration in the Orthodox Church

2 Peter 1:10-19; Matthew 17:1-9
           Seeing is believing.  It is one thing to hear an interesting story or to entertain a bright idea. It is far different, however, to encounter an event or to participate in a situation such that we know its truth and are changed as a result.  That is precisely what the apostles Peter, James, and John experienced on Mount Tabor when they were enabled to behold the divine glory of Jesus Christ, Who shone brightly with light as the voice of the Father identified Him as His beloved Son.
St. Peter writes in today’s epistle reading that he did not proclaim “cleverly devised myths” about Christ, for those who beheld the Transfiguration “were eyewitnesses of His majesty.”  The gospels make clear that the disciples were not looking for a Messiah Who was truly divine, but for a righteous national leader like King David.  Peter famously rejected the Lord’s prediction of His crucifixion and denied Him three times.  He was restored as the chief apostle and went to his death as a martyr, not because he had made up stories about a crucified and risen Lord, but because the Savior had revealed Himself to Peter as truly the Son of God.  And he surely did not understand the full meaning of the Transfiguration when it occurred, as it was not until after the resurrection that Christ “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (Lk 24:27)   Indeed, the Lord said to Peter, James, and John, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is risen from the dead.”  It was only from the perspective of the resurrection, which no one anticipated, that the disciples could understand what it meant for Christ to be the Son of God.
The truth revealed at the Transfiguration may not be conveyed simply in words or ideas.  It had to be seen, heard, and experienced in a way that made Peter, James, and John participants as whole persons in the divine glory. The Lord graciously opened the eyes of their souls, filling them with the divine energies such that they could catch a glimpse of His holy majesty.  He enabled them to hear the voice of the Father, and like Moses before the Burning Bush, they fell on their faces “and were filled with awe.”  As is shown by the disappearance of Moses and Elijah, He enabled them to see His superiority to the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. They did not simply have thoughts or feelings about Christ; no, they truly experienced Him from the depths of their souls as the Son of God.
The change that occurred that day was not in the Lord Himself, Who is eternally radiant with the divine glory in a way beyond our comprehension.  The change was in the disciples, for Christ opened the eyes of their souls to behold His infinite holiness, to the extent that they were able as human beings.   If we observe this feast simply by celebrating the doctrinal teaching of Christ’s divinity or the great mystical experience of the apostles, we will have excluded ourselves from the full meaning of this event.  For as in all feasts of the Church, the point is not simply to look back at what happened long ago.  It is, instead, to enter into the eternal truth that is revealed.   And on this great day of the Transfiguration, the only appropriate way to celebrate is to cooperate with the gracious divine energies of our Lord so that we also will behold His divine glory.  That means that we too must become transfigured through personal union with the Son of God such that His eternal majesty permeates our existence, making us shine brightly like an iron left in the fire.
As with Peter, who rejected the Lord’s prediction of His death and then denied Him three times, we might well prefer another kind of religion with expectations not quite so high.  Shining with the uncreated light may be more than we want to pursue.  It may be more appealing to follow an imaginary King David in waging war against those we consider our enemies and to set up a social order that rewards those we think are righteous like ourselves.  Maybe we would prefer someone pretending to be Moses or Elijah who would provide instructions that we think good people like us can easily follow on how to live differently from those we like to condemn.  Such sentiments are terrible misinterpretations, of course.  These Old Testament saints never pointed to some easy kind of self-serving religion, but were misinterpreted in first-century Palestine by those who worshiped an earthly kingdom or their own self-righteousness.  If we go down that path, we will end up repudiating Christ as surely as did those idolaters.
The only fitting way to celebrate the Transfiguration is by embracing as fully as possible the countless opportunities that we have to grow in holiness as we open the eyes of our souls to participate in the glory of God by grace.  I have a warning for you, however.  If the thought ever occurs to you, “Gosh, I’m becoming really holy now,” pay it no attention at all and instead say the Jesus Prayer or at least focus your mind on something other than your own deluded thoughts until it goes away.  The more transfigured we are in holiness, the more aware we will be of our sinfulness and the infinite distance between our current spiritual state and the perfection to which our Lord calls us.  The path to shining with light begins with a humble, honest acceptance of the darkness in our lives.  The path also continues along that route.  That is precisely why we need to be transfigured so that we, who are filled with darkness, will become radiant with the brilliant light of the Lord.  But we must be prepared:  the more you step into His light, the more obvious the spots of darkness will be.  The better focused the eyes of our souls are, the more we will be aware of our need for His healing and strength.
A very common temptation, then, is to give up.  Why pray, when our minds wander?  Why fast, when we become obsessed with food?  Why come to Confession, when we fall right back into our familiar sins?  Why try to do anything pleasing to God, when it does not give us what we want?  Well, that is the problem.  As long as we think about getting the spiritual results that we want on our schedule and in our own way, we will not be transfigured in holiness.  We will, instead, remain captive to some form of idolatrous spiritual pride that will blind us to the truth of where stand before the Lord.
If we want to enter into the joy of this great feast of our salvation, we must persistently walk into the light by opening the eyes of our souls to the blinding glory of our Savior.  We will often not like what we see in ourselves as a result, but by stumbling forward as best we can, constantly calling out for His mercy, the Lord will change, strengthen, and purify us.  In ways that we cannot yet understand, He will make us “a lamp shining in a dark place” that gives light and hope to a world that so desperately needs to be healed by union with His gracious divine energies.  The message of this feast is not to lose heart, but to press on in faithfulness.  For the darkness is simply the absence of light and a sign that we have yet more room to embrace the blessed life of Christ.
We celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord already knowing of His resurrection, by which He has illumined even the tomb.  Let this sink in:  There is no darkness in our souls or in our world that our crucified and risen Lord cannot make radiant with His gracious divine energies.  We must, however, do our part by opening the darkness in our lives to His healing light.  Even as we stumble and fall, we must continue to do so with abiding trust in His mercy for blind sinners such as ourselves.  For though we do not yet have the eyes to see it, that is how our gracious Lord will make us shine with holy light for our salvation and that of the entire world.  Let us join St. Peter, then, in living as “eyewitnesses of His majesty.”  For seeing is believing.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Eucharistic Context of Pastoral Response to Contemporary Challenges in Marriage, Family, and Sexuality

 [Introductory Note:  The short paper below was my presentation at a recent symposium on contemporary pastoral issues in sexuality held in the Netherlands.]  

          The celebration of the Eucharist provides a necessary context for understanding the pastoral response of the Orthodox Church to contemporary challenges in marriage, family, and sexuality.  As St. Nicholas Cabasilas commented on the Eucharist, “its aim is the sanctification of the faithful.”[1]   Likewise, the aim of the union of husband and wife is their sanctification, their participation in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Even as the Church enters mystically into the eschatological reign in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, the married couple become participants in the heavenly banquet through their common life in Christ.  Through both Eucharist and marriage, human beings participate in the fulfillment of their ancient vocation to become like God in holiness.
Themes of offering, sacrifice, blessing, and communion are intrinsic dimensions of both sacraments.  These holy mysteries also manifest the fulfillment of basic human desires and needs for life and love.  Bread and wine become nourishment for eternal life, while conjugal union becomes an entrance into the heavenly bridal chamber.  Due to the physical dimensions of each practice, communicants and spouses share as whole persons in the restoration of their humanity as they direct their hearts for fulfillment in God. Since the “one flesh” relationship between husband and wife serves as a sign of the relationship between Christ and the Church, their union is to become nothing less than an icon of the salvation of the world. (Eph. 5: 31-32)
After describing how the “one flesh” union of marriage includes husband, wife, and child, St. John Chrysostom notes that “Our relationship to Christ is the same; we become one flesh with Him through communion…”[2] St. Nicholas Cabasilas also affirmed that, through the Eucharist and the other holy mysteries, “Christ comes into us and dwells in us, He is united to us and grows into one with us” such that we “become one flesh with Him.”[3]   These points of commonality reflect how the conjugal union of the couple is taken up into their communion with Christ in the Eucharist.  This is how their “one flesh” union with one another becomes an entrance into the messianic banquet, for they are also “one flesh” with the Bridegroom. Hence, their embodied common life is to become a radiant sign of the fulfillment of the relationship between man and woman, for they wear together the crowns of the heavenly kingdom as they orient themselves together toward Paradise. The Church does not view this marital path as an extraordinary calling for a few exceptionally pious people, but as God’s intention for married couples in fulfillment of the ancient vocation to become like God in holiness.   
The Eucharist has played a prominent role in how the Church has blessed marriages across the centuries.  At first, a marriage was blessed by the bishop when the couple communed together in the assembly.  By the fourth century, there is evidence of couples being crowned in the eucharistic liturgy.  A marriage rite separate from the celebration of the Eucharist developed in the ninth and tenth centuries in response to an imperial demand that only marriages solemnized in the Church would have legal standing.  In this context, a non-eucharistic rite of marriage developed for those canonically prohibited from receiving Communion.  The connection of marriage and Eucharist remained, however.  A marriage rite in which “worthy” couples received the reserved Sacrament continued in some places until the fifteenth century, while the “unworthy” received simply a common cup of wine.  These practices are clearly reminiscent of the Eucharistic liturgy, as are many other dimensions of the contemporary wedding service.[4] 
Due to the intersection of Eucharist and marriage, pastoral challenges abound.  Even as prayers of preparation to receive Communion stress the communicant’s unworthiness, spouses inevitably stumble in fulfilling their sublime calling.  When adultery gravely wounds a marriage or when divorce ends it, the Church responds pastorally by helping the spouses heal through repentance.  Exclusion from the Eucharist for a time is part of that process as a way of acknowledging that a break in marital communion is also a breach in communion with Christ.  This practice gives spouses time to gain the spiritual strength necessary to approach the chalice with a clear conscience and a renewed commitment to live a life in communion with the Lord. The Church’s blessing of a second or a third marriage is a merciful act of economia that enables those who have endured the brokenness of previous marriages, whether through divorce or widowhood, to bring another marital relationship into eucharistic union with Christ.  Even with the penitential prayers of the rite for second marriages, the bridal couple wears the crowns of the Kingdom.[5]  Through the wedding service, whether for first or subsequent marriages, the couple offers their physical union for blessing, most obviously in the prayers for fertility.
A common pastoral challenge today concerns parishioners who engage in sexual intimacy without being married. Sex for the unmarried typically occurs without the intention of permanence and lacks the sanctifying context of marriage.  Consequently, such relationships are not compatible with the “one flesh” union of the Eucharist. Those who repent of these actions require spiritual therapy to help them gain the strength to reorient their desires for intimate union toward God as they struggle to reserve sexual expression for the blessed state of marriage.  That may include exclusion from the Eucharist for a time as a sign of the need for healing from the damage done to one’s communion with Christ through sexual activity in a context of gratifying passions as opposed to pursuing sanctification with a spouse with whom one is united in the Lord.
In such situations, some parishioners will end their relationships, while others will begin the process of entering into marriage. Some clergy instruct cohabitating couples to cease living together for a time before blessing their marriages, while others advise only a period of sexual abstinence.  Such circumstances present opportunities for pastors to guide couples in confession, prayer, fasting, and other spiritual disciplines for the healing of their passions as they reorient their love and desire toward fulfillment in God.  Through such therapeutic processes, they may gain the spiritual health to offer themselves to the Lord and one another in a marriage oriented to the Kingdom.
More difficult pastoral situations arise in circumstances in which parishioners intend a permanent relationship that will not be blessed by the Church, including situations in which they have contracted a civil marriage.  In addition to familiar impediments such as the number of previous marriages or differences in religious affiliation between the spouses, today we face the challenges posed by members of the same sex who are civilly married or who cohabitate with the intention of permanence.  What such cases have in common is the reality of parishioners in marriages or other relationships not blessed by the Church and which exclude them from full participation in its life. For example, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America issued a directive on October 29, 2015, that Orthodox who marry outside the Church “voluntarily separate” themselves and may not receive Communion, serve as sponsors at baptisms, or hold any parish office.  His Eminence notes that “this applies in all cases,” whether marriage to persons of the same or the opposite sex.[6]
 Parishioners in some civil marriages may have their marriages blessed in the Church and return to the Eucharist.  Without that blessing, however, their marriages are not oriented to the Kingdom through crowning, the common cup, or other dimensions of the service that make marriage an entrance to the messianic banquet.  The spouses’ exclusion from the chalice reflects that their unions remain as water not turned into wine, for their “one flesh” union has not been brought into communion with Christ.[7]
We must be honest about the difficulty today of providing pastoral care to persons in marriages and relationships that will not be blessed in the Church.  Whether heterosexual or homosexual, parishioners in these circumstances may well have children and comprise a family together with their spouse or partner.  In light of changes in sexual mores in the recent past, alternative marital and familial relationships are now quite public, often having the legal recognition of civil marriage and being championed by activists and affirmed by popular culture. It is one thing to guide a parishioner who struggles, in ways not known publicly, with desires, actions, and relationships that fall short of the canonical standards of the Church in sexuality or other areas.  It is quite different, however, to respond pastorally to a parishioner who is in a legally sanctioned same-sex marriage or other civil marriage that cannot be blessed in the Church for whatever reason, especially in light of hierarchal directives that set very definite boundaries, for example, concerning reception of the Eucharist.    
Pastors should be proactive in helping parishioners understand and accept the importance of entering only into those marriages that may be oriented toward the Kingdom through the blessing of the Church.  They should guide them to bring every dimension of their interpersonal relationships into communion with Christ, which will require turning away from those that would exclude them from the Eucharist. They should patiently encourage those who remain in relationships that separate them from the chalice to pursue the healing of their souls as fully as they presently have the strength to do.   In “The Sacrament of Marriage and Its Impediments,” the Council of Crete taught that “The Church exerts all possible pastoral efforts to help her members who enter into… [same-sex unions or any other form of cohabitation] understand the true meaning of repentance and love as blessed by the Church.”[8] 
The goal of pastoral ministry is to equip the members of the Body to commune as “one flesh” with Christ in the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.  The communion of husband and wife with Christ in the Divine Liturgy should manifest His blessing upon their conjugal union as a sign of their vocation to enter the heavenly Bridal Chamber. Priests should guide their parishioners to pursue the healing of their souls in a way that accords with the profound intersections of marriage and Eucharist in the Orthodox Church.  Otherwise, they risk underwriting an unhealthy separation between the spouses’ union with one another and with Jesus Christ.

[1] St. Nicholas Cabasilas, A Commentary on the Divine Liturgy, J. M. Hussey and P. A. McNulty, trans.,  (Crestwood, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 25.
[2] St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 20,” On Marriage and Family Life, Catherine P Roth and David Anderson, trans., (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 51.
[3] St. Nicholas Cabasilas, 60-61.
[4] See Fr. John Meyendorff, Marriage:  An Orthodox Perspective (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 20-29; and Fr. John Chryssavgis, Love, Sexuality, and the Sacrament of Marriage (Brookline, MA:  Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2005), 45ff.
[5] Meyendorff, 44-47.
[6] “Metropolitan Joseph’s Archpastoral Directive on So-called ‘Same-Sex Marriage,’” accessed June 2, 2017,
[7] See Fr. Philip LeMasters, Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage and Sex (Minneapolis, MN:  Light & Life Publishing Co., 2004), 79 ff. for “An Orthodox Response to ‘Same-Sex Unions.’”
[8] “The Sacrament of Marriage and Its Impediments,” Official Documents of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, I/10, accessed June 2, 2017,