Sermons for St. Stephen’s Course, Directed Project 3 (Spring 2015)

Sermon for the Sunday of All Saints

THE EPISTLE

The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Hebrews. (11:33-12:2)

Brethren, all the saints through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.  Women received their dead by resurrection.  Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.  Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.  And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.  Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.

THE GOSPEL

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew (10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30)

The Lord said to His disciples, “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father Who is in heaven.  He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.”  Then Peter said in reply, “Lo, we have left everything and followed Thee.  What then shall we have?”  Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the New World, when the Son of Man shall sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My Name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold, and inherit eternal life.  But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”

SERMON

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God. (Amen.)

Brothers and Sisters, on this day we observe a very meaning-filled celebration, after the many radiant Sundays of Great Lent and of the Season of Pascha, leading up to the glorious feast of Pentecost. Pentecost, as last week’s Gospel reading told us, was “the last and greatest day of the feast,” in Saint John’s words, and, as it was celebrated by the Jewish nation in the time of Christ, it was a very festive holiday celebrating the harvest. Special offerings and sacrifices were prescribed by the Law for this holiday.

Pentecost, too, as we learned from last week’s reading from the book of the Acts of the Holy Apostles, was the day in which the Twelve Apostles and all of the disciples of Christ, gathered together in Jerusalem, experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a unique and profound way. The sound of a rushing, mighty wind (or, “Breath”) from heaven, and the appearance of what appeared to be a flaming fire, dividing from its unity and settling upon each of them, accompanied the gift of speaking and being understood in many languages. This miracle led to three thousand people hearing the message about Jesus and, then, on that Pentecost holiday, being added to the Church.

Today, we celebrate the feast of All Saints. We remember every man, woman, and child who has been made into a saint – made perfect, through God’s action, insofar as humanity may be made perfect. This includes remembrance not only of the “famous” saints we know of – Saints Peter and Paul, our heavenly patrons, for instance, or the Most Holy Theotokos, or Saint Seraphim or Saint John of San Francisco, but every saint of God, famous or obscure, to the world’s eyes – even those whose sainthood (sanctity), whose perfection, are known only to God, alone, and will never be known to the world of mortal human beings, in this life.

Why do we take part in this celebration on this day, just after the remembering of that great Pentecost? Well, we may want to look at the timing of this feast as having a lot to do with what “being a saint is,” what it involves, how it comes about. When we think about the action of God in the world – especially the work of the Holy Spirit, which we remember especially at Pentecost – the saints, in all of their wonderful array of variety, show forth that work in the world, in people, in men and women and children who are like us in so many ways. What makes them different – what makes them Saints  – is that they partook of the Holy Spirit, worked with the Spirit, God Himself, in their own particular way – and were transformed from the broken, fallen state of humanity in which were born, and became what they – and, we – are meant to be.

Metropolitan HIEROTHEOS [of Nafpaktos] is a current bishop in the Orthodox Church of Greece who has written many books. He has lectured in ethics at the  University of the Patriarchate of Antioch, in northern Lebanon, as well as studied the manuscripts on Mount Athos dealing with spirituality and prayer. In his introductory, short work, Orthodox Spirituality (An Introduction), His Eminence explains:

“… communion in the Most Holy Spirit makes the man of the flesh spiritual. For this reason, according to Orthodox teaching, the spiritual man, par excellence, is the Saint. Certainly, this is said from the point of view that a Saint is he who partakes, in varying degrees, in the uncreated grace of God, and especially in the deifying energy of God.

The Saints are bearers and manifestations of Orthodox spirituality. They live in God and consecutively they speak about Him. In this sense, Orthodox spirituality is not abstracted but is embodied in the personhood of the Saints. Hence the Saints are not the good people, the moralists in the strict sense of the term, or simply those who are good natured. Rather, saint is the person who submits to and acts upon the guidance of the Most Holy Spirit within.” (Orthodox Spirituality, 19-20).

Here, then, we encounter, yet again, what we have been learning about, over and over, in the Sunday services of the Church, particularly in the Gospel readings during the Paschal Season: because our nature has been redeemed by Christ, we are called to the process of theosis. Theosis means our becoming “god-like,” in a certain sense, becoming closer to, and more like the ‘likeness’ of God, by our willing response to His ever-offered grace, love, ever growing closer in relationship to Him – to the Holy Trinity, God, Himself, a communion of Persons ever united in love.

How can we do this? The ways and means have been given to us by God, in and through the Church. By praying daily, as much and at whatever level we are able; by looking over our lives, regularly, and examining our sins and shortcomings, then bringing these to God in Confession, and striving to overcome whatever sins seem to “so easily beset us”; by worshipping in the services of the Church, and by partaking of the Holy Gifts of the Eucharist at Communion as often as we may; and by fulfilling the commandments, teachings, and example of our Lord Jesus Christ, calling these to mind constantly and seeking to live them out each day.

We are not alone in this daily striving, due to the witness of the thousands – millions – of saints, known and unknown, who came before us, and who still pray for us. The good news is that there is no “one way” to be an Orthodox Christian, or a Saint. The wondrous variety of the Saints assures us of that! There are emperors, queens, monks, gardeners, cooks, soldiers, and people from every station and walk of life represented in this “great cloud of witnesses”. We don’t have to be a certain personality type, or all bring the same kind of talents or gifts to the service of God. In fact, our very uniquenesses (if that is a word) are part of what it means for each one of us to be called to be a saint! We not only become closer to (and more like) God as we grow in theosis, we become more [like] who we really are – as individuals, and as humans / humanity, generally.

Bishop Hierotheos mentions a couple of distinguishing features of Saints. One of them he describes this way:

“We are assured of the existence of the Saints… [by]  the existence of holy relics of the Saints. The holy relics are the token that through the nous [“eye of the soul”] the grace of God transfigured the body also. Consequently, the bodies participate in the energies of the Most Holy Spirit.

The primary work of the Church is to lead man to theosis, to communion and union with God. Given this, in a sense we can say that the work of the Church is to ‘produce relics’.

Thus, Orthodox spirituality is the experience of life in Christ, the atmosphere of the new man, regenerated by the grace of God. It is not an abstract, emotional and psychological state of being. It is man’s union with God.” (Orthodox Spirituality, 19-20).

Sometimes we may feel uncomfortable about “relics of saints,” especially as the culture which we live in, by and large, has a very different approach to relics than what is found in the mindset of places where the Orthodox Church has thrived and grown for centuries. The American “dis-ease” with bodily death even means that the funeral industry takes away from our immediate view the reality of physical death by making a deceased loved one “look just like he (or she) is asleep” probably doesn’t help when we are confronted with the reality of God’s vivifying work, through the Holy Spirit in the bodies of His saints. The Metropolitan’s words, though, tell us why it is that relics of saints are, indeed important – because of the fact that we are all called to be transformed by the grace of God working in the Holy Spirit! … not only intellectually, in our minds, or in some vaguely “spiritual” way, but in every part and fiber and molecule of our being – in life, and even beyond life. The promise of the Resurrection and of Pentecost is that we are transformed – from what we now are, to what we really are, and what we were always meant to be, in God’s gracious, loving plan.

The path may not be easy; in fact, the words of Christ Himself and the examples of many, many saints’ lives promise that it will often not be easy; it will be hard. One more quote, this time from Father Alexander Elchaninov, a priest living in exile in France after the Russian Revolution:

“People keep saying, ‘Life is hard!’ And if you cite the example of the saints, the usual reply is: ‘Well, they are not saints for nothing, it is easy for them!’ A common error. It is the saints in particular who found it hard. They overcame not only worldly difficulties but the very essence of their humanity. The usual path of the saint – from the abyss of sin to the summit of holiness – is narrow and arduous. Whereas our course is always an easy one, along the line of least resistance; but the fruits of our course are bitter and burdensome, whereas the hard way yields the reward of true beatitude” (The Diary of a Russian Priest, London, 1973, p. 172).

Perhaps in this coming year we could make it a practice to spend a few minutes daily, or a couple of times a week, looking up and reading a brief story, or biography, or life of one of the saints commemorated on that day. There are many resources for doing this – websites abound (we can send links!), and Ancient Faith Radio has a podcast to share, in just a couple of minutes, these riches from those may not have had it easy, all the time – but they did find true joy, and the blessing of living a life lived with God. That is what it means to be a Saint. Let us, each day, “go and do likewise”…!

… through the prayers of all the Saints, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us! (Amen)!

—-

Sunday of the Paralytic Sermon

Acts of the Apostles 9:32-42

IN THOSE DAYS, as Peter went here and there among them all, he came down also to the saints that lived at Lydda. There he found a man named Aeneas, who had been bedridden for eight years and was paralyzed. And Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; rise and make your bed.” And immediately he rose. And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord. Now there was at Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. In those days she fell sick and died; and when they had washed her, they laid her in an upper room. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, hearing that Peter was there, sent two men to him entreating him, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter rose and went with them. And when he had come, they took him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping, and showing tunics and other garments which Dorcas made while she was with them. But Peter put them all outside and knelt down and prayed; then turning to the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. And he gave her his hand and lifted her up. Then calling the saints and widows he presented her alive. And it became known throughout all Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.

The Gospel of John 5:1-15

At that time, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and troubled the water; whoever stepped in first after the troubling of the water was healed of whatever disease he had. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.

Now that day was the sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.’ “They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.

ParalyticImage from https://fidelis63.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/3__christ_and_the_paralytic.jpg

SERMON

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

–         Christ Is Risen! (Indeed, he Is Risen)!

Fathers, Mothers, Brothers, and Sisters! In this joyous season of the resurrection, of the Passover of Our Lord Jesus Christ from death to new and full life (and, with him, our renewal and the promise of our own rebirth to new and eternal life), the Church continually places before us stories from the scriptures which teach us about this new life. We hear, again and again, scriptures from the Acts of the Holy Apostles, and from the Gospel of Saint John; parts of the Bible which tell of the life of the followers of Christ in the early days after the Resurrection (in the case of the Book of Acts), and which tell of the memory of the life and teachings of Jesus by one of His closest disciples: Saint John, often known as “The Beloved Disciple,” presenting the message of Christ for the new believers, in the years after the Passover of Christ from death to life (in that Apostle’s Gospel). As we celebrate Pascha, renewal, and new life, let’s note how today’s readings instruct us on how we are to act in our lives as we work out our own salvation.

Today, the Sunday of the Paralytic, there are two powerful stories, which have a great deal in common, placed before our ears and hearts. The Gospel account which gives the name to this Sunday tells of a man who had been unable to walk, cut off from the usual range of human activity, for probably most or all of his life. Thirty-eight years. Thirty-eight years was about 10 years short of the average life-span, in that day and time, for someone fortunate enough to have survived childhood.

Jesus comes to a site known as a place of miraculous healings, where this man has been waiting and waiting on the off chance, the “long-shot,” that, somehow, he might be healed, raised up, restored to the fullness of life and health – even though his very disability has always made this impossible. When he meets Christ, he is still immobilized, yet, we may note, he was, nonetheless, still hoping, still coming to that spot, after thirty-eight years. He sat there, in the company of all those others waiting for healing, making the effort to come and await his raising up; his redemption; his renewal into a new life.

The story of Saint Peter raising from death the well-regarded and loved disciple, Tabitha, is, in a way, a very different kind of encounter. Here, we see that the promise and the fulfillment of God acting in human lives and in history is showing forth, powerfully, to the extent that even death itself is overcome – something which, before, had only been heard of in a few instances, in all the history of God’s relationship with His people*. In fact, this story of Saint Peter and Tabitha echoes – quite literally – the stories of Christ’s raising the dead, before His passion and resurrection; Saint Mark’s Gospel tells that Jesus was sent for to heal the daughter of a ruler of the synagogue, and, even though news had come that the young woman had died before Jesus had time to arrive at her house, nonetheless, Jesus,

“Taking her by the hand he said to her, “Talitha cumi,” which means, ‘Little girl, I say to you, arise’ And immediately the girl got up and began walking (for she was twelve years of age), and they were immediately overcome with amazement.” (Mark 5:41-42 ESV)

The phrase “Tabitha / Talitha koum” is something of a pun, a play-on-words in which the name of the woman disciple, Tabitha, and the phrase in the Aramaic language, “woman, arise (or, “get up!”) are practically identical sounding. The story of Saint Peter raising Saint Tabitha is tied in the minds of the hearers of each story – from the days of the Apostles to our times – to the power of Jesus to raise the fallen, even to raise to life those who had fallen asleep – fallen asleep, even, seemingly forever, in the embrace of death, itself.

What a powerful presentation of the very thing which we celebrate throughout the season of Holy Pascha – the Pass-Over of (and, for us, with, and through…) Christ from His incarnate life on earth, through suffering and death, to the triumphant, new, eternal life!

Perhaps, though, even beyond this Great Mystery and Hope, we may also see something else profound revealed in these passages of scripture. These raisings from beds of infirmity, immobility, and even death by God’s power may help us to see something about the process known in the Church as theosis – the process by which we, sinful and fallen and broken as we are, may, little-by-little, through God’s infinite power, if we are willing and open to His operation in our lives, be transformed into the divine life which God created us for, in His own image and likeness, eternally partaking in the love of the Holy Trinity.

In the case of Tabitha (and, before her, during the lifetime of Jesus, the synagogue ruler’s daughter), those needing to be raised were (of course), being dead, completely passive, waiting in the grave for their restoration, resurrection, and being raised to new life. This is the state which we all, in a way, find ourselves, when we are first born into the world: even at birth, we face the inevitable reality of our earthly death, the physical consequences of the Fall of Adam and Eve. Our life is in “the shadow of death,” and, until the coming of Christ, all creation groaned in expectation, as Saint Paul wrote, awaiting the

redemption of our fallen nature, subject to death and decay. God had to act, to become our fallen and mortal state, in order to raise us from death. In a way,truthfully, our only salvation is to wait on God.

In the story of the Paralytic, though, we see another crucial and key part of theosis: although we can do nothing on our own, we must act. God does not wish to force anything upon us, even the good things of salvation, whether in this life and for all eternity. Like the Paralytic, we must, even when we are infirm, feeble, broken, beset by sin and sickness and death, all around us, keep on coming to the healing pool, keep on waiting for the Angel to move the water, keep on expecting the healing which comes in Christ. In Holy Baptism, we do, in a sense, dip in the healing pool of Bethesda, dying to earthly life and being raised, by and in and through Christ, to a new life. Our earthly days and years, if we live them in following Christ, hold the promise of being a rising from our bed of infirmity, and, gradually, growing ever closer to God, in theosis. We live in Him through righteous living, partaking of the grace of the mysteries [Sacraments], growing in love and in faith, and always turning to God in faithful love and repentance.

In the book Partakers of Divine Nature by Archimandrite Christoforos Stavropoulos, Father Christoforos writes that,

“The road towards our Theosis, our union with God, can be formulated in the following short statement: divine grace and human freedom; theory and action; enthusiastic zeal and decision; abandonment of the ‘world’ and return to God; good works as a means towards Theosis; a warm heart a vigilant eye.”

Elsewhere in the book, he emphasizes that Orthodox theology does not face the dilemma of “Faith versus Works”; rather, Orthodox theology believes in, and embraces, both, simultaneously. On the one hand, like Tabitha in today’s epistle, we wait in faith, God being our only hope of salvation. On the other hand, we see in Saint Peter’s pulling her back from beyond the pale of death that, God, also, works through human beings. It is in this Truth that we may, like the Paralytic, be active participants in our salvation: ever watching, ever hoping, and ever praying. This is where theosis begins. It is a long process. In fact, it is eternal, if we keep on turning to God, trusting totally in Him, turning away from the sins which so easily capture us, repenting again and again, and growing in His love throughout our life, and into eternal life with Him.

It may seem, at times, like we are not making very much progress in our journey of theosis. The evil one wants nothing more than our discouragement at our failings, our bedridden infirmity. Our lives appear so limited and, seemingly, hemmed in by bodily death, and by “the sin which so easily besets us” [Hebrews 12:1]. But, in this season, we are given, again, the joy-filled hope and the hopeful joy of Pascha, of Christ’s resurrection. Our readings today teach us how to follow the risen Christ on the ever-unfolding path of theosis: by believing in and on Him, by following the path of His life-giving death and resurrection, by spending our lives in holy and good works like Tabitha, and in always waiting, like the Paralytic, by the Pool, in faith, trust, and hope. Let us do so, not only during this radiant season, but, somehow, in whatever small way, each day of our lives, every small step being towards God, seeking Him, doing good, on the journey towards Him.

–         Christ Is Risen! [Indeed, he is Risen!

——————————————————————————————————

1   “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” (Romans 8:22 ESV)

2 The title of the book is taken from the verse at the beginning of St.Peter’s second letter, “He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature”

  • Most notably, when Elisha raised the son of the Widow of Nain to life; when Jesus raised the dead; and in Christ’s own resurrection.

Sunday, April 19, 2015:

Thomas Sunday

"Appearances after the Resurrection as depicted in the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, Italy."
“Appearances after the Resurrection as depicted in the Basilica di San Marco in Venice, Italy.”

Image from Orthodox.net

THE GOSPEL

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

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the Disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the Disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other Disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.” Eight days later, His Disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the Disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His Name.

+ In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Brothers and Sisters, as we again are basking in the bright and festive and joy-filled glow of the Paschal Season, having journeyed through the fast of Great Lent and, even in our shortcomings and weaknesses, come to the celebration of the resurrection of Christ from death, we again find the first joyous week of joy capped by a strikingly familiar, yet perhaps always strange story: the account of the Apostle Thomas, who doubted that Our Lord Jesus had risen from death.

This Sunday is known by many names in the Church: it is the First Sunday of the Pascha Season, because the radiant day of Pascha, itself, is above and, almost “outside” of all of our reckonings of time, a singularly special event; it is known, also, as the Sunday of the Holy Apostle Thomas, or “Thomas Sunday,” for short, because of today’s Gospel reading; and it is known as “Antipascha,” from the Greek root meaning “opposite, set against, or reflecting” – a day in which the glory of Pascha is again reflected, and held up for us, almost as if the day itself is a mirror reflecting Pascha – and a mirror held up for ourselves to see our own lives, our selves, our journeys, reflected in the story of Christ and Saint Thomas.

The Holy Apostle Thomas, too, has several names. Thomas, of course, is how we usually know him. Saint John’s Gospel tells us (twice) that he was “also called,” or nicknamed, Didymus, Greek for “the Twin”. What we do not know is whether he actually had a twin brother, or if this was a nickname for some other reason. One Father of the Church, Blessed Theophylact of Ochrid, suggests that Thomas earned this nickname because he could give the appearance of two entirely separate (if related!) people, all by himself: one steadfastly, almost fanatically, devoted; the other, when his belief and dedication was challenged, almost unable to be convinced, without the most direct, graphic, and physical “proof”.

Apart from this morning’s Gospel, we find almost nothing about Saint Thomas in the Bible; he is mentioned by name in several lists of the Apostles (in the Gospels and in the book of the Acts of the Apostles), with no further information, apart from that mention by Saint John that he was nicknamed “Twin”. [Maybe briefly read through the scripture citations, at the end, here …????] Beyond the lists, the Holy Evangelist Saint John gives us two tantalizing short mentions of what Thomas was like, told in the context of the journey which Jesus and the Apostles were making towards Jerusalem, towards the Passover, towards the death and resurrection:

John 11:16

So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

(This was when Jesus had learned that Lazarus, His friend, had died, and Jesus decided to go the village where Lazarus had lived, with his sisters, the town of Bethany):

            Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

(John 11:5-10 ESV)

b. John 14:5

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” *

  • …and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:3-7 ESV)

So, then, we know that this man, this Thomas, was devoted enough to Christ that, rather than leave or forsake Him, he would rather follow Him all the way, even unto death (which, it seems, was exactly what Thomas expected of the journey to the grave of Lazarus). He was, we might say, an “all or none” kind of a guy: even in doubting, he was willing to die with Jesus. Also, too, even though he couldn’t understand, at first, “where Jesus was going,” and how they could follow, he, nonetheless, stuck by Jesus, stayed in the company of the apostles, and stayed the course of the whole journey of Christ’s going to Jerusalem, His betrayal, the mock trial, and the brutal execution by crucifixion. And, yet, then, after all of that, he seems to have “missed” the true ending of All These Things, at first.

We do not know – and, maybe, were not meant to know – why Thomas was absent and away on that first Holy Pascha. Blessed Theophylact and other commentators on the Scriptures suggest that, perhaps, Thomas was “running scared,” after the crucifixion and death of Jesus. He may have, literally, “run for the hills,” taken to hiding because of fear and uncertainty and doubt after all that had happened. The Romans and the Jewish leadership had destroyed the one thing – rather, the One Person – on whom and in whom we know that Thomas, as with the rest of the Apostles and followers of Jesus, had put all his trust and hopes and faith. He may have felt that there was no reason to even stay close to his companions, the followers of Christ, or even to the Holy City of Jerusalem – the city which had become, for Thomas and the others, seemingly not a place of holiness and of coming close to God, but was, now, for them, after the crucifixion, the place where their hope, their life, their meeting with God had, it appeared, come to a sudden, violent, heart-rending end.

Why, after Jesus had appeared to the Eleven, did a whole week pass before the next time that Our Lord Christ came to His followers? Theophylact and other Fathers note that, a week later, Jesus clearly indicates that He had been invisibly present, previously, in the very room, when Thomas heard the joyous, if unbelievable, news that Christ, the crucified, was alive from his friends: we know this, say the commentators, because Jesus invited Thomas to fulfill the very “test” or proofs which he had demanded before, that he place his finger in the nail-scarred hands, his hand into Christ’s wounded side. He was present, right there with Thomas and the others, although, after His first visit on the evening of the first Pascha, He was invisible to them, not able to be seen as He was during the “visits” recorded by Saint John. The commentators suggest that, perhaps, the whole week between Jesus’s first visit and the next one was, for Thomas, a time in which, slowly, little-by-little, the other disciples shared with him their experiences of the newly-risen Lord Jesus, the details of the experiences which they did not, necessarily, fully understand, and were not “logically” able to comprehend… But, still, they knew what they had seen, and, maybe, bit-by-bit, Thomas’ unbelief was being transformed by these witnesses, this sharing, so that, when the next Sunday came, he, too, would be fully ready to believe.

What may we learn from Saint Thomas?What does he teach us for our lives, seeking to live in Christ, today? Quite a lot! This Apostle, often nowadays known for his “Doubting,” is among the greatest examples of faith in Christ in all the centuries between then and now. This man, like (almost all) the other apostles and other early followers of Christ, ended his life as a martyr. He did, then, eventually, in fact, follow Jesus all the way to the point of dying with him – and, in his faithfulness, of living with him, both in this earthly life, and in the true life of eternity. He also spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. There are, to this day, communities of Orthodox Christians in Southern India whose tradition records that, almost two-thousand years ago, it was Saint Thomas who came to bring the message of the crucified and risen Christ to their ancestors.

In these days of the Pascha season, we may learn and grow from Saint Thomas’s example, and from that of the other disciples. The joyous news of the resurrection is so overwhelming, so profound, so counter-to-everything-we-are taught, so BIG, that we may not be able to “take it in,” or to share it around, all at once. The Church gives us Fifty Days just for the liturgical celebration of “so great a mystery.” In addition to this, we also have all of our lives on this earth to – if we choose – share the “joyful message of the resurrection” with one another, and with all the world. The Holy Apostle Thomas teaches us that we are called to this, and empowered by Christ, Himself, to do so, even though we, too, are sometimes hampered by our own doubts and disbelief.

Let us then, Fathers and Mothers, Brothers and Sisters, look to Saint Thomas – not “Doubting” Thomas, but “Believing” Thomas! – for inspiration, intercession, encouragement, and hope. Let us, even when we are beset by doubts and the trials of life, make up our minds, and choose to stay with Christ, all the way. Let us share the Good News of the Resurrection, through all the Pascha season, in everything we do, in every place we go. And, also, too, each day, may our lives reflect the joy of the Resurrection so that we, ourselves, may be a sign for others, that each of us may be like scriptures, like Gospels, for others, which “are written that [they] may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing [they] may have life in His Name.”

  • Christ Is Risen! Indeed, He Is Risen!

 

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Sunday, March 22, 2015:

A Father, a Son, and the Ladder of Divine Ascent (Fourth Sunday of Great Lent)

THE GOSPEL

The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (9:16-30)

At that time, a man came to Jesus, kneeling down and saying unto him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a dumb spirit. And wherever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked Thy Disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” And Jesus answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to Me.” And they brought the boy to Him; and when the spirit saw Jesus, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. And Jesus asked his father, “How long has he had this?” And he said, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if Thou canst do anything, have pity on us and help us.” And Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” *And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You dumb and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.” And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse; so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. And when Jesus had entered the house, His Disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And Jesus said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And Jesus would not have anyone know it; for He was teaching His Disciples, saying to them, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”

HealingofBoyStMk9

SERMON

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Brothers and Sisters, we are, this day, well past the half-way point on our journey over what the hymns of the Church poetically call “the sea of the Fast” on our way to the celebration of Our Lord Jesus Christ’s rising from the Dead, the Holiest of Holy Days, the Pascha – or, Passover – from death to new life. As we reach this point, the Church places before our eyes – our physical, literal eyes, and the eyes of our souls – both a very dynamic reading from Saint Mark’s Gospel, and the example of Saint John Climacus – Saint John “of the Ladder” – a monk and Spiritual Father who lived fourteen centuries ago, a holy luminary who wrote the book The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a guide to the spiritual life. On this day, we may learn from the Gospel story and from the image of Saint John’s ladder something about how, as we strive to change our lives, our hearts, our selves, during the Great fast of Lent and beyond, we may take encouragement in the example of a doubtful father who let his life and heart be changed even in his imperfection, and in the fact that, even if we’re still struggling, and often feel behind or inadequate or even lost, if we keep on climbing, we may hope in Christ to save us.

There are three very poignant passages which may be worthy of pondering, further, from today’s rather long, perhaps hard-to-understand, and, at times, violently descriptive Gospel. The first is that, as Jesus asks the father about how long his son has been suffering from this terrible affliction, the Father answers, “From childhood. And it has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him.” Father Seraphim Holland (a priest in Texas) tells us in a sermon on this same Gospel that the Fathers of the Church teach us that this demonic attack, an attempt to destroy a child of God, one of God’s own beloved creations, by a dark, evil force through “fire and water” may be seen as a symbol or reflection of how the enemy seeks to destroy us by, on the one hand, “hot,” intense burning passions – anger; lust; judgementalism; hatred; jealousy; murder – and all the other ways in which our immediate, self-centered, and strong, emotional, “fiery” passions lead us astray- leading us, even, into destruction. On the other hand, we may be led into dangerous waters which will destroy us. To quote Father Seraphim, this deadly water is: “to be thrust into worldly cares – as blessed Theophylact says, ‘the crushing waves and billows of worldly care.’ That’s what the water is.” And, he continues, “There’s not a sin that you can think of that is neither fire nor water. Nothing” These burning passions and the drowning waves of earthly cares may, very well, be things which have beset us “since childhood,” like the boy whom Jesus healed and freed from captivity to the evil and darkness which wanted to destroy him. The patterns of things which hold captive our souls may go back to very early days, habits or patterns of thinking or acting, or reactions to old wounds which are so very hard to overcome. Great Lent is one of the ways which the Church offers us to come to Christ, in order to struggle with them, and to be made free of them. It may be a long and hard struggle.

Which leads to another striking part of this story: the disciples of Jesus could not heal the boy, and when they question Jesus as to why they failed, His answer is, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” It is, perhaps, no accident that the Church recommends to us days and seasons of extra effort in seeking God, accompanied by prayer and fasting. Those deep, tough, hanging-on things, the fires and drowning waves, which may have been with us since childhood, need the healing remedy of prayer and fasting in order for us to be in a place where Christ can heal us – a place of humility, a place of absolute trust, a place of thinking of something (and, Someone) beyond our own wants, desires, and pleasures.

And that brings us to a third very interesting part of the story: the change which came about in the heart and soul of the boy’s father, just within the moments of his encounter with Jesus. It is difficult to “unpack” the wording of Christ’s answer to his plea, tinged with the desperation of a parent watching his child suffer (again, and again, and again) – some manuscripts add “with tears” to the verse, “Immediately the father of the child cried out and said,…:” (Mark 9:24 ESV), when he, the father, said, “if Thou canst do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Blessed Thephylact, an eleventh century Byzantine biblical scholar who lived in Ochrid, in what is now Macedonia, teaches that Christ’s answer was something like, “As for this “if you Can?”: well, if you (the father) had faith, anything would be possible (for you)”. It seems like a rebuke, but the father’s response is immediate, and, even if he is not entirely sure of his belief, he nonetheless takes the leap of faith, in the poignant cry, “I believe! Lord, help my unbelief.” How often this might this well be our own cry! When our faith seems faint or unsure, maybe we can make this cry our own, as we continually seek to turn from ourselves, from the fires of passions, from constant worrying about the problems and challenges and cares of life which seem like they are going to drown us. We sing in the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy: “let us lay aside all earthly cares, that we may receive the King of all.” That is what we see happening in this Gospel story, in this healing.

The father of the boy made a change, in this moment. It may have only been the beginning of a life-long process, but, at this moment, he set aside his doubts and earthly cares to, humbly, in faith and trust in God, to trust in God’s Christ and in His power to heal and save. His “if,” filled with doubt, and his not coming to Christ with humble and total trust, was cast aside, left behind, replaced by his turning to humility in his approach, and in his cry: “I believe! Help my unbelief.”

How much can such humility do? I’d like to close with a quotation from the Saint we commemorated today, Saint John, author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. He wrote,

“An angel fell from Heaven without any other passion except pride, and so we may ask whether it is possible to ascend to Heaven by humility alone, without any other of the virtues.”

A powerful saying, to be sure. It took one sin, only one sin, pride, the opposite of humility, for God’s brightest angel, Lucifer, to fall and become evil, Satan, the enemy of all. Saint John Climacus is offering us the hope that, just as only one sin caused this great fall, the one opposite virtue of humility may allow us to be saved and to enter God’s Paradise. Of course, humility is a source of many other virtues, a step on the ladder ascending to heaven which we must “get to” or attain before we can climb higher to other virtues, which is very much a subject of Saint John’s book, The Ladder. (It’s “up there,” the 25th of the 30 rungs of his Ladder, but he describes it as “the destroyer of the passions, most sublime humility, which is rooted in spiritual perception.”).

What good news, and what a great thing for us to focus on in these latter days of Great Lent. Even if we haven’t “done all that we wanted to do,” at this point, if our sins and worries still come at us, every day, if we haven’t fasted or prayed as much as we intended, we can still, now, beginning on this day, embrace humility, and cry out, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” Let us either keep climbing the Ladder, step by step, or, if need be, start anew, right now, in humble love, charity, prayer, and fasting.

As Saint Herman of Alaska said,

“From this day, from this hour, from this minute, let us strive to love God above all and fulfill His holy will.”

Through the prayers of our Holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ, Our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.

Notes

“An angel fell from Heaven without any other passion except pride, and so we may ask whether it is possible to ascend to Heaven by humility alone, without any other of the virtues.”

 

* Immediately the father of the child cried out(1) and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”Footnotes:(1) 9:24 Some manuscripts add *with tears* (Mark 9:24 ESV)

“And what is the fire? It’s not just material fire as it was for this boy, but also the fire of anger, lust, those hot sins in which we seem to have so much pleasure partaking, and that seem to have such a hold on us. That is fire. Jealousy, hatred, rage. Those kind of things are fire.

And what is the water? Well, the water is equally pernicious to the soul. It is to be thrust into worldly cares – as blessed Theophylact says, “the crushing waves and billows of worldly care.” That’s what the water is. There’s not a sin that you can think of that is neither fire nor water. Nothing.” – Fr. Seraphim Holland (sermon online at: http://www.orthodox.net/audio/great-lent-sunday-04_2001+demoniac-boy.html)

 

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Sunday, January 18, 2015: “Jesus and the Samaritan Leper”

JesusHealingLeper

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God. [Amen].

Today’s Gospel lesson gives us a glimpse of a somewhat unique incident in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is also a story which calls to mind several other times in the Gospels in which Our Lord Jesus healed people who were calling out to Him, approaching Him, seeking deliverance from their sickness and brokenness and pain through His limitless mercy.

The scene opens with Jesus traveling from outside of the central “homeland” of the Jewish people, on the fringes or borderland, on His way to the Holy City, Jerusalem. The verse preceding where our selection begins tells us, “now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee.” Jesus is traveling in territory close and familiar to the area in which He grew up, but distant from Jerusalem and its Temple. This area was near to that last remnant of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel, which had separated from the Kingdom of Judah centuries before. The acceptance of pagan practices led the “Southern” Jewish people of Jerusalem and Judah to consider these people, later known as Samaritans, as different, impure, “mixed,” and as false claimants to be a part of the heritage of God’s people.

It is in this very area, though, that ten people who might be the least likely to come to Jesus dared to come forth, to seek Him out, to look for Him. Leprosy, or any of the skin diseases which might disfigure a person, was thought to make a person ritually unclean, for both Jews and Samaritans, and the discomfort, disfigurement, and alienation which accompanied these types of diseases left those who were overcome by them in a double suffering – that of the affliction, itself, and that of the cutting off from the comfort, company, and care of other human beings.

Today’s Gospel tells us that the lepers, though, “met” Jesus at the gates of the village which Jesus was entering, although the are noted to have stood “afar off.” What a boldness of hope these ten had, overcoming the social rejection which was encoded in the religious Law, and enforced by the harshness of the disease and its effects of the human body, willing to show themselves, hoping, perhaps, to just fall under the loving gaze of this Healer from Galilee, whom they had (no doubt) heard of as a powerful worker of miracles and healings. All ten cried out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”

Now, that phrase should sound very familiar to us for a couple of reasons. First of all, what deep and treasured prayer of the Orthodox Tradition does this call to our minds…? [A: The Jesus Prayer: “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”]. Secondly, there are three other places in the Gospels where people approach Jesus and cry out with a similar cry. One case is the two blind men, sitting by the side of the road, whom Saint Matthew wrote kept crying out, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David.” Another is the woman of Canaan, whose daughter was afflicted by an evil spirit, who called to Jesus, “Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son of David,” and pleaded, “Help me.” A third is another blind man, Bartimaeus, who also called out, “Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me.” Notice how, when the ten leprous men approached, their call, or cry, or prayer, is very similar, but with one important difference: Saint Luke writes in his gospel that these men called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”. The other stories emphasize that those approaching, needing healing, recognized Jesus in His royal lineage, in His role as Messiah and national hero for the People of Israel – and, also, affirm His place as a real, living, human being. The lepers, though, are praying and crying to their MASTER – Lord – [ἐπιστάτης, e-pē-stä’-tās – an overseer, or ‘boss,’ sharing a root with the Greek word for ‘bishop’]. We see in them a recognition that Jesus is something even more than that. The nine who were not the Samaritan were, the story suggests, faithful Jewish men – but they, and the “outsider” Samaritan – all are acknowledging Jesus as the One with power over their life, their bodies, their disease, and their very existence.

With that in mind, one of the parts of the story which is most striking – and, also, most confusing – seems to jump out at us, in sharp relief. Jesus does not heal the ten men from their leprosy and then send them, as the Law prescribes, to present themselves to the priests to have their healing verified, and to give a suitable sacrifice in thanksgiving.

  • What does He do?

Instead of acting in the “usual order of things”, Jesus, rather, sends the men on their way to present themselves for the required screening and offering, without first healing them! What faith – or, at least, great hope, a hope against all hope, a hope contrary to reason, all of them must have had! Often, I think, we hear this story, and think of the nine not returning, and think (maybe with no small trace of judgmentalism, or, maybe, even self-justification), “Those bad nine! I would have been more thankful, like that good Samaritan boy!”

But – what a great leap of faith to set out to give thanks for what you have not yet seen, when what we may not be able to see is about to happen, or, perhaps, has already begun to happen, on our behalf, invisibly, in God’s infinite love and mercy and in His own sense of “timing”. This story seems to be, in part, very much about what faith is – and the trust shown by all ten reveals something about the first step of faith – absolute, yielding, surrendering to Christ, being willing to follow His commandments, even when no visible result or “reward” is present.

Now, the second part of the story, of course, reveals that there is more to this dynamic of faith than just that first step. Our life in Christ is meant to be a lived-out existence in a state of thankfulness. That is what “Eucharist,” which we gather to celebrate at the altar, means. In writing about the healing of the lepers, one of the saints whom we commemorate today – Saint Athanasius of Alexandria – wrote,

“You recall that He loved the one who was thankful, but he was angry with the ungrateful ones, because they did not acknowledge their Deliverer. They thought more highly of their cure from leprosy than of him who had healed them…. [he continues, about the Samaritan leper]: Actually, this one was given much more than the rest. Besides being healed of his leprosy, he was told by the Lord, ‘Stand up and go on your way. Your faith has saved you.’ You see, those who give thanks and those who glorify have the same kind of feelings. They bless their helper for the benefits they have received. That is why Paul urged everybody to ‘glorify God with your body.’

Christ “loved,” in a special way, the Samaritan who returned to give thanks for his cleansing, his healing, his deliverance, his salvation. That doesn’t mean that the other nine did not go on the way of the rest of their life healed from leprosy, but their original leap of faith may never have borne the fullest fruit, because it stopped with that rejoicing in their own (relatively) good fortune, ignoring the fact of where it came from. Saint Athanasius attributes the “anger” of Christ to this ungratefulness, the lack of participating in the ongoing chorus of thanksgiving and mutual love to which God calls all of His creation. This is what Creation was made for, and – when we strive to become united with God, living in synergy with His gracious and loving will – what Creation is again called to be, despite the tragedy of the Fall of Man, as we are all called back to God through the Incarnation of Christ, His earthly life, death, and Resurrection…

But, how do we do this? What does the story of the ten lepers mean for us, today?

A couple of suggestions:

As one “starting-point,” which we can strive for in our daily lives: let always keep in mind that we are not justified by being “not-like-those-Samaritans” – that we are not made a Chosen People by merely being a church member, coming to services (when we feel like it), or ascribing to a credal statement. There are no “cradle Orthodox” [side explanation]. All of us have been “grafted in” to Israel, as Saint Paul says. We all come as “foreigners,” and we come with our own leprosies. Our relationship with God can be seen in the story of the lepers, as a kind of image of our own condition: the Fathers often interpret leprosy as being a symbol of sinfulness, and, like sin, leprosy makes us “stand afar off” from Christ, until will follow his will for us, which will make us whole. We may have areas of failing, parts of our lives and souls which we have not yet given over to God fully, leaving us with leprous sores which need to be healed. Maybe we need to, each day, give our trust over fully to our Master, even when it seems like He has not even begun to heal us.

As we make this effort, we also can draw closer to Christ at “the gates of our village” – the village of our lives, our souls, our beings – by constantly making the conscious, often strenuous effort required in forgiving other people, daily, for whatever wrongs we may have been done, whatever we have suffered from sin. Keeping in mind our own leprous sores and need for healing and cleansing, let us not judge, not hold the grudge, but forgive, and let go, and seek our own healing, wherever we stand in need of the Physician’s cure.

Finally, we have a great help in the Jesus Prayer itself. Like the ten lepers and the other examples in the Gospel, we may cry out, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” wherever we are… aloud, if possible, inwardly, if not. By realizing our own need and brokenness, and hoping always in the overflowing mercy of Christ, we may, gradually, more and more, draw near to our God in love, faith, and humility.

Let us do so, Sisters and Brothers, with the faith of the ten, on each day, in every moment, that we may bring to mind all God’s great gifts, with the thanksgiving of the Samaritan one.

Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.

* The Gospel Text of the Day: Saint Luke 17:12-19 :

… as [Jesus] entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. Then Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”

(Luke 17:11-19 ESV)

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Sunday, November 9: “Jesus In A Crowd

JesusHealingWoman

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, One God. [Amen].

Brothers and Sisters, we have been moving through the Church year, through the Epistle and Gospel readings which the Church places before us each year, and are now at the seventh Sunday of Saint Luke, a celebration of the Lord’s Day of Resurrection in which we hear – for the words of scripture are meant, in the Church, in some sense primarily to be heard, encountered, heeded, internalized (not merely studied as words on a page, in the privacy of our own homes and hearts) – we hear of two great miracles wrought by Jesus Christ, the Ruler of the Universe-become-man, when He walked the earth among us. The stories are kind of folded in to one another, layered – almost like a Russian nesting doll, in which one full and whole event exists and is shown forth by the Gospel writer, in its fullness, even as the great wonder of the other event also is a full, complete, and astounding wonder, containing it. Each wonder invites us, when we hear it – if we truly hear it – to realize who Christ Is, and what He does.

The passage begins with a very common image in the Gospels: Jesus and A Crowd: the verse just before where our passage today picks up says,when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him”. To take a short detour, this section of Saint Luke’s gospel seems to echo the imagery and the language which the much shorter, more terse Gospel of Saint Mark employs from the very first Chapter. In Mark, we hear at the very beginning of the Gospel about Saint John the Baptist that, “all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan.” When Jesus begins his public ministry, Saint Mark tells us that, “his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee,” and perhaps most striking, he relates that, after a full day of healing the sick and those afflicted by demonic powers:

“…rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, and they found him and said to him, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ “Everyone is looking for you.” This is the English Standard Version translation; many modern translations are similar. Five words. The King James Bible, uses the elegant turn of phrase, “All men seek for thee.” The original Greek is even more succinct – four words: “ὅτι πάντες ζητοῦσιν σε [hoti pantes zetousin se]” – “All seek for you.” When we begin listening to today’s Gospel passage, are “jumping in,” so to speak, to just such a scene. Again, the verse immediately before where today’s lesson begins tells us, “Now when Jesus returned, the crowd welcomed him, for they were all waiting for him.” Jesus’ movement through the crowd is interrupted by an important man. Jairus, “a leader of the synagogue,” had a child who was very sick; actually, the text says, dying. It is interesting that, unlike the parable which we recently heard, in which the important man, the rich man, has no name mentioned (unlike the poor beggar at his gate, Lazarus), in this story – which is an account of an actual happening, not a story told by Jesus to illustrate a point – the “important” man is named, is known – indeed, he may have still been a person recognized by the members of Saint Mark’s church community. As is often the case in the realm of worldly reality, the rich man gets recognition, gets “named.” He also gets the recognition, the compassion, and the help of Jesus, who immediately goes to the man’s house, to tend to the afflicted daughter. We need not think that this is because of the man’s importance, though; it is notable that Jairus, himself, approached Jesus with what we might call “the right attitude”: he “fell at Jesus’ feet,” he “implored” Jesus – not the attitude or approach of someone self-important, or of a “ruler” demanding obedience, but the real, earnest, indeed, desperate approach and hope of a parent loving, and wanting the best for, his child – a great man made humble by compassion and love. Jesus sets out for Jairus’ house – following his love, not his status.               It is here that the second miracle occurs, unfolding within the first. The woman- who is not named – is left to us and to all generations as one unknown, unnamed. She was completely left destitute by her affliction. All of her money was spent, the prime years of her livelihood gone, wasted by this disease, and she would have spent those twelve years as being considered ritually unclean – cut off, it would appear to the world, even from God. Even from God, the Healer, her creator. But it is here, within this second story, that we see who Jesus Is, and what His nature, as God and as man, Is. He heals without being even asked in words, merely by the act of the woman in faith, acting in a hope beyond hope, and, like Jairus, in utmost humility – a humble approach which dares to believe and to hope even when in the lowest of circumstances, even while the afflicted one may have some idea, if an imperfect one, of just Who, exactly, it is she is approaching. And, we hear, the power of the Uncontained and Uncontainable God, the Creator and Ruler of All, Incarnate in Jesus Christ, healed her, made her whole, with just a touch, the touch of her faith. How great a wonder! And, yet, this is followed by an even greater one. Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter is dead. We may remember Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus, who died between the pleading of his sisters to come to him and Jesus arrival on the scene. – In both these cases, why did not power just go forth from Jesus and save, “in time”? The whole of the scriptures make it clear that things do not happen randomly, without reason, because God is in control of all, all things, all the time. Both this event and the raising of Lazarus teach us about something which is not just meant for one or two privileged ones receiving a miracle, but for all. Jesus does far more for the daughter of Jairus than cure her of a sickness, as great a deed as that would be, as it was for the woman cured on the way. He raises her from death itself, from the inky shadows of the land of not-being. Think of the imagery of this part of the story: Jesus, Peter, James, John, and a corpse are the only ones in the house of Jairus. By the touch of a hand, the girl is pulled back from death to life. How like a tomb the room of that house must have felt, at first! And yet, like the tomb in which Jesus was put to rest after His life-giving passion and death, it became a place filled with life, showing forth the power of God in resurrection, in restoring created life to what it was created and meant to be. We can also see reflections of the Uncreated Light of Mount Tabor, when Jesus, in the presence of Peter, James, and John, was shown in some portion of His glory, even while he was on the very last stretch of the road to His betrayal, trial, and death. We might also remember what happened after the death and resurrection of Jesus, when, in the Book of Acts, we hear of another young woman departed from life, seemingly all to early, and we hear, in the story of the Apostle Peter’s visit to the house where this happened, the echo of these familiar-sounding words: But Peter put them all outside, and knelt down and prayed; and turning to the body he said, ‘Tabitha, arise.’ And she opened her eyes, and when she saw Peter she sat up. And he gave her his hand and raised her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he presented her alive.” (Acts 9:36-41) [spoiler alert!] Death comes to us all. In Christ, through Christ, after the great action of Christ in His own death and rising from the dead, resurrection, also, is offered to us all. What a great gift is offered to all humanity! To the rulers, the destitute, the bleeding, the broken, the dying, the dead. Small wonder, then, that, when He walked the earth, “all looked for Christ”.  Let us embrace this gift of resurrection, even when we are in the valley of the shadow of death, so that it will transform our live, and make us, too, partakers of the new, risen life. Let us do so that all may see Christ through us, and draw near, and live. All seek for Him. Let us seek Him, follow Him, die with Him, and show forth Him and His Life to all. Through the prayers of our holy fathers, Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us. [Amen].

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THE GOSPEL(For the Seventh Sunday of Luke) –The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (8:41-56)

At that time, there came to Jesus a man named Jairus, who was a ruler of the synagogue; and falling at Jesus’ feet, he besought Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter, about twelve years of age, and she was dying. As Jesus went, the people pressed round Him. And a woman, who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had spent all her living upon physicians, and could not be healed by anyone, came up behind Him, and touched the fringe of His garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased. And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched Me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the multitudes surround Thee and press upon Thee! And Thou sayest, ‘Who touched Me?’” But Jesus said, “Someone touched Me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from Me.” And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before Him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched Him, and how she had been immediately healed. And Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” While Jesus was still speaking, a man from the ruler’s house came and said, “Your daughter is dead; do not trouble the Teacher anymore.” But Jesus on hearing this answered him, “Do not fear; only believe, and she shall be well.” And when Jesus came to the house, He permitted no one to enter with Him, except Peter and James and John, and the father and mother of the child. And all were weeping and bewailing her; but Jesus said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But taking her by the hand Jesus called, saying, “Child, arise.” And her spirit returned, and she got up at once; and Jesus directed that something should be given her to eat. And her parents were amazed; but He charged them to tell no one what had happened.

Sunday, September 28: “Launch Out into the Deep

(St. Luke 5:1-11)

Fromhttp://www.orthodox.net/ikons/
Fromhttp://www.orthodox.net/ikons/

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In our Gospel passage this morning, Saint Luke sets before us a kind of a “picture-in-words,” in which each aspect of the story not only preserves something from the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In addition to putting before our mind’s eyes this event in Christ’s Life on earth, the details of the story capture and convey a deeper, symbolic meaning.  Christ “taught the people from the boat. And when Jesus finished speaking, He said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.’”  As Christ’s words tell his closest disciples to “go out into the deep,” we, too, may delve deeper into the richer, deeper meaning of this story, with the help of the guidance and interpretation given by those Holy Fathers of the Church who read, internalized, lived, and passed on insights into the Scriptures.

Many Fathers who considered this passage take special notice of the fact that the story specifically tells us that there were two boats present – the boat of Simon Peter was one of them, and it was the one which Our Lord Jesus chose to enter, embark in, and command to seek fish again, in spite of earlier failures. Saint Ephraim the Syrian tells us that the two boats stand for the two people of God’s two Covenants – the Old Covenant of the Law, the Covenant with the Hebrew people, and the New Covenant made real in Christ, in which being with God is offered to the Hebrews and to all the peoples of the earth, through the coming of God-as-Man in Jesus.

Others, including Blessed Augustine and a certain Saint Maximus of Turin – both of whom lived some 400 years after Christ –  tell us, more specifically, that Peter’s boat represents the Church, the “Ark of Salvation,” even  the Church existing as we experience it now –  a safe haven for people, although cast into “the deeps,” setting out over all the waves and storms of this world, hoping in Christ (and Christ alone) for safety, always casting forth its nets for those who may be drawn into its walls and saved while the world still exists. Christ’s presence in the boat represents His constant presence with the Church in this world, always, even as we go about His command to cast our nets and “fish for men.” The opening of the story, which states that “on one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret,” makes clear the connection between those longing to hear and receive God’s Word and the fish caught in the nets during this “second attempt” to draw in a catch.

It is interesting that Christ, at first, asks Simon Peter to “put out a little from the land” while He is teaching the crowds, hungry for the Word. He stays close to them, imparting His words. After His teachings have been shared, He then asks the man who would become one of His closest followers to “put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”  Having heard the teachings of Christ and, indeed, having encountered The Word – Christ Himself, the Logos – Simon is asked to leave safety and security behind, to go out into the frightening depths, to do the seemingly impossible, to try again where Simon feels he has already tried and failed. Many Fathers seem to assume that this passage, which at first glance seems to be a conversation between Jesus and Peter alone, also included the other disciples, mentioned later, who were clearly already “on the scene,” and were assumed to have been actively watching and participating in this part of the story. Blessed Augustine says, “they received from him the nets of the Word of God, they cast them into the world as into a deep sea, and they caught the vast multitude of Christians that we can see and marvel at.”

The very reality of time, for the Fathers considering the text, goes far beyond the scope of just the time of this event, reaching all the way back to Noah’s Ark, seen as a foreshadowing of the Ark of the Church which we find in this Gospel as Peter’s boat, and going forward from that day through all the ages of the Church until the very end of the earth.

Saint Cyril of Alexandria writes,

“Speechless from fright and astonishment, for their wonder had made them speechless – they beckoned to their partners, to those who shared their labors in fishing, to come and help them in securing their prey. For many have taken part with the holy apostles in their labors, and still do so… For the net is still being drawn, while Christ fills it, and calls to conversion those who, according to the Scriptural phrase, are in the depths of the sea, that is to say, those who live in the surge and waves of worldly things.”

The story and the words are not just about or for the people of Jesus’ time on earth, two thousand years ago. They are for all those who came after, including not only Simon, James, John, and those who followed immediately after them. They are addressed to us, each one of us. Each one of us is called to be an apostle, a “fisher of people.”

Our  journey may not be easy, and the mission to draw others into the safety of the boat means that we have to have the courage to cast aside our security, to go more than “a little way from the shore.” We must plunge into the deeps, but we should do so after we have learned from The Word Himself, and taking courage in knowing that He-Is-With-Us. We can hear Christ’s teachings in the services of the Church, and when we pray, when we read the scriptures, and when we seek to live them out, every day, in our own lives.

 The early commentator Saint Maximus of Turin , again sheds some light on the deeper meaning of this passage by pointing out that a boat is not a destination in itself; it is the way of making the journey. In the case of the ship that is the Church, it is, then, the safe place where we are carried through this vanishing life into true, lasting life. He writes:

“Ordinarily, people are not given life on a boat but transported. Nor are they comforted on a vessel but anxious about its journey … [But] this is the vessel that does not kill but gives life to those borne along by the storms of this world as if by waves. Just as a little boat holds the dying fish that have been brought up from the deep, so also the vessel of the church gives life to human beings who have been freed from turmoil. Within itself, I say, the church gives life to those who are half-dead, as it were.” (Maximus of Turin)

Sometimes it may seem like we are frustrated at almost every turn, in this life, and we may feel “half-dead,” not yet fully made alive. We want to have more people in our Church – … or, there is a situation in our life which we cannot seem to help or make right, no matter what we do, or how hard we try. In the darkness which this life sometimes feels like, we try all night, like Peter, in our own boat, but, as hard as we try on our own, our efforts seem like they are not achieving anything, not any immediate result which we can see.

It is interesting, though, that this very story is set at night-time, in the dark, and the attempt of Peter and his companions to gain some reward in the dark, on their own – when it is very hard to see and work – yields nothing. Another Gospel, that left to us by Saint John, tells us that Jesus said, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.

Let us, safe within the boat of the Church, even when life’s storms seem so overwhelming, trust in Christ, present with us, and in the teachings He has given us – even when the night is darkest, even when all hope seems gone, even when it seems certain that we may perish before we reach the other side, even when our attempts to bring in fish to the boat seemingly bring no result. Let us not be afraid to launch out into the unknown, unfathomable depths. Let us give up clinging, afraid, to seemingly safe shores.

Let us launch out, in faith, that we may draw all mankind into the boat, before it does, at the end, draw to shore on the other side. Christ is still in the world, He Is its light. Let us be present is His boat, with Him –  trusting not in our own labors, but in Him, and doing what He asks of us. Then, the catch will be great.

Through the prayers of our Holy Father, O Lord Jesus Christ, our God  have mercy on us.

Thanks to http://www.stnickbyz.com/?archive&id=345 for patristic references

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