1st SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST. All Saints. St. David of Thessalonica (ca. 540). St. Dionysius, Archbishop of Suzdal’ (1385). Translation of the Relics of St. Tikhon of Lukhov (Kostromá— 1569). St. John, Bishop of the Goths in the Crimea (8th c.). Appearance of the TIKHVIN Icon of the Most-holy Theotokos (1388). The “SEDMIYEZERSKAYA” Icon of the Most-holy Theotokos (17th c.).
Epistle: Hebrews 11:33-12:2
Gospel: Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38, 19:27-30
For some, the idea that there is profit in following Jesus is embarrassing. Saying so, they would say, represents an ill-considered attempt to justify greed with the Gospel. And yet, what does Jesus tell us?
Looking at His disciples He says “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.” Yes, the profit, the reward, is in the life to come. It isn’t in this life but in the Kingdom of God that those “who are first will be last, and the last first” but happen it will. The spiritual life is not, “zero sum.” If we give our life over to Christ, we will—in Christ—increase.
The idea here is radically different from the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” that would have us believe that God wills for us to be materially wealthy in this life. While there have always been rich Christians, worldly success, again, isn’t the point of the Christian life.
At the same time, we need to avoid the opposite error of imaging that poverty and social marginalization is somehow our goal as disciples of Christ; it isn’t anymore the goal than wealth. Neither wealth nor poverty is of any necessary advantage—or detriment—to those of us who are in Christ. “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound,” writes the Apostle Paul. “Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Philippians 4:12).
The three-fold goal of our life in Christ is to use what we have for the glory of God, the benefit of our neighbor and our own salvation. We see this illustrated for us in the lives of saints alluded to in the Letter to the Hebrews. The list includes those who succeed as the world accounts success and failed as the world judges failure. The “great a cloud of witnesses” that surrounds us includes men and women from all walks of life who, diverse as they are, are united by one thing: Fidelity to God.
Did I say one thing?
Clearly, I was wrong to do so. They are united as well by their hope in “the promise” of God. A promise that was not fulfilled in their lives but ours. It is in the Church, in those of us who gather around the altar of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) that the Old Testament saints and the righteous among the pagans find their deepest hopes and longings fulfilled.
The dynamics of investment and profit, of “buying low and selling high,” commerce and trade are a natural analogy of the spiritual life. Yes, our life in Christ is more than this, but it is “more than” in sameway that the relationship between Christ and the Church is more than what we see in the love of husband and wife. Seen with the eyes of faith, all of life is “a great mystery” that points beyond itself to Christ (see Ephesians 5: 32). In Christ all of life is “more than.”
Responding to a question on what it means to acquire the Holy Spirit, St Seraphim of Savov draws an analogy between the acquisition of wealth and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.
“Do you understand, what acquiring money means? Acquiring the Spirit of God is exactly the same. You know very well enough what it means to acquire in a worldly sense, your Godliness. The aim of ordinary worldly people is to acquire or make money; and for the nobility, it is in addition to receive honors, distinctions and other rewards for their services to the government. The acquisition of God’s Spirit is also capital, but grace-giving and eternal, and it is obtained in very similar ways, almost the same ways as monetary, social and temporal capital.
In a worldly sense, we obtain wealth, Seraphim says, through trade. In a like fashion, the saint says, we acquire the Holy Spirit through every “good deed done for Christ’s sake. Above all though, we acquire “the grace of the Holy Spirit” through “prayer … most of all.”
To borrow from economics, we acquire the grace of the Holy Spirit, we grow in holiness, in part by creating value for others through our service to them. In other words, what is best for me is to love you. And I learn to love you through a life of prayer because it is only through prayer that I can draw close to God and come to know His will.
St Dorotheos of Gaza explains how this works when he says that God is like the hub of a wheel and we are the spokes. The closer you get to the hub, the closer you get to the other spokes. We draw closest to each other, he says, by drawing closer to God.
And so we read in the Gospel that “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.” Not that we should hate our parents or children. Rather we should not allow our love for them, or anyone or anything, to draw us away from God and so who and what we love.
What we need to do, what I need to do, is allow my love for others to inspire me to move closer to God in prayer even as my prayer deepens my love for my neighbor. This is what Jesus means I think when He says “he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.”
There is a curious temptation to which we are sometimes prone.
We imagine that to pick up the cross means to live a life of passive suffering. This makes the Christian life one of simple endurance, more a matter of grit than grace. The readings this morning, however, suggest something else entirely. To pick up our cross and follow Jesus isn’t passive but active. We are not called to merely to endure but to transcend and flourish.
By God’s mercy, we can always become “more than” what we are. Why? Because in each moment of life God invites us to take up our cross and become more like Him. How do we do this? Again, as St Seraphim reminds us, what is necessary is that we live in prayerful attention to our circumstances so that we are always ready to grow in grace.
… you would like to go to church, but there is no church or the service is over; you would like to give alms to a beggar, but there isn’t one, or you have nothing to give; you would like to preserve your virginity, but you have not the strength to do so because of your temperament, or because of the violence of the wiles of the enemy which because of your human weakness you cannot withstand; you would like to do some other good deed for Christ’s sake, but either you have not the strength or the opportunity is lacking. This certainly does not apply to prayer. Prayer is always possible for everyone, rich and poor, noble and humble, strong and weak, healthy and sick, righteous and sinful.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is always an opportunity to grow in holiness, to draw closer to God and so in the love of our neighbor! Let us, from this moment on, be eager to take these opportunities as God offers them to us! Let us be profitable servants and so reap the rewards of grace!