Sunday, November 13, 2016: John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople; 8th Sunday of Luke; Venerable martyrs Damaskinos and Damian of the Great Lavra on Athos
There are three things that are essential to our lives as Orthodox Christians.
First, each of us is called by God to a life of personal holiness. Holiness is not “true freedom,” it is the only freedom and apart from holiness, there is only slavery to sin and death.
Second, the path to holiness is through fidelity to our own vocation. We grow in holiness by our daily fidelity to whatever it is that God has called us to do and to be in this life.
Third everything that we do as Christians—as St Seraphim of Sarov reminds us—vigils, fasting, good works but also the sacraments and the services of the Church, are in the service of helping us to discern and live our vocations so that we can, in turn, come to share more fully in the life of God.
And when I forget?
When I forget, I harm not only myself but my neighbor as well.
I harm myself because I deny myself “the one thing needful”—Jesus Christ—and instead become consumed with the “cares of this life” (see Luke 10: 41-42)
It has become fashionable among Orthodox Christians to deny or minimize the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We do this because we confuse a merely formal adherence to the tradition of the Church with discipleship. We confuse, in other words, means and ends.
And yet, in the Gospel Jesus calls His disciple personally, by name. “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house” (Luke 19:5). Or, in another place, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” (Acts 9:4).
And, of course when we come to Christ at the Chalice, or rather when He calls us to Himself how do we receive Him Who has first received us? By name!
“The servant of God, Gregory, receive the precious Body and Blood, of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christi, for the remission of sin and for life everlasting.”
The whole of our relationship with Christ is, and can only be, personal.
But it is not, individualistic; it is not “Me and Jesus.” This is why when I am forgetful of Jesus I harm not only myself but you as well. Recall this morning’s Gospel. The lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus’ answer isn’t just wise it’s clever. As He often does, Jesus answers a question with a question and challenges the man to reflect on what he already knows. He invites the lawyer to a moment of self-reflection: “What is written in the Law? How do you read?”
And when the lawyer responds—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself”—he feels uncomfortable. He needs to justify himself and so he ask “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ questioning leads the man from formal knowledge of the Law, through a moment of self-awareness, to true repentance.
In telling the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus subverts the lawyer’s attempt to justify himself. The lawyer seeks to minimize his obligations; he thinks a formal affirmation of the Law is enough.
But Jesus leads him to see that it is only through mercy that we are able to fulfill our obligation to love God and our neighbor.
St Maximus the Confessor tells us that even to understand the material world we need purity of heart. Without the purity that only comes from faith in Jesus Christ and life as His disciple, my intellect remains dark and I remain enslaved to my own desires.
We all of us have had that experience of anger, or disappointment, or fear, or some other strong emotion that takes hold us and paralyzes us. We become in those moments, or rather let me speak only for myself, I become in those moments incapable of seeing myself or the world around me except through the dark and distorted lens of my own anger or disappointment or fear.
And is short order, the emotion, the passion, that has me in its grasp becomes despair.
And once despair sets in, I lose the ability—even the desire—to love my neighbor, to respond to his or her need for mercy. When I’m like this other people are an irritation, an unwelcome compounding of my pain. And if I give myself over to despair my neighbor becomes my enemy.
This reminds me that when I lose my love for the God Who first loved me, I lose as well my love for you.
For all that we seem to make gains here or there, the evangelical life of the Church, this work has borne little, lasting fruit. It isn’t that we forget the three necessary things—personal holiness, vocational fidelity and the means of grace God has given us to achieve these—as we have confused the order of these needful things.
To be frank, it is all too easy—and all too common—to make the means of grace the goal of our spiritual life. The sign of this is that lack joy of Pentecost and instead experience life in Christ as drudgery, as a life of mere conformity.
But what does the Apostle Paul tell us?
There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all (1 Corinthians 12:4-7, NKJV).
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
The surest sign of a dying parish, a dying diocese, a dying Church, is not that it is few in numbers. It’s not size.
St Gregory of Nyssa was elected bishop of a diocese smaller than most Orthodox parishes in America. But for all that it was small in numbers, it was great in holiness.
The dying community is one in which the members do not and will not, support each other in the pursuit of holiness and vocational fidelity. They dying parish is interested in everything else becoming saints.
And the living parish? The life-giving parish?
Here we see a desire for holiness; men and women sustaining each other as their pursue their vocations as husbands, wives, fathers and mothers; as lay apostles to the world and evangelists of the Gospel.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
The Church in America is small in number. That’s ok. But what it can’t be, what, it must not be, is indifferent to holiness. Our future as a Church is not in programs but holiness; before all else, we must commit ourselves to become saints.
So let us, as St Herman of Alaska says, “from this day, from this hour, from this very moment … strive to love God above all, and fulfill His holy will!”