Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ascending with Wounds into Heavenly Glory: Homily for the Sunday After the Ascension in the Orthodox Church

John 17:1-13
With all the problems in the world today, as well as the challenges in our own lives and families, it is tempting to lose hope.  It is easy to think that the best we can do is simply to cope with the difficulties that we face from day to day.  We may think that there is no alternative to living in terms of whatever helps us make it through the day in the world as we know it.
            During this season of the Ascension, the Church calls us to an entirely different way of responding to our persistent challenges.  Our Savior did not only conquer death through His glorious resurrection, He also ascended into heaven with a glorified body that still bore the wounds of the crucifixion.  Now He sits at the right hand of the Father in eternal glory as the God-Man in Whom the very causes of our corruption are healed.  The Ascension fulfills our original vocation as human beings to become like God in holiness. Even as we are baptized into His death and rise up with Him into eternal life, Christ calls us to ascend with Him into the Kingdom of Heaven.  He makes us participants by grace in the blessed communion shared by the Holy Trinity.
That is not only a future hope, but also a present reality for the members of Christ’s Body, the Church, whom He nourishes with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we enter mystically into the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb.  When we unite ourselves to our Lord’s great Self-Offering, we offer ourselves as participants in His complete restoration of the human being and of the creation itself.  We offer not only bread and wine in the Liturgy, but ourselves and every dimension of our lives in the world for fulfillment as we share personally in His eternal life.  Because our Lord has ascended in glory as a complete human being Who is also divine, we may participate even now in such profound blessedness.  That is His will for each and every one of us.     
In order to do that, we must ascend with the Lord Who conquered death, “the wages of sin,” and brought even the wounds of crucifixion with Him as He sat down at the right hand of the Father in eternal glory. Instead of using our wounds, or those of our society and world, as reasons to think that God is cruel, irrelevant, or does not even exist, we must see the Ascension as a clear sign that death, destruction, and decay will not have the last word.  They do not shut us off from the blessedness that transcends what this world provides on its own terms.  Instead, it is in the midst of our deepest pains that we know the brokenness of our lives and relationships and find the strength to offer ourselves more fully to the Lord as we actually are in this world of corruption.
As long as we fool ourselves into thinking that all is well when we live according to our passions and familiar self-centered desires and habits, we will not be able to ascend with Christ.  For it is always the case that we must die to sin in order to rise up in holiness, that we must humbly repent in order to receive our Lord’s gracious healing.  He ascended after rising from the tomb, and we will ascend with Him when we share in the glory of His resurrection by turning away from the corrupting effects of sin and death.  If we remain wedded to them, we will remain captive to the distorted ways of the first Adam, the ways of this fallen world.  But if we die to them by uniting ourselves to our Lord in His journey from the cross to the heights of heaven, we will participate already in eternal blessedness even as we walk on this earth.
As the 318 Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea knew, only One Who is truly God is able to raise us up from captivity to this world of death into heavenly glory.  If Christ were merely a creature, He could never make us participants in the eternal life of God.  If He were not truly divine, His Body, the Church, would be simply another social organization operating like any other group.  But because He is “very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father by Whom all things were made” while also being fully human, every dimension of our humanity may become radiant with the brilliance of heaven through Him.
The Lord ascended with His glorified and wounded body.  Those wounds did not compromise His divinity or holiness, of course.  Indeed, it was through them that He conquered death and made clear that He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.  And our wounds, no matter what they are, do not shut us out of the Kingdom.  We must, however, offer those wounds to Him, opening them to the healing light of His gracious divine energies.  When they are the results of our sins, we must confess and repent in humility.  When they are not, we must learn to make them points of contact for ascending with Christ in holiness.  That requires that we learn to see what our wounds reveal about our lives, our relationships, and our world, no matter how difficult that is.   We then can make them entrances into heavenly glory when they become opportunities to grow in “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23) By offering even our darkest struggles to the Lord, we will ascend with Him to personal participation in His healing of our humanity.   
The same is true of our common life in the Church.  We will provide no credible witness to our neighbors if we do not visibly manifest a life of holiness that stands in stark contrast to the corrupt ways of a world enslaved to the fear of death.  We will not be able to speak of the Ascension with integrity unless we, as a community, become a living icon of loving union in Christ such that we are one in righteousness.  Both as a community and as particular people, we must be on guard against anything in our lives that distracts us from strengthening the Church as a sign that Christ has ascended and really does enable us all to rise up with Him into the life of heaven.  Anything that would hold us back from that high vision has no place in our lives, individually or collectively.  The more that we live out our unity in pursuing such a life, the more integrity we will have in inviting friends, neighbors, and strangers to join us as we enter in each Divine Liturgy into the heavenly banquet.  If we do not display the joy of the Ascension in our own lives each day, then we are very poor witnesses to the fullness of the Orthodox Christian faith.  The world already has enough religious organizations that do little more than help people feel better about themselves as they cope with life’s problems.  We must be something very different.  

Contrary to what many people in our culture think, the mission of the Church is not to provide us a means of escaping the world and its problems.  It is not to distract us for a couple of hours each week from our challenges or to make us think that they are somehow not real.  It is not to work us up into an emotional state that helps us feel better about ourselves.  Instead, the Body of Christ is to be a brilliant icon of what happens when this world, and its inhabitants with all their wounds, enters into heavenly glory.  Anything less is a failure to manifest in our common life the communion of love shared by the Holy Trinity. So let us all offer every aspect of our lives to our Lord Who has ascended in glory so that we may participate fully by grace in the joy that He shares eternally with His Unoriginate Father and the All-Holy and Good and Life-Giving Spirit, to Whom be all glory, laud, and honor, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.             

Sunday, May 21, 2017

We Must Obey in Order to See: Homily for the Sunday of the Blind Man in the Orthodox Church

John 9:1-38
             Christ is Risen!  
             Seeing is believing.  There are many things in life that we will not accept unless we see them with our own eyes.  And there are some things that we have to learn how to see because they are not obvious to the untrained eye.  It often takes experience to see something rightly, to understand its true significance.  If that is true in everyday life, it is all the more the case in how we know God.
            We began our celebration of Pascha several weeks ago when we saw the light of a flame in the darkness of midnight.  Until the brilliant light of the Savior’s resurrection, humanity wandered in spiritual blindness as a result of being enslaved to corruption.  “The wages of sin is death,” and the darkness of the tomb had reigned supreme since the fall of Adam and Eve.  Like the man born blind in today’s gospel reading, our capacity to participate in the blessed holiness for which we were created was grossly deformed.   Enslaved to the fear of death and cast out of Paradise, we were all held prisoner by the darkness of the tomb which extended to the depths of our souls.   
            In sharp contrast to that darkness, we celebrate in this glorious season of Pascha that the light of Christ shines even from the grave and extends to the darkest dimensions of our lives and relationships.  To be radiant with the light of the resurrection is what it means to know God.  To know Him is not merely to have religious ideas or emotions about Him, but truly to share by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  It is to have the eyes of our souls cleansed, to have our minds illumined such that we move from darkness to light.  The change is certainly not in our Lord, but in us who rise with Him from death to life, from the dark night of sin to the brilliant light of holiness.   
            This great blessing is not something that we give ourselves, but which our Lord has made possible as the God-Man Who unites divinity and humanity in Himself.  That is how He heals us, personally taking upon Himself all the consequences of our corruption, even to the point of death, in order to conquer them through His resurrection.  He brings every dimension and capability of the human person into His divine life, making us radiant with the holy glory that we share by grace.  That is what it means to be truly human in His image and likeness.
When Christ spat on the ground and made clay to anoint the eyes of the blind man, He gave us a sign of how He restored us through His Incarnation, His entry into our world of flesh and blood, which was necessary for our healing.  The blind man’s sight was restored when he obeyed Christ’s command to wash in water, which is a sign of how He illumines us in baptism.  Of course, we are baptized into the Lord’s death in order to rise up with Him into a life of holiness.
Our spiritual sight is not restored by denying our bodily limitations or the reality of the physical struggles that we face, whether illness, poverty, or anything else.  Instead, our Risen Lord heals our souls when we offer ourselves fully to Him in obedience.  The blind man in today’s gospel lesson did what the Lord told to Him to do, walking to the pool of Siloam and washing off the clay from His eyes.  He had to obey Christ’s command by doing something that involved his whole person.  That is how he overcame the blindness with which he had been born. Even though he thought of the Lord as only a prophet at that point, the man quickly professed faith in Him when the Lord told him His true identity.  As Christ said of Himself as the Son of God to the man, “You have seen Him, and it is He who speaks to you.”
            As Orthodox Christians, we routinely make bold claims about seeing the true light and beholding the resurrection of Christ.  We employ the sense of sight in the worship of God with icons, crosses, candles, vestments, and in many other ways.  We put on Christ like a garment in baptism and are filled personally with the Holy Spirit in chrismation.  We receive our Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion, as we participate already in the Heavenly Banquet.  He is the Bridegroom and, as His Church, we are His Bride and members of His own Body.  We do not think of Him as only a prophet or a righteous man, but know that He is truly the Son of God.  There is no question, then, that He has restored our sight, giving us all the ability to embrace Him from the depths of our souls.  He has done for us what we could never do simply by ourselves, even as someone born blind could never give himself sight.
            Imagine how great our responsibility is, then, to open the eyes of our souls as fully as possible to the light of Christ.  For as He is infinitely holy, there is no upward limit to the holiness to which He calls us.  Even as the healing of our bodies is a process that requires our cooperation and effort, the same is true with the healing of our souls.  The blind man had to exercise what little faith he had at first by obeying Christ’s command.   That was how he put himself in the place to receive such a miraculous blessing.  And though we do not know the rest of his story, that was surely only the beginning of his journey.  He had to live as one whose eyes had been opened by the mercy of the Lord.
If we are truly to enter into the holy joy of Pascha, we must follow the example of the man born blind.  Our spiritual vision remains far from perfect, but our Risen Lord has given us all that we need to become radiant with His brilliant and holy light.  That happens when we know and experience Him from the depths of our souls, which requires offering ourselves to Him through humble obedience in our daily lives. That means joining ourselves to His great victory over death by opening even the darkest and most difficult areas of our personalities and relationships to His healing light.  There is no way to do that without living as our Lord taught, which means turning away from all that obscures His light in us, from all that keeps us captive to the darkened ways of sin and corruption that we find so appealing.   
As we prepare to move from Pascha to the Ascension, let us discern where we persist in darkness and what we need to do in order to obey our Lord more faithfully as we rise with Him from the grave to the heights of heavenly glory.  Let us grow in our personal participation by grace in the life of Christ by living daily as those who have beheld the glory of His resurrection and who have seen the true light.  The Savior has already done the miraculous for us by conquering death.   Now it is our responsibility to respond faithfully as we open ourselves to the Light Who shines so brightly that He overcomes even the darkest tomb.  And as hard as it is to believe, He will illumine even the darkest and most corrupt dimension of our lives, if we will only offer ourselves to Him in humble, trusting obedience each day.
  The good news of Pascha is not confined to a season of the year, but is always the fundamental truth of our life in Christ.  Now we must live as those who have been blessed to behold the glory of the resurrection.  Now we must remove every obstacle to embracing personally the brilliant, radiant light of the empty tomb.  Now we must live with all the holy joy of a man born blind who can finally see the light.  That is what it means to know God and to be truly human in His image and likeness, for Christ is Risen!  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Courage to Face the Truth: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

John 4:5-42
Christ is Risen!
It is strangely appealing to define ourselves by our failures, especially when others know that we have stumbled and treat us poorly as a result.  As well, our own pride often causes us to lose perspective such that we obsess about how we do not measure up to whatever illusion of perfection we have accepted.  People are often their own harshest critics in ways that are not healthy at all.
            On this Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, we celebrate that our Lord’s great victory over death enables us to be free from defining ourselves by our sins or by how other people may view us.   He rises in glory not only over the tomb and Hades, but over all the distortions of the beauty of the human person created in His image and likeness. Today we commemorate that His salvation extends to our most painful failings and to the harsh judgments of others upon us. Even such difficult circumstances may become points of entry into the joy of the empty tomb.
            The woman at the well certainly knew what it was like to be defined by others as someone who did not measure up.  She was a Samaritan, and therefore rejected by the Jews as a heretic and a member of a despised group that had intermarried with Gentiles.  She herself had been married five times and was now with a man to whom she was not married, which may have been why she went to draw water at the unlikely time of high noon.  Perhaps she went to the well in the heat of the day in order to avoid the other Samaritan women who wanted nothing to do with someone like her.  
            Imagine her surprise, then, when the Savior asked her for a drink of water and then engaged in a conversation about spiritual matters with her.  Jewish men simply did not strike up conversations with women in that time and place, and consuming food or drink from a Samaritan was out of the question.  How even more shocking it is that Jesus Christ’s conversation with her is the longest recorded between Him and any one person in the four gospels.  He spoke straightforwardly to her and did not shy away from uncomfortable truths that hit her where she lived.  But instead of shutting down the conversation or running away in fear, this Samaritan woman told the people of her village about Christ.  As a result, many of her neighbors came to believe in the Lord.
            This Samaritan woman is known in the Church as St. Photini, which means “the enlightened one.”  Through the Savior’s conversation with her, Photini became an evangelist who boldly shared the good news, even to her Samaritan neighbors who were surely used to viewing her in anything but spiritual terms.  That took tremendous courage.  Photini was not only brave in preaching to them, but ultimately in responding to the persecution of the pagan Roman emperor Nero, to whom she said “O most impious of the blind, you profligate and stupid man! Do you think me so deluded that I would consent to renounce my Lord Christ and instead offer sacrifice to idols as blind as you?”  The Great Martyr Photini refused to back down and gave the ultimate witness to Christ’s victory over death by laying down her life for Him.  The Savior had set her free even from fear of the grave.
            Too many of us today flee in shame from uncomfortable truths, whether we encounter them in our own thoughts or in the opinions of others.  Too many of us define ourselves by our failings, weaknesses, and temptations.  Too many of us accept some unrealistic cultural standard of “the good life” as the norm we must meet in order to be worthwhile.  Thank God, St. Photini the Great Martyr did none of that. In response to her shocking encounter with the Savior, she humbly acknowledged the truth about her brokenness; she did not react defensively or make excuses.  She did not end the conversation or run away in shame.  Instead, she was open to the healing of her soul, to the possibility of a new and restored life through the mercy of the Lord.  This was such a great blessing to her that she immediately shared the good news with the people of her village and refused to stop, even to the point of laying down her life.
            In this joyous season of Pascha, we celebrate that Christ’s victory over death delivers us from all the corrupting effects of sin, including our deeply ingrained habits of thought and action that distract us from facing the truth about ourselves.  By setting us free from bondage to the fear of death, our Risen Lord enables us to make even our most bitter failures points of entry into the new day of His eternal life.  He has conquered death, the wages of sin, which means that our sins now have only the power over us that we allow them to have.  When, like St. Photini, we acknowledge them straightforwardly and turn away from them, we participate personally in the good news of Pascha.  We rise from death to life as we enter into the joy of the empty tomb.  But when we proudly refuse to confess or repent of our sins, we remain in slavery to our self-centered illusions of perfection, to our sense of shame that we do not live up to the standards that we think we must meet in order to be worthwhile.
In other words, we insist on being our own saviors.  But since we cannot conquer death or heal our own souls, that is nothing but foolish pride that keeps us bound to the fear of death, to the terror of realizing how weak we are before the challenges we encounter both within our own minds and in relation to others. Our failures and weaknesses are not good in and of themselves, but we put them to good use when we let them open our eyes to the truth of who we are, of where we stand before the Lord.  If we will use them as ways to humble ourselves without making excuses or otherwise blinding ourselves to what they reveal about us, then we will put ourselves in the blessed place of St. Photini, who was thirsty for strength and healing that she knew she could not give herself, for “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” from the depths of her soul.
Like her, we must refuse to be paralyzed by guilt and shame before others and in our own minds.  Then we will take our attention off whether we measure up to some self-imposed standard and instead focus on receiving the healing mercy of Jesus Christ.  No matter what we have done, no matter how distorted and corrupt any dimension of our life may be, no matter how anyone else treats or views us, Christ is able to raise us up with Him from death to life.  That is not only a future promise, but a present reality.  He rose in glory with His wounds still visible, and no wound that we or others have inflicted puts us beyond the good news of His resurrection.  In this glorious season of Pascha, let us all become like the Great Martyr Photini by embracing enthusiastically the new life that the Savior has brought to the world, for Christ is Risen!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Healed to Rise Up and Walk: Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic in the Orthodox Church

Acts 9:32-42; John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen! 

            We do not like to be dragged down or held back by problems that we cannot solve.  Whether it is our own health, a broken relationship with others, or a complex set of circumstances over which we have little control, it is very frustrating to know our weakness before seemingly insurmountable challenges. 

            That is surely how the invalids, blind, lame, and paralyzed felt as they waited for the chance to be healed by being the first to reach the pool of water troubled by the angel.  Due to their illnesses, many must have despaired over ever being healed.  The man who had been paralyzed for 38 years was one of those, for there was no one to help him move toward the water.  Here we have an image of humanity before the coming of Christ.  The Jews had a Temple in which animals were sacrificed, and the pool provided water for washing lambs before they were offered to God.  This scene occurs at the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which commemorated Moses receiving the Law, which was given by angels. 

Fallen humanity, however, remained spiritually weak and sick.  They lacked the strength to fulfill God’s requirements, and certainly could not conquer death, the wages of sin for all those who have fallen short of the glory of God.  The sacrificial system of the Temple foreshadowed the great Self-Offering of our Lord on the Cross, but did not heal anyone from the ravages of spiritual corruption or raise anyone from the grave.  It was a great blessing for the Jews to have the Law, but surely also a tremendous frustration not to have the strength to obey it fully.  Only Christ Himself fulfilled the Law, which is why He can call and empower us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)    

In contrast, the paralyzed man represents all who lack the power to move themselves to complete healing, to find the fulfillment of our common human calling to become like God in holiness. Notice that he did not call out to Christ to help him; instead, the Lord reached out to him, asking “Do you want to be healed?”  That may seem like a strange question, for presumably anyone waiting by a pool for healing after 38 years of illness would want to be made well.  But think for a moment about how we have all learned to adapt to our favorite sins, how we have become comfortable with whatever forms of corruption have become second nature to us over the years.  By virtue of coming to Church, we are apparently religious people, but that does not mean that we truly want to be healed.  For to be healed means obeying the Lord’s command to this fellow: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  It requires making the effort to rise up in obedience, to be transformed personally in how we live each day, and to grow in holiness.   

It would not have sufficed for that man to have remained on his bed and have warm feelings about how Christ had healed him. Just as anyone who lies motionless for a long time will become weak and unable to rise up and walk on his own power, the same will be true of us spiritually if we try to rest content with simply believing ideas about God or having positive emotions about Him.  If we are not gaining strength by actually serving Him faithfully, we will become paralyzed and unable to cooperate with our Lord’s gracious healing energies.  Any spiritual health that we claim in that state will be a figment of our imagination.

The good news is that the Lord does not simply provide us with a set of rules to follow or services to perform.  He makes us participants in Himself by grace.  He unites us to Himself, raising us up with Him from slavery to sin and death to the great dignity of those who share in His eternal life. The Savior makes us members of His own Body, the Church.  He is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride.  He makes us radiant in holiness, like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.  That is how He heals us such that we have the strength to obey His command to get up from our bed of corruption and move forward in a blessed life of holiness.

Though we may not yet have the eyes to see it, this healing and strengthening of our humanity happens to this day through our life in the Church.  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 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 His Body, the Church, to enable people to participate personally in the new life of the resurrection that He shares with us by grace.

That is not, however, a life of merely having our names on a church membership roll or of calling ourselves Orthodox Christians. If our faithfulness extends only that far, we will become as weak as a person who remains immobile in bed and refuses to stand up and walk.  We must not be like those poor souls waiting by the pool for someone else to move them into the healing water.  On His own gracious initiative, Jesus Christ has given each of us the strength to overcome the paralysis of sin through His resurrection.  He does not simply give us commands; He gives us Himself.  And our life in His Body, the Church is truly our participation in Him.      

We receive His healing of our souls when we humbly repent of our sins in Confession.  We are nourished for the life of the Kingdom by His Body and Blood in Holy Communion.  When we offer our time, energy, and resources to support the ministries of the Church, we rise up from selfishness to participate in the abundant generosity of the Lord. When we stop thinking of ourselves as isolated individuals and instead as members of a Body with a common life in Christ, we will be able to love and serve one another in ways that will open us to His strength personally and collectively in powerful ways. 

In the joy of the resurrection, we must learn to see that embracing our life together in Christ is an essential dimension of obeying His command to “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  He calls each of us to turn away from the paralyzing weakness of selfishness and laziness that would make whatever sins we have become comfortable with appear more important than serving Him in His Body, the Church, where the glory and power of the resurrection are fully present.

Think about that for a moment.  Pascha is not an isolated event that happened long ago, but an entrance into the new day of the Kingdom of Heaven which is fully open to us in the worship and common life of this parish. The Savior calls each of us, weakened and held back by the corruptions of sin, to get up and move forward in the blessed life for which He made us in His image and likeness.  That is why He died and rose again, to raise us up with Him for a life of holiness, to restore us to the ancient dignity of Paradise.  May this season of Pascha be our entrance as a parish into the joy of the Kingdom. That will happen when we rise up, from whatever corruptions are holding us back, to a life of obedience in serving Him and one another in His Body, the Church.  That is the only way to answer the question that He asks each of us today and every day: “Do you want to be healed?”

Christ is Risen!