First, Let Go of the Net

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (4:18-23)

Our Lord Jesus Christ was walking upon the shore near the Sea of Galilee and as He walked He spotted two brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew, who were busy fishing that day as they did nearly every day since they were fishermen by trade. Little did these men know that they would be undergoing an interview for a new line of work that day. They were about to experience the world’s shortest job interview. They weren’t asked any questions. “What does your five year plan look like?” “What is your strongest attribute?” No. There were no questions at all. But that does not mean it wasn’t an interview. That doesn’t mean that Our Lord Jesus Christ wasn’t testing these men. He was and He did. His test was simple and straightforward. He gave them a directive and a promise and they would either respond with obedience in faith or they would reject His invitation.

“Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Ten words. These ten words completely turned the lives of these men upside down and in so doing, turned the world as we knew it upside down. If I say “Peter and Andrew” everyone knows who I am referring to. If I say “James and John” once again everyone will be fully aware. These men were nobodies but through their obedience to the invitation of Christ, they became glorified in Christ. Each of us is like these men going about our daily lives busy with whatever we are doing. Yet, the moment that the Lord Jesus Christ enters into our lives, something has got to give. Something has got to change. Jesus Christ has entered into your life and invited you to enter into His life. With God, it is always an invitation and never something forced. God is love and this love cannot compel using force. God desires the human heart to desire and seek and pursue after her love. This is how we enter into a relationship with the living God.

The disciples in today’s reading made a decision that day but then they followed it up by renewing that decision every single day of their lives from that point forward. The first day isn’t enough. What matters is actually today and what decision we have made for or against Christ. In this reading Christ says “follow me.” It is a simple statement to hear but not quite so simple in the unpacking. What does it mean to “follow Christ?” This is easy to see from the perspective of these 4 men in today’s gospel. For them to follow, meant to literally drop everything else they were doing and pursue after the man Jesus of Nazareth. But what about the rest of us? How do we follow Christ now?

We follow Christ by first studying His words and teachings and way of life. Sadly, I think we often neglect to read the gospels. What an impoverished and poor Christian life we live if we don’t study the gospels! We have the most important and life giving words ever written in all of history, yet we neglect them to focus on psychology, astrology, fiction, self-help, youtube and social media. I mentioned to one of the older and wiser priest-monks that I met on Mt. Athos that our churches were growing rapidly and he was not too impressed but rather curious. He wondered if people were coming for the right reasons or to simply have Orthodoxy as a crutch. I think He was onto something.

He has given his life to following and serving and making a life-long pursuit of Jesus Christ within the Orthodox Church. Are we giving our life to Christ and to His Church? Do we follow the mere words of Christ or do we try to follow the spirit of the Church that Christ established upon earth? For us the life of Christ is an integral whole. It is Christ’s words and deeds. It is the Church which He established. It is the sacraments and worship of that Church. It is the dogmas and teachings of the Church. It is the saints glorified through Christ. It is a way of life handed down to us through the centuries in order to bring us to healing and grace and deification. Each aspect of Orthodox Christian life supports and upholds the rest. They work together in harmony. You become an Orthodox Christian when you are received into the Church either through baptism or Chrismation. But you become an Orthodox Christian in your heart when you embrace her teachings and find a way to bring the mindset and pattern and daily life of the Church into your life.

We can’t become Orthodox Christians without sacrifice. What should we sacrifice? Many things. Just as the fishermen sacrificed many things in order to pursue Christ’s calling. One might say that they sacrificed everything, their comfort, their self-will, their occupations and expertise. They even left the comfort of their homes and their families. Likewise, we are called to sacrifice. We start by sacrificing our earthly mindset and way of thinking and understanding the world. We are called by St. Paul to renew our minds in Christ. He writes to the Ephesians and says,

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!— assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self,which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”Eph 4:17-24

When we follow Christ we put off the old man and his ways and his thinking. The fishermen left their nets. The couldn’t hold the net with one hand and follow Christ with the other. They would be split in half. So they sacrificed everything for their desire to know God.

We are energized and brought back to life and renewed by putting on the new man. This begins in baptism and continues as we struggle in the spiritual battle, reading, praying, repenting, studying, worshipping, receiving sacraments, loving, serving and rinsing and repeating forever. That is our path to peace and joy and depth with Christ. But first we must let go of the net. Innumerable are the promises for those who follow in faith.

“The kingdom of heaven has no price tag on it: It is worth as much as you have. For Zacchaeus it was worth half of what he owned, because the other half that he had unjustly pocketed he promised to restore fourfold. [Luk 19:8.] For Peter and Andrew it was worth the nets and vessel they had left behind; for the widow it was worth two copper coins; [Mrk 12:42.] for another it was worth a cup of cold water. [Mat 10:42.] So, as we said, the kingdom of heaven is worth as much as you have.” -St. Gregory the Great

Bring whatever you have with joy, so that God may joyfully receive you. Amen

Source: Sermons

Heal My Blindness

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (9:1-38)

This reading given to us on this the sixth Sunday of Pascha is powerful for many reasons. One of the amazing discussions that occurs near the beginning of the sermon is the question asked by the disciples to our Lord Jesus “Master, who sinned? This man or his parents.” Of course Jesus quickly answers them and we discussed the meaning of this many times but the bigger picture of this gospel passage is about the response of the blind man as well as the Jewish leaders to the fact that this man had been healed.

One of the most important aspects of reading the Bible that we learn from the Church Fathers is that how we read the Bible is of utmost importance. There are right and wrong ways of reading the text. One of the ways of reading the text which is considered incorrect is to read everything with a strictly literal meaning. Let’s give an example of this from the Psalms “Happy is the one who takes and dashes Your little ones against the rock!” Ps137:9 Now if we assume that the literal meaning is all there is to this passage then we might be forced to do terrible things. Thankfully we don’t have to resort to this today. In addition to the apparent meaning there is usually a spiritual, and deep allegorical meaning to texts as well. Scripture is a treasure chest that begs us to dig deeper.

The blindness of this man is likewise not merely about his blindness, just as the recovery of his sight is not merely about physical healing…it is about something more. The recovery of his sight, the end of his blindness is also a symbol of his discovery of Jesus Christ. It is the discovery that his physical sight was only restored so that his spiritual sight could be restored. Of course this makes complete and perfect sense if we take Our Lord at his word when he tells his disciples “I am the light of the world.”

It all makes perfect sense. If Jesus Christ is the light of the world it means that if we do not have Him we are in complete darkness. Any one of you who has ever been in a power outage without a flashlight knows that in truth you are almost completely blind…….almost. You may in fact see things like shadowy figures and so forth, but you will not be seeing your world as it really is. Only light reveals the true appearance.

This is the true context of what is happening in today’s gospel reading. It is about physical blindness and much more. It is about the blindness of the Pharisees who are in complete disbelief at this miracle. Even though everything points to the truth, such as the eyewitness accounts of the blind man’s own parents and finally his own testimony, the Pharisees do not, cannot believe because they have decided the outcome before knowing the facts. It is a like a form of cognitive dissonance. They had decided among themselves long before that Jesus of Nazareth was a troublemaker and no prophet. Of course this was also because of the light of Christ, since that light not only revealed God, but it also reveals the sinfulness of all men….and most of us don’t enjoy it when our sins are pointed out. It is rightly painful to us because our sinful desires have made themselves comfortable within us.

We often prejudge like these Pharisees when we misjudge the character of others, but it is truly dangerous when we misjudge the character of God. When we say that something in our lives is impossible we might be misjudging God and saying that He is powerless over our lives! We shut out the possibility of healing, of restoration, of light entering our lives just like the Pharisees did. Instead of rejoicing at the power and love of God, we lament at our misfortunes. We might become suspicious and look at the work of God through our own uninformed darkness……we don’t actually see God. We see luck or chance or fate or something else. That is darkness, like a spiritual power outage, we see some shadowy figures of our life and assume we understand life. Even more than this we sometimes see good and godly things and call them evil. The Pharisees did that. They didn’t even trust their own senses but rationalized an alternative, evil answer. See how easily we can become confused and disoriented by Satan?!

The way to a proper understanding of God is not a mental exercise. It is not blind faith either. The fathers of the Church tell us that we come to a proper understanding of God through an active practice of faith, through the very act of faithfulness itself. So our faith may start as a small seed but when we take that seed seriously and plant it deep in our hearts and pursue the cultivation of that seed diligently, daily, in small ways, through the life of the Church, then that small seed of faith will grow and flourish and bear beautiful life giving fruit. With care and by the grace of God, it will become an overwhelming garden that gives us more than we can even imagine. “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”

St. John of Kronstadt once wrote,

“The Church, through the temple and Divine service, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendor of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.”

We partake of the life of faith, of the things of God and through partaking we are confirmed and renewed in our understanding. A small bit of faith becomes a great deal of faith in the one who chases after God. A small bit of faith vanishes and disappears in the one who ignores or denies God.

Acknowledging God as the Light of the world and pursuing that light, through His body, which is the Church, is the way to begin seeing the world through fresh new eyes. Because if you are seeing the world without God, you are also seeing it without light and without light we all become blind. We walk in this world from place to place aimlessly. But God doesn’t desire that for His creation. He desires that we should know Him and love Him and that we should continue to grow in this dynamic of love forever. But in order for these things to happen we have to also address our own blindness. Each of us is blinded by sin.

Metropolitan Philaret of New York once wrote, “The Church, telling us today about this miracle of the Savior, at the same time chants in the person of each of us: “Blind with my spiritual eyes, I come to you, O Christ, like one born blind.” Not long ago we prayed to our Lord intensively: “Grant that I may see my own sins.” If we ask to see, to be able to see our sins it means we cannot see them as well as is needed. This is because our “spiritual eyes” are blind.” He continues saying “Our Lord Jesus Christ came to heal us of this brokenness, because no other force in the world can heal us of this frightful corruption by sin.”

May Our Lord pour out the full might of His love in order to grant each of us this healing so that we might see Him not merely with our eyes but truly with the eyes of the heart. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Obey Your Thirst!

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (4:5-42)

Today we are most blessed to hear the familiar story of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan woman.  I must admit that each and every year I struggle deciding what to focus on from this reading.  It is so rich and overflowing with truth and grace.  But we have to begin somewhere.  We notice that Jesus stopped at the well because we are told that He was “wearied by His journey.”  We sometimes think of Jesus as superhuman.  Perhaps we envision Him as someone who never got tired, never got thirsty, never was hungry.  Yet the evangelists go out of their way to tell us that Jesus is fully human.  Not only did He experience all of these conditions, but we are comforted by the fact that He sympathizes with our condition.

Today He sympathizes with the thirst that plagued the Samaritan woman.  In the process of revealing the truth to her He tells her that “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst forever.”  She has come looking for water, h2o, agua, but Our merciful Lord looks past the obvious to the real thirst that haunted the woman.  It becomes obvious in the course of their interaction that her thirst was for affection and belonging and love.  These are not unreasonable desires.  We might say that if one doesn’t have these desires there might be something wrong with them.  That wasn’t the problem.  The problem was where she went to try to fulfill her deep desire for affection and love.  This is true for each of us.  As part of our fallen human condition, our passions disorient us, or rather, they are disoriented.  So we take our human desires and feelings but we direct them and focus them on what cannot give more than a temporary satisfaction.  In the case of the Samaritan woman, it was the love and affection of men that she was after.  But we learn that this didn’t work.  One way or another she failed epically at the goal of connecting and obtaining the love she desired.  In fact, that is true for everyone.  No one on earth can make you feel perfectly and completely loved and desired.  It is an impossibility.  True it is a goal for a married husband and wife, yet it is also an impossibility.  Why?  Because no one is perfect, no not one.  If we are not perfect, we can’t give unconditional and perfect love, we fall short.  We love one another, but we don’t love perfectly and completely.  Only God can do that, because God is love.

Our desire for love is a good desire.  Our desire for belonging is a good desire.  Our desire for fulfillment is also good.  Whether these are actually fulfilled in a good way, depends on where we focus that desire.  “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst forever.”  What is this water that the Lord speaks of?  It is the grace of the Holy Spirit.  It is the fruit of a life that is aimed toward Christ.  It is the gift that is poured out on those who love Jesus Christ with their whole body, mind and soul.  As Orthodox Christians however we should say that this gift of the Holy Spirit is not just a feeling or a sentimental thought.  It is a true gift that is passed down in the life of the Church and first through the sacrament of Chrismation.  If baptism is one side of the coin, Chrismation is the other side of the coin.  In the early life of the Church, baptism and Chrismation were virtually inseperable.  In fact, there was a time when Chrismation didn’t even exist.  After the apostles baptized new Christians they would lay their hands on them and give them the Holy Spirit as we see multiple times in the Acts of the Apostles.

But this practice changed and adapted to fit the needs of the Christian Church at the time.  The apostles couldn’t be everywhere at once.  And many of them were persecuted and imprisoned or martyred.  The Lord had made them the stewards of the Church and stewards of the mysteries of God, as St. Paul says.  So at some point very early on in the life of the Church, the practice of praying upon this special oil and asking the grace of the Holy Spirit to dwell in this oil was initiated.  Now in the absence of one of the Apostles laying their hands on the newly baptized, they could be anointed with this oil by the priests who were appointed by the Apostles and the bishops who were their successors.  

This act of Chrismating someone who is baptized and comes into the Church isn’t symbolic or simply a ritual act.  In this act we believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within the one who is Chrismated and that they become the temple of the Holy Spirit.  St. John writes of this in 1 John 2:20 when he says “But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things.”  He continues saying “But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.” 1Jn 2:27

I have taken a moment to focus on this to demonstrate that we as Orthodox Christians have received this living water that Our Lord Jesus Christ speaks of.  We have received what was promised to the Samaritan woman that day.  This gift, this treasure of the gift of the Holy Spirit is yours by God’s grace.  Without the Holy Spirit nothing is right.  Everything seems empty.  Yet with the Holy Spirit, is anything lacking in our lives?  We have everything that Christ has promised us.  But where are we focused?  We have a thirst but is our thirst aimed in the right direction?  What are we putting ahead of the love of God?  What in our lives is an obstacle to true intimacy and closeness with God?  I can’t answer that for you.  God speaks into each of our hearts.  Let us spend some quiet time with the Lord every day and listen to what He is telling us.  Let us open our hearts to Him that they might be filled with this life giving water and carry us away to the kingdom that knows no end! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Boldness of Love

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (15:43-16:8)

Today in the life of the Church we commemorate Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus as well as the myrrh bearing women.

We are told that Joseph of Arimathaea was a man who was looking for the Kingdom of God. We typically gloss over these words quickly without reflecting on what this means. What does it mean when the gospel says that he was looking for the Kingdom of God? It means that he was pious and reverent. He loved God and sought to do His will in all things, as much as it was possible to do so. His thoughts, words and actions were directed towards serving the living God in the hopes of experiencing the Kingdom promised by the prophets that had come before. Of course, he did not really understand what that entailed, but he didn’t have to. He had faith that God would keep His promises, even if the righteous Joseph didn’t fully understand what was happening or what would happen.

I often tell you that we get used to hearing these stories and a possible downside of that is that they lose their ability to surprise us if we don’t engage them and go a bit deeper. We think it is just a basic detail that Joseph took the body of Jesus down from the cross, but it wasn’t. It was a very powerful act of faith. Think of it: Jesus was crucified as a criminal and potentially an enemy of Rome, as well as an enemy of the Jews. Joseph was himself a Jew and a member of the Jewish council called the Sanhedrin. This council was the highest Jewish authority in the land at that time. They were responsible for the legislative and judicial questions. They functioned like a cross between the senate and the supreme court. We believe that this council contained 71 members. Each of the men of this council were not just average Joes but the whose who of the Jewish world in that region at that time. These men were not anonymous but well known.

I am telling you all of this to paint a picture for the personality and faith and the utter courage that Joseph of Arimathaea demonstrated in going to Pontius Pilate and asking for the body of Jesus. He had very little to gain from an earthly perspective and so much to lose. Here was Jesus the crucified one who was hated by many of the Jews and perhaps the Romans and Joseph asks for permission to take down the body and wrap it respectfully and then goes above and beyond once again by offering up his own empty tomb that was going to be saved for his eventual death, and he gives up his future final resting place to honor the body of Jesus, whom he believed to be the messiah who was supposed to usher in the Kingdom of God. But what Joseph did wasn’t hidden. Everyone would have found out about it. Everyone would have known. If there had been any questions about what Joseph believed before, they would all be gone after that. Everyone would know that he loved Jesus. And he didn’t just love Jesus, he loved Him above anything else. St. John Chrysostom says,

“This was Joseph, who had been concealing his discipleship. Now he became very bold, after the death of Christ. For neither was he an obscure person nor unnoticed. He was one of the council, and highly distinguished, and as we see, courageous. For he exposed himself to death, taking upon himself the enmity of all by his affection to Jesus. He begged for the body and did not desist until he obtained it. Not only that, but by laying it in his own new tomb, he actively demonstrated his love and courage.” The Gospel of St. Matthew, Homily 88.

I wonder if our actions in life are courageous and show that we love Jesus? Are we ashamed to appear as Christians? Do we just try to blend in all the time? Do we hide what it means to be a Christian? Do we hide the teachings of Christ and His Church in order to blend in to the crowd and not cause waves? Are we more concerned with being liked than with honoring Christ? I ask these questions because it seems clear that in every persons life, there are times when you will be forced to do one or the other. We are pretty good about surfing the waves of change and walking the tightrope between our faith and our public appearance, but we shouldn’t expect that this will always work. There may be a day when we will be forced to choose between honoring God or honoring the world. Nearly every week we read stories of the martyrs who were forced or compelled to offer sacrifices to idols. Yet they did not because their faith in Christ gave them courage. Today there are people who want you to bow down to new idols and false ideologies, whether they be colored flags, or political ideologies or artificial intelligence.

One day you’ll have a difficult decision to make about whether to honor God or honor something else. I suspect that on that day, most of us will do whatever is consistent with the preparation of our hearts. Joseph sought to do God’s will, to be well-pleasing to God, to be faithful every day of his life. So on that day when he had to decide, he chose the path of integrity and faithfulness. His heart was prepared for this moment, no matter what it might cost him.

He was at risk of losing friends, influence, power and prestige. As Chrysostom says, he was even at risk of losing his life. But to Joseph, this was the right way to honor God and to show love to Jesus Christ. If this love is demonstrated by one who knew nothing of Christ’s resurrection, how much more love and faith should each of us demonstrate in light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead?

And Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

The Reading from the Acts of the Holy Apostles. (5:12-20) and the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (20:19-31)

Christ is risen! In today’s epistle and gospel readings we see two sides of the same coin. Some of the same people mentioned in the passage from Acts are also mentioned in the gospel passage according to St. John.

In the gospel according to St. John we are told that the disciples were hiding for fear of the Jews. Yet in the reading from Acts we hear that the apostles were doing signs and wonders and that multitudes of people were following them and being added to the Lord and to His Church. What was the thing that changed between these two events? How did the disciples go from being cowardly and terrified to being courageous healers and preachers of Christ and His saving work?

There is no logical explanation but one. The most obvious answer is probably the correct answer. Their demeanor and attitude changed because their reality had changed. Their world had been turned upside down by the arrest and crucifixion and death of their Master whom they had followed faithfully for 3 years. But not it seems that their world was turned upside down once again. What changed was their understanding in light of the appearance of the crucified and risen Lord. The resurrection of Jesus Christ changed everything. It changed their whole world. It changed their conception of what was possible and what was impossible. It changed their conception of true power. It changed their conception of God. It changed their perception of the words life and death. All of it was changed and transformed and redeemed in the light of the risen Lord.

The disciples received the joy of the resurrection and they also received the gift of the Holy Spirit. The first time we see a foretaste of this grace is in this passage of St. John’s gospel where we are told that Jesus appeared to them and breathed on them and said to them “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Incidentally, this would most certainly be among the verses that would be in a book if it was titled “Verses that Protestants like to ignore.”

In light of receiving this grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we see the Apostles sent out into the world to preach to the whole world. The fact that you and I are Christians today has much to do with their efforts and their synergy and cooperation with the life of the Holy Spirit. And it has to do with the power of the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. The resurrection isn’t something, it’s the only thing. In light of the resurrection, everything is changed and many of the former things no longer hold weight. They are overcome. We celebrate the example of martyrs. Martyrs are the perfect demonstration that in light of the resurrection, everything is overturned. Even the most terrible things like torture, suffering and death can be overcome by the love of God and the resurrection of His Son. We know it to be true and the Apostles lives witness to this fact. Death itself is defeated and overcome in the risen body of the Lord Jesus. Let us live with this renewed and healed understanding of the whole universe. Death is nothing for us because we belong to the One who conquered death by His love.

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh writes,

“Today death has become for us something else. Now it is a falling asleep. In the body we fall asleep to the anxieties of the earth, and peace descends upon our flesh. Our body now lies there like an icon of Christ lying in the grave on that mysterious, blessed Saturday when the Lord ceased from his works, from the work of saving mankind, from the labour of suffering, from the Cross, from crucifixion. Everyone who dies now, falls asleep in Christ, he falls asleep until the day his body rises at the last trumpet, on the day of the resurrection of the dead.

Blessed are they who die in the Lord’, as John the Theologian says in the Apocalypse.

This is why for the Christian, death is not something terrible. This is why someone who meant a great deal to me was able to say to me: ‘Wait for your death as a young man waits for his bride’. With the same kind of trembling, with the same rejoicing of soul we can say to death: ‘Come, open for me the doors of eternal life, so that my rebellious flesh may find peace, and my soul may soar up to the eternal dwelling place of God’. This is why we can say truly and rightfully proclaim that ‘there is not one dead in the tomb’. For the grave has ceased to be a prison, a place of final and terrible captivity. It has become a place where the body awaits resurrection while the soul grows, to the extent it can, into eternal life.”

He continues saying “To live the Resurrection is possible only for someone who has passed through death and is on the other side of death, not the death of this world, not material, bodily death, but the death which is also called love, when a person forgets about himself and loves so much that he lays down his life for his friend…..This is the standard shown us by the Cross — and by the Resurrection, for one is inseparable from the other. And so, from Sunday to Sunday, when you hear the news that Christ has risen, remember that we are all called to be, on this earth, people risen from the dead in love. But for this to take place, we must so love each other as to pass through the gates of death, to descend through the Cross into hell, to share through Love in the suffering of the other, to forget ourselves — and then suddenly discover that I am alive, alive with the life of Christ! Amen.”

Source: Sermons

To Become Great..

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

Our reading today is a preparation for things to come. We are told that our Lord Jesus Christ began to teach His disciples and to tell them that they would be going up to Jerusalem together. He told them that the Son of man would be delivered up to the chief priests and scribes and that He would be condemned and delivered to the Gentiles. He told them that He would be mocked, scourged, spit upon and killed. We are so used to hearing these things that we don’t see how amazing these statements are. The Lord is giving them confirmation and certainty regarding events that have not yet taken place. He sees it clearly, as if it has already happened.

So it is amazing because the Lord clearly predicted all of these events and it is also amazing because when the events began to happen, the disciples were terrified in the truest sense of the word. They trembled. They hid. Although the Lord told them all that was to take place, they did not accept these things or truly hear Him. They thought only of their lives in those moments when their Master was arrested. In their extreme fear they had also forgotten the final prediction that Our Lord had made to them. After telling them all that He would be betrayed and arrested and mocked and scourged and spit upon and killed, He in fact told them one more critical piece of information. “After three days He will rise.”

All of it was predicted. The Lord prepared them all for what was to come and yet they didn’t believe until they saw it happening with their own eyes. Even after these events began to transpire they did not believe. Had they believed they would not have been troubled at all precisely because the Lord said that He would rise again on the third day. Why should one be troubled by persecution and possible execution if one believes in the resurrection of their Master and Lord? We see this in the witness of the martyrs and their courage. But it is clear that the disciples did not yet believe.

After hearing all of these things, the two brothers, the sons of thunder, James and John came to the Lord and asked for Him to grant them whatever they desire. It sounds very strange to us, as if they think of the Lord as a genie. And what do they ask for? They ask to be seated in glory one at the right and the other at the left of the Lord. We can commend them for their grand thinking and having faith that the Lord could share such gifts with them. But then our Lord lets them in on a little secret regarding His kingdom. Everything is upside down. In this world we have certain expectations of how things should work. We have certain ideas about how things need to be done to “accomplish goals” or to conquer our problems. Most of these ideas and solutions involve the use of human ingenuity or the use of force and the exercise of power.

Alexander became great through his use of force and the exercise of his power. Napoleon was similar. Most historical leaders have followed this path. It is the path of the world. Yet the Lord offers a rebuke to His disciples and to all of us. In the kingdom, everything is truly upside down. Our Master Jesus Christ answers the brothers with these words,

“You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be servant of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

In essence the Lord says “you have come to me to become great, but you don’t understand that greatness requires great love and great sacrifice on behalf of all and for all.” Our Lord Jesus does not merely speak as a teacher detached from the situation. He lived this reality. He is more than happy to see us become great and to share in the glories of His kingdom. He wants us to share everything with Him forever. But there are absolutely no shortcuts available. If you want to be great. If you want to be great in the way that Our Lord Jesus Christ desires us to be great. If you want to be a living saint, then you must follow Christ and imitate His love and sacrificial service.

It’s definitely much harder than it sounds because it requires each of us to become less from an earthly perspective. I have all of these things that I desire, hopes, dreams and so forth. But many of these things have to be postponed or cancelled in order to fulfill the roles that God has given me. In order to become the man that God wants me to be, I must decrease and find a way to make everyone around me more important. I should be willing to make time for everyone, to help everyone, do be with others not only when they are happy but when they are in pain and have need. Each of us is called to serve one another in love.

We serve one another because we know that the world is full of pain and suffering caused by sin. We serve one another because we would hope that if the roles and circumstances were reversed we would also want others to serve us. But most of all we serve one another because Christ taught us how to serve one another fully. He showed us what it is to be a human by the way that He served and gave of Himself even to the point of death. This is our calling, difficult as it may be. We incarnate the life of Christ by dying to ourselves knowing that God sees our daily sacrifice and pours out grace upon us to multiply and bless our work.

Finally, we can serve one another through the work of heartfelt prayer. As St. John of Kronstadt says,

“Do not let pass any opportunity to pray for anyone…. The Lord looks favorably upon the prayer of our love, and upon our boldness before him. Besides this, prayer for others is very beneficial to the one himself who prays for others; it purifies the heart, strengthens faith and hope in God, and enkindles our love for God and our neighbor. When praying, say thus: ‘Lord, it is possible for Thee to do this or that to this servant of Thine; do this for him, for Thy name is the Merciful Lover of mankind and the Almighty.’”

This is our calling together, to love and serve one another and give our lives for each other with the sure and certain faith that the giver of life, Jesus Christ will raise us up at the last day and will give us new and glorious life.
Source: Sermons

The Anchor Of The Soul

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (9:17-31)

In today’s gospel we are given a glimpse into the reality of the spiritual realm and the power of demons. This is not superstition although modern western thinkers may claim it to be so. How do we know that this is not mere superstition? Because Our Lord Jesus Christ engaged with this phenomenon clearly and decisively on multiple occasions. The Lord never lied to us, not once. He has always taught His disciples the truth. So He interacts with the world as one who has x-ray vision. He sees beyond our ability to see. This theme is picked up in popular culture in movies like the Matrix. The main character “Neo” is considered to be “the one.” He is seen as a Messiah-like figure. We see many themes in this sci-fi movie but it becomes really interesting once we are given a glimpse into his expanded knowledge and ability to see what “normal people cannot see.”

Likewise, Christ our Lord sees things that are not easily apprehended by most of us. The reasons why we barely recognize demonic encounters and issues are many but one of the main reasons is because the job of the demons is to distract us away from prayer by any means necessary. But most of the demons are now standing in the unemployment line because the smartphones and the computers have been far more efficient and effective at distracting us and keeping us from prayer.

Nevertheless we see that the demons in this gospel passage are powerful. They can take an otherwise healthy young boy and cause him to lose control of his own body and mind. They can cause him to fall, to convulse with seizures and to move unwillingly towards things that are dangerous. If the demons have this ability, can we imagine how much they do to us with subtle thoughts and fantasies and desires that quietly work on us hour after hour and day after day? They are experts at warfare and they learned that if one way doesn’t produce results, there is always time to change methods and tactics and try other avenues of attack. The demons are powerful but they lose much of their power over us when we are baptized and brought into the Church. They continue to stay at a distance and their attacks are very weak when we are active with our participation in confession and communion. I don’t say these things to you because I want you to participate in them. I am saying them to you because this is the truth as witnessed and explained by the holy tradition and the saints of the Church for two millennia.

But guess what else the saints have said for nearly 2000 years? That two of the most powerful acts that we can undertake against the demonic warfare are fasting coupled with prayer. The demons are powerful, but baptized sons and daughters of God are much more powerful especially when they faithfully combine prayer and fasting. It is for this reason that our Lord Jesus says to the disciples “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” This is a spiritual reality that applies to us. Perhaps we have some serious problems with anger or lust. Perhaps we have addictions to things like alcohol or food or pornography. All of these illnesses require the therapy of fasting coupled with prayers. Slowly, through such practices, we become more human.

St. Theophan the recluse writes,

“If this kind goes out by the prayer and fasting of another person, then it is even less able to enter one who fasts and prays. What protection! Although there are a slew of demons and all the air is packed with them, they cannot do anything to one who is protected by prayer and fasting. Fasting is universal temperance, prayer is universal communication with God; the former defend from the outside, whereas the latter from within directs a fiery weapon against the enemies. The demons can sense a faster and man of prayer from a distance, and they run far away from him so as avoid a painful blow.”

Now we shouldn’t think that fasting only applies to the type of food we eat, we should note that the saints and fathers of the Church tells us that the amount is as important at the type of food we eat, perhaps more so. St. John Cassian writes,

“A clear rule for self-control handed down by the Fathers is this: stop eating while still hungry and do not continue until you are satisfied. When the Apostle said, ‘Make no provision to fulfill the desires of the flesh’ (Rom. 13:14), he was not forbidding us to provide for the needs of life; he was warning us against self-indulgence.” -On the Eight Vices

But we don’t undertake these practices out of a sense of obligation or for some ulterior motives, or even to gain specific spiritual gifts. It is all with the goal of having communion and fellowship with the Holy Trinity. St. Seraphim of Sarov writes,

“Fasting, prayer, alms, and every other good Christian deed is good in itself, but the purpose of the Christian life consists not only in the fulfillment of one or another of them. The true purpose of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”

— St. Seraphim of Sarov, Conversation on the Goal of the Christian Life

In fasting we imitate our Lord Jesus Christ who Himself fasted for our sakes. He succeeded and showed us that our path is not dreadful in this spiritual warfare, but according to the words of St. Paul, we “have a strong consolation, we, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope that is set before us; a hope, which we have as an anchor of the soul,” through the works and the mercy and love of our Lord Jesus Christ who was victorious for us. May He alone be blessed with the Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Way to God

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (8:34-9:1)

Today I congratulate you as we reach the third Sunday and the halfway point of the great fast. Three weeks down and three more to go, before we begin to journey through Holy Week. According to the tradition, the Church brings forth the cross for veneration on the third Sunday of Lent in order to give us strength to continue on the path and to complete the course of this fast.

Whenever we begin a difficult work, we may find it easy to stay motivated for a day or two, possibly for a week or two, but then reality begins to set in. We get tired. We are unhappy with ourselves and the results. We contemplate giving in and giving up on the work we had originally set out to accomplish. Yet the Lord Jesus Christ reminds us of what’s at stake in today’s gospel reading. What is at stake is the soul. Everything that we do as human beings ultimately affects the health of our souls and this is really important because the soul is immortal. It was created by God to live forever with Him. So when our Lord speaks to us about the soul, this is from a completely different viewpoint and perspective than any that we could possible imagine. He speaks to us as one who understands our souls, because He Himself created the soul.

He tells us that there is one path to gaining your soul. One path to a healthy and vibrant soul. To deny yourself and take up your cross and follow Him. The Church brings forth the image of the cross and the words of Our Lord to remind us that much of life involves suffering. Some of that suffering is involuntary and some of that suffering is voluntary. In this case the Lord is telling us to take up voluntary suffering. He is telling us to deny ourselves and take up our crosses. What should we deny ourselves? We should deny ourselves of anything, any thought or inclination, or action that doesn’t put God and those around us, as the priority of our lives.

Sometimes this means denying myself a simple thing like a purchase of something that I really want. Sometimes it means denying myself a certain pleasure or activity because it doesn’t glorify God. Sometimes it means denying myself a certain preconceived goal or a vain idea or ambition because that particular thing doesn’t put others before me. That particular activity might glorify me, but if it glorifies me, then it doesn’t glorify God. Sometimes denying myself and taking up the cross means denying my strong inclinations, even things that I might associate as part of my identity. Sometimes, having or doing what I want means denying something else to my spouse or my children or my friends. It might be a very selfish thing that is in fact the opposite of love.

What separates us from the rest of the world is only our love. Our Lord says “They will know that you are my disciples if you have love for each other.” But Our Lord doesn’t say this in a vacuum, isolated from the world. He says this with the cross in view. He tells us to deny ourselves and to follow Him. And where will He lead us if we follow Him? Will He take us to Disneyland? Or Hawaii? No. If we follow Him, He will lead us to the place where He goes. To the very foot of the Cross.

Who is faithful enough to trust the Lord? Who is loyal and obedient to follow Him wherever He leads us? Who is willing to say boldly “He must increase while I must decrease?” Who is willing to say “Lord, everything in my life and everything that I am, belongs to you.” Christ offers us the chance to be with Him in truth. He offers us a chance to partake of His sufferings and to partake of the joy of the redemption of the world. How? Because we belong to Christ. We are sons and daughters of the Most High. But this high calling cannot be activated within us unless we agree to freely and faithfully follow Our Lord while carrying our crosses. Without the cross it is all just vain philosophy and empty potential. There is no doubt that this will be painful, but through the cross is joy come unto the world!

The Lord invites us to walk the royal path with Him. To partake of His sufferings in order to fully partake of His resurrection. As we partake in these things with Christ we are given new energy and strength to radiate this new life to the world around us.

We give up everything for the sake of Jesus Christ and we find that in return, we gain everything 100 or 1000 times over. We give up earthly desires and pleasures and the Lord replaces them with heavenly visions and radiant joy. We might find that we lose some friends because we follow Christ and then we are surprised that we are grafted into a whole new family and we make friends of the saints. We might lose some treasures because we don’t take a job that keeps us from the liturgy, or we skip on a job that is immoral or unprofitable and then we find that God grants us spiritual treasures of grace that go far beyond our understanding. In short, there is nothing that we sacrifice in this life for the sake of the love of God that God will not restore to us many, many times over.

St. Isaac the Syrian writes,

“Behold, for years and generations, the way of God has been leveled by the cross and by death. How is it with you, that you see the afflictions of the way as if they were out of the way? Do you not wish to follow the steps of the saints? Or do you wish to go a way which is especially for you, without suffering? The way unto God is a daily cross. No one can ascend unto heaven with comfort, we know where the way of comfort leads.” + St. Isaac the Syrian,

We know where the way of comfort leads, but Christ has opened the doors of His Church to us, and taught us also the ways of salvation, in order to open the doors of the kingdom to us. May we take up our crosses and follow Him in faith! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

What Paralyzes Us?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (2:1-12)

When we begin our introduction to Orthodoxy classes with newcomers, seekers and inquirers, we begin by telling all of them that the Church is a hospital. The model of a courtroom or a business or even a social club is misguided and lacks the heart and the purpose of why Jesus Christ has founded His Church, His beloved bride. It exists to be a place of healing and life for every one that enters through the doors, because assuredly, everyone that enters through those doors is sick.

How are we sick? We are sick because our souls are disordered. We do not love God. Our ancestors Adam and Eve, rebelled against God and their offspring entered into that fallenness and life of disobedience. Instead of being in love with life, goodness, truth and purity, mankind married itself to disobedience, lies, impurity and finally to death. What started in the soul, spread to the rest of us as a sickness or a cancer. We are divided in our minds, our bodies and our will. We are fragmented. St. Paul speaks of this when he says,

“For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me…but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Rom 7:14-24

This is our condition. We are broken because of our warring and conflicting desires and our inability to bring all things together within us, to unite every part of us in the service and worship of God. This is a picture of what sin has done to us. It deeply affects us at every level and it even causes us to fall into sickness and all kinds of mental, emotional and physical diseases. We sympathize with St. Paul when he cries out “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” We see an example and a symbol of this body of death and the way that sin paralyzes us in the person of the paralytic in today’s gospel. We are not told how long this man was paralyzed. We are not told what caused his paralysis. But we observe what great works God did in his life.

We take note of the dear friends, the four men who carried their paralyzed friend to the house of Jesus. It is clear that this house is a symbol of the Church which is in truth the house where Christ dwells. The four men symbolize the 4 evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, who carry all manner of sick men upon the stretcher of their gospels. Not so that they should remain on the stretchers, but in order to bring them precisely to the feet of the physician with his medicines and therapies, to the hospital, the holy Church of God.

Of course many of you know these things but it is good for us to be reminded of them and to share them for the sake of all the new faces present with us. Since Christ is the physician, and the Church is the hospital, then it makes sense for us to see that the sacraments of the Church are the various medicines through which God shares with us His grace in a powerful and dynamic way. Listen to these words from St. Ignatius of Antioch who lived from 35-107ad. He writes, “breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but which causes that we should live forever in Jesus Christ.” Letter to the Ephesians, 18-20

That is why we are here. That is why the gospels were written for the world. That is why some of our parents brought us and dedicated us to God. And I think that this is why many of you have come from various backgrounds and joined or would like to join yourselves to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church; to make sure that you receive the medicine of immortality and to unite ourselves fully to Jesus Christ.

Can I tell you the secret to receiving this great gift of immortality and healing and all of the treasures of Christ through the Church? You receive them by identifying with the paralytic. When you read or hear the gospels you have to identify with the one who is sick and needs healing. You have to not only agree with his condition. You have to agree with the cause. The cause of most of your problems isn’t economic or political. If you want to see the cause you have to look at your sins and your own lack of love. There is great power in the admission that we are the ones that are sick. There is great power in admitting that we need others to help carry us to Christ. There is great power in being vulnerable in our hearts.

Just as it was for the paralytic, the start of our healing is through the forgiveness of our sins. This starts with a profound repentance and the medicine of confession. When we hear these words “Son, your sins are forgiven”, we should identify with that man so that we can also be filled with hope and joy. God is so merciful and desires that we should be lifted up from our bed of sickness and from all of the various ailments that put us into an existence of paralysis. Christ knows. Identify with the one who is in need and call out to Christ from the depths of your heart. He will hear you and He will heal you. Then He will command you to rise, take up your bed and walk in newness of life. AMEN

Source: Sermons

The Sanctification of Our Senses

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

Each Sunday of Great and Holy Lent has a theme. The theme of this, the first Sunday of Lent is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, also known as the triumph of Orthodoxy. In the year 843, on the first Sunday of the Fast, The Empress, Saint Theodora and her son, Emperor Michael, venerated the Holy Icons together with the clergy and the people. This was the first time that icons were returned to the church and used for worship for many years. We are told that for more than a hundred years the Church suffered due to those who opposed the use of icons and supported the iconoclasm.

Why did the Church suffer? Is it because the icons were beautiful decorations for the church? Well, it is true that the icons are beautiful. It is also true that the icons add a layer of reverence and an atmosphere for prayer. It is our hope that very shortly, by the grace of God we will begin building the new church and will cover the walls with iconography. It is my hope that this will be a place where people get lost in prayer with the saints. A place that helps to lift our hearts to Christ and to the kingdom.

But the Church didn’t suffer simply because it was less beautiful. When icons were banned it was an attack on our beliefs and our theology. Those who banned icons did so because they believed that icons were a form of idol worship. They believed that the use of icons was a breaking of the commandment not to make any graven images. But the issue goes much deeper than that. All theology comes back to this question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” For the Church the answer is that Jesus Christ is the incarnate, only begotten Son of God. He is co-equal to the Father and to the Holy Spirit. He is one is essence with His Father and the Spirit. Yet He retains His personhood. God is one in essence, three in persons. But this statement on who Jesus really is, shapes our worldview from the moment that He enters into our world and into human history. Jesus becoming a flesh and blood man who lived with us and walked with us and talked with us and was seen among us, these facts change our understanding of icons because they change our understanding of God.

When God gave the ten commandments to Moses and Moses gave them to the people, it was with the understanding that you could not depict God because no human eye had seen God. But listen to what the Apostle John writes to us, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that ourjoy may be complete.” 1 Jn 1:1-4

The icons are a sign of the completion of our joy. They complete our joy because they remind us of the gospel in truth. Jesus Christ, became man while yet being God. It is God who was seen by the Apostle John and the rest of the disciples. It was God who taught them. It was God who raised Lazarus from the dead and gave sight to the blind. It was God who suffered and died and was buried for us. It was God who defeated death and rose again for us. Our joy is complete because our eyes “have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples.” What more do you want to see in life? What more is necessary? What could possibly bring us more joy?

For Orthodox Christians, the display of icons is a reminder and more than that, it is a declaration that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. This fact completely changed the course of human existence and it changes the existence of each person who accepts Christ and submits their life to Him. So we don’t depict a God that we haven’t seen. Rather we depict the God that we have seen and known in truth. We don’t use our imagination to do this. We use our God-given senses. In addition, we don’t worship the icons in the way that an idolater prays to an idol. We venerate the one who is depicted through the icon, in much the same way that one might carry a picture of their beloved in their wallet. It is just a piece of paper and yet it depicts and symbolizes one that we love. So also our icons, while on canvas and wood or on the walls of the church, bring our minds to the ones who are depicted.

St. John of Kronstadt reflects on the whole nature of worship and our senses when he writes, “The Church, through the temple and Divine services, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendour of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.” + St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ

The Church, the bride of Christ, invites us to open our senses to “come and see.” These are the same words that Philip offered to Nathaniel, when he asked about Jesus. It isn’t enough that others tell you, you must desire to see His face for yourself. The Church invites us to come and see her beloved bridegroom. Come and hear His words. Come and experience all that He has offered to us through His love for mankind. This is our treasure as Christians.

Why did we spend all week in the church? Why did we spend all week praying together? Is it because we enjoy suffering? No. It is because we need to reorient ourselves and our vision back to truth, to beauty and to goodness, back to the One who is our life. He alone is our hope, our treasure and our triumph. All of this is here for you, come and see. AMEN.

Source: Sermons