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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.


christhealsdeafman chora church

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.


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.”


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.


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.


Santa Maria Assunta Torcello Angel Detail

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.



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.



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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A feast of water

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on January 6, 2016.

Readings for the day may be accessed here.

Theophany 2016 2016-01-06 029 fixed



Archpriest Chad Hatfield is the first Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Father Chad came to SVOTS from St. Herman Seminary in Alaska, where he was serving as the Dean. He presently serves as a member of the Metropolitan Council of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). His experience in various pastoral, teaching and administrative roles, spread over some 30 years of ordained ministry, are now blended into the Chancellor’s ministry at SVOTS.

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The turning point of time

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on December 25, 2015.


Today, at this feast, we stand at the turning point of time.


angelsNot simply another turning point, as the world spins on its axis, or rotates around the sun, but the turning point of time itself; the moment from which we measure all time. And more: it is a turning point in the heavens themselves, opening towards us on earth, so that we can hear the angels singing the praise of God, if we have the ears to hear them, not our usual physical sense of sound, which at this time of year is bombarded by all sorts of noise, some of it claiming to be religious – but usually the religion of consumption; but with a purified hearing.


It is a turning point at which strange things happen.


According to an old tale, told by another story teller, in the night between Christmas Eve and the morning of Christmas day, all the animals can speak, though few hear them or know what they say; Simpkin, the cat, as he wanders through the streets looking for mice to eat, can hear them chattering away and singing; but he was not admitted into their conversation; for he had hidden some twist and was prowling for mice to eat, as his master lay sick in bed, muttering to himself: no more twist.


That nature is overturned on this night is indeed an old idea. In the second century prayer for midnight, we hear:


In this hour every creature hushes for a brief moment to praise the Lord; stars and plants and water stand still at that instant; all the hosts of angels ministering to Him, together with the souls of the righteous, praise God.


And from the same period, we hear, in the Protoevangelium of James, how Mary and Joseph also stop, when Mary feels the stirrings of the babe in her womb ready to be born. They find a cave and Joseph goes off to find a midwife:


shepherdBut I, Joseph, was walking and I was not walking. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still, and into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed, and the birds of the sky were at rest. …

Everyone was looking up. I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still … I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking.

Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.


As Christ is born, creation stands still—strange things happen and nature is overturned, the heavens themselves are turned, and we can, if we listen, hear the angels praising (and the mice singing).


It is in this midnight silence, Wisdom says, that the firstborn Egyptians were slain by the destroying angel, so that the firstborn of God, Israel, might be set free from slavery, when the Word descended from heaven. While peaceful silence enveloped all things, and night was in the middle of its own swift course, from heaven, from the royal throne, your all-powerful Word, leapt as a stern warrior, into the midst of the land marked for destruction, bearing your irrevocable command as a sharp rapier; standing, it filled all things with death and while it touched heaven, it stood on the earth.


This act, in silence, is what we celebrate today, as we too are set free from slavery, when the firstborn Son of God, Christ himself, is born from the Virgin, uniting heaven and earth, and we, in the midst of the death he casts upon the earth, are brought back to life.


Three mysteries of God, St Ignatius says, were worked in silence: the virginity of Mary, the birth of Christ, and the Cross. They were shrouded in silence, hidden from this world and its rulers, so that, when creation is silent, God can work, for Christ is the Word emerging from this silence. And it is this silence that St Ignatius asks of the Roman Christians, so that he too might follow Christ in his Passion, and so become a word of God, as did all those martyrs we celebrated in the days leading up to this birth of Christ; for as St Ignatius also says, Christ, the head, is not born without his body also being born.


It is this silence, then, that we need, if we are going to hear the angelic ranks singing in amazement today, and to join in their hymns of praise. This is something we will never hear, or be part of, if we remain on the prowl, as was Simpkin, looking to fill our stomachs by eating others, all the while keeping for ourselves what others need. Only when he repented, and brought to his master that which he had held back, only then was the magnificent garment that the mice had been working on only then was it able to be completed.


Christ’s body, miraculously woven in the womb of the Virgin, as she spins the thread, the twist, is today present on earth. That it weaves together heaven and earth is possible only because the heavens themselves are opened when they turn today, and when they are opened we can see the end to which the whole of creation (animals as well) are working.


Let us not say, then, that we have no more twist, nothing to contribute to the weaving of the glorious body of Christ, but instead give glory, thanksgiving, and praise for all that God has done for us today, giving of ourselves, giving our very selves, in return for truly today, Christ is born!


Ayios Nicolaos tis Stegis, Nicosia, Cyprus


Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.


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The moment we were first called

A homily for the Apostle Andrew, the Holy and All-Praised First Called (commemorated on November 30).

Walking through this dark, cold morning, did you happen to ask yourself, “What in the world am I doing?”

What were we looking for when we got out of bed this morning? What were we looking for when we came to this place—whether we came from the other side of the world, or the other side of the street?

Have we found it? What are we looking for now?

When St. Andrew first followed Jesus, our Lord looked at him and asked, “What do you seek?”


The calling of the apostles Peter and Andrew. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

What were we seeking when we were first called?

Something inspired us to leave everything and follow Christ to this place. Perhaps it was a fire that burned in our souls, or a light that guided us through the darkness, or a Word that spoke to us in our loneliness.

As Andrew, and Simon Peter and Phillip and Nathanael are called, they leave everything and follow Christ. And we can imagine that in those early days, there was a great deal of excitement, perhaps even some back slapping and self-congratulation. “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

We have found Him, you and I, we are the chosen ones, we can see something amazing in Jesus, and so we leave everything to follow Christ.

But it is a LONG path.

It stretches from the wilderness of Jordan, throughout the Galilee, across the perilous waters of that sea, to the land of the Gaderenes and back, and ultimately the path leads up the long and treacherous road to Jerusalem.

It is a path that starts out bright, hopeful, exciting, thrilling even, but it gets harder, and harder.

And standing there on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley at the Temple, we wonder, just as Andrew did, “Lord, all that you have foretold, when will it come to pass?” But when it becomes clear that the journey ends with a shameful, dishonorable death on Golgotha, nailed to the cross, we realize just how hard it is to follow Christ.

Duccio carrying of the cross

The carrying of the cross. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

It was not easy for St. Andrew, and it is certainly not easy for us.

But it is frighteningly easy to fall away. So frighteningly easy to deny Christ, voluntarily or involuntarily, in word or in deed, in knowledge or in ignorance.

And so today, on this cold, dark, morning, we may feel a bit like Andrew and the other disciples who were so dispirited as Jesus hung upon the Cross. But just because we might be dispirited, does not mean that we are defeated.

In those dark days, Andrew’s faith may not have burned as bright as it once had in those exciting days of leaving everything and following Christ. And this morning maybe our faith does not burn as bright as it once did, when we first we made exciting decisions to go off in new directions. Perhaps Andrew’s faith was nothing more than the tiniest spark of a smoldering wick. And perhaps that is all the faith that we have.

But that one small spark is all it takes.


Pentecost. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

In that upper room on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, the smoldering wick of faith was fanned into a tongue of fire. No matter how weak their faith had been, each one of them became a light in the darkness, and they were sent out into the world to bring Christ to a lonely world.

At that moment Andrew began to understood his calling.


According to legend, he traveled far and wide, preaching the Gospel in Cyprus, Georgia, Romania, and Kiev. And in his most difficult moments, on those cold dark mornings, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the warm shores of the Sea of Galilee, perhaps he thought back to Jesus’ first words, “What are you seeking?”

No matter where he was, no matter what he was doing, no matter how dark or cold, he needed to look no further than his own heart, for as St. Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 5.5) Filled with that love, Andrew saw the image of God in everyone he met. He saw the image of God in the poor, the angry, the sick, the despairing, the lonely, the stranger. It was this love of God that allowed him to rejoice and give thanks even as he offered his life as a martyr.

Today as we give thanks in this Liturgy, we pray to God, “Send down your holy spirit upon us and upon these gifts.” As we pray this prayer today, may God remind us of the moment that we were first called.


By the prayers of St. Andrew the First Called, may we fulfill our calling to do God’s work: being faithful in everything we do, especially those things that are annoying or unpleasant; offering a kind word to the people that God places in our life, especially the ones who are the most difficult to love; and giving thanks to God for all things, especially the crosses that we are blessed to bear on this day.

By the prayers of St. Andrew the First Called, may our hearts catch fire with faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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.


Filed under Homily, Reflection, Uncategorized

Christ is our peace

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on Sunday, November 15, 2015. Readings for the day can be found here.

We have all seen and heard about this barbaric, horrific, and frightening terrorist action that took place in Paris on Friday. Three teams of men, disciplined in dealing death, planned this attack with the help of others and managed to evade an enormous security apparatus that blankets most of the Western world. Notably, at least one of them deviously managed to slip into Europe under the guise of a refugee. Perhaps in the coming days, we will find out more about how this crime came about: who else was involved? Who financed it? Where did they train? But at the same time, the part of story that concerns those who were out on a cold November night for dinner, a concert, a stroll, or a soccer game must also be told. The victims are worthy of our remembrance and our consideration today, and not those who appear strong with weapons that bring death or those who appear mighty and sow fear, confusion, and further enmity.

The victims of this tragedy once again compel us to think on Christ, on His Gospel, and to turn our gaze to Him. Only then can we also bear to look on the dead and the wounded of this November night, and also the dead and the wounded, the marginalized, the outcasts of every age, all those along the side of the road—sick, wounded, destitute, ill-afflicted, dead, and dying—that we would prefer to pass by. Only with Christ can we see them, as the Gospel tells us today, as our neighbor, those whom we must love with the same ferocity, the same devotion, the same ardor that we love God. Consequently, we mourn at the death of our neighbors. We anguish over the wounded. We pray that God receive the dead into His kingdom and that He restore the injured to health. To those who appear strong in their might on Friday, we call out their brutality as senseless and weak.

Extreme Humility (16th c, Meteora, Greece)

Extreme Humility (16th c, Meteora, Greece)

Christ’s own death provides us with the fundamental way of understanding the world according to the Gospel. It is what the Apostle says: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (I Cor. 1.27-29).” Only with Christ, in our love for Him and our love for our newly defined neighbor, will we truly live. Seeing things in this manner allows us to see past the veil of this world, past the wisdom of this world, and perceive exactly the wisdom of God, Jesus Christ, active in this world.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist acts, social media was abuzz with messages of hope, solidarity, and prayers for the people of Paris. One notorious statement emerged and rejected prayers from the different corners of the globe:

“Please don’t pray for Paris. We’ve had enough religion for one night.”

I counter this to the greatest degree I can personally muster: we do not need less religion, we need more. We need Christianity and authentic faith. We need Jesus Christ, because we need to love Him, because He our God. We need to love those around us, those who are far from us, because they are our neighbor. Neither enmity or hatred, but Christ and the peace spoken of in the Epistle today are what we, the entire world, needs.

In other words, what abides, what remains, is exactly that person spoken of in days of old: “The Prince of peace (Is. 9.6),” He “who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy.” Eternal and holy, He remains. He endures. He revives, restores, comforts, and heals us when we turn to him. Christ is our peace (Eph. 2.14), the peace proclaimed far and wide. In all our struggles, in all our affliction, in all our angst, anxiety, and uncertainty about what happens in the present and what the future might bring, Christ is our peace. When we are most vulnerable and feel we are in danger of losing everything, our Lord remains with us.

Jesus Christ (13th-14thc, Church of Protaton, Mount Athos, Greece)

Jesus Christ (13th-14thc, Church of Protaton, Mount Athos, Greece)

Now when Paul speaks about Christ as our peace today, he is not speaking of peace as a state of quiet, personal contentment. Rather he speaks here of reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in Christ. The resolution to their separation, alienation, and estrangement is faith in God. How are they reconciled? By faith in Christ, who “abolish[ed] in his flesh” what had separated them. He brought forward a new man, reconciling us to God through His blood and His cross. This is not merely a historical fact, or a description of a theological controversy, but exposes for us who we are in reality. We are not strangers or sojourners to the heavenly realms, and citizens of this world. No! We have access to and can be rich in the spiritual treasures, because we are “fellow citizens with the saints…members with of the household of God,” and neighbors one to another. We have been knitted and joined together as the Temple of the Living God, as the dwelling place for the God in the Spirit.

I began today speaking of tragedy. I end today speaking of reassurance, comfort, support, encouragement, hope, and faith, because we are “not like those who have no hope.” We have Christ. We have faith in Christ. We have Peace. He alone is our answer to what ails us and afflicts the world.

Archpriest Alexander Rentel, a 1995 M.Div. graduate of St. Vladimir’s, finished his doctoral dissertation under the direction of Fr. Robert Taft, SJ, at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome in January 2004. Prior to coming to St. Vladimir’s as a professor, Fr. Alexander was a 2000-2001 Junior Fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. He has taken numerous research trips to Greece, Italy, and France. He was ordained to the priesthood in July 2001. He and his wife, Nancy (née Homyak, M.Div. 1995) are the proud parents of three children, Dimitrios, Maria, and Daniel.


Filed under Homily