What happened to the Church of Acts?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (17:1-13)

On this wonderful Sunday that falls between the Feast of Ascension, which we celebrated on Thursday and the feast of Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday, we celebrate the Holy Fathers of the first ecumenical council assembled at Nicaea. We also hear the gospel of the Lord Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17. One of the last things that the Lord prayed aloud on the night in which He was betrayed were these words “Holy Father, keep them in Thy Name, which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one.”

Imagine the deep desire of the Lord Jesus Christ for unity. Imagine the love that He has for His Church! His prayer is not for Himself but for His followers. His goal is our unity. When someone loves God he desires peace and unity everywhere. The Lord loved His bride the Church so much that He was praying for her with fervent prayers. The Lord desires unity. This unity is a sign of love between all the Christians and it is a sign of love for God. When this unity is broken, everything in the life of the Church begins to fall apart. It is the same in any family, but the Church is not just any family. It is the household of God.

In Acts of the Apostles chapter 2 verse 42 we hear these words “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in prayers.” For us, this verse tells us so much about the early life of the Church and what it tells us has the power to change our lives by reorienting how we understand the church.

We are told that those who were Christians maintained a bond of love and a unity with the apostles. We know this because they continued steadfastly in their fellowship, meaning they remained united to the apostles and to those who had been appointed by the apostles. In addition, we find that they show their unity by being of the same mind as the apostles. We are told that they steadfastly kept the doctrine of the apostles. We see the early Christians devoting themselves to fulfilling this prayer of the Lord Jesus. They are steadfast in their resolve to be united. To have one mind, one heart, one doctrine, one fellowship. This is how Christianity is supposed to look.

In the early Church you either followed the apostles of the Lord or you broke away from the fellowship and were treated as a schismatic (one who breaks away) or worse yet, as a heretic (one who has false teaching). Today we have hundreds if not thousands of denominations that supposedly represent Christianity. They are not in fellowship with one another, let alone with the apostles themselves. Not only is there not fellowship with the apostles, but there is no continuation of the apostles doctrine in it’s fullness. In addition to that there is no continuation in the breaking of the bread, which we know as Eucharist, holy communion. So in virtually every respect we see Christians who are divided from the one, holy, apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ.

They are divided from the doctrine of the apostles and from the life-giving sacraments that only the Church offers to the world. I say that with a heavy heart, not with a sense of joy or triumphalism. I am sad when I think about the way that Christianity is fractured and splintered into tiny fragments. I can’t rejoice when I know that so many people are not receiving the true faith and the spiritual healing that Christ provides through His holy Church. So we pray continually that people would come not only to Christ as the savior, but to His one unbroken Church so that they might receive the fullness of the faith and not some revised, “reformed” version. When God created the Church He did not have a beta test. He made one Church and there is no version 2.0.

For Orthodox Christians it is natural to want to trace our apostolic lineage all the way back to the apostles and to the Lord Himself. We want to know the spiritual “bloodline” of the Church and ensure that it is truly the same unbroken, undivided church that existed in the book of Acts. Every Orthodox Church can trace itself back to one of the Apostles in an unbroken manner. We are the church spoken of in the book of Acts.

At times this one Church faced divisions and often those divisions were the result of false teachings or heresies by influential people (usually clergy). The Church was forced to deal with these issues, not because she desires power, or control, but because she desires what her Master desires, that is, a united Church which leads people to salvation and true knowledge of God. In fact the Lord Himself says in today’s gospel “And this is eternal life, that they know Thee the one true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou has sent.” For us, the only way to have eternal life is through true knowledge of God and His Son. Yet it is precisely the truth of God and His Son that is distorted by false teaching.

Imagine the potential problems. How can people be introduced properly to Jesus Christ when there is no unity in the Church and everyone teaches different things, false things? Perhaps that is why this country and it’s citizens are so confused and in disarray. Yet our holy Orthodoxy stands in sharp contrast to this predicament because you can go anywhere in the world and find that the Orthodox worship in the same way, pray in the same way and believe in the same way. In addition, they can all clearly show that they are united to the Apostles through the laying on of hands, and they are still united to one another.

So today we celebrate the memory of the holy fathers who met in the city of Nicaea in the year 325ad. This council was a gathering of many of the Christian bishops around the world and it was paid for and organized by the emperor Constantine the great. They gathered to discuss a great heresy that rose in the Church at that time. This was the heresy of Arianism. In modern times, Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons are modern offshoots of this heresy which teaches that Jesus was the Son of God but was not actually equal to God the Father. They teach that Jesus was a creation of God the Father and not eternal, without beginning or end.

It is interesting to note that those priests and clergy who argued for this doctrine, did not do so simply from their own twisted opinions. They used the Scriptures! It reminds us that using the Bible alone, may not be enough to come to the truth. One can twist the Bible to come up with strange variations to our faith. Such is the problem with those who claim Sola Scriptura. The Bible alone does not always give clear answers to certain issues.

The Church believes in an enlightened reading of Scripture which comes to life by the Holy Spirit and is properly interpreted within the boundaries of the Church and the protection it provides. The Church exists to hold onto the truth and pass it to generations. It exists to continue the work of the Lord Jesus and His apostles and disciples. So anything that does not line up with the teaching of the Apostles or comes from outside of the fellowship of the apostles, is considered suspect.

This council of bishops was the first but not the last to address the many theological heresies that arose in the life of the Church. They prayed and reasoned and argued from scripture and holy tradition in order to clarify and properly teach the faith as they received it from their predecessors. And in doing so, they have transmitted to us the gift of knowledge of the one true God and His Son Jesus Christ. What a gift we have received! We thank God for the holy ones who gathered together out of their love for the Church and their firm desire to see her united in truth. May we be like these holy fathers and like the Lord Jesus and pray earnestly for the unity of the Church and the spreading of her true faith, which is eternal life. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons


Why Does God Allow Bad Things to Happen?

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

We hear about a blind man that the Lord was walking past along with His disciples. And an interesting question was put to the Lord Jesus. His disciples asked “Rabbi (teacher), who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” That is a really fascinating question.

When bad things happen in our life, or when we see tragedies, we are often inclined to think that someone must have done something wrong to deserve the bad thing that happened to them. This is one of the reasons that I love some of the stories of the saints such as the story of St. Athanasius of Mt. Athos. He was this holy man who loved God and all the people and he died during a construction accident while the dome of his church was being built. What is all the more interesting is that God prepared him for this event by speaking to him beforehand. Another example is St. Artemius who was killed by a lightning strike at the age of 12. Many people believed at that time that this must have been God’s judgment on the boy, but in later years they found his body perfectly incorrupt and whole and many miracles were worked by his body after his physical death. And before we say that such things are not possible according to the Scriptures we should read 2 Kings 13 and see what the body of a saint is capable of doing.

When something bad happens, we often assume that God caused it to happen in order to punish the person or group. But often that is not the case at all. So we see that the disciples ask a question that is part of our nature to ask. And we see that it is ok to ask questions. You should feel comfortable asking questions but you should be careful about assuming the answers. The disciples want to know if and why God punished this man with his blindness. I have found that this is often the way that people deal with troubles and difficult circumstances of life. They will say things like “I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve this.” But the remarkable answer that we see in the lives of these saints we just mentioned and in the words of the Lord Jesus is that sometimes these things happen in order for God to show His marvelous works through them.

The disciples could see a man who was born without eyes, but they could not see past that. For them, the only reality was the man’s blindness. That was the end of the story. But for the Lord Jesus, what appears to be an end, may just be the beginning of the story. And we see this in His own life. If you were an observer to the events that happened on one terrible Friday in Jerusalem around the year 33 ad you would think that the crucifixion of Jesus upon the cross as a common criminal was the end of the story. Indeed, that is exactly what the disciples thoughts. But for the Lord Jesus, the son of God, what appears to be the end, can in actuality be the beginning or the start of a new story. We know this story, we are living this story.

Jesus tells us that “It was not that this man sinned or His parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” This should give each of us hope! You may be going through difficult circumstances in your own life, but that does not mean that God is punishing you. St. John tells us that God is love. God is not going around looking to cause harm to others. He is love. He seeks us in order to love us and to do good to us and for us. The reason why God might be allowing tough situations in your life is to show you His works through those events. He is able to help us and change our situations. He is able to take a situation that looks hopeless and add a new chapter to it. So have faith in God, don’t despair. God may use your situation or your life to strengthen your faith and glorify His name.

The man who was born blind did not know that God had allowed all of this to occur so that it might be for his benefit and the benefit of those who would see it. With this miracle the Lord could not only bring sight to one man, He could bring spiritual sight to many more. After all, the prophet Isaiah foretold that the long awaited messiah would bring sight to the blind! And this was the most dramatic possible healing. The man born without eyes, is healed by Christ and returns with eyes and can see! Even more than this, the man now has spiritual vision.

He has knowledge of the identity of Christ, he sees the truth. What a blessing he received! Can you imagine his joy? He had gone all of his life without ever seeing a single thing and yet now he could see much more than most because he could see that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. He receives full sight while we see that the Pharisees do not acknowledge the miracle. They don’t believe that such a miracle is possible and they certainly do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth could have done it. So who is really blind?

In actuality, the Pharisees are blind to what God is doing in their midst. Even their reading of Scripture is uninformed and darkened. They claim to be students of Moses but what did the Lord Himself say about that? “You search the Scriptures for in them you think you have eternal life, but these are they which spoke of Me.” It is the very words of Moses and the rest of the prophets that should have prepared the Pharisees for the Lord, but they were confused, blinded by such acts of love. They tried to constrain the love of God and force it to act within their predetermined boundaries. They could not understand a miracle being performed on the Sabbath day. But who are we to enforce the rules on God Himself? Who are we to limit God’s love?

As Christians we have to be careful not to limit what God can do in our lives or in the lives of others. We can have abundant faith, abundant hope and abundant love and we can believe that God is capable of doing anything at any time because He is a God without limits. He makes what is impossible, possible. When you truly believe this, you will be like the man in today’s gospel and receive full sight. That is sight and vision that can never ever be taken away from you. May God give us the ability to clearly see the light of the world! Christ is risen!

Source: Sermons


Addiction and Fulfillment

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

Have you ever noticed that it is really easy for people to become addicts? We look all around us and we find that people are addicted to all sorts of things. Sometimes we are addicted to material or physical things like certain drugs or alcohol and sometimes we deal with addiction on the emotional level such as being addicted to praise or being addicted to power and authority or being addicted to attention and the admiration of others. We are addicted in the sense that we are not satisfied with what is given to us and we continually seek more and more of whatever it may be to get a temporary boost or “high.”

There is good news in this phenomenon of addiction that we see. It points to one of the realities of being human. We have urges that are almost infinite. That is what causes addiction. When a man starts drinking he feels good. But over time his tolerance grows and so the one drink doesn’t make him feel good enough, so he then drinks another. This cycle is vicious and it puts people in a bad place no matter if we are talking about alcohol or drugs or porn or sex or food. Our urges cannot be fulfilled by these limited and material things. We are programmed to continually look for more.

In today’s gospel we encounter a woman who sums this up quite well. She has been with 6 different men. She had five husbands (we are not told exactly what happened to them, so we do not know if they died or divorced). And the man whom she now has a relationship with is not her husband. They are not married. This woman has urges and desires that have not been fulfilled by all these relationships. She may have emotional dependence. She needs to feel loved, she needs to feel desired, she needs attention, she needs a warm embrace. There is nothing wrong in those feelings she had. Those are all natural feelings but the passions when left unchecked and out of balance, always take something that is good and noble and beautiful and they twist and pervert it until it is something else. We stop looking at how our life relates to God and we start thinking about how everything relates to us and to our pleasure or needs.

She had natural human urges but she didn’t direct those urges to the right place because she did not know where to direct them and even more than that, she did not know where to find something that would finally fulfill her. As Christians we are the most blessed of all people in the world because we know that we have deep, almost infinite hungers and thirsts and that such profound urges can only be addressed by going to the One who is big enough to address those needs, to the One who is infinite.

We know this in theory, but do we believe it enough to make it real in our lives? The woman at the well encountered the Lord Jesus Christ but that was not the end of the story. People encounter Jesus Christ every day. They encounter Him through the preaching of others. They encounter Him through the words of the gospel. They encounter Him through prayer. They encounter Him through the life of the Church and her worship (this is true because St. Paul call’s the Church, the body of Christ). And they encounter Him specifically through the receiving of the eucharist which is in truth the mystical body and precious blood of Jesus. Of this the Lord himself said “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, abides in me and I in him.” Each of these is a point of encounter with Jesus Christ, but what is our response? Do we respond with humility and allow ourselves to be corrected and perfected by this encounter or do we run away from these burdens?

What made this woman special was that she took the correction of the Lord. She spoke of not being married and the Lord corrected her and exposed her sin. She spoke of the worship of the Samaritans and He told said “You worship what you do not know, but we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.” How many people would allow themselves to be corrected the way she did? She was humble and she was hungry for more. I have found that very few people can handle just a portion of the correction that the Lord offered this woman. They will leave or go away offended or they will argue.

He like a masterful surgeon, began the process of healing this woman by removing the dead or diseased tissue of her heart. He made her ready to receive His life giving water and then He refreshed her and gave her water which became in her, a well that overflowed abundantly. She was open to the Lord and she proved this by being full of humility and accepting some correction. And for this He poured out the water of life on her. We know her as St. Photeini and we know that this encounter with Christ truly changed her life. She became like one the Apostles and worked tirelessly to bring others the joy of Jesus Christ. The Lord’s food became her food. He says “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish His work.” She followed her master.   If we have a true encounter with Jesus Christ, it should change our lives! Our faith becomes less a matter of what we say we believe or what we think we believe, rather it becomes a belief that is translated to the actions, decisions and ways of our daily life.  This encounter gives us a whole new purpose and meaning for our lives!

The woman was thirsty for something more and the Lord was fed by doing the will of His Father. May we thirst for this life giving water and may it give us strength to do our Father’s will and bear much fruit in His name. Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

Source: Sermons


The House of Mercy

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (5:1-15)

Today’s reading paints a vivid picture of pain and suffering and the hope of healing. We hear about a place in Jerusalem with a miraculous pool called Bethesda. In Hebrew Bethsaida means “house of mercy” but it can also mean “the flowing water”. According to some, this was connected to the largest reservoir of water in the city of Jerusalem.

It must have been a well known fact of the day that this was a place of miraculous healing and so we can imagine the great multitude of people who gathered around this pool and hoped and waited for a chance at healing. And since the angel could come and stir the water at any given time, I am sure that some of the people slept there for many days waiting for this life changing opportunity.

These days it is hard to relate to waiting for hours on end unless we are in line for the next iPhone or black Friday sales. The problem is not that people are not sick. They are very sick. People all over the world and here in our own towns are sick physically, mentally and spiritually. People are sick but the question is why don’t they line up to receive healing?

The answer is two fold. First, they don’t always know the depth of their sickness. So they don’t always know that they need comprehensive healing. Second, they don’t line up to be healed because they don’t know where to find healing. The paralytic was sick with his illness for 38 years. And for some of that time he sat and hoped and waited for someone to help him into the pool so that he could be healed of his paralysis. In this case, he thought he knew the answer to his problem. He thought he understood the source of the healing. But it was not the case because the source of the healing was not to be found in the water but in the One who commanded the angel to stir the water. The source of the healing was not the water but the One who created water itself.

St. John Chrysostom tells us that this mans patience through his sickness is a great reminder of how we should pray to God. We often pray for a minute or an hour or a day or two. We ask God to solve our problems and heal our sicknesses and answer our prayers and then we give up after our prayers aren’t answered or we think that God doesn’t hear us or we become resentful of Him. We are never guaranteed that God will answer our prayers in the way that we expect, but it is our firm belief that God will answer our prayers according to His will and that sometimes it will require patience, even great patience, to see God hand in our lives.

But it brings us back to the biggest problems that we face. We don’t ask for healing because we don’t know how sick we actually are and we don’t come directly to the source of all healing. We have amazing doctors and medicine in this country and we can reasonably help people with physical illnesses, but man is more than a body and a brain. He is meant to be the image and likeness of God. This image and likeness makes man a true human being. Our restoration as human beings happens when we are healthy in the soul. It happens when we know the source of our healing intimately. This health and regeneration is a foreshadowing of the resurrection that all believers will receive in Christ.

When we are brought into the body of Christ, the Church (which is a spiritual hospital), we go down into the pool of baptism and we are raised up healed. We as Christians are called to be continually aware of our sins which is our paralysis. We are reminded that we have often looked for answers to our spiritual problems through material things. Material things don’t heal us of our spiritual sins or paralysis, only the Master can do this. Our time and attention that is unnecessarily spent away from God can by definition be called idolatry. We invest in our looks, our health, our entertainment etc., but none of these things begins to help with our true problem. We are like the paralytic who waits for a man to put him into the pool at just the right. This becomes his focus and his desire and he doesn’t understand that God alone offers this powerful healing that he desires. And He does it in a way that we can’t imagine because He knows His people by name. He knows them intimately and desires that they should seek Him intimately.

We have the opportunity to allow Jesus Christ to heal our wounds and to remove our paralysis and make us sharers of His resurrection. After all, the resurrection of Christ was not for Him. The Lord is immortal in His divinity. The Lord took human flesh to grant resurrection to our mortal and corrupt bodies. Christ rose from the dead to raise you from the dead! He rose from the dead to grant life to His people who were in the tombs of spiritual death. He rose to give grace and life through His body, the Church, so that everyone who comes to the Church as to the pool of Bethsaida might find that this place is indeed the house of mercy.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

Source: Sermons


Preparing Daily for Martyrdom

The Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (12:1-11) and from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark (15:43-16:8)

Today we have the great joy of celebrating the feast of the Great Martyr St. George which usually falls on April 23rd. St. George has been a witness to the life in Christ for millions of Christians over the course of time. He is often associated with the story of slaying a dragon, but that is certainly not the most important thing that he did in his life. If you have never sat down and read his story, I would strongly encourage you to do so and do it with your children. The heroic stories of the martyrs and saints will be food for the souls of our people during some difficult times that are coming. And there is no doubt that they are coming one way or another because each and every one of us will have difficult times in our lives, times when it is easier, and less painful to deny Christ and follow the crowd and the world. St. George is beloved by the Orthodox Christian faithful because of his bold witness to Christ. In the face of extreme, gruesome and unbearable tortures, he bore them all with patience and faith in the living God. He reminds us that this physical life and reality is not the end all be all of things. He reminds us that while it is easy to save our bodies from certain pains, that will not benefit our souls or our eternal life with the Master.

In today’s epistle reading from the twelfth chapter of Acts we see that “Herod the King laid hands upon some who belonged to the church.” History tells us that Christians were often viewed as the enemies of societies, governments and empires. That was certainly the case with the early Christians who were seen as enemies by the Jews and it was also the case that the Romans viewed Christians as enemies of the state. They felt that it was their duty to squash the church. But blessed be the name of the Lord Jesus Christ who allowed his church to conquer both of those enemies without drawing a sword or shedding a drop of blood. We see this happen again during the communist revolution that began around 1917 and lasted into the early 1990’s. It is estimated that between 40 and 100 million people lost their lives in that brutal environment yet in the end, Christ was victorious. Communism fell and the church is growing more rapidly than ever before in the Russian lands. All of these victories did not happen because Christians fought with swords and clubs and guns. St. George was a highly decorated Roman soldier. One of the best of his time. But he didn’t gain victory by fighting or inciting a rebellion among the ranks of the army. He won by trusting that God alone was his victory and prize.

It is important for us to know that sometimes the world will hate us simply because we believe in and follow Jesus Christ. It is important for us to know that even when we are attacked for our faith, that is not a sign that we have done something wrong. It is in fact a sign that we are walking in the footsteps of our Lord. He says to His disciples “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me” (Jn 15:18-21). 

We as the people of God are given grace to suffer for the name of Christ because He loves us and because we know that this life is definitely not the end of our story. The legions of martyrs and saints that have worked miracles for the faithful throughout the ages bear witness to the truth that life goes on and that true, eternal life is only in and through Jesus Christ.

What is necessary for us is to live in, and through Christ now, today. It is easy to think that if trouble comes to your doorstep you will be ready to act courageously like one of our heroic martyrs but that is not a given. Instead of assuming that you will be ready, assume that you won’t be ready for such struggles and spend time every day trying to improve yourself through your relationship with God. Spend days courageously looking at yourself and your sins and recognizing that you would be nowhere if not for the mercy of God. Spend time fighting against sin in your own life and then you may have the necessary strength to fight sin face to face as did our glorious martyrs.

The world offers us many distractions so it is really important for us to carve out disciplines and structured schedules that help us grow. It is like the man who has suffered a heart attack and then begins to take seriously the words of the doctor to eat well and to exercise regularly and to take his vitamins and medicines. It becomes a routine habit, a regular part of one’s lifeor else it doesn’t work.

We know the courage of St. George and all of the Apostles in the face of their trials and tortures. We don’t always knowof the toil and struggles that they personally undertook every day tobe close to Christ and to separate themselves from the world and all of it’s temptations and desires.But we know that by the grace of God they were victorious because they had the habit of leaning on the Lord, being strengthened by the Lord and finding their meaning in life through the Lord.

May Christ our true God bless us with courage to live withChrist on a daily basisso that we, like the martyrs might be ready to speak and to act to the glory of His name. Christ is risen!

 

 

Source: Sermons


How do we know that Jesus rose from the dead?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. John. (20:19-31)

We are in this glorious time of Holy Pascha (Easter) and unlike most of the denominations around the world, who only celebrate this event for one day out of the whole year, we have the great blessing of celebrating it for 40 days! From Pascha to the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord. Why do we celebrate this for 40 days? Because the Church is showing us that this is our reality. The resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ changed the whole world and it was an answer to the tragedy and suffering of the innocent One who went to the cross for our sakes.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a reality for the Lord. He rose physically from the dead and He does not die again. This resurrection becomes our reality by virtue of our baptism. St. Paul says to us “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Rom 6:3-5)

So this is the gift that the Lord Jesus Christ has given each of you and this gift is continually brought to our minds especially during these 40 days and also each and every Sunday which we celebrate as a mini Pascha. This gift that Our Lord has given us is like a seed within us. It is not yet mature and has not come to the time where it bears much fruit. How do we get from the potential of the seed (the promise of the resurrection) to the mature fruit of true resurrection in Christ? We get there by acting as if we are already dead to sin and the desires of the flesh. We get there by thinking about things and relating to things in the same way that the angels and saints do. We get there by shifting our context and our perception completely. For those who struggled through lent and repented and prayed more and took holy communion more often and prayed as a community more often, we find that the shift of our worldview has begun to take place. Now is the time to solidify those changes not to take a break and wait until next year to begin the struggle again. The lives of the saints are a continual witness to Lent and Pascha in alternating turns. They struggle, the pray, they weep for their sins and God raises them up with the light of His grace as new men and women.  This is a foretaste of the resurrection.

One of the interesting things about the passage from today’s gospel is that it is clear that Thomas’s doubt is one of the absolute proof’s of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. In our day and age we like to submit everything for scientific and logical inquiry. Perhaps we can take a brief moment to logically look at the behavior of Thomas and see what it tells us.

Thomas was not with the other 10 disciples when the Lord first appeared to them. Afterwards, he arrived and the disciples in all their joy and excitement told him this amazing news. But what did he say to them? He said “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.” That was his statement and his firm belief. Not imagine what Thomas later did in his life. He travelled the furthest of all the disciples, all the way to India of all places. And he did this at a time when such travel was grueling and often deadly. And everywhere that you go in India there are still reminders of his presence among the Christian people because so many of them have the name Thomas. In addition to his extensive travel we know that he gave up his life for Christ. He died for preaching that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Why would anyone do such a thing? Why would he suffer such things willingly? He had told the disciples that he wouldn’t believe unless he saw the Lord Jesus and put his hands in his wounds. Yet we see him going around the world and preaching and dying for Christ at the hands of those who would try to silence him. The reason according to our logical and reasonable thinking must be clear.

In addition to the doubting of Thomas and the change in his behavior, we also see the complete change in all of the disciples. The disciples themselves told us in the writings of the gospels that they were scared of the Jews and what might happen to them after their master Jesus was crucified as a common criminal. They were worried because they were known to be His followers and disciples. These are not things that people write about themselves because it makes them look weak and cowardly. Yet within a short time we see a radical shift in the disciples that allows them to go out and boldly preach the gospel to the people of Jerusalem and to the world.

Now one of the claims by those who attack Christianity is that the disciples simply made up the story that Jesus had risen from the dead. Here are the problems with that claim. First, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, why did the authorities not go and produce the body and show it to the world? The answer is that the body was gone and could not be produced. This leads us to the next question. Where did the body go? Where could the body of Christ be hidden that no one would notice the smell or disrupted earth or people digging in the middle of the night, etc? More importantly, the Jews had come to Pontius Pilate and asked for a guard over the tomb and we are told that a Roman guards were place at the tomb and that the tomb itself was sealed. Historians tell us that this seal was a sort of cord that had a melted wax insignia of the stamp of Pontius Pilate in the middle. This wax would dry and could not be tampered with because it would crack. To disturb the Roman seal was punishable by death. We are told that maybe the soldiers had fallen asleep. We know of course that the Roman army was the most highly trained army in the world and that soldiers rarely if ever fell asleep at their post. We are told that from ancient times, the punishment for falling asleep at your post was that they poured fuel on you and lit you on fire. All of this tells us that another explanation is not only possible but probable.

And perhaps nothing is more convincing of the truth of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ than the fact that 11 of the 12 disciples gave up their lives for preaching the resurrection of Christ. Our faith is challenged and we are told that the disciples made up this story about the resurrection. But we wonder why anyone would make up a story that caused them so much personal pain and suffering. The had nothing to gain from lying. They were excommunicated from their synagogues and the Temple. They were looked at as enemies of the Jewish people. They gave up their work and their livelihoods to go out and preach.

And each of them stood before an executioner or group of executioners under the threat of death. Why did they not admit to making up the story and simply save their lives. If they had indeed made up the story, we think that most of them would have confessed the truth. That is the normal response. Because people don’t usually die for something that they know to be a lie. It is normal for people to die for things that they believe to be true. In this case 11 of the disciples were killed for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus. The problem for those who claim that it was all a story is that if it were indeed a story, then the disciples would be the source of the story and one (if not all) of them would have changed the story or told the truth.

The truth speaks louder than any arguments against the Christian faith. This truth of the resurrection is our truth. We live by it, breathe it, and hope in it.  May the seed of the resurrection that is within each of us grow to maturity and make us heirs of glory with the risen Lord Jesus. Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

Source: Sermons


Turning “No” into “Yes”

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (1:24-38)

There are times in the life of a Christian when he or she must either say “yes” or “no”. They are two simple words but they hold within them many possibilities. They are powerful words. Today we celebrate a “Yes” and we remember that we all suffered the results of an ancient “No.”

The Virgin Mary said “yes” to the will of God. And our ancestors Adam and Eve said “no” to the command of God. This act of rebellion against God and His one commandment did not hurt God. It did not add or take away from God Himself. He has no need of us or of our obedience to Him. This “No” did not take anything from God but it took everything away from us.

What was taken away from us by the act of “No”, could only be returned to us by a powerful act of “Yes.” The most important of these is the “yes” of the Virgin Mary to the Angel Gabriel’s message to her. We might say to ourselves, what is the big deal? She was being honored by God, what is so difficult about that? But the truth is that her “yes” was also a burden. What was the burden? She would be pregnant without a husband. She had just been betrothed to the elderly Joseph, who had taken her under his wing as a father figure and now she would accept to become pregnant. In the days of the Virgin Mary, it was often the case that a woman who was found pregnant out of wedlock, might be stoned and killed as this was considered a great offense since the time of the law of Moses. Her “yes” to God might have meant her life.  Later on her “yes” meant that she was displaced from her home and hunted along with her beloved Son. It meant that she would live for years as a refugee and alien in the strange land of Egypt. Sometimes saying “yes” means suffering greatly for the name of Christ.

The thousands of martyrs of our holy Church remind us that often our “yes” to God is a kind of a death sentence. When our heroic men and women and children were asked if they would worship idols they said “no” and when they were asked to deny their faith in Christ they said “no” and when they were asked to affirm their beliefs, they said “yes” to belief in Jesus Christ. They took this all the way through the sufferings and tortures and to death. In fact it is this faith that confirms that Christianity alone is true because the holy disciples suffered and were murdered for their belief, for their “yes” in the risen Lord Jesus. They would only choose to say “yes” and to suffer if it was all true or if they strongly believed it to be true.  

We have come to a time in this country where we better be ready to say “yes” and no” when it matters. We have come to a time when we need to be prepared to give an answer when it is increasingly inconvenient to do so and when we are increasingly risking our way of life, our jobs and our reputations to do it. There are many examples of this.  We should say “no” to the idolization of sexuality and all the ways that has been twisted in our culture. We should say “no” to sacrificing everything, including our families for success and wealth and “freedom”. We should say “no” to endless distractions from a life of prayer. We should say “no” to endless excuses that keep us from church. We should say “no” when a co-worker or a classmate uses the name of Jesus Christ in vain. We should say “no” when we are told to compromise our values or morals to do our work.  

We should say “yes” to everyone who asks us if we believe in God.  We should say “yes” to loving everyone around us, no matter their political or ideological slant. We should say “yes” Jesus Christ is the only way to truly know God, and we should live as if we really believe it.  We should say “yes” and acknowledge God daily no matter what it might cost us. The Virgin Mary’s “yes” was done selflessly and with great risk to herself and even to her child. But this “yes” made it possible for Jesus Christ to become a man and to say yes to His Father and go to the cross for us. This selfless “yes” which led to His death, became our only hope of life.  His “yes” became a universal “yes” for all of humanity.

One woman said “no” to God and “yes” to herself. The other reversed the course of nature by reversing the response of humanity. She said “yes” to God and “no” to herself. The secret that becomes evident in her life and in the life of everyone who says yes to God is that when we say yes to Him and allow Him to do His will in our lives, we are not saying “no” to ourselves at all.  In fact we are finally living up to the purpose for which we were created. We become exalted by God to a very high state and this is more true with the Virgin Mother than with any other who has ever lived a merely human life. And we see this of all places in the book of Revelation where St. John the beloved disciples writes these words “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars: And she being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered.  And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born.  And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne” (Rev 12).

God exalted her because she humbled herself and was obedient, she said “yes” to Him.  What about each of us? How will we answer this high calling that is put before us?  May we each give a good answer to the glory of God, AMEN.

        

 

Source: Sermons


Fighting on Ladders

 

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews. (6:13-20) & Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (9:16-30)

In today’s epistle we heard these words that were taken from the book of Genesis, where God says to Abraham “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” St. Paul continues saying “And thus Abraham, having patiently endured, obtained the promise.” He continues later and writes “We who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to seize the hope set before us.”

On this, the fourth Sunday of the great and holy fast we commemorate one of the great giants of Orthodox spirituality St. John Climacus or John of the Ladder. He is called this because of a book that he wrote that became quite famous especially in the monastic traditions in the east. This book is called The Ladder of Divine Ascent. In this book, St. John speaking from his observation of many monks and monasteries and his own spiritual struggle, outlines 30 steps or rungs in the spiritual life. Each of these rungs of the ladder must be climbed in order to reach the next rung and to finally achieve the ultimate goal of our life, salvation and unending communion with God. This of course was written for those pursuing the monastic life but many of the principles apply to every Christian who is struggling to be healed and to enter into prayer with the Lord.

At this point in the holy forty days we are probably beginning to realize the depth of the struggle that is ahead of us. We realize the depth of our deeply rooted sinfulness. We understand that this struggle will continue long after the fast. We find that if we are honest with ourselves, we have only just begun the spiritual struggle. We have only just begun to apply ourselves to love God and our neighbor. We have only just begun to battle courageously. And we have only just started the process of healing or being healed by Christ our King. In this way, we understand Lent as a microcosm of our lives and as a means of recentering and refocusing ourselves towards our Master and Creator.

St. John’s Ladder tells us that all of our lives is a struggle to climb towards Christ. It is so very easy to fall, but always a struggle to climb. He also tells us that when we struggle with humility, we will be aided by God. In fact God will work on our behalf once we let Him.

A few weeks ago I said something rather difficult. We were speaking about the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, and I said that if we were going to pray like the Pharisee, we would in fact be better off not praying at all. That is, if our prayer is really a cloak for self-righteousness or condemning others, if it is in fact not prayer but sin, it would be better for us not to do it at all. This is clear since it is better not to sin than to fall into sin. But saying this doesn’t mean that we should stop praying. Or that we should wait until we are perfect or holy to begin praying. There is none perfect, not one! St. John of the Ladder reminds us that we are all on different rungs of the ladder, every single person who still lives and breathes is in the midst of a fierce battle and we all need to tackle this through prayer at every moment of every day. It is prayer that unites us to God and heals our wounds and God does not wait for us to be perfect, He wants to be the one to perfect us. So we should pray. Our sins and failings should actually lead us to pray more and with greater humility and contrition. Pray all the time.

Lent is a reminder that all our whole life can become a prayer before God. Indeed, we are so busy with so many services that it is easy to see how our whole life can be consumed in prayer. That is not a bad goal for our lives. In fact that is the definition of genuine life according to Christ. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent”(John 17:3).

In today’s gospel reading we see a man who has struggled to find help for his son who is very sick. He goes from place to place and person to person and finally after much toil and difficultly, he finds the Lord Jesus Christ and asks Him to heal his beloved son. The Lord answers the man ““If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” What we see next is a stunning display of the man’s genuine pain and his deep need for the Lord. He replied with tears streaming down his face “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” Wow. That should sum up our whole experience of Great and Holy Lent and in turn that could be a verse that sums up all of the Christian life, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”

Hopefully all of us here love God, but we love God to different degrees. It is not our job to figure out where each person is on the ladder. It is our job to simply keep climbing, to keep going, to keep striving upwards towards Jesus Christ, taking the example of this father who cried out “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” May we each make this prayer our own so that God will touch us and lift us up, giving us new life. To Him alone be the glory Father, Son and Holy Spirit. AMEN.

 

Source: Sermons


The Two Roads

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

One of the key aspects of being a human in our world is self-preservation. We believe that people will ultimately do what is best in order to benefit and save their own lives. In fact, the whole idea of Darwinism is precisely this ideology of self-preservation, that everything exists in the hopes of continuing it’s existence. Everyone’s primary goal for their life is to continue to try to live. And we hear strange stories of those who have even tried to plan for their deaths by finding ways to have themselves preserved much like Walt Disney was preserved.

The Christian gospel day in and day out, for two thousand years, has demonstrated it’s utter rebellion against the thoughts of this world, against our “human” way of thinking. Listen to the words of the Lord regarding this subject of self-preservation. If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it.”

On this, the third Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we celebrate the veneration of the Cross. It is yet another sign that the Church is alive and loves her children. The Church’s very cycle of worship is designed with her people in mind. The Church throughout the centuries has always asked “what is best for My people, what will bring them to their right minds, what will bring them true healing, what will bring them to a genuine experience of life?” Today the answer is the cross of Jesus Christ.

At this the halfway point of the holy forty days, we are given two roads and we are forced to choose one of them. The first is the way of the world, the road of self-preservation. It is the road that looks easy, the road where we aren’t weighed down with extra church services, the road where we eat whatever we want and minimize our own discomfort. This road can even be filled with distractions, what will I buy next? What will I watch next? All of these are aspects of wanting to save our life and wanting to live life to the fullest. We fall into the trap of feeling that there is no time to lose. In fact we are absolutely correct. There is no time to lose. But it’s not our time to gain or to lose, it all belongs to the One who gave this to us as the gift of life.

The first road was the way of the world, the road of self-preservation. But there remains for us another road and the Lord has shared that with us today. This is the way of self denial and self sacrifice and this path is found when we decide to make the teachings of Jesus our life’s work. It is certainly the road that is less travelled, but it is by far the more noble and beautiful way. Every day we are forced to decide whether we will live for ourselves or whether we live for Christ. Every day we are forced to choose between saving what we call a life or denying this life to enter into genuine life with the only Giver of life. And we are reminded that this struggle is a life or death struggle. The Lord says “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Our beloved Jesus is sharing one of the spiritual laws of the universe with us and for that we should fall on our knees in awe and gratitude. He tells us that if we try to live for our physical and material benefit we will lose our souls. Yet if we forget about ourselves and try to live richly and faithfully towards Christ and towards His kingdom, we won’t just gain our souls, we will gain everything good and much more than we could ever imagine.

Now is the time to choose a path and there are only these two paths available to us. One of those roads looks hard and will no doubt lead to some exhaustion. The other road looks like a bed of roses, but it is filled with hidden thorns. Take up your crosses and commit to following the Son of God during these remaining holy days. Fast and pray with zeal. Show love to your neighbors and serve others with zeal. Understand that we will all have to give up this life and our only legacy and inheritance will be that which the Lord Himself gives us.

We remember that the Lord never ever teaches his followers to do something that He has not already done or planned to do on our behalf. The Lord of glory, who controls the heavens and the earth and who gave life to the whole of creation, willingly offered Himself on behalf of those whom He loved. He took up a cross willingly to endure, to suffer and to die to give us His life! When we understand that sacrifice and that love we are moved to imitation and obedience of the Lord because we see that His way is the only way that leads us to real life and it is so powerful that it can transform our souls that were dead in sins and breathe new life and resurrection into each of us. These solemn and joyful days are days where we draw near to God so that He can pour out His life and revive us. Yet He does this only with our consent and our cooperation. He cannot give life to those who believe they have “life” apart from Him.

At this halfway mark of the fast, we venerate His precious and life giving cross and are reminded of His love for us and His power to destroy not only evil and death in the universe but our own sicknesses and spiritual infirmities. May He who destroyed death by the power of His cross, give us strength and inspire us to carry on with joy, in the hope of becoming partakers of His glorious resurrection! And glory be to God Forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons


What is life without the forgiveness of sins?

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

One can only imagine the scene at Capernaum that is mentioned in today’s gospel reading. When people heard that Jesus was there, the crowds once again swelled and there were so many people present to see and to hear the Word of God that they could no longer be contained in the house but overflowed outside. Whenever the Lord Jesus travelled from place to place it was considered a great event at that time. He had a greater following than the Beatles or the Rolling Stones (and without hysterical teenage girls).

In the midst of this scene we are witnesses to an amazing story of friendship and the love of God. Four men have come carrying their paralyzed friend. We don’t know exactly how far they’ve travelled but we can be sure that it has been a struggle to carry their friend the whole way. These men showed a lot of love for their friend but their love would be tested further. When they arrived at the scene in Capernaum, they found that there were so many people there that there was just no way to bring their poor, sick friend to the Lord Jesus. At least there was no conventional way to do it.

One of the beautiful things that we learn from the lives of the saints is that there is not one right way to live the life of a saint or become a saint. Each one of the saints is unique and while they all have certain aspects of their struggles in common, each one must find their own unconventional ways to get to the Lord Jesus. These four men did just that. They decided that if there was no way through the doors and the windows of the house, they would have to look up. They decided that the best course of action would be to drop in from the ceiling by uncovering part of the roof of the house. Of course at this time we are talking about vastly different construction.

The men did just that and hoisted their friend up high in order to uncover a spot on the roof and let him down to meet our Lord Jesus. Now, and this is important, the man who was paralyzed never said anything to Jesus. It was the Lord who looked upon the faith of his friends and said to him “Son, your sins are forgiven.” It reminds us that our faith is powerfully beneficial to others. In fact, this is exactly what we do when we baptize infants. We take the faith of their parents and godparents and we ask Jesus to see that faith and to count it towards the one who is brought to Him, that is to His body, the Church. If the Lord Jesus acted in this way for this man, can there be any doubt that the Lord will accept our faith as well?

Now in the course of this story we see something amazing. Initially, the Lord does not heal the paralyzed man of his paralysis. We might find that to be a bit strange. If you put this man in his paralyzed condition before a group of physicians, and we asked the doctors “what is wrong with this man in your opinion?” I am sure that the physicians would tell us that the problem with this man is his physical ailment. While that is certainly true, it is not the problem according the Lord Jesus. According to Jesus, the most important issue that needed to be addressed was the underlying sins that this man was carrying.

He begins by healing the man’s soul through granting forgiveness of his sins. As we are in the midst of the great and holy fast, we are reminded that physical strength and physical healing means very little if we are spiritually paralyzed. And we would all be spiritually paralyzed if not for the mercy of Jesus Christ towards each of us. We experience this powerful forgiveness of sins in baptism and we continue to experience it through the sacrament of confession and the life of the Church. Wholeness, health and sanity start with the forgiveness of sins. Through our own struggle to repent and be purified of our sinful habits and passions, we can fully participate in the healing forgiveness that God provides. This is what we are doing during these holy forty days. Struggling to repent in a more serious, more strenuous way. This repentance is the foundation of our path to real, actual knowledge of God which comes by His grace.

On this, the second Sunday of Lent, we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas. One of the most important things that we take from his teaching is that one must be struggling through the ascetic life of fasting and fervent repentance to grow in purity and in prayer. This, according to St. Gregory, will bring the faithful to a true and genuine experience of God and allow them to partake of His divine nature by the grace of the Holy Spirit. So in the Orthodox Christian way of life, we find that forgiveness of our sins is a powerful starting point not only to physical health, as we saw with the paralyzed man, but it is the starting point to inheriting the very treasures of the kingdom of God. We go from paralysis to walking, from being poor to being spiritually rich, and from death to resurrection and glory with Christ our God who rose from the dead in glory.

Whether you are in a wheelchair or you can walk perfectly, none of that matters if we are spiritually paralyzed. But if we have the grace of God powerfully working through us because we are humbly, dilligently, courageously struggling to repent, to pray and to grow in the knowledge of God this is the mark of true health and the sign that we are living up to our purpose as saints and bearers of the light of Christ, to Him alone be all glory with His Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.

Source: Sermons