The Reading from the Acts of the Apostles. (20:16-18, 28-36) and The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (17:1-13)
Both of the readings today are given to us on this Sunday after the Feast of Ascension, in which we commemorate the Holy Fathers who met at the first great and holy council of bishops in the city of Nicaea. As you may know, this council was convened by the emperor St. Constantine in order to address the theological and dogmatic crisis of the Arian heresy.
As we heard in today’s epistle reading from the book of Acts, St. Paul has a message for the priests of the church of Ephesus. I want each of you to pay attention to this. He says to the priests “Take heed to yourselves and to your flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you bishops (often used synonymously with the word priest in the early writings), to shepherd the church of the Lord and God, which He purchased with His own blood. For I know that after my departure ravenous wolves will enter among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore remain watchful…”
In the life of our church, we are blessed with a great and holy tradition that has come down to us from ancient times. Our faith does not change. Yet we see the world around us and there is almost daily instability. As Bob Dylan writes “the times they are a’changing.” While the times are indeed changing, I want you to know that the faith that was delivered once and for all through the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the apostles after His ascension, has not changed. It has been clarified and expounded. It has been fleshed out in the councils, but it has not changed because truth does not change and our faith is firmly established on the truth revealed in the person of Jesus Christ.
Now as I quote St. Paul I am reminded by those words that I have a responsibility towards you before Christ. I am accountable for what I teach or don’t teach. I try not to take that lightly. I’m called to speak the truth and it is our goal to “speak the truth in love” as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians. However St. Paul’s words today warn us of ravenous wolves that enter into the flock and speak and teach perverse things. He calls them wolves because they are hungry and looking to devour. What are they hungry for? For the souls of believers and their very lives.
What are these ravenous wolves? Could they be specific people? Perhaps. But it is what they teach that is more important than who they are. These ravenous wolves are false teachings and ideologies. Nothing in the Church is worse than false teaching about the fundamentals of our faith. What are the fundamentals of our faith? Our belief in God and His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit and the Mother of God, and the nature of the Church. However there is another ravenous wolf, a deadly teaching that has come into the church through the media, through the universities, through the arts and now through culture and even through society itself. This particular ideology and teaching is about the fundamentals of Christian living, or the life of faith. What we believe is important and how we live and what we do is equally important. One cannot be separated from the other in the life of the Christian. What we believe and how we live are connected intimately. The ravenous wolf that I am going to spend a few minutes speaking about is the modern teaching on sexuality and especially homosexuality. It seemed like a fitting time to do so since the world around us has not ceased to try and promote this lifestyle or more properly termed “deathstyle” all month.
I happened to be grabbing coffee this week with one of our members, which is one of my favorite things to do, and when I went to order I noticed the shirt that the cashier was wearing said “Love Wins.” I like that statement. I believe it is a true statement. I believe it with my whole heart. Love does win. We know this to be true because we just finished celebrating the season of Pascha, of resurrection, of victory! But I’m pretty sure that what she meant with her t-shirt is not quite what I was thinking. What gave me the idea that we were on two different pages? The words “love wins” were surrounded by rainbow colors. Perhaps it was simply a design feature of the shirt but then I noticed rainbows on her hat as well. This was not a statement on the sovereignty of God or His conquering of sin and death through the cross and the resurrection. No, this was something different. This was one of those ideologies or teachings that I would describe as a “ravenous wolf.” It comes in subtly and convinces through the use of emotions, passions and confusion while seducing people especially the young into the lifestyle. A wolf in the wilderness doesn’t go after the strongest prey. He stalks and waits until he finds prey that is either young, weak or alone. Little do we realize that the wolves rarely allow their prey to escape afterwards. On the surface everything looks good, but the reality is something warped, unhealthy and unnatural. That is true for all sin, not just for certain sins.
The Church following the Lord and the Holy Scriptures teachesof all sin as a departure from the way of God and from life and communion with Him. Out of love for humanity, we are given words of correction and a way of life that will reconcile us to God which is possible through the love that Christ showed us on the cross. St. Paul writing to the Corinthian church did not pick on one particular sin. He addressed a whole bunch including various forms of sexualsin. Listen to what he writes “do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
The teaching of the Church fathers is that healthy sexuality is part of the human experience. You were born in a body and that body is an important part of you. You are saved through the actions of the body and you are judged by what you do with your body, both good or bad. It means that you cannot do whatever you like or whatever you “feel” because the body is somehow detached from the rest of you. No, you are an integral whole. The Church teaches that sexual pleasure is good. Sex should bring joy between couples and unite them further in their bond of love. Sex also has the possibility of bringing forth life, which is one of the divine commands given to Adam and Eve in paradise.
I think that it is also the clear teaching of the Church that one does not need to exercise their sexuality in order to survive. What do I mean by that? Well, sometimes we speak to people who try to convince us that if they do not practice their sexuality in the way that they see fit, when the urge hits them, they will die or explode or have a less human experience or suffer great harm. That is categorically false. Our great tradition of monastics, monks and nuns who live in chastity witness to a greater reality of what it means to be truly human. What makes us really human has little to do with gratifying our bodies and much to do with loving, honoring, serving and worshipping Christ with our bodies in our daily lives.
In the Church we learn what the Lord Himself taught us through His life. We learn that everything we do is meant to be an offering to God. “Father, not my will, but Thy will be done.” We must make choices and some of those choices are difficult including what we choose to do with our bodies. This applies to all people, all sexualities. There is only one practice of sexuality that is blessed by the Church and the teaching of Christ and the apostles, and that is the sexual union between a husband and his wife within the context of a sacred marriage. Everything else falls short. Everything else makes us part of a consumer society. We use people for what they can provide us, be it comfort or acceptance. Instead of building up, we become partakers of our own destruction and the destruction of others who may not know better. Sometimes we even think that we are gaining love. And this is also where the problem lies. Can any action or activity that claims to be done in the name of love yet does not honor Jesus Christ and His teachings truly be called loving or good? It is an impossibility since God is love.
So what should we do if we are struggling with our bodies and our sexual urges? Here are some steps and this list is by no means comprehensive.
1) Pray often. Every struggle is more fruitful when we feel that God is present and we have invited Him into our lives to help carry the burden.
2) Speak to a priest or deacon who might be able to help you. If you are struggling, please know that we love you and are here for you.
3) Speak with any solid Christian that you trust.
4) Speak with a therapist or licensed counselor to help you process your emotions. I can recommend a few if you would are interested.
5) Fast and undertake more seriously the ascetical life and disciplines of the Church. These are offered to us as part of the necessary therapy for the souls of every Orthodox Christian.
6) Come to confession and Holy communion more frequently. These are offered to us as the necessary and life giving medicines of the Church.
7) Never forget that God loves you and will continue to love you and desire the best for you and your life.
And I’m sure that there are other steps that I have missed, but these are a start.
Honoring God often means doing the difficult things, the things that don’t seem to come naturally to us. It often means taking up your cross and struggling to follow after Christ. And our Lord affirms this saying “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Following after Christ is not easy, it definitely requires sacrifice, but we learned from Christ who hung upon the tree, and from the many martyrs who gave up their lives to honor Christ, that this is what it looks like to truly love courageously and we know without a shadow of a doubt that Love wins. AMEN.