Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

Gospel stories of demonic possession are difficult to preach about, because the  contemporary and “enlightened” society in which we live today pretty much shuns the idea of true demonic possession, just as it shuns the idea of the devil and even the existence of God Himself. But, demonic possession is very real, Just as God and Satan are real.

All the demons Jesus confronts have three things in common: 1) they cause self-destructive behavior, 2) the victim feels trapped in that condition, and 3) they separate the victim from normal living among their family and society. Sound familiar? Do not many of us suffer from the same kinds of snares and burdens?

If we define demons as those forces which have captured us and prevented us from becoming what God intends us to be, we are as surrounded by – yes, possessed by, - as many demons as those whom Jesus encountered. Our demons can be of many kinds: mental illness, schizophrenia, paranoia, depression, drug or alcohol addiction, sexual obsession, destructive habits, lust of money and power, and so on.

Note the similarities between this demon-possessed man and the demons that possess us. He was totally cut off from family and society. He did not live among the people, but “in the tombs,” in the burial places of the dead. In other words, he was already in a living death, separated from normal people and normal living.

Furthermore, the demons were harming him. In St. Mark’s version of this story, the man was bruising himself with stones.” (Mark 5:1-20).

Thirdly, in Mark’s version, “no one could restrain him anymore, not even with chains.”

Fourthly, and most sadly, he was so totally possessed that though the demons recognized Jesus as “Son of the Most high God,” but the man could not free himself.

The point of this morning’s Gospel story, as well as all the demon-healing stories in the Gospels is that the power of God can cast out demons. The seventy disciples sent out by Jesus soon afterward came back and reported, no doubt with astonishment, “Lord, in Your name even the demons submit to us!” (Luke 10:17).

This is the key to the success of Alcoholics Anonymous, whose “Twelve Steps” to Healing” begin with these three:

1.  We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

2.      We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3.  We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.

Consider this for a moment. Alcoholism is a terrible problem in Russia. Before the collapse of the former USSR, Soviet officials appealed to American AA members to help them set up AA groups over there. However, because the Soviet Union at the time was officially atheistic, those same government officials asked that these first three steps be omitted from the AA program they sought to implement. The Americans refused, stating that those three steps are basic to their program. They asserted that the God was the key element needed to free men from their demons.

Members of AA also realize they not only need God’s help but the support and love of people around them. In almost all of Jesus’ stories of healing, there is restoration to families and townspeople. For the healing of demons today, the fellowship of family, congregation and community, and the prayers, ministry and support of the Church are key to healing and restoration. Becoming free from our demons is seldom a “do-it-yourself” project. We need help. We need God’s help, and we need the help of other people.

All this is happening in today’s Gospel reading.

Today, many people attuned to animal rights will be bothered by the fact that “a large herd of swine” was drowned after the demons entered them. Many people cannot understand how God, in the person of Jesus Christ, would deliberately and wantonly destroy something He created. During the time in which Jesus lived, pigs were considered an unclean animal. It was fitting, therefore, that sinful and unclean demons would be consigned to unclean animals and that, being destructive, would drive the animals to death – just as the man had been dead to the world around him before his healing.

At the end of the story, the man “had been healed,” which can also be translated to mean “saved,” “delivered,” or “made whole.” He is not only delivered from the demons which possessed him but he was made whole, he became a changed man, a new man. That leads into the important last verse of the story: “He went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” He has not only become a believer in Jesus but an evangelist, one who proclaims the Good News.

We all know what the “Great Commission” is. It can be found in the Gospel of St. Matthew. If you do not know what it is, then I suggest you take out your Bible when you get home, dust it off, and read Matthew 28:18-20. But Jesus gives us an equally urgent and important commission in this morning’s Gospel reading: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you!”

This morning’s Gospel is not so much about what Jesus did, but more about who Jesus is and the power and authority He possesses. The Gospel tells that when the man possessed by demons saw Jesus, he immediately cried out and fell down before Him, and in a loud voice he shouted, “What have You to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!” (Luke 8:28) Right away from this passage we can make two observations. First, the possessed man knew who Jesus really was. He confessed Him as the Son of God. In fact, this confession is similar to the confession of the Apostle Peter we find in the Gospel of St. Matthew. It reads, “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter said in reply, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (Matthew 16:15-16). Second, we can extrapolate from that text that because Jesus is the Son of God, he has power over demons and is able to drive them out. In fact, even the demons acknowledge his authority over them, that is why they beg Him to be sent into the heed of swine.

After being healed this man, who was naked and terribly tormented and living in a graveyard, got his entire life back. The demons were gone and the man could now live a normal life. But what did he do? He went away and proclaimed the greatness of God and all that Jesus did for him. As I said earlier, the man became an evangelist, a proclaimer of the Good News of salvation, to all who would hear. We are to do the same.  We should go out among our fellow men and proclaim the greatness of God and all the good that Jesus has done for us. Truly, we have been abundantly blessed and favored by the Lord.

It is interesting to note at this point, that not everyone who witnessed the healing miracle accepted Jesus as the Son of God. Earlier I said that the possessed man recognized Jesus from the beginning and even the demons acknowledged His authority. However, the people of the land, after being told all that happened, refused to believe in Christ. Instead, they were afraid and asked Jesus to leave their land. So He did, and nowhere in the Gospels is there a mention of Jesus ever returning to that place.

It is important to note that Jesus does not go where He is not wanted. He does not impose or force Himself on anyone. He makes Himself known; sometimes He makes His works known, but He always allows those who see Him and witness His works to decide for themselves whether or not they believe in Him and all that He does. What choice have you made regarding Jesus, the Christ? Do you believe in and acknowledge Him as the Son of God or, like the Gadarene people, are you afraid of Him? Have you asked Him to leave your life, your house, your community?  Have you chosen, like they long before you, to live your life in the darkness and gloom of disbelief and hopelessness? The question the Gospel places before us today is, “Who do we believe Jesus Christ to be?”

Believing is not just mental recognition of something; it is also an action that confirms that belief. We see that after the man was healed, he wanted to remain with Christ. His confession of faith was followed by an action, the desire to remain with the Lord who had healed him and made him whole. And, as further proof of His belief in Jesus as Son of God, he went away proclaiming throughout the entire town what Jesus had done for him.

Belief always involves action. In fact, belief and action are married in an intimate union which is not stagnant, but living. You cannot have belief without action for belief without action is dead faith. How does our belief manifest itself in the community and world in which we live? Do we keep our Christianity to ourselves, perhaps to this Church, namely this building? Or do we go out of here and proclaim throughout this city in which we live and everywhere beyond what Jesus has done for us?

Let us pray today that we may all have the courage and strength to confess Jesus as the Son of God and proclaim Him by our actions and our words.


Sunday, October 23, 2016

Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

This morning’s Gospel reading is one of stark contradictions. While the parable Jesus teaches deals with wealth and poverty, Jesus does not teach us that it is sinful to be wealthy (Abraham was wealthy), neither does He teach that it is a virtue to be poor. Our worldly state, whether prosperous or miserable, is no indication of our condition in the eyes of God.

There are some very interesting facts some of you may not know about this particular parable. For example, Ancient Hebrew tombs often carry the inscription, “Asleep in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The phrase expresses the reality that exists beyond the grave. As Orthodox Catholic Christians, we believe that that when a person dies life does not end, but is merely changed. If we have lived our lives in faithfulness to God’s will and commandments and have done all that Jesus has instructed us to do, then we shall go to heaven. If not, then we shall find ourselves in hell.

God says to us “As I find you, I will judge you” (Ezekiel 33:20). Let us take this exact moment as an example. If Christ were to appear before you right now, how would He find you?  Will He find you in repentance? Will He meet you in confession? Will He hear you say, “I have sinned against heaven and before You”? (Luke 15:18). When He approaches you, will He find tears of genuine repentance and self-reproach in your eyes? Take this to heart, my children, for it is in one moment that God makes His decision and you will then know your fate.

If you have lived a righteous life, then the doors of eternal blessedness and joy will open to you and Jesus will be waiting to embrace you and take you to Himself. However, if He finds you otherwise, then the eyes of your soul will open and you will see what you have lost. But what will it matter at that point? You will never be able to regain what you lost, for you had not one but many, many chances to obtain what God so lovingly and generously promised to you.

In His parables, Jesus uses terminology familiar to His audience. And He also paints a dramatic scene of contrasts: riches and poverty, heaven and hell, compassion and indifference, inclusion and exclusion, faith and unbelief. Those who are hard of heart will never understand the lessons Jesus teaches in His parables nor the real importance of the contrasts He creates. They see only the immediate or surface meaning of the contrasts but they cannot see the deeper meaning; they cannot see what really lies below the surface, which is the actual substance of the contrasts. What a great mystery this is!

The rich man in this morning’s Gospel reading ends up in hell, and for the purpose of the message which Jesus desires to impart, it is a hell in which the condemned can see heaven. The rich man calls to Father Abraham to send Lazarus to help relieve his suffering. His whole comfortable life he never had to ask anybody for anything, until now. He then asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his family to mend their ways, so they will not end up like him, in fiery torment. But there was nothing that could be done at that point. The opportunity, rather many opportunities, he had allowed to pass by without notice.

When our Lord comes at the appointed time to judge the world; when the heavens are rolled up like a piece of paper and the earth, which has been utterly defiled and misused by those living upon it, is renewed; when the sun, the moon and the stars go dark and fall from the sky like the autumn leaves from a tree; when the trumpet resounds throughout the entire world, and the scattered dry bones are reconstructed and flesh and life come upon them once again, when the hosts of angels will gather to worship and honor the fearful and awesome Judge who is to come; when the clouds lift upon themselves the holy and righteous saints to meet the Lord of Glory, then those who have remained below and see all these things will weep most bitterly and beat their breasts in despair, reflecting that they wasted their precious time here in pleasures, in drunkenness and debauchery, in acquiring wealth which they selfishly horded unto themselves, in avarice, and in every sin, which now condemns them to their most pitiable and lamentable fate. Will they not seek to run to the poor, to the sick and the dying, to the hungry and the naked to comfort them and console them so that they also might hear the sweet voice of the Lord saying to them, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you… for I was hungry and you gave Me food…I was naked and you clothed Me…”? (Matthew 25:34-36) But once we die, there are no more chances to do these things.

How many times a week, how many times during the course of a day even, do we have chances and opportunities to do what is proper and right before the Lord? Like the rich man, we ignore the things of God because we want a good life; we want to enjoy life to the fullest while we have it. But that is precisely the problem. We spend almost all of our time making sure we are happy and content and that we acquire for ourselves all that life has to offer. But when death comes to us, it is an entirely different story. In the blink of an eye, everything changes. Once we die, the ultimate reality becomes the ultimate reality. If we live our lives like that of the rich man, there is no chance for salvation. We cannot change or undo what we did during our lifetime. But there is hope. We still can make the necessary changes to our life now so that we do not end up like the rich man.

We come into this world crying, my children, and we pass the greater portion of our lives struggling, we pass through periods of weeping, and sorrows, and disappointment, and we leave the world oftentimes in tears and pain. When death comes upon us all our dreams and plans vanish like fog in the warm morning sun, and we awaken into the reality of the true life.

Many of us go through life not realizing just how fast this vain life flies by – the years pass, the months roll by, the hours disappear, the minutes slip by imperceptibly, and then, without any warning, the telegram comes "Put your house in order, for you will die; you will live no longer!” (Isaiah 38:1).

Then the deception is uncovered, and a person who has died realizes what an important role the world has played for him or her. For the ones who did not live as they should have lived, in faithful obedience to God’s laws and the instructions and example of Jesus, there is regret and distress; they yearn for the chance to live again but differently; they lament that they cannot repent and receive the Holy Mysteries of the Church as they should have. When they were alive, time was at their disposal for years; they, however, wasted it in frivolous pursuits and in shameful desires and passions.

This morning’s parable does not tell us much about the afterlife, but it tells us plenty about the human heart. Abraham sadly replies that “if they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” This morning’s parable tells us plenty about the nature of unbelief.

There is a point of irony in this story that very often goes unnoticed by many people. Right before His own death, Jesus performed a miracle involving another Lazarus; not a beggar, but the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany. Lazarus was dead and Jesus wept. But Jesus did not weep just for His friend, whom He deeply loved and cared about, but because He knew that His miracle of bringing Lazarus back from the dead would not change a thing. The people would still cry out “Crucify Him! Crucify Him,” rejecting their Messiah. Lazarus was raised from the dead, but the hearts of many who witnessed this miracle were still hardened. In fact, some sought to kill Lazarus, to put to death this obvious, divine miracle.

The rich man of the parable urges Abraham, “If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” A real-life Lazarus did, but to no avail.  Many of those who witnessed Lazarus being raised from the dead by Jesus were astonished but remained unmoved in their hearts. Some were converted but others were not.

Jesus was rejected by many in spite of the miracles He performed. Miracles can attest to the authority of a prophet but they do not always produce conversions. It takes faith to convert and many did not have the requisite faith and of those who did convert, they often went by the wayside because their faith was lukewarm. It was not genuine; it was not born of the Spirit.

Throughout the centuries since Christ walked the earth there have been scores of skeptics; people who deny anything and everything supernatural. I recently had a conversation with an individual who reminded of Voltaire, the French philosopher. Voltaire once declared that within one hundred years Christianity would be dead. Within a hundred years Voltaire was dead, and his house had become a Bible publishing company. The person with whom I had the conversation did not believe that Christianity would last much longer and that the Church was definitely on its last legs. But people have been saying the same thing for centuries.

From our very beginnings, skeptics have always raised objections to Christianity and to the Church, but they are gone and Christianity and the Church still remain. Whatever objections or assaults the skeptics have expressed or aimed at the Church, She and the Orthodox Catholic Faith, still remain. Though many try, even to this very day, to topple the Church and undermine the faith, they cannot overthrow or destroy them. Why? Because Christ Himself promised that the gates of Hell would never prevail against the Church.

Skeptics are people who are spiritually lost. The rich man in this morning's Gospel was spiritually lost, not because he was rich, but because he did not listen to the teaching of the Law and the Prophets. He did not seek God but, rather, spent his life in pursuit of worldly pleasures and wealth. These, to him, were more important than seeking the things of God. Can any of us here this morning honestly say that we seek first the things of God in our life? If we are totally honest, all of us here, myself included, must admit that we spend a greater portion of our time seeking the things of the world than those of God.

What happened to the rich man can easily happen to us. In fact, the fate of the rich man will actually be our fate if we do not change our ways, and change them now. None of us here this morning knows exactly when we will be called to meet our Creator. The call may come to anyone of us as soon as we walk out the door of this cathedral or soon after we get home from church. Are we prepared? Is our life in order? Have we lived a life in Christ, faithful to His commands and teachings? Or have we just gone about doing our own thing?

My children, time is a very precious gift. It is not something we should take for granted or abuse. Knowing this, however, does not mean that we should try to cram as much enjoyment and pleasure into what time we have left as possible. Rather, we should concentrate on making our lives fruitful in the sight of God that we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.

We do not want to end up like the rich man. Think back to the Gospel reading for a minute. However important the rich man thought himself to be, he is not mentioned by name. Why? Because his name could that of any one of us here this morning whose life resembles his. The rich man was an individual with fancy clothing and plenty of food, and a house big enough to have its own gate. Other people existed only to serve and pamper him. Even in the place of torment he imagined that Lazarus should be sent to serve him, cooling his tongue or carrying messages to his brothers.

Lazarus, on the other hand, was a poor man. Lazarus’s poverty was so great that he had to sit begging at the rich man’s gate. Even bread, the most basic of food staples, was not readily available to him, and he would gladly have eaten the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Lazarus was also sick, no doubt from malnutrition and the inability to maintain his health. Quite possibly the poor man could not even afford to pay for a doctor. The only compassion he received was from the dogs who came to lick his wounds. The only dignity that remained to poor Lazarus in this life is that he is given a name. The Lord knows His own people, and calls each of them by name.

If the Lord knows all His people by name does it not stand to reason then that He knew also the name of the rich man? I am sure that Jesus did, in fact, know the name of the rich man, but was the rich man one of the Lord’s own people? From the standpoint of being one of God’s children, he certainly was one of the Lord’s people, but did the rich man know the Lord? In this sense, he was not one of the Lord’s people. The rich man did not know the Lord. He knew only himself and was concerned only with those things that pertained to himself.

So Lazarus died. We hear no mention of a funeral or of anyone mourning his death but we do hear of the angels carrying his soul to the bosom of Abraham. By this we may conclude that Lazarus was truly one of God’s children, a true son of Abraham living by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Even the repentant thief on the a cross was told by Jesus, “Today, you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

At death, the souls of believers enter into heaven. Their bodies remain in the earth. The Apostle Paul speaks of this state for Christian believers as being “asleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Thus they remain until the return of Jesus Christ on the Day of Judgment.

The rich man also died. In this at least the rich man and Lazarus were equal. Death is the great equalizer. “Death comes to all men and after death, the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). The rich man was buried. In his case we do hear of a funeral. We can imagine that there would have been hired mourners, as was customary in Jewish culture at the time. There may have been public orations from relatives and friends, and from flatterers who hoped to benefit from his legacy. This is the way of the world.

We do not, however, hear of angels bearing his soul to heaven, but rather of his immediate torment in hell. We may conclude from this that, whatever his upbringing or religious affiliation in this life, the rich man had not been a godly man, a true son of Abraham through faith in Jesus Christ. While Lazarus was ushered immediately into Paradise, the rich man had no place there. The rich man was sent to hell. This is the fate of the wicked, and of all that forget God.

The difference in judgment between the rich man and Lazarus was not simply a reversal of their social status, but a fair judgment on how they used their opportunities in this life. Not all rich people go to hell, nor do all poor people go to heaven. It all depends on how one lives one’s life.

It was not Lazarus’s poverty which guaranteed him admittance into heaven, but how he lived his life before God. He begged, but he did not steal. Jesus makes no mention of the man bemoaning his difficulties, or blaming others, or entering into political agitation, or condemning the rich man’s apparent heartlessness. That is all for God to judge.

Despite his poverty, Lazarus had learned contentment, as many do. More than this, he had learned the fear of the Lord, otherwise he would not have been received into heaven. “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure with trouble” (Proverbs 15:16).

Likewise, the rich man was not condemned to hell because he was rich, but rather for his missed chances. He had every opportunity to show compassion to the poor man at his gate, but does not appear to have done so. Surely he knew the Hebrew Scriptures: “Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).

The separation between the rich man and Lazarus was full and final. When we die, we go to our respective places, either to heaven or to hell. We are judged on the lives we have lived, and on how we have used our opportunities to repent of a bad way of life by turning to our Lord Jesus Christ. We make our decision in this life, because after death there is no more opportunity for repentance. “If a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there shall it lie.” (Ecclesiastes 11:3)

The dead rich man could see Abraham afar off, and could see Lazarus in his bosom. The rich man prayed to Abraham who he thought he knew, calling him father. He did not pray to the God of Abraham, however, whom he had evidently never known. He asked Abraham to send Lazarus to serve him in that dreadful place, to bring water to relieve him from the awful flame. The answer of Abraham only confirmed the totality of the separation between the godly and the unrighteous. The rich man had all his good things on earth, and Lazarus was receiving all his good things in heaven. And there is the great gulf that is fixed between the two, a gulf so great that none can pass between heaven and hell.

Next the rich man asked that Lazarus be sent back to earth to warn the rich man’s five brothers of the reality of hell’s torments. But Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers have Moses and the prophets, and if they do not listen to them why would they listen to one who was sent back from the dead?

Are not many of us like the rich man? Do we listen to the Church when She speaks to us about the things of God? Do we listen attentively to and believe Her bishops and priests when they instruct us in the ways and things of God? How many of us really know the Lord Jesus and listen to Him when He speaks to us through His Church?

In the New Testament we do read of one who arose from the dead and who, before His own death, did warn us of hell, and who, by His own death makes a way of access for repentant sinners to enter Paradise. Jesus Christ is the One of whom I speak. Rich or poor, if we do not take the chances we are given with each new day to repent of our sins and change the way we live, our fate will be like that of the rich man. The fault then is ours; our fate is in our own hands.

What is it to be, my children? Will you choose the fate of the rich man or the life of Lazarus? The choice is yours. But know this, time is running out for you, for me, for all of us. We cannot think that we have a lot of time to decide for no one knows when our time to die will come. And when that time does finally arrive, it will be too late for repentance and change.


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Homily for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

Our Lord Jesus Christ was a great communicator and teacher. Partly because of the way He used the ordinary things of life to grab the attention of His listeners, but mostly because He did not tell stories just to entertain, but to teach spiritual truths.

Many people have a hard time understanding the parable we heard in this morning’s Gospel, but if we take the time to listen very carefully and thoughtfully to what Jesus is saying and to His instruction, we can walk away from this sacred place today with a better understanding of what it takes to have a happier and more fruitful life.

One of the reasons so many people have trouble understanding parables is because they do not know what a parable is. We might naturally assume that the parables are like anecdotes used in a speech or sermon to illustrate a point and make it clearer. This is partially true. But one of the reasons Jesus always spoke in parables is because parables hide mysteries. And a mystery is a hidden truth. But why would Jesus want to hide a truth, and from whom did He want to hide them?

A parable presents a truth in such a way that those who are dull-hearted, whose spiritual ears are hard of hearing, and whose spiritual eyes are closed, will be unable to understand it. So, whereas the parable illustrates a truth to those who will hear it, it hides that same truth from those who are spiritually dull or ignorant. The ones who see, and hear, and understand, Jesus calls blessed.

So how are we to understand this Parable of the Sower of the Seed? Let us consider each part of it and how Jesus explained it. The seed about which Jesus speaks is the Word of God. Each time it is spoken or read, it is like planting a seed. But the seed must germinate in order for it to grow and bear fruit. This “seed” of the Word of God contains within it all the power of new life and fruitfulness. But if it is not nurtured and properly cared for, it will wither and die.

The sower of the seed actually has two meanings. In the first case, the sower is God, He who speaks the Word and plants it in the ears and the hearts of men. The other meaning of sower are all those who take the seed, the Word of God, and plant it all over the world, in every city, town, village and hamlet in the world. It is not just bishops and priests who are sowers of the seed, but every baptized Christian who has received the Word of God in their heart, nurtured and cared for it, and who have allowed it to take root and grow and bear fruit within them, who are also the sowers of the seed.

Every time you speak the Word of God, every time you live the Word of God in your life, whether you are in a pulpit or in a coffee shop with a friend, you are sowing God’s Word and this parable, therefore, applies to you. We read in 1 Corinthians, “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:9). Those who speak God’s Word are God’s workers working in God’s fields and vineyards. So when is the right time to plant?

If you have done any gardening at all, you know that certain plants need to be planted at certain times of the year in certain seasons. Any horticulturist or farmer knows this. But when it comes to God’s Word, this is what St. Paul has to say: “Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, and exhort, with all long-suffering and teaching.” (2 Timothy 4:2). When is the right season for speaking God’s Word? The answer is simple. It is always the right season to speak and plant the Word of God.

Speaking the Word of God does not mean merely quoting Scripture word for word, verse for verse. The Word will only bear fruit if you believe the Word and live it actively in your life. God calls us to action, to be active workers in His fields and vineyards. And we cannot do the work of the Lord half-heartedly. We must give it our full attention. We must give 100% of ourselves to the work of building up and strengthening God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Certainly for many people, doing the work of the Lord is a struggle. There are many worldly distractions which keep us from focusing on doing God’s work of spreading and witnessing His Word. Jesus knew this when He first told this parable, and nothing is any different today than it was more than 2,000 years ago. It all has to do with the condition of the human heart and the place God has in the life of every human being.

The heart is the soil about which Jesus speaks. It is this soil into which the seeds of God’s Word are planted. There are four basic conditions of the human heart when it comes to responding to God’s Word. They are: the indifferent heart, the stony heart, the thorny heart, and the fertile heart.

The indifferent heart is the heart that falls by the wayside. The indifferent heart is a hard heart. Jesus said that when the Word of God is sown into this kind of heart, the birds of the air come and eat up the seed. The devil, Satan, the wicked and evil one, comes and snatches the seed out of the hard heart because the person is indifferent to it and chooses to ignore it. In this person’s heart, God’s Word never gets a chance to grow. Their lack of understanding or their refusal to hear means that the seeds that were attempted to be sown in the hearts of such people just falls to ground and never penetrates their hearts.

We might ask, “What hardens a person’s heart? Another simple answer: sin hardens a person’s heart. It is very easy to harden one’s heart, especially when God is not present in the life of an individual. In today’s society, God is very hard to find. There is an aggressive move to remove God entirely from the realm of human experience and life. Many people today have replaced the Eternal and Almighty God with different gods more to their liking and appeal. Among these are the gods of money, sex, drugs, power, position, self-gratification, etc. These false gods offer many temptations and immediate pleasures to those who are willing to sell their souls in return for a few years of pleasure. But from these so-called pleasures that are given by these false gods there comes also sins like hatred, greed, lust, anger, envy and a whole host of others. These are the sins that harden one’s heart and prevent the Word of God from penetrating it and taking root.

There was a lot of stony ground in Palestine. The bedrock is so close to the surface, and therefore the soil is so shallow that plants have nowhere to send their roots down. So the roots are very shallow. The stony heart is the heart of the person who joyfully receives the Word of God but does not allow it to take root. The stony ground is shallow ground and this represents a shallow heart. A person with a shallow heart receives the Word but the Word cannot send down deep roots. After the seed has been planted, it grows, but the sun comes up and scorches the plant, which then withers away.

So what does the sun represent in this case? The sun represents trials, difficulties and persecution. A bit of opposition or some difficulties in one’s life or some persecution causes the person with a shallow heart to fall away. A shallow heart has not faith, no substance, no endurance. Jesus had plenty of followers like that. They loved His miracles, loved His healings, the exorcisms, His wonderful teaching and the way he stood up to religious leaders. But when it came down to crunch time, they had not allowed God’s Word to take root in their hearts and they deserted. They believe and endure so long as things are going good for them. Once things turn bad, they bolt. A shallow heart cannot stand a test of faith.

When the seed fell on thorny ground, the thorns sprung up and choked them. Again, the Word of God becomes ineffective because of the condition of the heart of the hearer. So what chokes God’s Word? Jesus tells us that there are four different things: 1) the cares of this world; 2) the deceitfulness of riches; 3) the desire for things other than the things of God; and 4) the pleasures of life.

Have you ever noticed that weeds never need any encouragement to grow? You have to nurture your flowers and vegetables, but weeds just pop up anywhere and with the greatest of ease. But our hearts are like a garden; we have to nurture what is good and remove what is bad, otherwise our flowers, fruits and vegetables will die.

Here are the four weeds that we have to be careful of because they choke God’s Word in our hearts: First, the cares of the world. This is worry, and Christ tells us not to be anxious for anything, for God always provides what is necessary and needed. Second, we have the deceitfulness of riches to be concerned about. St. Paul is very strong in his warning against this. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6:10)

Money is not bad, but the love of money is. What we do or do not do with it can also be bad. How do you know if you have the love of money? If you want to be rich then you have a love of money. Why is it necessary to be rich? Is it not enough just to have enough money to live a decent life? To have food on the table, money in the bank for one’s retirement, to travel and enjoy God’s creation, would not such a financial position bring one enjoyment, security and comfort? Why the desire to be rich, to have more money than one can spend in a lifetime?

The pursuit of riches interferes with pursuing God’s Kingdom. And Jesus is very clear that seeking God’s Kingdom should be our first and foremost priority. “But seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.” (Matthew 6:33). Seeking God’s Kingdom has to be our highest priority; not the second, not the third, but our first.

No one engaged in spiritual warfare, no one engaged in the pursuit of the Kingdom of God will entangle himself or herself in the affairs of this life. The affairs of this life can even include good things like success, business, your marriage, money, your career, education, etc. But these things do not control us, we control them. There is nothing wrong with any of these things, but if they come in between you and your pursuit of the Kingdom and God’s righteousness, then they are nothing more than idols and false gods.

Finally, there is the pleasure of life. Let us not be mistaken; there is nothing wrong with pleasure. God designed such pleasures as food, drink, sex, and a whole bunch of other things. But they can be idols and false gods too.

All of these aforementioned things, good or bad, can be thorns in one’s life. They can take root in your heart and choke God’s Word.

Now we come to what is necessary for a good life, the good ground, the good heart. This is the kind of ground, the kind of heart that God is looking for. Let us put together what the Gospels say about this kind of heart.

The good heart hears God’s Word, accepts God’s Word, understands God’s Word, and manifests God’s Word in words and deeds. A good heart is noble and good and shines with holiness and righteousness. A good heart is humble and contrite; it longs for and seeks truth and honesty at all times. It finds its home in what is holy and pure. Most importantly, a good heart is patient. The person with this kind of heart will bear much fruit in his or her life.

Patience is an important element in growing in holiness and righteousness. Why do we need patience? Because when you plant a seed it does not start producing fruit the very next day; it takes time. Here is something we need to consider. When it comes to fruitfulness, the person who hears, and accepts and understands God’s Word with patience and a noble and good heart bears fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold. This is the kind of fruitfulness God is looking for.

So why is it that some people produce thirtyfold, some sixtyfold, and some a hundredfold? It is not because of their heart condition. We have already seen that all these people have a noble and good heart. It has nothing to do with their level of commitment. It just means that they produce fruit according to their ability, according to their individual talents and gifts. Different people have different talents, abilities and gifts and how much fruit they produce depends upon that.

In closing I want to odder you some advice and counsel. If you are a person with a hard heart, God has something to say to you. “Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, till he comes and rains righteousness on you.” (Hosea 10:12)

How do you break up that hard ground so that it is ready to receive the seed of God’s Word? It is time to seek the Lord; in prayer, in worship, in studying God’s Word, in faithfully fellowshipping with God’s people, in fasting, in setting your heart to practice faith and righteousness.

If your heart is like the stony or thorny ground, God has something to say to you too. “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.” (Joshua 1:8) Meditation allows God’s Word to sink into your heart, to take root, and to produce fruit.

If your heart is like good ground, let me just say this: keep up the good work.

To all of you I say this: Guard your heart, keep the weeds out, and cultivate the kinds of things that God wants for your life.


Sunday, October 9, 2016

Homily for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

In our Gospel reading this morning, we find a story of the restoration of the deceased from life. There are others in the Bible. In the Old Testament, the prophets Elisha and Elijah revived the sons of widows (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:8-37). In the New Testament, our Lord Jesus Christ revived the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:22-43) and Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany (John 11:1-46), and the Apostle Peter revived Dorcas of the Church at Joppa (Acts 9:36-41).

Like the others, the story of the son of the widow of Nain proves two points. The first is that the Lord has all power over life and death. The second is that the Lord is merciful.

As Orthodox Catholic Christians, we believe that human life begins at conception as a creation of God. This belief has a biblical foundation: “For You formed my inward parts, You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am wondrously made. Wonderful are Your works! You know me right well; my frame was hidden from You, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139:13-15) Moreover, the life of every human being has value and purpose in God’s eyes. “The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother He mentioned my name.” (Isaiah 49:1)

God has numbered the days of our lives. Only He knows why one person lives many years and others die in the womb. Of course, God has given civil government the right of the sword, to control the exterior acts of criminals. But the government is only the instrument of God, at least that is the way it is supposed to be, and therefore it must exercise due caution when it deals with human life, always remembering its sacredness and value in the eyes of God.

God is just but He is also merciful. He has given some people a second chance to live in this world to be a blessing to others. Perhaps in this case, the widow of Nain had no other relatives to support her., only her son, so the Lord showed His compassion. However, there is a difference between this type of story and the promise of resurrection to eternal life.

The glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ was not simply an extension of earthly life. Christ was raised forever and those who believe in the Resurrection will also be raised forever. Christ was not merely revived from death, Christ conquered death. The sons of the widows, the daughter of Jairus, Lazarus, all of them had to physically die again in order to share in the resurrection at the last day. Hopefully, all of them will rise with us to eternal life, but others will arise to their damnation.

Christ has given all of us believers a second chance. Not in an obviously miraculous way, as with the son of the widow of Nain, but we were all spiritually dead before we received the gift of new life in Christ through Holy Baptism. For us, baptism means a second chance to live as a blessing to others, as sons and daughters of God. But the second opportunity is the last chance. On the final day, everyone will raise from the dead to be judged by Christ. Those who reject the second chance offered by Christ in this life will receive justice, not mercy on the Day of Judgment. But we who are clothed in the righteousness of Christ will receive mercy and eternal life.

We all have to stay in this world of pain and trial for a while, but if we have been faithful to Christ, obedient to the will of God and to His commandments, we will finally share in Christ’s victory over death and live forever with Him in Paradise.

What happens when a person, especially a child, dies without baptism? Thank God, there is the hope of the grace of God for them too! When we consider the death of a child, we can look to Scripture, in the Book of Samuel, as the basis of our hope and belief that God is merciful. The newborn son of King David died before the day of circumcision, eight days after birth. David said, “While the child lived, I fasted and wept: Who knows if God will have mercy on me, that the child might live? But now he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” (2 Samuel 12:22-23). That is to say, David anticipated a reunion with his son in heaven and the Scriptures do not indicate that his belief was erroneous or false.

In the Old Testament, circumcision corresponded to baptism in the New Testament. It was instituted by God as a visible seal of the covenant between the Lord and His people. the one who received the circumcision became part of the people of God and an heir of the Lord’s promises to Abraham, but those who rejected the circumcision were not heirs of the promise. However, girls were included in the covenant because of their circumcised fathers. And as the verses in 2 Samuel imply, the Lord honored the intentions of the parents who would have presented their children for circumcision, had they not died.

The will of God is that all people should be saved. It is not the absence of baptism, by circumstances outside of our control, that condemns, but it is the willful rejection baptism when it is readily available, rejection born of disbelief and denial, that condemns. The fact that God desires that all people be saved does not negate the need or urgency of baptism. On the contrary, baptism should be conferred as soon after birth as possible.

Baptism washes away the ancestral sin of Adam and Eve and clothes us in Christ, in whom we become a new creation. When we have the opportunity, as the people of God and the Body of Christ, we must administer baptism as the Lord commanded us. We are all born with the consequences of the ancestral, or original sin, one of which is our separation from God. Baptism washes away that sin and once again reunites us with God in Christ Jesus.

Ever since the beginning, God has visited His people. Adam and Eve were placed in Eden for that very purpose, for God to visit them, to walk and talk with them as they worked and kept the beautiful garden He had created for them because they were the crowning glory of His creative work. But Adam and Eve’s disobedience caused them to be separated from God. Yet, ever since the fall into sin, God continued to visit His people and His visits to his people have taken on an added dimension, so to speak. Now he comes to make them the crowning glory of His redemptive work. That is, God has visited His people to raise them from the dead.

The raising of the widow’s son points to God’s visit of His people to raise them from the death of sin in Word and Sacrament, which in turn prepares us for God’s visit on the Last day to raise His people from bodily death to receive a new flesh that will live with Him forever in heaven.

What are the prerequisites for being from the dead? The first is that we must die. The second is that God must visit. This is fine for the widow’s son, for the daughter of Jairus and for Lazarus. But what about for us?

We must die in the flesh because our sin must be put to death. True enough, the Old Adam in us has been put to death in holy Baptism, and thus God has visited us to begin our life in and with Christ. But this is only brought to completion by our Lord on the Last Day. Our Baptism is the vehicle that delivers us into the presence of God for His visit with us. And the Church’s preaching of the Word and bestowing the precious Body and Blood of our Savior in the Eucharist is the fortress that strengthens our life in Christ and ensures that we can receive the blessing of eternal life and happiness with God, if we are predisposed to it.

If we are to live with Christ, we must first die to sin. Our lives should consist of daily contrition and repentance so that sin is drowned and killed off; so that the Old Adam should be washed away and a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. St Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4).

That new life, that heaven on earth, is the life of the baptized in the Church; for in the Holy Church God the Holy Spirit visits His people as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian people, the Body of Christ, and keeps it with Jesus Christ its Head in the one true Faith; in which Church He forgives daily and richly all the sins of those who are truly repentant, and at the last day will raise us up and all the dead, and will give to us and to all believers in Christ everlasting life.

In this morning’s Gospel, death and sorrow were going out of Nain. As Jesus was walking toward the village of Nain, He encountered a funeral procession leaving the village. Although all funerals produce a certain amount of sadness some seem more tragic than others. When an elderly person dies we are thankful for the long life they were given and for the fact that their struggle with old age has ended. But when someone in the prime of his or her life dies, or when a young person dies, especially a child, we are not as nearly as understanding. Then death seems unfair. When parents are burying a child the natural order that we have come to accept at funerals may also seemed turned around. The other thing that adds a measure of misery to funerals is the circumstances of those closest to the deceased. Their sadness and their future may also touch the hearts of those who are in attendance at the funeral.

All of those “misery factors” were a part of the funeral procession that was leaving Nain on the day Jesus was entering the city. A young person was dead. A mother was burying a son. The mother of the deceased had already buried her husband and was now all alone. Her future was uncertain and certainly her life was not an easy one; with the death of her son, who most likely helped in supporting the household, her life would become more difficult and uncertain. Can you imagine what was going through the woman’s mind as she walked behind her son’s bier? Funerals probably do not get any more heart wrenching than this one described by Luke.

It would have been a cold heart that was not touched by the sight of this funeral procession coming out of Nain. There were probably very few dry eyes among the people who were accompanying the body of the dead young man. There were probably very few dry eyes in the people who stood along the way as the procession passed. As people do at funerals many were probably thinking about their mortality. “When will death come to me?” “Am I next?” “What happens when I die?” “What will happen to my loved ones when I die?” Questions like those were most certainly going through the minds of the people going out of Nain. Indeed it was a procession of death and sorrow and anguish exiting the city.

Are we not also a part of the procession that was going out of Nain the day that Jesus arrived? From Abel who was murdered by His brother Cain to the final body that will be buried before the Last Day, all human beings are heading for the grave. We are on a constant crash course with death because of the fact that we, and all of our kind, have rebelled against God. One of the consequences of sin is death and all the misery that goes along with it.

So we understand that the procession going out of Nain could be seen going out of any city or town in the world at any time. The children of Adam and Eve in every corner of the world must return to the ground from which they were made. Because of death the hearts of men are frequently broken, dreams are shattered, and tears are shed. It is a train of misery on which we must all ride.

But thankfully there is hope. Because when death and sorrow collide with life and hope everything changes. Luke tells us about the collision that took place as death and sorrow was leaving Nain and life and hope were entering it. Jesus led His disciples and a large crowd toward Nain as the funeral procession was coming out. Death met life. Sorrow met hope. And how things changed!

When the Lord saw the mother of the dead young man crying, his heart went out to her and he said to her, “Do not cry.” Then He went up and touched the bier, and those who were carrying it stood still. Jesus then addresses the young man, saying: “Young man, I say to you, get up!” Immediately the dead man sat up and began to talk, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.

The experience at Nain should give us all hope. And that hope is the knowledge that if we believe Jesus Christ truly has power over both life and death then death is not final or permanent. Though we must all, at some point, walk the procession of death and sorrow, there is the sure hope that we will rise again for Christ desires it to be so.

Some might see the meeting of Jesus with the funeral procession to be a coincidence, but we know better, do we not? We understand that everything happens according to God’s plan and timing. The leader of the procession going into Nain was in control of everything. It was no accident that the procession going into Nain met and encountered the procession coming out of Nain.

First, we see that Jesus had compassion on the person at the center of the funeral procession. His heart went out to the widow who was about to bury her only son. Even though Jesus is the eternal Son of God he is also the Son of man. He has a human nature that feels pain and compassion, sorrow and joy. If we are ever tempted to think that God does not know what we go through when we stand at the grave to bury one we love we need to remember our fully human Savior. He cried when His friend Lazarus died. He knows what a painful poison death is in the life of human beings.

Thankfully He can do more than just show compassion to those who face death. We see Jesus’s power over death in the miracle He performed at Nain. Jesus was not sent by His Father to bring us only a short-term solution for death. No, Jesus was sent to destroy forever the power of death over humankind. St. Paul reminds us in his Letter to the Hebrews that Jesus came “so that by His death he might destroy him who holds the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14-15). That is why Jesus could speak to the dead man directly and command him to get up. He was the One who would suffer the wages of the sins of the dead man and all dying men. He received the death sentence that every sinner destined for the grave deserves.

Not only did Jesus take away the cause of death, he also conquered death by walking away from the tomb where He had been buried. Again, St, Paul reminds us, “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.” (Romans 14:9). The leader of the group going into Nain was and is the Lord of life and death.

To the funeral that day at Nain and to the whole world Jesus brought life and hope. If we are going to learn anything from the events at Nain we need to listen to the One who speaks to the living and the dead. Through His Word he desires to bring life and hope into our lives. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26) What comfort those words brought to Martha when she was grieving over the death of her brother Lazarus. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus also declared, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:18) 

As we daily journey closer to our own death may we hold tightly to the words of the One who has defeated death’s power.  The message of the leader of the group going into Nain is the same today as it was more than 2,000 years ago: “Do not cry. Be not afraid. Trust in Me. See My power over death and believe in Me.”

We struggle to comprehend the change that took place in the seconds it took Jesus to tell the dead man to get up. A grieving widow received her son back from the dead. Hope returned to her life. She had a future. Once again she had someone to support her and to love her. The crowd that gathered to express their sympathy joined in celebrating her joy. And those who had questions and concerns about their own death found some answers. Although we cannot be sure of what people thought of Jesus they did recognize that God had come to help them. 

Let us not be ignorant, my children, about death. If our faith is strong, if we believe that Christ is the Lord not only of the living but of the dead, then we have nothing to fear from death. Christ brings us life and hope. In view of the miracle of Nain, I encourage you all to face death with the confidence St. Paul expressed in his First Letter to the Church in Corinth:  “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

When our life and hope meet death and sorrow victory and celebration are the result. The fallout from that meeting in Nain more than 2,000 years ago is still with us today. As those who saw Jesus’ miracle that day said, “God has come to help His people.” Yes, He has. He came to us and still comes to us today.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

Homily for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

How many times have we heard it said that “All religions are the same”? How many of us here this morning believe it to be true, that all religions are the same? It is certainly what many people would have us believe. There is a concerted by many of the world religions to create unity by focusing on the similarities shared by them rather than on the differences that separate them. We all believe in some sort of afterlife. We all believe in some sort of higher power. We all believe that we should be loving and kind to one another. We all believe so many similar things, Why is it then that we cannot just all get along?

It is true. There are a lot of similarities between the various world religions. But there are also a lot of similarities between an apple and an orange. For that matter, there are a lot of similarities between a real apple and a wax apple. Yet one is real, and one is a fake. One is an apple; one is not. You discover this, not by focusing on the similarities, but by focusing on the differences. When comparing world religions, you cannot compare the similarities. If all you do is focus on the similarities, you will be forced to conclude that all are the same, when in fact they are not. To discover truth, it is the differences that are important. It is in the differences that truth is found.

Among world religions, Christianity is unique. And within Christianity itself, Orthodox Catholicism is even more unique. Though it does have some minor similarities with other religions, the differences create a vast chasm that cannot be bridged. The main distinction between the world religions and Christianity is that all man-made religions trust in their own good works to receive eternal life. Christianity is the only belief system in the world where we do not trust in our own good works, but rather trust in the completed work Jesus Christ. That is the main difference, but we also have differences in our view of God, sin, human nature, what the Bible is, and who Jesus Christ is. On these subjects and more, there are very different beliefs and understandings of them between the Orthodox Catholic Church and other Christian denominations and ecclesial bodies. We cannot sweep these core differences under the rug simply to get along with other Christians and other world religions.

Still, some Christians say, “So we have some major differences. But there are some areas of agreement between the various branches of Christianity and between Christianity and the other world faiths, aren’t there? Take the Golden Rule for example. All religions hold to the Golden Rule. It is a universal principle.” Many of us believe that to be true, but when you sit down and study the Golden Rule in light of the words and teachings of Christ, we find that it is not really the case. The Christian understanding of the Golden Rule is much different than that of other religions.

Though all religions have a version of the Golden Rule, Christianity raises the bar even in this. The Christian Golden Rule goes above and beyond anything you will find anywhere else. Let me explain what I mean.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus explains the Golden Rule. He is still teaching us the basic principles of being His disciple. He is currently in a section about how to love our enemies. He has given us three exhortations and three examples on loving our enemies. He now turns to provide us with three standards.

The first standard, recorded in Luke 6:31, is the Golden Rule. It reads, “And just as you want men to do to you, you should also do to them likewise.” In other words, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is also stated in Matthew 7:12. This is often the way you will see it stated in American culture today, on billboards and plagues and in books. But that is only because of the Christian influence in our culture, an influence which is waning more and more as time passes. As I mentioned earlier, other world religions present the Golden Rule in different ways.

For example, Confucianism says, “Do not do to others what you would not like yourself.” (Analects 12;2). Buddhism teaches, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” (Udana-Varga 5,1). In the writings of the Hindus, we read, “Do nothing to others you would not have them do to you.” (Mahabharata 5, 1517). Even Judaism puts it similarly: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman.” (Talmud, Shabbat 3id).

Did you notice the vast difference between what all these religions teach and what Christ says in Luke 6:31? All of these other religions state the Golden Rule negatively. Do not do to others what you don’t want them to do to you. If you don’t like something done to you, don’t do it to others. If we followed the Golden Rule of the world religions, it would only stop us from doing harmful things to others. We should not steal, because we do not like it when others steal from us. We should not lie to others, because we do not like to be lied to. We should not hurt others, because we do not like to be hurt.

But what does Christ say? He says, “Do unto others what you want them to do to you.” This is not a negatively stated command, but it is positive. Christ goes way beyond not doing bad things to others, and raises the bar to doing good things for others. Sure, do not steal, do not lie, do not cheat, do not hurt. But above and beyond that, give generously to others, tell the truth when you could keep silent, be honest, help others who need help, bless, and pray for others.

You may have noticed in the list of world religions I quoted that Islam was not among them. The Muslim religion is much in the news today, so you may be curious to know what their version of the Golden Rule is. Surprisingly, it appears to be the closest of all to Christianity. According to their writings, a true Muslim must “desire for his brother that which he desires for himself” (Sunnah). This sounds remarkably close to Christianity, for unlike all the others, it is stated positively. But again, did you notice the vast difference between it and Christ’s statement? Islam teaches that you only have to wish good for your brother, not actually do it as Christ says. Furthermore, you only have to wish this good on a brother. When it comes to the enemies and infidels of Islam, they must convert or die.

How far above this is Christ’s Golden Rule? Not only are we to not do bad to others, not only are we to wish good on others, we are to actually do good to them. And not just to our friends and relatives, but to our enemies as well. This is radically different than anything you will find anywhere else in all the world, in all religions, throughout all history. The very essence of Christian conduct consists, not in refraining from bad things, but in actively doing good things, and not just for our friends, but for our enemies as well.

Do not say that Christianity is just like every other religion. It is not. Even in something as seemingly universal as the Golden Rule, Christ sets the standard much higher. The world has its standards, but they are not as high as the standard Christ wants us to live by. If we want to make a difference in the world, we must be different than the world.

This is what Jesus goes on to explain in Luke 6:32-34. He gives three examples of how sinners treat one another, and how this is not good enough for His disciples. There are good things that people do, but they do not come up to the Christian standard.

The first example is that even sinners love their friends. Christ points this out in Luke 6:32. “But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.” This is the standard of sinners, but sadly, many of us do not even live up to this standard. If someone loves you, love them back. It is a good thing to return love to someone who loves you. Do not act hatefully and spitefully toward those who love you. How sad it is that a man can come home from work after being nice and kind to the people he interacts with on the job, but then insult and demean and belittle his wife and children at home who really love him.

Christ has called us to love those who hate us, but how can we do that if we do not even love those who love us? Loving those who love us is the bottom of the barrel response. Even sinners and unregenerate people of the world love those who love them. If you are able to do that, great! But do not expect any special praise from God. That is how you should have acted anyway.

The second example is similar. Even sinners do good to their friends. Christ points this out in Luke 6:33. “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.” When someone serves you, serve them back. When someone helps you, help them in return. Even here, this is not how most of us live. Many people think that everybody should help them and they do not need to help anyone. This is why so many people “live off the system.” They do not try to get a job or try to learn any useful skills. They just sit around and moan about how hard life has been for them, and how nobody understands, and how everybody should give them a hand. I hope that no Orthodox Catholic Christian ever lives with this mindset. Jesus says that the bottom rung behavior for sinners and worldly people is that when someone does something good for them, they do something good in return.

The third example restates the same thing in another way. Even sinners lend to their friends. Christ points this out in Luke 6:34. “And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.” Often we lend money or possessions to others knowing that at the bare minimum, they will pay us back, or let us borrow something from them at a later date. I lend you an axe; you will one day lend me a saw. There is nothing wrong in this, but there is nothing virtuous either. Do not think that you are a wonderful person because you let others borrow from you. Even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.

I am somewhat amused by the caution of the philosopher Cicero on this subject. He said, “Kindness must not be shown to a youth nor to an old man; not the aged, because he is likely to die before he can repay you, and not to the youth, because he is likely to forget.” This is the way the world operates. These three examples show how the world relates to one another. This is the human standard. They love those who love them. They do good to those who do good to them. They lend to those who lend to them. At the bare minimum, we as Christians had better be living at least according to this human standard.

Hopefully we live higher. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to live on a whole different plane than the rest of the world. If we do the same as them, what is setting us apart? What makes us different? Christ calls us to come out from among them, and be separate. How can we be separate if all we do is the same things they do? If, however, we do what Christ called us to do in Luke 6:27-30, if we love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, pray for those who spitefully use us, we will stand out then. They may think we are mad, but they will recognize something they have always been searching for – a truly loving community. They can give love to those who love them down at the bar. They can show kindness to those who are kind to them at the rotary club. When we do the same thing, they think we are just another social club.

But when we start loving our enemies, and doing good to those who hate us, and giving to those who want to steal from us, then the eyebrows pop up, the mouth hangs open and the whispers start spreading. “Did you see what that church did? Did you hear how that Christian responded when cursed? Can you believe the help that Christian family is giving to their obnoxious neighbor? They are different!” John Stott, an Anglican cleric and theologian, once wrote: “It is not enough for Christians to resemble non-Christians; our calling is to outstrip them in virtue. Our righteousness is to exceed that of the Pharisees and our love is to be more than that of the Gentiles…”

That ultimately is what it all comes down to. Jesus wants us to be different. No more stepping in line with the world. No more following their tune. No more copying their ways, their attitudes and their faulty system of morality. Jesus attracted quite a crowd because when people saw Him, and talked with Him, and watched Him interact with others, they saw something so completely opposite from what they were used to, they wanted to be part of it. They wanted to share in it. If the Orthodox Catholic Church lives as Christ lived, people will want to be part of us as well. Mankind has a standard of not doing the evil that we do not want others to do to us. Christ’s Golden Rule raises the bar on this standard. We are to live above and beyond the human standard and live according to the divine standard, which Christ explains in verses 35-36.

We begin to see the divine standard in Luke 6:35. “But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return.” As if Christ’s version of the Golden Rule was not high enough, He now raises the bar even further. In Luke 6:35, it is no longer “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Now it’s “Do unto others even if they do not do it unto you.”

We often develop an attitude that says, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” “I’ll be kind to you if you are kind to me.” We sometimes think that this is what Jesus teaches. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” gets turned into “Do unto others so that they will do it unto you.” But look what happens when we think this way. Many of our acts of “love” become selfishly motivated. We love others in order to be loved in return. We give in order to receive. We do good so that good will be done to us. We serve on the basis of expected return. Our Lord’s words are intended to show such thinking as utterly mistaken. We must serve others, expecting nothing in return. Christ’s words in verse 31 were already higher than anything human religious teachers had come up with, but now Christ takes it higher still. If Luke 6:31 was the Golden Rule, Luke 6:35 is the Platinum Rule. Do not just do things for others so that they will do it for you. Do good things for others, expecting nothing in return.

I believe that much of the so-called “burn-out” in ministry, and the people who are sick and tired of church, and who no longer want to serve in church, are simply people who are angry with others because when they served, nobody served them. When they sacrificed for others, nobody sacrificed for them. When they helped others in need, nobody helped them in their time of need. That is operating by the Golden Rule. And it is true. We should try to return good for good, and serve others when they serve us. That is common courtesy. Of course, common courtesy is not so common anymore. But still, it is nice to receive thanks when you help someone. It is good to help somebody else after they have helped you. I encourage all of us to do more of this sort of thing.

But Jesus says that this should not be our motivating factor. If you only help others because you want them to help you back, you are going to be disappointed. If you only serve others because you want them to serve you, get ready to be let down. If you only do good to others because you want them to do good to you, it will not be long before you burn out. This kind of burn-out is based upon self-interest and self-seeking, not on the obedience of a true disciple of Christ. Let us forsake our expectations of receiving our rewards from men. You are not going to get it, and if you do, you will always feel short changed and slighted. “I helped him all day long in the woods, and he only helped me work on my car for one hour! See if I help him anymore!” Do you want to avoid burn out and a pessimistic attitude toward others? Do not put any stock in others helping you or thanking you or doing good for you when you help them. Sometimes people do return the favor, but not all the time.

But Jesus knows something about us. He knows that we need incentive. He knows that we need motivation and encouragement to do the right thing. If you are like me, there is not much motivation in doing what Jesus calls for just because it is the right thing to do. Sure, it feels good and makes you happy to be generous and kind to others. It is exciting to do the anonymous good deed for your neighbor. And sometimes doing the right thing is nothing more than an act of the will. But Jesus knows that most of us, most of the time, need incentive to do the things God wants us to do.

Look at it this way. Works without faith are nothing more than empty deeds. If your faith is strong and you believe all that Christ teaches and says, good works will flow like a river from your heart because of your faith. Good works are the fruit of love and true love is found only in God. Our relationship with Christ, if real and true, will bear much fruit in this world. It will result in works that set us apart from everyone else, even other Christians.

 So if you get to go to heaven whether you love your enemy or not, why should you do what Christ commands here? What does it matter? Especially if he just keeps on hating you in return? If you cannot expect others to treat you kindly when you are kind to them, and love you when you love them, and do good for you when you do good to them, why bother? Jesus has an answer for us in the middle of Luke 6:35.

When we do the things Jesus asks for, we may not get reciprocal actions from men, but Jesus says that we will get rewards in heaven. Jesus says that when you do what He asks, your reward will be great. The reward is in being unrewarded because then we will receive reward from God. Reward is key to learning obedience. All parents and schoolteachers know that reward and incentives are one way to encourage obedience and good behavior. Dr. James Dobson, in his book Dare to Discipline, writes: “Our society is established on a system of reinforcement, yet we don’t want to apply it where it is needed most: with young children. As adults, we go to work each day and receive a pay check on Friday. Is that bribery by the employer? Medals are given to brave soldiers; plaques are awarded to successful businessmen; watches are presented to retiring employees. Rewards make responsible effort worthwhile.”

Reward is not only something that parents can use with their children, and teachers can use with their students. It is something God uses with us to encourage obedience. Although eternal life is free, reward in heaven is earned. God uses rewards to encourage faithful living. When we are kind to others, they may not be kind to us, but God, Who is in heaven, sees what is done, and will reward you. If you do the things Jesus has called for in this morning’s Gospel, He promises in verse 35 that your reward will be great (cf. also Luke 6:23).

The rest of Luke 6:35 and on into Luke 6:36 explains that aside from the reward we will get for doing what Jesus commands here, when we obey Him, we are behaving as God behaves. This is how God acts, and so we should act this way too.

In Luke 6:35, we read, “And you will be sons of the Most High; for He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” There are several different ways of translating the last part of Luke 6:35 from the Greek. But we know from the rest of Scripture that becoming a son of the Most High is not a reward, but is one of the gifts that comes with eternal life. When we believe in Jesus, we not only get eternal life, we also are given sonship. We become sons and daughters of the King.

So what Jesus is saying here is that when we love, do good and lend, hoping for nothing in return, we are acting like the sons, or children, of God that we are. This is the proper behavior for children of God because this is the way God Himself acts. As children of God, we are His ambassadors on earth. When people look at us, they should be able to see what God Himself is like. You could read the end of verse 35 as saying that since God is kind to the unthankful and evil, we should be too since we are His children.

The message of this morning’s Gospel simply put is this:: “Love your enemies! Do good to them! Lend to them! And do not be concerned that they might not repay. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for He is kind to the unthankful and to those who are wicked.”

When we live as Jesus instructs us tis morning, we are acting the same way that God acts. When people look at us, they should be able to say, “Like Father, like son.” When people see the children of God living similar to the world, they begin to wonder if God is like that too. There is so much confusion in the world about what God is like because the Church as a whole does not resemble God. If we were more like God, the world would want to know God more. Therefore, Jesus says in Luke 6:36, be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. Have you ever compared how God acts with how you act? Have you ever compared how the world acts with how you act? Which one do you resemble more?

Try it sometime. Make a chart. On one side, list the character traits and qualities of the world. Include things like bitterness, revenge, hate, greed, rebellion, gossip, slander, lust, lying, thieving, coveting, doing good only to those who do good to them, lending only to those who lend to them, and so on. On the other side, list the character traits and qualities of God. Include things like longsuffering, patient, kind, merciful, gracious, generous, forgiving, faithful, compassionate, truthful, honest, blesses those who curse Him, gives to those who never give anything back to Him, and so on. Then look at the list. Which one do you resemble more? The truth is painful, is it not? As a son or daughter of God, which one should you resemble?

As a child of God, what makes you different from the world? What makes you more like God and less like the world? We could even go beyond what Jesus mentions here and talk about movies, music, behavior at work, attitude, handling of finances, treatment of family. As Christians, we often believe we are better than the world. But are we? We live according to the Golden Rule. Big deal! So do they. We love those who love us. So what? They do too. We give to those who give to us. Even sinners do that.

Jesus says that as children of God, living by the Golden Rule is no longer good enough. We need to live by the Platinum Rule, the Divine Rule, of loving, giving and lending to our enemies. When we do this, no longer will people say that all religions of the world are the same. When we live like God, the world will sit up and take notice that there is indeed something different about Christianity.