Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Love and Reconciliation

Tomorrow we begin the Apostles’ Fast in preparation for the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul which we celebrate in about three weeks. Each year the length of this fast varies from a few weeks to sometimes only a couple of days, depending on how early or late Pascha falls in any given year. Despite the variable nature of the fast, the feast itself is a very important one not only because of the two great apostles that it commemorates, but also because of an additional significance this particular feast has come to hold for Orthodox Christian believers. There are at least two different icons that portray this feast. In one, the two apostles are shown standing together and upholding a representation of the Church, demonstrating that Peter, the apostle to the Jews, and Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, worked together to found the one Church for all peoples, cultures, and nations. The Christian Church is truly universal, the one true Ark of Salvation which God Himself has constructed for the deliverance of all mankind and the entire world. A second icon is a bit different. In this one, Peter and Paul are embracing one another and bestowing on each other the holy kiss of Christian brotherhood. Often the halos about their heads are seen intersecting in such a way as to form the image of a heart, representing the two chief Christian virtues of reconciliation and love. As we may know from the holy scriptures, Peter and Paul had a bit of a falling out over Peter’s hypocrisy in suddenly refusing to eat with the Gentiles when the party of the Circumcision showed up. Paul publicly called him on this in front of everyone present and likely caused a bit of hard feelings. Yet from the scriptures we also know that these two men were later reconciled, and in one of his epistles Peter even calls Paul “our beloved brother” and speaks warmly of the wisdom which God had given him to serve the Church. This example is very encouraging and shows us the Christian path. These two founders of our Church--despite very real and undeniable human failings--allowed the Holy Spirit to work in their lives to bring about reconciliation and the triumph of Christian love. This is the additional significance of this feast, and a call to us to allow the Holy Spirit to also work in the same way in our lives. When it comes to reconciliation and love, there may be a tendency for us to assume these virtues are already present in our lives simply because we can’t think of anyone we actively hate. This is a mistake. As has been noted many times by our Holy Fathers, the opposite of love is not hate. Just because you don’t hate anyone doesn’t necessarily mean you love anyone either. The true opposite of love is mere indifference. If God had only been indifferent to our plight, we would be left to perish in our sins without any hope of redemption. Instead, His love moved Him to reconcile us and the entire world to Himself through Jesus Christ His Son. True love comes from God and imitates the movement and action of God to reach out, embrace, and reconcile from all alienation the object of love. It is an active force propelling one toward the good of the other through all necessary sacrifice. True Christian love comes to us from the Holy Spirit when we are willing not merely to feel, but to act. As God’s love moves Him to act on our behalf, so the Holy Spirit moves us to action--or tries to--but is often stymied, perhaps not by any hatred on our part, but almost always by our great indifference. If you look around at the other people in this room, do you find any here that you hate? I would hope not, and would further hope that you would come to your father-confessor and tell him if you did. But when you look around, do you find any here that you are simply indifferent toward, that you neither hate nor love, but regard with no particular interest at all? This is far more likely, and an indication that you are blocking the Holy Spirit from operating fully in your life. Love must begin first in the household of God with your own brothers and sisters in Christ, and from there reach out to the stranger and the coworker and the others we encounter on a daily basis. If we do not love our brother or sister first with an active, sacrificial love, as St. John says, we do not know God, for God is love. This active, sacrificial love requires that we stretch our thinking beyond ourselves and our own immediate families and include our parish family in our daily concerns. If we pray for our own families, shouldn’t we also pray for our parish family? If we are careful to provide the necessities of life for our own family, shouldn’t we also provide for our parish family with regular financial support? If we think it important to invest “quality time” in our families, shouldn’t we also put in some time at our parish, working together, volunteering for duties, building up ourselves and one another through service? The same is true for those without families. Singles and young marrieds need to think of their parish family and find ways to support and labor in love for the good of all. This is the first and best way that the Holy Spirit leads us out of the black hole of self-absorption and teaches us to love and be reconciled to others. We need to understand that God has given us the parish and all the people and all the various needs in it as the very means of our growth toward the communion of love in the Holy Trinity, and our salvation. If we fail to see the need to serve one another faithfully, putting the needs of each other over our own as the scriptures instruct, we fail to respond to the Holy Spirit in that which is most needful to us. When we are overzealous to protect our time, our money, our interests alone, we are not allowing the Spirit to lead us into perfect love and reconciliation toward one another, and in a very real way remain isolated from the household of God. And so, as we enter into this fast for the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, let us first do this together as the family of God, fasting also from any selfish isolation or unwillingness to sacrifice for one another. Let us strive to discover our responsibility toward our larger family, and in so doing serve them in the manner that is pleasing to God and saving to us. +To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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