Category Archives: Homily

The Archpastoral Message of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon Primate of the Orthodox Church in America & Chairman of the Seminary Board of Trustees on the Great and Holy Pascha 2017

To the Venerable Hierarchs, Reverend Clergy, Monastics, Distinguished Stewards, and the entire family of the Orthodox Church in America:

CHRIST IS RISEN! INDEED HE IS RISEN!

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(Photo: Glen Mules)

The radiant day of the Resurrection of Christ has dawned and our Paschal celebrations have bathed us in the glorious light of renewal and regeneration. Today is a completely new day, a day which began when the divine brilliance pierced and dispelled the darkness of Hades and ended with the remarkable explosion which took place when Eternal Life crushed death and corruption.

On this new and bright day, our faith is renewed along with that of the Myrrhbearing Women standing by the open tomb; our hope is confirmed along with that of the Apostles on the road to Emmaus; and our love is strengthened along with that of the Mother of God who remained ever at the side of her Son.

Even if we count ourselves among the numbers of those who previously denied or deserted the crucified Lord, such hesitation or shame cannot withstand the force of the new life of this day.

We know too well that there is no human being who lives and yet does not sin, and the consequences of the Fall are reflected in a world overshadowed by war, terrorism, and human misery. Nevertheless, this dark reality loses its hold on us today because we have tasted of the new drink from the fountain of incorruption, which fills us with spiritual courage and divine hope.

This courage and hope are not simply fleeting emotions of the moment but rather an experience of the life of the risen Lord Who fills our hearts with such joy that every day and every moment of our existence we can sing paschal hymns such as this:

How divine! How beloved!
How sweet is Thy voice, O Christ!
For Thou hast faithfully promised to be with us
to the end of the world.
Having this as our anchor of hope,
we the faithful rejoice.

With my archpastoral blessing and love in the Risen Lord,

+ Tikhon
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada

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Homily: “The Publican and the Pharisee”

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Fr. Paul Coats, Mat. Gerianne, and daughter Helen

We are pleased to share a Homily on Luke 18.10–14 by Priest Paul Coats, Alumnus (M.Div. ’08), Assistant Priest at St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Mission, Rock Hill, SC. As we anticipate our Lenten journey, his thoughtful words on “The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee” offer us a lodestar to understand how to “fulfill all righteousness,” as the Gospel commands.

[9] He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: [10] “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. [11] The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, `God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. [12] I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ [13] But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ [14] I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18.10–14)

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

icon-publican-and-the-pharisee-3In today’s Gospel, Christ tells what must be a shocking parable to many who were doing their best to obey God, as good Jews, and be obedient to the law to the best of their ability. In this parable, it seems that all the best efforts of those trying extra hard to follow God, the Pharisees, are said to be of little value.

With this parable and others like it, for some Christ shattered their whole belief system. He takes someone despised as a lawless sinner, a tax collector, and says that this man can be justified simply by a sincere acknowledgment of his sin, and a request for mercy. This must have been outrageous to those who were convinced that strict obedience to God’s law was the only way to please God and have salvation. After all, isn’t this what all the prophets, beginning with Moses, had said? Isn’t this what God had been communicating with his people all along?

~

In regard to zealously following the Law and trying to obey the commandments, Christ was on the side of the Pharisee! We must remember that at the very beginning of his teaching ministry, Christ said, Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, I have come to fulfill them. And further, whoever relaxes the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; he who does them and teaches others to do so, will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ was pleased with the Pharisee’s good works.

But listen to his next words: For unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And Christ goes on to talk about the kind of righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees: not only do not kill, but do not even be angry with another. Not only stay chaste in marriage, but do not lust—you must be chaste in your mind, too. Instead of being fair (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth), suffer injustice. Instead of loving those who love you, love those who hate you. And lest we think the bar is set too high, he simply confirms it: You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the radical inner righteousness that Christ requires of us.

~

Christ does not condemn the Pharisee for being honest, just, and moral as the Pharisee claimed himself to be. But the Pharisee’s righteousness was incomplete. His pursuit of righteousness did not lead to love for God or men. He had started down the path of righteousness, toward God, but on the way he took a wrong turn! He had probably started honestly, as many of the Pharisees, such as St. Paul, had started out honestly in pursuit of God. But it had taken such a wrong turn that even someone who had not even started on the path—the tax collector in the story—was ahead of him.

What was the problem here?

~

One of the things I learned very early growing up in rural northern Illinois was how to find the North Star in the night sky. We would sometimes be out camping or even hiking in the woods at night, and we needed a way to orient ourselves and find our way back home, back to the road, or back to the camp. If we tried to get a sense of direction from things on earth, things around us, the landscape, some lights in the distance, or trees, we were very likely to get lost in the dark. . . things didn’t seem as they really were at night, and so forth. But if we could find the North Star, we could find our way. In other words, it took a permanent, unchanging reference point to find our way; the moon didn’t work, it changed locations constantly . . . the other stars didn’t work, they also changed directions. But the North Star is always in the same location, directly north, and never moves.

How had the Pharisee gotten so far off track? I think it was this: the Pharisee had as his reference point other people, instead of God. He didn’t have his eyes on God’s righteousness and holiness, he had his eyes on other people.

And this was disastrous, because in his sinfulness and pride, this led to exalting himself above others, inwardly condemning others, and despising them. And so therefore he really blew it. Because of this wrong turn, all his good works were useless, because they strayed from the ultimate goal. Not only that, but he had turned 180 degrees and was using his works of righteousness as a weapon against others, to condemn them, and to despise them.

The tax collector, on the other hand, saw no one but God. He wasn’t looking at the Pharisee . . . he didn’t even physically look up to God, out of shame. But this was because God was too present in his vision. It’s safe to say the only thing in his mind, the only thing in his inner vision, was God and his righteousness. And making God his reference point, he was able to honestly pray the prayer, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. And here, we have what is essentially the Jesus Prayer, one more time. In recent Sundays we heard it from the blind beggar, we heard it from the Canaanite woman, and today we have it from Christ’s own words, which he put in the mouth of the tax collector as he tells this story.

~

This story that Christ tells should never be used to somehow try to promote “having faith” over and against good works. This is a false opposition. Christ commanded good works. Good works are meant to be a means to learn true love of God and others, just as the Law was also meant as a means to learn to love God, for the Jews. Orthodox spirituality teaches that we cannot cultivate love for God in our hearts without overt acts of mercy and service to others. In two weeks, we will hear the parable of the Last Judgment to drive this home.

But this parable is a strong warning from Christ that our good works can become a curse if we turn from our true reference point; that good works are meant to lead us to repentance, not self-justification; that our good works are a necessary beginning, and paradoxically the end fruit, of a heart turned toward God, a heart that recognizes its own need for God, a heart that truly loves God with everything it has, and other people as well.

So today Christ warns us strongly about comparing ourselves to others. . . using others, instead of God, as our reference point. I have found this to be very subtle. Do you find yourself subtly judging others? This is an inward disposition that leaves no room for true love. It’s destructive to others because it is not loving them; it’s destructive to ourselves, because it breeds a confidence in oneself, a trusting in ourselves for our own salvation.

Not everyone struggles with this. There are those who have been given the grace of compassion and full acceptance of others. But for those of us who do struggle with it, it is one of the hardest things to stop. When we see someone who bothers us, or who is so different from us in personality and interests and approach, we may almost involuntarily and automatically judge that person. But we become the Pharisee in the parable when we do that.

I have one suggestion in this regard: one of the quickest cures for this is to pray for people we are tempted to judge, and ask God to bless them with all the same things that we ask God to bless us with. Inwardly, then, we’re giving to that person, serving them, and not judging and condemning them. It’s a double blessing—we are released from the sin of comparison, judgment, condemnation and pride, and they are the recipients of a prayer heard by God, and God will honor that prayer in the way best for both the one who prays and the one prayed for.

Brothers and sisters, we are in the preparatory Sundays leading up to Great Lent. We will soon be saying the prayer of St. Ephraim, which ends with “grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother.” Let us begin to prepare, then, by trying to set aside the comparing of ourselves to others, completely. Let us set our eyes on the true reference point, our Lord Jesus Christ. The more we do this, the more we will be able to pray the prayer of the tax collector with sincerity, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. We will not inwardly exalt ourselves over others, and our good works will be a blessing to us and to others and will lead to the love of God. May Christ strengthen us all for this. AMEN

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The Fifth Sunday of Luke: Good Deeds during Advent

Sermon delivered October 30, 2016
By the Very Reverend Timothy Baclig, SVOTS Class of 1983
Pastor of St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church of the San Fernando Valley

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Father Timothy Baclig, who grew up in Hawaii, being honored by his parish and family on the occasion of his 30th anniversary to the priesthood.

The lesson of the Fifth Sunday of Luke is among the lessons that introduce us to the season of Advent, preparing us for the Feast that celebrates the birth of our Lord. It focuses our attention upon the practice of good deeds, reminding us of God’s love and personal sacrifice by sending His Son into the world.

In our time there is a great deal of attention being given to the subject of wealth and poverty. St. John Chrysostom spoke at length on the subject. (His writing is available in English, published by St. Vladimir’s Press, entitled: On Wealth and Poverty.)

People whose lives are shaped either by wealth or poverty manifest certain attitudes and behaviors. Significant attitudes and behaviors can also be evident among those whose lives move from poverty to wealth and from wealth to poverty. Very often, whether someone worked to earn his or her wealth, or simply inherited wealth, is very telling.

For Christian believers, the core virtue in the case of both—which is the true test of one’s sincerity—is humility. Humility as a virtue is the foundation Christian love. It is the basis of a “good confession” and the true motive of love. Its opposite is arrogance, selfishness, greed, and hatred—all of which we are warned about by our Tradition, beginning with Christ, the Apostles, and the Holy Fathers. And, their warnings come with their pointing out consequences.

We also hear in the Gospel our Lord’s own warning: “To whom much has been given—much will be required” (Luke 12.48). Money will not buy you everything.

Sadly, there are many who think the opposite. It amazes me how some have believed that pouring millions into a political campaign will guarantee an election. People are not as naïve as some would think. It is sad to think what all of that money could have done to help those who are now facing incredible suffering.

The parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” of today’s Gospel lesson is in two parts: 1) the life of the rich man and Lazarus on earth, and 2) their life after death. The two are contrasted to make the following points: There is an eternal perspective to life; and this eternal perspective gives us a sobriety, and an understanding that a spiritual quality is acquired in this life, whether a person is wealthy or in poverty.

In commenting on this parable, St. Gregory the Great speaks of the effects of poverty and riches on the rich man and Lazarus: “The fire of poverty cleansed Lazarus of his evil deeds, and the happiness of this passing life rewarded the good deeds of the rich man. Poverty afflicted [Lazarus] and wiped him clean; wealth rewarded the [rich man] and deprived him of everything else.”

In a commentary by St. Ambrose we hear: “Lazarus was a pauper [one of extreme poverty and lived by charity] in this world, but [was] a rich man before God . . . Yet not all poverty is holy nor is wealth sinful, but as excess dishonors riches, so sanctity commends poverty.”

One’s eternal destiny, therefore, is something that begins in this life, and our stewardship of material things—whether in abundance or in poverty—has a direct effect on our spiritual life.

The message at the beginning of Great Lent (in the Paschal Season) is very similar: “What doth it profit a man if he were to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8.36). We are reminded before Great Lent that insofar as we are merciful to others, so will our Father in heaven be merciful to us; and that doing good to the needy is the same as having done a good deed to the Lord.

Likewise, at the start of the Nativity Fast, and at a time of the year when we are commemorating our nation’s many blessings at Thanksgiving, we are again reminded that merciful kindness, Christian charity, and love are among the spiritual virtues that save us from needless agony and eternal torment.

Prayer

O Lord, our God of love and great mercies, we thank Thee for your goodness in providing for all of our needs. Purify our hearts and minds from all forms of selfishness, neglect, and arrogance. Grant us the vision to see and to understand the meaning of your Gospel message as we gather about your table and anticipate dining in your heavenly kingdom. Forgive us our sins of omission and renew in us the desire to serve others as serving Thee. For Thou art He who came to serve and not to be served, and unto Thee do we ascribe thanksgiving and worship, together with Thy Father who is from everlasting and Thine all-Holy good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Enjoy more of Father Timothy’s sermons on his parish website.

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First Sunday of Luke

Sunday, September 25, 2016 Luke 5.1-11

A sermon of Fr. Alexander Rentel

“ So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets.Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.

When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”

But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; 10 and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.”  Luke 5.1-11

The God of Heaven in the Wilderness (Ex 24.15-25.22).

Upon a high mountain, the great prophet Moses entered the dark cloud and went into the silence of mystical contemplation. For forty days he heard things that cannot be spoken and saw things that cannot be described. When he left that mountain, he commanded the people of Israel to do what had been given to him on that mountain by God. His face shone brightly from talking with God himself, he gave the people the law and also the specific order for their worship of the God who had revealed himself to them on that high mountain, in the midst of the cloud. God told Moses, “make an ark of wood, here are the dimensions, overlay it with gold, put holes in it so that it can be carried with poles. Make two  cherubim out of gold, one there and one there, with their wings outspread.” And there, God said, “there, I will make a mercy seat, seated upon which, is where I will meet with you, where I will speak with you.”

The God of Heaven in the Temple (Is 6.1-10).

In the year that the king of Judah died, King Uzziah, eight centuries before the birth of the Christ, Isaiah, great amongst the prophets, stood in the temple and beheld the glory of the Lord. Isaiah saw the Lord himself sitting enthroned and his glory filling the wide expanse of the temple. Not cherubim here, but seraphim; here they are made not of gold, and are alive and crying “Holy, holy, holy,” one to another. From this temple also goes the word of God to his people, challenging them, “hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.” Hear and see the Lord God of heaven and earth, revealing himself seated upon his throne.

The God of Heaven along the River (Ez 1.1-3.21).

“In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of that month,” Exekiel, not the least among the prophets, stood astride the banks of the river Chebar in the land of the Chaldeans and looked and beheld the appearance of the glory of the Lord, sitting upon a chariot, led on by four fantastic beasts, with four faces, wings gleaming like bronze, shining like flashes of lightning.  As their wings beat and as the chariot moved, a sound of many waters was heard, the thunder of the Almighty. Ezekiel, like Moses and Isaiah, immediately became aware that he was unworthy and fell on his face before the Lord. Again, like Moses, like Isaiah, Ezekiel was given the Spirit of God to speak to the people of Israel, “Thus says the Lord God, end your rebellion, turn away from death and come to life.”

The God of Heaven at the Lake at Gennesaret (Lk 5.1-11).

At the northern tip of Palestine, as we have heard from our deacon today, in a dusty, dry, and impoverished area, along the banks of the lake of Gennesaret, this same Lord reveals himself again to a people desirous of hearing the “word of God.” Here again, he resumes the posture typical of revelation, seated, though in a working fishing boat, where they were cleaning their nets, but not on a high mountain, or in the temple, or only to the prophet in exile, but to people pressing about him clamoring for the word. Where these people are working, where they are living, the Lord reveals himself, he meets them, and he speaks to them directly, teaching them of the ineffable mysteries. Here there are no cherubim and seraphim visible, but a great catch of fish loudly proclaiming the holiness and the glory of God present on a boat in this lake. The witnesses to this revelation are many and their record is neither scroll, nor parchment, nor paper, but the living apostolic witness of Simon Peter and James and John, sons of Zebedee, into whose nets we too are caught in fulfillment this day of the oracle spoken that was spoken on that day.

The God of Heaven is with Us.

This manifestation found in the gospel today, this theophany, above all tells us who Jesus is. It is he whom Moses met on the mountain in the dark cloud. It is he whom Isaiah saw enthroned in the temple. It is he who came to Ezekiel along the banks of the river Chedar. It is he, the one who teaches the people while seated on a boat. In Christ, however, God has turned everything upside down so as to fulfill his promise that he made to Isaiah that “God is with us (Is 7.14).” The place again of this theophany is quotidian, it is in the midst of day-to-day work. No doubt fisherman doing their work, fishing, cleaning their nets, were not involved in the lofty and sublime, but in the hard work of scratching out a living, in the hot sun, the sweat of effort, aching bones, and sore muscles. Where they worked, no dark cloud descended, no mystical vision appeared, only the Word of God himself, who appeared directly to them and the people pressing about him. Jesus Christ, the Gospel tells us, is God with us.

Such a Manifestation.

Such a revelation proclaims for us too that God is with us, and that Jesus Christ manifests, reveals himself, teaches us, speaks to us, meets us in our day-to-day lives. The place of this revelation is not only sacred ground, but throughout all our lives: in the work, in the effort, in the hardness, in the difficulties. Any perceived wall that would separate one place, one way of being with the way we live the rest of our lives, the sacred and the profane – God is here, but not there – simply does not exist. God is with us when we pray in the Church at services, but also in our homes, in our work, in our leisure. That this is true should provide us comfort and consolation: we are not alone. Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, remains with us, in good and bad, in happiness and in sorrow, when we are sick or healthy, rich or poor. It should also challenge us, because this same Christ, by the same grace, remains with us in righteousness and in our sins, when we “do good,” and we do evil. By this we do not profane God, but rather God comes to us to make all our lives holy through his presence.

Love.

Throughout all the theophanies I have recounted today, those that I have connected with the Gospel today, one theme stands out above all others: it is that God at every point reaches out to us. He makes himself known to those whom he has created, to meet them, to speak to them, to challenge them, to teach them and us. He does this out of the love and goodness that desires that all of us, those to whom the original message came, and we who receive this word today, come and be with him, now and in the world to come. Amen.

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Words of life

Sermon, Fourth Saturday of Lent 2016

Gospel readings for April 9, 2016

 

Imagine, if you will, life as a deaf person. More specifically, imagine all of the things that you can do in the course of a day that would be nearly impossible, or at least significantly more difficult, if you were deaf. How would you wake up in the morning if you couldn’t hear your alarm clock? How would you answer the phone at work if you can’t hear the person on the other end? How could you talk to someone at the grocery store if they couldn’t speak American Sign Language?

Now imagine life as a deaf person in the first century, and not just a deaf person, but mute as well. This existence would have been one of severe limitations, and of austere loneliness and isolation. There were no subtitles, no sign language, no detailed communication whatsoever! This is the picture that the Gospel paints for us today; the man that Jesus heals had to be brought to him, a man who was deaf and without speech. But it is the way that Jesus heals him that is so peculiar; Jesus heals a deaf man by speaking to him. Think about that for just a moment; how many times would someone have spoken a word, or a multitude of words to this man? The words would have entered his ears and then evaporated into the ether, unheard and unheeded, and the speaker, with a puzzled look, would have eventually given up and walked away.

 

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Christ heals the deaf man, 14th century mosaic, Kariye Camii, Istanbul (Church of the Holy Saviour, Chora)

 

How many of us are just like this deaf man? The words of those around us enter our ears, good words from good people. But even though they enter our ears, they remain unheard and unheeded. Maybe it’s the council that the priest gives to us when we go to confession. Maybe it’s the advice that our parents give when we’re making big life-decisions. Or maybe it’s something that we read in a book of sayings of the fathers. Whatever the source of the words, so often we, like the deaf man, move on without actually hearing what was said.

But why is it so important for us to hear these words?

So often, after we are approached or reproached, admonished or encouraged, we remain unchanged. For better or for worse, the words of those around us inspire and encourage us. They comfort us, they motivate us, they amaze us, they edify us, and sometimes they trouble us; and these experiences have the power to transform us. And it is the opening of our ears that is the gateway to this transformation. But there is something different about Jesus’ words; they are uttered by the Son of God, and he who hears those words will live. “Be opened!” These words didn’t just enter his ears; they sank deep into his heart, changing him.

Here at the liturgy, we encounter words like the ones that healed the deaf man, words of life. Every Sunday, as we gather for the liturgy, we have an encounter much the same as the one that Jesus had with the deaf man. We listen to the reading of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the epic story of how God came as a man to save his creation from the clutches of death.

We have the amazing ability to be healed, to be TRANSFORMED! Now, there is no guarantee that when these words enter our ears we will hear them, much less obey. But it is these words that have the power to sink deep into our hearts, into the marrow of our bones, into our very beings, opening our ears and transforming the way that we live our lives. These words, these words of transformation, are the words of Jesus Christ.

Now, I know what you’re going to say next; “But Father, there’s so much more to liturgy than listening to the Gospel!” And while I’m hesitant to agree with that statement, you’re right; the liturgy is a Gospel encounter, and an important part of that is hearing the Gospel read and preached, but the work of the liturgy is more varied than just that.

Again we see an example of this in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus speaks words of life that transform the deaf man, but he also touches the deaf man, on his tongue. Now, of course we can be rational and say that it makes sense that Jesus would touch a mute man’s tongue to heal him, where else would he touch him? But this intimate action has deeper significance for us than just cold, rational, logical analog. The deaf man receives words of life, and also the touch of Christ on his tongue, loosing it and allowing him to speak plainly. And what is the first thing that the man does with his newly found speech? He speaks to everyone he meets, telling them of the miraculous things that Jesus Christ had done for him! So too do we, after receiving the sweet Savior on our tongues, receive the ability and the zeal to tell everyone about the marvelous things he has done for us and all mankind! Just as the Psalmist says, so too can we say, “My soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” Our tongues are not just loosened to speak plainly, but powerfully, and with praise.

And so, on this memorial Saturday, the last of the Lenten season for this year, we are given this story of complete healing for our own healing. We are told of the truth of Christ, that whoever hears his words and believes in the one who sent him has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. Because they have heard and believed the words of he who was sent, they are transformed. This is who we pray for at the great entrance when we commemorate those who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection of the life to come.

This is that hope; to hear the words of Christ, to let them renew and transform us, and to have tongues that are able to praise, bless, and worship Christ, telling everyone that we meet of the incomparable glory of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Father Ryan Bishop is a third-year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Fr. Ryan earned a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies from Columbia Bible College in 2006, and a Joinery Foundations Certificate in 2008. After several years in the cabinetry industry, he decided to work for himself from home, making furniture and looking after his two children. In 2013, the Bishop family embarked on their journey to New York, in order for Fr. Ryan to participate in the Master of Divinity program at St. Vladimir’s. He was ordained to the Holy Priesthood on February 28, 2016, by His Eminence Irenée, Archbishop of Ottawa and the Archdiocese of Canada.

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Everyone loves a winner

Everyone loves a winner.

We celebrate athletes that run and jump, throw and catch better and faster than anyone else. We marvel at entrepreneurs who start companies that earn billions of dollars. We idolize the actors and musicians who are at the top of their craft. Everyone loves a winner.

We live in a culture that worships winners. It’s all about winning elections, winning arguments, winning friends and influencing people. Winning may be our greatest obsession. What does it take to win? What strategy will give us an advantage over our opponent? What kind of training and preparation will give us the edge that we need to come out on top? We work and plan and scheme to figure out a way to win, and then we dream about the glory that will be ours.

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Christ appearing to the Disciples on a mountain in Galilee (detail). Church of the Protaton, Mt. Athos.

This is probably what Peter was thinking when he and the disciples entered Caesarea Philippi with Jesus. It was there, in that city with its famous pagan temple, that Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples said, “Some people think that you are John the Baptist, some say that you are Elijah, and others say that you are one of the prophets.” But then, Peter, going for the win, says, “You are the Christ, God’s anointed, the messiah!” Peter does not think of Jesus as some member of the supporting cast; he says that Jesus is the Christ, the one that God sent to deliver His people. But Jesus immediately commands them not to tell anyone about him. Isn’t that strange? Why does Jesus tell them not to say anything about him? It is because Peter was wrong.

Yes, Jesus is the Christ, but what Peter has in mind when he says that Jesus is the “Christ” is completely off base. Peter thinks the Christ will be the great hero who ends up with more money and more power and is more feared than the Emperor of Rome. Peter thinks that the Christ will raise up an army to fight for the Hebrew people and crush their Roman oppressors. Peter thinks that the Christ is going to be a winner on the world’s terms.

Jesus must have known exactly what Peter was thinking.

And this is why Jesus immediately starts telling his disciples that the Christ, the Son of Man, must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed, and after three days be raised.

Yes, Jesus is the Christ, but he’s a different kind of Christ than the one Peter was looking for. After Jesus spells out very plainly to the disciples that the Christ is not going to bring about victory on human terms, Jesus began to teach the disciples that the Son of man must suffer many things, that he would be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, that he would be killed, and after three days rise again. Jesus told them all of this in plain unequivocal language. But then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter actually rebukes Jesus.

In other words, Peter speaks to Jesus like some sort of campaign manager, “Lord, what are you talking about? Rejection, suffering, being killed…are you kidding me?!? This is not what God’s anointed is supposed to do, and this is certainly NOT what you are going to do!”

Peter thinks that he knows better than Jesus, Peter thinks that Jesus needs to be corrected about what it means to be the Christ. And how easy is it for us to make the same mistake. In our effort to win our own victories, how easy is it to tell God what to do and how to do it?

“Lord, make sure that I get a big payoff.”

“Lord, make sure that my plans work out this time.”

“Lord, do exactly what I want, so that I can win.”

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Christ appearing to the Disciples on a mountain in Galilee (detail). Church of the Protaton, Mt. Athos.

Sometimes we may think that God has strayed from the playbook, things aren’t turning out as we planned so maybe we need to give God a reminder about what God is supposed to do. Peter definitely thought that he had to tell Jesus what to do in order to achieve an earthly victory. That’s why Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan. For you are not on the side of God but on the side of men.” Jesus tells Peter and us that winning, according to the rules of this world, is a false victory. Christ says “Whoever would save his life would lose it.” An earthly victory is a false victory because, for every army that marches home in victory, there are scores of widows and orphans who weep in the ashes and rubble of defeat. For every billionaire entrepreneur, there are millions of people living in poverty. For everyone who wins an argument, there is someone who is left in anger and resentment. And the bottom line is that we don’t always win. More often than not, when we lose, or when our plans don’t work out, in our desperation we can so easily turn against God and turn against the people we love.

This is exactly what happened to Peter when he denied Jesus on the night before the Crucifixion. In the cold, darkness of that courtyard outside of the house of the high priest, Peter watched and waited, hoping that somehow his plans and schemes for the messiah could still be salvaged. But when the bystanders said, “Hey, aren’t you one of Jesus’ friends; Yeah, you are one of Jesus’ disciples; You are a Galilean, you must be on of Jesus’ followers.” Three times, Peter denied that he knew Jesus, invoking a curse and swearing, “I do not know this man Jesus.”

And when Peter realized what he had done, he broke down and wept. Everything had gone wrong, and in his desperation, he had denied and abandoned Jesus. Peter’s life had become a living hell. To worship the false-victory of this world is to live in hell. Perhaps in that moment, Peter remembered Jesus’ words, “Get behind me Satan.” But in that moment, maybe Peter also remembered what Jesus right after that. Jesus says to His disciples, “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” These are the same words that Jesus speaks to us on this third Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Cross.

The preparation of the Crucifixion 1312 Holy Monastery of Vatopedi Mount Athos

The preparation of the Crucifixion. Monastery of Vatopedi, Mt. Athos.

Jesus does not say, “whoever desires to come after me should go out and get himself crucified.” Jesus specifically says, “take up the cross and follow me”—which is the complete opposite of everything we know about winning. To carry your cross is to experience the absolute shame of defeat. It is like the condemned man who is commanded to prepare the noose for his own hanging. It is like the victims in the concentration camp who are forced to dig the pit that will become their own mass grave.

In Jesus’ time, the ritual of forcing a condemned man to carry his cross was murderous mockery. Carrying the cross was part of the bloody Roman propaganda that said, “Behold this man, who disobeyed our commands.

Look at how we crush him and strip him of his last shred of dignity.

Look at how we force him to carry the cross that we will use to execute him.

Look at the power of the Empire, look at how we have won.”

And Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, submits to the Cross willingly, to show that God’s victory is not the victory of this world. Christ’s death on the Cross is the sign that the power of God is greater than the most hideous power of this world. For in the very midst of the humiliation, and agony of crucifixion, as they nailed his hands and feet to the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

And at that moment, the world was forever changed. Because the hateful power of this world was defeated by the Love of God.

By carrying his cross, Jesus shows that the evil of man is powerless against the mercy of God. By carrying his cross, Jesus marches straight into the depths of hell and broke the bonds of sin and death. By carrying his cross, Jesus shows us a way out of the darkness of sin into the pure light of forgiveness. This is the victory of Christ, and this is why we bow down before the Cross.

Jesus’ victory on the Cross is the most unlikely victory that the world has ever seen. Because in the Resurrection, Jesus did not return to take vengeance on the people who betrayed him and murdered him. In the Resurrection, Jesus returned and forgave Peter. And then Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the good news to the very people who had killed him, the gentiles, the Romans.

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Apostle Paul. Church of the Protaton, Mt. Athos.

We see this so clearly in Acts, when Paul and Silas had been arrested and beaten and thrown into jail. There they are in that dark, dank prison, singing hymns and praising God when all of a sudden there was an earthquake and the doors were opened, and all the chains of the prisoners were loosed. When the jailer woke up, and saw what had happened, he assumed that all of the prisoners had escaped, and in his despair, he was about to kill himself. But Paul cried out, “Don’t harm yourself, we are all here.” In that moment, it would have been so easy for Paul to have said, “Ha, let that jailer get what he deserves.” But instead he saved the man from his despair. The jailer cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul told him about the love and mercy and power of Jesus, the Crucified Messiah.

This is the victory of the Gospel: those small, bright moments of reconciliation, when people who would otherwise be enemies, turn and embrace one another in the love of Christ. This is what it means to take up the cross and follow Christ.

Paul and Silas, and Peter and all the other disciples took up the Cross and followed Christ. They were given divine courage to endure the same kind of humiliation that Christ endured, and to share the love and mercy of God with everyone.

And today, as we fall down before the Holy Cross, as it is lifted up and we praise it in our hymns and songs, we are strengthened with the same divine courage. We face the evil, and the anger of this world, and we take up our cross and follow Christ, showing mercy and forgiveness to everyone around us, glorifying Jesus Christ. For Jesus’ victory, His victory on the Cross, the victory of God’s love, is our one true and lasting victory.


The Rev. Dr. J. Sergius Halvorsen (SVOTS ’96) received his M.Div. from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and completed his doctoral dissertation at Drew University in 2002. From 2000 to 2011 he taught at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell Connecticut, where he also served as Director of Distance Learning. He was ordained to the priesthood in February 2004, and currently serves on the faculty of SVOTS as Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program.

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A new heart of mercy and love

Readings for the day: 1 Cor. 8:8–9:2; Matt. 25:31–46.

 

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Last Judgment (detail), 12th-13thc, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.

 

Today is both Meatfare Sunday and the day on which we remember the Last Judgment. The readings we have just heard speak to both of these directly and in complementary ways.

 

With Meatfare Sunday our preparation for Great Lent begins to take on a concretely dietary aspect, as its name indicates. This is the last day before Great Lent for eating meat. Thus begins, as it were, a warm up for the hard exercises, the asceticism, ahead of us.

 

It is very easy to miss the point of such practices. The purpose of such efforts is not simply to do what is expected of us, but instead to allow ourselves to be weaned from our dependency on everything that might separate us from God—not because it is bad in itself, but because of how we relate to it or depend on it. I’m reminded of this every time I persuade myself that I can’t do anything in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee: there is nothing at all wrong with coffee; and it is not my body that craves it; it is rather my mental attitude towards coffee or caffeine that has made that cup into my “god.”

 

We hear Paul remind us that the food itself is not the issue: it makes no difference to God whether we eat meat or don’t. God is not concerned with our diet! We are free in all of this, and it is this freedom which makes what we do of any worth anyway. If we freely, willingly, eagerly even, undertake the disciplines which the Church sets before us, we might just come to be less dependent upon our creature comforts. Only then will we come to realize that we are in fact truly dependent only upon God, for in truth most of us, most of the time, do not realize this. Only then will we come to know God truly, and to know God acting in us.

 

The freedom that Paul had in mind was even more radical: he was talking about the freedom of eating food offered to idols in pagan temples. Eating food that has been offered to idols… ! This is the paradigmatic expression of religious devotion; it is what we do, when we gather together as the body of Christ, to partake in his body. So when Paul says that we are free to eat such food, it is strong language indeed. We can only do this, as he points out, knowing that the idols don’t really exist, so that there is therefore nothing to prevent Christians from eating such food.

 

But he warns us, if our eating such food causes our brothers a scandal, and perhaps leads them astray—so that they also eat such food, while still thinking that idols are somehow real—then we are guilty of misusing our freedom to the destruction of others. We are responsible for having injured the one for whom Christ died.

 

As we move ever closer towards Great Lent, then, we are reminded that we are totally free, with the proviso that what we do must be for the building up, rather than the destruction, of the body of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

Having been confirmed in our freedom (and been warned what a dangerous liberty it is), and having heard, over the last two Sundays (the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son) of God’s patience and inexhaustible compassion—that he is ready to receive every sinner who returns to him—we are now reminded in today’s Gospel of the other side of this awesome truth: that the God who receives sinners does so as their judge. As we heard, when Christ comes again in his glory, sitting upon his throne, he comes as our judge.

 

 

We enter Great Lent, therefore, as a period of preparation for the return of our Savior, waiting for him, as we also do on the first days of Holy Week, waiting for the one who will return unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, to take us as he finds us.

 

In both cases we are presented with the humiliated Christ, the man of sorrows—the Bridegroom. In the words of today’s Gospel, Christ identifies himself precisely with the lowly, the outcast and the unwelcome: the hungry, the sick, the destitute, the stranger, the one in prison. These are his brethren, and what we do to the least of these, we do to Christ himself.

 

In all of this, Christ is not a judge in the sense of someone who takes records, evaluates the evidence, and then pronounces a sentence. Definitely not! God bestows his bounty upon the sinners and the righteous alike. Rather it all depends upon our state, how he finds us. How we respond to him then will depend upon the habits that we’re developing even now. It is this that will determine whether we become a vessel of his glorification or of his judgment.

 

The judgment that we bring upon ourselves is one that we are working out even now—in all our dealings with others, here and now, every day and every moment. Notice that nothing particularly great is expected of us (and nothing is said about fasting): we are presented with the poor asking for food, some bread—not a banquet; others asking for a roof, a piece of clothing, some cold water, a visit—nothing much, and certainly nothing which is not in our power to do.

 

In all of this, if we harden our hearts towards others, if we fail to respond to the opportunities which present themselves, then we are already passing judgment on ourselves. If we cannot receive him in his brethren, then we will no longer know how to receive Christ. When Christ returns in glory, we will be told to depart into the eternal fire—fire which is not prepared for us, but for the devil himself.

 

If we cannot respond to our neighbor in need, then the very glory and splendor of Christ when he returns will also be too much for us: for it is the same Christ in each case, even if we do not recognize him.

 

But such lack of compassion is not our proper inheritance; this is not how we were created to be.

 

It is striking that those who did open their hearts and their goods and time to others were also surprised at Christ’s words: “When did we do this to you?” They were not serving the poor out of a sense of duty, or hoping for a reward, but simply acting out of love, and in so doing acquiring a new heart of mercy and love, a heart which opens them up to receive the glory and splendor of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

 

This is the inheritance which has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Seeing God in one’s neighbor and responding in a Christ-like fashion—this is what it is to be in the image of God, living in the kingdom or paradise of God.

 

Let us pray that we may prepare ourselves for the approaching Lenten season, and also, more generally, that we be able to see every moment of our life as being under the judgment of the returning Christ, for we assuredly are.


 

cross_stands__52149-1406224506-300-300For more homilies by Fr. John Behr, check out The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year. Emphases added.

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