Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Saturday, March 31, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.



Homily for Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers - (February 25, 2018)

As the Prophets saw, as the Apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the Teachers express in dogma, as the inhabited world understands and agrees together with them, as Grace illumines, as Truth has revealed, as falsehood and error have been banished, as Wisdom makes bold to declare, as Christ has assured, so we think, so we believe, so we speak, so we preach, and so we declare Christ our true God, and honor His Saints, in words, in writings, in thoughts, in deeds, in sacrifices, in churches, in holy icons, worshipping and adoring the One as God and Lord, and honoring them who are close to Him and serve Him as true servants of the Master of all, and giving to them due veneration. This is the Faith of the Apostles! This is the Faith of the Fathers! This is the Faith of the Orthodox! This Faith has established the Universe and makes fast the inhabited world!

(From the Synodikon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy)

This day, the Holy Church commemorates the victory of Orthodoxy over heresies and the restoration of holy icons for veneration by the faithful in churches and homes. It is why this day is also called the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”. The Synaxarion explains that the day celebrates “the restoration of the holy and venerable icons”, which happened in the first half of the 9th century (in 842) “by the Byzantine Emperor Michael, the holy and blessed Empress Theodora, and the Holy Methodius, Patriarch of Constantinople”.

This commemoration was established to celebrate the final victory of the Holy Church over the iconoclastic heresy. In the hymns for this day, the Holy Church, glorifying the holy icons, and also its right-believing adherents and inspiring in us the obligation of venerating icons, sings: “A feast of joy and gladness is revealed to us today. For the teachings of the true Faith shine in all their glory, and the Church of Christ is bright with splendor, adorned with the holy icons which now have been restored; and God has granted to the faithful unity of mind.” “

On this, the first Sunday of Great Lent, a pious brightness stretches over all, dispersing the flattery of the impious like a cloud, enlightening the hearts of all pious Orthodox Catholic Christians. Holy Mother Church calls to us saying: Come! O faithful children come! Come let us fall down with pious wisdom before the honorable icons of Christ, worshipping in the Orthodox way, and with due honor let us venerate the holy icons of Christ, of the all-pure Virgin, of the prophets, the martyrs, and the saints, whether depicted on walls, on wooden panels or on holy vessels, rejecting the impious teaching of the heretics.”

The Holy Church, at the time of victory over the iconoclasts in Her struggles against various heresies, finally explained and defined in the canons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council the Orthodox Catholic teaching that is the celebrated event we call the Triumph of Orthodoxy. It does not mean that after the 10th Century heresies would or could not appear anymore; but it means that all following heresies, even though they were numerous and various, find their accusation and refutation in the definitions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

The victory of Orthodoxy in the Greek Church itself was first celebrated on the first Sunday of Great Lent, thus the basis of the present celebration of the Triumph of Orthodoxy is firmly rooted in history. We therefore continue and hold fast to what our forefathers and foremothers began and handed down to us through the ages.

The Holy Church, through the celebration of the present day, means to grant great comfort to Her children who attend divine services. This intention agrees with the rules of faith and piety and the ascetic effort of the fast. The Church sees in this celebration of the triumph of Orthodoxy, and the rites which attend it, the proof of the faithful’s living communion according to their faith and life and finds in this the foundation for the prayerful petition to God for them.

In a few moments, we will serve the special Rite of Orthodoxy composed by St. Methodius. This service may seem quite harsh, especially to those among us who are not Orthodox Catholic, but the celebration and commemoration of the restoration of honoring and venerating the holy and venerable icons was annually prescribed “from that time these holy confessors appointed the annual commemoration of this solemnity, so that we might never again fall into a similar ignominy.”

Every generation faces its own heresies, its own false teachings, that require a defense drawn from the faith. Here in America, Orthodox Catholic Christians are confronted with many heresies. We live in a very increasingly secular society that does not believe as the Church has believed for more than 2,000 years. Truth and morality are, for most people today, relative. For many in our country, there are no moral absolutes.

Things work differently here. We have no emperor. We have no patriarch, at least not yet. What we have is the public square to debate and settle our differences, and that public square is often a noisy, raucous, and sometimes unfair place. Do you wonder why moral questions become political issues sometimes? That is why. Do you ask yourself why people get so emotionally invested in what otherwise would be private affairs? That is why too. Do you wish that sometimes the emotional temperature could be lowered a few degrees? I do too, but usually, it does not happen.

There are huge questions being debated today. Gay marriage, what constitutes a family, greed in the marketplace, our relationship to the environment, who should live and who should die – all sorts of question that portend a very different society down the road depending on how they are answered. But here too, we have to take a closer look. And, if you look closely past the immediate political posturing on the many sides of these issues, you will see that they pose this common question: What does it mean to be a human being? From the Orthodox Catholic point of view, we would sharpen that question even further: Who did God create us to be?

In theological language, we call this an “anthropological” question. “Anthropological” comes from the Greek word “Anthropos” which means, “man.” The question behind many of the questions in our culture today is really a question about what it means to be a human being – Who did God create us to be?

From that question flows a thousand others that crystallize around a handful of secondary ones — How do I understand myself? How do I understand others? How do I relate to others? How do I relate to the physical world around me? What is my responsibility to my neighbor?

I said earlier that this celebration, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, commemorates the restoration of icons that was really the restoration of the Orthodox Catholic faith. I also said that every generation faces their heresies, the false teachings, in its own time and way. I said too that in America, we have these great conflicts, but they express themselves in a different way. With that in mind, the Sunday of Orthodoxy is very relevant for America, especially the America we live in today.

The direct, no-nonsense, in-your-face reality of the Rite of Orthodoxy which we are about to celebrate is much like a sharp slap in the face, one that is intended to shock us out of our stupor, stupidity and ignorance and open our eyes to the dangerous road we are traveling on, a road that leads directly to destruction and annihilation. The anathemas which will be proclaimed are not symbolic. They are real. You will hear anathemas that have been proclaimed since 842 A.D., and you will hear anathema of heresies that have come into existence since then, even heresies which have developed and are being propagated in our own times.

The Truth does not change. The Truth endures forever. It is eternal. The Rite of Orthodoxy proclaims this in no uncertain terms. In the Rite of Orthodoxy, the Church declares and affirms all that has been handed down to Her from the Apostles and the Fathers. Nothing will change that.  Yet, if the Church will not unabashedly proclaim, teach, and defend the Truth, then She is not being faithful to Christ and the mission He has entrusted to Her. And God, being a good God who loves mankind, philanthropos (translated as “the lover or mankind” or sometimes “the friend of man”), just might find another way to give it to them.

Orthodoxy has always been closely tied to culture. In fact, you cannot have religion without a corresponding cultural expression of it. Put another way, religious faith enervates, vivifies, makes alive, the culture in which we live. Religion is the ground of culture. The tradition is the structure that shapes culture so that culture itself points to and references the deepest truth of all – the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Orthodox Catholic Christianity, with its rich comprehension of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, speaks the truth to all people clearly and concisely. It is infused with the Light of Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is this reality which we proclaim and celebrate today.

The truth is often never easy to accept, and it is always difficult to hear. But I believe that all people, especially our brothers and sisters here in America, need to hear the Truth that Orthodoxy so fervently and ardently proclaims, upholds, and defends.

If we continue steadfast in our Faith, then we remain faithful to the legacy bequeathed to us that we celebrate and commemorate today. We can stand with the assurance and resolve that we too are meeting the challenge of our generation in the same way that Orthodox Catholics did over 2,000 years ago.

Ours is the Faith of the Apostles! Ours is the Faith of the Fathers! Ours is the Faith of the Orthodox Catholic Christians! This Faith has established the Universe and makes fast the inhabited world! God save, protect, strengthen, and prosper the Orthodox Catholic Faith and Church and all Orthodox Catholic Christians.

Amen.


Homily for the First Sunday of Great Lent/The Sunday of Orthodoxy - (February 25, 2018)

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

In our Gospel lesson this morning we learn about a happy invasion of privacy. Two men, Philip and Nathanael, were found by the Lord, known by the Lord, and informed by the Lord. Jesus wants to invade your privacy for the same reason and in the same way.

The impression that many people have of God is that He is just sitting back waiting for sinners to find Him. However, that is not how the true God operates. We see that already in the Garden of Eden. After Adam and Eve fell into sin, God did not wait for His children to come to Him and confess what they had done. He went searching for them – not only to chastise, but also to share that He had a plan to get them out of the mess they had willingly and selfishly stepped into.

Likewise, when you look at how Jesus ended up with His twelve apostles, you will see that it is because He went searching for them. Of course, Philip would report to his friend Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45), but Philip had not found Jesus. Jesus had found Philip. And that is how it works for you and me too. We did not find Jesus when we came to faith. We came to faith because Jesus found us and invited us, and we accepted His invitation.

St. Paul explained this when he wrote: “But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions; it is by grace, therefore, that you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4, 5).

Sometimes, we are afraid to seek God out. This could be because we are ashamed of how we live our lives, or it could be because we have doubts, or because we do not even believe in God. I would propose that the more likely reason is that we are afraid, afraid that God may not welcome us or want us. Sin has so damaged us that by nature we do not even want to reach out to God. We think, or believe, that He needs to reach out to us if He wants a relationship with us. But, this is not the way it works.

God is always right in front of us. He stands there with open arms, waiting to embrace us and welcome us home, into His life. We just have to want it. Now, I am not talking about when we die. I am talking about right now, here and now. God is in front of us, here in this temple. It is He before whom we stand, and it is He who comes to us and invites to “Come and see!”

How exactly does Jesus find people these days? Obviously, He is not still physically walking the streets as He did two thousand years ago when He found Philip. But let us look at the way in which Jesus found His next disciple, Nathaniel. He did so through Philip. After Philip was brought to the faith he ran off and found his friend Nathanael to tell him about Jesus. This is how Jesus still finds people today: through the witness of faithful disciples like you.

Now, does the thought of telling another person about Jesus make you nervous? I mean, what if they ask you a question about your faith that you cannot answer? My answer to you is this: Don’t sweat it! Just use Philip’s evangelism approach. When Philip told Nathaniel that he believed Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah, Nathanael responded sarcastically: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). How did Philip respond? Did he try to convince his friend of the truth with a rehearsed evangelism presentation? No, he simply said, “Come and see.” That is still a great tactic when evangelizing today. Simply invite your friends to come and see the Savior for themselves. But do not just encourage them to come to church; share with them your joy and your conviction of faith. And invite them, again and again, and again.

If you have been the one invited to meet Jesus through His Word, respond as Nathaniel did. He went with Philip to meet Jesus. He did not say, “Well I’m busy right now Philip. Maybe later.” Finding the Messiah, the one who would take away his sins and open to him eternal life, was more important to Nathaniel than his work, his hobbies, and even his family. Do we feel the same way? Or when we are invited to come and see our Savior through a study of His Word, are we quick to come up with an excuse of why it is not convenient? But how do you know there will be a more convenient time? You do not. None of us knows when our end will come. Even as I speak right now Jesus is invading your privacy and reaching out to you through this message to learn more about Him. And I can tell you with all certainty and confidence, if you stop and listen to what Jesus has to say and respond positively to His invitation, you will not be sorry; you will experience joy and peace beyond description.

When Nathaniel came to meet Jesus, he was in for a big surprise, for he was already known by the Lord. John records the meeting like this. “When Jesus saw Nathaniel approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathaniel asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Then Nathaniel declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel” (John 1:47-49).

Whenever I read this Scripture passage, I always wonder, “What exactly had Nathaniel been doing under the fig tree that it was significant enough for Jesus to mention and for Nathaniel to be impressed that Jesus knew he had been sitting there?” Perhaps that fig tree was Nathaniel’s getaway spot - the place he went to be alone. Then I think of how thousands of years earlier Adam and Eve had also sought refuge under a fig tree after their sin of eating the forbidden fruit. They took the fig tree’s leaves and sewed them together to make clothing. It was a lame attempt to cover their shame. Is that also what Nathaniel had been doing under the fig tree – hiding out because he was embarrassed by who he was and what he had done or failed to do? If so, it was a happy invasion when Philip found him there because if Nathaniel was ashamed of what he had become and was seeking God’s forgiveness, Philip had the solution. The Messiah had come!

Just as God provided better covering for Adam and Eve when He gave them sheepskin clothing, so Jesus, the Lamb of God, would provide a perfect covering to hide Nathaniel’s sins from the holy God’s view. That is in fact why Jesus could say of Nathaniel, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false” (John 1:47).

Jesus says the same of you this morning, that there is nothing false in you. He says that even if you lied to your teacher about why you did not get your homework done. He says that to you even though you lied to your wife about where you were last night. He says that to you even though you gossiped about your neighbors. He says that to you even though you uncharitably criticize an employee or co-worker. You see, Jesus knows everything about every one of us. Yet, He is willing to seek us out, to offer us His mercy, His forgiveness, His love, and life in Him and with Him. Jesus knows that we are weak and sinful. He simply wants us to be honest, to be cleansed and made whole. He wants us to admit that we need Him and that we are nothing without Him.

Nathaniel was impressed with Jesus’ omniscience, His ability to know all things – even where Nathaniel had been hanging out. But that is not what Jesus wanted Nathaniel to marvel about. Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (John 1:50, 51).

Philip and Nathaniel had both been found and known by the Lord, and now they were going to be informed by Him. They were going to learn the truth that we all need to know and believe to get into heaven. Jesus compared Himself to a ladder that connects heaven and earth – a ladder on which angels would ascend and descend. This was a reference to a well-known event from Jewish history. Jesus was thinking about the time when Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, was forced to run away from his home. On his first night, Jacob lay down to sleep on the hard ground and had nothing but a rock to use as a pillow. It probably did not seem as if God was with him. And why should He be? It had been Jacob’s sin and his lack of trust in God’s promises that had forced him to flee in the first place. But instead of seeing nightmares, Jacob received a wonderful dream that night. He saw a ladder which stretched all the way up to heaven and on that ladder, angels went up and down. This was God’s way of reassuring Jacob that he was not alone. God had not abandoned him in spite of his sins. Jacob’s prayers were being heard and God was answering them by sending angels to attend to him.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus explains how He Himself is the ladder which connects heaven to earth. It is through Jesus that we ascend to heaven with the angels, and we do so on the ladder of His Cross.

We have learned today that there is such a thing as a happy invasion of privacy. We should be happy that God cared enough about us to break into our world and save us from our sins. Share that truth with the lost and the lonely, with all who are hanging out by themselves under their fig trees. Invite them to come and see their Savior who already sees, knows, and loves them.

Amen.



Archpastoral Letter for the Beginning of Great Lent 2018 (February 19, 2018)

To the Faithful of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church: The grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all!

Last evening, we entered into the holy season of Great Lent, the forty-day period of repentance, penance, prayer, and fasting in preparation for the celebration of Pascha – the Feast of Feasts, the day that knows no evening.

During Great Lent, we must daily ask ourselves what we should do so that our Lenten pilgrimage may be a time of grace and conversion. I know that for most of us, we start Great Lent with a full head of steam but as the weeks pass by, we often run out of steam. Our intentions are sincere, but as the old saying goes, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. However, the most important thing we need to remember is not what we do but what God wants to do for us. As long as we keep our hearts open to God and to His love, then there is already a good chance that Great Lent will bear fruit in our lives.

To convert means precisely to turn one's heart back to God, turn one's eyes to Him, let one's ears listen to His word and obey His commandments. Then it becomes quite natural to do with one's hands what is pleasing to Him. St. Paul always gives us good advice. In his First Letter to the Church at Corinth, he tells the faithful: "Do everything for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31). If God already does so much for us, it is only right and proper that we also return His love by doing everything to His glory. His love begets our love in return.

I do not believe that there is any among us who would not like to convert the whole world and bring an end to all evil, violence, and sin. But the task is too much for us alone. Still, it is important for us to have a burning desire for God's justice and peace to rule the world. We must pray earnestly for this. In our own little environment where we live we can do more than we realize to make goodness and truth prevail.

When we try to put into practice Paul's advice, "Do everything for the glory of God", then things begin to happen. We become more aware of the words we use. We stop swearing and gossiping and back-biting. We try to use our time well. We do not need to sit at the computer or the television for hours, but we should find time to visit elderly and sick people, to visit those who are in the hospital or prisons, to feed the hungry and homeless in our local soup kitchens, and to support and encourage those who live in half-way houses or shelters. When we do these things, we begin to see our work as something which gives glory to God and leads the world to salvation. The more seriously we take those words, "Do everything for the glory of God", the more enjoyable and wonderful our life becomes. Each day is then seen as a gift as we learn to give glory to God in a new way.

Every morning has something of Easter morning's splendor and brightness about it. We get a glimpse of the new and eternal life. Every person we meet becomes God's messenger for us. We begin to see other people in a completely different way. Made in the image of God, every person points towards God. We can thank Him for so much if we only open our eyes and hearts, ears and hands to Him.

But how can we deal with sin, violence, evil? What we should always remember is that Jesus came precisely to free us and the whole world from all of this. He took our death upon Himself and sacrificed Himself on the Cross. He died so that we might live. He desires to free us from all evil. This work of salvation takes place always and everywhere. We are constantly given a share in the grace of this salvation, but we have to receive it, to accept it, and let it bear fruit in us.

During His life here on earth, Jesus did everything to liberate, heal and redeem men and women. No one is more interested than Jesus in liberating, cleansing, healing and redeeming men and women. We live in a world that is wounded by sin. We are all in desperate need of Jesus as our Savior.

It is often easier for us to see sin in other people than in ourselves. We can fall into the temptation of looking for scapegoats and thus be infected by the leprosy of xenophobia, hatred of strangers. But if we really allow ourselves to be guided by Paul's exhortation, "Do everything for the glory of God", then we allow ourselves to become more humble. We discover our own need for conversion and God's forgiveness. We see our neighbor's failings on a smaller scale. We become more disposed to deal with our own sins and deficiencies. We are all called to be healed of the leprosy of sin and to be made holy by the grace of God.

Great Lent is first and foremost a time of preparation for Easter. Easter speaks, or rather sings, about the Resurrection of Christ. The core of our faith is that Jesus Christ has defeated the power of death and sin. He wishes to open His eternal glory to us. Already now through faith, hope, and charity, we receive a foretaste of this eternal glory.

The grace of Easter gives us the strength to live in a new and different way. Already now we have a little foot in heaven since He who is the Head of the Church has risen. Already now He wishes to share this new and eternal life with us, who are members of His body.

Faith, hope, and charity, the theological virtues, enable us to live deeply united with the Risen One and receive His grace. Moment by moment we can be renewed by this grace. Our great joy is then to please God in everything we are and everything we do. It becomes natural for us to follow God's commandments and live by every word that comes from His mouth. We can put into practice Paul's advice to us during this holy time of Great Lent: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

With my prayers and blessing for all of you, I remain,

Your humble servant and the most unworthy among the servants of the servants of God,

+Archbishop Stephen



Homily for Forgiveness Sunday Vespers - (February 18, 2018)


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

Beloved in Christ, we have now entered into the holy season of Great Lent. The next forty days will be a time of increased prayer, of works of asceticism, constant recollection and reflection, and of personal and community self-evaluation and penance. It is a time of forgiveness and a time of reconciliation.

Before I continue, I want to say something about forgiveness. Specifically, I want to talk about what forgiveness is not. This is especially important because it affects all that we think, say, and do, not only during Great Lent but throughout our entire lives. It is especially important, however, that we reflect on forgiveness as we prepare ourselves for the rite of forgiveness that we shall shortly begin.

Forgiveness is not excusing what a person has done or pretending that it never happened. That is simply dishonest. Forgiveness cannot be genuine until such time as the person who has been hurt, fully acknowledges the depth and reality of the offense. Similarly, forgiveness is meaningless to the offender if it is not accompanied by the full acknowledgment of having done wrong, asking for forgiveness of the one who was harmed or hurt, doing penance, and making satisfaction.

Sometimes people will say, “Oh, there’s nothing to forgive” when another comes asking for forgiveness. That denies the truth about the past and about the fact that they are now injured. Sometimes, one who has been hurt will say something like, “If I admit that you did, in fact, hurt me, you will have some kind of power over me and you will know how to hurt me in the future. Therefore, I will pretend to be unaffected and simply dismiss the request by laughing it off.” This is a common temptation.

Forgiveness is also not the same thing as not hurting. It is hard to feel like you have forgiven someone when you still carry the wounds from the offense. It is hard to feel like you have forgiven them when you still get angry at the very thought of them. But forgiveness is a decision. Hurting is very much a feeling. The two things are not the same. I can choose to release a person from what they owe me, and still experience the sting of what they took from me. If you struggle to forgive someone because the wound is still there, that is fine. You can still decide to release the one who offended or hurt you from his or her debt.

Here is one final thought about what forgiveness is not. It is not the same thing as forgetting. It is not the same thing as pretending that you can trust this person or that (in the case of betrayal by someone close to you) this person is still your best friend. That would be foolish, and again, it would be dishonest.

As Christians, we are called to be wise. Yes, we are called to forgive, but that is not the same thing as bringing someone who has proven that they are untrustworthy back into your confidence without them first demonstrating that they have earned your trust again. If a friend hurts or betrays your friendship, forgiving them does not necessarily mean that you will be friends again. You can do what you are called to do (release them) without entering back into a significant relationship with them again.

And this brings us to what forgiveness is. Forgiveness begins by acknowledging that those who have hurt or offended you actually owe you something. They are, in a sense, “indebted” to you. Justice would demand that they give you what they owe you. Forgiveness is when you make the decision to release them from their debt or obligation. Forgiveness is when you make the decision that you will not “collect” what they owe you. It is setting the other person free.

In this entire process, it is important to keep in mind that this does not always go as smoothly, and is not always received as graciously, as you might imagine. The person that you forgive may not know or believe that they have done anything wrong. They may not accept your offer of forgiveness and instead may turn it back as an accusation against you.

In these cases, it is still vitally important that you make the decision to forgive because God has commanded it and has made it clear that we are forgiven to the extent that we are willing to forgive those who have hurt us. When we release others from their debt, it is only because God has released us from the debt that we owed it to Him.

Every act of forgiveness sets at least one person free: the person doing the forgiving. Forgiveness can be the decision to not become bitter. Even though the person who has hurt you may never acknowledge or receive your offer of forgiveness when you forgive you are released from bondage. You are released from the pain of the past. You can be hurt, you can still remember the injury, but if you forgive, you can also still be free.

There is, however, one catch attached to forgiveness. And that is this: forgiveness is an act of love. In order for forgiveness to be genuine, it must be a free act of love, with no strings attached. Forgiveness without love is not forgiveness at all. It is nothing, it is meaningless.

This is a hard truth to bear, and I know there will be some of you here this morning, or who will read this homily online, that will think I am crazy for saying this. But the truth is what I have said: forgiveness without love is nothing.

Did not God love us so much that He sent His only-begotten Son to die in payment of the debts we incurred with Him because of our sins? God’s forgiveness of our sins was an act of love. Jesus dying on the Cross for our sakes was an act of love. Jesus’s death on the Cross was the manifestation of God’s mercy toward us, which is infinite and everlasting.

But that is not to say that God cannot or will not revoke His mercy. Remember the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant. A king wanted to settle his accounts with his servants. One servant could not pay what he owed, and the king ordered him, together with his wife and children and all that he owned, to be sold so that what he owed could be repaid. But the servant fell to his knees and begged the king for mercy. Out of pity, the king granted the servants request. Now when the servant left the king, he came upon someone who owed him money. The king’s servant demanded that the man pay him, but the servant could not pay. He pleaded for mercy, but the king’s servant refused and had the man arrested. When the king found out what had happened, he was furious and summoned his servant to come before him. When the servant arrived, the king confronted him and said to him, “You owed me a great sum of money which you could not pay. You asked for mercy, that I not sell you and all that you own and give you more time to pay your debt to me. But I hear now, that one of your brethren who owed you money was not able to pay his debt, a sum much less than what you owed me, and that he asked you for mercy and more time to pay what he owed, but that you refused and had the man imprisoned until he pay the debt. Was I not merciful to you? Why then, should you not show mercy to him who was indebted to you? And in anger, the king sent his servant to prison” (Matthew 18:23-35).

The parable is very clear. The king is God. The unmerciful servant can be anyone of us here this morning. The other debtor can also be any one of us. God, who has forgiven us, will revoke His mercy if we do not show mercy to those who us a debt or obligation. God makes this point emphatically throughout Sacred Scripture.

When Jesus taught us to pray the Our Father, He put seven petitions on our lips, but only one had a condition attached to it. "Forgive us our trespasses," we pray, "as we forgive those who have trespassed (sinned) against us." We need already to have forgiven and to have the intention to continue to forgive. "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses," Jesus tells us right after revealing to us the Lord's Prayer.

Now some people may say that the concept of forgiveness is nice, but unrealistic because people hurt each other without end. This way of thinking minimizes or denies the absoluteness of God. It functions implicitly as if God had no clear and unchanging character, as though there were no divine measure for human character or behavior. This kind of relativism does not get along well with biblical statements like, "Be holy for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16), or, "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). So, relativism minimizes the absoluteness of God and His will.

Relativism also maximizes the absoluteness of self. It says that the way to healing and wholeness is to stop measuring yourself by external standards or expectations, even God's. Instead, without reference to God or His Word, be yourself. Make yourself the measure of what is good and acceptable. Give yourself an unconditional positive self-regard. The only role that God has to play in this relativism is to be the divine endorsement of your own self-affirmation. God functions as a kind of booster for the absoluteness of self. If He presents Himself as one with standards or commandments, then He is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

The saddest thing about this way of thinking is that it undermines the glory of God's grace in forgiveness. It sounds gracious on the surface, to say that God has no law, no standards, no expectations, no commandments, no threats, that He is simply there to affirm us in whatever we happen to be. This all sounds great, but there is something very wrong with this way of thinking and believing. First, it denies the love of others and exults the love of self. Second, it denies forgiveness. If there is no love in one’s heart for others, then there cannot be forgiveness.

Where there is no law, no just standard, no legitimate expectation, no normative way of relating to God and man, there can be no forgiveness. Because forgiveness is the letting go of real offenses, real transgressions, real violations, real faults. But if there is no law to transgress, or no standard to offend against, or no expectation to violate, or no commandment to disobey, or no love to give or share, then there can be no forgiveness. What looked like grace turns out to be the undermining of grace by the undermining of forgiveness.

These are the two great needs that we all have. The first is to be forgiven; to have all the violations, offenses, transgressions, disobedience, and sins that burden our souls and make life difficult for us canceled out. "Though your sins are as scarlet they shall be as white as snow!" (Isaiah 1:18). And the second need is to have God Himself come into our lives where sin once reigned. We need a personal relationship with God through His Spirit. We need wisdom and guidance and love and joy and peace and patience and goodness and self-control. And we need extraordinary power for the task of local and world evangelization. We need the gift of the Holy Spirit. "What shall we do?" What shall we do so that our sins will be forgiven, and we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? The answer is simple: "Repent!”

Repentance is not just regretting. Repentance means following through on that conviction and turning around—changing your mind and your heart so that you are no longer at odds with God but in sync with God. Jesus spoke to Paul in Acts 26:18 about this "turning" that leads to forgiveness and gave Paul his commission with these words, "I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins." There it is. That is repentance: turning from darkness to light and from Satan to God. It is a reversal of the direction of your life—toward God.

To illustrate the need for repentance, Jesus used the parable of a fig tree. The point of the parable is this: fig trees are supposed to do one thing, produce figs. And in the parable, the tree was given an amount of time to be cared for and fertilized, but there would come a day of reckoning where either the fig tree produced fruit, or it was going to be cut down because it was not producing fruit as it should.

In the parable, the unproductive tree represented the Jews who were not producing the fruit of faith and repentance. They had been given time to produce, and they did not, they refused to believe that Jesus was, in fact, the promised Messiah, and instead of confessing their sins, repenting of them, and believing that the Messiah would die for their sins and they would amend their sinful lives, they kept on doing what they were doing, all the while pointing out things that were happening to others, thinking that they were just fine with God because something horrible did not happen to them.

The owner of the vineyard is God the Father, the one who is looking for the fruit, in this case, the fruit of repentance. He was giving time for the fertilizer, that is, His Word, to be showered upon the trees, but there would come a day where fruit would be expected, or it faces judgment.

This is a timely parable for this penitential season of Great Lent because historically, it is a time of fasting, prayer, and repentance as we ponder what our Savior, Jesus Christ, has done for us at the cross. In fact, for centuries, the season of Lent was a time of catechesis, or instruction, for adult converts into the Christian faith. They would spend this time in an intense study of the Scriptures, with the goal at the end of that period being the confession of their sinfulness and their subsequent reception into the Church, as members of the Body of Christ. 

On the eve of Pascha, at the Great Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday night, these adult converts would make a public confession of their faith and be baptized. The timing symbolized the fact that their sins had been atoned for by Christ’s death and that they were now being raised to new life with Christ as Christ was raised to life again on Easter morning. And that is really the life of the Christian, a life of repentance. In acknowledging this, we recognize that our sin will cut us off from God and the life He has to give if we remain in sin and do not repent of it.

Every Sunday, every holy day, and every feast day, when we attend and participate in the celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we hear about what our Savior has done for us through His life, death, and resurrection. Leaving here as His forgiven people, we want to live our lives in repentance by avoiding sin in our lives as well as the near occasions of sin, those things or people that may cause us to sin.

Forgiveness is like being cured of a horrible disease. Once you have received the medicine and been cured, you do not then go out and expose yourself to it again so that you can get sick. Fruits of repentance work the same way. Once we recognize a sin, recognize what it threatens to do to our lives, confess it for what it is, and receive Christ’s forgiveness through Word and Sacrament, we stay away from it so that it does not threaten to devour us in the end.

Unfortunately, I have seen and met too many people who profess to be Christians who think “all I have to do is come to church on Sunday morning, confess my sins, get my vitamin pill of forgiveness, and then go back to what I usually do because I can be forgiven of it anyway.” That is not what repentance and forgiveness of sins are about at all. Are we truly sorry for our sins if we just treat the forgiveness Christ won for us on the Cross in such a cheap, meaningless manner? Is that what God really expects of us? Certainly, no one with intelligence and the faculty to reason rightly can justifiably say or believe that forgiveness of sins is automatic simply because one says he or she is sorry. There must be the intent to convert one’s heart and behavior; there has to the intention, born from both the heart and from faith, not to sin again.

Repentance and forgiveness of sins is not something to be taken lightly; we are talking about life and death stuff here. I have consistently taught you that you must keep your hearts pure and your soul free from the stain of sin; that you must make this a  daily priority so that if you were to die today, you may present yourself worthy before the throne of God and hear His words of comfort: “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over little, I will set you over much. Enter now into the joy of your Lord.”

Death can come to anybody at any time. Nobody knows when their time is up. Repentance is a daily part of the Christian life because if you are going around thinking that you do not need to amend your lives, are you in for a big surprise! Your time may well be running out. Yes, this is life or death stuff.

But for today, you and I have been given time to repent of our sins and trust in Jesus Christ for our forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. God does not just zap people who do not believe in Him. He preserves their lives for a time in this world so that they can hear His Word in the hopes that they will repent and be forgiven. In the Old Testament, He sent His prophets to warn the people of Israel to turn back from their sinful ways, and their false gods, and turn to Him in repentance and faith, trusting that He would deliver on His promise of a Messiah before time ran out and judgment came. And too many times, it did.

For us today, our Lord gives us time. He gives us this season of Great Lent; the time to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with those in our community who may not believe in Him. Time to show through our fruits of repentance and faith what Christ has done for us, the difference He makes in our lives, and the reason that we are here in this community. Time to make serving others an integral part of our life so that in doing so, we make Christ visibly present in a world so lost, so corrupt, and so much in need of love and hope. That is why we boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ crucified for the sins of the world to the people in our lives and in our communities, with the hope and the prayer that they will produce fruits of repentance and faith before the day of grace has ended.

Tragic things have happened in our world, and tragic things will continue to happen, reminders that our time is short, and we live in a world that is plagued with the inescapable reality of the wages of sin, which is death.

None of us should ignore or take lightly the consequence of God revoking His mercy and forgiveness. If He does so, we will go to Hell, a prison in which there will never be enough time to pay our debt, because unless God forgives us our sins, our sins will prevent us from getting to Heaven. I can add also that if we fail to forgive others, we will not have to wait until we die to go to Hell because we will already be experiencing a hell on earth. The past pains due to others' sins against us will always remain in the present, raw and heavy, dragging us down by their weight. Jesus gives us the command to forgive others not just so that we might imitate His merciful love, and not even so that we would revoke it by our failure to be merciful to others, but so that we might experience the liberation and joy mercy brings the giver. 

At this time, I would like to give you four simple tips that I hope will help you make this Great Lent spiritually fruitful and beneficial. First, for us to be merciful to others, we need to recognize that we, like them, are also in need of mercy; that we, like them, are in fact debtors because of our sins. The more we are aware of our own need for forgiveness from God and the more we receive it, the easier it should be to extend that gift toward others. That is why it is crucially important that we examine our consciences daily and go to confession frequently. When we recognize that even our "smallest" sins incur an infinite debt that Jesus had to pay with His own blood, then we want to root those sins out. Sorrow for our sins and a healthy self-love move us to go to the Divine Creditor and drop to our knees, begging for His mercy in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.

The second practical tip relates to our mercy with others. Sometimes we hesitate to forgive others because we think it implies that we do not consider what they have done any longer to be wrong. But this is a false and harmful understanding of forgiveness. When we forgive another, it does not mean that we approve of the wrong they have done or will not try to bring a malefactor to justice if they have done something criminal. Mercy is not opposed to justice and to forgive does not mean to be weak and "soft on crime." On the contrary, a true spirit of forgiveness involves a genuine horror for the sinful quality of the harm sins do and the deep desire to right the wrong and deter others from committing similar wrongs. It involves hating the sin but loving the sinner. Sometimes our greatest mercy toward another is, in a spirit of unvindictive charity, to help them to see the error of their deeds and repent through a just punishment.

The third tip is to recall that Jesus never said, "Forgive and forget." So many people have told me over the years that they cannot forgive because they can never forget the pain from the harm done by others. Jesus never told us, "Forgive and forget," because of the simple fact that when another deeply hurts us, there is no way we could ever forget that. Forgiveness is not some type of psychological or emotional amnesia. It is something altogether different.

That leads me to the fourth and last practical point.  Forgiveness means changing the present significance of a past event, from one that causes pain to one that leads to mercy and love. Imagine your best friend deeply betrays you and you find it difficult even to think about the person, not to mention be in the other's presence. What would forgiveness look like in that circumstance?

It would begin by praying in these or similar words, "Dear Lord, please be merciful to that person and be merciful to me too." Whenever we do this, we are changing the present meaning of the person's past actions from something that opens up the wounds of pain and hurt to something that causes us to pray for mercy for that person and for us too. I call it the "cow manure" principle, by which we change the detritus we have undergone into fertilizer for growth in holiness. If we can convert all of these past pains into present opportunities to pray for God's mercy, then we have a chance to become deeply holy, because there are always plenty of people and reasons to forgive.

Whenever we come into the presence of those who have hurt or wronged us, if we are led to pray for them and for ourselves, then instead of doing us harm, they will do us great good. That is what forgiveness really is. Today, Jesus is calling us to recall those whom we need to forgive and to extend toward them the same offer of mercy He extends toward us.

Our Lord called us to "love others as I have loved you," and His love for us is always merciful. Therefore, our love for others must likewise always be clement. As He was dying to pay the debt for our sins, after His back had been shredded at the flagellation, after His head had been crowned with thorns, and the Roman soldiers were about to hammer His arms to the wood of the Cross, Jesus cried out not in pain but in mercy: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!" (Luke 23:34). The "them" and the "they" He was referring to were not just the Roman soldiers who clearly knew how to crucify someone, but to all of us who when we sin really do not have a clue about how they crucify and kill our Savior. There is a similar consequential ignorance when we sin against others and others sin against us.

Today, Jesus is asking us to make His words our own, to make His love our own, to make His mercy our own - by our receiving it from Him in the Sacrament of Mercy and by our sharing that forgiveness lavishly, with others. He who is mercy incarnate has made us rich in mercy like His Father. He has restored to us billions that we have squandered. Let us spend that merciful love down to the last penny!

As we begin our Lenten journey, let us be thankful that God gives us a time and season to repent of our sins, believe in Jesus Christ as our Savior, and live in the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation that He has provided for us. But let us not stop there, let us also go out and share that joy of repentance with the people in our community and the world.

This is what tonight's service of forgiveness and reconciliation is all about, my beloved, and indeed it is what all of Great Lent is about, and actually, I must say, it is what our entire life as Christians is about - being reconciled to one another, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. And by so doing, we become united to Christ Himself.

Amen.