Sunday, January 15, 2017: 12th Sunday of Luke: Paul of Thebes, John the Hut-Dweller, Pansophios the Martyr of Alexandria
Gospel: Luke 17:12-19
Read the New Testament along with the Church, and it’s hard to miss the importance that the St Paul places on the ascetical life.
Looking forward to the coming of Jesus Christ in glory, the Apostle tell the Colossians to “put to death” all that is “earthly” in them: “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness.” And while it may offend our preference for a “nice” God, Paul also reminds his readers—and us—of the impending divine wrath. It is because of human sinfulness and lack of repentance that divine punishment “is coming upon the sons of disobedience.”
But lest any Christian imagine that he or she is somehow morally better than the rest of fallen humanity, Paul reminds us that we too “once walked” in disobedience. And we still do. Just like the non-believer, Christians too are in the grip of sin. We too must put away, that is repentant, of “away; anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk.” Christians, tragically, even “lie to one another.”
All this, and worse, we do even though we “have put off the old nature and its practices and have put on the new nature” of Christ in Holy Baptism. Though we have been “renewed in the knowledge” of our God in Whose image we have been created, we still are prone to divide not humanity, and even in the Church, according to standards of the world. Again and again, Paul reminds his readers that in the Church “there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.”
There are times in which the Gospel and the life of the Church seem more like a fond hope than an empirical reality. How easily I take for granted the grace of God. Like the nine lepers in the Gospel, I’ve been healed but I always fail to turn back—that is, to repent—and praise “God with a loud voice” and fall on my face before Jesus “giving Him thanks.”
This lack of gratitude or even awareness of what God has done for me is why the ascetical struggle is necessary. And not just for me but for all of us.
The life of Christian discipleship and witness can easily become mere routine. We can easily confuse obedience to Christ with conformity to the expectations of “Christian” society. Again, look at the Gospel. Ten lepers cried out for mercy, and all ten received the mercy for which they asked, but only one paused to say thank you. What we need is the living faith of the Samaritan not the presumption of his fellow lepers.
Moving from the Gospel to the daily life of the Church, it’s worth reflecting for a moment that on any given Sunday—to say nothing of a major feast day—that only about 3 out of 10 Orthodox Christians are at Liturgy. And among those who are, usually less than half receive Holy Communion. Fewer still go to confession on a regular basis.
While we all have received mercy, few of us are willing to take the time to thank God.
Let me pause at this point.
I’m not condemning the sins of those who aren’t here. Instead, I want to ask each of us to reflect on the breadth and depth of our own commitment to Jesus Christ, His Church and our absent brothers and sisters.
There is great joy in helping someone come to faith in Jesus Christ and commit to living as His disciple and witness as a member of the Orthodox Church. There should never be any doubt that this evangelical witness, is central to our life as Orthodox Christians.
At the same time, I can’t neglect the equally important work of reconciling those who have fallen away from Christ and the Church. Nor can I neglect the equally important work of strengthening those who, while still participating in the life of the Church, have grown weak in faith. If I fail to encourage those who are weak or reconcile those who are lapsed, what integrity does my evangelical work really have? How I say to the stranger, “You I love but my brother I hate”?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the easiest thing in the world to do is get an American to change religions! We are as a people fascinated with the new, the different and the exotic. And thank God for this since God uses our fascination to draw us to Himself.
But we can’t forget that the same impulse that draws new people to Christ and His Church is equally capable of drawing Orthodox Christians away. We need, I need, to be mindful that faith must be sustained not only by divine grace—above all by Holy Communion and Holy Confession—and ascetical effort—especially, daily prayer and the reading of Scripture—but also by a holy conversation with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is important that we take the time to discuss our spiritual lives and struggles not only with the priest in confession but with each other at coffee hour. Important as it is to call those outside the Church to faith in Jesus Christ, it is equally important to encourage each other to deepen our faith. Again, if we don’t—or won’t—sustain and challenge each other in our faith, our evangelical work loses all credibility.
This I think is what St Paul meant when he told the Colossians not to lie to each other. If we pretend that “all is well” when it isn’t, that the spiritual life is all ease when it’s really a struggle, or that our faith is perfect when in fact we at times suffer doubts and anxieties, we are lying to each other.
And not only to each other but to those who look to us in the hope of finding the grace and mercy of God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! We need to start talking to each other. We need to break the silence that allows us to overlook the vast majority of Orthodox Christians who have lost, or are losing, their faith. We need to do this not only because they need us but because we need them. St Paul says “Christ is all, and in all,” and this means that they are part of us and we a part of them and neither can be well and whole without the other.