Sermons

June 9, 2024 - New Creation

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from John 9:1-38

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Christ is risen!

When God formed man, He took the dust from the ground. And then God breathed the Spirit of Life, His own Spirit into man, to enliven him.

And, it says, “the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). It is a fundamental belief and fact that we were created by God. And not just created, but created out of the dust of the ground, meaning, out of the mud or clay. Think of a potter fashioning various items out of clay; we are that clay in God’s hands.

It didn’t take long for man to disobey God and find himself, and the rest of creation, outside of Paradise looking in. Out of that disobedience Death entered into the world. Man became mortal, enslaved to Death. And through Death sin crept in and put its nasty tentacles around man and began to control man’s desires, perverting him.

Sin deformed humanity. People became spiritually and physically sick. Some would be born with ailments, others would become terminally ill, everyone would be affected by various bacteria and viruses, and all eventually die.

People sometimes spend time, or rather, waste time debating whose fault it is. Who do we blame for all the suffering and pain and death in the world? And they often end up blaming God. He could prevent it all, and yet He doesn’t. Therefore, that’s His fault!

But, what have I done to stop all the pain and suffering and misery and death around me? Have I acquired the Spirit of peace to save a thousand souls around me? Have I stopped the hate and anger and sin in my heart? Can I dare to blame anyone else, if I myself have done nothing to help, but only worsen the situation through my sin?

“As Jesus was passing by,” we heard from today’s Gospel lesson, “He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 9:1-2)

In other words, who do we blame for his condition. Who is guilty? We tend to think that if we find the guilty party, everything will be put aright. But think about it, when’s the last time someone was healed just because we determined the origin of the sickness? Healing happens only when the right medication is taken or procedure is performed, doesn’t it?

The Lord does not really answer the disciples’ question. We do not know who we can blame for the man being born blind. It’s neither his sin nor his parents’. But Jesus does say, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:3).

Let’s be honest, that answer is kind of unsatisfactory. Does Christ mean that the man was blind all his life for Christ to reveal God’s works in him?

No, that’s not what Jesus is saying here. The man wasn’t born blind due to any particular sin of his or his parents. He was born with an affliction, a distortion, because of the infection of sin in general. All of humanity is corrupted by sin, and this virus affects our being at all stages of our existence.

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, however, says that the work of God is the forming of man. That’s what Jesus means by the works of God here – formation of human beings. And that’s exactly what Jesus does to the man – He forms his eyes. He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread it on the man’s eyes. (John 9:6)

This action emphasizes that the man was not merely blind, but that he had no eyes at all. Jesus did not simply put the mud on his face, He put the mud into the empty eye sockets and created eyes for the man.

Jesus did not tell the man, “Be healed and see,” because when He created man in the beginning He did not use words, but got His hands dirty with mud. God didn’t speak man into existence, He formed him from mud, with His own hands. Since God’s work is the formation of man, Christ completes the formation of this man by giving him eyes.

The healing of the blind man, the completion of his creation, is part of a bigger plan of God. Saint Paul mentions a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17, Colossians 3:10) in some of his epistles. This new creation has its identity in Christ, after He has fashioned or refashioned it.

The Son of God did not become incarnate to figure out who to blame for our present situation. God became man in order to heal us and to teach us how to become part of His new creation.

Throughout the Gospel accounts, we see Jesus seek out people to heal them because it wasn’t us who loved Him, but He loved us first (1 John 4:10). He saw the man blind from birth… He saw the paralyzed man… He saw Philip and called him… He saw Nathanael under the fig tree before Philip came to him… God does not wait for us to reach out to Him (because He would be waiting forever), but He seeks us out to bring us to Himself.

And if we pay attention to the healings that the Evangelists chose to write about in detail, we’ll see something interesting. On more than a few occasions, it is mentioned that a crowd came to Jesus and He taught them and healed them all. But we are given just a few accounts with specific healings. All these accounts describe Jesus refashioning humanity, making that new creation that Saint Paul wrote about.

The man was born without eyes, and Christ gave him eyes to see the Light of the world. Another man was paralyzed for 38 years, and Christ made him walk, so that he would glorify God in the Temple (the first place he went after being healed).

Lazarus died and was buried for four days, and Christ raised him to foreshadow our resurrection. And so that we would know that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in [Him], though they die, yet they will live. And everyone who lives and believes in [Christ] will never die” (John 11:25-26).

Not to mention all the exorcisms that Christ performed to show that we are no longer under the dominion of demons. And then He gave His disciples the power and authority over all the demons (Matthew 10:1, Mark 13:15, Luke 9:1).

And then on the Cross the Lord uttered the famous words, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The creation of humanity was finished on the Cross. If we take into account that sin distorted our nature, then we can say that God refashioned it on the Cross.

When one of the Pharisees by the name of Nicodemus, who would later help Joseph of Arimathea to take down Jesus’ body from the Cross, came to see Jesus, the Lord told him, “Unless one is born again he cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Nicodemus got really confused by this and said, “You mean, like, I have to enter my mother’s womb again?” But Jesus reassured a distressed Nicodemus, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

Being born again of water and the Spirit – baptism – is how we become part of God’s new creation, of refashioned humanity. We need to be born again of water and the Spirit, to be washed, to be reformed because of the sin into which humanity had fallen. And Christ provides both the physical reformation and the regeneration that comes through the baptism.

Once we are born again, once we are baptized, we then must become obedient to God’s Word, otherwise there will be no healing. “Go, and wash in the pool of Siloam” (John 9:7); “Get up, take your bed, and walk” (John 5:8); “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43). The healing and the life of these people depended on them obeying those commands.

If we submit ourselves in obedience to Christ, nothing in us will remain the same. We will change, we will be refashioned by Him. Some things will and must disappear, we must change.

But the older we get, the more terrified we are of this word – change. The clay in the potter’s hand has to be flexible to allow him to shape it. We are the clay in God’s hands. And Saint Paul tells us, “Put away anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth” (Colossians 3:8). In other words change! Because in new creation, as the hands of God refashion us, we are to put on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another… and forgiving each other” (Colossians 3:12-13).

Before His passion and crucifixion and resurrection, after He had washed His disciples’ feet, the Lord gave them a new commandment, the commandment for the new creation “that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples” (John 13:34-35).

Christ didn’t come looking for the guilty party (because, let’s be honest, we are the guilty ones), but He refashioned us, completed our creation, gave us a chance to be born again to enter the Kingdom of God, a chance at a new life, a life in Him, in obedience to His commandments.

And He also gave us the freedom to choose – choose life or choose death; choose new creation or choose the decay of the sinful existence; choose the change of being refashioned or choose the stagnation of the old life; choose to be born again or choose to die in sin.

There isn’t much of a choice, if you think about it. Let us make the right one.

So that we would always glorify One God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and every and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

Christ is risen!

June 2, 2024 - In Spirit and Truth

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from John 4:5-42

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Christ is risen!

We are worshipping creatures. We never worship nothing; we always worship someone or something. If we do not worship the One True God, then we will worship just about anything – from a sports team to a political party.

We are worshipping creatures, whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not. And we are worshipping creatures because that’s the way God made us; that’s our mode of interaction with Him. In fact, all of creation interacts with God through worship, even the angels

And when we turn away or refuse to worship the One True God, we worship someone or something else because we can’t help ourselves, because worship is part of our DNA. It’s who we are.

There are many interesting aspects to today’s interaction between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman, Saint Photini. Too many to cover in one sermon, but today I would like to focus on the question of worship that Saint Photini brings up, and in particular on Christ’s reply to her, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, for the Father seeks such to worship Him” (John 4:23).

God wants us to worship Him in a specific way. We are not free to choose how and when we worship or make an offering to Him. Our worship and sacrifice must be something that He wishes to receive from us. It’s not up to us to guess how He wants to be worshiped. He’s already told us, now it’s up to us to do it.

God has organized the whole universe out of nothing, bringing order to chaos. Everything in God’s creation has a purpose. So why wouldn’t He care how we worship Him? Why wouldn’t our worship of Him also be organized and ordered, as He has organized and ordered it?

And that’s exactly what we see from the beginning in the Old Testament; and that’s exactly what the New Testament Church continues to do.

For instance, one of the first accounts in the Bible of a sacrifice made to God is that of Cain and Abel, one of which is accepted and the other is rejected. And it’s not just because one offered the best of what he had and the other did not. It’s also because Abel offered his worship and sacrifice the correct way, while Cain did not.

Or as another example take the extremely detailed instructions, in the more “boring” books of the Bible, where God gave to Israel specific designs of the place of worship, and the structure and patterns of worship itself.

If God did not care about where and how we worship Him, He would’ve just said, “Do whatever you want or can, as long as you love Me.” But nowhere in the Bible do we see this. God is very specific what He wants us to do and where He wants us to do it because how and where we worship Him matters.

And so Saint Photini asks Jesus, “Explain to me why our ancestors worshiped God on this mountain (Mount Gerizim in Samaria), but you, the Jews, say that the place where people must worship God is in Jerusalem” (John 4:20).

There was a lot of bad blood between the Samaritans and the Jews. Samaritans were a schismatic and heretical tribe that broke away from Judaism, and established their own temple and religious practices to rival the Temple and religious practices in Jerusalem.

By the time the Lord had His conversation with the Samaritan Woman, the Samaritan temple was already destroyed, and the Temple in Jerusalem would soon be destroyed in about 40 years.

In response to the woman’s question, Christ says, “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth, for the Father seeks such to worship Him.”

A lot of different Christian groups, in the last, say, 500 years, have taken these words and said, “Ha! See! Jesus says that we do not have to worship God in temples any longer! We worship Him in spirit and truth – anywhere, at any time, and by any person.”

From such misinterpretation of the Biblical texts we get individualized religion, where “in spirit and truth” is understood as worshipping God in your heart, the way you feel like doing it, and wherever you want to do it.

But that is not what Christ is saying here, at all.

While there is nothing wrong with worshipping God in our hearts, that’s just part of our worship. And it neither begins in our hearts, nor does it end there.

So what exactly is going on here? How are we supposed to worship God?

We need to pay attention to the details of the conversation. Saint Photini asked about worshipping God in general – where should they worship God, on the mountain in Samaria or on the mountain in Jerusalem. And how does Christ answer? “The hour is coming when you will worship the Father…”

Right away Jesus corrects her understanding – we are not talking about worshipping a general God, we are talking about worshipping specifically God the Father. And the question should not be where we worship, but Who we worship

And then He says, “The true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and Truth.” So what does this phrase “in Spirit and Truth” mean here?

First, in the New Testament, when the word “spirit” or “spiritual” is used, it almost always refers to the Holy Spirit. So, we are to worship God the Father in Spirit; meaning, in the Holy Spirit that was sent down to the Church on the day of Pentecost and which we receive at baptism.

And second, in the Gospel of Saint John, Christ identifies Himself as “the Truth” – “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).

Connecting all the dots now – in Christ we receive the true and full revelation of God’s identity because He is the Son of God, the Image of the Father. We do not know God just in our hearts, we do not get to experience Him through some sort of meditation or getting high on drugs (something that people have been trying to do, unsuccessfully, for a very long time). We come to know God the Father through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Saint Basil the Great says that the Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the Father and the Son in worship. If we remain outside that Spirit, we cannot worship at all, and if we are in Him we cannot separate Him from God.

Furthermore, it is impossible for us to recognize Christ, the image of the invisible God, unless the Spirit enlightens us. And once we see the image, we cannot ignore the light of God. When we see Christ, the brightness of God’s glory, it is always through the illumination of the Spirit. And through Christ the Image we are led to the Father.

The Holy Spirit illumines our way to Christ, and Christ brings us to the Father. That is the worship of the people of God. The true worship involves the Holy Trinity. That’s the meaning of Christ’s words to Saint Photini.

Pay attention to all the prayers we say during the Liturgy. Basically, all of them are addressed to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. God cannot be worshipped in any other way because that’s what He Himself has revealed to us.

Notice that Christ did not say anything about not worshipping the Father in church buildings. The Samaritan Woman asked Him about buildings, and He directed her attention to the proper way of worship, not the buildings in which to worship.

The Lord did not intend to abolish places of worship. We can see this in the fact that His disciples attended the services in the Temple in Jerusalem, before it was destroyed, and the synagogues after His ascension, as they began their apostolic mission. It was only after the Jews started kicking Christians out of the synagogues that Christians began building their own churches.

Neither did Jesus abolish how we structure our liturgical year. Just like the Israelites structured their year around the Passover, so we structure our year around our Passover – Pascha, Christ’s Holy Resurrection, and the cycle of the feasts. Our worship is the continuation of the Old Testament worship because both come from the same God, and both worship the same God.

But so what?

So what that we know how to properly worship God the Father? So what that we may be doing it the right way, while others may not?

Everything I said today is not meant as some sort of “pat on the back” for doing a good job in worshipping the Father as He wishes us to worship Him. Neither is it a criticism of other Christian groups.

This is, rather, a reminder that as Christians, as the disciples of Jesus Christ, as (hopefully) the true worshipers of the Father we have a job to do.

As Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson, “The Father seeks true worshipers to worship Him.” We know how God wishes to be worshipped, so we need to make sure that, first of all, we do it ourselves. Knowing the correct way does not mean that we go around and tell others what to do. It means that we do it ourselves.

Knowing how to worship God the Father, we also now bring this worship to the nations – to the whole world that does not yet worship the Father in Spirit and in Truth. We do not force anyone to worship the way we do, but we invite them to join our worship. We have this worship not to hold it in our hands as this precious little thing, but to teach others to worship likewise.

We are in a battle because the fallen gods, the demons, also desire our worship. But their worship is chaos and destruction. So in a way it’s easier to worship these gods. The worship of God the Father, however, requires discipline and structure and attention.

We are made to worship, and if refuse to worship God the Father, we will worship anything, including the demons.

Like the Samaritan Woman, Saint Photini, we now know the way God wishes to receive our worship. Let us do it properly and in a pleasing way to God, and let us invite others to do it with us, so that we may all glorify the Father in Spirit and Truth, in the Holy Spirit that dwells in us and in His Son Jesus Christ Who saves us, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

Christ is risen!

Sermons

May 26, 2024 - Make your bed

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from John 5:1-15

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Christ is risen!

One of the best-selling books in the last 10 or so years in the motivational self-help genre is a little book written by a Navy SEAL called “Make Your Bed.” In it, a retired Navy SEAL, Admiral William McRaven offers 10 little things we all can do to change our life, and maybe the world, too.

The first little thing he offers is making our bed in the morning. That’s the first task of the day for any Navy officer. We may think, of course it is, discipline is an important aspect of the military. But that’s not the only reason why they make their beds first thing in the morning.

Regardless of what kind of a day we had yesterday, no matter how well (or not) we slept at night, making our bed first thing in the morning achieves one very important thing – it allows us to begin our day with a task accomplished.

Accomplishing small tasks leads to achieving bigger goals. Our brain is funny like that – finishing one small chore tells our brain that we are ready to take on more, to tackle the day, to succeed in other tasks. As Admiral McRaven notes, “Sometimes the simple act of making your bed can give you the lift you need to start your day and provide you the satisfaction to end it right.”

It's not about getting off on the right or wrong foot, it’s about doing something right as soon as we wake up that will determine what kind of a day we will have. And the first task that’s always offered to us and is completely doable is making our bed.

Taking care of one’s bed is mentioned both in today’s Epistle reading and the Gospel lesson. In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus Christ, through Saint Peter, healed Aeneas, who was paralyzed for eight years. And the first thing Peter tells him to do is to get up and make his bed (Acts 9:34).

Get up and accomplish something right away. Saint Peter is not giving Aeneas an option of what to do first, he tells him to achieve a small, yet important task – make your bed, start your day, your new life, right. Accomplish a small task if you wish to take on bigger and more serious ones.

And Saint John the Evangelist tells us about the time Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a Jewish feast, where by the Sheep Gate, there was a certain pool. And many blind, lame, and paralyzed people lay there waiting for a miracle.

Out of the many sick people there Jesus saw one man, who was paralyzed for 38 years. In other words, he was sick for most, if not all, of his life. He was accustomed, therefore, to a certain lifestyle – that of begging, because he could not work; that of being abandoned, because not that many people were willing to take on the burden of a disabled person, even one’s family; that of self-pity and despondency, because he couldn’t get himself to the pool and there was no man to help him in time to be the first one when the waters were stirred by an angel.

So the question Christ asks the man, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6), is not a simple yes/no question. The Lord is asking the man whether he is ready to completely and radically change his lifestyle, which included becoming a full member of the society, working to feed himself, being part of a community and a family, taking care of others (even if they refused to take care of him), and taking care of his own tasks and goals in life.

We can see the level of the man’s hopelessness in his response to Jesus. Thirty-eight years is a long time without the ability to do even the most basic tasks, like making one’s bed, or walking from the living room to the kitchen, or playing ball with one’s children, or taking a relaxing walk on a breezy afternoon. Thirty-eight years is a long time of inactivity.

So he said, “Lord, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up” (John 5:7). Lord, it’s not my fault. Lord, look at me, my legs don’t work. Lord, nobody wants to help me. Lord, I have given up.

Does he answer Christ’s question, though? “Do you want to be made well?” Are you ready to live, to experience life like you have never before? It’ll take serious effort to live fully, are you ready for it?

No, the man dwells on his self-pity. “I have no man to put me into the pool…” He chose to tell Jesus about others and what they did (or did not do) for him. After thirty-eight years of sickness, he did not dare to want anything; he was just powerless and helpless and hopeless.

At Vespers yesterday we sang a hymn that interpreted the words of the paralytic a bit further, “My bed has become my grave. Why should I live…I have no man to put me into the pool…” And in another hymn, we heard the Lord reply to him, focusing especially on the fact that there was no man to carry him to the pool, “It was for you that I became Man,” says the Lord, “because of you I was clothed in mortal flesh…Take up your bed and walk!”

The man did not answer Christ’s question, but the Lord saw his spiritual state, He saw his defeat, so He gave him a commandment to follow. Jesus did not say, “Oh poor man, let Me help you.” No, He gave the man a commandment. If the paralytic wanted a new life, all he had to do was obey, “Stand up, take your mat and walk” (John 5:8). That’s an equivalent of, “Make your bed and conquer your day!”

So the man was presented with a dilemma, a real choice that would fundamentally change his life – obey the commandment or continue to wallow in self-misery, feigning victimhood.

As we know, he decided to take a leap of faith, and “immediately, he was made well, took up his mat and began to walk” (John 5:9). So he not only followed a direct commandment from Jesus, but he also accomplished his first task as a healed man – he made his bed!

When he lay on his bed, the bed was the sign of his sickness. But when he picked it up, when he made his bed, the bed became the sign of his healing, the sign of him accomplishing tasks that God gave him.

That’s what Saint Paul meant when he quoted God saying to him, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). God’s power is perfected in our weaknesses. Christ does not command us to do anything without us having the ability to fulfill it.

It doesn’t mean, however, that just because we have a commandment, it’ll be easy for us to do it. It was not an easy choice for the paralytic – continue playing a victim of life or, with God’s help, take life-changing steps.

Every day we have opportunities to follow Christ’s commandments, even when we are asked to do things that may seem unbelievable, like loving our neighbor like we love ourselves. Or, we have a choice of constant self-pitying and complaining and not moving or growing at all.

Making our bed in the morning is not a commandment, but it may stimulate us to fulfill the commandments. We can judge a lot about ourselves (and let me emphasize this – I can judge only myself) based on how we take care of the small tasks in our life, tasks like making the bed.

If I am lazy to fix up my bed, then there is a high chance that I am lazy throughout my day, that my house and around my house is a mess, that I constantly complain about others not doing things, and blame others for my problems. High chance of that.

But just like the paralyzed man, we get the same question, “Do you want to be made well?” It’s not a simple yes/no question. That’s a question we need to consider seriously because how we answer it might change our whole life, and we would have to adjust our lifestyle.

It is important to constantly meet Christ in His word – what He tells us through the Scriptures and through the Church. He gives us the power to get up and do what we can’t do of ourselves. That’s why He became Man. He clothed Himself in flesh in order to show us how to follow God’s commandments.

And sometimes the power He gives us is to just make our beds. A simple task with huge consequences.

To Him Who sees us in our condition and gives us the saving commandments that lead to eternal life, our Lord Jesus Christ, together with His Eternal Father and Most Holy Spirit, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

Christ is risen!

Sermons

May 19, 2024 - No freeloaders in the Church

Sunday sermon on the reading from Acts 6:1-7

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Christ is risen!

There are no freeloaders in the Church. Every member of the Church is a contributing member, in whichever way they are capable.

The Church is often compared to a ship because it is an Ark of Salvation. On this ship, everyone is part of the crew; there are no passengers. All hands on deck, all the time.

After God led His people out of Egypt through Moses and liberated them from slavery, and before they reached Mount Sinai, where God gave them the Law, the Jews were encamped in the wilderness. And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law decided to visit him.

The people turned to Moses, as their leader, to judge them, meaning to hear their cases and make a judgment of who is right and who is wrong in various every-day disputes. Jethro, as an experienced head of a household, told Moses, “What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, and all the people stand around you from morning till evening?” (Exodus 18:14).

A valid concern, if Moses were to keep it up, he’d burn out in no time. Even though Moses was a willing instrument in God’s hands to lead the people out of Egypt, in some ways he was still coming into his own as a leader and a head of the whole household of Israel.

So Jethro recommended Moses to appoint “able men from all the people, men who [feared] God, who [were] trustworthy and [hated] a bribe, and place such men over the people” as elders (Exodus 18:21). All the small disputes would be handled by these elders, while the more serious ones were brought before Moses, who “[represented] people before God and [brought] their cases to God” (Exodus 18:19).

This, of course, took a significant burden off Moses’ shoulders and allowed him to do what he did best – lead his people and be an intermediary between God and His people.

The early Christian community in Jerusalem, not long after being liberated from the slavery to death through Christ’s death and resurrection and receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, faced one of the many disputes upon which the character of the Church would be built.

As today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us, “When the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1).

The first Christians came from among the Jews. Christ death and resurrection happened around the Jewish feast of Passover; and the Holy Spirit was sent down fifty days later on another Jewish feast of Pentecost. Because both of these feasts were major feasts, the Jews in the diaspora would travel back to Jerusalem to celebrate them.

When the disciples began preaching the Gospel of Christ, a lot of the native Jews and those from the diaspora received it, were baptized, and began their new life as Christians. And all of them stayed in Jerusalem.

To be part of the Jerusalem Christian community, one had to sell everything and give the money to the elders, or the apostles. And they, in turn, took care of everyone in their community, so that no one was abandoned.

But a conflict arose between the Hellenists and the Hebrews. Both of these groups were the Jews, with Hellenists being the Greek-speaking Jews from the diaspora, and Hebrews – the local Jews from and around Jerusalem. It looks like the locals neglected in the daily distribution of food the widows of the Hellenists. And understandably, they brought this matter to the apostles, the leaders of their community.

Caring for widows and orphans has always been taken very seriously because God Himself said that He is their protector and would take vengeance upon anyone who mistreats them (Exodus 22:22-24). So when the Twelve apostles heard about this conflict, and already having a lot on their plate, they realized that they had to make a choice – do they take care of the daily food distribution or do they continue praying and preaching and baptizing people, like Christ commanded them?

So they offered the community to select “seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom [they would] appoint” to the task of the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:3).

Much like Moses, the apostles could have tried to stretch themselves out thin, “like butter scraped over too much bread,” but that would have negatively impacted their number one priority – prayer and ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). It was not the task of just a handful of people to take care of the whole Church. And it is still not the task of just a handful of people to take care of the whole Church or of one parish.

There are no freeloaders in the Church. Everyone has something to do. There are no by-standers, no inactive audience; all of us have gifts which we are meant to realize in and through the Church, for the people in our community and for the people outside.

Saint Paul testifies to this, saying, “Grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Ephesians 4:7). And “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone” (1 Corinthians 12:4-6).

The Church or a parish cannot depend on a handful of people to survive. In fact, the job of a parish is not survival, but ministry to our own and to those around us. Everyone in the church is equal, but each of us has a gift, each of us has a calling that that person can and should exercise in and through the church.

Moses elected elders to help him deal with the disputes among the people. The Jerusalem community elected seven deacons, and the apostles ordained them to a specific task, and that enabled the apostles to continue their ministry.

Our parish has people dedicated to various tasks, as a priest I lead our community in prayer, preach, and teach. The parish council takes care of the day-to-day stuff. The choir sings the responses on our behalf, and altar servers help maintain the order of the services. Sunday School teachers provide spiritual instruction. We have people who help keep the church clean and beautiful, who light the candles, clean and replace them.

But all of these things pertain to the services and the church building itself. All of us, regardless of age or financial situation, have gifts and calling that we can realize through our community. Christianity caught on like fire in the Roman Empire not only through the fiery preaching the apostles and sacrificial witness of the martyrs, but also because all Christians provided their gifts and talents for the benefit of their communities

There are no freeloaders in the Church. A handful of people won’t keep the parish afloat. It’s either all hands on deck or the ship is sinking.

Figure out what you are good at and how you can use it in and for and through the church, and start applying your gifts for the “building up of the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12).

And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ abide in all of us, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

Christ is risen!

April 28, 2024 - What makes a disciple, Part 6

It’s not for everyone

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Philippians 4:4-9

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Having completed the 40 days of Lent, we are now on the brink of finishing our six-part sermon series on what makes a disciple of Christ.

One overarching theme of discipleship is faithfulness. This shouldn’t be surprising. A disciple is faithful to his Teacher. Being a disciple of Christ is not like going to Burger King, where we can have it our way. As disciples of Jesus Christ we have it Christ’s way. He set the example, He walked the path, He is with us every step of the way, and we walk on His path because He is the Way and the Life.

And to recap other themes, a disciple is someone who is found by the Lord, like we heard Philip being found by Christ on the First Sunday of Lent. We do not choose Him, He chooses us. And He does that for a specific purpose; we are not chosen just to carry the name of a Christian; we have a job to do.

In the example of the four friends who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus, we learned that through faithfulness of friends others can be brought to the Lord, where they, and us, can find healing and fulfillment.

On the Sunday of the Cross, we found out that a disciple must carry a cross. And this cross is our life. We pick up our cross and follow Him where He has already gone. Yes, in the end there will be death, and we need to be ready for it. Do not run away from death, because we can’t; and do not fear it, because that kind of fear is pointless. But carry the cross after Christ, and He will receive us because He knows how heavy the cross is.

A disciple is also someone who plants a seed of his or her faithfulness and nourishes it throughout their whole life. And there will be times when our persistence in growing the seed of our faithfulness will be tested. And these tests will hit where we are most vulnerable – through our children, if we are parents; through our spouse, if we are married; through our friends or relatives. These trials and tests purify our faithfulness, as long as we always keep in mind Who is the most needful thing in this life.

And in continuation with this theme of trials and tests, last week we learned that now is not the time for crowns and rewards. Christ did not die for nothing; He died for us. He did not resurrect and ascend to save Himself; He did it to save us. But this is still a sinful existence. We still choose to mingle with demons, rather than live in Christ. If we struggle and suffer through these times, there will be crowns, even before we die. We can experience a life in Christ now. And this life is manifest in the good works, for which God saved us.

Good works are primarily done to a person who reaches out to us for help – be it a complete stranger or the closest person in our life. We do good works to specific people, not to general, faceless and nameless ideas. …

In the first five parts of this sermon series I focused on the Gospel lessons for ideas and inspirations. But today we will take a look at Saint Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Saint Paul is a good example of a great disciple, someone truly worthy of imitation. The first part of his life Paul was not only not a disciple of Christ, but an active persecutor of Christians. It wasn’t until a personal encounter with the Lord that Paul realized that he was actually persecuting his own God. Since that encounter, he became one of the most ardent disciples of Christ.

One important background detail about the letter that we heard today, the letter to the Philippians, is that Paul wrote it while in prison. Prisons in the first century were nothing like what they are today. Prisoners were chained hand and foot, sitting on the ground, the ground that also served as their table (which they shared with all the rats in the cell), as their bed, and as their bathroom. If they had to go, they went right there.

Keep this in mind when hearing Paul write, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” (Philippians 4:4). I’m sorry, do what? In this hard life, in this miserable life he wants us to rejoice? Yes, he does. If Paul can say, while sitting in his own you-know-what, that we should rejoice than I think we should at least try.

One of the defining characteristics of Christianity is its joy. And we have every reason to rejoice because we know that the Lord is at hand (Philippians 4:5). When non-Christians look at us, do they see the people that rejoice? Do we rejoice like those who know and receive and bring the Lord to others?

The first thing people should see when looking at us is our joyfulness. The joy in the way we worship, because worship is not a burden but a privilege. The joy in the way we are in each other’s company. Christianity is not a faith of individuals. We are saved together, as a community; we go to hell alone, as individuals. And the joy in the way we put others ahead of ourselves, in our eager generosity. Christians have always helped specific people who specifically asked for help. Christians have never stopped to ask, “What if this person misuses or abuses my generosity?” We help and are generous because that’s who we are. And we do so in joy.

Saint Paul continues, “Do not worry about anything” (Philippians 4:6). Do not be anxious because it’ll take away from your joy. It’s important to note that he is not saying be like hippies, “don’t worry, be happy.” That’s not at all what he is getting at.

Very often we get anxious because we lie to ourselves that we are in control. And when the hard times come that lie is fully exposed and we are floored with anxiety. When we accept the reality that there is only One Who is in control, and that one is not me, but the Lord Jesus Christ; when we stop resisting Him and let Him work through us, instead of forcing Him to work for us (which is a classic paganism!), then, and only then, we will acquire the peace of God.

So what does Paul recommend to do when the hard times, inevitably, do come? “In everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippian 4:6). Do not be anxious, pray!

This past week I came across a quote from a movie called “Evan Almighty” that came out in 2007. Morgan Freeman, who’s playing God in the movie, says, “If someone prays for patience, do you think God gives them patience? Or does He give them the opportunity to be patient? If someone prays for courage, does God give them courage? Or does He give them opportunities to be courageous?”

Hard times can be opportunities for growth. Or they could be situations that we created for ourselves, that we put ourselves into. Even in the second case, they can still become opportunities. We need to stop pitying ourselves and use the opportunities that arise in our life, because every situation is an opportunity to be, to grow, to learn.

When someone is asking for help, that’s an opportunity for us to become holy. When someone is being rude to us, that’s an opportunity to become patient. When we stand up for someone being taken advantage of, that’s an opportunity to become courageous.

When Saint Paul decided to follow Christ, to become His disciple, he put himself at odds with a lot of people. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when the hard times would come for him. And come they did. And he ended up in prison, sitting in his own filth, writing to his spiritual children about joy and prayer.

When we pray to God, when we make our requests known to Him, we do not change Him to do what we want Him to do for us (that’s, again, paganism). How can our prayer change or influence the Almighty and Unchangeable God? What does it even mean for God to change His mind?

Rather, prayer changes us. When we pray, we ask for our will to be aligned with God’s will (not the other way around). When we pray, we stop lying to ourselves about being in control. Prayer is the surrender of ourselves to God. In this surrender we stop being anxious; in this surrender we become joyful. And in this joy we find the peace of God.

Rejoice, do not worry, and pray – these are the three actions that a disciple of Christ takes.

Saint Paul ended up being beheaded in Rome. But his joy was not taken away from him because it was rooted in Christ. He did not worry because he knew that he was not in control, he surrendered his life to Christ completely. And he prayed to make sure that he was following God’s will and not his own.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times in the last six weeks, being a disciple of Christ is not for the weak. I would not recommend it to everyone. It’s not something that can be done on just a Sunday morning and disregarded the other 6.5 days of the week. I myself, in fact, am not fully sure that I can handle it…

I would not recommend it to everyone, but if we desire a real and full relationship with God, being a disciple of Christ, with all that it entails, is the only way. Christianity is not for the weak, but we also do not have to be the strongest people to follow Christ. We have a week left before Christ’s Resurrection, the Resurrection that is available to anyone brave enough to follow Him with their own cross to Golgotha.

A week is enough to decide whether the cross is joyful enough for us, whether we can put our anxieties away while carrying the cross, whether we can in thanksgiving make our requests known to God while hanging on the cross.

What makes a disciple of Christ?

A complete buy-in. No lukewarm, half-hearted efforts. Complete buy-in does not mean perfect, but it does mean full effort, as full as we can give each day.

Only God knows what our faithfulness to Him will drag us through, but the end is known – in His presence, participation in His works, eternal communion with Him and His saints.

So let us dare to be His disciples. There is nothing more courageous that we can do.

To the God of joy and peace and love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

April 21, 2024 - What makes a disciple, Part 5

Now is not the time for crowns

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Mark 10:32-45

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

We are continuing to explore an important topic for us as the followers and disciples of Jesus Christ – what exactly makes a disciple?

Being the disciple of Christ means following Him imperfectly. In fact, merely being here today, we already acknowledge that we are not perfect. And Christ came to save us, the imperfect sinners, not the righteous believers. So, this morning, we chose well.

As Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, the journey that was to end on the Cross, He predicted His suffering and crucifixion and resurrection three times, and all three times His disciples failed to grasp the significance of His words.

Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus command those who would become His disciples to pick up their cross and follow Him. But right before these words, He taught them “that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected … and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).

Seems pretty clear, but Peter rebuked the Lord for these words, and was called Satan in return, because Satan is the one who stands between God and the Tree of the Cross.

Last week, again, “He was teaching His disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and three days after being killed, He will rise again’” (Mark 9:31). This time His disciples simply “did not understand [what He was] saying, and were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:32). I guess they did not want to disappoint Him with their bewildered questions.

And then today we heard Jesus say, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn Him to death and hand Him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock Him, and spit upon Him, and flog Him, and kill Him. And on the third day, He will rise again” (Mark 10:33-34).

He’s giving more details here, so that the disciples would be able to get the idea…but they do not. Immediately, two of the three closest disciples of Christ, two brothers: James and John, sons of Zebedee, approach Him privately and ask Him for a favor.

He just told them, in no uncertain words, what awaits Him, and them, in Jerusalem, and they go, “Hey, we’d like a favor.”

In some ways we can understand where they are coming from. They’ve been witnesses to some amazing things done by Christ: healings, exorcisms, feeding of thousands, command of nature, great crowds following, profound teachings…

To James and John, and to others, these were all the signs that Jesus was the Messiah that was to drive out the hated Romans and restore Israel to its former glory. Unable to comprehend the meaning of Christ’s ministry, they put all their political hopes on Him.

Three times He told them that they are going to Jerusalem where He will be betrayed, suffer, be killed, but will rise on the third day. But what they heard was a King coming to claim His throne.

And they were right! That’s exactly what Jesus was doing, but it wasn’t in the way they imagined it. James and John wanted to sit on His right and left hand, when He would be enthroned. In other words, they desired to be His two closest advisors.

In response He asked them, “Are you sure that’s what you want? Are you sure you’re able to handle this position?” And they said, “Yes, we can.” And Jesus said, “Ok. The cup that I drink, you will drink. And with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39).

While we are imperfect as followers and disciples of Christ, we can no longer claim the same ignorance the Twelve claimed. To them His words were strange and confusing, but to us they are not. And that’s not because we’ve heard these stories numerous times. Rather, the meaning of Christ’s words has been expounded by the Holy Spirit and passed down to us by the Church, from generation to generation.

In the Gospel according to Saint John, the Lord says to His disciples, “The Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My Name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit guides the Church, He guides our life, He reveals to us the meaning of all things that Christ taught.

The Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in Jerusalem, on the Jewish feast of Pentecost. That’s when all things became clear to them; and from that moment on, we can no longer claim ignorance like those who have no Holy Spirit.

Because at baptism we are not only baptized into Christ, into His death and resurrection, but we also receive the Holy Spirit. We experience our own Pentecost. Before coming to baptism, however, we need to answer the same question posed by the Lord to the sons of Zebedee, “Are you sure you are able to drink the cup that I drink and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38). Are you sure you can handle being a disciple?

James and John wanted to sit on Christ’s right and left hand when He came in His glory. But He was glorified on the Cross. And what was on His right and left hand? Two more crosses. Remember what He told us two weeks ago? “If you want to be My disciple, pick up your cross and follow Me.” Follow Him where? To the Golgotha, to be crucified. How about that cup and baptism? Are we sure we can handle it?

James and John’s request may have been ignorant, in light of what the Lord had just told them about His fate in Jerusalem, but it was not the wrong request. We should desire to be His top advisors, to strive to be right there next to Him by His throne, to be His co-workers in this creation and in this age, and in the age to come. But we need to ask for these things at the proper time.

Saint John Chrysostom says that when they asked for those seats, they were not asking them at the right time. The timing was all wrong. They thought that it was the time for crowns and rewards, when in fact it was the time for struggles, contests, toil, sweat, and wrestling and battling with evil.

Now is not the time for crowns and rewards. That time is coming. Christ appeared, as Saint Paul tells us today, as the High Priest of the blessings to come (Hebrews 9:11). The blessings and rewards and crowns are coming, but now is the time for the cup.

And what is the cup? It’s struggle, it’s suffering, it’s battle. In other words, it’s repentance. When we truly make an effort to repent, we struggle, we suffer, we battle. Repentance is not feeling bad about drinking milk during Lent. Repentance is taking a spiritual ax and hacking away at all the passions and lusts that have attached themselves to us and suck the life out of us.

And what is in the cup? The Blood of the Lord. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed (and eaten), with their blood being used to sprinkle the people, in order to sanctify and purify them physically. We do not sprinkle anything with blood anymore (thankfully) because we partake of Christ’s Blood now, which purifies us not only physically, but also spiritually. Saint Paul says that the Lord’s Blood sanctifies our conscience (Hebrews 9:14), our heart, our soul, our very being.

Christ’s Blood sanctifies us from dead works – the works that bring death. And those works are sin. Our conscience is cleansed from dead works to worship and serve the living God. And serving the living God involves doing things. There is a purpose for which we are saved. Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was done for a reason.

We are saved for something, not just from something. We are saved to bear good fruit, “for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we may walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). We do not choose to do good works. God prepared them for us to do. As His disciples, we are meant to do them.

Doing the good works, and working on our repentance, through the Holy Spirit will ensure that, imperfect as we are, we will not be confused about what Christ’s words and actions mean and what He expects from us

Now is not the time for crowns and rewards; now is the time for good works and repentance with the help of the Holy Spirit, so that we would worship and serve the living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

March 17, 2024 - What makes a disciple, Part 4

Seeds of faithfulness

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Mark 9:17-31

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today is the fourth installation of our Lenten six-part series on what makes a disciple of Christ. Lent is a period of preparation for our participation in the greatest event in human history – Christ’s death and resurrection, our liberation from sin and death, which now gives every Christian faithful an opportunity to participate in God’s works in this age, in anticipation of being His co-workers in eternity.

Lent is also a period of spiritual, and sometimes physical, struggle that reveals our weaknesses. And one of the weakest things we have is our faithfulness. Christ both expects us to be faithful and knows that we will inevitably fail in being faithful.

When Peter told Him, “Let me walk on water to You.” Christ commanded him to walk. But Peter started drowning, so Christ called him, “You of little faith…” (Matthew 14:31). Christ allowed Peter to walk on water not only because Peter wanted to, but also because Christ fully expected him to. Christ expected him to be faithful to the command.

When the father brought his possessed son to Christ’s disciples, they were unable to heal him. And Jesus said, “You faithless generation” (Mark 9:19). He fully expected them to be able to exorcise that demon; they couldn’t, because of their faithlessness.

In many ways we are like those disciples and the father of the boy – we try to be faithful, but we keep hitting roadblocks. So one of the ways that our faithfulness is strengthened is by being tested.

If we become disciples of Christ and try to be faithful, we can be sure of one thing 100% – our faithfulness will be tested. And very often it will be tested through those closest and dearest to us – our children, if we have them, a spouse, our parents, a close friend. It is through them that we are most vulnerable in this world.

Especially the children. And the Scripture testifies to this. In today’s Gospel lesson the father’s faithfulness is tested through his son. Job’s faithfulness was tested through the loss of his children. Abraham’s faithfulness was tested through his son Isaac. Jairus’ faithfulness was tested through his dying daughter.

It's not that God does something to our loved ones to test us. Rather, we are all born into and inherit this world, along with our sinfulness. Through this sinfulness illnesses afflict us. When a child has a fever, it’s not due to some specific sin of the parents. Sickness exists because all of us are sinners.

When a loved one is suffering, so are those who love him, and through this suffering their faithfulness is tested. God does not make them suffer, but our faithfulness is tested, nonetheless.

We are tested where we are most vulnerable. And if we were aware of being tested, we’d be far more likely to pass the test. No student enjoys unexpected tests, but the life is full of them. If we knew that we’re tested, we’d be more careful and aware. Instead, we generally think that we are simply having problems.

What we call problems, almost always, are tests of our faithfulness. The father had a problem in that his son was severely possessed by a demon. This was his test.

The Lord tells him, “All things are possible to those who are faithful” (Mark 9:23). And the father replies with a confession of faith and a petition, “I believe. Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). This can also be translated as, “I am faithful. Help my unfaithfulness.”

A peculiar response, isn’t it? “I believe. Help my unbelief.” We actually say the same thing all the time in our divine services. We do not exactly use the same words, but we do say and sing and chant, “Lord, have mercy.”

“Lord” is the confession of our faith. It’s the father’s “I believe.” Believe in what? In Christ being able to heal his son. Why do we call Him Lord? Because we believe that He is.

“Have mercy” is the petition, the same as, “Help my unbelief.” In both cases it means “do something for me.” We confess him to be the Lord, and we need His mercy. The father believes, but it’s hard for him to completely trust it. We’ve all been there – believing, but not fully trusting.

Christ expects His disciples to be faithful to Him. This should go without saying. Faithless disciples are unreliable; faithless disciples are Judas. He expects us to be faithful, but He also knows that we will struggle through our tests.

In Saint Matthew’s Gospel we also have the same story about a possessed boy and a father struggling with his faithfulness. But Saint Matthew adds Christ saying that if our faith was the size of a mustard seed, we’d be able to move mountains.

Moving mountains is no easy task. They’ve been trying to move that mountain right outside with loads of trucks, and they barely made a dent. Saying that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus tells us that size is not important with respect to faithfulness. Mountains are generally huge and unmovable, and mustard seeds are small and insignificant in comparison. But mustard seeds have one major advantage over any mountain – they are alive!

Mountains are dead, but seeds grow. Seeds can crack a hard rock; they can split a mountain apart.

Yes, Christ expects us to be faithful because we are His disciples. Yet, He does not expect all of us to have earth-shattering faith. (And I’ll reveal to you a little secret – barely anyone is that faithful). As long as our faith is not a dead rock, but a little mustard seed, no matter how small, if we water it, it’ll grow.

There will be tests that will challenge the maintenance of our mustard seed and the efficacy of our faithfulness. The tests will happen where we are most vulnerable. And through these tests our faithfulness will be increased.

What makes a disciple of Christ? Growing the seed of our faithfulness and being vigilant of everything that will test it.

And in every situation being able to give all glory, honor, and worship to the one God in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

March 17, 2024 - What makes a disciple, Part 3

The cross

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Mark 8:34-9:1

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

What makes a disciple of Christ? We have, for the most part, lost the meaning of a relationship between a teacher and a disciple. It’s not like that of a teacher with students.

Today’s teachers are meant to transmit information from a curriculum, sometimes heavily imposed on them by the state, to the students. The students, sometimes grumpily, receive that information, and move on.

Perhaps the closest analogy to the relationship between a teacher and a disciple from Christ’s time would be a relationship between a master and an apprentice. Apprentice’s job is to learn of the master’s ways as much as possible, to copy the master in all things.

When the Lord said, “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), He had something very specific in mind. A disciple in those days, much like an apprentice today, strove to learn from, copy, and imitate the teacher in everything. And the teacher would do everything to impart his knowledge upon the disciple. More importantly, a good teacher or master, would never ask his disciple or apprentice to do something that he himself had never done or was unable of doing.

And so, when Jesus tells us today, “Whoever desires to become My follower, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me” (Mark 8:34), we hear a teacher, The Teacher, say what it takes to be His follower, His disciple. And knowing what had transpired in Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago, we can be sure that our Teacher is not asking us to do something that He Himself is incapable of doing.

In fact, Christ’s own crucifixion is the reason why the phrase “take up your cross” is not analogous today to “hang a noose around your neck,” but is actually a sign of discipleship. The cross is an interesting thing. In the first century Roman empire, crucifixion was reserved for the worst of the worst, and never for Roman citizens. Actually, Roman citizens were discouraged from observing crucifixions, talking about them, or even thinking about them. This should give us a general idea of an atrocity that crucifixion was.

The Roman government used it to send a message, especially during riots, and discourage others from even thinking about revolting. Before Christ’s advent, there were other want-to-be messiahs. They often riled up the crowds, which led to small rebellions. All of those messiahs ended up on the cross.

And along comes Jesus Christ, claiming not only to be the Messiah, but also the Son of God. Do you know who else had the title of the son of god in those days? The emperor, Caesar.

Jesus was destined to end up on the cross. But as we will celebrate in four short weeks, His story did not end on the cross. If nothing else, the cross became part of His story; He transformed the cross from a weapon of torture to a weapon that knocks down the gates of Hell.

When the Lord tells us to take up our cross, He means to say, “Stop being a spectator, and start imitating Me. Be My disciple! Take what you learned from Me, your Master, and live it.”

A person carrying the cross ended up on that cross. And make no mistake, Christ is telling us to do just that – carry our own crosses, upon which we will eventually be crucified.

Why? Because our Master was crucified in a similar fashion. Because “whoever desires to save their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for [His] sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

The cross is the ultimate sign of defeat that became the ultimate sign of victory. All those would-be messiahs of old ended their movements dying on the cross. The Son of God, the promised Messiah, began His reign enthroned on the Cross.

To be willing to take up our own cross is to be willing to die to so many destructive and sinful aspects of this life. Things that tell us, “It’s your life, save it. If you won’t, no one else will.” We call those things the passions. When we crucify our passions on the cross, we lose our life for Christ’s sake, Who, in turn, saves our life.

The meaning of the cross may have changed with Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, but it does not make it any easier to take up, or even pick, a cross.

There was once a man who had a cross, which he carried around. His cross was not necessarily too heavy, but it wasn’t comfortable either. The man did not mind his cross, but there were days when it felt extra heavy and burdensome.

On those days, the man would complain, “O God, why did You give me this particular cross? Do You really think that I am strong enough to carry it around? Please give me another cross.” Most of the days the cross, in fact, felt manageable. It was just on those “special” days that it was unbearable, and the man made his complaints to the Lord.

And so, on one of those days when the man complained, Christ visited the man and said, “Alright, if you really feel that this cross is not meant for you, come, let’s pick out another one for you.”

Before entering the room with the crosses, the Lord told him, “Just remember, you cannot leave this room without a cross, because My disciples must carry their cross.” The man promised Him to pick one, and on top of that, he vowed to never complain again.

As they entered the room, the man put his cross right by the door, and started looking around – there were crosses of all shapes, sizes, colors, and materials. So he got to work to finding just the cross that would suit him.

The small crosses he dismissed right away; he was a serious disciple, small crosses were for beginners. He tried to pick up some of the bigger and heavier crosses, but they proved to be too much; one almost crushed him.

He spent hours browsing through those crosses. Sometimes he would find one that had the right color, but the wrong shape; or the right material (he liked wooden crosses), but the wrong size.

Almost in despair he turned to the Lord, and said, “Master, I just can’t find one…” Just then he noticed a cross by the wall that he had somehow missed. The cross seemed to check off all the right boxes for him – it was wooden, just the right size, and perfect shape to carry.

So the man said, “That one! I’ll take that one.” And the Lord answered, “Excellent! You picked well; that’s the cross you left at the door when you came in. Now pick it up, and follow Me.”

The cross that each of us carries is our life. Just like Christ carried His cross to die, we carry the cross of our life to die. If we do this in imitation of the Lord, by taking what we learn from our Master and living it, then we just might find life when we die.

The commandment to deny ourselves and take up the cross is not burdensome when it is given by the One Who helps in carrying it out. And to what place do we follow Christ, if not where He has already gone? He is risen and ascended, there we follow Him.

So what makes a disciple of Christ? Carrying the cross of life, like He did, because only in this way will we find life.

And to the One Who took up His Cross to make our cross more manageable, together with His Father, Who sent Him to save us, and the Holy Spirit, Who guides us now, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

March 17, 2024 - What makes a disciple, Part 2

Faithfulness of friends

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Mark 2:1-12

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today we are continuing to look at what makes a disciple of Christ. So let me tell you a story.

He was paralyzed. And that meant a life of misery, of living on the streets and begging. In the first century Roman occupied Judea there was no concept of social welfare or health insurance. If you were paralyzed, you couldn’t work; if you couldn’t work, you couldn’t pay taxes. And if you were not paying taxes, the Roman government left you to the dogs, literally.

Sometimes even family abandoned you because, again, as a paralyzed man, you were basically useless, taking up space and eating food for which you could not contribute. But the paralyzed man of our story was lucky at least in this – he had four friends.

Now, four friends are not enough to move mountains, at least not actual mountains, but it is enough to carry a paralyzed friend from place to place, from one specialist to another, in hopes of at least one of them being able to help their friend.

But you see, our paralyzed friend here was suffering from more than just physical disability; he also had a spiritual paralysis (more on this a bit later). So it was no wonder that doctors were unable to make him walk; he needed Someone Who could heal both physical and spiritual ailments.

It's hard to say how much hope the young man had left, but his four friends never gave up. They hoped, they prayed, they remained faithful to God, Who, it would seem, kept ignoring their pleas for their friend. They kept helping him, providing for him, even though he could give them nothing in return, except for perhaps a smile or cheer them up when they returned after a long day working the fields.

And then one day, as they were working, they heard that a certain Healer, Whose fame kept growing, and people kept flocking around Him, and some even claimed to have been healed by Him because, it was declared, He was healing by the power of God (could He be the Messiah?), was in town again. And He was staying in Peter’s house.

The four friends abandoned their work and ran home to tell their suffering friend that this may be it, that this Healer will help him.

So they picked him up and ran out the door. Have you ever tried running in a group, while holding something together? The four friends ran with almost a reckless abandon, more than once they were this close to losing the handle and flipping the bed upon which their friend lay.

Yet they ran. How they made it all in one piece only God knows, but while they were still a few houses away from Peter’s place they had to halt suddenly. The crowd was thick as a wall. The Healer was really becoming a sensation in their town. It seemed every sick person in Capernaum came to Peter’s house to find help, to hear Him talk, to check out whether He lived up to the stories people were telling about Him.

Another of the great prophets or Messiah? Could it be? Now? Haven’t we had enough of these so-called messiahs in the last few decades? All of them claimed to have power from God, all of them claimed to perform miracles, and all of them ended up the same – on the cross.

Remember how I said that four friends are not enough to move mountains? Look at the heavy machinery that’s trying to rip apart the mountain just outside. Four friends are not enough to move mountains, but those four friends carrying a paralyzed man is enough to squeeze through a crowd thicker than Penn State’s home opener … but it wasn’t enough to get through the door.

But they did not despair. One of the four, a quick thinker, saw the stairs leading up to the roof, so he directed his friends to go there. Why? What was his plan? “It’s the roof! There’s nowhere but down from there,” his friends tell him. “Exactly!” he replied.

Once on the roof, he looked around, and right there in a corner, as if by chance, he saw one of those small shovels you do gardening around the house with. He took it and started digging. Digging the floor! His friends stood around him, scratching their heads … until they saw a hole, and through that hole the Healer. And then they realized, he’s not digging a hole in a floor, but making an opening in a ceiling.

They never stopped to think that they were actually vandalizing Peter’s roof. All four of them started to take it apart. They were determined that the Healer see their friend. Maybe they were reckless friends, but they were faithful friends, as well.

If you ask me, everyone needs at least a friend or two like that in their life – faithful to the point of breaking someone’s roof. And, every one of us should be that kind of friend to at least one person.

As they were removing the roof, the people below them were all standing and waiting, somewhat worried, for what would happen next. After they made a hole big enough to fit their friend, they looked around and there it was! A rope, just long enough, it seemed, to lower him down.

They carefully let down the bed on which the paralyzed lay right at the feet of the Healer. He looked up at them, all dusty and tired, shook His head slightly and gave them a little smile (and was it a wink?).

A couple of decades later, an Evangelist would write that He saw their faithfulness (Mark 2:5); faithfulness not only to their friend, but to God; faithfulness that couldn’t move mountains, but the one that could bring a suffering friend to the Healer, the Lord and Savior of mankind. Even though, doubtless, they had no idea that they had accomplished this much; all they did, in their mind, was help a friend.

And then they heard the Healer say to their friend, “My son, your sins are forgiven you” (Mark 2:5). Sins? Sins!? But … but, he’s paralyzed; he can’t walk … did we do all of this for nothing?

Our sins do not directly cause our physical illnesses. Neither do physical afflictions lead to sin. But there is a connection between the two. A life of sin, of self-indulgent, unrepentant sin will affect and infect our whole being.

Due to the unfortunate theological influence from some of the Western Christians, sin has come to be seen as breaking the law, for which we are punished by God. For example, God said do not steal. And when we steal, God punishes us with some sort of ailment.

That’s not what sin is and that’s not how Christ approached all the sinners in the first century, and that’s not how He approaches them today. Sin is a disease that needs to be healed, and not an act that needs to be punished.

If I sin, and keep on sinning, it will eventually affect me physically because it’s a disease that eats away from the inside out. And the only way to stop it is to find the Healer and repent.

The paralyzed man had his sins forgiven because paralysis was the least of his problems. And once he obeyed Christ’s command to stand up, take up his bed, and go home, then he was healed both spiritually and physically. He carried the very bed that once carried him. What used to be the proof of his sickness became the sign of his healing, both spiritual and physical.

We know nothing about his faithfulness; it was the faithfulness of his friends that got him an audience with God. But it was his obedience to the words of the Lord that made him well.

As the four friends were standing on that roof in bewilderment at the Healer’s unexpected and, if we are honest, somewhat disappointing words (to them) about the forgiveness of sins, instead of the healing of paralysis, they missed an argument between the Healer and some of the scribes that were in the crowd.

All four of them were dumbstruck. All this work, and for what? Now they would have to get down there, pick up their friend and keep on carrying him.

They woke up from their trance only when, as if in a dream, they saw their friend stand up, pick up his bed, and simply walk out. Like he was there taking a nap and then decided to just go home.

Joy and confusion overwhelmed them. They started to look for the stairs; one of them almost ran off the roof, having gone in the wrong direction. Once they made it down, safely, they found their friend and embraced him, all five of them in tears. Four faithful friends may not move mountains, but five may try.

The people that almost prevented them from bringing their friend to Christ, now made way for them, amazed and glorifying God, and saying, “We’ve never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:12).

So what makes a disciple of Christ?

Faithfulness.

Faithfulness, through which we can bring others to Christ. And maybe a little reckless, in a good way, friendship. I think we need to be a bit unexpected, like those four friends in order to bring others face to face with God. It is far from evident to people today, just like it was far from evident to people a hundred years ago or a thousand years ago or two thousand years ago that we all need the Physician, the Healer of our souls.

But we do. Sin is a disease that will eat away until there’s nothing left. It’s not just one of those nice titles that we give Him, that we call Jesus Christ the Physician of our souls and bodies. Doctors today may be able to cure many things, yet we still waste away and die.

Only the Lord can heal us from the inside, so that we would live, not only in this life, but in eternity. He gives us life now, to start living and growing in the Lord, and participate in His work from now and forever.

And as disciples of Christ, we have an opportunity, through our faithfulness and friendship, to help others find this same healing. We do not need to move mountains, but we can bring a suffering friend to the Healer.

And to the One Who forgives our sins and heals our souls and bodies, our Lord Jesus Christ, together with His Father and the Holy Spirit, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

March 17, 2024 - What makes a disciple, Part 1

How are the disciples “found” by God?

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from John 1:43-51

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Having just completed a pre-Lenten 5-part series on repentance, and with the first Sunday of Lent now upon us, we will begin a new sermon series. This time a 6-part series on what makes a disciple of Christ.

At its most basic, the word disciple means a follower of someone. In our case, a disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It is peculiar that of many things Jesus commanded us to do, He never said, “Make more Christians.” But He did say, “Go, and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Make disciples, make followers of Christ of all the nations.

Therefore, our task is kind of simple – unless and until everyone around us (starting with our family members, extending to our neighbors, the town we live in, our state, and country) is Christ’s disciple, our job’s incomplete.

But before we run off today after the Liturgy and start making disciples of Christ, we need to know what makes a disciple of the Lord. And more importantly, how am I to fulfill the great calling of being Christ’s disciple?

Every Orthodox Christian is already a disciple by virtue of being baptized. It is at baptism that we hear and receive Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations. So whether we were baptized as infants or did it more consciously a bit later, we are disciples and we are to make disciples.

Today’s Gospel lesson tells of Christ calling two of His disciples. From it we learn where and how the Lord chooses His disciples, what the disciples do to be chosen, and what they do once chosen.

Jesus decided to go to Galilee (John 1:43). This was not a place with good reputation among the Jews of that day, nor were there many rich, educated, or influential people. So already we see that God does not care about our social status, our credit score, or our education when choosing His followers. Not that rich and important and smart people can’t be His disciples. It's just not what God cares about.

What does He care about, though? Faithfulness. As Saint Paul tells us today about the saints of the Old Testament, “who through faithfulness conquered kingdom, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, became strong in weakness, grew mighty in war, and put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:33-34). Faithfulness is the defining mark of a disciple of Christ.

Galilee was not the best of places, yet, it was there that Jesus found Philip (John 1:43), as we are told. And notice that Jesus found Philip. He didn’t meet him, He didn’t stumble upon him, He didn’t search for him, but He found him.

Christ actively looks for disciples, and He has given us the task of bringing them to Him now. As Saint John the Evangelist also quotes Christ saying, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should last” (John 16:15).

Christ doesn’t just find us and put us away like a toy on a shelf; He doesn’t just choose us, He chooses us for a specific purpose – to bear fruit, to do His work in this world, to be His eyes and ears and hands and feet. When we receive the holy baptism, we agree to all of this.

But let’s not be overwhelmed. None of this is easy or simple, because it’s not supposed to be, but it is beneficial to us and to those around us.

So, when Jesus found Philip, He said to him, “Follow Me.” We are not told Philip’s reply, but he immediately runs to his friend Nathanael and tells him that they “found Him of Whom Moses in the Law and the Prophets wrote, Jesus Son of Joseph from Nazareth” (John 1:45).

Even though Jesus found Philip, Philip thinks that he found Jesus. Why would he think that? The answer lies in the sources that Philip lists – Moses and the Law and the Prophets. In other words, these are the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament.

Jesus found Philip, but Philip was ready to be found because he knew his Scriptures, he knew what the Scriptures said about the Messiah. The disciples of Christ have to know Scriptures. There is no way around it. Read Scripture, learn Scripture, memorize Scripture.

We no longer live at a time when we can hear the Bible read only in church, because it was so expensive to produce one. And shame on us, if that’s the only time we hear the Bible. Today we can get the Bible in any size and color and format. Since the Bible was first translated into English, there are around 900 different English versions alone.

Choose one and study it. Disciples of Christ make reading the Bible part of their life. But don’t just read it, try to understand what it says. There are numerous sources for interpretation of the Bible. If you do not know where to begin, ask me and I’ll recommend a source or three.

Memorize Scripture, the Psalms, for example. The Psalms have been prayed continuously for over 3,000 years now. The Mother of God taught her little Son, Jesus Christ, to pray using the Psalms.

Philip received and accepted Christ’s call to follow Him, to become His disciple, because Philip was ready to be found. The foundation was laid in him through the Scriptures. And I would not be surprised that that foundation was laid in him by his parents and grandparents, who taught him the Scriptures.

So now as a disciple of Jesus, without even being told to do so, Philip runs to Nathanael and calls him. He is already doing the work of the disciple. Nathanael hesitates a bit, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46), but Philip hits him with the best line ever, “Come and see.”

As disciples of Christ, the best thing we can do is let our life, our lifestyle, our everyday living, be the best witness to our faithfulness to Christ and to His mercy on us and the world. We are not required to use many words, because how can one explain the love of God? This love can only be demonstrated.

And if we do need to resort to words, “Come and see,” are the best words we can use. Come and see and experience, with us how good the Lord is, His love and mercy.

What makes a disciple of Christ? Faithfulness, the love and knowledge of Scriptures, and the desire to share the fact that we have been found by the Lord.

To Jesus Christ our Savior, Who has found us, we give all glory, honor, and worship, together with His Father Who has no beginning, and the Most Holy Spirit, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

March 17, 2024 - Forgiveness, part 5

Sunday’s sermon on the Gospel lesson from Matthew 6:14-21

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today we are concluding our discussion on repentance. Once we talk about this last step, it doesn’t mean that if we do all the steps once or twice that we are fully repentant, or that we are holy or anything like that.

As I’ve mentioned throughout this series, repentance is a journey. It is a journey of a lifetime, and it is a lifestyle itself. Christian life is a life of repentance.

Let’s just summarize where we’ve been so far. Repentance begins with an acknowledgement that each of us is a sinner, first among sinners, as Saint Paul says (1 Timothy 1:15). And we also realize that we need Someone greater than ourselves to help us, to heal us. And that Someone is God.

We learned that repentance happens only in the present. The present moment is the only moment we have; it is the moment when God interacts with us; and it is the moment when we interact with each other.

Repentance includes death. Sin leads to one type of death – the separation from God. In order to return from that death, we need to die again – die to our sins, to our passions, to our lusts, to all that is unholy. There is also humility that helps us stay grounded in the present moment and assists in cutting off the sinful part.

Once we’ve done these steps, woken up, as it were, and gotten on the right path, now we need to stay on this path. We do that by actually doing something, doing the good works. These good works do not earn us salvation or God’s mercy. Rather, we do them because we are saved, because we have experienced God’s mercy, because the good works are part of our very being.

And there is one more thing that keeps us on the path of repentance, and therefore, the path that leads to God’s Kingdom, our homeland. And it is forgiveness.

Forgiveness is essential because it is active repentance. Every time I choose to forgive someone, I reconcile myself with that person. But there is more to forgiveness than this.

The Evangelist Mark records a story of four men bringing their paralyzed friend to see the Lord (Mark 2:1-12). Because of the crowd, they were not able to get near Him, so they took the roof apart and lowered their friend right in front of Christ.

When the Lord saw the man, He said to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). In that crowd were some of the scribes, meaning people who knew their Scripture well. And they questioned in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak like that? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7).

In His response to them, Jesus does not say, “No, no, no, people can forgive sins as well.” Rather, He says, “What’s easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or, ‘Rise and go home.’” Therefore, confirming that it is God alone Who can forgive sins.

So what is going on in today’s Gospel lesson, where Christ says, “If you forgive people their offenses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14)? Isn’t it God alone Who can forgive sins?

One of the main reasons why the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, became incarnate, took upon Himself our human nature, is so that we would have a chance to become like Him, like God. We can never become God, but we can be like Him.

God alone can forgive sins, it is one of His divine characteristics, and He gives us an opportunity to do the same. In fact, Christ is not so much as giving us a chance to forgive, but He commands it. It’s a commandment – forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Today’s reading comes right after the Lord taught His disciples how to pray. And the prayer He gave them begins with, “Our Father Who art in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9). In this prayer, among other things, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Saint Augustine says that in no other petition do we pray in such a manner as to make a kind of covenant with the Lord. Every time we say the “Our Father,” we are making a deal with God, “Forgive us because we are already actively forgiving others.”

Forgiveness is active repentance because when we forgive, we keep the commandment of Christ, we are reconciled with each other, and we receive God’s forgiveness from our sins, and we become like God.

Saint John Chrysostom says that nothing makes us so like God as our readiness to forgive each other. And how great a reproof then must they deserve, who, after all this, still do not forgive and even ask God’s vengeance on their enemies.

In Greek, one of the words for forgiveness can also be translated as “standing in the same place together.” So, forgiveness is like standing in the same place with the person I am trying to forgive. But, in order to stand in the same place with that person, I need to repent, to change myself, otherwise how can I stand there.

If I am standing in the same physical place with you, let’s say here in church, yet I can’t forgive you, for whatever reason, then we are not really in the same place, I am somewhere way behind, not here, not in the present. To be able to forgive, we need to be in the present moment.

We can’t be proper Christians without practicing forgiveness. We can’t stand together in the same place with another person, if we can’t call that person our brother or our sister. We can’t change, repent, if we do not transform our relationships.

It's seven weeks before Pascha; it’s enough time to start our journey of repentance. Let us put to practice all the aspects of repentance we learned over these last 5 weeks, in order to come out with our risen Lord in closer relationship with Him and each other.

May the Lord our God, Who alone forgives sins, and Who commands us to do the same, grant us a repentant and forgiving heart.

Amen.

March 10, 2024 - Repentance, part 4

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Matthew 25:31-46

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today is the penultimate installation in our 5-part series on repentance.

So far we have looked at how to get on the right track. Repentance is realizing that we are going the wrong way, stopping and turning around, finding the right way, and walking on it.

Zacchaeus showed us that this journey of repentance begins with an acknowledgement of two things: that we are sinful and that we need Power greater than ourselves, that we need God, to heal us.

Then from the parable of the Tax-collector and the Pharisee we learned that our journey of repentance has to happen in the present, while we are most humble. The present moment is the only time we get to spend with God, with our neighbor, and with ourselves. And humility helps us stay in the present because we either humble ourselves or we get humbled, humiliated. When we are humble, we mind our own business, we pay attention to our own journey of repentance, not that of others.

Last week the Prodigal Son demonstrated that the proper way to return to God lies through death and confession. Sin is a type of death because it separates us from our Creator and the Source of Life. The way out of sin is another death, when we put to death the sinful part of our being – the passionate, the lustful, the ever hungry and greedy self; that part has to die. This happens through the Sacrament of Confession, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before You” (Luke 15:18).

So, we have realized that we are going the wrong way, we stopped, we turned around, we found the right way, now what? How do we walk on it?

The answers are provided in today’s and next Sunday’s Gospel lessons.

The Gospel lesson we just heard describes the Last Judgment, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory” (Matthew 25:31). He initially appeared in humility, in lowliness, being born of a Virgin and placed in a manger. He will appear again, but this time in His full glory, sitting on His throne, accompanied by His angels.

And the Son of Man will judge all the nations; He will separate people like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:32)

And no, this is not a story of how we will go to hell, or how people we dislike will go to hell. In this story, Christ actually tells us that hell, or eternal fire, is prepared for the devil and his angels. Hell is not meant for people. If people end up there, it’s only because they choose to go there.

One way we choose hell over God’s Kingdom is remaining unrepentant.

But let’s return to our main question – how do we walk on the right path, once we find it, in our journey of repentance?

It depends on what we do, and not only on what we believe (even though, our actions are outward expressions of our inward beliefs). There are some Christian groups who squirm at the thought of good works as “earning our salvation.” When we do good deeds, however, we do not earn our salvation; we express the fact that we are already saved.

In other words, if I believe that Jesus Christ became incarnate, suffered and died on the Cross, resurrected on the third day, and ascended into heaven for my salvation, then my lifestyle, my whole being will reflect that in the good works I do.

On the other hand, if I believe all of that, but curse my brother, disrespect my parents, abuse my family, spit at the needy hand stretched out to me, then it’s the same thing as cursing, disrespecting, abusing, and spitting at the Lord Himself, and rejecting the salvation He offers me.

The journey of repentance does not end with us confessing all the sins we have committed. This journey continues every day, in every action we make.

One of the things that strikes me the most about the Last Judgment reading is that after the Lord tells those who are placed on the right hand, who inherit the Kingdom prepared for them, that He was hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, in prison and they took care of Him, they reply, “When, Lord?”

They did not even realize that when they did these things to one of the least of His brothers, as He says, they did it to Him. (Matthew 25:40) And why did they not realize it? Because it has become part of their being, part of who they are. They always do good things.

They do not it to boast, they do not do it to earn extra brownie points, they do not do it to get a tax write-off. They do it because that’s who they are; it’s their second nature.

As we traverse our path of repentance, opportunities to do the right and the good thing will present themselves to us daily. Let’s work on this becoming our second nature as well.

If we fail to do the good thing, however, it’s not the end and we will not have to restart our journey. But we do have to acknowledge it and amend it; and depending on what it is, perhaps, confess it as well. A misstep, doing the wrong thing, committing a sin becomes a disaster only if, in pride, we disregard it.

Sometimes we may do the right thing because we are scared to go hell, if we otherwise mess up. But that’s the wrong kind of motivation. Instead, focus on doing good because God has prepared His Kingdom for us.

Seize it with a repentant lifestyle! Seize the Kingdom of God. (Matthew 11:12) Use every chance to serve God by helping and serving those He puts in our way. They are there not to distract us, but for us to express the fact that we are saved through the good works we do.

And may we also hear, at the end of this age, those blessed words, “Inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).

Amen.

March 3, 2024 - Repentance, part 3

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 15:11-32

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today is the third part of our 5-part series on repentance. We began with the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector from Jericho, who showed us that journey of repentance begins with an acknowledgement that we are in fact sinners, and that we need a Power higher than ourselves to find healing and reconciliation.

Last week we learned from the two men that went up to the Temple to pray, one a Tax-collector and another a Pharisee, that repentance happens in the present moment – the only moment we actually exist in, the only moment that we experience, and the only moment when God interacts with us.

And one common theme from the last two Sundays, and today as well, is humility. We can’t repent without it; there is no repentance without humility, sometimes extreme humility.

And as I mentioned last week, this process, this journey of repentance is not a step-by-step kind of process. It’s not like a cooking recipe or lego manual or gps, where we need to follow each step as closely as the instructions tell us. All the steps of the process of repentance happen simultaneously; even though, sometimes we may need to take a certain step on its own.

And let’s just remind ourselves the very simple definition of repentance that we are working with here. When we repent, we realize that we are doing something wrong, that we have problems, and then we stop doing it. Or, we realize that we are going in the wrong direction, then we stop, turn around, find the right way, and take that path.

To go from realizing to stopping to doing the right thing can sometimes take a whole lifetime.

Jesus Christ began His whole ministry with the word, “Repent,” therefore highlighting its importance. Since the Lord calls us to repentance, then all of us have something to change in our life; in short, all of us have problems and issues. It’s the matter of recognizing them and following the right path.

“Repent because the Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” was Christ’s full command. Therefore, repentance is the key into God’s Kingdom. But, let’s say, I don’t care about the Kingdom that much. Not every Christian thinks too much about the Kingdom. Let’s say, I’m content with this life as it is, but not beyond it.

Fine. We do have a choice between living today, in the present, with an eye on the Kingdom of God; or living today, with an eye on getting the most out of today. Each choice we make does have its consequences, but we do have options. Although, not all of these options are equal, or lead to equally satisfying outcomes.

The younger son from today’s parable had all of the options available to him while he lived with his father. Eventually he would have inherited his share of his father’s property. But, he failed to live in the present; whatever madness drove him to it, but he asked for his inheritance ahead of time. And his father obliged him by dividing his property between his two sons.

Not soon after that, he was out of his father’s basement, living a free, independent, and careless life.

Sin feels like that sometimes, like you can actually do it, alone, without following any of those rules, almost daring God to stop you. Have you ever done something that was clearly wrong, sinful, just see how God would react?

God reacts just like the father in the parable does, “Want to do it? Do it, and I’ll be here when you decide to return.” He won’t stop us, He won’t threaten, He won’t beg us because He has already set before us two ways – a way of life and a way of death (Deuteronomy 30:19) – and He even told us which way to choose (life), just in case we were confused. …

And now we come to another step on our journey of repentance, which is death. Not the way of death, but death that leads to life. There is a saying that goes something like this – if you die before you die, then you won’t die when you die.

The younger son, the Prodigal Son, as he has come to be known because of his self-indulgent and immoral way of wasting his father’s inheritance, actually experiences two types of deaths.

One of them we absolutely have to experience, if we want to repent; and another one we likely experience because, like the Prodigal Son, we waste away our inheritance.

The first type of death he goes through is the one caused by sin – separation from God. There is no worse death than this. Physical death is a blessing in comparison to this death. The only thing that separates us from God is sin, but not just any sin – unrepentant sin, unacknowledged sin, the kind of sin when we close our eyes to God and tell him, “This is the way I am. I do not need to change.”

As long as we are alive, as long as we draw breath, as long as we stay in the present moment, we have a chance to repent of any sin we commit and acknowledge. And through repentance God does restore us from this death.

So the Prodigal Son cuts himself off from his father, he dies; but he is not dead to his father, who was always waiting for his son to return.

This first death, the death of sin, can be the end of us. Once we start wallowing with pigs, sleeping in the same stable with them, eating the same food, it may be hard to remember that there is anything better.

But our Father, Who dwells in heaven, has put in our mind, in our very being, the memory of that Garden in which He walked with our ancestors, Adam and Eve. And we have the memory of God’s Only-begotten Son dying for us on the Cross, to free us from sin, death, and corruption. We remember that in our Father’s house there is enough mercy to spare.

To come to this realization, to this acknowledgement, the Prodigal Son had to undergo another death, the absolutely necessary death of humility, or rather humiliation. He wasn’t humbled by those pigs, he was humiliated.

Death by humiliation, humiliation by sin, is the type of death we die before we die, so that we won’t die when we die. It’s the death of cutting off the diseased, the sinful part of ourselves through acknowledgement of our state of being and through confession.

“I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son…” (Luke 15:18).

As I said at the beginning of this series, repentance is not part of confession; rather, the Sacrament of Confession is part of our journey of repentance. One way or another, we have to stand before our Father, like the Prodigal Son, and confess and acknowledge, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

Proper humiliation by our sins, and acknowledgement of them, leads to this confession.

And guess what, when we come broken like that to God (and self-indulgent sin does nothing but break us), then He will receive us because He has mercy enough to spare.

God does not delight in us getting humiliated by our sins, in our rejection of Him through our sins, in our death, but sometimes that’s the path we need to take to return to Him.

The father in the parable did not even let his younger son finish speaking, finish confessing. He immediately restored him to his previous position by giving him the best robe, a ring, and sandals, things that children get, not servants, because his “son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24).

Through sin, we inevitably and daily cut ourselves off from God, we die. But every time we come to our senses, every time our sins humiliate us, we die again a different death. This death leads to life, when we repent and acknowledge and confess our sins. And our Father restores us to the dignity of His children. And He will continue to restore us, as long as we continue practicing repentance.

Next week we will learn that repentance involves not only not doing the wrong thing, but also doing the right thing.

But for now, we turn to our Father, and give Him all glory, honor, and worship together with His, Who saved us on the Cross, and His Most Holy Spirit, Who leads us to repentance, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

February 25, 2024 - Repentance, part 2

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 18:10-14

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today is the second part of the 5-part series on repentance. Repentance is a process, it’s a journey that we take over and over in our life. Repentance is what reconciles us with God, when our sins separate us from Him.

Repentance is also what brings us into His Kingdom, as the Lord Himself said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repentance brings us closer to this Kingdom not some time in the future, after we die, but now, today we may draw closer and experience God’s Kingdom.

Last week we began with looking at the story of Jericho’s chief tax-collector by the name of Zacchaeus. He showed us that repentance begins with an acknowledgement. He also revealed another quality of a repentant soul – humility or even humiliation, in the way he was willing to run and climb a tree, something that grown men did not really do in those days.

Just a side note – all the parts that make up the process of repentance may happen simultaneously. This is not a step-by-step kind of process, where we first acknowledge our sins, then humble ourselves, then turn around, then repent. Things happen together when we repent.

So, from Zacchaeus we learned that we need to acknowledge our sinfulness and that we need a Power greater than ourselves to restore us to proper spiritual, and even physical, health. And that Power is the one true God, Who was willing to send His Only-begotten Son, Who died for our salvation and liberated us from sin and death, and Who heals and sustains us by His Holy Spirit.

And from today’s parable about the Tax-collector and the Pharisee we gain two more qualities necessary for repentance, namely remaining in the present moment and humility.

As most of us were growing up, when we hit a certain age, somewhere in the teens probably, we would fantasize about being grown-up because grownups do whatever they want, unlike the teenagers, who are constantly told what to do. But as we get older and older, we become nostalgic of the good ol’ days, when we were perhaps a bit slimmer, healthier, younger…

To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, when he was describing one of his characters in the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia, “We waste our youth trying to grow up, and then we waste our adulthood trying to stay a certain age.”

The point is that very often we spend more time in the past or in the future, but not enough in the present. And the present is the only time we have. Yesterday is gone; it will never come back. Tomorrow will never be here because when we get to tomorrow it’s already today.

The present moment, today, right now is all that we have. And that’s all we need because God is known only in the present. He is everywhere present and fills all things, as we say in the “O Heavenly King” prayer, but we are not. We exist and experience time only right now. If God interacts with us, it will be right now.

This past week I saw someone post on facebook something that seemed nonsensical at first. I thought, hey, it’s facebook, of course it’s nonsense. But it stayed with me. Here’s what the post said, “Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”

It got stuck in my head for some reason. Maybe for a day or two it would return and make me think. And then I realized why it bothered me – who has the present, then?

If saints have a past, whatever that means, and sinners have a future, who has the present?

Repentant sinners, that’s who.

Repentant sinners are in the present because that’s the only time that we are given to repent – in the present, right now.

The Pharisee went up to the Temple to pray and began with, “God…” very good! He immediately identified Who he’s praying to. “I thank You…” excellent! Thanksgiving is one of those things we do not do enough when we pray. But then, “I am not like other people…” (facepalm).

Once we start comparing ourselves with others, we exit the present moment because we begin looking at what they did or might do – dishonest, unrighteous, adulterers – but not what we are doing right now.

And if you remember from two Sundays ago, when we talked about Saint Paul’s words about being the first among sinners, when we say that, we mean it in comparison with the One Who died for us, not with the people we look down upon.

And even when the Pharisee spoke about the good things he’s done – fasting twice a week, giving a tenth of his possessions – even that took him out of the present moment because he was gloating about what he had done, and not giving thanks to God for the gifts God bestowed upon him.

On the other hand, the prayer of the Tax-collector is simple, but full of repentance. “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He immediately identifies the Power greater than himself that can heal him, and acknowledges himself as the sinner, as first among sinners, because in the presence of God all of us are sinners.

Just like Zacchaeus, the chief tax-collector, humiliated himself on his way to repentance and reconciliation with God, so the man from today’s parable, another tax-collector, shows extreme humility in coming to the Temple to acknowledge his sinfulness.

Saint Ephrem the Syrian says that “the confession of sins of the Tax-collector was more pleasing to God than the acknowledgement of the almsgiving of the Pharisee, because it is more difficult to confess our sins, than our righteousness. God looks on the one who carries a heavy burden.”

And Saints Peter and James, one the chief apostle and the other the brother of the Lord, both said that “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5, James 4:6).

The Tax-collector received grace because of his humility and because he stayed in the present moment. Yes, he sinned greatly before God and before everyone he collected tax from through extortion. But he does not dwell on these things; they happened in the past. He can’t do much about them now.

Approaching God in humility and acknowledgement of the wrong-doing is the only thing he can do. The next step is righting the wrongs. Saint Basil the Great advised to never place ourselves about anyone, not even above great sinners. “Humility often saves a sinner,” he said, “who has committed many terrible transgressions.”

Stay in the present in all humility, while acknowledging our sinfulness before the Power greater than ourselves, the God Who saves us when we repent.

And to the One Who humbled Himself to our lowliness to bring us up to His Kingdom, our Lord Jesus Christ, together with His Father Who has no beginning and His Most Holy Spirit we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

February 18, 2024 - Repentance, part 1

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 19:1-10

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Last week, based on the letter of Saint Paul to his spiritual son Timothy (1 Timothy 1:15-17), we looked at what it means to be first among sinners, what we are to do about it, and what God does with it.

Just to refresh our memories, when I say that I am first among sinners, I mean it in comparison with the ideal, the incarnate Lord Jesus Christ; not in comparison to my fellow sinners. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity humbled Himself to become like me, in all ways but sin, so that I might have a chance to become like Him – a deified, but not divine, person.

And as first among sinners, I am to examine myself on regular basis, in order to know what I need to repent of. Meaning, which aspects of my life I need to reconcile with God and with my fellow neighbor, what I need to cut off as unfruitful, and what I need to start doing to acquire the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self- control (Galatians 5:22-23).

And as I do this, like Saint Paul, I hope that “Jesus Christ might show His mercy, making me an example to those who would come to believe in Him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).

And today we are beginning a 5-part series on repentance – an essential part of being first among sinners.

Before we get into it, let me clarify a couple of things. Repentance is not confession. Our individual confessions, whether they are done at home during our prayers or in church with a priest being a witness, are part of this process we call repentance.

Confession helps us to do an internal self-examination in order keep working on aligning our life with the will of God. But repentance is much more than confession, it’s a whole process, a way of life even. That’s why the first word Christ spoke at the beginning of His entire earthly ministry and preaching was, “Repent...” (Matthew 4:17).

And we need to establish a simple definition of repentance, which is – realize that we are doing something wrong, that we have problems, and don’t do it anymore; or, realize that we are going the wrong way, stop, turn around, find the right way, and take that path.

We all have issues, problems, destructive behaviors, sins; it’s just a matter of seeing and acknowledging them.

A human being, in some ways, is predisposed towards bad, even evil, behavior, that’s why we spend the whole life putting in effort to be good, to be decent, to be not evil. We constantly learn to be good. We are taught what is right, what the proper behavior should be.

On the other hand, we do not need anyone’s help or example to do the wrong thing. We can do that very well on our own, most of the time. ...

Doing the wrong thing came quite naturally to a man who was in a position of serious authority in Jericho. He was the chief tax-collector by the name of Zacchaeus. He was a Jew, but he worked for the Roman government. Working for the hated Gentiles, who conquered and occupied Israel, was seen as a complete betrayal of their faith and their country in the eyes of Zacchaeus’ countrymen.

As his title implies, his job was to collect taxes and hand it over to the Romans. But, tax-collectors were notorious was ripping people off, their own people. Romans did not care how much tax was collected, as long as the government got what it was supposed to get and there were no riots.

As you can imagine, being a traitor and a cruel tax-collector, Zacchaeus did not have many friends. In the eyes of the Jewish society, he was written off along with other great sinners such as murderers and prostitutes. But hey, at least was rich, right?

Well, not really. Turns out Zacchaeus was pretty disgusted with his own life. As the saying goes, all the money in the world won’t buy you happiness. Like a lot of people, Zacchaeus loved money, but somewhere along the way he came to a realization that having money won’t buy him friends, or at least good friends, it won’t buy him acceptance, and it won’t buy him love.

He realized this, but he had no idea how to fix it. And so the story of Zacchaeus illustrates what we innately know, but don’t always think about, namely: we all have problems – ranging from small to destructive; and, we are unable to fix and change ourselves on our own, especially if we are refusing to see our problems.

In the 12-Step recovery programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which have been so effective over the decades, Step 2 says, “We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

For an alcoholic or any other addict, their addiction is not the problem. Addiction is a symptom of the problem. Recognizing and acknowledging the symptom can be very hard. Getting to the root of the problem itself requires serious work, self-examination, and help. Help from the Power greater than ourselves.

For Christians, this greater Power is God, Who is present everywhere, all- powerful, all-knowing, and loving, greatly merciful, and able to heal our wounds.

We often question the need of God’s help in improving our behavior, well- being, and attitude. After all, we are living in the most technologically and ever- advancing society ever. If we put our mind to it, we should be able to achieve almost anything we want, especially here, in the United States. ...

Yet, that’s not true; it’s more like wishful thinking. As advanced a humanity as we are today, but as the 12-Step recovery programs have been saying for the last 80 years and as Christians have known for at least 2000 years – we are still powerless to change ourselves on our own.

There is an industry out there that is making $10 billion annually. The whole point of this industry is to help people become better (because this industry has figured out that we can’t do it on our own). We are living in an age of self-help gurus and personal coaches and influencers.

With the ubiquity of the social media, literally anyone can become a self-help guru and make money. What’s really interesting is that people are actually buying into this stuff. They are following these gurus, shelling out loads of cash, to the tune of $10 billion a year.

(But don’t get me wrong here, not every self-help personal coach is a scam artist. Some of them are very talented and know what they are talking about.)

The point of all of this is that our society, whether knowingly or unknowingly, consciously or subconsciously, admits that we need help in order to improve, get better, grow up, or kick the destructive habit. We can’t do it on our own. The rise of self-help industry is the prime example of it.

But self-improvement coaches, as good as they may be, will not get us over the hill. They are still just like us – fallen, broken, sinful human beings. They may excel at some things, but they do fail and struggle at other aspects of their life. In other words, they are limited.

We need a Power greater than ourselves; Someone Who is unlimited in His power and in His love; Someone Who loves us the way we are, but wants us to become what we are meant to be; Someone Who is willing to lay down His life for us.

And this Someone began His public ministry with, “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17). Repentance gets us beyond this existence into the “something more,” into that Kingdom. And the beautiful thing is, we can partly experience God’s Kingdom here and now...when we repent.

So, in order to get on the road of repentance, we first acknowledge that we have problems. We don’t have to be addicts to have problems. Are we struggling with anger issues, spending our days in grumpy mood? That’s a problem. Are we aggressive or even abusive to our loved ones? That’s a problem. Are we indifferent, lazy, or despondent? That’s a problem. Are we in depression? That’s a problem. Are we overworking and pushing ourselves beyond our limits? That’s a problem.

Zacchaeus knew he had problems, he did not like his life, he was tired of his miserable way of living, otherwise he would’ve stayed home when Jesus was walking through his town. Tax-collectors were so disliked that it was dangerous for him to be in the crowd that followed Christ, because someone inevitably would’ve taken a shot or two at him.

But, realizing his problems, and not knowing how to change his life, Zacchaeus must’ve felt powerless; he was seeking that Power that is greater than himself. So, he took a huge risk – he gambled by outside, by outside his comfort zone.

To do what? All he wanted was just a glimpse of Jesus. But he went even further outside his comfort zone by running and climbing a tree. Two things that were considered to be embarrassing for a grown man to do in those days.

And he not only saw Jesus, but the Lord requested to be a guest at his house. The Lord came inside when Zacchaeus was seeking and ready to go outside himself to Someone greater than himself, when Zacchaeus acknowledged his problems.

Yes, we do trust and hope that God helps us with our inefficiencies and issues, but there is also a self-help aspect in Christianity – God helps those who desire to change, who are ready to put in the effort, become uncomfortable, to struggle, maybe even suffer a little for that change for the better.

The process of repentance on the way to the Kingdom of heaven begins with a realization that I am a sinner, the first among sinners. And I am powerless to restore myself to sanity on my own, otherwise self-help industry wouldn’t exist, we wouldn’t be seeking the help from other people, who are just like us. Therefore, we need a Power greater than ourselves; we need the One Who is willing to stoop down to our lowliness, in order to bring us up to His heights – the all-powerful and all-merciful Lord.

Next Sunday we will hear a story about another tax-collector and a Pharisee, as they come to the Temple to pray, and we will look at what they teach us about ourselves and repentance.

But for now, we give glory and honor and worship to the only One Who is greater than us and Who is able to help us, to heal us, and to save us – One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

February 14, 2024 - First among sinners

A few thoughts on what it means to be a sinner, and first among sinners...

Audio of this sermon is available: here

February 4, 2024 - A lesson on faithful investments

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Matthew 25:14-30

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

There is a common misconception among people, especially Christians, who read about the Bible, but do not read much of the Bible, that money is bad and that God will condemn all rich people who do not give everything away to the poor.

This, of course, is not true. God is not some kind of a communist who wants everyone to be absolutely equal, to have the same things and equal amount of money. That’s not how God created us and that’s not how He deals and interacts with us.

And money in itself is not the problem. It is neither condemned nor promoted in the Bible. People who have a lot of money, as well as those who have none have the same chance to experience God’s grace. God shows no partiality to the rich or to the poor. He does not see our bank accounts; He only sees our actions with what He has given us.

It all depends on how we use money and other things in our life, for what purpose, to what end. For this reason, we often see the Lord in the Gospels teach using money as example. Money and wealth have been a driving force for humanity for a very long time now, so Jesus incorporated money into His teaching because that’s the universal language that people across multiple generations and backgrounds understand.

Today’s Gospel lesson is no different. At the center of the parable we just heard is money. And the parable itself is a great lesson on investments – how to properly and faithfully invest our money.

We may not necessarily catch it right away, but the word ‘talent,’ in this reading, does not mean a ‘natural ability’ or ‘gift’ that we may possess, like singing or dancing or woodworking or cooking that God bestows on us. The word was left untranslated, just simply transcribed from Greek.

Talents that the three servants receive is money, or simply cash. One talent was about 6000 denarii (with a single denarius being a daily wage for a common laborer). So a single talent was about 16.5 years of wages. It’s a lot of money, considering that one servant received five talents, another two, and the third one.

Each servant received exactly the measure required of them to accomplish the goals of their own calling. It’s not like the master was prejudiced against the third servant and gave him less than the others to spite him. Each received what they had to receive, and each had the same job – multiply it.

We see that both the first and the second servant, doubled their money, even though each received different amounts, yet the reward was the same, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful over a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your lord.”

The amount of talents, money, received was irrelevant, what they did with them was what influenced the master’s reward them.

As servants, they were wholly dependent on their master. If they had anything, it was only because he decided to give it to them. As their master, he knew well that some of them were more capable than others, yet each of them received something; the master did not leave anyone empty-handed.

And they could not complain of being unfairly treated. I mean, they could try to complain, like the third servant did, but it immediately backfired. His failure to multiply his money was not due to him being a bad investor or his master being a harsh man, but because he was imprudent. He worked very hard, perhaps as hard as the other two, but instead of investing he was digging a hole in the ground to hide the money, unknowingly investing his time (and money) into the preparation of his own grave. And that’s exactly what he got.

As servants of the Lord, the one true God, who have been chosen by Him (remember, He said, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you” (John 15:16)) we are likewise completely dependent on Him. He also entrusts us with many talents (and here I do mean money, not the natural gifts, because it makes the analogy easier).

God invests in us; He is invested into our destiny. God has skin in the game, so to say, and He pours everything into that investment. He gave us His Spirit Who breathes life into us, He gave us salvation, He gave us His Son Who died on the Cross and rose again, He gave us His Church, the community of the faithful. He has entrusted us with all of this, and He expects us to shrewdly invest what He has invested into us, to multiply it, increase it, make profit on it.

One thing we absolutely cannot do is pocket this investment and hide it because it becomes unprofitable for others and useless to us. Money is meant to be used socially. If I take money and put it under the mattress or even invest it, but never use it for anything it remains utterly useless. It only becomes useful when I do something with it.

But why, for what purpose, to what end should we use God’s investment into us? By saving us, Jesus showed mercy on us, and He expects us to show mercy on everyone. So we are to invest money socially.

Today’s parable is followed immediately by another one, the one that gives a practical application as to how we are to use our money, how to properly and faithfully invest it. That second parable we will read in a few weeks on the Sunday of the Last Judgment, the last Sunday before the start of Great Lent.

That parable is about the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). If you recall, it talks about the Last Judgment, when all nations will be gathered before Christ and He will separate them like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And the sheep will be put at His right hand and the goats at the left.

And what is the difference between the sheep and the goats? The difference is in how they invest the money entrusted to them by God.

“I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you gave Me clothing, I was sick and you took care of Me, I was in prison and you visited Me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

And when they are unsure of when they did all these things for Him, the Lord clarifies, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of My family, you did it to Me” (Matthew 25:40).

Jesus saved us and showed mercy on us, so that we would show mercy on everyone. God invests in us for us to multiply His investment and make profit. And no, He will not be checking our bank accounts when He is sitting on His Great Judgment Seat. He’ll check to see whether we invested faithfully into loving our spouse, children, parents; whether we were kind and patient, especially in situations when we were most irritated; whether we were humble, when it was so tempting to take all the credit for a completed project; whether we forgave, even as Christ forgave us; whether we fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, visited the shut-ins and those in prison.

This is how we socially use our money, how we faithfully invest and multiply our Master’s investment into us. …

Perhaps some of us had a thought creep in with something like, “Man, if only God gave me a bit more money, then I’d be doing so much good with it!” (I know I had those thoughts as I was writing these words.) But that’s a losing mentality, those are losing thoughts. If thoughts like that entered into our minds right now, then we completely missed the meaning of the parable.

This is exactly what the third servant thought, “One talent is not enough for anything. If only my master gave me a bit more… I am better off hiding it and returning to him what I got.” And he lost! He lost everything. “From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29).

And notice who got more. Is it the one who was nagging his master that he divided the talents unequally? No. It’s the one who invested faithfully, and multiplied what belonged to his master.

It’s often been remarked that Orthodoxy is paradoxy. If you want to live, you must die. If you want to be first, you must be last. If you want to gain, you must give away.

Because it’s not how much we have, it’s what we do with it. Everyone receives enough to accomplish the goal of their calling.

I hope all of us yearn to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” when the time comes. We all have received talents from our Lord, upon Whom we depend.

And here I mean, again, money. Money in our wallets and our bank accounts.

He gave it to us. Learn to invest it faithfully.

To the One God in Three Persons, Who has fully invested Himself into us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give all glory, honor, worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

January 29, 2024 - Love of God and neighbor

Two of the greatest commandments

Audio of this sermon is available: here

January 14, 2024 - Three points from the blind man

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 18:35-43

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today’s account of Jesus healing the blind man is one of about five or six occasions we find in the four Gospels where the Lord heals blindness. If we wanted to figure out God’s approach to healing this disease, we would not be able to do it based on the information given to us because there is no consistency.

In couple of instances Christ touches the blind men and heals them (Matthew 9:29, 20:34). There is also the time where He spit onto the man’s eyes and laid His hands on him (Mark 8:23). Or how about that time when Jesus made mud with His saliva and spread that mud on the blind man’s eyes (John 9:6)? And couple of times He did what we heard in today’s Gospel lesson – the Lord simply healed by speaking, “Receive your sight. Your faithfulness has saved you.”

Why such radically different approaches to, what seems to be, one illness? I would not be able to tell you; trying to guess what and why God does is futile, at best, for mere mortals like us.

But, we can risk to make at least one assumption about the way God works. Each of us is unique before God. There are no two human beings who are exactly alike in everything. And God does not see us as one human condition. Rather, He sees, He knows us as unique individuals with our unique conditions. And the relationship He has with each of us is also unique.

And the journey that each of us is on is, likewise, unique. The end of this journey, however, is one and the same – to be in communion with God and to experience His Kingdom both in this life and in eternity – but how we get to this end is different for all of us.

So the way Christ approaches us is different for each of us, but this does not mean that we can’t share our experiences or be encouraged by each other.

As unique as our experiences are, let’s look at some common points from today’s Gospel lesson that might help us in our journeys. I will offer three points. There are, of course, more, but let’s limit them to three today.

First, the man in the story is clearly physically blind, but that’s not the only kind of blindness that plagues humanity. In the Bible, we encounter a lot more spiritually blind people, than physically blind ones. Seeing is not just for the eyes.

Even the way we use the verb see points to this greater meaning. Do you see what I mean? For example, “listen to this song and see if you like it.” Or, as we sing in church during the Communion at the Presanctified Liturgy, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

There may be times when we are able to see with our eyes, but completely miss the point. Therefore, we need to be able to see with our physical eyes in order to comprehend with our mind and heart. See what? See God’s work around us and see the work God desires to do through us.

What if we can’t see it? Then we need to shout persistently like the blind man shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Let me see!”

This persistency led to something interesting, almost shocking. And this is the second common point from the Gospel lesson. When Jesus heard the man, He stood still in His tracks. Can you imagine God hearing our cry and standing still?

In the Bible this is the only instance where the Lord stands still. Usually, it’s the people who are ordered to stand still by God. But here, it’s the stubborn will of the blind man that forces Christ to stand still.

This is the persistency and stubbornness that we should have in desiring God’s attention. Instead of giving up or losing hope after one attempt, shout until there is no strength left to shout anymore.

I have a friend, who is a priest, who said that he shouts to God and at God more often than he talks to Him. And guess what, shouting is prayer. Read the Psalms for good examples of shouting at God. A good chunk of the psalms are King David shouting at God.

And the third point is Christ’s response to the blind man. “What do you want Me to do for you?” Jesus asks the man. “Lord, let me see again.” “Receive your sight,” the Lord commanded, and immediately the man regained his sight.

The commands of God are life-giving. “Receive your sight” is a direct command from God to the man. Christ did not tell him, “I hope you can see some day.

Thoughts and prayers.” Rather He commanded the man to see. And he saw.

The man had to obey the command in order to see.

We also have commands from God. Be they the Ten Commandments, or “sell everything that you have and follow Me,” or “take up your cross, deny yourself, and follow Me,” or “love your neighbor as yourself,” or whatever else Christ has commanded through the apostles and through the saints and through His Church, all these commands are life-giving.

These commandments were not given because it’s nice to do some of them. We need to do them because they are life-giving, because they give our life a meaning, because they give life and lead to the life in Christ. The blind man’s faithfulness saved him, as the Lord tells him. Our faithfulness in the One and to the One Who gives us life-giving commandments will save us.

And so, to God Who guides us to Himself on our unique journeys, we give glory and honor and worship today, always, and forever.

Amen.

January 7, 2024 - People Who Sat in Darkness

Sunday Sermon on the Gospel lesson from Matthew 4:12-17

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

On the Sunday after Theophany, we remember the beginning of Christ’s public ministry, the passing of the baton, if you will, from John the Baptist to Jesus Christ.

After He was baptized in the Jordan by John, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert praying and fasting. At the end of which He was tempted, unsuccessfully, by satan.

During these 40 days John was arrested. So as Jesus returned from the desert, He continued, it looked like, the work of preaching that John began. But in reality, John was always going to pass the baton to Jesus. John’s job was to prepare the way for the Lord. And as John himself said, “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease” (John3:30).

And Jesus began His preaching, His public ministry, in one of the most unexpected places, as Saint Matthew tells us today, “He withdrew to Galilee.” Galilee was not a good place. Galileans might have considered themselves to be Jews, but no good Jew would call a person from Galilee a Jew. Galileans were not allowed to visit Jerusalem and worship in the Temple. The Jews, when traveling, would travel around Galilee, even if it was a longer route, just to avoid walking through the region.

And Christ begins preaching there. As Saint Matthew quotes prophet Isaiah prophesying about this moment, “Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great Light.” It is on this phrase, on this verse that I would like to focus today.

In Galilee of the Gentiles, in the land of pagans, the people sat in darkness, and for them the Light has dawned, they saw a great Light.

How much are we today like those people who sat in darkness? It is significant, I think, that they are described as sitting. You can’t really walk around in darkness. The safest thing to do is sit.

Sitting also suggests idleness, there is no effort undertaken to look for something other than darkness. And it suggests being content to be there. The people may not be satisfied with being stuck in darkness, but it sure is safer to sit and do nothing, than risk unnecessary movements.

But the main point about darkness is that we do not know that we are stuck in it until light appears. And the arrival of light may seem something of an intrusion, at first, and an unexpected change.

This is exactly what the coming of Christ was, and still is. His arrival, incarnation, His saving works, His light are all unexpected intrusions into our darkness.

Once in the light, it’s impossible not to acknowledge that light is better than darkness, that light reveals everything that we couldn’t see, that light reveals truth. And truth is more satisfying than any lie.

It just so happens that this great Light has illumined us at least once already, at our Baptism, which was made possible by the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan.

This light lives in us, but it is up to us to keep it burning, to keep it going. So the very important question to ask ourselves is what light has illumined our hearts and actions over the past couple of weeks or months or even the whole year?

What light do we allow to illumine us, our souls and bodies?

Is it the light of our TVs and phones and ipads? The light that, let’s be honest, does nothing but contaminate our soul. Or is it the light of a candle during prayer, the light of Scripture that enlightens our mind as we read, the light of good deeds?

What light illumined our hearts and actions during these days and months? With what light do we intend to brighten our corner of the world going forward?

And if we find ourselves in darkness or illumined by the wrong kind of light, that’s not OK, but that’s not the end. Because, as we see from today’s Gospel lesson, the Lord goes into these dark places that we tend so often to visit, and pulls us out.

So, how do we get out of this darkness? How do we find that Light that has already been planted within us at Baptism? How do we rekindle the light that illumines our senses and shows us the right way?

The key lies in the first word Jesus said as He began His public preaching, “Repent.”

Repentance is hard at times, especially when we are stuck in darkness or illumined by the wrong light. It’s hard because it requires humility.

Repentance involves acknowledging our sinfulness and brokenness, but that’s not all that there is to it.

Repentance is a wholesome action. The word repent means to turn around, as in turn around from walking in the wrong direction, figure out the right direction, and walk there. Which means that repentance is not just turning away from evil, ceasing to do some bad things, but more importantly turning towards the Lord, beginning to follow His commandments and letting Him enlighten us.

And sometimes the mere act of realizing that I am in the wrong, that I am walking the wrong way, may be very hard to accomplish. That’s where humility comes in. Acknowledging my fault, my lack of sense of direction, my sinfulness is like eating a humble pie – it’s sour and hard to swallow, but it is necessary for my repentance, for my salvation.

When Jesus began His public ministry after His Baptism, He went to the worst place in that region – Galilee. In some way, where we are right now is the worst place because where sin prevails there can be no good place. And we are all sinners and promulgators of sin. We need Him to visit us.

And so, as He illumined the people who sat in darkness long ago, let Him illumine us today with His light, so that we may be led by it, and reflect it in our hearts and actions. For Christ’s glory and the glory of His Father and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

December 25, 2023 - Where is God?

Christmas Day sermon (December 25, 2023)

Audio of this sermon is available: here

December 10, 2023 - The war is here

Sunday sermon on Saint Paul’ letter to the Ephesians 6:10-17

“We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, by land, and by air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalog of human crime. That is our policy.”

These are the words Winston Churchill said to the House of Commons as the French retreated from Hitler on May 13, 1940.

Don’t you know that we are at war?! Our enemies surround us all the time. There is no time to relax or lose focus. And we have no choice but to fight this war.

Therefore, put on your soldier’s uniform – the helmet, the bulletproof vest, the pants and shoes, and take up your shield and weapon. And stand firm.

This is Saint Paul’s exhortation to us.

Just like Churchill in 1940, Saint Paul some 1,900 years earlier was also aware that we are at war, and that our enemies are very real and dangerous, and that we need serious and proper protection to fight them.

And Paul specifies who exactly our enemy is. He is very precise so that we would not confuse and fight the wrong foe.

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” he says. In other words, our enemy is not a human being. Let me repeat that, we are not waging war against other people. If you read the Bible, you’ll notice that it talks about the enemy, a lot. If you read the Bible really closely, you’ll realize that by the enemy the Bible almost never means another human being. There is only one instance (at least that I can recall) where Jesus refers to the enemy that is human, and He says, “Love your enemy.”

It’s true that we may have arguments and disagreements between ourselves, but our ultimate fight is not against flesh and blood. Our struggle, rather, is “against the principalities, against the powers, against the cosmic powers of the darkness of this age, and against the evil spirits in the heavens.”

Principalities, powers, and cosmic powers are all names of spiritual beings. Initially these were the names of angels, who were assigned by God to oversee and guide different aspects of God’s creation. They were part of God’s government, His Divine Council.

However, when they saw God’s plan for humanity, humanity that was created in God’s image, humanity that is to rule and guide and oversee God’s creation along with the angels, when these angels saw God’s plan, they rebelled because of envy.

So these angels, principalities, powers, cosmic powers, evil spirits in the heavens, our true and only enemies, have been waging wars against humanity for ages. They afflict the creation with death and suffering.

How many of us actually believe that we are at war with evil? Not with evil people or with evil ideas, but with evil spirits? How many of us take evil seriously today?

The devil has become a comic figure. He is the red guy with a pointy tail and two horns, who whispers naughty things into our ear. That’s all we think we when we generally think about evil.

Do not underestimate demonic powers because they are dedicated to our downfall and ruin. Sin exists because human beings, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and mortal. And through their mortality, through death, sin entered into the world.

But sin exists also because satan pushed Adam and Eve towards disobedience. He promised unsurpassable knowledge and he planted seeds of doubt towards God.

Evil spirits have not stopped planting lies into our hearts. They even willingly work with us, but never for our benefit. Their goal always is our doom.

It’s safe to say that every time we are tempted, it’s the doing of evil. But every time we sin, it’s our own action because we succumbed to the whisper of evil.

And so Paul directs us to have our soldier’s equipment always ready. We can’t go to war wearing jeans and t-shirt. I mean, we can, but we won’t last 5 minutes. So, how do we fight an enemy that is mostly invisible?

First, stand firm, be on guard. Not all fighting involves throwing punches or swinging a sword or shooting bullets. Sometimes we just need to be on guard. How many of us left the house door unlocked or even flung open when we left for church today? No one, right? Unless now you’re thinking, “Did I lock the door? I knew I should have gone back and checked.”

It’s not very smart to leave the door open when nobody’s home. But what about the door of the mind, the door of the ears, the door of the eyes, the door of the heart?

We leave them unlocked and wide open a lot more than we care to admit, so that any enemy can pass through without a problem. And the enemy we are talking about is far more serious than a house robber or an enemy a soldier might encounter on the battlefield.

Therefore, stand firm, be on guard, do not leave the doors to your soul carelessly opened, and put on the soldier’s equipment.

Saint Paul describes two categories of this equipment – defensive and offensive. The defensive equipment consists of helmet, breastplate, belt, shoes, and a shield. Helmet in particular, which Saint Paul calls the helmet of salvation, guards our heads.

We must guard the content between the two ears. What comes in here can be seriously influenced by the evil spirits in the heavens. And this includes what content we consume from TV, books, newspapers, social media, internet in general, and conversations we have.

That’s why it’s essential to read good books, to watch good movies, to have deep and thought-provoking conversations, to counterbalance the garbage that so easily enters into our heads.

And one offensive equipment we are to have, one weapon, is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.” The Word of God is also what we call the Scriptures.

In order the wield the Scriptures as the sword of the Spirit, we need to know the holy Scriptures. Read them daily, even if only a verse or two. Memorize parts of it, especially the Psalms. Keep it in your mind constantly.

The Scriptures constitute the sword that drives away our enemies – the real enemies, the evil spirits, the devil. His whispering won’t be so sweet when we know the truth, when our heads and hearts are filled with good content, when we know the Word of God, while we stand firm and continue the fight.

The war is here, we are the soldiers, Christ’s soldiers. Let us not fight unprepared and untrained.

To Jesus Christ, our Sovereign Leader and Commander, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

December 3, 2023 - Capacity for more

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 18:18-27

Audio of this sermon is available: here

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

What is our capacity? What is our capacity to grow, to learn, to love, to serve, to be? Do we have a limit to our capacity? Can we ever max out our goodness? Is there a ceiling to how much we can love?

These are some of the questions that are prompted by a conversation between Christ and a young rich ruler. The ruler came to the Lord desiring something that we all want, otherwise we wouldn’t be here – he desired salvation, he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

If this is not the question we are asking ourselves daily, then we are wasting our days. – What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Christ replied by quoting five of the Ten Commandments: do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not bear false witness; and, honor your father and mother.

All five of these have one thing in common – our relationship with others. Not one of them is about our relationship with God. At least none of them talk about it directly.

I think Christ is trying to say here that the path to eternal life is not a lonely one, we walk this path together with others. Why? Because eternity is not a lonely place, it is full of other people. So we need to learn not only to co-exist, but to live together today.

And the ruler claims to have kept all of these commandments since his youth. He wasn’t just looking for eternal life, in other words, he was already working towards his destination. And we have no reason to doubt him. Jesus doesn’t doubt him.

Instead, the Lord says, since you’ve kept these commandments, you have a capacity for more. He kept all those commandments? Great, he will be able to do more and greater things! In Christ, our capacity to grow, to learn, to love, to serve never reaches its limit. God is infinite, His gifts for us are infinite, therefore, what we can do in Him and He through us is also infinite.

If I have kept five commandments, then I can keep five more. If I fed one hungry person, then I can feed one more. If I can learn to love someone even a little bit, then I’ll be able to learn to love them a bit more. If I can dedicate one day of the week for the glory of Christ’s Gospel, then I can dedicate one more, in whatever I do.

The work we do to inherit the eternal life is not just a bunch of rules we have to follow in order to go to heaven or to hell. We do this in order to become something, something more than we are right now. Again, in Christ we never stop growing, we never stop learning, we never stop loving or serving.

The Lord offered three more steps for the ruler, in order for him to keep growing and not stagnate – sell everything, distribute the money, follow Christ, become His disciple. It’s important to keep in mind here that Christ offered these three steps to the ruler because he had kept the commandments, he was supposed to have the capacity for more. It’s like Jesus is telling him, “Don’t get too comfortable with what you’ve achieved. There’s more. There’s always more, and it will unlock more in you.”

But the ruler was not yet ready to continue growing because he was very rich, we are told, he was not yet ready to let go of the possessions that possessed him. Just in case any of us sneered at the rich people when we heard today’s Gospel lesson, it’s not only the rich people who struggle to let go of their possessions and follow Christ. The pain of abandoning things that we possess is the same whether we abandon a lot or a little.

Christ often talks about money, or wealth, or possessions. And the theme is very clear – our wealth is not the problem, it’s what we do with it that concerns the Lord. It’s how we use it for His glory or not. It’s whether the things that we have (again, doesn’t have to be a lot) become our little gods or whether we look for ways to glorify the one true God through them.

Christianity is very simple and direct when it comes to our things – everything we have, possess, or own is not ours, not even life itself. Everything is a gift, and we are the stewards of these gifts. Therefore, Christ is calling us to possess what He has given us, to possess it, not be possessed by it. And more than that, possess it not for our sake, but for the sake of others because that’s how we glorify God. How we grow with, live with, love, and serve others is how we grow with, live with, love, and serve God Himself.

Unfortunately, the ruler was possessed by his wealth, he was not yet ready to continue growing. He didn’t reach his capacity, he had to continue growing. He kept some commandments, he was striving for the right thing, he was asking the right questions. But he needed more time.

When other things possess us, we are left with less space for Christ and our growth in Him. We stagnate once we allow ourselves to be possessed.

And so, what is our capacity? Is it limited at the present time by the things that possess us? Are we content with where we are or do we want to continue growing, learning, loving, and serving?

No matter where we are today or what we are capable of right now, this is not the end. In Christ, the capacity to do more, to be more is infinite.

What must we do to inherit eternal life? Keep it simple – do one good thing a day. And grow from there. Keep Christ’s commandments, use what He has given us for His glory, and follow Him.

Amen.

November 12, 2023 - Neighbor

Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 10:25-37

Audio of this sermon is available: here

“And who is my neighbor?”

That’s such a loaded question. English language is somewhat limited here because when we think of a neighbor, we often imagine those who live next door to us or on the same street or our family members. But that’s not what the word ‘neighbor’ means in the Christian context.

The expert in the Law, the lawyer, who asked Jesus this question, was a religious teacher, he already knew the answer. We are told that he came to test Christ; he wanted to see how well the Lord knew His own Law.

In response, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. It’s such a popular parable that even the secular people, who have nothing to do with Christ and His Church, often refer to it. The Good Samaritan is a person who helps those in need, simply because that’s the right thing to do, no strings attached.

Today, I would like to focus on two characters from the parable and discuss what their actions tell us about the nature of the Law with its commandments, and how we can properly apply the Law to understand what it means being a neighbor to others.

In the parable we have five different characters – the man who was beaten and robbed, the robbers, a priest, a Levite, and the Samaritan man.

I want to look at the priest and the Levite. They are often glossed over because they do not help the man, intentionally avoiding him. Usually, right away we switch our focus to the Samaritan. But let’s take a closer look at who the priest and the Levite are and why they did what they did.

The priest was someone who offered sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. There were thousands of priests in the Temple, and they would take turns serving, usually a week or two at a time. Levites also served in the Temple, but they did not offer sacrifices. You can think of them as today’s deacons – they served, but more as helpers to the priests.

Both the priest and the Levite, separately, walked down the same road where the beaten and robbed man lay half dead. Both saw him. And both “passed by on the other side,” as we are told. In other words, they wanted to have nothing to do with the man, even if he was alive, which, by the way, they had no way of knowing because we are told that he was half dead.

On the surface of things, they seem to be completely justified in the eyes of their own Jewish Law. Some of the commandments clearly state that coming into contact with blood of another person or a corpse made a person unclean.

Becoming unclean meant that you had to separate yourself from others, essentially you had to go under a self-imposed quarantine, which lasted a week or two. While in this quarantine, the person had to bathe, wash their garments, and pray. And then afterwards, offer a sacrifice.

In the times when there was no hand sanitizer or hand soap, this kind of precaution is understandable. We can also understand why the priest and the Levite would be extra cautious – if this was their turn to serve in the Temple, they couldn’t afford to become unclean and miss their turn to serve, because their next turn would come in a few years.

As the lawyer was listening to Jesus tell the parable, in his mind both the priest and the Levite followed the Law to the last dot by keeping themselves clean. They did exactly what they were supposed to do.

The lawyer came to test Christ, but the Lord turned the situation back onto the lawyer by testing his knowledge of the Law. If you pay attention when you read your Bibles, you may notice that Jesus never answers provocative, nonsensical questions. He simply does not engage with them. But He does entertain some stupid questions, if they are important. One such question, coming from a guy who already knew the answer, is “who is my neighbor?”

Let’s get back to the priest and the Levite. They did everything correct according to the Law … or so they thought. When the Jews were given the commandments about cleanness and uncleanness, and rituals of purification, God did not tell them to make sure to avoid unclean things. Rather, in case they had to become unclean by coming into contact with blood or a corpse, or anything else unclean they had ways of purifying themselves.

For example, if someone had a wound, it had to be treated. It wasn’t left alone. Whoever did that had to clean themselves afterwards. Or, when people died, their bodies had to be prepared for the burial, they were not abandoned. After the burial, people would clean themselves to prevent the spread of any possible disease.

Therefore, these laws did not forbid helping wounded or half dead people. By passing by the beaten man, both the priest and the Levite chose to focus on the unimportant part of the Law – avoid the contact with blood or a corpse. Technically, they followed the Law, but they chose the easy way out.

However, when it comes to our relationship with others, there is no easy way out. And that’s the point the Lord is making here to the lawyer who came to test Him.

God’s Law guides us towards the worship of the One True God and the love of our neighbor. And this love includes taking care of someone who is sick or mistreated or half dead or even dead.

When the lawyer asked who is his neighbor, he wanted to know what group of people qualified as such, and who did not. Who did he have to love and whom could he disregard as non-essential. Because that was very much a thing at that time; and wouldn’t you know it, it is still a thing today.

Is my neighbor someone of a particular social status, nationality, skin color, physical appearance, sexual orientation, political party, or some other criterion? That’s how they looked at people in those days, and that’s exactly what so many of us still do to this day.

At the end of the parable, Christ asked the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The way the Lord phrases His question is absolutely important to the point He is making. He did not ask, “Who was the man a neighbor to?” As in, which of the three guys who walked by him considered him to be their neighbor?

Christ uses the word ‘neighbor’ in a fundamentally different way here. The lawyer wanted to know who is a neighbor to him, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus says, “Who are you a neighbor to?”

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

Meaning, I can choose to be a neighbor to you or choose not to be a neighbor to you. It’s not how you relate to me; it’s how I relate to you. We can live under the same roof and not be neighbors. Likewise, we can live two hours apart, and be neighbors, based on how I treat you.

To Christ’s last question the lawyer answered, “The one who showed mercy on him.” To which Jesus replied, “Go and do likewise.”

A neighbor is the one who is merciful to specific people, not just humanity in general. If I claim to love humanity, but hate the person in front of me, then I’m just a liar. If I can’t be a loving neighbor to the person in front of me, then there is no way I can love at all.

“Go and do likewise.” Go and show mercy, be a good neighbor. Don’t look for neighbors, but be one to others. Let us go, then, and find someone to show mercy on; let us be a neighbor to the person right in front of us, no matter who they are, how they look or act.

And let us always give glory, honor, and worship to the One Who shows us mercy to us: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

November 5, 2023 - I want a miracle (11.05.23)

Sunday Sermon on the Gospel lesson from Luke 8:41-56

Audio of this sermon is available: here

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

I want a miracle! I want a miracle, so that I would come to believe, that I may have faith in God.

I do not know about you, but these are the thoughts that I might sometimes have. I want a sign; I want God to show Himself in a miracle, to strengthen my faith.

Demanding things from God, daring Him even, is nothing new. In Matthew’s Gospel account, the scribes and Pharisees demand a sign from Jesus (Matthew 12:38). But He does not indulge them. Rather, He tells them to get lost (roughly paraphrasing).

But there are people who approach Him and receive the miracle, sometimes even without asking for it. Today we heard about two such miracles – the resurrection of a 12-year-old girl and healing of a woman with hemorrhages. So, what’s the difference between me or the Pharisees asking for a sign and not receiving it, and others who do receive a miracle?

Today’s Gospel lesson picks up right after Jesus left the country of the Gadarenes, after the people there did not appreciate His miracle-working among them and asked Him to leave them alone.

Once He crossed the lake and got onto the shore, people crowded around Him, as they routinely did when Christ was in public. A man named Jairus approached Him and begged Him to heal his severely ill daughter. As Christ set out for Jairus’ house, a woman, one of many in the crowd, anonymous and unnoticed, came up behind the Lord and touched the fringe of His robe.

That’s it, that’s all she did – quietly and lightly touch Jesus’ robe, without begging Him for anything or demanding a miracle. We are told that she was bleeding, hemorrhaging for twelve long years. She spent all her money on doctors, but no one was able to help her. So Jesus, in a way, was her last resort, the final hope at healing.

Why didn’t she ask Christ for a healing openly? Why did she have to be so secretive and discreet? According to the customs of those days, hemorrhages made her ceremonially unclean, which meant that by the Law of Moses, she was not allowed to be among people, out in public, because anyone who came in contact with her was also made ceremonially unclean and risked getting infected, in case her disease was contagious.

She had no choice but to be quiet because if others found out that she was in their midst while still bleeding, she easily could’ve been spat upon, kicked, or even stoned. However, upon touching Jesus’ robes, she instantly received a miracle – a complete healing.

Christ’s divinity made His humanity incapable of getting sick, even when He was touched by someone unclean. Instead of getting infected after touching someone unclean, His holiness goes out to people He touches or touch Him and they are healed.

Church Fathers point out that Jesus, by taking on Himself our humanity and living through all the stages of human existence, from conception to adulthood to death, sanctifies and makes holy all those parts of our life. Jesus blesses, makes holy, purifies, and heals our world from sin and death by His presence in it. And as we come closer to Him, we become more aware of our own sickness, but we are also transformed by Christ’s presence and are healed.

But there is one key ingredient that we need to bring to our encounter with God in order to experience this blessing, purification, and healing – faith. Or rather, faithfulness. The word that’s usually translated as “faith” from both Hebrew and Greek is actually “faithfulness.”

What’s the difference, you may ask? Faith has to do with warm, fuzzy feelings, while faithfulness requires action. For example, a husband does not say, “I have faith in my wife.” That just sounds weird. He has faith that she can cook, or something? Rather, he says, “I am faithful to my wife.” And that faithfulness is expressed in various ways, from treating her with love and respect, to providing for the family, to actually not cheating.

And that’s what God wants from us. He does not need a mere faith, a belief in His existence or a belief that He can do something. He wants faithfulness to Him. Faithfulness that is expressed in the way we live, in the way we worship, in the way we interact with others, in our fidelity to Him and no other god.

So what kind of faithfulness did the woman show? Not much, right? She comes to Christ as a last resort, it seems, which in itself is not a bad thing because she is there risking her well-being, seeking healing. And that’s an important detail here. instead of despairing after all those doctors failed to help her, she turns to God.

And he is not scolded by the Lord for not being faithful enough up to that point. But what does He say to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” Her faith, her faithfulness made her well. Faithfulness to Whom? To God; to God, Who through her faithfulness healed her.

Christ never does miracles to make people believe in Him. He never does miracles to prove to the faithless that He is God. Miracles always happen because of people’s faithfulness and for their repentance. And that’s why He heals some, and tells those who challenge Him for a sign to get lost.

Often, we ourselves demand miracles from God, so that we would believe. “God,” we say, “If You want me to believe in You, then You need to do this.” That’s not how it works. Our faith and faithfulness are prerequisites, even if they are feeble, for God’s miracles.

If we test God and dare Him, we will remain faithless, like the Pharisees. If we are faithful to Him, even a little bit, even after a life full of unfaithfulness, even if as a last resort, He will find a way to do a miracle that will lead to our repentance and healing.

To God, Who desires our faithfulness to Him in everything we do, and Who does miracles through that faithfulness: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.

October 29, 2023 - Four Reactions to XC

On the Gospel lesson from Luke 8:26-39

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Before we can have a relationship with a person, we need to react or respond to the them first. A lot of times, our first reaction to them can determine how the relationship might go.

For example, if I react negatively to a person I just met, especially if I do it to their face, then chances of us developing any sort of relationship are bleak. If I keep an open mind when meeting others, and if I give them, and myself, time to get to know them better, to see who they actually are, instead of coming to conclusions right away, then there is a chance for further relationship.

In other words, our first reaction is very important. In today’s Gospel lesson we heard four different reactions of people coming face to face with Christ. In all four cases we see how the initial reaction to Jesus either opened up the door for a relationship or shut it completely.

We see Christ arriving by boat to a country of the Gadarenes, which was a Gentile region, meaning there were no Jews there. Christ often took breaks from preaching and teaching and healing; even though, fully God, He was also fully human, so He needed to rest, to pray, and to regain His physical strength. Very likely He came to this country for this purpose.

As soon as He stepped out on land, He met a man of the city, who was possessed by demons, and who lived, basically, in the cemetery, in the tombs. Immediately, upon seeing Jesus the man reacted, or rather the demons in him reacted. They fell down to the ground before Him, called Jesus by His Name – the Son of the Most High God, and begged not to be tormented.

This is the first reaction of demons to Jesus Christ; and this is the only reaction they could have because the job of demons is to destroy and defile anything that is good, beautiful, pure, and godly. The mere presence of Christ tormented them.

It is also interesting that they were able to recognize in Jesus not just a great man, but the Son of God. In the Gospel accounts, we see only the righteous people, such as Saint Symeon, who received Him in the Temple, and prophetess Anna, who was also there, and demons recognize right away Jesus for Who He is – that is God.

All others are confused and scandalized by Him, even, in some cases, after the Resurrection. So if we are struggling to recognize Jesus, there’s still hope for us. All it means is that we are not yet holy enough, nor are we, thankfully, that evil.

As Christ was having a conversation with the possessed man and healing him and sending the demons into the pigs, the swineherds, who were supposed to be in charge of those pigs, saw everything. After seeing all the pigs run off the cliff and drown, the swineherds also ran, but in their case to the city to tell everyone..

In it we see the second reaction to Christ. The swineherds very likely were shocked for having lost all the pigs, and having witnessed an apparent exorcism. But we never see them engage with Christ, they never approached Him – all they did was witness a miracle and tell others about it. They just remain in the background, hesitant to choose a side between awe and amazement or anger and rejection.

The people, who had come out to see what had happened, however, did choose a side and they had a very strong reaction. They were afraid. Fear is a natural reaction to something supernatural. In the book of Psalms, in the book of Proverbs, and in the book of Job we are told that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

The initial reaction of fear to Christ for these people was a great beginning. They were about to develop a relationship with Him, they were about to welcome God, they were about to grow in wisdom…but instead, they react very much like the demons.

The demons begged Jesus not to be sent to hell (imagine how bad hell must be that even the demons don’t want to go there?), but to be sent into the pigs. And the people begged Him to leave them alone. Very similar reactions, “Do not torment us, Jesus, Son of the Most High God!” and, “Go away, leave us alone.”

The demons had no chance at relationship with Jesus Christ because they stand against everything that He stands for. But the people had that chance and they wasted it. Notice that the Lord obeys the wishes of both the demons and the people – He sends the first into the pigs and leaves the second alone. Therefore, we must be careful what we ask God because He just might do what we ask for.

And finally, the fourth reaction to Jesus Christ was from the man who was healed from being possessed by demons. As Jesus was getting into the boat to leave that country, without finding the much-needed rest, the man came up to Him and also begged Him. But he begged to be with Jesus.

His life was transformed, he was free from the awful demon-possession, from slavery, he was free to return to the society, but all he wanted was to be with Jesus, to become one of His disciples.

Here, however, Christ does not obey the wish of the man. Instead of taking him on as a disciple, Jesus sends him out as an apostle, saying, “Return to your home, and proclaim what great things God has done for you.”

The Gospel that the apostles began to proclaim in the first century is still proclaimed today, and the message is exactly what the man was told to say, “Tell everyone what great things God has done for you.”

And what is that message? It is the message of liberation, of being set free from the slavery to the demons and their evil works. It is the message of being saved through the works Christ accomplished upon the Cross. It is the message of us becoming the sons and daughters of the Most High God. And as His sons daughters, it is the message of us inheriting His eternal Kingdom.

So, four reactions, four very different reactions to Christ, and only one real relationship developed. Only the man who was healed walked away from his interaction with Christ having now a relationship with God.

Why? Because he was the only one who did what Christ told him to do, the man followed the will of God. Even though, he had a request of his own, he wanted to do something different, he wanted to be with Christ; yet he followed a command of Christ to proclaim the great things Jesus had done for him.

That’s exactly what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done.” Not my will be done, even if I am asking for things all the time, but Your will, O God. When we say “Thy will be done,” we are asking God that He does His will through us, and not the other way around, not our will through Him.

When the people of the country of the Gadarenes woke up on that day, they probably did not expect to lose the full herd of swine and come face to face with God. But they did. Maybe we do not expect to come face to face with God every day we wake up and go about our business. But we do.

Every single day, we come face to face with God. We react and interact with the Lord. We do it in our prayers, or lack of them. Omitting to pray is a reaction to God, it’s not a very good one, but it is a reaction. Our interactions with other people – at home, on the streets, in the store, driving on the highway – are all opportunities to react and interact with God. And our desire to see that our life, in whatever we do, is incomplete without Christ, like the man who was healed realized, is our reaction to Christ.

Our relationship with the Lord depends on how we react to Him. It’s not about how He reacts to us because we already know how He reacts – He reacts with love and patience; He reacts by dying for us; God is literally dying to have a relationship with us.

How do we react? Today, right now, having gathered together, sitting in this church, in these pews – how do we react to Him? What kind of a relationship do we want to have with Him? From now till the end of the Liturgy, we will have multiple opportunities to react to Jesus.

May we beg Jesus that we might be with Him, like the man who was healed begged Him. And may His will be done through us, just like we ask Him every time in the Lord’s Prayer.

To Christ, Who desires to have an eternal relationship with us, we give glory, honor, and thanksgiving, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages..

Amen.

October 15, 2023 - Strength in Weakness

Sermon on Saint Paul letter to the Corinthians 11:31-12:9

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

We are weak. Maybe individually some of us are strong physically or mentally, but collectively, as human beings we are weak.

We are weak compared to the machinery we have built, we are weak in the face of nature: we are helpless against a storm or fire or any other natural disaster.

We look ridiculous while boasting about our non-existent strengths. But when a strong man boasts of his power, or rich man boasts of his wealth, or a smart man boasts of being a genius, this bragging, even if justified, is the result of something we all face – the inevitable death. Even when we are strong and confident, even then we are weak because our strength and confidence can’t prevent death.

We are weak because we are full of passions and temptations. These also lead to death, but expectantly, if we give in to our temptations, we are destroying ourselves, no matter how much pleasure we get in the process.

Saint Paul talks today about his own temptations and weaknesses. He doesn’t name them, but says that he has a thorn in his flesh, something that constantly bothers him, something that makes him realize that he is, like us, weak.

No one is immune from temptations. No one who has ever lived avoided hot passions. Even Christ was tempted, but He, as God, did not give in to them. Instead, He took all of our temptations and weaknesses to the Cross.

Whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not, but all of us have some serious passions and temptations. And I do not mean a passion to draw or a passion for photography or a passion for chocolate chip cookies at midnight. In a Christian sense, passion is a nasty desire, a lust; something that makes us passive in our own life (hence, passion), something that, in a way, takes over us. And we all have them because we are weak.

Sometimes we fight our passions, and sometimes we give in to them. But the problem is, fighting or giving in means engaging, when the goal is avoiding. Because, when we fight something, we give it energy.

Maybe we are like Saint Paul, who asked God three times to be healed from the thorn in his flesh, and we plead and ask, but our lusts remain. Through Paul God answers why our temptations persist. Paul says today – God’s strength, His power, is made perfect in weakness.

How can power be made perfect in weakness? How can anything come out of weakness? Everything in today’s culture says that only the strong survive. We should be ashamed of being weak, we are told, always look to avoid it like a disease. Weak is undesirable, weak is shameful. And that’s why we are scared to admit the obvious – we are all weak.

Yet in being weak we share something with Christ. Did He descend with His heavenly army and demolish all of His enemies? Did He build an army of His disciples and overthrow the Roman rule? What was His weapon? What was His sign of power?

Christ defeated His enemy, He conquered Death by going to the Cross – the ultimate sign of weakness and shame. He showed His power by dying. Christ showed us who God truly is – God is not Someone who gives us moral teachings, but Someone who dies for us. True God is the One who through death and resurrection brings us to salvation.

We are weak…because we die. And God’s power is made perfect in death. Our weaknesses, our passions and temptations are constant reminders that we live by drawing on the Lord for strength and through faithfulness to His commandments.

Christ’s power rests on us when the weaknesses and persecutions that torment us make us rely completely upon Him. God’s grace is sufficient for us. We have nothing to boast about because we are weak. And our weakness is a reminder of humility.

God does not desire a boastful heart, but a humble one. A heart that is open to receive His grace and give back to Him our weaknesses. A heart that prays to God, “Make Your power, O God, perfect in my weaknesses.”

And therefore, to One God in Three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give all glory, honor, and worship, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

Amen.