Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Homily for the Third Sunday of Great Lent/Adoration of the Holy Cross - (March 11, 2018)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

We adore You, O Christ, and we praise You! For by Your Holy Cross, You have redeemed the world!

Jesus made it very clear that He “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” After this intense teaching time, which included a public rebuke of Peter, Jesus then called the crowd and His disciples together. This word “call” means, “to call to oneself, to summon hither, to bid to come.” Jesus is calling them to huddle up because He has something very important He wants them to know. After describing His fate, He describes what it means to follow Him.

The call that Jesus makes is to everyone, but there are also conditions to following Christ. We see this in the use of the word, “if.” There are four conditions to following Christ. They are desire, denial, death, and devotion. We will soon discover that these conditions are the demands of discipleship, and they cannot be dismissed or downplayed.

Desire. The first condition a person must have is a desire to become a disciple: “If anyone would come after me…” The heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. The phrase “would come” is the idea of intentionality and involves the will. In order to be a disciple of Jesus, you must first want to be a disciple of Jesus.

I love that the call of Jesus goes out to everyone and anyone: to the curious crowd (those nearby), to the committed core (the eleven) and even to the counterfeit (Judas). It strikes me that these three groups are still present today. Some of you are curious about Christ, others of you are committed to Him, and a few have a counterfeit faith. Notice that Jesus is about to give the same message to each of the groups as He calls everyone to Him. It does not matter what you have done or how you have been living. Everyone is welcome. Romans 3:23 states that “all have sinned” and Acts 10:34 says, “…everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.”

Notice the phrase, “come after Me.” This has the idea of movement, of lining up behind the Lord, following wherever He goes. We do not walk in front of Him and ask Him to catch up with our ways and wishes. No, we get behind Him, so that we walk where He walks. We walk after Him, not ahead of Him.

Do you have the desire to follow Jesus as one of His disciples? I am not talking about being just a follower, but a true disciple of His. Many people are followers of Christ, but very few are real disciples. They choose not to be disciples of the Savior simply because they do not have the desire to do so. Listen. Until you desire to be a disciple, you will not be one. If you desire Him more than anyone or anything else, you will be a disciple. In the Book of Psalms, we read: “Who have I in heaven but You, O Lord? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You.” (Psalm 73:25). Discipleship will cost you your life.

The second condition for being a disciple is to deny self: “…let him deny himself…” Everything within us screams against these words. To “deny” means, “to refuse.” This is the same word that describes what Peter did to Jesus. One Bible Dictionary puts it like this: “to disown and renounce self and to subjugate all works, interests, and enjoyments.” Check out what Jesus said in Luke 14:33: “So, therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.”

Denying self is not the same thing as self-denial, like not eating chocolate, going on a Facebook fast, or not rooting for the Yankees (though that would be a good idea). Denying self means I stop thinking I am always right, I stop living in my own power, and I refuse to pursue my own pleasures because I no longer belong to myself. We see this in the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So, glorify God in your body.” (Corinthians 6:19-20). In short, I must give up the right to run my own life because I no longer own my own life. I have been bought with the blood of Christ and I now belong to Him.

Every morning when we arise from sleep, among our morning prayers should be the prayer: “Father, glorify Yourself in my life this day at my expense.” Most of us, me included, are fine with glorifying God, but we do not really want to do that if it costs us something. We cannot fully follow Christ while living our lives any way we please.

A real disciple of Christ lives actively the life of Christ. A true disciple of Christ thinks in these terms:  I simply want to serve; I want to help; I make myself available; It is my duty and my obligation; I want to give my hands and feet to Christ; This is my home, so I want to help; I want to do what I am gifted to do; I am grateful for what Christ has done for me so I want to give something back in return; I love my brothers and sisters and want to show my love for them in Christ. These are the words and thoughts of a true disciple of Jesus Christ. But they are more than that. They are given substance and form by tangible and visible works, works that, if rooted firmly in Christ and in the heart of the believer, will bring forth fruit in abundance to the glory of God.

If we want to be real disciples of Christ, then we must be willing to break up with our own selves. There is really no room in our lives for our own self-interests and those of Christ. Our self-interests should be only those of Christ. Either self is on the throne of our hearts or Christ is. Discipleship will cost you your life. That brings me to the third condition of discipleship, which is death.

The first two conditions are desire and denial. As if those are not difficult enough, Jesus next calls us to die: “…and take up His cross…” Crucifixion was a common Roman punishment, with over 30,000 nailed to crosses during the lifetime of Jesus. Everyone knew that the cross was an instrument of shame, suffering, torture, and death. When a person took up his cross, he was beginning a death march.

Unfortunately, we have romanticized the cross and turned it into something we put on our walls or wear around our necks. When we do reference this verse, we often say something like, “Well, I guess that’s just the cross I must bear” and normally it refers to putting up with an obnoxious relative, or living with an illness or some other affliction, or putting up with a spouse’s snoring or stinky feet. You may think these are crosses you have to bear, but you do not know just how lucky you are that you do not have to carry a cross for real. Remember that the cross was carried by condemned criminals and ended with a humiliating and excruciatingly painful and agonizing and slow death. Everyone knew that the person who was to be crucified was saying goodbye to everything and that there was no turning back.

As Orthodox Catholic Christians, we called to crucify the cult of self-fulfillment, self-promotion, and self-centeredness. We are to die to our rights – the right to be right, the right to take revenge and the right to fight. Interestingly, according to almost universal tradition and archaeological evidence, the Apostle Peter ended up literally fulfilling this when he was crucified, reportedly upside down, for his faith in Jesus Christ. It is reported that all of the remaining apostles (after Judas committed suicide) died martyr’s deaths. Discipleship will cost you your life.

The fourth and final condition for discipleship is devotion. After getting our desire right, denying self and dying to sin, Jesus gives the fourth condition for discipleship in the last part of verse 34: “…and follow me.” To “follow” means, “to go with” and the tense is ongoing, meaning we are to be constantly following Him. At the core, the word “disciple” means learner, follower, and doer.

Here is what I have observed over the years: the depth of one’s devotion will determine their impact. The words we use are important. While there is nothing wrong with saying things like: “I’m a Christian” or “I’m a believer” or “I’m an Orthodox Catholic Christian,” I have been trying to identify myself this way: “I am a disciple of Jesus Christ.” I have also found that asking someone if they are a “Christian,” is not all that helpful because almost everyone says they are. But when I ask someone if they are a disciple of Christ, I find that I am able to cross the bridge to a conversation about the Orthodox Catholic Faith and Church much quicker.

Jesus fought against having false converts by making sure people knew there was a cost to following Him. I think of the rich young ruler in the Gospel of St. Mark who came running up to Jesus to find out how to obtain eternal life. When Jesus challenged his idolatry of self and the pursuit of possessions, we read these sad words in verse 22: “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” I find it very interesting that Jesus did not chase after Him or water down the demands of discipleship. Jesus does not lower the bar. Commitment to Him is costly. Discipleship is demanding. The man was sad, but he would not deny himself or put to death his devotion to material things.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus said it like this: “And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:38). Cross-bearers are called to follow the Crucified One. Discipleship is demanding because we are called to die to our desires. St. Luke adds that dying to self and to sin is to happen on an ongoing basis: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me” (Luke 9:23).

It is easy to add Jesus as a friend, almost as easy as it is to add a friend on Facebook; it is much more difficult to be His disciple. Jesus is not an app that you add to your life. Because He is Lord, He wants your whole life. Are you willing to renounce every person, every possession and especially yourself in order to be a disciple of Christ? Will you put your faith over your family and over anything else that has been first in your life? What is it that is keeping you from following fully? Jesus is very clear about what it means to be one of His disciples: “So, therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33).

Discipleship will cost you your life. After the call to discipleship and the four conditions – desire, deny, death and devotion, Jesus concludes with three cautions.

The first is this. If you focus only on your own life, you will lose it. We see this in verse 35: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” If you try to hold on to what you have, you will miss what Jesus wants to give you. When you settle the surrender issue and commit to following Christ at any cost, you will end up saving your life. We would do well to adopt the Apostle Paul’s purpose statement from Acts 20:24: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”

Do not miss the additional clause that St. Mark adds: “but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” We are to lose our lives in service to the lost as we proclaim the Gospel. We are to spread the good news in this community and throughout the world.
When we lose that which has always been so important to us, we end up finding that which we have been searching for all along. Speaking of those who are completely committed to Christ, Revelation 12:11 says: “…for they loved not their lives even unto death

The second caution is: if you focus only on your own success, you will lose your soul. Jesus asks two probing questions in verses 36-37: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Jesus is using economic terms here – profit, forfeit and return. You could gain everything and lose your very soul. You could make a lot and but end up in hell. Here is a question to ponder: Will I spend my life for the Savior or will I waste my life on this world?

The third caution: If you are ashamed of Christ, He will be ashamed of you. Look at verse 38: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” There is a cost to discipleship but there is an even greater cost to not following Christ. We are called to confess Christ and not be ashamed of Him, which will become increasingly more difficult in our culture in the months and years to come if the Gospel does not penetrate the hearts and lives of all people.

Whether or not the world is sanctified and the hearts and lives of non-believers are turned to God depends upon whether or not we are ready and willing to take up the Cross of Christ and follow in His footsteps. Though God can do everything, we too, as disciples of His Son, Jesus Christ, must do our part in the divine work of sanctifying the world and those that dwell in it. By our example and witness to the life, love, and Gospel of Christ, we will lead and accompany those who have not yet received the Light to a new life in communion with the Holy Trinity.

Let us not shrink back from the Savior. Let us not waffle with His words as we live in this adulterous and sinful generation. Do not bail on the One who will never fail you. It is time for the Church to be the Church, to be bold in our witness and loving in our Gospel.

Let us declare with Paul in Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When Paul was in prison, he wrote these words of encouragement to a young Christ-follower in 2 Timothy 1:8: “Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me His prisoner, but share in suffering for the Gospel by the power of God.”

The call to discipleship is costly. It means taking up and carrying the Cross every day of your life and dying to yourself and the world. But believe me, it is well worth it.

Amen.


Homily for the Second Sunday of Great Lent/St. Gregory Palamas - (March 4, 2018)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Holy Father and Hierarch, Gregory of Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonika, pray for us!

Man’s deepest need is not for fairness, but for forgiveness. Forgiveness is the power to liberate from past sin and restore to an individual a sense of self-worth. Forgiveness is the power to deal with justifiable guilt, not by ignoring it, but by eliminating it. Forgiveness is a cool drink of water to a dry and parched tongue. It is the medicine which heals us at the deepest level of our being. We all need forgiveness.

While we have the power to forgive others, we need to be forgiven ourselves. And we need to be forgiven by one who has the authority to forgive. Good friends who mean well may say, "Don’t worry about it," but our sin is not against them. The Bible teaches that sin is against God. When David had sinned by taking Bathsheba and having her husband killed, he cried out, in Psalm 50/51, "Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned." Though we may sin against people, sin ultimately is against God. And while we need the forgiveness of people, we ultimately need the forgiveness of God. Only God has the authority to forgive sins.

In Jesus, we see the authority of God. So far in Mark, we have seen Christ’s authority over temptation, authority over the lives of men, authority over nature, authority to establish the truth, authority over demons, authority over sickness. Now, we will see a new authority revealed – it is Christ’s authority to forgive sin.

Our Gospel reading this morning is a rich passage. Many sermons could be preached from these verses. The gems here do not even have to be mined. They lay right on top of the ground. We shall see the faith of the paralytic’s friends, the compassion of Christ, the dealing with the root cause of all misery, and a call to obedience to the word of Christ. It is all here to instruct us on how to live.

"And when He had come back to Capernaum several days afterward, it was heard that He was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room, even near the door; and He was preaching the word to them." (Mark 2:1-2)

The scene is Capernaum. The house in which He taught is thought by many to be Peter’s. No sooner had Jesus arrived than the news spread to those around. Luke tells us that there were Pharisees and Doctors of the Law present from Galilee, Judea, and Jerusalem. This was probably a delegation sent to check this new preacher out and report back to the Sanhedrin. But a great crowd had gathered to hear what this man had to say, and perhaps to see some mighty work.

There were several others who had also heard that Jesus was in town teaching. These men had a friend who was a paralytic, and they cared for him. They knew that if they could just get him to see Jesus, that Jesus would heal him. They had faith in Jesus. So, they each picked up a corner of their friend’s bed which was probably a small cot or mat and they set out to see Jesus.

"And they came, bringing to Him a paralytic, carried by four men. And being unable to get to Him on account of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had dug an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic was lying." (Mark 2: 3-4)

We see several things in the action of the friends. Firstly, we notice that they had a faith born out of need. The need was the healing of their friend. It was out of this motive that they came to Jesus. And this must have been one of the things which made their coming even more special to Him. They believed Jesus could heal their friend. The opportunity was present for this man, and they were his friends. So, they could not just sit around and let this opportunity pass him by. Now that is true friendship. They had faith, and that faith demanded action. It was a faith born out of need.

But next, notice that their faith produced fruit in them. It was the fruit of works. This is the mark of true faith. If we have real faith, our faith will show in the things we do. James says, "I will show you my faith by my works."

This narrative reads as if told by an eye-witness. And if we accept the theory that Mark was writing Peter’s recollection of the life of Christ; and if this was, in fact, Peter’s house, we can understand why it was told in so much detail; much more than St. Matthew or St. Luke.

So, they brought their friend to Jesus. But when they got near the house, they saw that there was no room to get through. Now, if they had quit at this point, they could have had a good excuse or reason to go home. But they were not looking for a way out. It is amazing how many are looking, it seems, for a reason to get out of something. They always have a reason for their unfaithfulness to the things of the Lord. The Bible calls them excuses. But these men did not want to quit. They could not bring themselves to say, "We cannot." "We cannot" is the coward’s word. "We must" was their word. That is the earnest man’s word. That is the word Jesus would like to hear from our lips more often. They were determined that nothing would stop them from seeing Jesus. This man had the sickness and Jesus had the healing. And they must get the two together, even at cost to themselves.

And that is precisely what it took – a cost. It cost them the time to carry their friend to the house. It cost them the effort to carry him to the roof of the house. It cost them the trouble to tear up the roof and let him down. It cost them the favor of the people on whose heads the rubble was dropping as they ripped up the roof. And it cost them the money to pay for the roof to repair it. But that was what they did. That was their solution to the problem. And it was a radical solution at that. And it probably increased their faith, because difficulties test us, and thereby cause our faith to grow. But it showed their faith. It made their faith visible to Jesus and to any who saw it. Our actions will make our faith visible to the watching world. A visible faith is a faith that works and bears fruit to the glory of God.

"And Jesus seeing their faith said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’" Notice the answer of Christ to their faith. Christ notices all sincere faith. He saw their faith and was impressed with it. If you want to impress the Lord, put your trust in Him.

Throughout the Gospels, wherever Jesus came upon people who displayed faith, He commended that faith. Our Lord is always looking for people who display faith in Him. The sudden and unusual interruption of these men was no inconvenience to Jesus. Though many of the doctors of the law were probably miffed at this disturbance, Jesus was not. But the thing which makes us indignant is our own pride. I heard one person say that the only thing they wanted out of life was a continued and exaggerated sense of their own importance. Unfortunately, that was what many of these Pharisees were laboring under. But Jesus had no such pride to make Him upset that He was being interrupted. He saw it for what it was – a calling out in faith for help. And He met the real need. He saw their faith and had compassion on them. And He went to the real source of this man’s problem. He forgave his sin.

This is a general principle in Scripture and in life. Sin is the root cause of all misery. Because of the Fall of Man, sin entered into the world. And sickness is a result of that fall in a general way. That is not to say that every cold a person might have is a direct result of some specific sin. But it is a result of the fall. Now, some sickness is a result of a specific sin committed. Such might have been the case of this man. His paralysis might have been the result of fast living in his youth. We simply do not know. But what we do know is that Jesus forgave him.

"But there were some of the scribes sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak that way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?" (verses 6-7). 

Notice the attitude here of the scribes toward what Jesus had done. The scribes had an inclination toward unbelief. This was especially true when what was going on did not fit their traditions or doctrines. And this certainly did not. Take note also of the logic of the scribes’ reasoning against Jesus. Here was a man proclaiming the forgiveness of sins to this sick man. But only God can forgive sins. And only God knows if sins are forgiven. It is not something you can see with the eye. "What does this man think He is trying to get away with? He is just a man. He is not God, yet He is saying something that neither He nor we can verify. Is He saying that He is God? Why He blasphemes God!" 

And so went the reasoning of the scribes. It sounds logical and seems as well like a sound argument, except for one thing: they had failed to observe the evidence and possibility that Jesus was divine, and thereby had the power to forgive sins. But they, too, were caught up in their own self-sufficiency and absorption in external trivialities to notice this fact. So, they were doubters, skeptics. They had a presupposition that Jesus was not the Christ and they could not see because of it. So, they were not even honest doubters. They did not want to see. Their doubt came from a moral condition of their heart. Because they were lifted up in their own pride and self-sufficiency they had closed off their heart to anything other than what they thought was right. This is the disease of the skeptics.

Saint Mark tells us that they “murmured in their hearts against Jesus.” This is always the outcome of unbelief. There is always murmuring. But though their murmuring was not spoken, even in their mind, it was not hidden.

"And immediately Jesus, perceiving in His spirit that they were reasoning that way within themselves, said to them, ‘Why are you reasoning about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven;" or to say, "Arise, and take up your pallet and walk?" But in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,’ He said to the paralytic, ‘I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.’" (Mark 8-11) We see here the authority of God. This is Jesus’ response to their disbelief. Notice what He did. Firstly, He challenged their unbelief. Remember, they were just thinking these things. But Jesus wanted to confront them with the truth. So, He turned the murmur into an opportunity.

Jesus exhibited His authority to forgive by healing the man. Remember the scribes had been reasoning in their hearts that Jesus could not have the power to forgive sins because He was not God and only God has such power. And they were partly right. Only God can forgive sins. But they also acknowledged that sickness was caused by sin. Jesus had only spoken the word that this man’s sin was forgiven. He had done something which could not be seen. If He really had power, then let Him heal this man.

So, Jesus caught them in their own trap. He acknowledged that it was easier to say something one could not verify. One thing could not be verified – the man’s forgiveness from sin. Another could – his healing. So, Jesus manifested His power to forgive sins by healing this man. He demonstrated His power or His authority to forgive and release this man from the root cause of his sickness, and thereby release him from his sickness. What was done already in the unseen realm was manifest in the seen. The invisible was made visible. This was how it was. And this is how it should be in our lives.

Many say that they love the Lord. But if we have a commitment to Christ, it would show by what we do visibly. Many folks write their own rules about commitment. They say they love the Lord. Yet, they are not faithful to Him or to His Church. They say in their heart they love the Lord, yet they do not obey His commandments. They hold ill feelings in their heart towards people, but they say they love God. They do not tithe or support the Church and Her work, but they say they really love the Lord and everything they have is His.

I believe none of it, not for one minute. It is just simply a lie. They are not deceiving God, they are deceiving only themselves. If you really love Jesus, you will be faithful to His Church. If you really love Jesus, you will forgive your brother and sister. If you really love Jesus, you will tithe and joyfully and willingly help to maintain Her and support the work she does in God’s name. If you love Jesus, you will do right. If you love Jesus, you will live by His Word. If you love Jesus, you will seek Him out and bow down before Him, worshipping, adoring, and honoring Him all the days of your life.

It is high time we spoke the truth to one another. The world looks at the Church and sees so-called Christians professing to love the Lord, yet not living for Him. And they call that kind of person a hypocrite. Do you know they are right? It is time we told the truth. If we say we love God and do not follow Him, we are hypocrites. If we love Jesus, it will show in the way we live our lives. True discipleship is our love being manifested in the visible commitments we have to Christ.

"And he arose and immediately took up the pallet and went out in the sight of all; so that they were all amazed and were glorifying God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this.’" (Mark 2:12)

The authority of God manifested in the healing of this man produced the amazement of the crowd. Notice the healing and its effect. The first thing we see is that obedience to the command of Jesus was necessary. Jesus spoke the word to the man to get up and take his bed and go home. Now, this was exactly what the man could not do for himself. This was his problem. And the Lord called on Him to do what He could not do. This is what He does to us as well.

The man had a choice to make at this point. It is the same choice you have today: Will you obey the command of Jesus to do what you cannot see how to do yourself? Many of you are not obeying God in an area of your life because you cannot see how you can do it. But that is where the grace of God comes in – just at that point of obedience. This man could not see how he could walk. But he obeyed because Jesus asked him to. And the power came at that moment to walk. He was healed at the moment he obeyed the command of the Lord.

And the crowd was amazed. They may have also been caught up in the scribes’ disbelief. We do not know. But more probably, they just had never witnessed the power of God in action. They had never seen the root cause of misery dealt with, and with mercy and grace at that. So, they were amazed.

But being amazed is not being convinced. We have no indication that this crowd was convinced enough to do something about it. And we are sure that the scribes were not convinced. Even the miraculous does not convince those who have already made up their minds. But for those who will learn the lessons of faith contained in our passage today, God will meet you and do for you what He did for this man. He will touch the root cause of your sickness and minister His forgiveness and grace, His mercy and love to you.

We must see, today, the determined faith of these men for their friend. It was because of their faith that he received healing. Our faith can have such effect on others. Because of our faith, others’ lives can be touched, just as this man’s life was touched. But we must also see that true faith always produces visible action. It is a faith seen by works. Faith is the "substance." It is the "evidence." What has your faith been saying lately?

We must also see that many of our problems have a root cause in sin, which must be dealt with first. We must treat the disease instead of the symptoms. It may be that the problem you think you have is only a symptom of a deeper problem, which only Jesus can solve. Come to Him today and allow Him to heal what ails you.

Finally, we must see that if we would receive from the Lord, we must respond to Him in obedience. Even though we cannot see how we can do what He says, we must respond that we may receive that power. And it will be there when we do respond.

We must not allow ourselves to be like the unbelieving scribes. We should not be skeptics. St. Paul tells us in his First Letter to the Corinthians that "Love believes all things." That does not mean that we take everything without thinking. But it does mean that we remain open to what the Lord would tell us. It means that we will listen to hear the voice of God speak to us. What is the Lord saying to you today?

The Great Physician of our souls stands ready to heal us of the deepest diseases of the human heart. Place yourself in His skilled hands today and receive His grace and healing.

Amen.