Inheriting Incorruption

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians. (3:4-11)

Today in St. Paul’s epistle we have a simple set of directives. A call to holiness. How does this call to holiness appear? It appears as a form of dying. The apostle Paul tells us that we are to put to death what is earthly within us, and he goes on to mention the signs of our earthliness. He mentions “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” He goes on to list a few more behaviors that he considers unbecoming of the children of God such as “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk.” And he ends with “Do not lie to one another.” Sometimes we make light of our sins or we say “whats the big deal?” Yet according to St. Paul, every activity of a Christian is important because everything builds on everything else, and every Christian belongs to Christ! Our Lord reminds us that a good tree doesn’t bear bad fruit or a bad tree doesn’t bear good fruit. Similarly, we are encouraged to make our lives holistic. We are encouraged to live with integrity, to be the same people at all times and all places.

He reminds the Christians of this region that they once walked in and lived in these earthly ways mentioned above. That they once lived like the rest of the world that does not know the one true God. But he reminds them that to be a Christian is by definition to be different than the world around you, to be separate, to be holy and set apart for and in Christ. Instead of saying to ourselves “how can I better fit in with the people around me who don’t know and love God?” I should be asking “How can I become worthy of the title “child of God?”

Let’s be clear, what St. Paul is saying isn’t a call to simple morality. It isn’t merely a call to be good people. Being a good person is fine, but doing good things is not quite enough. What God desires for us is true healing and transformation through faithful obedience. It is a call to a radically different, Christ centered life. When we live in this way, everything changes, because when a Christian chooses to follow Christ they reject the ways of darkness and death. They are united to Christ through baptism and Holy communion. We see this every time that we bring someone into the Church don’t we? They stand at the back of the narthex and face west and they reject Satan and spit on him. Now if we turn around and get lazy and start to live for ourselves in a way that opposes the teachings of Christ and is mostly about our pleasure and self gratification, then its as if we have turned this rejection on it’s head. Instead of rejecting Satan, we reject Christ whom we claim as our master. The very worst way to make a decision is to ask “what do I really want?” Rather the correct way to progress in the spiritual life is to ask, “what would you have me do O Lord?” One of these questions is self-centered and egotistic and the other is Christ centered. One acknowledges that we belong to a master who has redeemed us at a high price, and the other denies His existence.

The problem is that when we go after the things of this life, when we choose sin, we slide again towards darkness and death. Death is non-existence. It is the opposite of what God, the existing one, has created us to be. We forget that God loves us. We forget that God has created us and that He desires only good things for us. We forget that we were made for much more than temporary pleasures. When we act and live as if this is our only life, we in fact deny Christ, His ways, His teachings and the life that He has promised us both now and in the kingdom. Why would we reject the God who loves us and is at work to redeem us? Could anything be worth losing the presence of God in our lives? Is anything worth risking the grace of God that heals and transforms us? If you know of something that is worth risking it all and losing it all, then that thing is effectively your idol, your god.

St. Theognostos writing in the 9th century had this to say,

“Let no one deceive you, brother: without holiness, as the apostle says, no one can see God (cf. Heb. 12:14). For the Lord, who is more than holy and beyond all purity, will not appear to an impure person. Just as he who loves father or mother, daughter or son (cf. Matt. 10:37) more than the Lord is unworthy of Him, so is he who loves anything transient and material. Even more unworthy is the person who chooses foul and fetid sin in preference to love for the Lord; for God rejects whoever does not repudiate all filthiness: ‘Corruption does not inherit incorruption’ (1 Cor. 15:50).”

And perhaps that is the most important point in all of this. When we chose Christ we chose life and incorruption. We chose godliness and holiness, love and purity. They are all a package together. Should we reject and turn away from such amazing treasures and chase after what is empty and doesn’t give us life? May it never be the case! Rather, we choose Christ, His way and His love so that we can become wrapped in this love and transformed by this love, because this is God’s will, to share His love with us in the true hope that we might by grace become love because He is love.

Source: Sermons

Are We In The Shadow Or The Light?

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (4:12-17)

In today’s reading which is prescribed for us on the Sunday after the Feast of Theophany/ Epiphany we hear that when the Lord Jesus heard that John the baptist was arrested, He withdrew and dwelt in Capernaum in the territory of Zebulon and Naphtali. The evangelist St. Matthew reminds us that this was in fulfillment of one of the prophecies of Isaiah who wrote “The land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

It is quite a striking passage, one that we’ve probably heard many times, but what does it actually mean? Well, first we are told that the people sat in darkness. Most of the Church fathers such as Cyril of Alexandria tell us that this is because the region that Our Lord Jesus Christ entered was not a Jewish territory but a Gentile territory. It means that the people did not have access to the law given through Moses. If you don’t have anything of God, you are by definition in darkness. Gentiles were religious people, but they did not worship the One God, they were generally speaking, pagans and idol worshippers. They also had no concept of Jewish morality. So it is not hyperbole when Matthew says that the people were in darkness. They didn’t know better. They were in ignorance of the truth.

But he goes on to say something even more striking. He tells us that they were in “the shadow of death.” We might say that all of humanity sits or rather, sat in the shadow of death. Death is the one problem for which humanity has come up with no good answers. It looms large over us. In fact, most of the fathers say that we are oppressed by death, our final enemy. St. Paul writes “12 Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned”— Romans 5

I’ve often quoted from Fr. John Romanides during our first Intro to Orthodoxy class and it seems fitting to do so here as we start the new year and we’ve clebrated the Lord’s baptism and the beginning of the Lord’s preaching. One of the striking things that Fr. John says is “If man was created for a life of complete selfless love, whereby his actions would always be directed outward, toward God and neighbor, and never toward himself–whereby he would be the perfect image and likeness of God–then it is obvious that the power of death and corruption has now made it impossible to live such a life of perfection. The power of death in the universe has brought with it the will for self-preservation, fear, and anxiety, which in turn are the root causes of self-assertion, egoism, hatred, envy and the like.”

He goes further saying “Underlying every movement of what the world has come to regard as normal man, is the quest for security and happiness. But such desires are not normal. They are the consequences of perversion by death and corruption, through which the devil pervades all of creation, dividing and destroying. This power is so great that even if man wishes to live according to his original destiny it is impossible because of the sin which is dwelling in the flesh –(quoting St. Paul)”Who will deliver me from the body of this death?”

How did God cure this seemingly hopeless situation? This looming and overpowering dark shadow of death? He did it by entering into our hopeless situation. When He became man, He literally infused humanity with overpowering hope, because He infused humanity with Himself. He took human form and offered us a way out of the death of sin. One of the ways He did this was by inviting us to enter into a life of repentance. All of this was first introduced to these people in this region when they met and saw and heard the Lord Jesus Christ. And what were the Lord’s first words when He began to preach to the people? “Repent!” “Turn around, change your way of thinking and acting. Change your orientation and focus it not on yourselves and your life but on God who is life, and created the whole world and all that is contained in the world.”

Not surprisingly, repentance is the start of life for those who honestly want to know and live for God. Repentance is the acknowledgement that there is actually problem, a sickness that requires the attention of a physician and will need medicine and healing. If we come to church and we claim to be perfectly healthy and we say that we have no need of changing our minds or thoughts or behaviors. If we say that we have no need of a physician, we are not being honest with ourselves or our neighbors or our loved ones or with our Creator.

But just as sin has the power to destroy our lives and separate us from God and our neighbors and marry us to death. Likewise, when we repent and choose to love God, and His ways, we are healed and brought back to life. We are resuscitated! New life is breathed into us. So when do we repent? Does it happen only once in a Christian’s life? Absolutely not! Repentance is a daily way of life. A daily acknowledgement of our fallenness and our need for the savior’s touch. One of the main ways that we receive the healing touch of Christ is through His body, the Church.

Fr. John Romanides says “Let us imagine that the Church ever since its foundation has been a clinic, a hospital, which people enter to be treated….The Church, if left to itself, does its work. And what is its work? To cure people of the state they are in, to bring them through purification to illumination. This is the task of the Church: to bring light to the world.” So there we have it. The task of the Church is to do what the Lord did when He entered into Galilee of the Gentiles. To bring the light of Christ into the world by offering us healing through His teaching and divine grace as we experience it through prayer and worship and partaking of the sacraments.

And what should our response be? To open ourselves to the Lord, to become pliable and moldable through His teachings. Our response should also be to worship the Holy Trinity, and to partake of the life-giving sacraments. Through such a joyful response, we cast aside the shadow of death because we enter more fully into the image and likeness of the One who conquered death and lives again. And if we love Him, nothing shall overcome that love. As St. Paul writes “Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come,  nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” AMEN. Romans 8:37-39

Source: Sermons

Woven Into The Fabric of Life

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

As we listen to today’s gospel reading we are reminded that the cycle of the Church calendar never stops going forward. It doesn’t pause at certain feasts for long (the exception to this being the great pause at the Feast of Feasts, Pascha). We have just celebrated the feast of Nativity (Christmas) and yet the Church is directing our minds to the next great feast, a feast that was actually considered even greater in the early history of the Church. That feast is Theophany, also known as Epiphany, which we will celebrate on Wednesday evening, Lord willing. The Church pushes us from day to day and feast to feast. She invites us to recall the past and to look at ourselves and once again celebrate the feasts in the present. She tells us that the old things have passed away but what exists now is our reality. Where we are with God at this very moment is the reality of our Christian life.

The gospel passage that we heard today seems familiar to us. All of them do. That’s good, because these stories are meant to be a part of our spiritual DNA. They are meant to be woven into the fabric of our lives. Instead of saying to ourselves “Oh, it is that time of year again.” We ought to say “what are you trying to teach me this year, Lord?”

There is nothing magical or new in the Christian life from day to day. But what can be renewed is our resolve, and determination and hope and faith as we dedicate and rededicate ourselves to Christ from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, month to month and year to year. We are not sprinting. This is no short race, but a long haul, an ultra marathon. As St. Paul wrote in today’s epistle “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith.” Christ is not only our destination, He is also our path and our fuel for the journey. He is also our companion with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

So each week as we hear familiar passages and we struggle to find their relevance to our lives we should start by asking the right questions. When we hear St. John the baptist saying “Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight,” we should not assume that he is speaking to other people, rather we should ask ourselves and ask God “What shall I do Lord, to prepare a way for You into my heart and mind and soul? Lord, What shall I do to make the path straight for You?”

And this is no small task because it is the start and the foundation of life in Christ. St. Mark the evangelist puts this point right in front of us as he starts his gospel with St. John the baptist preaching a message of repentance as we writes “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The gospel is built on a foundation of repentance. And the truth is that unless our repentance is solid, honest and thorough, our foundation for life in Christ will be unstable at best.

It is possible for us to have blind spots in our spiritual struggle and our repentance. This is one of the reasons that we have spiritual fathers and we come to confession. It is also why we try to read the gospels every day. Christ shines a light on our hearts and He exposes our sins and He helps us to recognize our deep need for His healing. And we should engage with the Lord honestly and say “Lord, help me to know my deficiencies and grant me healing out of the abundance of Your mercy. Help me to be pure of heart and to put nothing above my love for You.”

This is how we reach out to Christ and experience deep healing and in truth, there is no other healing in the world. There are various bandages or distractions but Christ alone heals our wounds because He alone is sinless and He alone knows the depth of our sickness. So as we begin this new year let us recommit to the One who loves us and is committed to us. We recommit to Christ by acknowledging Him as our Savior just as God has received us and acknowledged us as His children. We recommit by trusting Christ and His teachings. We recommit by turning from what is false, evil and Satanic. Turning away from the wrong and choosing the good and true.

We recommit by living up to the oaths that our parents and godparents and sponsors took when they brought us to the Church to have us baptized into Christ. We recommit by washing the garments of our souls in tearful prayers and by the sacrament of confession so that we will leave with bright and vibrant spiritual garments, like those that we wore on the day of our baptisms and Chrismations.

We do these things that are sometimes difficult not in order to appear clean, not as a symbolic gesture. But to be renewed. We do them because we were baptized and received the Holy Spirit and we desire the grace of this Holy Spirit to once again act powerfully to transform us. Listen to the words of St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain,

“The grace of the Holy Spirit which is given mystically to every Christian when he is baptized acts and is manifested in proportion to our obedience to the commandments of the Lord. That is, if a Christian obeys the commandments of the Lord more, grace acts with him more, while if he obeys them less, grace acts within him less. Just as a spark, when covered in the ashes of fire becomes increasingly manifest as one removes the ashes, and the more fire wood you put the more the fire burns, so the grace that has been given to every Christian through Holy Baptism is hidden in the heart and covered up by the passions and sins, and the more a man acts in accordance with the commandments of Christ, the more he is cleansed of the passions and the more the fire of Divine grace lights in his heart, illumines and deifies him.”

This my brothers and sisters is our hope, our promise and our inheritance. May we walk the road of repentance and prepare the way of the Lord so that the Lord will prepare us to meet Him with joy.

Source: Sermons

God’s Family Tree

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (1:1-25)

Today, the Sunday before Christmas, the feast of Nativity, we hear the famous geneology of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ as it is recorded by St. Matthew the evangelist. Matthew opens his gospel with the geneology of Jesus Christ for some important reasons. He wants to make sure to his audience, especially to his fellow Jews, that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact a Jew, a son of Abraham, as well as a descendant of David the King. By this we understand that Jesus is of royal lineage according to Jewish law because according to the law, Joseph is the father of Jesus.

Later when you read the gospel of St. Luke you see that Luke also traces the geneology of Christ but he does so through His mother Mary. Interestingly, Luke still demonstrates that Mary is the descendant of Abraham and also of King David. Therefore it is demonstrated both physically and legally, that Jesus of Nazareth is a Jew of royal lineage and therefore has the proper prerequisites to be the long awaited messiah, the anointed one of Israel.

As we hear all of these names we are reminded that Our Lord Jesus has a family tree as do all of you. None of us just pops into existence out of nowhere. Neither does the Son of God. His lineage can be traced, legally through Joseph, and actually through His mother Mary. This is very very important. The Church is telling us that Jesus really became a flesh and blood human being. He entered into history and became the main point of our story as human beings on the planet earth.

The Church through great effort and struggles over the centuries tried to make sure that people would not follow false, heretical teachings because in false teaching there is no life, only death. The main two teachings that the Church struggled against were these: That Christ was not truly God, and that Christ was not truly man. And if I ask you which of these two is more important you might be surprised to learn that the answer is BOTH. They are equally true and equally important.

What does it matter that God lived and dwelt among us if He did not really take our human flesh? What does it matter that He suffered and was crucified and buried and rose from the dead, if He did not do so in actual flesh? We do not believe in a crucified and risen spirit or ghost. We believe in the crucified and risen God-man. And this is so important. It is the heart and soul of Christmas. That God really took flesh, the human DNA from His mother Mary and dwelt in her womb for 9 months, and was birthed and nursed and raised from infancy to adulthood. This same Jesus knew what it was to experience life as a human. He hungered and thirsted, he felt all of the human emotions (although His were pure). He wept at the loss of His friend Lazarus. He felt the betrayal of His disciple Judas. He knew the shame of spitting and scourging and mocking. He experienced the extreme pain and agony of the cross. He gave up His life and died a human death.

God sent His Son to dwell among us because there was no other way to save us from the curse of Adam. Through one man, sin entered into the world, and through the new Adam, we were offered a chance at redemption and life because of His righteousness.

St. Sophrony of Essex speaks of the double justification that happens in the incarnation and crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. He tells us that through Christ becoming a man and dying for us, God is justified before mankind, having proven that He has loved us without limitations and done everything in order to reconcile us to Himself through the sacrifice of His only Son. And on the other side, Christ justifies humanity before God by uniting Himself with us and demonstrating a sacrificial life of pure love, righteousness and holiness in human flesh.

Since Christ became a man in the flesh, He has transformed our humanity. He has opened to us new possibilities of growth and progress and life in God.

St. John of Kronstadt writing about the amazing nature of the nativity of Christ says “And the Word became flesh!…in order to make us earthly beings into heavenly ones, in order to make sinners into saints; in order to raise us up from corruption into incorruption, from earth to heaven; from enslavement to sin and the devil – into the glorious freedom of children of God; from death – into immortality, in order to make us sons of God and to seat us together with Him upon the Throne as His royal children.”

Christ the Son of God became a human child so that we humans might become children of God. In 2nd Peter 1:4 we are called to be “partakers in the divine nature.” This is possible my dear brothers and sisters because the divine One first chose to partake of our nature. By His perfect partaking of our nature He has clothed us with His nature and opened to us the greatest hope that could ever be imagined. The hope of eternal and everlasting life in communion with our Creator, who desired to unite Himself to us so that we might forever unite ourselves to Him. To Him alone be the glory forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Are We Present For The Banquet?

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (14:16-24)

Today we hear the beautiful parable about the great banquet. This reading is given to us today as we celebrate the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are being reminded that the feast of the nativity (Christmas) is close at hand.

We are also reminded that the kingdom of God, the heavenly kingdom is like a great banquet given by a king. Because it is a great banquet and because God Himself is the generous king, He desires to invite as many people as possible to come and partake of this banquet, to celebrate with Him. After all, what kind of a celebration is it, when no one is there to celebrate and share in the joy with us? Why does the whole world celebrate Christmas? Because God invited humanity to share in the divinity of His only Son through the incarnation or the humanity of His Son. What an invitation! What a thing worthy of celebration! Of course over many centuries this celebration has become less religious and more cultural, a sign of the general decline of the Christian faith in the lives of the people. However it’s roots are solid.

In the reading, as our Lord Jesus Christ was teaching the people He reminded them that God, His Father, had invited many many people to the banquet and that many of them had rejected and would continue to reject the invitation in the future. Why did they reject the invitation? Was it because they were bad people? Not necessarily. Each one of the people in the parable had a very good excuse as to why they could not possibly come to the banquet. Can I tell you a secret? Nearly everyone who has ever contacted me to tell my why they couldn’t come to the divine liturgy on a Sunday morning had a good excuse in their own mind. That should terrify us because we easily fall into self-delusion and we think that our excuses will justify us before God. But when we read this parable we find out that this is not the case. One of the beautiful things about the gospels is that they are straightforward and leave no room for an escape.

God is loving, understanding and full of mercy. But God also gave us an invitation to dine with Him out of this same mercy and love for us. If we continually make excuses for why we are not dedicating time to prayer, to worship and to life in Christ then we have a problem. This invitation from God is about our life of worship, the life of the Church and this is most relevant in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

What we do on Sunday morning is really important, it is the earthly fulfillment of the heavenly banquet in as much as it is possible for us. St. Sophrony of Essex writes that “The Divine Liturgy is the way we know God and the way God becomes known to us…every Divine Liturgy is a Theophany. The body of Christ appears. Every member of the Church is an icon of the kingdom of God.”

Every day of the week is connected to the other. Every day is an opportunity to accept or reject the invitation of Christ in our hearts. Every day leads us back to Sunday, the Lord’s day, the day of the resurrection. Every day is either an affirmation of our Sunday lives or a denial of what we do on Sunday morning. Every day and every choice of every day either reinforces our worship or erodes it.

I mentioned to the parents on Tuesday night that part of raising our teens to become holy men and women is to immerse them in the life of the Church, the life of Christ both inside and outside the walls of the church. That is the easiest way to learn a language, immersion. Certainly there are times when we have legitimate reasons why we can’t make it to the church to worship. Certainly there are times when we can’t keep our home prayer rules and our other spiritual disciplines but we have to be careful not to be like the folks in this parable. Perhaps we need to look at our life and reprioritize things to focus on Christ our God.

“But Father, we are already here! Are we “off the hook’?” Absolutely not! We have done good by choosing to be here. But you can be here in the body and far away in the mind and heart. You could already be at coffee hour in your mind, or at lunch, or in a multitude of other possible places. You could also be here and faithful today but the rest of the week you contradict the teachings of Christ in your life. We are invited to go deeper in our life of worship so that it will be true worship done with our whole person and not simply our physical presence in this place. When this type of integrated worship happens that is something really special. That is how we fully accept the invitation to the banquet and in turn we find that our participation in the banquet transforms us!

St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco writes, “For a man’s complete sanctification, the body of the servant of the Lord must be united with the Body of Christ, and this is accomplished in the Mystery of Holy Communion. The true Body and the true Blood of Christ which we receive become part of the great Body of Christ. Of course, for union with Christ, the mere conjoining of our body with the Body of Christ does not suffice. The consumption of the Body of Christ becomes beneficial when in spirit we strive towards Him and unite ourselves with Him. Receiving the Body of Christ, while turning away from Him in spirit, is like the contact with Christ which they had who struck Him and mocked and crucified Him. Their contact with Him served not for their salvation and healing, but for their condemnation. But those who partake with piety, love and readiness to serve Him, closely unite themselves with Him and become instruments of His Divine will.”

May we run to accept this divine invitation to share in the life of God. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Signs Of Life

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians. (5:22-6:2)

In today’s epistle we hear the words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Galatia. This is a well known text regarding the fruit of the Spirit. He begins by telling us what these fruit are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

We can say that the fruit of the Spirit is the sign that we are living in, with and through God. What benefit would we have if we speak of God with our lips or come and sing hymns in the church but we don’t walk in the Spirit? We have to ask ourselves if we are walking in the Spirit, truly. Just as a doctor should not treat himself, we shouldn’t trust our own opinions so much as we should seek out the guidance of others who are more experienced in the struggle such as godparents, parents, and clergy. So we have to ask them to help us if there is a question about our behavior or our way of life. We have to know our starting point and repent to begin this struggle.

Then we can ask the more important question: “how do I cultivate the fruit of the Holy Spirit?” And this is not a trivial matter. It is really at the heart of Christian life. One day we have to go and face our Lord and He will ask us to give an account for ourselves and He will question us as to whether or not we used the gifts that He gave us in a way that is good and pleasing to Him or whether we squandered our inheritance.

So why do I mention these things? Because we love one another and want to see one another thrive in Christ! We are in the army and we have to do what is best for one another and protect each other on this great spiritual battlefield.

St. John Chrysostom tells us that there is a struggle between the flesh and the Spirit and it is the soul that is in the middle of the struggle. He writes “The soul is situated in the middle of the struggle between virtue and vice. If the soul uses the body as it should, it makes itself more spiritual. But if it departs from the Spirit and yields itself to evil desires, it renders it more earthy.” He tells us that it is the exercise of our free will that dictates the direction that we go. Are we inclined toward virtue or vice? Christian life is holistic. Everything is connected. When we choose vices, sinful, or impure or untrue things, we are not honoring God, we are defacing the image of God within us. We also are choosing what is dead and cannot give us life, but leads us towards corruption.

St. Seraphim tells us that when we receive something good and holy in our lives, we feel joy but when we receive something demonic or evil, we are actually disturbed, our peace is lost immediately. Of course this assumes that we are attempting to struggle. He writes,

When a man receives something Divine, in his heart he rejoices; but when he receives something diabolic, he is disturbed. The Christian heart, when it has received something Divine, does not demand anything else in order to convince it that this is precisely from the Lord; but by that very effect it is convinced that this is heavenly, for it senses within itself spiritual fruits: love, joy, peace, and the rest (cf. Gal. 5:22).”- St. Seraphim of Sarov, Little Russian Philokalia: Vol. I

One small example is the way that our heart rejoices when we receive the Holy Eucharist. It is an overwhelming sensation of joy and peace. It is a sign that what we have received comes from God.

My fear is that as Christians we continuously receive many different inputs through our senses and we are not careful to guard our hearts and to sense whether the things we see, and hear are good or evil. In our own times it is even harder to discern these things because our world has turned away from Christ. The world wants you to believe that evil is good, such as we see in the homosexual agenda and the decline of marriage because of casual sexual relations and co-habitation. Our world wants us to be confused even regarding the status of whether one is male or female. Lord have mercy.

As people who want to live in the truth and want to love God, we are really called to be warriors and struggle and train and be on guard so that we will be inclined to gravitate towards and choose the good, the pure, the true and the holy.

So as Christians the way that we make sure that we are on the right path is to follow the commandments and check our works against the teachings of Christ. We also add various spiritual disciplines to our lives, some with the guidance of our spiritual father.

Some of these disciplines include coming to confession at least 4 times a year and possibly more often. Another discipline is daily repentance every evening. We make a mental inventory of our sins and we ask God to help us and forgive us. Another discipline we add is prayer. This can be praying with prayer books, psalms or saying the Jesus prayer. How often should we pray? Always. And while that is not always possible or practical in our lives, we can try to make sure that prayer is the start and the end of every day. We can say the Jesus prayer throughout the day. This gives us strength and renewed focus in our Christian walk.

We also have fasting and the giving of alms to the poor and needy. Of course there are many other Christians deeds that help us to grow in Christ. Wives, show reverence and support for your husbands. Husbands, love and be present for your wives. Fathers and mothers be diligent with your stewardship of the home and the raising of your children. Be diligent with providing for your families and protecting them from enemies seen and unseen. Do everything that has just been mentioned with joy and gladness and gratitude because this is the path that God has given for your salvation. Listen again to what St. Seraphim of Sarov says about all of these spiritual disciplines.

“Fasting, prayer, alms, and every other good Christian deed is good in itself, but the purpose of the Christian life consists not only in the fulfillment of one or another of them. The true purpose of our Christian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. But fasting, prayer, alms and every good deed done for the sake of Christ is a means to the attainment of the Holy Spirit. Note that only good deeds done for the sake of Christ bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Everything else that is not done for the sake of Christ, even if it is good, does not bring us a reward in the life to come, not does it bring the grace of God in this life.” — St. Seraphim of Sarov, Conversation on the Goal of the Christian Life

May the Lord help us to humbly cultivate this life of spiritual fruit and acquire the Holy Spirit! AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Healing Often Requires Bitter Medicine

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:18-27)

Perhaps the most important question that a human being can ask is this question that is posed by the man who came to test Jesus in today’s gospel reading. He asks “Good Teacher, What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

The Lord before responding has a question of His own, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” Many have misunderstood this passage and it’s meaning. Some believe that Jesus is telling the man that He is not good and not God, but nothing could be further from the truth. Our Lord Jesus Christ is trying to raise this man’s awareness and attention. Because if you know that the one you are asking these questions to is in fact God in the flesh, you will certainly pay very close attention to what He tells you.

But this question that the man asks the Lord is powerful and life giving! It has immense potential. Perhaps it is the question that we should ask ourselves every day of our lives? “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” After all, we ask many questions, but how many of those questions have eternal and lasting significance?

And it is important to note that the Lord gives a very predictable answer. He is not rewriting the book. He isn’t abolishing the Holy Scriptures. He is rather, bringing them to life. When He is asked how to inherit eternal life He points to the ten commandments. “Do not commit adultery. Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not bear false witness. Honor your father and mother.” Our Lord Jesus Christ is never seen complicating but simplifying our spiritual life. Nothing is complex in the Christian life. Obey the commandments. That is the foundation of the Christian life. But in our world, even what seems simple and uncomplicated is made complex because we don’t live straightforwardly but we live in a sinful culture and society. Our world is turned upside down by our disobedience to the commandments of God and by our prideful willingness to test and tempt and challenge God to find all the loopholes to behaving like a Christian and a child of God. We claim with our lips that we want to be close to God, but God sees our hearts and what we really believe.

However in this particular case in the gospel, this man believes that he has kept the commandments perfectly and therein lies the problem. Scripture tells us that there is none without sin, no not one. We are told that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Even if we live only a day on the earth, we would sin because this is the condition and disposition that we inherited from our ancestors.

The man believes that he is perfect in keeping the commandments and he has pride in this perceived accomplishment and that is why what happens next is so important. Our Lord Jesus Christ gives this man a difficult word, a life-giving instruction. Whenever the Lord speaks words of correction to those that He loves, He challenges them. He gives them life through the word of correction. This is why the reading of the gospels coupled with active repentance is so extremely integral to our spiritual development. Because God loves us, He gives us life giving medicine, and sometimes medicine goes down with difficulties. Sometimes the medicine is not sweet but bitter. Yet this is what is often required for us to come back to sanity and health.

Listen to the words of St. Anthony the Great who writes “The truly intelligent man pursues one sole objective: to obey and to conform to the God of all. With this single aim in view, he disciplines his soul, and whatever he may encounter in the course of his life, he gives thanks to God for the compass and depth of His providential ordering of all things. For it is absurd to be grateful to doctors who give us bitter and unpleasant medicines to cure our bodies, and yet to be ungrateful to God for what appears to us to be harsh, not grasping that all we encounter is for our benefit and in accordance with His providence. For knowledge of God and faith in Him is the salvation and perfection of the soul.”

By this definition we should ask ourselves if we are truly intelligent men and women or if we are less than intelligent. The man in today’s gospel took pride in his keeping of the commandments but the Lord saw through his talk, straight into his heart. The Lord found a sort of spiritual cancer hidden there and He was determined to shine a light on this and expose it and cut it out of the man. Yet, as is so often the case, the healing requires our participation. We have to work in synergy with God to receive full healing.

So whenever the Lord offers us a way out, and healing, He does so without imposing His own will on us. He gives us the prescription and offers us a place on His operating table, but He doesn’t tie us down or force us to choose what is best. But the fact remains that God will often test us to see if we are truly willing to do whatever it takes, to make serious sacrifices of our own will in order to know Him more deeply.

In the case of the man who tested the Lord, the Lord offered him true freedom and the chance of a lifetime. How many of you would have followed the Lord if you were given the chance that day? Perhaps not as many as we think. Why? Because the Lord tests the hearts of those who claim to desire Him. He looks to see what they truly love and the law of Christ is that you cannot serve or love two masters. At some point in your life you are forced to choose and that choice is of necessity painful if our hearts are divided or if we worship false gods. St. Maximos the confessor writes “The person who loves God values knowledge of God more than anything created by God, and pursues such knowledge ardently and ceaselessly.”

May we each love and pursue Christ with everything of our being, because He first loved and pursued us, and this is our only path to life.

Source: Sermons

Dedicated to God?

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Entrance of the Mother of God into the Temple in Jerusalem.

One of the twelve great feasts in the life of the Orthodox Church. Here is what one of the recent saints, St. John of Kronstadt said about this feast:

“On this day, my brethren, the holy Church celebrates the solemn Entry into the temple in Jerusalem of the three-year-old child, Mary—the blessed daughter of righteous parents, Joachim and Anna—to be in instructed in the Lord. Zacharias—the elder and high priest—meets her with priestly splendor; and as he was instructed to do by the Spirit of God, he brings her, accompanied by young maidens, into the most interior part of the temple, the Holy of Holies, where the high priest himself enters but once a year, and where the Holy of Holies, the Lord Himself dwelt—for she was to become the Mother of His flesh.

How did the most blessed Virgin spend her time in the temple? Taught the Hebrew written language and prayer by the Holy Spirit through the maidens, she spent her time in prayer, reading of the word of God (as you can see on the icon of the Annunciation), in divine contemplation, and handiwork. Her love for converse with God and for reading the word of God was so great that she forgot about food and drink, and an Archangel brought her heavenly food at God’s request, as the Church sings in the stichera for today’s feast.

What an excellent example for fathers, mothers, and their children; for Christian maidens and youths!….” He continues saying, “May her children by grace be of one spirit with Her! Let them learn from her how to love the Lord, our Creator, more than anything else in the world, more than father and mother, more than anyone dear to us; how to avidly study the word of God—something unfortunately not seen amongst the disciples of Jesus Christ; learn with what warmth of heart and love we must pray to the Lord; how we must dedicate ourselves to him wholeheartedly; how to entrust our fate to His wise and all-good Providence; with what purity, meekness, humility, and patience we must always clothe and adorn ourselves and not with the vain embellishments of this adulterous and sinful world which knows no bounds of luxury and elegance in bodily clothing; how to love a life with God and the saints “more than to dwell in the tents of sinners (Ps. 83:11).”

We understand the feasts of the Church not simply as commemorations of events that happened in the past but as events that relate directly to us and to our salvation. Mary was dedicated to God from her youth. Her parents dedicated her to God from her youth. We are called to live in imitation of her parents Joachim and Anna, dedicating ourselves and our children to loving and serving God. Their love of God had a powerful effect. It led to their child becoming the vehicle for the salvation of the whole human race. We are called to also be and to raise vehicles for the salvation of the world around us.

When do parents get to stop dedicating themselves to raising godly Christian children? Is it when the children are weaned and begin to eat solid food? Is it when the children begin to take their first steps and walk? Is it when children begin puberty and become teenagers? No. One might argue that to stop focusing at this stage of their lives is akin to gross negligence. We are to dedicate ourselves and our children to God perpetually. We do this by jealously guarding their hearts and minds. To be clear let me say that smartphones and computers are the cause of the majority of the spiritual, and psychological problems that our teens have or will have. Dads, man up and be responsible as leaders in your homes. Moms, lead by example. Whatever care you take in being diligent with your raising your children now, will be accounting as a blessing to you both in this life and forever when you meet the Lord in the kingdom. Set limits and rules and stick to them as if your life or the lives of your children depend on them…because in the truest sense, they do.

All of this requires patience. The world wears us down with distractions and shiny things. We find ourselves living in pleasure and comfort and it’s really easy for us to get complacent and neglect our duties, but the Church teaches us that we are to continuously live with our minds and hearts directed to God.

St. John Chrysostom tells us that the home is to be a little church. So in a real sense, our homes are to be temples where we live and serve God. Practically speaking that means less electronics, less entertainment, and more quality time for family conversation and shared activities, more time for reading and more dedicated time for prayer together. Because our days are numbered and our lives belong to Christ.

We were each dedicated to God just like the Mother of God was dedicated in the Temple. You were dedicated on the day of your baptism. You belong to Christ and your life can be a witness to God’s goodness and love. Your life can also be a path and conduit of grace, healing and salvation that God uses in the lives of many others. What is required of us is to trust God with our lives and our most prized possessions such as our minds, our time, our attention and our children so that He can bless them and return them to us. This is what Joachim and Anna did with their most precious possession, a beautiful 3 year old girl. And God has not ceased to bless us and the whole universe richly through their act of sacrificial dedication, faith and love. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

How To Prove Your Love To God

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (10:25-37)

Today we hear about a certain man, a lawyer who put Jesus to the test. It reminds me that quite often we are guilty of doing the same thing and trying to test God. We come up with various scenarios in our minds and theorize that this or that action or behavior is appropriate based on our own personalized reading of Scripture or using the idea that perhaps a certain activity or behavior is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. But let me remind you that we are not Protestants with our own tailor-made unique reading of the Bible that applies only to me.

As Orthodox Christians we have God as our Father and the Church as our Mother, which means that we have the teachings of the Church and her saints to also help guide us. Trying to justify my sinful actions through smooth words and slippery philosophies is hardly attempting to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. This is true whether it applies to casual sexual activity or illegal drugs or using foul language or any other thing that you can think of. The two can’t reside together. We can’t both test God and hope to be well pleasing to God. We shouldn’t try to be one person with dual aims and goals that are divergent. We should try to be a unified whole, everything moving together in the right direction.

On this point St. Nektarios of Aegina, whom we commemorated last Tuesday writes “Christians, have we understood the great responsibility that we have taken on before God through baptism? Have we come to know that we must conduct ourselves as children of God, that we must align our will with the will of God, that we must remain free from sin, that we must love God with all our hearts and always patiently await union with Him? Have we thought about the fact that our heart should be so filled with love that it should overflow to our neighbor? Do we have the feeling that we must become holy and perfect, children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven? We must struggle for this, so that we may not be shown unworthy and rejected. Let none of us lose our boldness, nor neglect our duties, nor be afraid of the difficulties of spiritual struggle. For we have God as a helper, who strengthens us in the difficult path of virtue.”

As the lawyer attempts to put Jesus to the test, he himself is tested with severity. Jesus puts the man on notice with a very simple idea. You cannot possibly begin to understand loving God with all of your self and all of your strength until you actualize this love concretely towards your neighbor. The love you desire to have towards God is demonstrated by the actual love you show to the flesh and blood people around you, to those who are made in the image and likeness of God. Love is only a lofty theory if we continually speak about our love for God but we don’t lift a finger or break a sweat to serve and assist our neighbors.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza once said “The more one is united to his neighbor the more he is united to God.” So in fact we can look at our neighbor as a springboard or a trampoline or a rocket ship that propels us quickly towards the God we claim to desire with our heart. St. Dorotheos goes a bit further and he gives some practical advice on how we deal with others. You know that often people will say “I wish that I could be loving to such and such a person, but they are not loving to me. Yet here is what St. Dorotheos wrote “Do not ask for love from your neighbor, for if you ask and he does not respond, you will be troubled. Instead show your love for your neighbour and you will be at rest, and so will bring your neighbour to love.” It is the act of love that kindles love and not vice versa. This is also reflected in the teaching of our Lord who said “If you love me, obey my commandments.”

We also cannot underestimate the power of praying for others and forgiving others as true acts of love.

As we continue to think about new ways to love our neighbors and in turn draw closer to Christ, we are also reminded that the Nativity Fast begins tomorrow. St. John Chrysostom, whom we celebrated yesterday gives us some beautiful words regarding the true character of Christian fasting and I believe that it ties everything together nicely. He writes,

“For the value of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it. Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works! Is it said by what kind of works? If you see a poor man, take pity on him! If you see an enemy, be reconciled to him! If you see a friend gaining honour, envy him not! If you see a (lovely) woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.” -St. John Chrysostom

Through these holy activities we will begin to show that we are children of the One who Himself took pity upon us and our broken condition and treated us as His neighbors and friends. To Christ alone be glory forever and ever AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Abiding in God’s Love

The Reading from the First Epistle of St. John. (4:12-19)

Today we celebrate the memory of St. John the Theologian, the beloved disciple of our Lord Jesus Christ. For this reason we hear from St. John’s first epistle and we are given a glimpse into wonderful things.

First St. John opens the epistle with these words “Brethren, no one has ever seen God.” It is a straightforward statement but we should take it to heart. We live in a world that increasingly denies the existence of God. If you speak of God you are looked at like you are crazy. Yet the Theologian is direct with us and tells us that “No one has ever seen God.” By this he means that no one has seen God, the Father. However the same one who tells us that no one ever saw God the Father tells us something even more remarkable “We have seen and do testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.” It is truly a stunning verse!

St. John tells us that although no one has ever seen God the Father, he and the others with him were living witnesses to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. They experienced life with Christ. They touched Him. They witnessed His betrayal and death. They rejoiced in His resurrection on the third day. The lives of the disciples would never be the same after all that they had seen and experienced. Everything changed because of the truth of what they had seen and experienced and it was confirmed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. John confirms this when he writes “By this we know that we abide in Him, and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.”

St. John tells us that we can also experience what he and the other disciples experienced. We have our own personal Pentecost when we receive the Holy Spirit. Of course we receive the Holy Spirit on the day of our baptism (and or chrismation) and yet we as believers are called to try to stir up the grace of the Holy Spirit and be renewed through our daily life of faith and repentance. Without repentance and fasting and spiritual disciplines we become stagnant and our heart grows cold and hard and we don’t sense the work of the Holy Spirit.

Once at a clergy retreat we had the privilege of spending time with His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos who wrote an amazing book about the prayer life called “A night on the desert of the Holy Mountain.” When one of the priests asked him how we could take a shortcut to deeper prayer and to growing closer to Christ he replied “prayer with tears.” When our heart is softened then we will sense the grace of the Holy Spirit working within us. That is where we know God. Not with our eyes, but in our hearts. King David writing in Psalm 51 said “For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise.” When our hearts are broken, preferably daily in prayerful repentance, then our hearts are open to experiencing God more fully. Because He is humble, He reveals Himself to those who are humble of heart.

St. John tells us that “whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him and he in God.” We are encouraged to confess the true nature of Jesus Christ within our hearts and minds and also to others. Are we ashamed to mention Christ and His Church? Are we afraid that others might think that we are “weird”? These are small indications that our heart might still need some tuning. We can confess that Jesus is the Son of God with our whole lives. How do we live? What decisions do we make? Do we dedicate time from our busy lives to acknowledge that our lives are a gift from this loving God? Do we think about the Lord in the middle of the day? Do we pray to Jesus in quiet moments of the day or even unceasingly? These are just a few of the ways that we confess Christ in our lives and we experience His life as our own. And this is the life that the Church itself tries to give to the people who live by faith.

St. John continues this passage with a beautiful verse “God is love.” He tells us that “he who abides in love abides in God.” What does it mean to abide in love? Does it mean to do whatever you want? Does it mean to love whomever you want, and in whatever way you want, as we are encouraged to do in our broken world? No. On this point St. Basil the great wrote “If God is love, as John says, then it must be that the devil is hatred. As he who has love has God, so he who has hatred has the devil dwelling in him.” Likewise we can say that those who claim to love but do so outside of the commandments or in opposition to the commandments of God, are not loving but full of hatred because they build their lives upon a foundation of rebellion and hatred for the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ who loves us and gave His life to bring us to life.

You don’t get to make the rules, since you are not the master of your own life. And we wouldn’t want our own rules anyways because we are the cause of most of the problems in our life. Christ is the divine law-giver and we have to accept life according to His rules if we want to inherit His life. The one who abides in love is the one who lives within the commandments and teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ as his only way of life. When we live within the love of His commandments, especially the commandment to love our neighbors, we begin to know God more deeply. We are purified and enlightened by the light of God’s commandments through pursuing them and being obedient to them. And since the commandments come from God, we truly begin to know Him through them. It is like a door that is only unlocked from the inside of our hearts. Christ stands at the door of our hearts to knock, but we must daily choose to open the door by serving and loving others and obeying His divine teachings. For His divine teachings are life and love and joy and when we live in them, we are promised to know Him in truth. To Christ alone be the glory with His Father and the Holy Spirit AMEN.

Source: Sermons