Monday, October 19, 2009

A Heavenly Family

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

Our gospel lesson this morning [Luke 10:16-21] gives us a brief account of the seventy men whom our Lord Jesus Christ personally hand-picked, spiritually-empowered, and sent out as apostles to preach the word, to cast out spirits, and to bring healing to all. (The word apostle means one who is sent) This passage holds a special significance for our parish, because our patron saint, Barnabas, was among these very special men chosen by our Lord.

According to the kontakion we sing in his memory, Barnabas was first among the Seventy, meaning that he was preeminent among them, being a good man and full of the Holy Spirit. As our hymn tells us, he was found worthy to accompany the great St. Paul on his missionary journeys, and through his wise preaching, brought many to to the knowledge of Jesus Christ as Savior. Barnabas also spent more than a year in the city of Antioch, teaching the church by word and example, and together with Paul, laid the solid and lasting foundation which we still enjoy today as present-day members of the Church of Antioch.

Have you ever considered that in addition to whoever else in the world St. Barnabas prays for, he surely intercedes continually for our parish and for each of us, his spiritual children? No doubt his pastoral concerns include that we would grow strong in faith and love and spiritual understanding, and also that we might be found fruitful in the good works which glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. We should never forget this connection we share with this missionary-apostle who still labors from heaven to draw many into the knowledge of Christ. This parish will not always have the same hierarchs, the same priests and clergy serving it, but it will always have St. Barnabas to watch over it, to guide and protect it, and I think to imprint upon it his special qualities of encouragement and love.

As we ponder these things, it is good to bear in mind that we give glory to God and honor to our patron saint when we show the same concern for our parish community that they do. We must never forget that the local parish is far more than a group of reasonably nice folks who get together occasionally for religious services and coffee. The parish is truly a holy community, a dwelling-place of the Holy Spirit who gives life to all who are united to Christ within it. It is a heavenly family whose Father is God, and rightly therefore are we called brothers and sisters in the Lord. Our membership here is not by chance or accident, but by the good will and choice of God, who hand-picked each of us and brought us to this place as living stones to be fitted together as a holy temple, as one Body which is Christ, that we may find our common salvation in Him.

If I understand the New Testament scriptures correctly, salvation is a corporate experience, meaning that it takes place for us in the context of the Body, and specifically, in the local parish to which we have been called. We like to say that the Church is the normal means that God has provided to save mankind. This does not imply that God cannot save the thief on the cross or those vast numbers of people who, either by ignorance or ideology, reside outside the communion of the Church. It merely means that God, who is not the author of confusion, has established an outpost of sanity in a fallen and quite insane world, a place where truth is taught in fullness and everything necessary for man’s illumination, salvation, and glorification can be found.

This is often a difficult concept for Americans to grasp. Although we are still a mostly church-going nation (or at least claim to be whenever religious polls are taken), we have largely redefined “church” to make it a place of fellowship and study, rather than the place where salvation is encountered, worked out, and experienced. As a result, Americans see church as optional. You can fellowship with your Christian buddies on the golf course and you can study your bible at home, so why bother with church? What we’ve done is to remake church in our image and according to our preferences. What we’ve lost is the traditional Christian understanding of the Church as the household of God, the pillar and foundation of the Truth, the place where God forms us together into the fullness of the stature of Christ. We Americans have forgotten the central role of Church in God’s plan of salvation.

This affects every one of us. Constantly each of us faces the struggle to overcome our individualistic leanings and to remind ourselves that the parish is central to our communion with God. In old Russia and Greece, villages were built around the Church as a reminder that the parish was central to the life of the people. In America, our towns are built around shopping malls and soccer fields, with churches found along the edges of communities. We can only guess what that reveals about us.

Our daily priorities reflect whether or not the parish (and thereby God) is central to our lives. Do we pray, and teach our children to pray, and instruct them in the Orthodox faith by word and by personal example? Do we make the motto “Church First” a hallmark of our family life, by attendance, by financial support, by service, by concern for the well-being of all, and by living righteous, holy lives for the benefit of our brothers and sisters in Christ? When we pray, do we take upon ourselves the needs of others in the parish and pray for them as if they were our own needs? Do we ask for the intercessions and help of St. Barnabas and share the same love for his parish that he holds for us within his heart? If not, then this is exactly what we should be doing in order to please God by resisting our fallen and self-centered approach to life.

I don’t think there’s anything more difficult, and at the same time more rewarding, than serving one’s parish. God designed it that way you know, because it’s exactly what we need to prepare each of us for the community of heaven. It’s hard to deny ourselves our “independent lives” and live to serve others. When we make out the family budget and decide where to allot each precious dollar, it’s hard to think “Church First” and write that tithe check to honor God and help our community. When the parish needs volunteers, it’s hard to commit to driving all the way back to church to clean toilets or set up tables for some event. When we are offended or have a conflict with someone in the parish, it’s hard to think of the other person as more important than ourselves and make the choice to serve him or her in love. It’s hard to accept the sometimes unpleasant circumstances in our lives as being allowed by God that we might learn humility and patient trust in Him. In times of temptation, it’s hard to remember that we actually owe right living and holiness to one another, and thus must deny ourselves indulgence in sin. It’s hard to come to confession and be reconciled to the community, especially if “community” is something we don’t often concern ourselves with. It’s hard not to think of ourselves as the center of our own existence and fight the selfish desires that emanate from that fallen and bitter orientation.

The very fact that these things are hard demonstrates the direct bearing they have on our salvation. And where else but in the parish do we shine the light on these fallen traits in ourselves, and thereby discover our fundamental need of repentance?

I’m sure you know as well as I do that when we humans face things that are hard, we have a tendency to avoid them, or rationalize our way around them. We don’t always have the presence of mind or the determination in our hearts to see these challenges as coming from God for our salvation. In this way, life’s many opportunities to trust God and draw near to Him can pass us by. These things are easy to neglect and yet it’s parish life and the intercessions of our patron saint that keep them before us and graciously give us always one more opportunity for repentance and change. God loves us very much, and so does St. Barnabas, and they do everything to help us. Let us learn to unite ourselves to that great and abiding love, and take on the challenges that will join us to one another in gaining the glorious salvation that takes place within this holy community.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


At 10/22/2009 7:15 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy your writing, Father Mike. And thanks to the internet, one can read your words and then skip church. Oh, that's not what you meant? Oops! (Kidding, except the part about enjoying your writing.) ~BQ


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