What Does It Mean To Carry The Cross?

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

Today we hear familiar but difficult words. Our Lord Jesus Christ says “If any man would come after Me,” I suppose this is a good place for us to begin. Do we want to go after Jesus? Do we want to follow Him? Perhaps if we’re honest, we think that following Jesus Christ will be too hard. Perhaps we think it will be boring. Perhaps we might think that it will not be easy and will not be any fun. Perhaps we are even more honest with ourselves and we say “I want to live for myself and my own pleasures and desires, I have no time for Jesus Christ.” It doesn’t quite matter what reason we come up with. One way or another we are put into a situation that requires us to decide if we truly want to follow Christ, to go after Him.

If we do agree to follow after Christ then we move on to the next part of the Lord’s teaching “If any man would follow after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” On this subject St. Nikolai Velimirovich said,

“What does it mean to take up your cross? I means the willing acceptance, at the hand of Providence, of every means of healing, bitter though it may be, that is offered. Do great catastrophes fall on you? Be obedient to God’s will, as Noah was. Is sacrifice demanded of you? Give yourself into God’s hands with the same faith as Abram had when he went to sacrifice his son. Is your property ruined? Do your children die suddenly? Suffer it all with patience, cleaving to God in your heart, as Job did. Do your friends forsake you, and you find yourself surrounded by enemies? Bear it all without grumbling, and with faith that God’s help is at hand, as the apostles did.” -Homilies, Vol. 1

So St. Nikolai likens carrying your cross with accepting whatever hardships, pains, difficulties and awful situations that may come into your life. Somehow, he says, these will be used for your healing as the children of God. We know that God hates to see His children suffer. He hates to see us unwell. So He allows many difficulties to give us the opportunity to grow more fully into His image and likeness. To be fully healed sons and daughters.

I believe that another significant aspect to this reading is that the Lord Jesus expects us to carry heavy burdens including some of the aspects of our life that might seem rather unpleasant but are clearly and definitively part of His will for our lives, such as unflinching obedience to His commandments, even when it will cause us difficulties or even some suffering. To carry the cross in my life may be to struggle with temptations and desires. It might be to continue along a path because we know that it is the right path, the moral and just path even though internally it seems like slow death and is very unfulfilling. Yet we know that it is God’s will for our lives because it is in accordance with His teachings and because this path will ultimately serve others instead of being self-serving. It will bring life to others.

Do you think that the Lord felt joy upon the cross? Do you think it was easy to carry the cross? Hardly. But the hymn of the Church says “through the cross is joy come into the world.” Through His pain and suffering, selflessly, on our behalf, He grabbed hold of true joy that He desires to share with us and with the world.

So St. Isaac the Syrian writes for our encouragement saying, 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.” –Mystic Treatises, Homily LIX

Your soul is precious to Christ. Don’t trade it away for anything less than Jesus Christ and His treasures. These are the rewards that are ours if we carry our crosses with courage. The door to the kingdom has been opened by Our Lord Jesus Christ through the key of the Cross. And the identification that is required of us to enter that place is to show that we are likewise carrying our crosses to the very end. So that they may be planted next to the throne of Christ and take root and bloom and bear fruits of joy and life together with the saints. Glory be to God Forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Ultimate Weapon

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (3:13-17)

On Thursday morning we will celebrate the feast of the elevation of the cross. This is a special day when we commemorate the finding of the true cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by the Empress St. Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great. The Church prepares us for the celebration of this feast with special epistle and gospel readings in the week the precedes the feast. Today’s gospel passage is one of those readings.

The Lord Jesus Christ begins this passage with a statement about something that His average hearers would have known very well. He starts out saying “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness..” What is he referring to here? This is actually a reference to one of the stories from the book of Numbers chapter 21. In this chapter we read the following:

“From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” 6Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. 7And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you. Pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” 9So Moses made a bronzed serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”

This may seem rather strange to our modern ears. All that was necessary for the people to do once they had been bitten by the deadly serpents was to look to the bronze serpent that the Lord commanded Moses to make. If they did this, they would be healed and they would live. We should be rather amazed and possibly frightened by such words because they remind us that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and God’s ways are not our ways.

Now in today’s gospel reading we see that Our Lord Jesus says something rather remarkable. He likens himself to the bronze serpent saying, “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is really quite amazing. Our Lord Jesus Christ is telling us that He will become like the bronze serpent for the whole world. He will be the antidote and the remedy to the deadly serpent who threatens the whole world and who threatens our lives.

And how will this happen? God has a plan for His people. His plan involved His only begotten Son, the wood of the cross and death. The most important symbol in our lives is the cross and this cross of the crucified Lord is our hope and our strength in the midst of difficulties. This cross of the Lord is our light in the darkest times of our life. The cross led to the Lord’s death, but it has become our life through that death. When someone is struggling with his sins, when he is struggling with every aspect of his life, it is by looking to the cross of Christ that he receives new strength and is renewed in his hope. The cross of Christ gives the potential for new life to everyone on earth. In fact it is God’s desire to share His life with everyone possible. We receive this unending gift of life by constantly fixing our gaze on Christ crucified. We hold on to this life by often meditating on the love that God has demonstrated through the cross. We bless everything in our life by making the sign of the cross.

First we bless ourselves. When should we do this? When you wake up in the middle of the night or you are having trouble sleeping. When you first arise. When you lay down to sleep at night. Before you travel by car or by plane. Before you eat or drink. Before you study or take on a project. Whenever you feel temptations are beginning to overtake you. When you are tempted with thoughts of anger or jealousy or lust or pride. These are just some of the times when you can make the sign of the cross. In addition we should wear crosses and we shouldn’t be ashamed of being identified as a Christian. In fact we should be quite ashamed if we blend in perfectly with everyone around us. That is a warning sign. Don’t be a chameleon. Be who you were meant to be by embracing the cross of Christ and all that it entails.

We live the life of the cross. We think about what Christ has done on the cross. We look to the cross to help us through the many struggles of this life. So with our life centered on the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His life is imprinted upon us. Our fear of death is removed. The poison of our sins is removed. We are free to live with Christ and we are free to live in Christ. We can look to the icon of Christ and pray “Lord, you suffered so much for me and for the entire world to be saved, help me to be victorious over the things that tempt me and to find my life in you.”

I will leave you with a quote from St. John Chrysostom who said,

When, then, you make the sign of the cross on the forehead, arm yourself with a saintly boldness, and reinstall your soul in its old liberty; for you are not ignorant that the cross is a prize beyond all price. Consider what is the price given for your ransom, and you will never more be slave to any man on earth. This reward and ransom is the cross. You should not then, carelessly make the sign on the forehead, but you should impress it on your heart with the love of a fervent faith. Nothing impure will dare to molest you on seeing the weapon, which overcometh all things.”

May this weapon give us boldness and a path to life. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

He Is Our Inheritance

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (21:33-42)

Our reading today is an interesting one because it is toward the end of the gospel of Matthew as our Lord has just entered into Jerusalem and is preparing for His saving passion and crucifixion. We may wonder why this reading would be appointed for this day? I can’t give you a scholarly or definitive answer but I would suggest that this is given to us as a precursor to one of the upcoming feasts which is the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, which we celebrate on September 14th.

The Church in her wisdom is always and constantly looking for ways to teach us, her children. Today we learn through this parable about the patience of God and the plotting of those who are evil. We are told of a householder, a man who owned land and had servants. This particular land also had a vineyard and a winepress on the property. This man, the master of the property rented it to tenants to watch over the affairs of the farm while we travelled to distant places. Most likely there was this arrangement where they would get a free place to stay and in return, they would work the land and perhaps even take a share of the produce.

So this man leaves town and find men that he thinks will be good tenants. And when the season of fruit drew near, this master sent one of his servants to the farm to get his share of the produce, or the fruit. But something very unexpected happened. The tenants did not welcome the servants of the master. In fact, just the opposite, they were angry and they abused and mistreated the servants. We are told that they “beat one, killed another, and stoned another.” That is really awful isn’t it? Well, what’s worse is that the master couldn’t believe it so he sent another delegation of servants. I’m sure that he hoped for a different response but it didn’t happen. In fact it was worse because the master sent more servants the second time. Finally, the master decided that he had to take this matter more seriously so he sent his true representative, his son. He said to himself “They will respect my son.”

Upon his arrival, the tenants saw the son and said to themselves “This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.” And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and in the greatest horror of all, they killed him.

This whole story, this parable, is taught to the people by Our Lord Jesus Christ with only one purpose. To show the people the history of God’s dealings with His people and their history of dealing with Him. The servants whom the Master sends are His prophets, both the minor and the major prophets. Most of whom were treated very poorly and sometimes were even killed by the Jewish people and especially the religious leaders. Why? Because they came demanding to receive the fruit that was due to God. They as God’s representatives desired to see the good fruit of the harvest? But what harvest? Grapes, wine, wheat, olives? No. God is concerned with the fruit of righteousness. He is concerned with the wine of holiness. He sent the prophets to the people to help them correct their lives and to truly put nothing before the love of God. But a curious thing happened and this same curious phenomenon continues to happened whenever one attempts to teach the truth or to make straight what is crooked within people’s lives. Many people rebel even further and become defiant in their will. They double down on their life choices and begin to attack those who are sent to help them, as we so clearly see in the case of this parable.

But the treachery did not end there. Not only did the Jewish people abuse and mistreat and kill some of the prophets, they took their treason to the extreme by condemning, abusing and delivering up God’s beloved, precious and innocent Son, like a lamb to the slaughter. Do you know how a father loves his son? Can you imagine it? Can we imagine how God loves His only Son Jesus? With a love more powerful than any force on earth. Yet in His overwhelming and abundant love for us He sent His Son to His rebellious people in the hopes that He would reach some of them and change some of them and bring some of them out of darkness and into glorious light.

It should awe us that the Lord shares this parable during the week in which He is going to be betrayed and killed. He knew. He saw it all as if in a picture book that He had already flipped through. He knew. Although He knew, He did not run, He did not hide, He did not change. He maintained the course. He was brave, He was courageous, He was focused on His task. What was that task? To teach the truth and to be sacrificed for us.

The leaders thought to reject Him and ensnare Him and convict Him and ultimately to kill Him. They thought they would gain everything by doing so. But the words of the prophet were fulfilled, “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” They rejected Him and betrayed the one that they should have loved above all others, but their betrayal became a cause for joy to the whole world, to all those who know and love and follow after Jesus Christ as their lord and master. And what was achieved through this rejection and betrayal by the leaders?

St. Theophan the recluse writes, “The Lord accomplished our salvation by His death on the Cross; on the Cross He tore up the handwriting of our sins; through the Cross He brought upon us grace-filled gifts and all heavenly blessings.” My dear ones let’s not get distracted with all the stuff and the noise of this world. Let’s not reject Christ and his way of life and His teachings as some did. Let’s chase after the head cornerstone, the One who loves us dearly, for He alone can share true life with us. He alone can give us an imperishable inheritance, and this is indeed marvelous in our eyes.

Source: Sermons

Celebrating Pascha Daily

The Reading from the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. (15:1-11) and the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (19:16-26)

In today’s epistle, the beloved apostle Paul reminds the people of the Corinthian church about the faith that he delivered to them and the foundation of that faith. He tells them that this is the faith that they received, the faith in which they stand currently and the faith by which they will be saved and then he adds a qualifier “if you hold it fast”. What does this phrase “if you hold it fast” mean? It means that we must cling to this thing tightly. We must continue in this path and with this belief perpetually, until the last day of our life.

Now what is the content of this faith that St. Paul delivered to the people at Corinth? He says “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He rose on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures”

This is the content and the foundation of what St. Paul brought to the people to whom he preached. The content of his preaching was very simple “Jesus is the Christ, the anointed holy one of Israel, He is the Only Son of God and He was crucified and buried and rose again from the dead on the Third day for our salvation.” This was, is and ever shall be the content of the Christian preaching. All of our Christian faith rests on the pillars of the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ. So above all else it is important to emphasize that these are non-negotiable doctrines. Once I met with a lady who told me that she believed that the resurrection of Christ was a spiritual resurrection. I continued to press her for details in order to make sure that I understood her clearly. She clarified that she did not believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. The problem is that someone had received her into the Church and she was partaking of sacraments as well. She was numbered among the Orthodox Christian faithful but she was not one of us. She denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Lord have mercy.

These two events, along with the incarnation, are the heart of the Christian preaching. St. Paul continues writing to the church at Corinth with hard facts. In our day and age data is everything. Listen to his data,

“and that He (Jesus Christ) appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the Apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me. For I am the least of the Apostles, unfit to be called an Apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

None of this is complicated. It isn’t philosophical word games. It isn’t spiritual and metaphysical jargon. St. Paul tells us that Jesus physically rose from the dead and then he goes one step further and documents a number of instances where he and others were eyewitnesses and beheld the risen Lord Jesus. The experience of seeing the risen Lord, of speaking with Him, of spending time with Him, was so powerful that it completely changed the trajectory of the lives of each of the apostles and disciples. It was the moment when they saw through the matrix of life and understood everything with fresh eyes. They finally understood that Christ is life. They finally understood that life in Christ is the only true life. They understood that life outside of Christ isn’t merely a different version of life, it becomes death.

What does life in Christ consist of? Well, that is the point of today’s gospel reading. The rich young man asks what he must do to have eternal life and the answer of the Lord is “If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” We quickly understand that he is speaking of the ten commandments, the law of God. The law of God. It isn’t a game. It isn’t subject to your daily emotions or your fickle feelings. When God says “You shall not!” It isn’t a suggestion. He loves us. He wants to see us filled with life. He doesn’t want to see us unite ourselves and marry ourselves to sin and death. The Lord pushes the young man so far that the man shares his inner thoughts and thereby reveals his hidden sin. The young man says that he kept all of the commandments since his youth. So the Lord sees through this and finds what matters the most. He says to the young man “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me.”

One can only imagine the joy we would have in our hearts if the Lord Jesus invited us to follow Him. What amazing things we would witness! Yet this young man was filled with sorrow and went away sadly for he had great possessions. And we might be right in saying that this man’s possessions and in fact possessed his heart. That is the crux of the matter here. God has to possess your hearts. God has to overwhelm your hearts. God has to dwell in your hearts and minds and lives, through living His teachings, through prayer, through study, through loving others, through our participation in the life of the body of Christ, which is the Church. These are all avenues by which we invite God to overtake our lives. He takes away our old, tired and broken lives and he gladly replaces them with life that cannot be overtaken or defeated by any trial or tribulation or anything invented by the forces of darkness.

We know this because the one who taught us these things is He who rose from the dead and trampled down death by His death. We know this because the disciples were overtaken by this news and it forever changed their lives. They gladly sacrificed their earthly lives to bring us true life in Christ. So these are the things that we cling to in our lives so that He will truly become our life.

I want to leave with the words of St. Leo the great of Rome who wrote,

Let God’s people then recognize that they are a new creation in Christ, and with all vigilance understand by Whom they have been adopted and Whom they have adopted. These thoughts, dearly beloved, must be kept in mind not only for the Paschal festival, but also for the sanctification of the whole life….celebration of the Resurrection must be a daily celebration for those who put their hope in God. This hope gives us joy in our daily lives. Our daily lives lead us to eternal life. Eternal life is bestowed on us by him who said: “I am now going to open your graves and raise you from your graves, my people. And I shall put My spirit in you, and you will live…” Homily 71: On the Lord’s Resurrection, Great and Holy Saturday

May this life and this salvation indeed be ours! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Sign That We Love

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (18:23-35)

When I hear these gospel passages I’m constantly in awe of God’s love and provision for His people. I am in awe of the way that the Lord Jesus Christ leaves nothing to chance in our spiritual life especially in His teachings. He teaches us and makes it clear that what He is teaching us is a glimpse, a foretaste, a preview of something heavenly. What would we give to know what heaven is like? What would we pay to have a small glimpse into the kingdom? Yet here laid right before our feet is the gospel, the good news of the victory of God. In the course of sharing this good news with us, His people, the Lord gives us insight into the heavenly realm and what is required of us in order that we might be with Him in this reality.

Today the Lord tells us that “the kingdom may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” It is a familiar story. One servant owed lots of money to his master and he begged for mercy and the king took pity on him. He had mercy on him and forgave the debt completely. And as this servant who was forgiven was on his way back to his own home, he came across one of his own servants who owed him a very small, trivial amount of money. And how did he respond? He became terribly aggressive and demanding with his servant. He showed him no mercy but only cruelty and anger. He threw him into prison until the debt was satisfied.

But what does this story have to do with us? How does this relate to us and to the kingdom of heaven? Our Lord Jesus tells us that the king is a symbol of God. We each owe a great debt to God. It is a debt that you could never repay even if you had all of the money in the world. In fact we know that our debts with God were forgiven and completely wiped away. But which debts am I speaking of? The debt caused by our sins. Humanity carried a great spiritual debt. We were imprisoned and enslaved by our sins. We were held in bondage by death. We had no way out. Yet we were found by Christ the merciful lover of mankind. He paid the ransom for us with His own life, His own blood. He freed us and He forgave us.

Many of you have experienced a deep sense of the generous mercy of God’s forgiveness in your own lives. You have had moments when your own sins weighed heavily, tangibly on you. Some of you experience it quite often through the sacrament of confession. All of this is given freely as a sign of God’s love through His Son Jesus. The Lord in His mercy forgave us and then in the greatest scandal of all, He raised us up to Him. He made us who are His creation and were formed from the dust of the earth to be higher than the angels.

So the Lord freely, generously and completely poured out all of this forgiveness for us. As we acknowledge this fact we are then forced to look in the mirror and to ask ourselves if we have shown a similar level of mercy and forgiveness on all of the people in our lives. Fr. Alexander Schmemann once wrote, To forgive is to put between me and my “enemy” the radiant forgiveness of God himself. To forgive is to reject the hopeless “dead-ends” of human relations and to refer them to Christ. Forgiveness is truly a “breakthrough” of the Kingdom into this sinful world. (Great Lent, p 28)

Some of the people in our lives have done us wrong. Spouses, parents, children, friends, co-workers, members of our church family. Humanly speaking it is quite possible to end up in situations where you hurt others knowingly or unknowingly or where they hurt you knowingly or unknowingly. The pain can be real when others do us wrong, this is especially true when they are people who might be close to us.

How do we respond in our own lives? How do we respond in our hearts? Do we harbor lots of ill will towards the people who have hurt us? It feels natural to do so, but God is calling us to something higher, to be like Him, to love with supernatural love. Whatever it is that others have done to us, no matter how awful it may be, we are called, as children of God to be more. We are called to forgive because Christ has demonstrated this for each of us. We shouldn’t put people in the prison of our angry and resentful hearts, because Christ has completely freed each of us. We are called to open the kingdom to the world around us.

Even when others have hurt us or done us wrong, we have the ability to pray for them and to ask God to help them and bless them. In our day that might be seen as weakness but the reality is that what seems to be our weakness is transformed into our strength. This is a biblical principle that applies first and foremost to the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The cross makes one appear helpless, weak and insufficient. It makes one appear cursed and punished and finally dead. Yet, in the case of our Lord, He turned the cross on it’s head to make it the ultimate sign of strength and victory and life.

How important is it that we learn to forgive others? It is everything. Our daily prayer to God the Father, which was taught to us by His only begotten son Jesus reminds us of this each time we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespassed against us.” The sign of our acceptance and understanding of what God has done for us is found in our ability to freely forgive those who have hurt us. St. Mark the Ascetic writes, “The sign of sincere love is to forgive wrongs done to us. It was with such love that the Lord loved the world.”

Source: Sermons

A Beginner’s Guide To Being An Orthodox Christian

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (17:14-23)

Last week we had the tremendous joy and blessing of welcoming new members into the Orthodox Church and into our little community. All week long I thought about how there were so many things I still wanted to say to you. So many things that I still feel are necessary for your continued growth and thriving in the faith. Today I’ve decided to briefly share some of the aspects of your life that should receive attention and focus as you strive to live as Orthodox Christians. For the rest of you, perhaps this will be a gentle reminder and something that helps you as well.

The first thought that I would like to share comes from St. Moses the Ethiopian. He once said “To live with Jesus you need: struggle, humility and unceasing prayer. These are your tools for the hard road ahead.” This word from one of the great desert fathers is full of power if we take it seriously and apply it in our lives. He reminds us of the goal of Christian life: to live with Jesus. Everything in our life should point towards Jesus Christ. He also reminds us that the goal will not be easy to attain. He tells us that the Christian life is a hard road. It is full of struggle. No matter who you are. While we may be allergic to hard work and to toil, it is an absolute requirement for us as Christians. One of the fathers said that the spiritual life is to fall and to rise again, to fall and to rise again. That is an important aspect of Christian faith. Anyone who doesn’t struggle doesn’t grow in Christ. Anyone who doesn’t struggle doesn’t grow spiritual muscles. In the beginning it might be a struggle to pray daily. It might be a struggle to come to worship. That’s ok. That means you are a normal Christian who is developing towards maturity. Embrace the struggle, don’t let the struggle embrace and overcome you. God honors us when we struggle.

Anyone who thinks they are perfect, likewise doesn’t grow in Christ because they refuse to struggle and they add pride to the mix and pride is the poison of poisons. Since this is the case we should do whatever is within our power to avoid anything that will inflame a sense of pride within us such as trying to teach or even arguing with others about spiritual matters whether in person or online. A new Christian (someone who has been Christian for less than a decade), should mostly keep to themselves when it comes to theological arguments and instead focus on their own learning and growth.

This brings me to the next absolute necessity of Christian life: Reading the New Testament every day. There is no one who has the ability to read who should not be able to read a chapter of the New Testament every day or listen to a chapter through audio or to read the prescribed readings of the day according to the Church calendar. This daily discipline will transform your life. If possible, add this to your morning prayer routine. Scripture says “thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” I don’t want you to walk in darkness and by definition you will stumble and walk in darkness if you don’t measure your way of life against the words of the Scriptures and especially the New Testament.

Speaking of prayer: St. Moses spoke of praying ceaselessly and that is certainly the goal. But we should also have set appointed times of prayer for ourselves every day. At least every morning and evening. This should be a short and doable prayer rule that allows us to focus on Christ. Prayer is not just another item on the day’s to-do list. Prayer is speaking to God, friendship with God, intimacy with God. Prayer is the fountain of love, joy and healing. Without prayer, we are absolutely lost. If you have questions about this, please speak with your priest.

This leads to another part of spiritual life: a relationship with your priest. The Church is not a McDonald’s drive thru, it is a spiritual hospital and also a family, the household of God. We should actively work to cultivate relationships with one another so that we won’t be strangers and that is certainly true with your priest. And guess what? That goes both ways. The priest should actively be working to cultivate a relationship with you. The priest shouldn’t hide in his office when the people are around. I am present with you, but I won’t force you to come and talk. If you choose to hide what is going on in your life, then you choose to carry the burdens alone. You have to desire to allow others into your life and to be part of your support system. Part of having a sound relationship with your priest is coming to confession on a regular basis. Certainly you can come more often if you like. Confession is not only powerful medicine, but a great gift.

One of the biggest aspects of growing in our Christian faith is our love for and obedience to the commandments of God. We can start with the ten commandments and the teachings of our Lord Jesus. Fr. Thomas Hopko says that your ability to be purified and illumined and glorified in Christ are directly in proportion to how seriously you live according to the commandments. The Lord says, “if you love me, obey my commandments.” We can say that the beginning of any spiritual life is keeping the commandments. Whatever commandment is difficult for us to keep is keeping us from knowing Christ more intimately.

If we find it difficult to keep one of the commandments then we have to focus on that as a goal. That also means that if you have an addiction, seek help for it so that it doesn’t become a ticking time bomb in your life. If you have an addiction to alcohol or drugs, don’t be ashamed. Be courageous and go to AA or NA meetings or attend celebrate recovery. If you have an addiction to pornography or fornication then you should consider attending SA meetings. Admission is a sign of humility and humility is one of the pillars to growth in Christ.

While I think that there is much more that could be said, I would like to mention something that we should avoid. I ask all of you to avoid Orthodox internet forums, facebook groups and such. Time and time again this has proved to be one of the biggest downfalls for most new Orthodox Christians in their spiritual life and growth. These sites and those who comment on them, may permanently stunt your growth. Read good books, articles and primary sources. Listen to good podcasts and youtube videos from reputable sources. Study the saints and their lives. Talk to your priest or your godparents. Speak to the living God and to the saints.

I have shared a few thoughts with you in the hope that you will benefit from them because we desire to see you thrive in Christ. I leave you with the words of the Apostle Paul from 1 Thessalonians chapter 2, “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming? For you are our glory and joy.” (1Thess2:19-20) AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Can We Be Clothed With Light?

Feast of Transfiguration

Today we celebrate one of the great feasts in the life of the Church, the transfiguration of our Lord, God and savior Jesus Christ before His holy disciples, Peter, James and John, upon Mt. Tabor.

In this feast we celebrate the dramatic event of Our Lord’s brilliant revelation of Himself as the Lord of glory. On the day that the Lord took His inner circle upon the mountain, He revealed something unique to them. He revealed His glory. What was typically hidden away from our perception and understanding was on full display for the disciples. Christ shone with a brilliant light and radiance.

It is amazing to us that these things are hinted at throughout scripture, for instance in the Psalms we are told that God “covers Himself with light as with a garment.” This light was not reflecting of another surface. Christ was in fact the source of the light! He radiated light from within. Often if you study our iconography you will see that there is a tradition of writing icons that appear to be lit from within. This is to symbolize that the radiance of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit are emanating from the one who is pictured.

As we celebrate this feast today I want to tell you that this magnificent event of the transfiguration has in a way been repeated many many millions of times over the last 2000 years. Each and every time that a person in baptized and chrismated and brought into the Church, they receive the gift of this light. In fact, you are clothed with this light. Listen to the Troparion or hymn that is chanted after catechumens are received into the Church.

“Grant unto me a luminous robe, O thou who covers thyself with light as with a garment, O most merciful Christ our God.” –Troparion (Plagal of 4th Mode)

God has desired that each and every human being who has ever lived, should come out of darkness and look towards the light, towards His light. And as we draw nearer to this light of Christ we learn that the Lord Jesus Christ became a man precisely in order that He might share this light with us in a special way. He desires to make us partakers of this light, sharers of the divine nature. There can never be a moment when we as the children of God can ever say that God neglected us or withheld something important from us. No. When we were baptized and chrismated, we truly became His children. He showered us with every possible gift. He gave us to partake of the light, His light. The light is now yours. Christ is yours and you are Christ’s.

I pray that each of you will dedicate your life to preserving this light of Christ. Dedicate yourselves to growing this light and tending this fire and this fire will warm and sustain and comfort you through the dark days, and there can be no doubt that as Christians we will have dark days at certain times and seasons of our lives. But now we have full assurance that He is with us. Darkness can never extinguish light. Death can never defeat life. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

St. Gregory Palamas writing about this Feast says “He possessed the splendor of the divine nature hidden under His flesh. This light, then, is the light of the Godhead, and it is uncreated. According to the theologians, when Christ was transfigured He neither received anything different, nor was changed into anything different, but was revealed to His disciples as He was, opening their eyes and giving sight to the blind. Take note that eyes with natural vision are blind to that light. It is invisible, and those who behold it do so not simply with their bodily eyes, but with eyes transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.“(Homily 34)

May the Lord allow you the grace to struggle daily to know and acquire and to see this light of God with your whole being, in order that you might become also be full of His divine light. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

We’re Not Worthy!

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (8:5-13)

“Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” This is a most unbelievable reaction of Our Lord Jesus Christ in today’s gospel passage. Something surprised and astounded the Lord of glory. And this was passed down to us 2000 years later so that we would have insight into the heart of Our Lord and learn about the ways of the kingdom.

So what was it that surprised and astounded Our Lord Jesus? What happened that caused Him to gush forth with such praise? It was the faith that He witnessed within a man who had no business being faithful at all. Who was this man? We are told that he was a Roman centurion, a high ranking soldier. He was not a Jew, but a pagan gentile. He was not of the seed of Abraham, or of those who followed the God of Abraham. Yet somehow in the midst of his lack of religious training and influence, somehow, the truth shined brightly in his heart and he grabbed hold of it. And this truth wasn’t a source of pride and selfish egotism. The truth actually brought this man to a healthy sense of shame and humility. The truth became to him, a light that revealed his unworthiness to have ever been granted such a blessing.

His faithful humility changed the way that Jesus Christ interacted with him and because he was humble and faithful, he saw the Son of God work a great wonder. There should be no doubt that it changed his life forever.

The centurion asked for the Lord to heal his servant who was lying paralyzed at home. And the Lord generously agreed to come and to heal him. Of course our Lord had no need to do such a thing, especially for one who wasn’t a Jew, yet even here we see the Lord’s overwhelming grace and mercy. He is more than willing to come and to heal the man. And this is precisely when the centurion surprised Him with profound and deep words. The centurion said “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

“I am not worthy.” Is there any more rare saying in our current age? People go to the streets to protest their “worthiness” of all sorts of things. Modern people live with this perpetual chip on the shoulder as if they are owed everything in life and if something of their choosing is denied to them, it is considered a great travesty, insult and injustice. But we don’t want to follow the example of the modern man. We want to be in rhythm and harmony with those who are well pleasing to God.

How did the centurion receive a great response from the Lord Jesus Christ, and in turn, how can we receive a warm and joyous response from the Lord in our own lives? He started from a point of humility and an overwhelming feeling of unworthiness. He knew that Jesus was special, that some believed Him to be a great prophet and likely that some even thought He was the Messiah, the anointed, holy one of Israel.

And in hearing all of these wonderful things about Christ, the Roman man felt quite unworthy of the Lord. But in his humility, he maintained faith in the ability of Jesus Christ. He believed that Jesus was powerful enough to heal his servant with a mere word. And this man was right! Christ is the word of God and He created the whole of creation by the power of His word! With just a word, the Lord can transform everything. With one word, the Lord made the demons to depart from the possessed man. And with one word the Lord of power commanded His friend Lazarus to rise from the tomb after 4 days. The Lord can do this and will do this for each of us. He will speak a word on our behalf, into our lives, into our hearts and souls. He will do powerful work in the midst of one who is humble and faithful.

This mindset is even apparent in the routine life of the Orthodox Church. For instance you can see it in the prayers of preparation for Holy Communion. In one of the prayers of St. John Chrysostom, a great saint of the fourth century, he wrote these words, “O Lord my God, I know that I am not worthy nor sufficient that thou shouldest enter under my roof into the habitation of my soul.” Here St. John uses the exact words of the Roman centurion in order to “warm” the heart of the Lord towards the one who comes to partake of His holy body and precious blood. This is one of the ways that we prepare our hearts to receive Christ and all of His blessings. We prepare the heart through a humble disposition that is also full of faith.

St. John of Kronstadt tells us what it looks like when we are humble. He says, “To be humble means to consider ourselves deserving, for our sins, of every humiliation, injury, persecution, and even blows; and to be meek means to patiently endure injustice, abuse, etc., and to pray for our enemies.” And my brothers and sisters, this is the way to enter Christ’s heart and the way for Christ to enter into our hearts fully. By God’s grace, I desire this for each of you and for myself. May we learn from the centurion’s attitude and may we cry out to the Lord Jesus, “I am not worthy of you, but only say a word and I will be healed!” AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Be Obsessed

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (6:22-33)

We find ourselves in the middle of the epic sermon on the mount. In this text, St. Luke the Evangelist is casting our Lord Jesus Christ as the new Moses who give the new law to the people of God. And in the midst of this Our Lord Jesus Christ shares with us these words of life… “The Lord said, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness.” Often as westerners we read this text a bit too literally and so we reduce this to what our literal eyes are looking at. In fact, the more important meaning is regarding the intentions and desires of the heart. As I have mentioned in the past, when you begin to have your heart set on something you might say, I have my eye on that. Perhaps it is a new car for instance.

Yet, sometimes what we have our eye on is something that is actually sinful. We may have our heart and desires focused on something that is evil. Perhaps it is a desire for fame or power. Perhaps it is a desire to fulfill a perceived unmet need or desire within us. Perhaps it is the desire to embrace a false identity. If we continue on such a path, without changing course and without repentance, this desire will consume us completely. And this is why the Lord continues saying “No one can serve two master; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

If you focus your glance on the things that you desire, you begin to change your behaviors to obtain those things. Modern marketing and advertising know this and they use it literally to inundate your sense, especially your sight, in order to evoke an emotional response of desire. They stir up the passions. Elder Aimilianos, one of the modern holy elders of Mt. Athos said “The passions bind the mind to material things that we think are harmless, since we tell ourselves, God gave them to us and in them selves they are not sinful.”

So if the things that we truly desire are wrong or evil, they wind us down an evil path that ends in complete darkness. As a Christian, the impetus for change in our life should be a focus on Christ and the things of Christ. We call Him Lord and Master don’t we? So how can we have a master and then actually allow other things to guide us in a contrary direction? If we go against our true Master we don’t end up without a master, we end up with a different master. Either way we become slaves and servants. As Bob Dylan writes, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

If we trust our own thoughts, feelings and desires, we are setting ourselves up for failure, destined to choose the wrong master and the wrong path that will eventually mold us into the wrong image. That is a really difficult concept to understand especially in our day and age where feelings have been put up on a pedestal as the single most important aspect of our humanity. Whatever you “feel” you should do! Do whatever makes you “Happy”!

But this sentiment is conspicuously absent from the holy scriptures, the gospels and the new testament not to mention the saints of the Church. It is also completely absent from the teachings of Our Lord and master. Why? Because typically our feelings come from a heart and mind that lacks purity. In lacking purity it rarely reflects the will of God but often reflects our own internal corruptness. We are confused by our passionate desires and they promise us that if we will only follow them and sacrifice everything for them then we will know true peace and fulfillment and we will be happy and find our meaning. In fact, Satan promises us with exactly the opposite of the truth. It is only through the sacrifice of your thoughts and your will to Christ that you can become someone and find meaning and fulfillment because then you enter into truth and light and life which all come from Christ.

So how should we struggle? Elder Aimilianos says, “Whatever it is that you think or believe, whatever it is you think you love, of that your mind has become attached to, you must strike it with a divine passion, with hate, and then your passion will be set aside by divine power, by divine grace, and you will lay the foundation that will enable you eventually to love God.”

This is the start of our repentance. We imagine our heart as a one bedroom apartment with a single bed and there is only room for one honored guest. We will house and provide shelter to the one we love. The other unwanted guest must be hated and removed from our dwelling. If we truly desire God, God’s grace infuses our lives and changes us. Some of the tools the holy elder recommends in order to grow are praying at night, as well as the remembrance of God, he writes “It is essential to remember God, to hold God within memory, for memory fuels desire, and it is by means of desire that God becomes our possession.”

And this same sentiment is reflected in his own words as He said,

My desire is for Christ; my longing is for Christ. It is for Him that my life is being transformed… my path is one constantly seeking after the Lord.

May we also constantly seek after Christ our true God until He becomes our obsession, the One who consumes our life. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

The Feast of Pentecost

Feast of Pentecost

Today is the finale of the feast of Pascha, it is the celebration of Pentecost, the Feast of the descent of our Lord, the Holy Spirit. It may interest you to know that the Jews also celebrated the feast of Pentecost. It was celebrated 50 days after their own pascha which was the first passover, while they dwelt in Egypt. The feast of Pentecost was the day on which it was believed that Moses received the ten commandments on Mt. Sinai, while they people were down below.

For us, it has been 50 days since we celebrated the day of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Today we top off this celebration with the final purpose for our Lord’s incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. The Lord Jesus Christ became a man, suffered, died and then was resurrected that He might glorify us and make us acceptable and holy vessels of the Lord, the Holy Spirit. The divine One became human that through Him, the human ones might become divine. God loved us, the pinnacle of His creation to such a degree and to such a depth that He was not content simply to give us wonderful gifts, but to give us Himself, to give us a share and inheritance in His godliness. He has given us to be by grace, what He is by nature.

All of this happens through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is this Holy Spirit that is given to us in holy baptism. And this is a truly wonderful gift, in fact one of the great saints, St. Seraphim of Sarov says that “the true goal of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” But hold on, what does that mean? I thought that we received the Holy Spirit in baptism. Yes, indeed, we did. What St. Seraphim is speaking of is living a life and becoming Christians who are infused with the Holy Spirit. Not having the Holy Spirit in name only, but in abundance and truth.

For the past few weeks we’ve been reading a fantastic little book called “The Indication of The Way Into The Kingdom of Heaven” by St. Innocent of Alaska. In this wonderful book he touches on many of the basic topics of our Christian faith and life and then he spends a good chapter of the book speaking about the Holy Spirit. Here is what he says

The true and recognized means of receiving the Holy Spirit, according to the teaching of the Holy Scripture and the experience of great saints, are the following: (1) Purity of heart and chastity, (2) humility, (3) listening to the voice of God, (4) prayer, (5) daily self-denial, (6) reading and listening to Holy Scripture, and (7) the sacraments of the Church, and especially Holy Communion.”

and then St. Innocent continues writing,

Every faithful soul is filled with the Holy Spirit, if she is cleansed of her sins and not encumbered or closed by self-love and pride. For the Holy Spirit always surrounds us and wishes to fill us, but our evil deeds that surround us like a hard stone wall are like evil guards that do not allow Him to come near us and keep Him away from us. Every sin can keep the Holy Spirit away from us, but bodily impurity and spiritual pride are especially repellant to Him.”

So this path is clearly laid out for each of us by the Bible and the fathers and saints of the Church. It is not enough that we celebrate the potential of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. It is better that we recommit ourselves to making this the true aim of our lives. We do this by addressing what we ought to address and by working positively to make our souls open and fertile ground for the Lord, the Holy Spirit to enter and to bless our lives. St. Innocent says that if we do not want to lose the grace and the gift of the Holy Spirit then we are to follow the path laid out for us by the Church and observe the following practices of Purity, Humility, Attentiveness, Prayer, Fasting, Scripture, and Sacraments.

Imagine that someone offered you the most precious and valuable treasure on the planet. And then imagine that this same person then offered you a map with the exact coordinates to find this treasure. Now you understand what the Lord has offered to each of us through the Church. Not only a treasure but a way and a map to the treasure and He offers this treasure not for a moment or for a day or two. He promises that we can have this treasure within us and that we can keep it forever, even after our bodies fall asleep in the Lord. This inheritance of the Holy Spirit can never be taken away from those who are faithful and full of love for God and their neighbors. It can also be replenished and recharged by the grace of God, whenever we have fallen and are depleted of this gift. Let’s conclude by again hearing St. Seraphim who says,

In spite of our sinfulness, in spite of the darkness surrounding our souls, the Grace of the Holy Spirit, conferred by baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, still shines in our hearts with the inextinguishable light of Christ . . . and when the sinner turns to the way of repentance, the light smooths away every trace of the sins committed, clothing the former sinner in the garments of incorruption, spun of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. It is this acquisition of the Holy Spirit about which I have been speaking . . .(Saint Seraphim of Sarov, Conversation with Motovilov).

May we be vigilant to run this race and seek this treasure by the grace of Our Lord, the Holy Spirit, together with the Father and His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. AMEN.

Source: Sermons