Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

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.


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