Let Us Belong To Him!

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. (3:23-4:5) and The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (13:10-17)

In today’s epistle St. Paul reminds the Christians in Galatia about the purpose of the Mosaic law. He tells them that the law was a custodian, a caretaker, a guardian for the people until the coming of the messiah, Jesus, the Christ. And then he tells them that now that faith in Christ has come, they and we, are all sons of God through faith. He tells us the former categories and identities we once had have all vanished away in light of our baptism into Christ. That is a radical change from the messages we receive today in our culture and society. You are encouraged to categorize yourself and others by your race and ethnicity, your political affiliation, your sexuality and your biological (or imagined biological) identities. We are encouraged to become tribal factions and to build up walls that divide us from one another.

St. Paul understood this. He lived it. He saw the world in that way as a faithful Jew. But his eyes were opened by his encounter with the resurrected Lord and this changed everything. Upon encountering and apprehending Christ, he saw the world differently. He says “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Wow.

St. Paul had come to understand that there is only one criteria of importance for humanity. Either you belong to Christ or you don’t. He writes, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

But what does it mean to be Christ’s? What does it mean to belong to Christ? I think that in our modern era, this is an important question that needs answering. As we read the Church fathers, we get nearly unanimous voice about what it means to belong to Christ.

First it means that we are baptized into Christ.

Next it means that we obey the ten commandments and the teaching of Christ. Why is this so? Because the Lord Jesus Himself quoted from the ten commandments and turned to them as authoritative in the life of a believer. The ten commandments are the Law of God for mankind. Unless we know and obey these commandments we will be utterly incapable of knowing and comprehending Our Lord Jesus who perfectly fulfills the law of God in His person. You can’t belong to Christ and then have your own independent opinions on the teachings of Christ. We prove that we belong to Him through our obedience, which is a sign of our deep love and desire for Jesus.

St. Maximos the confessor writes, Just as the result of disobedience is sin, so the result of obedience is virtue. And just as disobedience leads to breaking the commandments and to separation from Him who gave them, so obedience leads to keeping the commandments and to union with Him who gave them. Thus he who through obedience has kept the commandments has achieved righteousness and, moreover, he has not cut himself off from union in love with Him who gave them; and the opposite is equally true.” St. Maximus the Confessor, Philokalia, 2nd century on Theology

Belonging to Christ is even more than obedience to the commandments. It is a love, even an obsession with knowing, and loving Christ. Christ becomes the guiding force and motivation of our lives. In everything that we do or plan to do, we should step back and say “how does this action or choice reflect my love for Christ, who loved me and gave His life for me?” And it turns out that our beloved Orthodox Church instills this type of mindset in her children through all of the activities of her daily life. Everything that happens in the Church happens to help instill a deep love for Christ within us. We fast, we read, we pray, and we serve others, we give alms and we receive the sacraments in order to help us grow in Christ and truly put on Christ.

In today’s gospel reading we are also reminded that no matter who we are, we are sick. We each have various infirmities and illnesses, whether physical or spiritual. We each need healing, and sometimes we are sick for a very long time, sometimes months or years on end. This poor woman was sick for 18 years! Yet, we are also reminded that only One can provide such healing to us. Only one can free us and help us to live as sons and daughters of God.

In our Christian life it is important to recognize that we as Christians are always in the process of healing. We are never quite finished. My healing is not yet complete. Your healing is not yet complete. It is easy for us to get frustrated and to think that we will never be free of our various infirmities whether it is a physical sickness or an addiction or some other problem that we’ve face. But the Lord knows our situation and He loves mankind and helps us as we turn to Him and seek His healing.

What is important is that we continually run to Him, that we make Him ours so that He will make us His. As we run to Him especially through the life of the Church and all of her life-giving practices and medicines, we find that our life will become infused with Christ and with the Holy Spirit. We will indeed be healed and transformed through this relationship with Him. Be patient, have faith, do not lose hope. Only focus on the goal of knowing Christ and offering your life to Him and my dear brothers and sisters, He will surely offer His life to you. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Simple Faith Brings Life

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (8:41-56)

There is a wonderful simplicity and beauty to the Christian faith that is often overlooked or obscured. We get hung up on so many different things that it becomes easy to miss the point of everything. The main point of everything in the life of a Christian is not an idea but a person. The person of Jesus Christ. He is the beauty of our Christian faith. He is the beauty of life itself, because without Our Lord Jesus Christ, everything ceases to have life. Without Christ things are lifeless and quite dull. We see two wonderful examples of the beauty of our Lord Jesus Christ in the back to back miracles that we hear in today’s gospel. The sick woman with a flow of blood, as well as the daughter of Jairus, who has just died.

St. Cyril of Alexandria gives us some background on this woman with the issue of blood, and why she wished to remain hidden and in the background, he writes, “What made that sick woman wish to remain hidden? The law of wise Moses imputed impurity to any woman who was suffering from a flow of blood and everywhere called her unclean. Whoever was unclean could not touch any thing that was holy or approach a holy man. For this reason the woman was careful to remain concealed, for fear that having transgressed the law she should have to bear the punishment which it imposed. When she touched, she was healed immediately and without delay.” Commentary on Luke, Homily 45.

St. Ephrem the Syrian writing about this miracle says,

“It was fitting that the faith that shined out brightly in hidden agony was publicly crowned. He wove an eloquent crown for her, because he said to her, “Go in peace.” [Mar 5:34.] The peace he gave was the crown of her victory….This would make known that the peace his mouth wove was the crown that crowned her faith. “Your faith has saved you.” If it was faith that restored her to life, it is clear that he crowned her faith with a crown. This is why he cried out, “Who touched my garments?” [Mar 5:30.] He said this so all the people might know who touched more than anyone else did. She chose to honor him more than others do, first, by approaching from behind, and second, in that she touched the fringe of his cloak. It was also fitting that he would honor her before all of these, she who chose to honor him more than all these. Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron 7.10.

I believe that this act of the faithful woman touching the garments of Christ is where we get the tradition of touching the garments of the priest during the great entrance of the Liturgy. It is not an act of reverence for the priest himself. The priest is a mere human being, and quite imperfect, but the image of priesthood of Our Lord Jesus Christ is sacred and holy. So sometimes people show love and reverence for Christ by touching the garments of the priest during the entrance and often they pray silently as they do so.

St. Ephraim continues on this passage saying,

“When the woman with a hemorrhage learned that the Lord said to the leader of the synagogue, “Believe, and your daughter will live,” she thought to herself that he who could bring back the soul of a little girl of twelve into her body would also be able to take away an illness of twelve years and expel it from the body. When she heard him say, “Believe firmly and your daughter will live,” this woman reflected, “I can give the faith he requires as the price.” The healing came forth from his mouth, and he negotiated as its price the faith expressed by the woman’s mouth. He gave a clear healing and demanded a clear price. The healing that came out from his lips could be heard publicly, and he required from the lips a faith openly professed….He who was able to put the continued vitality of twelve years in the body back into its place was also able to arrest and banish from its place a flow of blood that continued for twelve years. He who was able to alleviate one illness was also able to banish another.” Commentary on Tatian’s Diatessaron 7.26.

He puts into perspective for us that we think of many of the miracles of God as great, but the truth is that if we compared them to some of the greatest miracles, such as the miracle of raising the dead back to life, we would then not be shocked at all but simply would marvel with thanksgiving and we would come in true faith and ask the Lord for healing. We do have to remind ourselves that while we pray and hope for healing when we are sick, we understand that true health involves the body, mind and soul. Sometimes our Lord in His wisdom will allow one form of sickness to heal deeper and more difficult illnesses. It is good to pray for health, but we should pray first and foremost for the health of the soul.

As we continue this reading we turn to the second and by all measures, the far greater of the two miracles. The raising of the dead girl back to life. One cannot begin to imagine the pain of losing a young child unless they have gone through this experience. I’m sure that the parents of this girl were at their wits end. Yet the presence of Our Lord changed the whole situation. It is a reminder that if we are in a dark place and we invite the Lord, then that place is full of light. Likewise, if we are in a place that is surrounded by death and we invite the Lord to that place, then the place must be completely overwhelmed with life. Part of the reason that these stories are told of the Lord’s miracles are as a reminder that we should keep all things in perspective, even the worst of situations, even death itself.

St. Ambrose writing about this passage says, “Those who think they are dead will weep for their dead, but when there is faith in resurrection, there is the appearance not of death but of sleep.” Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 6.61-62. He tells us that when people around us die, we should not weep as if they are gone forever. We should weep but this sadness should have something like a hopeful glow. When our loved ones die in Christ, they only appear to sleep. But they are not dead. They continue to live on with the saints in the kingdom. These are the promises of the Lord Jesus Christ for those who love Him and keep His teachings.

St. Cyril of Alexandria says, “Let no one affirm that Christ spoke falsely. To him, as being life by nature, there is nothing dead. Having a firm hope of the resurrection of the dead, we call the dead “those that sleep” for this reason. They will arise in Christ, and as the blessed Paul says, “They live to him,” [Rom 6:8.] because they are about to live. Commentary on Luke, Homily 46.

Let us live a life full of simple faith as we see in faith of the sick woman and Jairus, the father of the little girl. Simple, yet powerful faith in this Jesus who heals diseases, raises the dead and loves us beyond measure. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Rich Or Poor In God’s Eyes?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (16:19-31)

We cannot begin to understand the immense blessing that Our Lord Jesus Christ shares with us by the opening of His mouth and the sharing of divine realities with us. Every time that we open the pages of the gospel we encounter something very special. We encounter truth. Mysteries are opened to us that had been hidden for many generations and from many peoples. Yet we often treat the gospels as if they are mundane and uninteresting, when in fact it is often our understanding of reality that is mundane and uninteresting because it is not formed by the word of life.

In today’s gospel, the Lord Jesus Christ gives us a short glimpse into something that we could never have properly imagined or understood. Into what happens to men when they die. Of course many people over thousands of years theorized and tried to imagine life after death, but here we understand that one of the true mysteries of life is unlocked and opened for us mere human beings. As is so often the case our Lord teaches through His beautiful stories or parables. This was a parable about a rich man and a very poor beggar named Lazarus. We are told that the rich man had everything possible in life, nice clothing, rich foods and on and on. It turns out that he was missing one thing, one very important characteristic which was something he could not purchase. He was poor in love. This lack of love demonstrates itself in his inability to be troubled to serve his neighbor Lazarus.

On the other hand, we hear about this poor man Lazarus. He seems to have had nothing at all, not even a penny to his name. For this reason, he would beg at the tables of the wealthy and would hope to scavenge just a few of the scraps that fell from the table. But there was something special that was hidden within that man Lazarus. He looked like a beggar and owned nothing, but inside, his heart and soul were full of treasures. We learn of his true identity when he dies and the angels carried him directly into a place called Abraham’s bosom. This is something of a synonym for paradise. We learn that this man was holy and full of love.

It should shock us, surprise us and hopefully remind us that God does not judge us based on our outward appearances, no matter who we are. He judges on something much more substantial. He judges us based on the condition of our souls. Have we acquired virtue? Have we loved God truly? Have we loved our neighbor as we loved ourselves? Those are some of the criteria upon which the Lord will judge us. Why? Because those virtues that we acquire or fail to acquire will remain as a permanent part of who we are, or who we aren’t, even after we die. Most of what we think we are, will fade away and vanish completely. We think that our bank accounts and our wardrobes and our haircuts and our instagram posts and our looks will define us, that they are somehow a part of us. But that’s not really true. Who you really are is known only by God, who sees the “hidden man of the heart”.

In the world, the rich man was the “bee’s knees”. He seemed to have everything in life. Yet in the eyes of the Lord, he was rather poor because he lacked similarity or likeness with God his creator. He was devoid of virtues, devoid of mercy, devoid of love. In God’s eyes, the rich man was the very definition of “poor”. In fact he was so poor that our Lord did not even give him a name. It’s as if the Lord truly did not know him. Yet how remarkable that the exact opposite was true for the poor man named Lazarus.

This man suffered greatly yet in all of his suffering, his heart was rich with love for God and His saints. The Lord saw all of his trials and tribulations in life. He saw all of his suffering, just as He sees all of our suffering. And the Lord saw deeper, into his heart. He found that while the man was financially and materially very poor, he was in fact a very wealthy man in disguise. In God’s eyes, this man was rich with virtues. His soul was pure and white as snow. His suffering in life was terrible, but it was actually an aid to his salvation. It reminds us that often the extreme difficulties that we encounter can have the potential to be like medicine for our souls. The Lord allows these things to inflict us and trouble us because He knows they can help form us and save us. Perhaps while we are suffering, we transform this pain and anguish into prayer. If our troubles in life help us learn to pray then they are more valuable than gold and silver by far. The poor man had nothing and it seems clear that he turned to God often. He became an intimate friend of God and the saints. After his death we find him resting in “the bosom of Abraham” with the righteous ones. That was the natural place for his soul to dwell. While the rich man dwelt in a place of misery and suffering. He dwelt in a place full of the regrets of his conscience that had ignored spiritual realities and now could ignore them no longer.

We are reminded by Our Lord Jesus Christ that our goals as the people of God, MUST transcend this very fragile life. Our goal is to work towards the heavenly life, the eternal life where God and His saints are ever present. Are you Christians? Make this the goal of your lives. St. Porphyrios, once said “Turn your mind towards [God] continually. Learn to love prayer, familiar converse with the Lord. What counts above all is love, passionate love for the Lord, for Christ the Bridegroom. Become worthy of Christ’s love. In order not to live in darkness, turn on the switch of prayer so that divine light may flood your soul…”

Let us have our work and families and friends and hobbies but let’s not forget to make the kingdom the true goal and purpose of our lives. My brothers and sisters, life is short. In the blink of an eye it can be over. It is easy for us to be distracted. I am guilty of becoming distracted with trivial things. We worry about politics and the economy and every little thing. But let us decide that the goal of our life is to know God and to share His love with others. Let us make this our primary concern so that on the day of judgment we will be full of joy and peace due to the overflowing virtues and purity of our hearts. In this way we join ourselves to the membership of the heavenly Church just like Lazarus, the poor man.

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco said, “Now the Church consists of both her earthly and heavenly parts, for the Son of God came to earth and became man that He might lead man into heaven and make him once again a citizen of Paradise, returning to him his original state of sinlessness and wholeness and uniting him unto Himself. This is accomplished by the action of Divine grace… but man’s effort is also required. God saves His fallen creature by His own love for him, but man’s love for his Creator is also necessary; without it he cannot by saved…”

May our Lord Jesus Christ open the doors of the kingdom to each of us and may we strive to enter! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Whose Side Are We On?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (8:26-39)

When the priest prays the sacrament of baptism, he begins the service with prayers of exorcism over the catechumens who will be received into the holy Church. And as he prays that the Lord will bless the water, he asks the Lord to remove any evil, demonic spirits from the midst of the water and to bless the water and make it a water of regeneration and life. All throughout the prayers and services of the Church there is an explicit understanding of a spiritual battle taking place. The Lord and His angels are in a cosmic war against Satan and his demonic fallen angels. Satan is already defeated but he desires to take as many souls with him as possible before the end. The battlefield for this epic and cosmic battle is the human heart. The Church by the grace of God, equips each of her sons and daughters with spiritual armor and strength for this epic battle. One’s ability to stand and do battle with the demons is based on the amount of training we have put in through our exposure to the divine life of the Church. The services, the hymns, the reading of Scripture and the lives of the saints, our personal prayer rule at home, all of these work together as training for our spiritual battle and as a reward for putting our life in the hands of the Lord and His Church, we are rewarded with spiritual gifts, armor and grace in order to continue to fight the good fight.

In today’s gospel we hear about a man who is possessed by demons, evil spirits. This is not just the stuff of scary movies, but the stuff of reality according to the Christians. Demons are powerful and their goal is to occupy our hearts or to turn our hearts away from being occupied by God. They can work by influencing us, and if this terrible state of being turned away from the living God continues long enough, we may even become susceptible to demonic possession. In the case of the man in today’s gospel, we see that he had lost all of his normal rational faculties. He was truly mad, like a raging beast. So much so that he had been chained up on the outskirts of town and treated like a wild beast. We are reminded through the example of this poor soul that when a man is without God he is truly like an outcast, a slave, a savage and a monster. This is to true to differing degrees.

Yet we are also reminded that the most fierce and foul of beasts and men cannot even stand in the presence of the living God. When Jesus Christ went to visit the man, His presence was a declaration of war and a reminder of the utter and pathetic weakness of the demons and their darkness when they are exposed to the brightness of the True Light. They melt and cower in fear and trembling in the presence of the God-Man who created heaven and earth and all that is within them.

The demons within the troubled man cried out “What hast Thou to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beseech Thee, do not torment me.” They were filled with fear. They immediately recognized their maker and they trembled before Him. They were powerless against the Lord of glory.

Since they are powerless we might wonder why it is that Christians can still be influenced by and even possesses by demons? In brief, the answer is that we may live a life that helps energize the demons around us. How does this happen? Well, for some it is outright rebellion against the teaching of the Lord and the saints. But for many it is more subtle and gradual. It is a growing lukewarmness to the things of God. In our life, one of the most dangerous threats is our growing number of distractions. These are the silent enemies when they are not properly moderated and balanced in our life. We just have so many possible distractions. Distraction is for our purposes, the opposite of the watchfulness that so many of the fathers of the Church speak of with great zeal.

To be distracted away from prayer, from the thought of God, from the thought of virtue and goodness and beauty, this type of distraction means that our souls are not being fed and nourished and fortified and armored for the battle even as it is raging around us. Every day that we are slack in the battle, the enemies recovers and attempts to conquer more and more of our hearts and minds. He is happy to sit back and rest as we happily cooperate with all of his goals and aspirations for us. It will happen so gradually that we are almost lulled to sleep, like the story of the trojan horse.

We are distracted and busy with many things that cannot give us life. But one thing is needful. A heart and mind that are dedicated to loving Jesus Christ and living the life prescribed by His body, the Church. This is the way to turn the spiritual battle in our favor. We simply open a door for the Lord and He enters and as we have seen in today’s story, there is no place where Christ is present that isn’t forever altered and changed and sanctified. Wherever the light is present, the darkness is vanquished. So if we want to be with the Lord, in a place of light and holiness, we are called to open the windows and the doors of our senses and allow the Lord a chance to enter and to fill us with His goodness.

Let us conclude with a couple of words from St. Theophan the Recluse, who writes, “Refuse to listen to the devil when he whispers to you: give me now, and you will give tomorrow to God. No, no! Spend all the hours of your life in a way pleasing to God; keep in your mind the thought that after the present hour you will not be given another and that you will have to render a strict account for every minute of this present hour.”

He continues saying,

“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 favours 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 favour and love for you”

Glory be to God, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Preparing The Garden Of The Heart To Flourish

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (8:5-15)

Today we hear the familiar parable of the sower who went out to sow his seed. As we listen to the whole of this parable we are left with the understanding that the soil is man’s heart and the seed in the word of God. It is obvious that there is nothing wrong with the seed, since the seed comes from and belongs to God. However, the question that we must answer for ourselves is “What can I do to prepare my heart to properly receive and keep the word of God?”

In a garden, the soil must be prepared or else it will be difficult to expect much from what is planted. Sometimes this means tilling the soil, removing rocks and debris, and pulling up the weeds. It seems that Our Lord Jesus Christ also views the heart of each human being as a garden that can bear unbelievably abundant fruit under the correct conditions.

So how do we prepare our hearts to receive the word of God and keep it? The great teachers and fathers of the church speak of a number of things that we must do to prepare and soften our hearts. I would like to briefly focus on three methods of preparing and softening the heart: almsgiving, repentance and confession and the reading of Scripture.

Almsgiving mean to give to the needs of the poor. What can we give? Whatever we have the ability to give that will be a blessing to another person or group. When we give, our pockets are emptied but our souls are filled. We not only make room in our pockets and wallets and purses, we make room in our hearts for God since our possessions were taking up important space in our hearts.

On Almsgiving St. John Chrysostom writes “This makes men like God….Though virginity, fasting and sleeping on the ground are more difficult than this, yet nothing is so strong and powerful to extinguish the fire of our sins as almsgiving. It is greater than all other virtues. It places the lovers of it by the side of the King Himself, and justly.”

On repentance and confession, St. Isaac the Syrian writes, “He who acknowledges his sin is higher than he who raises the dead through his prayer; and he who is worthy of seeing his true self, is higher than he who can see Angels.”

Repentance and confession begin at home. It is something that we do on a daily basis at the end of the day, when we say our evening prayers and take account of our actions and failings of that day. When we feel genuine remorse for our sins, we then bring this energy of repentance to the spiritual hospital, the Church, in order to bear a little shame and humble ourselves before the priest who has been given the great grace to offer the forgiveness of Christ.

The more ashamed we are of our sins, the more important it becomes to relieve this burden and share this with a priest in confession. As long as we hide it deep in our hearts, our hearts are hardened and the demons use it against us and it creates anxiety, depression and a multitude of other issues for us. In fact, St. Nikolai of Zicha says that if we don’t repent, we won’t be saved at all. He writes, “The Lord desires the salvation of each and every person. But not everyone wants to be saved. In a word they all desire it, but in deed they reject it… The ones who perish are the ones who sin but do not repent and only justify their transgressions. That is the worst, most deplorable state.”

Now we come full circle to the reading of Holy Scripture. In the parable we are reminded that the seed is the Word of God. So it makes sense to us that one of the best things we could possible do to ensure that some of the seed takes hold and bears fruit is to make sure we encounter the seed as often as possible and have as much of the seed as possible. The more seeds that we have in our field, the more likely we will be to have an abundant harvest at the right time. Likewise for us, the more we fill our hearts with the word of God, the more we meditate on the Scriptures, the more we study them and commit them to memory, the more blessings we will obtain. The word of God is a two-edged sword. It changes us. It cleanses us, purifies us, give us light and hope. It is a deep well with life-giving waters. Are we constantly depressed, anxious, scattered and feeling hopeless? The Holy Scriptures will help us reorient our lives while they also soften our hearts for the Lord.

On the reading of Scripture, Abba Poemen wrote: “By its nature, water is soft while a stone is hard. However, when it runs along a watercourse and drips on a stone, it slowly but surely makes a hole in it. Likewise, the word of God is soft while our hearts are tough. However, if a person frequently listens to the Word of God, his heart softens and becomes capable to accept the fear of God.”

Finally, we are reminded that it is not enough to just do these things in an empty and mindless way. It is not the works that save us, but God alone. Regardless of what we do, we rely on the grace of God to bless our efforts and to provide the fruit. St. Symeon the New Theologian writes,

“Just as the farmer wearies himself by merely plowing, digging and sowing the seed on the ground, but it grows and produces fruit early and late (cf. Jms. 5:7) by God’s gift, so it is in reality, as you will discover, in spiritual matters. It belongs to us to engage in every activity and with much toil and weariness to sow the seeds of virtue, but by God’s gift and mercy alone the rain of His loving-kindness and grace falls and causes the unfruitful soil of our hearts to bear fruit. When the grain of the word falls on our souls it receives the moisture of God’s goodness; it germinates, grows, and becomes a great tree” (cf. Mt. 13:31-32) (The Discourses; Paulist Press pgs. 219-220)

May our Lord Jesus give strength to our efforts and soften our hearts and may He pour out His great grace so that our struggles may be fruitful. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

We Will Be His People

The Reading from the Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. (6:16-7:1) and the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (7:11-16)

The gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news of the work that God has done in the world, is quite literally a matter of life and death. In today’s epistle reading the apostle Paul reminds the Christians and by extension reminds each of us that we are the temple of the living God. God is not so much interested in large cathedrals and extravagant building projects. These things do not necessarily bring glory to God. God doesn’t need a temple! He proved this when He allowed the temple in Jerusalem to be destroyed in 70 a.d.

The reason that God does not need a temple is that God does not dwell in man made buildings. He desires to dwell in the temple that He has built, the inner sanctuary of our hearts. If you want to see God, you will find Him in His faithful people, as is seen in the saints. You and I are called to a life that is infused by the aroma of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. The Lord says “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” We should really be amazed and astounded by such a magnificent invitation. Who am I, that the Lord should come to me or dwell within me? I am nothing. Perhaps I am less than nothing. Nevertheless, this is part of the good news. It is true that we are nothing but God does not see our nothingness as a conclusion but as a beginning. He sees our nothingness as a blank canvas upon which to create a masterpiece. This is God’s way because He creates from nothing.

We are blessed with immense possibilities in our spiritual life and in our ability to truly draw near to God and have a relationship with Him. But often our biggest battle in life is believing that we can have a deep relationship with God. Today we learn that God desires to share His Spirit with us in a generous exchange, “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” But something is expected of us. The Lord continues saying “Therefore, come out from them, and be separate from them,” says the Lord, “and touch nothing unclean.” What do these words mean? Is it a literal concern for what we physically touch that might defile us, or is there something more happening here? No doubt, the concern of the Lord and of His apostle is something more important. This is the concept of holiness.

When we are young or simply immature we play the game of trying to figure out just how far we can go before we’ve gone too far. We want to be a part of two worlds. We might pretend to be Christians when we are at the church but we might pretend to be people of the world when we are out in the world. When we leave the physical walls of the church, do our thoughts, opinions, and worldviews honor Jesus Christ and the teaching of His Church or do they pay tribute to the ideals of this world?

“Be separate from them” is not a suggestion of the Lord, it is a divine commandment. It is also a prerequisite to growth in the faith. Meaning, until I take this part of the equation seriously, I will not fully mature into the promises that God has in store for us. I will not reach my potential in Christ.

When we guide our youth, we guide them with this principle in mind. When we speak with the adults we follow the same principle. Bad company corrupts good morals. Just as an oak tree can’t thrive if it is only watered with salt water, You cannot thrive and grow as a Christian while you spend all of your time with those who don’t honor and serve the living God. Sometimes loving God means making sacrifices. By definition sacrifice means struggle and pain, but these things lead us to life.

The principle to be separate and holy is an important one. When someone wants to learn a new language, do you know what the best method is for learning? Complete immersion in the culture and language. We who are called to become saints are likewise called to a life of complete immersion in the things of Christ and His Church. Sadly, in our day and age many including our children are experiencing a different kind of immersion. Immersion in confusion, pride, sexual immorality and atheism primarily through the schools. There are some good and godly teachers but more often than not, they are outnumbered. The child learns what normal is, from their interaction with godless teachers and with their peers who often have no concept of God or Christian morality. If you are surrounded 6-8 hours a day by those who are unstable or insane (but who you assume are normal), do you suppose that might have a negative affect on you?

St. Paul, following the Lord’s teaching, leaves nothing to chance. If you desire to know God and to honor Him with your life, then remove yourself and your children from evil influences as much as it is possible. We say these things because we desire to see you thrive in Christ, to put on the mind of Christ and to live as saints together. Sometimes we don’t want to think about things that are difficult but it is usually the difficult things in life that need to be addressed rather than ignored. This is true no matter our age.

The Lord’s promise is quite powerful for those who have the faith to trust and obey Him. He says “I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be My people… I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters,” What a thought!

I would like to leave you with a prayer from St. Gregory the Theologian who writes,

“May you be children of God, pure and blameless, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (cf. Phil. 1:15): and may you never be entangled in the snares of the wicked that go round about, or bound with the chains of your sins. May the Word in you never be smothered with the cares of this life and so make you unfruitful: but may you walk in the King’s Highway, turning aside neither to the right hand nor to the left, but led by the Spirit through the narrow gate.” The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Second Series Vol. VII; Eerdmans pg. 229

May the Lord give us the grace to follow this path together. AMEN

Source: Sermons

Because He First Loved Us

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (6:31-36)

“As you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” These are the first words that we hear today from our Lord Jesus Christ. They are life giving words. The teachings of Our Lord are quite revolutionary and they stand in stark contrast to the fallenness of the world around us. In our world we follow the ideas of a world based on survival such as an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We are kind to those who are kind to us and we hate those who hate us. But Our Lord seems to teach words that are incomprehensible to our earthly minds. He constantly kneads and forms the clay of our hearts in order to make beautiful and heavenly vessels. Vessels that are worthy to contain His word and to contain Him.

Our Lord Jesus connects us to every other human being and reminds us of how we are to treat others. It is not only the person who is kind to you or lends you money that is created in the image of God. The person who is cruel to you or owes you money is also created in His image. He received his life from God his creator just as you have received yours.

Before we can find any wiggle room, any space through which to escape and mistreat others, even when it might seem completely justified, our Lord gives yet another truly earth-shattering teaching when He says “love your enemies and do good.” It boggles our minds why we should have to be so good. Why should we have to go above and beyond in our love towards others? Yet, the reason is rather straightforward, because we first received unconditional love from God. In Romans 5:8 the apostle Paul writes “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

He did not wait for us to be holy, He died to make us holy. He did not wait for us to be good. He died to show us His goodness and impart this goodness to us. He did not wait until we became loving, but rather loved us to the point of death and thereby poured out His life and love upon us and upon all of creation. When God teaches you listen. When the incarnate God Himself lives this life and demonstrates these hard teachings, He shows us that it is not only possible but necessary for us to embrace them in order to become His people, the household of God, or as He says in today’s reading “you will be sons of the Most High”. He shows us that this is the way and that He has paved this way for us. He is not commanding us to do something that has never been done. He has done it in order to show us the royal path.

What kind of radical love is this? It is the love that allows us to care for those who despise us and to pray for and desire the best for those who do not desire the best for us. Even those who try to use and abuse us. Even love for those who try to hurt us or possibly take our lives because we realize that this isn’t our kingdom and we will even receive a new body at the appointed time. We have to see everything through the lens of the crucified and risen Lord. We have to judge reality on the basis of the fact of the resurrection. This allows us to see everything correctly.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos spoke often about love of ones enemies. For him this was the infallible criterion of a true Christian. He wrote “I ask you to try something. If someone grieves you, or dishonors you, or takes something of yours, then pray like this: “Lord, we are all your creatures. Pity your servants, and turn them to repentance,” and then you will perceptibly bear grace in your soul. Induce your heart to love your enemies, and the Lord, seeing your good will, shall help you in all things, and will Himself show you experience. But whoever thinks evil of his enemies does not have love for God and has not known God.”

Our Christian life is a movement that starts from knowledge about God and moves to knowing God intimately. St. Silouan who lived and experienced this grace understood that the way to unlock this most important relationship and the goal of our whole lives is to remove all the obstacles in our hearts. The chiefest of these obstacles is hatred or enmity with anyone at all, especially those who have treated us most poorly.

St. Maximos the confessor tells us that there is a path to growing in love and knowing God. He writes “He who has genuinely renounced worldly things, and lovingly and sincerely serves his neighbor, is soon set free from every passion and made a partaker of God’s love and knowledge.” So we don’t start in reverse. We don’t wait until we are loving people and then serve others. We serve others first with the knowledge that such service softens and prepares our hearts to make room for Christ.

It is easy to love when others love us. But it is so difficult to love when others are hostile towards us or seek to hurt us. Yet God loves all of His creation even those who hated Him. Christ demonstrated this from the cross on the day in which He was crucified and asked His Father to forgive those who had persecuted Him. That is radical love. You and I are called to this love, nothing less. We choose to accept this invitation and embrace this love because this Love first chose and embraced us. And Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

An Undeserved Gift

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (5:1-11)

In today’s gospels we see Peter, a grown man, a tough guy, brought to his knees and brought to the depths of humility by the Lord Jesus Christ. But what did the Lord do that brought Peter to his knees? Did He punish him? Did He correct him harshly or rebuke him? What happened that reduced Peter to the human equivalent of a puddle?

What happened was that the Lord Jesus Christ gave Peter and the other fishermen with him a generous and overwhelming gift. Perhaps you have had such an experience in your life. I hope that you have have. Receiving an unexpected gift, especially a big or special gift is always one of life’s great joys. I pray that all of you will have that experience. But I want to go further, I want to assure you that in fact you have already had that experience even if you do not understand it yet.

When we receive an unexpected gift this is something that can overwhelm us with emotions but in the case of Peter, he was even more overwhelmed because he did not deserve the gift in any way. In fact, not only did he not deserve the gift, but he completely dismissed the gift giver from the start. Yet our Lord remained faithful even when he was not.

Peter was not a normal man. He was an expert fisherman. Someone who made his living by catching fish to feed himself, his family and the whole village. He spent hours and hours out on the water the night his encounter with Jesus. He was likely exhausted, hungry, thirsty and probably a bit depressed. It turns out that he man have been normal after all. He may have been a man with passions and emotions and frailty similar to our own.

As the sun rose, Peter and the other fishermen went back to shore and started the process of cleaning up and washing their nets. At this point the Lord tested Peter. The Lord rarely tests us when we are in good spirits and everything is going well. No. It is when we are vulnerable, weak and tired that the true tests happen. Why? Because when things are going very well, we rarely ask God for anything and we rarely think about our need for Him.

Peter was frustrated and tired and he probably wanted to go home, but he heard the word of the Lord Jesus and he obeyed anyways. He obeyed half-heartedly. He didn’t really expect anything to happen. The preacher did not understand fishing. But Peter wanted to be respectful and honor the Lord and so with a small amount of faith and a large amount of skepticism, he obeyed. What happened next brought the man who would become the head of the apostles, to his knees in utter disbelief. The water trembled and then splashed and then quaked as fish rushed into the nets. It seemed that the whole of the lake was going to empty itself into those nets. Peter and those with him were actually afraid that their nets were going to break in the process! And just like that, the Lord had completely shifted Peter’s thinking. He started thinking that he would gain nothing at all through this effort and by the end he had gained so much that he was afraid that if God provided even one more fish, the whole net would be destroyed.

Peter was left shocked, amazed and humbled beyond words. He never believed Jesus. He obeyed out of politeness, but he had no faith. Now, after this great gift from the Lord, he believed and he began to understood the depth of his own ignorance and pride, and to an even greater degree, the depth of the mercy and love of God for mankind.

Each of you have had or will have moments in life that remind us of Peter at at the beginning of this passage. We work hard, study hard, toil and sweat and struggle and sometimes nothing seems to work. We work hard at our jobs, at our studies, at home, in our relationships and even in our free time. But we often feel that nothing seems to help. I want to encourage you to take time to listen for the voice of Christ and take hope. You will hear his voice in your prayers and in your gospel readings. But you will not hear his voice unless you try to hear it. Yesterday we celebrated the memory of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, a great saint of the 20th century. He had this to say “The Merciful Lord loves His own servants and gives them sorrows on earth, so that the soul would through sorrows learn humility and dedication to God’s will and find peace in the pain, as the Lord said: Learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you will find rest unto your souls.” Bring your problems to the Lord and sit quietly and listen as well. You won’t get an instant answer but have faith. The moment before the nets started to fill was a moment filled with silence.

I want to assure you that God plans to fill the nets of your life and He will provide for you because He loves you more than you can imagine and not one day of your life has gone by without many many gifts from Him. If have gratitude and open our eyes we will see that in many ways the Lord has already provided so much more than we could ever want or need. He has most certainly provided more than we deserve, especially the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of divine life. And for all of these gifts and many more, we should follow Peter and fall on our knees daily and say to Christ, “My Lord, depart from me for I am a sinful one.” If we are honest, this is the only appropriate response. To Christ alone be glory together with His Father and the Holy Spirit, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Self-Denial As The Path To Life

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

The gospel of Jesus Christ is the antidote to the problems of the world around us. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the vaccine of truth against a pandemic of lies. Among the most wicked and deceitful of all of the lies around us today is the lie that we should do whatever we want in life. We should chase after pleasure and self-fulfillment. We should have everything that we want. The beauty of the gospel, the precious words of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most important, beautiful and powerful words that have ever been spoken, is that they correct our way of thinking and seeing and expose us to truth and light, if we are willing to accept them.

The world tells us not to suffer, not to deny ourselves anything that we want. Chase your desires. Follow your urges. Don’t hesitate at all. Everything can be yours. You can have it all. Yet the Lord Jesus Christ says something different and each one of us must seriously choose who or what we will honor and follow with our lives and our choices. We are not polytheists. We don’t worship multiple gods. So as Christians, it is up to us to take this call of following Christ seriously.

In today’s gospel Our Lord says “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” Did you notice those words? “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself”. Since the beginning of humanity we recognize that the problems of the world and the corruption which entered into the world did so through the lack of self-control and self-denial of Adam and Eve. They were given everything upon earth. A plentiful and rich garden full of delights. Yet, this wasn’t enough. The deceiver, Satan, whispered into their hearts and made them desire that which they should not go after. That which God had forbidden. But Satan promised them that when they grabbed hold of it, they would forever be changed, and he wasn’t wrong.

In our lives, Satan whispers every single day to each of us. He tells us to pursue pleasure, to dedicate our lives to serving our own needs and desires. He tells us to sacrifice everything at the altar of our own gratification. He tells us that our feelings are more important than knowing and honoring the word of the Lord. And each Christian struggles with passions and sinful inclinations. But the fathers of the Church teach that pursuing these inclinations is a form of death to the soul. Following after these harmful things is like running away from God and His way and His life.

A Christian can have nearly anything that he desires in this life because God in His love for mankind allows us to have some freedom in our choices and decisions in life. He gives us life as a gift that we can use as we please (for a time). He desires our good, but He cannot compel us to the good. So a Christian can have almost anything he desires, but he can’t outrun the spiritual damage after he has partaken of things that are impure or evil.

The Lord Jesus Christ asks us to deny ourselves of whatever is harmful to our souls. We call these things sin. Murder, adultery, sexual immorality, greed, idolatry, lying, pornography, substance abuse, coveting, practicing homosexuality, pride, gossip and other such things are all paths that lead to darkness. Some of these sins have been repackaged and repurposed in order to make them more fashionable or to make them seem less problematic. But we can’t fool the Lord, we can only fool ourselves. No amount of reasoning or dialogue or tolerance or re-education or debate will transform what is sinful into something good and pleasing to God. I don’t say these things to you to disturb you, but to warn you and to give you courage. You are children of God and you must think and act like His children. St. Diadochus of Photike writes, “All of us who are human beings are in the image of God. But to be in his likeness belongs only to those who by great love have attached their freedom to God.” The Lord Himself will help and aid those who struggle faithfully.

It is important that we take the words of the Lord seriously and instead of indulging ourselves and everything that we are inclined towards, we must take the more difficult road and deny ourselves and take up our crosses and follow after Christ. There is simply no other way to proceed if we want to know Christ intimately. He knows those who are kindred spirits to Him through purity, humility, obedience and love. And one of the greatest signs of love is self-sacrifice and denial of our desires. We don’t deny ourselves in order to pursue suffering or to make ourselves unhappy. We do it out of faith and love for Christ who taught us that this is the way to actually gain life. He tells us what we need, not what we think we need.

Our Lord asks a powerful question that helps us put all of this into perspective: “what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul.” The world seems to offer you everything, but at a very heavy cost, the value of your soul which is precious and cannot be replaced. Yet the Lord offers you much more. He offers you an invitation to follow His footsteps and enter into His way. A chance to truly fellowship with Him and know Him as Lord and Master and this is exactly how we experience salvation. Not surprisingly this means that we should start with repentance because none of us is perfect. St. Nikolai of Zicha said “Repentance is the abandoning of all false paths that have been trodden by men’s feet, and men’s thoughts and desires, and a return to the new path: Christ’s path.”

Seek Christ’s path my brothers and sisters. His path is a journey to real life. How blessed we are that although we are insignificant, the Lord invites us to follow Him and to become partakers not only of the cross but of the joy and power of the resurrection? Truly He is the lover of mankind! Amen.

Source: Sermons

Become Treasure Hunters!

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (19:16-26)

“What good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” That is the question posed today by the young man to our Lord Jesus Christ. In my opinion, part of the question is excellent and part of the question is not. The part of the question that is excellent is the stated objective of the question. His desire for eternal life. Anyone who asks questions with eternity in mind has certainly aimed in the right direction. However another part of his question is problematic because he says “what good deed must I do”. In the greek he says “what good thing” or “what good”. The problem here is that we cannot trade good works for the kingdom of God. There is no magical activity that we can undertake that will earn us a spot in heaven.

So our Lord draws this young man toward the heart of the commandments and the heart of the gospel because if a man dedicates his life to ceaselessly pursuing these two commandments, he will surely find himself with God and that is exactly the goal. Eternal life is a life with God, communion with Him, joy with Him, peace in His presence, love fulfilled.

Eternal life can’t and won’t be found by doing one good work or deed. It is found in unceasing desire for the ultimate good, God Himself. And our Lord Jesus perceives that the man is not serious about his objective. The young man has asked a good question but he hasn’t done it in a serious way. So our Lord changes his understanding. Christ invites him to give up everything that he loves, everything that he leans on, everything that he identifies as, in order to follow Him. You don’t bring your identity to Christ and tell Him who you think you are. That is blasphemy. Your creator gives you your identity and your identity becomes clear as you pour yourself into knowing the One who created you.

This young man was immature in his understanding of all things especially his understanding of God and of himself. He self-identified as blameless and perfect according to the law. Yet we are reminded that self-identification is often self-delusion. Christ proved this by asking the young man to give up his riches and give them to the poor and He invited the man to follow Him. In rejecting this invitation and going away sorrowful, the young man proved what was really in his heart, that in fact he didn’t love his neighbors and certainly didn’t love God with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength. Perhaps he loved God a little bit, but he loved himself a whole lot more.

Our Lord taught us that you cannot love and serve two masters. Jesus Christ requires a full commitment of our whole life. He doesn’t compromise. He gives us freedom to explore and choose what type of life we will live, but He doesn’t compromise with those who claim to desire Him and seek eternal life. He doesn’t compromise because He can’t lie to us. We often lie to one another in order not to offend others but you are no friend if you lie about things that matter. Actually you become the worst enemy of all, the enemy that looks like a friend. Our Lord loves us too much to misrepresent the truth. So He shares the truth with us regardless of how difficult it might be for us to hear and accept. Eternal life is found in a deep relationship with Christ. There is no room for negotiations or compromise. St. Anthony of Optina writes “Can you place your hope in the world? Whom has it not deceived? To whom has it not lied? It promises much, but gives very little. Only those who hope in the Lord, according to the words of the Prophet David, do not sin, i.e., they are not deceived in their hope!”

Christ tells the disciples that “it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” Often we focus on this as it relates to financial wealth. We should also understand that it has implications that go beyond finances. This teaching can relate to anything that we treasure or hold most dear in our lives. For some it is their intellect, perhaps their academic degrees. For others it is their outer beauty and physical health. It could be your position at work or the business that you built from the ground up. It could be our children, or our spouses and loved ones if we put our love for them before our love for God. It could even be our unerring, legalistic adherence to traditions such as fasting and other religious observations. If we hold anything in our hearts as a matter of pride, or as more important than Christ, then we are very much like the “rich man”.

This rich man went away sad because he counted what he would lose in order to follow Christ. But let us instead imagine what we will gain if we follow Him. We will gain purpose for our lives. We will gain peace. We will gain joy. We will gain forgiveness and redemption. We will gain spiritual health. We will gain wisdom. We will gain holiness, resurrection and divinity. We will gain life in the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We will gain the saints and the angels as our friends and helpers on this royal path. So in fact, what Christ asks us to put aside, He plans to return many times over. He will share unfathomable spiritual treasures with those who trust Him. As the Apostle Paul writes “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Cor 2:9)

How are you rich? How are you self-sufficient? Where in your life do you place your hope? Ask these questions prayerfully and the Lord will help you to discern the truth. He loves you and wants to share life with you forever, and that my brothers and sisters is the definition of eternal life. May the Lord make us worthy of such treasure. Glory be to God forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons