We Will Be His People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

Because He First Loved Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

An Undeserved Gift

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

Self-Denial As The Path To Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

Become Treasure Hunters!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Sermons

Why Do We Call The Priest “Father”?

The Reading from the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. (4:9-16)

One of the most common questions that comes up when someone comes to the Orthodox Church, especially those who come from protestant/ non-denominational backgrounds is “Why do you call the priest ‘Father’?” This is actually a very good question. We should ask questions about our faith and try to dig in and learn as much as we possibly can in life, especially our life in Christ. When we ask the right questions we have the possibility of gaining knowledge and insight that can inform and sometimes transform our reality. One of the philosophers once said “the unexamined life, is no life at all.” That being said, we are encouraged to ask but also to listen closely to the answers provided through the gospels, through the Scriptures, and through the holy tradition of the Church as it has existed for 2000 years.

This question about why we call the priest “Father” is even more important in light of the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 23:9 where He says “Do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven.” So the question then is, “why do Orthodox and Roman Catholic believers still call their priests “Father”? As far as I can tell, the answer is multi-faceted. It involves depth not careless and simple interpretation.

Fr. Richard Ballew in his short article “Call No Man Father?” writes that “[Christ] was telling them not to use their positions as fathers and teachers as an opportunity to build disciples around their own private opinions. For to do so would only serve to “shut up the kingdom of heaven against men”.

He goes on saying “While Father Abraham by his faithfulness deserved the title, as did others of Israel’s greats in history, these men (the Pharisees and Sadducees) had forfeited their role as fathers. They were to cease and desist in their use of the term and, in turn, bow to God Himself as the fountainhead of all fatherhood.”

St. Jerome writes,

“No one should be called teacher or father except God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is the Father, because all things are from him. He alone is the teacher, because through him are made all things and through him all things are reconciled to God.

But one might ask, “Is it against this precept when the apostle calls himself the teacher of the Gentiles? Or when, as in colloquial speech widely found in the monasteries of Egypt and Palestine, they call each other Father?” …. One is rightly called a teacher only from his association with the true Teacher. I repeat: The fact that we have one God and one Son of God through nature does not prevent others from being understood as sons of God by adoption. Similarly this does not make the terms father and teacher useless or prevent others from being called father.” Commentary on Matthew 4.23.10. [CCL 77:213.]

St. John Chrysostom had this to say, “not that they should not call, but they may know whom they ought to call Father, in the highest sense. For like as the master is not a master principally; so neither is the father. For He (God) is cause of all, both of the masters, and of the fathers.” Commentary on Matthew, Homily LXXII

In today’s epistle we hear these words from the great Apostle St. Paul who writes “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.” (1 Cor 4:15)

I remind you that this St. Paul encountered the living Lord Jesus Christ and learned from Him directly. He was the chosen apostle to preach and teach the gentiles. He possibly understood the faith with more depth than anyone who had come before or after him. Yet here he clearly calls himself “father” to those Christians at Corinth. It wasn’t that He was ignorant of the teaching of Christ. It was that He understood it much better than we do. It was not meant as a hard and fast rule to be blindly followed. It was meant to mold and guide our understanding of reality in Christ. It also pointed to what was lacking within the leadership of the people of Israel at the time of Christ.

These days when I meet someone from a protestant background, they are hesitant to call me father. They call me brother or pastor or James. And that is generally ok, because they are not part of our flock and they often want to honor the words of Our Lord. However, within the Christian community of the Orthodox Church, the priest is the father of the community in a very real sense, just as some of you are fathers to children within your homes. To pretend otherwise would be a sin. You bring your children into existence, you nurture and support them, you provide for them and protect them. These are attributes of fatherhood. Even if you adopt children, if you faithfully take on the mantle of all of these responsibilities, whether the child appreciates it or not, you become their father.

Life in the Church, just as in the home, functions best when a good father is present. The father is there to challenge, to encourage, to correct, to protect, and to provide for his family. Sometimes that means literal food and clothing and shelter, but most often this refers to caring for our spiritual needs. Without a priest, there are no sacraments especially the most holy body and the most precious blood of Christ, and without the sacraments and the corresponding prayer and liturgical life, the church ceases to fully exist. It may exist as a shell or a shadow, but the reality is that a priest under the authority of a canonical bishop is required for the Church to be fully manifested and present in any place. This has been and remains the teaching of the early Christians and of the Orthodox Church until now.

Know that we are here to serve you and to present you to Christ. This is our life’s work and our joy. Pray for all the priests and especially this priest so that we may faithfully embody the sacrificial and life-giving love of God, who is our true Father. Glory be to God forever, AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Do We Dare Divide His Body?

The Reading from the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. (1:10-17)

In today’s epistle we hear the apostle Paul’s works to the Christians at Corinth. His warning to them is a simple one that requires our attention every so often. Often as we read the Scriptures and the New Testament we are reminded of things that we might take for granted or ways that we may have become complacent in our own lives, and attitudes.

Listen to these words: “Brethren, I appeal to you, by the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissension among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispos and Gaius; lest anyone should say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)”

For St. Paul, the greatest tragedy would be a church that is not united. He had spent his life in serious study and prayer, looking for the truth and trying to know God more fully. He was zealous for the ways of his teachers and fathers and this zeal, although misguided, had enflamed the apostle with a desire to see the truth spread and the false teachings stamped out everywhere. This is why he led attacks on Christians and threw many into prisons. Because his zeal was misguided and ill-informed. One day, by the will and the grace of God, Our Lord Jesus Christ revealed Himself to St. Paul on the road to Damascus and this set off a chain of events that have rippled through time and completely changed the course of history. Paul became the apostle to the gentiles and spread the gospel of Jesus Christ far and wide. He had a new focus for all of his earlier zeal and love for God. Rather, God came into focus more clearly for him. Through the encounter with the risen Lord Jesus, Paul’s world was turned upside down. His life was now fully dedicated to teaching others about Christ and helping others encounter and know this messiah, this Son of God who could save mankind from their sins.

With all of this as a background, we see St. Paul undertaking major missionary journeys all over the known world and the Roman empire. He gave the rest of his life to this daunting and joyful task of bringing the news of what God had done for humanity through His Son Jesus to the whole world. He set up communities and spent time with them, loved them, prayed with them and encouraged them. He would then pick up and move to the next area to start the work again in a new place, to bring new souls to Christ. St. Paul would often hear news from these communities that he had started, some good, some not so good. And what St. Paul understood clearly was that there were a few things that could hurt, if not destroy a church community.

First, false teachings. Second, immorality. Third, dissension or division over smaller issues. This is the one that St. Paul is focused on in today’s reading. What was the issue that began to cause division for the Christians at Corinth? It was their baptismal lineage. Who had been baptized by whom? Some claimed their baptism was better because it was at the hands of Apollos, some at the hands of Cephas (Peter), some at the hands of Paul. And this rather trivial matter became a big issue that divided the people.

In our world there are always things that will divide us if we let them. Today we divide over political affiliation, the use of vaccines, the wearing of masks and who serves the most delicious cheeseburger. But we are reminded that to divide over trivial matters isn’t just bad manners, it is a serious sin. It is tearing the fabric of the body of Christ in two. Shredding a lovely, single garment made by the hands of God, into pieces. It is a sign of a deficiency in love towards Christ and His Church and towards those for whom Christ gave His life upon the tree of the cross.

My brothers and sisters, it should not be so. We should not be like the world around us, uncivil, ill-mannered, ill-tempered, easily provoked, easily offended. As Christians we are called to see Christ in every person and to love every member of the church with a godly love. The things that unite us in Christ are much greater than the trivial and childish things that cause us to separate from one another. And if we find that perhaps our opinions are too strong, too offensive, too harsh and polarizing, we can choose the path of humility instead of the path of prideful resistance. We can choose to be peacemakers. I believe that our Lord said something important about being peacemakers. Being the man or woman who works for peace with their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, is more important than feeling right or justified in my opinions.

It should go without saying, that this is true even during coffee hour or when we are on social media. Not everyone does a good job of showing restraint and thinking about how their comments and opinions might serve to alienate or push away their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. That we don’t think about others makes us more than negligent, it makes us selfish and self-centered. So we are all called to restrain ourselves and to think of others. That is how we love actively. That is how we honor Jesus Christ.

St. John of Kronstadt writes, “As the Holy Trinity, our God is One Being, although Three Persons, so, likewise, we ourselves must be one. As our God is indivisible, we also must be indivisible, as though we were one man, one mind, one will, one heart, one goodness, without the smallest (mingling) of malice – in a word, one pure love, as God is Love. “That they may be one, even as We are One” (John 17:22).” He writes in another place “A Christian must always be kind, gracious, and wise in order to conquer evil by good.” Sometimes we are the ones being offended. Even then we are not let off the hook. We are commanded to forgive everyone so that we also might be forgiven.

My friends, let us work diligently for the salvation of our fellow brothers and sisters, every minute of every day, especially when we are here with this great extended family. Let us love and be ambassadors of Christ’s love just as the Lord first loved us and sacrificed Himself on our behalf. Let us not push others away carelessly, instead let us draw them further into Christ’s Church with the net of mercy and compassion, for this makes us shine with the radiance of the All- Merciful and compassionate God, the Lover of mankind. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

Asking For What Is Best

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (9:27-35)

Today’s reading reminds me of another gospel passage which is read soon after the celebration of Pascha, on the Sunday of the Blind Man. Today we hear of not one but two blind men who were together. We never learn exactly how they learned about Jesus but one thing was for certain, they knew who He was and they were motivated to have an encounter with Him. They cried out to Him loudly with these words that should be so familiar to us, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.”

Why should these words be familiar to us? Because they are a part of the very fabric, the DNA of Orthodox Christian prayer. This is seen and heard repeatedly throughout all of our liturgical services and especially in the liturgy. The phrase which is repeated more often than any other is precisely this “Lord have mercy!” We say this so often and yet like anything, sometimes it is good to step back and to ask ourselves “what does it really mean?” It means to have pity or compassion. In praying this prayer we pray it with an assumption that we don’t have much to offer to God, but that we are in dire need of whatever it is that He is willing to offer to us. We should model our prayers after those who successfully petitioned the Son of God for such things.

How do we model our prayers? By aligning our hearts with the hearts of those who cried out to the Lord with everything within them. They didn’t reserve anything of themselves and their desire for Christ. Repeatedly throughout the gospels we see men and women like us who pour out their pains and struggles to the Lord and repeatedly we see the Lord Jesus respond with precisely what they seek. He offers them healing. He offers them fulfillment. And yes, He offers them mercy.

So how do we align our hearts to be like those who asked with confidence and received? We start with humility. If you notice the blind men never actually asked to be healed of their blindness. They were truly humble and truly faithful men. You don’t have to tell God exactly what you need, He knows what you need even before you open your mouth! That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pray and ask. It means that you should pray with humility and faith. Humility that God knows what is best for us and faith that God is able to provide for us. The blind men don’t ask for healing of their blindness because they don’t have to. They truly believe that Jesus is the Christ, the long awaited Messiah and they ask for mercy knowing that the Lord will give them whatever is good according to His will for their lives. That is an example of faithful humility. They ask for mercy and trust God to give them what is good.

It turns out that the thing that is most good is in fact mercy. When we have mercy from God, even mercy from others, we feel that everything is right in the world and in our lives. We run to the Lord in prayers in a way that invites the Lord to work in our lives. What is required is humility, an understanding of our own brokenness. The blind men could cry out to the Lord because they knew their own infirmity. They knew their own brokenness. They knew their desperate need for Him. How do we pray? Sometimes we have trouble praying for more than a minute without feeling distracted or bored. Sometimes we pray for help from God and then we go about our business trying to make things happen, forcing things that may or may not be God’s will. Sometimes we pray to God and then go about our lives living in open rebellion to God, in disobedience to His teachings.

King David, the prophet wrote “a broken and humbled heart God will not despise.” When we pray to God and ask for anything we should do it in a way that invites Christ to help us. We should pray as if there are no other options, no other solutions. Pray like nothing else matters. Don’t pray and keep one eye on the clock. Pray and forget whether you are in the body or out of the body. Pray as if the only thing that matters is that God will hear you. Because if God hears you, nothing else will matter.

So this is why we pray such prayers frequently and with repetition such as “Lord have mercy”, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner” and so forth. They are prayers that get to the heart of the matter. When they are combined with a small bit of humility and faith, even the faith like a mustard seed, these are prayers that get to the heart of God. This is our meeting place with God, the heart. St. Dorotheos of Gaza writes “In the mercy of God, the little thing done with humility will enable us to be found in the same place as the saints who have labored much and been true servants of God.”

The blind men cried out from their hearts and after the Lord asked them if they believed, they answered from their hearts. We can say that they believed, that they saw Christ with their spiritual eyes. That they would see him with their physical eyes was the next natural step in Christ’s divine wisdom.

It was Christ’s good pleasure to heal their blindness. It is Christ’s good pleasure to heal our blindness and every other sickness within us, the physical and especially the spiritual. But let us turn to the Lord with everything in our hearts. Let us learn how to completely give ourselves to Him in prayer and without distraction, without grumbling over our situation, without complaining and without watching the calendar or the clock in order to time God. This is why it is important that the Lord says to the two men “According to your faith be it done for you.” If we don’t believe much it becomes difficult to receive much. For this reason it is even good to ask God to increase our faith just as the Apostles did (Luke 17:5).

I would like to leave you with this beautiful quote from St. Symeon the New Theologian. He writes, “To have faith in Christ means more than simply despising the delights of this life. It means we should bear all our daily trials that may bring us sorrow, distress, or unhappiness, and bear them patiently for as long as God wishes and until He comes to visit us. For it is said, ‘I waited on the Lord and He came to me.’” AMEN.

Source: Sermons

How To Become Great

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (5:14-19)

Humans have always had an irresistible urge to reach for greatness. Rarely do people wake up and say “I want to be completely mediocre as a person.” We should desire to be great. Great husbands and wives, great friends, great children, great students, great co-workers, and great children of God.

Actually this is commanded of us. We are meant to reflect the greatness of God Himself in our lives and our work. This doesn’t mean that we will do all of these things perfectly. But that we will continually strive for perfection, for greatness. But what are the criteria for greatness? Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us very clearly. “Whoever does them (the commandments) and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” That’s it. Greatness is found by obedience to Christ and by teaching and encouraging others to obey the teachings of Christ.

According to the Lord, greatness isn’t found by learning to argue with others, or by joining the various causes of the day. I change my profile picture to the flag of Egypt and then I think that I am great. I tell people that I recycled today and that makes me special. All of this is fluff, a worthless substitute for the gospel of the Lord. The gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is concerned with our repentance and the forgiveness of our sins, leading to righteousness and holiness of life. These are the true attributes of greatness. We recognize and commemorate the multitudes of the saints because of their willingness and desire to follow the teaching of the Lord and to teach others through their words and even more so, through their examples.

In today’s reading Our Lord Jesus begins with these words, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

Do we appreciate who we are and what our role is in this world? Your role isn’t yours to decide. You were bought at a price. Your life belongs to the Master. Your role is simply to be the light of the world. To reflect the light of Christ. To walk into places that might not be very bright, places that in fact might be pitch black and transform those places by your presence. It is so sad that we are so worried about what the whole world thinks about us. We are so eager to fit in with classmates and co-workers. We live to be liked. We aim not to offend. We just want everyone to think highly of us. But in truth, that isn’t supposed to be our path. The path for saints is the path that makes us seek the acceptance of God before everything else in life.

St. John Chrysostom once said “If you are a Christian, no earthly city is yours. Of our City ‘the Builder and Maker is God.’ Though we may gain possession of the whole world, we are but strangers and sojourners in it all. We are enrolled in heaven: our citizenship is there! Let us not, after the manner of little children, despise things that are great, and admire those which are little!”

You are the light of the world. You became light when you were illumined by the teachings of Christ and put on Christ in your baptism. You now always carry the light of Christ with you. Sometimes the light we carry is a tiny barely lit wick. At other times the light we carry is enough to shine light on everything we are near. Our ability to be light is a reflection of our love for God and the teachings of His only begotten Son Jesus Christ. Let me share another word from the saints. The great modern saint, St. Nektarios of Aegina 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.”

St. Nektarios reminds us of what is really important, of which kingdom we seek. Our Lord Jesus Christ also tells us what it will take to be considered great in the kingdom of heaven. There is no thought for greatness in this life. The greatness of the world looks like foolishness from heaven. And there is no doubt that the greatness of the kingdom looks like foolishness to the world, since that is precisely what we see with the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Greatness through obedience, humility, sacrifice and surpassing love.

Today as we think about the kingdom, we are reminded of some of the saints of this day including the Holy Royal Martyrs of Russia. Tsar Nicholas, His wife Alexandra, and their beloved children Aleksy, Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia. We remember the tragedy of that day for the Russian people and their homeland. But above all else we remember the victory of the Royal Martyrs. We admire their willingness to disregard one kingdom to inherit another. They were literal royalty. They had a vast kingdom here on earth, and yet they became like the great apostle Paul who wrote “For his (Christ’s) sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Phil 3:8-11

Resurrection with Christ. This is the kingdom promised to those who truly love Him with all their heart, mind, soul and strength. May we reach out with boldness and grab hold of what is offered to us with the help of God. AMEN.

Source: Sermons

As You Have Believed

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

In today’s gospel reading we hear the familiar story of the Roman soldier (a centurion) who found the Lord Jesus and asked Him to heal his servant. We are told that the servant was sick and that this sickness seems to have caused a paralysis. We should immediately be comforted by the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ to this centurion. “I will come and heal him.”

Is there anything more comforting than to know that Our Lord is ready, willing and able to help us in our times of need? It comforts us greatly to know that He is willing to offer us His life, and His healing. He actually can’t stand to see us unhealthy, especially in our soul. He can’t stand to see us in pain, especially pain of the soul. He desires to see us become whole.

The centurion is an impressive man. He actually impressed Our Lord greatly! How did he do that? He showed tremendous faith in Christ although he was a Roman soldier and not a Jew. He showed so much faith that when the Lord told him that He would come and visit his house, the centurion said in effect, “you are so powerful that your word is enough to heal him from this distance.” It is really quite astonishing. This points to the fact that the truth is all around us and many people perceive and apprehend it even without fully understanding it. Yet often, those who should perceive and understand the truth, especially the truth about Christ, are the least faithful and most likely to ignore it. This is why Our Lord said “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

We hope that we would not be like the people of Israel at that time regarding our own faith. But don’t be surprised if you see that history does indeed repeat itself. Whether we start with this faith or receive this faith in Christ later in our lives, we are always charged with cultivating and keeping this faith of ours. You can grow up as an Orthodox Christian, be raised in the Church, know her teachings and yet sadly, somehow find yourself far away from faith in Christ. This is why the Lord says in today’s passage “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” And likewise, there are those who grew up without all of the blessings of being born and raised as an Orthodox Christian and who nevertheless grow to love and honor Jesus Christ, His teachings and the teachings of His Church. Glory to God.

Whether you are born or raised in the Church or you hear about Christ later in life doesn’t matter so much as what you do with this knowledge. Do we grab hold of it and accept it like oxygen, like water? Or do we push it away? The centurion accepted Christ’s power and he made bold requests. You and I as children of the living God can make requests that are even more bold on behalf of others and for ourselves. What are some of these bold requests?

Lord Jesus, heal my hardness of heart. Lord Jesus, forgive my sins. Lord Jesus, help me to become a man or woman of prayer. Lord Jesus, help me to hear your voice in my life. Lord Jesus, bless my neighbors. Lord Jesus, bless my children and make them saints. Lord Jesus, bless my husband or wife. Lord Jesus, save me from the pits of despair. Lord Jesus, remove my anxieties and sadness. Lord, strengthen me for all the difficulties of life. My Lord Jesus, allow me to grow in virtues. My Lord Jesus, make me holy. And of course, Lord Jesus heal my bodily sickness if it is for my salvation.

Although we are not worthy of receiving the Lord, He is ready willing and able to help us, and just as He was willing to go to the centurion and enter into his house. He is also willing to enter into the temple of our souls and bodies. How does He do this? One way is through our reception of the Eucharist.

The holy gifts, the body and blood of Christ are so important that one of the stories that is most highlighted about our saint of the day, Joseph of Damascus is about holy communion. On July 9, 1860 a massacre of Christians began in the city of Damascus, and St. Joseph, just a day or so before his own courageous martyrdom focused completely on his ministry. He travelled under cover of night, jumping from rooftop to rooftop of different dwellings visiting the sick and the infirm to give them time to confess and to receive the holy gifts. He wanted them to be strengthened in their faith. He wanted them to be in full communion with Christ, to have Christ dwelling within them. He wanted to prepare them for paradise. Within a short period of time, just two or three days, nearly 3000 of the faithful lost their lives in that persecution. Among those who escaped the city were Michael Hawaweeny and his young wife Mariam, who was pregnant with St. Raphael our beloved patron.

Let us treat the things of God with this kind of faith and reverence. If we have this kind of faith and love towards Christ we will surely hear the words of our Lord “Go, be it done for you as you have believed” because He is the lover of mankind. Glory be to God forever AMEN.

Source: Sermons