Monday, July 30, 2007

The Inner Storm

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

From this morning’s Gospel Lesson [Matthew 14:22-34] we heard St. Matthew’s account of our Lord Jesus Christ walking across the waters of the Sea of Galilee at night to meet His disciples in their storm-tossed boat. Once the disciples had gotten over the terror of the situation and regained their wits somewhat, the ever-spontaneous Peter practically exploded over the gunwales, begging Christ for permission to join Him in this grand adventure of walking upon the waves. When this was granted he immediately leapt overboard, and it appears that he actually succeeded for at least a moment or two. All too soon however, he shifted his attention from Christ to the strong winds and the fierce waves all around him and fear entered his heart. Perhaps along with this fear came a sudden and keen awareness of the stark impossibility of what he was doing, and his faith evaporated and he began to sink. He immediately cried out to Jesus to save him, upon which our Lord reached out with a strong hand to pull him into the safety of the boat.

Over the years, I am sure we have all heard sermons that spoke of the winds and the waves in this story as being life’s occasional trials and tribulations, during which we must always keep our eyes focused on Jesus lest we be overcome by our fears and sink into our troubles. Well this is fine advice and always welcome. But it may interest you to know that quite a number of our early Christian fathers, especially among the desert monastics, saw a much deeper and more immediate meaning to this passage of scripture. Rather than seeing the elements in this story as symbolic of life’s trials, they saw the darkness of the night as describing the spiritual darkness of man’s fallen soul, and the turbulent and churning Sea of Galilee as portraying the confused and disorderly state of most people’s interior life.

Our Christian fathers were preeminently concerned with the ordering and healing of man’s inner life, for it is primarily in this realm that we were created to perceive God and commune with him. But in our fallen state, the peace and calm that was meant to characterize our souls and direct our inner life, has been replaced by a raging torrent of out-of-control and random thoughts and emotions that are mostly all directed by our earthly passions.

It isn’t only during periods of trial that we lose sight of Jesus; in fact, ironically enough it is usually during such times that we tend to pay a little more attention than usual to God. It is normally during our ordinary day-to-day lives when things seem to be going smoothly that the darkness and confusion of our souls reigns unchecked, and we are often driven away from the contemplation of God by an endless stream of undisciplined thoughts and careless and brazen desires until we virtually drown in them.

The brave Christian who dares to venture into the inner realm of the soul to bring it under submission with God’s help, may soon find himself overwhelmed by the effort required and the seeming impossibility of controlling the tempest, and like Peter, may quickly lose faith and beat a hasty retreat out of such a hostile environment back to the safety of living life on the surface, where most people indeed spend the majority of their lives.

Because we avoid and ignore our inner life, we become perversely obsessed with ordering our outer life, perhaps thinking that if we can at least create the appearance of being in control of what we and others see, this will mean that we are right with God on the inside as well. Thus we eagerly expend nearly all our energy in pursuing external things to make us happy and comfortable. We crave financial success, a happy family, property and possessions, lovely homes and wonderful vacations, the latest fashions, and the respect and admiration of those around us. We may not have all or indeed any of these things, but we just know our lives would be better if we did!

Meanwhile, life keeps yanking the rug out from under us. Perhaps we suffer a financial reversal and lose much that we have built up over the years. Maybe we go through a divorce or have a child who seriously messes up his life. Maybe things have gotten bad at our job or our friends have suddenly turned their backs on us. If all our hopes and dreams have been wrapped up solely in the things of this world, such naturally occurring catastrophes can bring overwhelming grief to us and leave us wondering why God is mad at us.

But God isn’t mad; He is grieved. He knows that in the darkness and confusion of our souls we have made bad choices; seeking fulfillment in things which are passing away, sometimes even seeking pleasure in sin, which only adds to the darkness of our souls and creates a more profound and lasting sorrow. Like the addict who desperately laments the effects of his drug but finds his only solace in its continued use, we often try to drown our sorrows with more pleasure and more distractions, rather than by turning our hearts away from such things to the God who alone can calm the stormy sea of our souls and bring us healing.

But there is one more problem. Who among us doesn’t love pleasure more than struggle? For this reason we often give in to our sins and will not suffer so much as a single bruise in the fight against them. We so often choose to go easy on ourselves, and flee from the determined effort needed to stay focused upon God daily. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and men of violence take it by force. But we are pacifists in the battle for the kingdom and do continued violence only to our own poor and defenseless souls. How many times have we made excuses for ourselves, saying that we are too weak, or too busy, or that our Orthodox Christian faith is too hard? How many times have we started out to show concern for our inner life, but quickly turned and fled when the winds and waves were too frightening and the labor seemed too impossibly great?

My brothers and sisters, it is so much easier to live life on the surface than to enter into the depths of our dark and troubled souls. But the reward for those who dare to step out of the boat and meet Jesus in that turbulent place is nothing less than the miracle of a soul made more pure and more calm, where God can be known and the peace of God cannot be taken away. Is this not worth the risk?

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Feeding of the 5000

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

Our Gospel Lesson from Matthew [14:14-22] describes the miracle of the feeding of the 5000. This is perhaps one of the most familiar and least understood miracles in all the scriptures. Although our holy fathers in the faith understood the purpose of this miracle quite well and were universal in their agreement as to its meaning, there are literally millions of Christians today who have lost touch with the historic faith and teachings of our ancient Christian ancestors and thus are truly “in the dark” as to what this miracle points to.

The explanation most commonly given today is that Christ simply sought to demonstrate His deity to the world, since only God could perform such a work. That’s a nice, rational answer, and easy to understand. But it falls far short of the answer that Christ Himself gave. In John chapter 6, as the multitudes continued to follow Him in order to receive more food, He revealed to them the true purpose for the miracle. He declared, “Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of Man shall give unto you…I am the bread of life; he that cometh to Me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst.”

This was an answer that many of the Jews who had been following Christ up to this point did not find rational at all. In fact, if you read through John 6 you will see that on three separate occasions the people objected that His words made no sense, and each time they did so Christ came back, not with comforting, reasonable explanations, but with even bolder statements. He declared, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” As the people reeled over this statement, Christ then made what must have seemed the most outrageous claim of all saying, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day”.

As we know, many of the thousands of people who had been following Jesus right up until this moment suddenly turned away and left Him over these words. On the basis of human reason alone they simply could not accept what He had said.

Unfortunately there are many Christians today who also cannot accept Christ’s words, but rather than abruptly leave Him, they simply reinterpret what He said to derive a meaning that is much more in accord with rational thought. They see communion as little more than a symbolic remembrance of Christ’s death and not as His literal Body and Blood since such a belief seems irrational to them.

We should note that the words of Jesus are not irrational. They are what we might call supra-rational, or in other words, they rise above the limitations of mere human reason alone and require also the gift of faith to help us experience and participate in them. Our holy fathers understood that the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 pointed directly to the Holy Eucharist. Just as five loaves of bread were multiplied at the hands of His disciples to feed everyone present with twelve basketsful left over, so today five loaves of prosphora are multiplied at the hands of His priests in parishes across the world to feed millions with the Body of Christ which is “broken, yet not divided; ever eaten, yet never consumed, but sanctifying those who partake thereof”.

Of course it is tragic that there are so many today who still will not believe the words of Christ, especially in light of His warning that unless we eat His flesh and drink His blood we have no life in ourselves. But we must understand that it is not just post-modern rationalism that robs people of the full meaning and power of the Eucharist; for many Orthodox Christians a simple lack of faith and piety routinely does the same.

I wonder what impact we contemporary Orthodox believers might have on our world if we developed a much deeper and more reverent appreciation for the Holy Eucharist. Across this land, Orthodox Christians have by and large set a very sloppy example of respect for this life-giving and holy sacrament. A large percentage of us do not prepare ourselves properly to take communion each Sunday. We do not go to confession regularly, we may not pray the prayers of preparation beforehand, and perhaps we do not even fast prior to taking the Body and Blood of Christ. In many parishes if a mid-week liturgy is offered, very few people attend. And on Sundays there are still far too many of us who habitually stroll into church half-way through the liturgy, as if somehow we got extra credit for arriving at God’s banquet “fashionably late”.

Frankly my brothers and sisters this is shameful. Let’s turn things around for a moment and look at them from God’s perspective. If you spent all day preparing a special and expensive meal for your friends, but your guests of honor wandered in an hour late and stuffed because they had stopped off at McDonald’s along the way, you would likely not be pleased. If they briefly sat down and ate a bit from your table without thanksgiving and then immediately got up to go socialize with the rest of the guests without even acknowledging you…well, you might think twice before inviting such ungrateful people back into your home.

Far too many Orthodox Christians behave exactly this way toward the holy things of God. Is it any wonder then that so many of our parishes lack spiritual vitality, that so many of our young people leave the faith at their first opportunity, and that Orthodoxy overall seems to have so little an impact on American culture and religion? I don’t mean to paint a completely bleak picture because things do seem to be changing for the better in many parishes, thank God. Yet it is clear that we still have a problem in this country, and very much need to bring piety and faith and reverence back into the Orthodox Christian experience, particularly in regard to the Holy Eucharist.

If the Eucharist is truly life-giving as Jesus claims and the “Medicine of Immortality” as our holy fathers faithfully described it, then it is easy to see why our enemy the devil would wish to do everything he could to encourage disbelief in it or impiety toward it. We must do our part to overcome the devil by approaching this sacrament with the fear of God, with faith and with love. Only then will we be able to receive its benefits, and from it gain the life eternal that Christ promised us.

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

Monday, July 09, 2007

Art Thou Weary?

The story of the paralytic who was healed by Christ [Matthew 9:1-8] is another great and encouraging message of God’s love for us. There are similarities between this healing, and last week’s story of the healing of the Gergesenes demoniacs. You’ll recall that the demoniacs had enslaved themselves to darkness and were so far gone that they could not even ask for help from our Lord. In fact, when they saw Him, the devils within those men tried desperately to send Christ away saying, “What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God?” Jesus ignored the foul stench of the demonic presence and reached out to the men with love, casting out the evil, and restoring them to health of soul and body.

Likewise, the paralytic in today’s story was a helpless man. Like the demoniacs, he too was unable to come to Christ under his own power, but actually had to be carried by his four devoted friends. Perhaps he also could not speak because of his palsy, and thus was unable to even ask for healing. But Jesus looked upon the faith of his friends and immediately healed the man.

And so we have two stories here from Matthew’s gospel that each demonstrate Christ’s willingness and ability to heal even those too demented by sin or too sick from its consequences to so much as ask for His help. How great is the love of God!

Are there not times in our lives when we may feel overcome by sin and the guilt of it, or so weak and paralyzed by our spiritual sloth and coldness toward God that to even draw near to Christ for healing seems nigh on impossible? Are there times when we throw up our hands and feel so beyond redemption that we wonder what the use is of even trying? If so, don’t you find encouragement in the discovery that even utter depravity and complete spiritual paralysis are not beyond the power of Jesus to heal? If He can heal these, surely He can help us.

There is a great old Protestant hymn that most of us are familiar with which sums up so well the glorious yet often painful reality of the Christian life. It asks, “Art thou weary, art thou languid, art thou sore distressed?” If thou didst answer, “Yea, verily!” to any of these, then welcome, my friend, to the big fat club of the rest of us. The consequences of sin are real and devastating to us spiritually, physically, mentally—in every way possible. It makes us sick of soul and frequently worn out. And so far no one has come up with a cure for sin’s effects that does not involve the cross in our lives and the measure of self-denial and suffering that it calls us to.

The writer of this hymn understood so well this truth, and went on to declare, “If I find Him, if I follow, what His guerdon here? (IOW, His guarantee for this life) The answer: “Many a sorrow, many a labor, many a tear”. Oh wonderful! When many of us first came to Christ as evangelicals we were assured an easy salvation, in direct contrast with Jesus’ promise of a narrow path and a difficult way leading to the kingdom of heaven. Indeed the whole of the New Testament scriptures testify both to the bone-wearying difficulty of the Christian life, and to the certainty of salvation for those who persevere and endure. Our salvation is certain, because it depends upon the power of God and His love for us, and not upon our human efforts alone. Yet with God’s help we must walk the path He has set before us, carrying the cross He has individually fashioned for each of us, in order that we may die to our sins and live eternally in Him.

If we worry that our labors may be in vain, the writer of this hymn offered one more word of encouragement. “Finding, following, keeping, struggling, is He sure to bless? Saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs answer, ‘Yes’.”

What a wonderful hymn. If it seems remarkably Orthodox to you in its content, there’s a reason for that. The lyrics were adapted from the writings of St. Stephen of Mar Saba, an 8th century Orthodox monk and the nephew of St. John of Damascus. So please strike what I said before about it being a Protestant hymn, it is an entirely Orthodox hymn in every way.

Getting back to our gospel lesson on the paralytic, there are times when we may indeed falter in our way along the Christian path and become paralyzed by an unwillingness to correct ourselves or to deal harshly with our own sins. We may go through a season or even seasons during which we just sort of let life pass us by and we seem too weak to even lift a finger in our own defense.

That is when it is good to have friends. Maybe there are times when we aren’t brought to church by our love of God or our desire for salvation; maybe we come just to see our friends, or to make our family happy, or simply because we are embarrassed to have people wonder if there is something wrong with us. But you know what? God can use that too. We may indeed find ourselves in a rather helpless state spiritually, but if we allow our friends to bring us to church where Jesus may be found, we are not without hope that He may also touch our lives while we are here and strengthen our souls and bodies that we may rise again and return to following Him.

There are times when we are earnest in the Spirit and can walk the narrow way boldly and with confidence in God. There are other times when we just plop down on the dusty path and cry. During these latter times we must never, ever isolate ourselves from our friends or cut ourselves off from their company. They may be the very ones who pick us up and carry us along for a time, until we regain our strength and can resume our own walk. After that, there may be times when we must pick up and carry our weary friends and help them along in the way of life.
This is why God gave us the Church, which is yet another sign of His love and care for us. He knows that we need one another, that we draw strength from each other, that we can provide great help and encouragement to one another in the Lord and in so doing, find our mutual salvation in Him. The greatest tragedy is a paralytic with no friends; he lies on an empty, deserted road with nothing but the vultures for his companions. And their only prayer over him is “Lord, for what we are about to receive, we thank Thee…”

When those times come upon you during which you seem to have no faith, let the faith of your friends carry you into the presence of Christ, and let Him do for you what you cannot do for yourself at that moment. Finding your strength renewed, pick yourself up and carry on, dear friend, carry on.

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