St. John and Our Living Faith

The Reading from the First Epistle of St. John. (1:1-7)

A few years ago there was a group of so-called biblical scholars who formed a group called “the Jesus Seminar.” One of the core tenets of this group was the belief that there was a difference between the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith. They would then take the texts of the gospels and they would highlight certain passages as being likely, unlikely, improbably etc. What did they use as the basis of their studies? Not much. It was basically a matter of their opinions which were grounded in the secular and materialist worldview. If you would like to read a truly devastating critique of their work please read “The Real Jesus” by noted scholar Luke Timothy Johnson.

Now the problem with the approach of these scholars is that it doesn’t allow for the supernatural. It doesn’t allow for the possibility that the most unlikely explanation (in earthly terms) is still the very best explanation for the events and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. But there is another more serious issue: The Christ who is preached by the Church is in fact, the true and only Christ, the historical Christ. If the Christ that we preach is different from some other “actual” or “historical” Christ than we have a problem. How would we know that the Christ we claim to follow is in fact the true and genuine one?

Moreover this becomes even less likely when we remember that the main historical documents about Jesus where those written by His very own disciples and apostles. One of those disciples is commemorated today, St. John the theologian. He was a young disciple who not only followed John the baptist, but then followed Christ with his brother James. He travelled with the Lord and witnessed His life and miracles for three straight years. He tells that the Lord Jesus performed so many miracles that all of the books could not possibly contain them! This same disciple was at the foot of the cross and witnessed the Lord’s final hours in agony and pain. Later, he was among the first to run to the place where Jesus had been laid and to witness the empty tomb. He spoke with the resurrected Lord and he took the Mother of God, Mary as his own adopted mother.

And He, the apostle John tells us that what he has written, and what he and his fellow disciples have preached, and what his very own brother has died for is “that which they have heard, which they have seen with their own eyes, which they have looked upon and touched with their hands.” We do not make a distinction between the Christ of the gospels and the true, historical Christ. They are one and the same. This is not a matter of opinion. It is the teaching. If you want to know joy and life and peace you have to believe rightly in the one who bestows these gifts by His grace. More than this, we are called to follow the teachings and to be molded into His image and to live a life that is well-pleasing to this one who is the way, the truth and the life.

St. John writing in today’s epistle reminds us that he is writing this “so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” So our fellowship with St. John, and the apostles and the whole Church depends upon our belief in the Lord. If we believe rightly and live rightly, then we are in fellowship and communion with God and His Church as well as His saints. St. John goes even further saying that he is writing this “that our joy may be complete.” He is speaking of the joy of the apostles. What makes their joy complete is the fulfillment of the preaching to which they have dedicated their lives. Their joy is complete in the generations of men, and women, boys and girls who would come to reject their former lives and choose to live in, through, and for Christ. The generations who would reject the darkness of sin and spiritual death and choose light and life. When we struggle to live genuinely and to walk in the light of Christ, then St. John assures and promises us that “the blood of Jesus Christ…cleanses us from all sin.”

I pray that these living words of the Apostle John will give us hope and encouragement as we strive to know the Lord and to serve Him.

I want to leave you with a quote from another John, St. John of Kronstradt who writes, “When your faith in the Lord, either during your life and prosperity, or in the time of sickness and at the moment of quitting this life, grows weak, grows dim from worldly vanity or through illness, and from the terrors and darkness of death, then look with the mental eyes of your heart upon the companies of our forefathers, the patriarchs, prophets, and righteous ones:

St. Simeon, who took the Lord up in his arms, Job, Anna the Prophetess, and others; the Apostles, prelates, venerable Fathers, martyrs, the disinterested, the righteous, and all the saints.

See how, both during their earthly life and at the time of their departure from this life, they unceasingly looked to God and died in the hope of the resurrection and of the life eternal, and strive to imitate them.” AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Blessed is He

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (12:1-18)

What an amazing sight it must have been to behold Our Lord Jesus Christ entering into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday nearly 2000 years ago! The Lord, the king of glory enters into the city not riding a majestic and powerful horse or being pulled in a chariot or carried on the shoulders of strong men. He enters in a most humble fashion, riding, of all creatures, a lowly donkey. The people of all ages cheered and celebrated. For a moment, they believed in Jesus. But it was a very short moment, and then things changed in the blink of an eye.

They had believed in Jesus because they had all seen and heard of His most amazing miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead after four days. The people were shocked, astounded and amazed. Even the most staunch critics of Our Lord had to step back and think again about the Lord. The sign and wonder that He performed was beyond anything that could be ignored.

I think that this feast of Palm Sunday is bittersweet for us. The people welcome the Lord and they rejoice at His presence in their city, yet we know that there is so much more that will unfold in this story over the coming days. Indeed, in the next seven days, not only Jerusalem, but all of the universe will be shaken and changed forever. Palm Sunday indicates for us the start of the most important week in the history of the world.

So it is a bittersweet day because we see the crowds rejoice and yet we know that this enthusiasm and joy is short lived. It will change, the enthusiasm will change, the people will change. It is bittersweet because we are reminded that we are not much different than those people in the crowd. We may be all for Jesus today, and yet tomorrow we might be ready to turn away from Him, to hide our faces from Him, to deny Him, to betray Him, maybe we even plot to eliminate Him from our lives. When do we do these things and turn from the Lord and betray Him? Whenever we willingly choose false gods and false loves, whenever we choose sin or deny our faith and whenever we deny the teachings of the Church because it is the body of Christ.

Yet through all of this, the celebration, the changes in the people’s temperament, the transformation of the adoring crowds into the anger of the mobs, through all of it, the Lord Jesus Christ didn’t change. He stayed faithful to God the Father and to His people. He is love made flesh. Jesus is the embodiment of all that it means to love and to actualize love. And His love is constant. It is the love that created the world and gave it life. It is the same love that created you and gave you life. And the Lord is completely focused and determined to complete His task. The task for which He was born and came into the world. The task of healing us and sharing His life with us. Christ our God perfectly completed His task of healing us and giving us His divine life through the death of the cross. Through His innocent death upon the cross, He wipes away the sin and death that were our reality and we are called forth to new life, a resurrection, a life in Christ.

St. Andrew of Crete speaking about this very feast had this to say:

“In his humility Christ entered the dark regions of our fallen world and he is glad that he became so humble for our sake, glad that he came and lived among us and shared in our nature in order to raise us up again to himself. And even though we are told that he has now ascended above the highest heavens – the proof, surely, of his power and godhead – his love for man will never rest until he has raised our earthbound nature from glory to glory, and made it one with his own in heaven.

So let us spread before his feet, not garments or soulless olive branches, which delight the eye for a few hours and then wither, but ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him. We who have been baptized into Christ must ourselves be the garments that we spread before him. Now that the crimson stains of our sins have been washed away in the saving waters of baptism and we have become white as pure wool, let us present the conqueror of death, not with mere branches of palms but with the real rewards of his victory. Let our souls take the place of the welcoming branches as we join today in the children’s holy song”…“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the king of Israel.”

Source: Sermons

The Path To Greatness

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (10:32-45)

Today we hear the passage which is appointed by the Church for the fifth Sunday of Great and Holy Lent. This passage reminds us of what Lent is all about. It’s easy for us to get caught up in the details and to think that fasting and prostrations are the point of Lent. But they aren’t. The point of Lent is to prepare for ourselves to properly worship and celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and everything that led up to those two most significant events in the history of the entire human race. These two events are the reason why we are here today. These two events are the reason we have meaning, purpose and joy in our lives.

The Lord reminds His disciples in this passage, that He is going up to the holy city Jerusalem and He knows what will happen to Him even before the time has come. He knows that He will be delivered into the hands of sinful men. He knows that He will be mocked cruelly and whipped and beaten and that He will even suffer the shame of being spat upon. Finally He will suffer one of the cruelest forms of death, the death on the cross. But He also knows that these events will not be the end. Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us that He will rise after three days. Of course the disciples had no idea what He was actually saying. They could not in any way imagine the magnitude of what He was telling them.

This is actually quite clear as we see the sons of thunder, James and John approaching our Lord and asking for a small favor. They ask that in the kingdom, the Lord would grant them to sit, one on His right hand and the other at His left. But the Lord immediately corrects them since they were in ignorance regarding their request. To sit at the right or left hand of the King is to sit in a place of authority over others. To sit in a place of recognition and glory and honor. Yet our Lord Jesus has just finished telling the disciples that there is nothing honorable about what He is about to experience in Jerusalem.

He is the Lord of all and yet He must remind them that even He will not be treated like an earthly king. The ways of the kingdom and the ways of the world are not similar. In fact Our Lord tells the two ambitious disciples that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be servant of all.” Our Lord’s lesson is not just for those two ambitious disciples, it is for each of us. We are reminded that no matter what our job or vocation in life may be, no matter our title or profession, we are called to serve one another, to treat ourselves as below others and to treat others as better than ourselves. And what does it mean to serve one another?

I’m sure that each of us has a mental image of what that means. We all serve one another well at various times. A wife becomes great by serving her husband joyfully. A mother becomes great through her untiring dedication to serving her children and household. A husband and father likewise becomes great through such dedication to His wife and family. Children demonstrate their greatness not by arguing with one another and raising their voices to one another, but through serving one another and helping one another, the older helping the younger. Even here in the life of the church we show our true character and God recognizes us based on our love and service for one another. And the ways that we can and do serve each other are so many, yet we are always being pushed past our comfort zone to do and to be more by the grace of God. This is possible because it is the Lord Himself who energizes us and gives us His life through the worship and the sacraments of the Church.

But Christ truly corrected the understanding of His disciples and He corrects our understanding. To be great you and I are called to serve one another and the greatest service is to give your life for others. This is why we have a celebration called memorial day and why soldiers receive special burial practices and honors; because they died in service of others. Likewise each one of us is challenged and encouraged and emboldened to rise to serve one another with our whole life. We give our lives for one another when we take time out of our busy schedules and our busy lives to assist others. We give of ourselves when we donate and give to the physical needs of others. We give of ourselves and our lives when we submit our wills to others instead of insisting on our own ways all the time. We serve one another when we try to be with others who are not at their best. Perhaps they are lonely, or despairing or in pain and suffering. The greatest of the saints learn to dwell in these difficult places with their neighbors and those whom they love. In such moments we become like the Lord who descended into Hades. We can descend into people’s place of pain and say to them “I can’t solve your problem, but I am willing to be with you here where you are hurting.” This is what it is to be a servant and to be a Christian, a child of God. We saw a beautiful example of this in the life of St. Nekarios of Aegina when he worked to clean and pick up all of the responsibilities of the sick and struggling custodian of the school. He did this so that the man might continue to receive his salary and support his family instead of becoming destitute and having his whole life crumble.

We are called, as the disciples were, to this type of life by the example of the Lord of heaven and earth. He who hung the earth upon the waters proved Himself to be the greatest servant through allowing Himself to hang upon the wood of the cross as a ransom for the sins of the whole world. His love for the Father overflowed to the whole world, to all of creation, to all of humanity, to all of us. Such love is more than a feeling, it is a transformation. No one can receive such love and not be changed. Today we remember the power of the love of Christ and His holy mother through the remembrance of the life of St. Mary of Egypt. She lived a truly sinful life, addicted to sex, to attention, to parties. Yet her encounter with the Mother of God and with the precious wood of the cross of our Lord, these powerful signs of the love of God completely changed her.

May we also run to Christ who inspires us and heals us by His love and has shown us the path to greatness through His own example of undying love. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

This is the Victory

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (1:43-51)

Jesus Christ existed (and continues to exist). He is not a myth or a legend. We know that He existed and became a part of our human story. The Son of God took flesh and became man and because He has entered into human history in the flesh, He has forever transformed the world and especially those who choose to follow Him.

This same one who lived about 2000 years ago as a historical figure, also left with us a sign of His presence, an everlasting memorial of His body. He instituted for us His body, the Church. This Church is not some abstract idea. It is a concrete reality in much the same way as Christ Himself is a concrete reality. This Church, founded upon the disciples and the apostles, is a historical reality. It does not exist only as an idea or a theory, it actually exists and is easily found by those who are hungry for the truth. Because Christ existed, His body the Church also exists. Christ established His Church with His own blood, with His own life. He did this because He desires to share His presence, to allow all of the world to partake of Him and of the gifts that He offers to us.

Since the Lord founded the Church it is important for us to understand that the Church is one! There were not two churches founded by Christ. Just as there is one Lord, so there is one church. The Lord Jesus Christ established only one Church (what today we might refer to as a denomination) and this is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. It still exists and is readily accessible and discovered by those who desire to go deeper in their faith.

Since the Church is a historical reality and was not simply a modern invention, we have a story that connects us directly to Christ and His apostles and disciples. A story about how we came to be and what struggles we faced along the way as well as the important figures (both good and bad) who played a part in this story. Ultimately it is a story about how God has protected and sustained His people and safeguarded the Church as an entity and as a keeper of a sacred and unchanged faith in the Holy Trinity.

Today, on the first Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we commemorate one episode from the story of the life of the Church. The restoration of icons, which occurred on the first Sunday of Great Lent in the year 843a.d. in Constantinople. To understand the gravity and the weight of the history of the Church we have to understand that this happened long (nearly 700 years) before the Protestant reformation. It happened roughly 200 years before the Great Schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic as well. Why do I mention these events? To remind you that this episode from history is part of the common faith of all who claim to be Christians. Christians pray with iconography. While lively debates existed, ultimately the truth of our faith was proclaimed and upheld by the Church. We can say this firmly and unequivocally because Christ and His Church are historical.

The Church has a story. We are reminded that every time we enter into the church on a Sunday morning we enter into the story of Christ, indeed our whole lives find their meaning in Christ and we are members of the historical church. We were baptized into Christ and His body. That we come and proclaim the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the restoration of icons, means that we are the keepers of this sacred tradition. It is our treasure to safeguard, teach and keep alive. We aren’t simply looking back at an event that happened a long time ago. We are affirming that we are in fact the same Church now as we were then. Our faith, dogma and theology have remained the same and they will remain forever because God is the same, Christ is the same and the Spirit is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Fr. Alexander writing about the Sunday of Orthodoxy said many beautiful things. I would like to share just a few quotes. He said,

“Our faith is rooted in that strange defeat which became the most glorious victory — the defeat of a man nailed to the cross, who rose again from the dead, who is the Lord and the Master of the world. This is the first triumph of Orthodoxy. This is the content of all our commemorations and of all our joy. This man selected and chose twelve men, gave them power to preach about that defeat and that victory, and sent them to the whole world saying preach and baptize, build up the Church, announce the Kingdom of God. And you know, my brothers and sisters, how those twelve men — very simple men indeed, simple fishermen — went out and preached. The world hated them, the Roman Empire persecuted them, and they were covered with blood. But that blood was another victory. The Church grew, the Church covered the universe with the true faith. After 300 years of the most unequal conflict between the powerful Roman Empire and the powerless Christian Church, the Roman Empire accepted Christ as Lord and Master.”

He continues saying,

“As we approach the most important moment of the Eucharist, the priest says, “Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess….” What is the condition of the real triumph of Orthodoxy? What is the way leading to the real, the final, the ultimate victory of our faith? The answer comes from the Gospel. The answer comes from Christ Himself and from the whole tradition of Orthodoxy. It is love. Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess . . . confess our faith, our Orthodoxy. Let us, from now on, feel responsible for each other. Let us understand that even if we are divided in small parishes, in small dioceses, we first of all belong to one another. We belong together, to Christ, to His Body, to the Church. Let us feel responsible for each other, and let us love one another.”

Again he continues,

“At the end of the first century — when the Church was still a very small group, a very small minority, in a society which was definitely anti-Christian when the persecution was beginning — St. John the Divine, the beloved disciple of Christ, wrote these words: “And this is the victory, our faith, this is the victory.” There was no victory at that time, and yet he knew that in his faith he had the victory that can be applied to us today. We have the promise of Christ, that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church. We have the promise of Christ that if we have faith, all things are possible. We have the promise of the Holy Spirit, that He will fill all that which is weak, that He will help us at the moment when we need help. In other words, we have all the possibilities, we have everything that we need, and therefore the victory is ours.”

The victory of Christ over death, the victory of righteousness over sin, these victories belong to Christ and to His body the Church, of which you are members. His victory over sin and death is our victory and His life is our life through the life giving Church. May these holy days be an invitation for each of us to offer praise and to enter more fully into the way, the truth and the life that is offered to us. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Sign Of Sincere Love

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (6:14-21)

Imagine being given access to God. He appeared to you in your room, or called you on the phone or maybe He began to text you. Imagine the possibilities! What would we ask Him? What would we discuss with Him? What would He tell us? It turns out that you do not have to imagine any of this. God has in fact come to us. He appeared and took flesh as a man. He lived among us and spoke and taught us. He taught even more when He was silent and even more than that when He silently hung upon the cross. We have the words and deeds of the Son of God written for us and passed down from generation to generation. We have these words wrapped in a gold cover and sitting on the holy altar.

We don’t have to imagine a single thing about what God would ask of us or require of us or what He desires for our life. We have only to have faith in Him and follow Him.

In the past few weeks we have been preparing to enter into the holy spiritual contest of great lent through the gospel passages that have been appointed for us. Each week we have received something new from the Lord Jesus Christ. A new angle or aspect of the spiritual struggle that requires our attention and focus. The same occurs this week as we read this final gospel reading before we dive headlong into the blessed 40 days.

The Church again brings forward the life giving words of her bridegroom, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, as a doorway and a path for us to enter into new life. Life in Christ. And what is the focus of this Sunday and the teaching of the gospel? Forgiveness. What does it mean to forgive? It means to let go of, to forget and to release others from the debt which they owe or the wrongdoing that they have done.

Forgiveness is interesting in that there is no way to fake it. Because it relates directly to how we view others deep within our own hearts. You can’t do it halfway. It requires full commitment, a fully engaged heart. It requires letting go of pain and hurt. It requires letting go of resentment. It requires wiping away the old and starting fresh. It requires giving everyone around you the benefit of the doubt and seeing the tremendous potential that everyone has to be changed and transformed from their old ways into something new and beautiful. In short, it requires becoming like God. In fact this is a common understanding of the early saints of the Church such as St. John Chrysostom who wrote, “Nothing makes us so like God as our readiness to forgive the wicked and wrongdoer. For it is God who has made “the sun to shine on the evil and on the good.”

When we forgive we act like God and that should be no surprise to us because forgiveness is a sign of mercy and love and God is all merciful and all loving. In fact, we are taught that God is love. What does sincere love look like? Listen to St. Mark the ascetic who taught, “The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world.” Sincere love and forgiveness live and breathe together. They are inseparable. So we can’t claim to be loving people if we don’t also practice forgiveness. In our society many talk about love, but many are still angry and resentful and quick to blame and demonize others. These are signs pointing to the truth. Our society talks about love in a superficial way. True love involves sacrifice and forgiveness. And if we practice and live it, we are not far from the kingdom my brothers and sisters.

That is the point of our gospel reading today. All of the prayers, all of the fasting, all of the rules and disciplines, these things will not matter much if we don’t actualize the love that Christ has for us by loving others. Of course it is easy for us to love those who love us and treat us well. Nothing is unique about that. What is unique is when we behave like the Lord and love those who might not deserve it or who treated us unkindly. This requires forgiveness. And forgiveness is one of the main signs that we love our enemies. And loving our enemies is the true indicator that we are full of love in a way that makes us similar to the Lord.

In order for us to understand the power and the potential of forgiving others we have to continually remind ourselves of the power of God’s love for us. As humans and as Christians we should all have a deeply rooted experience of God’s forgiveness of our sins. Perhaps the youth and children haven’t had this experience yet, but I hope that they will one day. Each one of us should feel the weight of sin and the depth of our own fallenness. And many of us have experienced the joy of being received into the arms of the Father, and being welcomed home. We experience renewed hope and freedom in the forgiveness offered by the Lord. We feel accepted and yes, we feel loved.

As children of God, we are encouraged, even required to share this amazing experience with others. To accept others, to renew their hope, to wipe away their failings and the pains that they have caused us and to love them with the power of forgiveness. On top of our desire to be like God, there is also the warning that the Lord gives to those who do not learn to forgive and this should terrify us. Listen to these words of St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

“Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbours, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness or unforgiveness of your sins, then, and hence also your salvation or destruction, depend on you yourself. For without forgiveness of sins there is no salvation. You can see for yourself how serious it is.”

May we never be in danger of losing our salvation through our lack of love. When we lack love and forgiveness we are like people who shut ourselves out of the kingdom of God and lock ourselves on the other side. Receive the love and forgiveness of Christ, and unlock the doors of love and forgiveness for everyone around you. This is our path to fully embracing God’s love and as we embrace it we will be healed by it and we will offer healing to others for their benefit and ultimately for our salvation. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

He Waits For Us

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (15:11-32)

In today’s gospel reading we are reminded of the great and overwhelming love and mercy of God. We see this in the picture of the son who asked for his inheritance from his father and then proceeded to use this inheritance, these hard earned resources in a careless and negligent way. How do we know that the son used them in a careless and negligent way? Because everything that he chose to do was for himself and his pleasure. He lived in a selfish and unbalanced way and it wasn’t long before this lifestyle caught up with him, it was unavoidable. He lived only for his own desires and happiness, and that does just the opposite of what we might think. Instead of helping us and strengthening us, it actually destroys us. It divides our body from our heart and mind. As we live a life of self-indulgence and seek after our own desires we become confused and lost and we stray far away from the purpose of our life and the Creator who has blessed us with life. Your purpose in life is not necessarily what you think it is. Your purpose is given to you by God and first and foremost it is to know and love and serve God. Sin obscures this goal and confuses us.

While it is clear that the father in today’s gospel reading is a symbol of God, it may not be as clear that the house of the father is a symbol of the Church. When the young man leaves the house of his father, he is no longer blessed, no longer under his protection, no longer sheltered from evil. Our understanding of the Church is similar. If we knew the multitude of benefits that are bestowed on us because we are faithful members of the Church, the household of God, we would truly be in awe! When we depart from the Church (in our hearts and minds and will), as well as physically, when we decide to separate ourselves from the assembly and from the sacramental gifts, we are in fact abandoning God and turning away from His protection and the grace that He instills in our lives. Slowly but surely this actually darkens our understanding and separates us from God and His people. It leaves us open and vulnerable to all manner of attacks of the evil one.

Yet it is important to remember that just as we see with the prodigal son, there is always a chance to turn back. No matter our situation, no matter how far we have fallen, no matter how we have squandered our gifts and wasted our inheritance, God stands ready not only to forgive us, but to run to us and welcome us back into His home, which is the Church. He runs to welcome us back to share in the banquet with Him.

St. John of Kronstadt said “All our attention must be centered on the parable of the Prodigal Son. We all see ourselves in it as in a mirror. In a few words the Lord, the knower of hearts, has shown in the person of one man how the deceptive sweetness of sin separates us from the truly sweet life according to God.” But he goes on to say that “[God] knows how the burden of sin on the soul and body, experienced by us, impels us by the action of divine grace to return, and how it actually does turn many again to God, to a virtuous life.”

How could this be possible that we should squander every gift that God has given us and yet once again turn back to Him? It happens because our pain and the feeling of deep loss are so painful outside of the house of God, and apart from His presence, that this pain is an alarm that wakes us up and can allow us to come to our senses. This possibility is open to us if we repent seriously as did the once rebellious son. What does it mean to repent seriously? It means that our repentance is not simply empty cold words, but a convicted heart that is confirmed through serious actions and efforts to reject our old and destructive ways and turn back to His way, the way which leads to life. Part of repentance is to check and see if we love anything in our heart more than we love God and His teachings. We have to take these idols of the heart and allow them to be crushed beneath the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is how we embrace the God who first embraced us. We look for whatever is a wall between us and God, whatever is a hindrance to peace and intimacy with God, and we turn from it and towards the Lord.

Lent itself becomes this reminder of our first love and the promised land of the Kingdom of God. Through our ascetic struggles of fasting, repentance and prayer we are reminded that we are all in some ways like this wandering and lost young man because of our sins and the distance of our hearts from God. But this isn’t bad news. It is only bad news if we remain in such a state. However it is good news if it is fuel for our desire to know God more deeply and enter into the life of our Christian faith more fully. In the book of Revelation, The Lord tells the church at Ephesus to “remember thy first love.” And in fact that is the goal of great lent and of our whole life of repentance, to remember our first love, the Lord Jesus Christ.

As we remember Him we draw nearer to Him and He embraces us within His arms. There is no joy that could possibly compare to returning to our long lost home. There is no joy that could compare with sitting at the table and partaking of a meal that is meant to welcome you back from your long journey. There is no joy that could compare with being received into God’s presence, not as His servant, but as His own son or daughter. Yet that is what God has promised to us.

I will leave you with a quote from St. Tikhon of Zadonsk who wrote,

“Sinners that repent are still saved; both publicans and fornicators cleansed by repentance enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. The compassionate God still calls to Himself all that have turned away, and He awaits them and promises them mercy. The loving Father still receives His prodigal sons come back from a far country and He opens the doors of His house and clothes them in the best robe, and gives them each a ring on their hand and shoes on their feet and commands all the saints to rejoice in them.”


Source: Sermons

Seeing Ourselves Through The Mirror Of The Gospel

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:10-14)

In each of the weeks that lead up to great and holy Lent we receive a different gospel passage and each of these passages is like a piece of a greater puzzle. As we begin to listen and reflect on the passages we put them together and we find that what the Church has actually given us isn’t so much a puzzle as it is a mirror that allows us to look at ourselves. If we have only one of these stories we have only one part of the mirror and other parts are left unexamined, yet with enough time and honest reflection, we get all of the pieces to the mirror and it allows us the opportunity to go deeper in our self reflection and examination to see our deficiencies and our deep need for the Lord.

In today’s piece of the puzzle we hear the familiar story of the Pharisee and the Publican (tax collector). It is well known that the pharisees were a deeply religious people however we learn from the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ that their religious nature was not ultimately motivated by love for God. They were quite exact at the keeping of the laws given to them through Moses but they were usually way off the target and misguided in their understanding of how they should genuinely love God and translate that into love for others. Consequently they used their exact precision in keeping the law to become arrogant and prideful in all of their dealings. Indeed, this particular pharisee could not even pray in the temple without making his prayer a sort of resume of his achievements and his own perceived accomplishments. Imagine coming to God in prayer and starting with a list of your greatest attributes or successes! What could you possibly say to the Lord that would impress Him? Not much.

Not only did he bring his silly attitudes before God. This wicked pharisee went a step further, he judged another man who was also in the temple to pray. Imagine being so confident in yourself that you can easily and effortlessly make pronouncements on others. Let me tell you that if you are ever that confident in yourself, you’re probably “doing faith” wrong. Because it means that you not only don’t have the ability to look at your own sins and failings honestly, meaning you lack humility and discernment, but that you also lack love and mercy since you judge your brothers and sisters.

Every time I have the privilege of reading this passage I am struck by the evil thoughts and prayer of the pharisee, but I am much more struck by the humility of the tax collector. Each of us has moments when we are like the pharisee. In our hearts we often compare ourselves to others. We often judge others and condemn them. We are reminded that the Lord Jesus teaches us saying, “judge not, lest you be judged.” Each of us has moments like the pharisee, but how often do we have moments where our hearts are soft and vulnerable like the heart of the tax collector? It really causes us to marvel. We know that the pharisee fasted and prayed and gave tithes. But what did any of this do to soften his heart and make him a more merciful and loving human being? We can’t see that it bore much fruit if any.

Yet the tax collector never mentions doing any of those things, and he doesn’t have to. What the pharisee could not achieve with all of his “religious” devotion and empty practices, the tax collector achieved through a humble mind and a broken heart. We are reminded that as lent approaches, it is not how much you fast or tithe that will justify you before God. What justifies us before God is our willingness to acknowledge our brokenness and our deep need for His mercy. This alone justified the tax collector and caused the Lord’s face to shine upon him.

Our fasting and tithes and prayers should be vehicles for softening our hearts and increasing our hunger for God’s mercy not only for ourselves but for our fellow brothers and sisters who are also struggling in this life. We shouldn’t look at others struggles or misfortunes or sins and use this as a weapon against them. We should be like our Lord Jesus Christ who refused to cast a stone against the sinful woman but instead pardoned her out of mercy. But we can’t possibly treat others this way unless we are humble and know our own brokenness and our deep need for God’s mercy.

How amazing is humility among the virtues? Let’s listen to this word from one of the Church fathers, St. Dorotheos of Gaza, who said,

“In the mercy of God, the little thing done with humility will enable us to be found in the same place as the saints who have labored much and been true servants of God.”

And I will leave you with one more quote that I believe perfectly sums up the disposition of the tax collector in today’s gospel. St. John of San Francisco writes,

“God’s grace always assists those who struggle, but this does not mean that a struggler is always in the position of a victor….What is important is not victory or the position of a victor, but rather the labor of striving towards God and devotion to Him. Though a man may be found in a weak state, that does not at all mean that he has been abandoned by God. On the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ was in trouble, as the world sees things. But when the sinful world considered Him to be completely destroyed, in fact He was victorious over death and hades. The Lord did not promise us positions as victors as a reward for righteousness, but told us, “In the world you will have tribulation — but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). The power of God is effective when a person asks for the help from God, acknowledging his own weakness and sinfulness. This is why humility and the striving towards God are the fundamental virtues of a Christian.” AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Sunday of the Canaanite Woman

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (15:21-28)

In today’s gospel reading our eyes are opened to some of the hard truths and realities of life. Some of the dialogue in this passage is difficult for our modern minds to accept or comprehend, but I think that as with all aspects of the holy gospels, one sometimes has to dig a little deeper to gain a greater understanding of the depth and the meaning of the passage.

We have a very difficult moment in this gospel where our Lord Jesus Christ does a couple of uncharacteristic things. First he basically ignores the Canaanite women who is begging for help. Next, when He finally decides to respond to her, He basically calls her a dog. That is a difficult reality for us to understand. Why would the Lord Jesus Christ choose to treat this poor woman in this way? It’s as if we are missing some key that would unlock the meaning and shine a light on this whole passage. And that is exactly right. But what are we missing? What don’t we understand?

What we are glossing over is that the woman was a Canaanite woman. Why is this so important? It is important because if you study the history of the people of Israel, and their conquests you will remember that God the Lord told His people to completely wipe out the Canaanites. Why did He do this? Is it because God is a bloodthirsty barbarian? No. It was because of the extreme and utter evil and wickedness of these Canaanites. They were among the worst people that had ever lived. Their lives were a continual rebellion against God and His creation. They actively worshipped idols and they also had spiritual intercourse and fellowship with the demonic through cultic temple prostitution. They made child sacrifices of their own children. It is believed that they may have also participated in cannibalism. In short, these people, their culture and nearly everything that they stood for was rotten to the core. Yet it happened that some escaped destruction and survived and continued to exist in some form or fashion until the time of Christ.

St. Hilary tells us that this woman may have been a proselyte, someone who gave up her old way of life and was trying to live like a Jew, in obedience to the law. Nevertheless, she was once a part of and had grown up among the godless, and the Lord Jesus tests her through His seemingly strange behavior. What is He testing? Her dedication and her faith. After all this is what our Lord desires to see, dedication and faith. Faithful dedication. We can learn a lot about people’s disposition and genuine character when they are faced with obstacles and hindrances. The Lord isn’t merely interested in making her life difficult or testing her. No, He wants to bestow greater blessings on her than she can even imagine. She comes looking for healing for her daughter, who is possessed by a demon, but she leaves with her daughter healed as well as the recognition and acceptance of the Lord Himself, “O woman, great is your faith!” If only we would each work faithfully with the goal of hearing these words, my brothers and sisters.

When I hear of this woman’s example I want to cry out to God and say, “please transform my heart, Lord. Help me to be faithful even when there are obstacles and difficulties. Make firm what little faith I have and multiply it!” If only we have a portion of this woman’s humility, her determination, her courage and faith, then we will also keep going forward towards Christ, asking and begging and pleading with faith and we should have no doubt that the Lord will answer all of our heartfelt prayers for the benefit of our salvation. He might seem like He’s delaying. He might seem like He’s ignoring us. He might even seem like He’s cast us off to the side, yet we are convinced that the One who had love and mercy towards this woman, even though she came from an ungodly background and people, will also have mercy towards us. But have faith and determination and hope that God will answer.

How do we do this? How do we move towards God with more zeal and enthusiasm to be well pleasing to Him? St. Theophan the Recluse gives us some advice. He writes,

“In order that you may move your will more easily to this one desire, in everything—to please God and to work for His glory alone—remind yourself’ often, that He has granted you many favors in the past and has shown you His love. He has created you out of nothing in His own likeness and image, and has made all other creatures your servants; He has delivered you from your slavery to the devil, sending down not one of the angels but His Only-begotten Son to redeem you, not at the price of corruptible gold and silver, but by His priceless blood and His most painful and degrading death. Having done all this He protects you, every hour and every moment, from your enemies; He fights your battles by His divine grace; in His immaculate Mysteries He prepares the Body and Blood of His beloved Son for your food and protection. All this is a sign of God’s great favor and love for you; a favour so great that it is inconceivable how the great Lord of hosts could grant such favors to our nothingness and worthlessness.”

So part of our daily life is called to be a joyous remembrance of all that God has done for us. This is exactly why we come together on the Lord’s day, the day of the resurrection. To celebrate the work of God in the world and in our lives. And we are reminded that if the Lord showed mercy and love towards the Canaanite woman, there should be no doubt that He will do infinitely more for His own children, who were baptized and sealed under His holy name. In fact, we are even here at this very moment as proof of this overwhelming love that Christ has for each of us. May we take courage by remembering His mighty works and all that He has done to forgive, redeem and heal us. AMEN

Source: Sermons

Our Friend Zacchaeus

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (19:1-10)

My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is once again that time of year when we are reacquainted with a dear long lost friend. The name of this friend is Zacchaeus. Why is he a long lost friend? Because we have not seen him or heard from him for nearly a year. And he is our friend because he gives us a wonderful example of someone who is hungry for Christ and is transformed by Christ. This is part of Christian life, transformation, metamorphosis. But what if we don’t want to make any effort? What if we don’t want to work? What if we don’t want to change? Then we are not demonstrating that we are grateful or worthy of our friend Zacchaeus or our Lord Jesus Christ. If we simply wake up each day and go about our business with no thought for directing our lives to Christ, we are in a sad state. If we come to the church to pray but we don’t intend to do the difficult things that matter, why even bother?

Our friend Zacchaeus shows us the way to capture the heart of Christ. He shows us by his curiosity and eagerness for the things of God. He shows us through his determination and tenacity. He shows us through his humility and repentant heart.

How does he demonstrate his curiosity and eagerness for the things of God? St. Luke tells us that “he sought to see Who Jesus was.” Each one of us has to do the same in our own lives. There is a moment that comes when we have to put aside what others tell us and we have to seek Christ for ourselves. We have to study and search for Him within the gospels and the Holy Scriptures. Now since Zacchaeus was a short man, he had trouble due to the large crowd surrounding Jesus. But since Zacchaeus is our friend, he shows us what we should do whenever we encounter trouble that creates obstacles between us and the Lord. He shows determination and tenacity. He will not take “no” for an answer. He refuses to be a victim of the situation or environment.

In our world many people try to teach you to be a victim. But you were not created to have the mentality and mindset of a victim, rather you were created to be a child of God, a son or daughter of the King. And I want to remind you that our King defeated death itself. When an obstacle presents itself, we don’t lay down for the obstacle, we use what God has given us to go over, around, under or through the obstacle because there is no obstacle that should stand between us and our God. This is precisely what Zacchaeus did. He would not accept his situation but kept pushing forward because there is nothing that should stop our path to Christ.

This is an important principle for us in life, and especially in our prayer life. The world will create all kinds of distractions to our prayers. And even in the act of prayer we will feel all kinds of barriers keeping us from “seeing” God. We feel lazy, we feel like we can’t concentrate, we feel preoccupied, we feel despair and wonder if anything is happening in our prayers. Yet we are encouraged to keep climbing and keep seeking Christ with humility. Zacchaeus showed humility because he climbed a tree just like a little child. He didn’t much care what others thought of him. He didn’t care that they would view him as foolish. He pressed forward and upward towards the goal. Even great masters of prayer like St. Barsanuphius of Optina once said “In the struggle of prayer, it is absolutely necessary to force oneself and compel oneself to pray.”

We can also show humility press forward towards Christ in our prayers and in fact, our prayers won’t get very far unless we do precisely this. Humility along with persistence, yields amazing results. The attitude that we bring to prayer should be one of complete humility and brokenness. We don’t come to Christ in prayer because He needs it. We also don’t pray to keep a routine or go through the motions. We pray because we need His grace and power and healing and we receive these in abundance when we approach with hearts that are open and ready for His help. In order for us to receive Christ we have to have hearts that are softened and open to Him. It means that good prayer is a bit painful because it requires us to pray with intensity while we acknowledge our frailty. Listen to this example of heartfelt prayer from St. Isaac the Syrian,

“At the door of Your compassion do I knock, Lord; send aid to my scattered impulses which are intoxicated with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness. You can see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition—though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them. Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance…”

Since Christ saw the determination and the humility of Zacchaeus, He loved Zacchaeus and invited Himself into the home of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus had captured the heart of the One who has captured the heart of mankind. Each of us can be like Zacchaeus. We can capture the heart of the Lord and make our hearts such a warm and inviting place, such a paradise, that the Lord cannot refrain from coming and spending time with us and enjoying fellowship with us and imparting His grace to every aspect of our lives, and when He dwells with us and communes with us, we are truly in paradise and have received our salvation along with our good friend Zacchaeus. May we run to Christ with curiosity, eagerness, tenacity and determination and finally with the humility and repentance of Zacchaeus, who became the friend of God. Glory be to God Forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Open The Eyes Of Our Mind

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:35-43)

Sometimes the blind help us to see more clearly. In the case of today’s gospel reading, a blind man opens our eyes to the beauty of faith, even “blind” faith! He is physically unable to see, but through his faith in God he had 20/20 vision! As he is sitting along the side of the road, begging, as he had probably done for many days, possibly many years of his life, he hears a commotion. Most likely this was a very rare occurrence and for this reason, he is quick to ask those who are nearby about the commotion.

The people answered that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. That’s it. That’s all they said. But that was enough. It means that the fame of Jesus had spread in that area. People knew of Jesus by name. They had heard the stories and witnessed the miracles and this had spread to all the people even the beggars by the side of the road. Even now, it is very difficult to go anywhere in the world without someone knowing of Jesus by name.

Go to any college campus and most of the educated young minds will know the name of Jesus, but many won’t know much more than that. Of course not all people respond in the same way to the name of Jesus Christ. Some have created theories about Jesus: “He was a great teacher”, “He was a moral philosopher”, “He was a revolutionary and possibly a marxist”! Others claim that He was a myth, or that His true life story was corrupted by the Roman Catholic Church. But this type of thinking shows that many are almost blind, even when they can see. Sometimes this is called cognitive dissonance, the refusal to change our way of thinking despite all of the evidence to the contrary.

The reason why most people are blind and “in the dark” about Jesus is that they ultimately refuse the only historical documents that tell us in detail about His life and teachings. Those documents are the four holy gospels that have been handed down to us. They are the primary sources regarding Jesus of Nazareth. There is no other “historical Christ”. Without the gospels, we are left blind. But with the gospels, we have the basis to fill in the gaps and understand the story of God’s work in creation and His love for mankind.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the gospel book is kept on the Holy altar and wrapped in a special cover and it is made to look like a treasure. It is not the gold plating of the cover that makes it special, it is the words contained within. These are not just any words but the greatest words ever given to humanity because they are the words that bring us to the Word of God Himself. So one is compelled to accept them as a whole or to reject them as a whole. The Christ presented to us in the gospels is not a philosopher or a moral teacher. He is a man who claims to be the Son of God and equal to God His Father. A man that the disciples proclaimed as risen from the dead, even when it would cost them their very lives. So we have to take their word seriously. As St. Augustine wrote “If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”

Why am I mentioning all of this? Because before you can properly pray to Christ and ask Him to have mercy on you as the blind man did, you must have the faith of the blind man. And growing our faith involves more than wishful thinking or fate. It requires cultivation of our hearts and minds through humility as well as diligence. This is the same type of diligence and dedication that we might bring to any other endeavor such as athletic or academic or career pursuits. In fact, we should approach the reading of the gospels with more intensity and curiosity than we bring to almost anything else in our lives. Listen to this prayer that the priest prays silently, before the gospel is read during the divine liturgy:

“Illumine our hearts, O Master Who lovest mankind, with the pure light of Thy divine knowledge. Open the eyes of our mind to the understanding of Thy gospel teachings. Implant also in us the fear of Thy blessed commandments, that trampling down all carnal desires, we may enter upon a spiritual manner of living, both thinking and doing such things as are well-pleasing unto Thee. For Thou art the illumination of our souls and bodies, O Christ our God, and unto Thee we ascribe glory, together with Thy Father, Who is from everlasting, and Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

We are being told that the hearing of the gospel is not enough. Knowing about Jesus is not enough. The scribes and pharisees knew about Jesus but they did not know Him in truth. One has to hear and know in an enlightened way. One’s eyes have to be opened to a proper understanding of Christ, His identity, His teachings and His life. This happens when we cooperate with the grace of the Holy Spirit that is ever working to bring us to the light of truth. We search for Christ with our hearts and minds dedicated to and consumed by this holy endeavor. We are like gem miners digging deeper than anyone has ever gone in order to find the most precious diamonds in existence.

God opened the eyes of blind man’s mind and that man immediately recognized the Lord (although he was blind) and knew that his salvation was close at hand. We can see this in the way that he cried out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And this is one meaning of today’s reading: That we who have eyes and sight should have the faith of the blind man and cry out to Christ with a similar urgency. We cry out to Him with faith, because we don’t see Him, and yet we know that He is near. Let us approach the Master with the faith and spiritual vision, knowing that He is indeed able to have mercy on us, heal our infirmities and save our souls. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons