Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Samaritan Woman

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

“Christ is risen!”

Our gospel lesson this morning [John 4:5-42] centers on our Lord's conversation with a certain Samaritan woman He met while resting at Jacob's Well. Although having the appearance of an accidental encounter, we must realize that this meeting was preordained from the foundation of the world by the good God who loves mankind and who actively seeks to bring salvation to all peoples and nations.

For the Jews of that day, it would have been hard to imagine any people less likely to receive the salvation of God than the Samaritans, and this is because the Samaritans were a mixed race of both Jewish and pagan bloodlines and religions. A vague sort of Judaism heavily intermingled with pagan idolatry was a combination both accursed and deeply offensive to the Jews. Thus for Christ to even speak with a woman of Samaria was more than a little scandalous for the time, but it was necessary to demonstrate to His disciples that the fields of the world truly were white for harvest and that no people should be considered beyond the saving reach of the gospel.

I’m sure many of us are aware that after her encounter with Christ, this woman was later baptized by the apostles, and received the name of Photini, meaning the "Enlightened One". She became a highly successful evangelist, along with her five daughters and two sons, and spread the gospel throughout Samaria and far beyond to many other regions. Together, they brought countless numbers of people to Christ, eventually suffering imprisonment, tortures, and martyrdom joyously for their beloved Jesus Christ. She and her children are truly among the greatest of the early saints of the Church.

And all of that began right here, in the events recorded in this passage. A new light dawned upon the Samaritan woman when, in speaking with Christ, at least two very important things happened to her. First, she saw her sins for what they really are, and second, she saw the need in her life for conformity with the truth of God. Let’s take a quick look at both of these.

First, she saw her sins when her adultery was exposed by Christ, whom she took to be a prophet of God. Seeing that God had therefore taken notice of her actions, perhaps for the very first time in her life she was actually overtaken by shame for what she had done. What a great blessing this is! Although worldly wisdom dictates that one should never be made to feel shame for their sins, in fact that is one of the best things that could ever happen to a person. Shame means that a person has begun to see himself in at least a tiny way as God sees him, as a person created for much higher and greater things, who has foolishly cast those aside to follow lower impulses and disgraceful actions. Shame, you see, carries with it a very positive sense that we are fundamentally capable of doing better and of being better, otherwise why would we feel shame at all? Shame is therefore redemptive because it calls us upward to those greater things, rather than letting us be content to perpetually wallow in that which is degrading.

As an aside, I like to distinguish between shame and guilt by defining guilt as that which is experienced by the person who refuses to repent and to better his/her way of life. Guilt is like shame gone rancid. When God grants us a sense of shame for our sins, we are supposed to act upon that, to confess our sins and to change. When we do not act upon shame properly, perhaps because we enjoy our sin too much or because we refuse to humble ourselves before God, then guilt begins to enter our heart like a corrosive agent, eating away at our soul to slowly destroy it. The point is that we are to begin our repentance as soon as God shows us our particular sins, and not put off that all-important action for any reason.

The second thing that happened to the Samaritan woman was that she was blessed to see her need to be conformed to the truth of God. To most people, truth, and especially what we might call “religious truth,” is something that is entirely subjective and relative to a person’s culture or to whatever he/she might simply prefer to believe. The idea that God alone is truth and that we must be conformed to Him is a difficult one for many.

For just a moment the Samaritan woman seemed to promote her people’s religious beliefs as being of equal validity to those of the Jews, but Christ quickly swept that away as utter nonsense. “You [Samaritans] worship what you do not know,” He said to her. “We worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews”. Imagine a person being told that their religious beliefs are wrong and they actually listen because of a sudden desire to know the truth of God. You can see what a great gift this is! Most people are far less keen on knowing the truth, and do not receive correction as readily as the Samaritan woman.

Unfortunately, this applies to many Orthodox Christians. Those of us who are converts may imagine that we became Orthodox in search of the truth, and in fact we may have. But once that truth was revealed to us did we find it too much to bear? Did we find that the demands of the Orthodox life are more than we would care to fulfill? Did we discover that coming to so many services was inconvenient to us, and thus settled into a pattern of infrequent or habitually-late attendance? Did we find that fasting or coming to confession was no fun, and so have neglected these? Having set other financial priorities, have we not made the proper sacrifices to God of our tithes and offerings because these seemed like an expense we simply couldn’t afford? Do we dislike having to pray or follow a rule of prayer? Do we forsake the counsel of a spiritual father in our life, or neglect seeking his blessing on important decisions? Do we resist being conformed to the truth of God in the life and Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church, in preference to living a pseudo-orthodoxy that is entirely on our terms? By compromising a little bit here and a little bit there until we have made a religious experience that is reasonably comfortable and well-conformed to our preferences, have we shown ourselves to no longer be seekers of truth or seekers of God at all, but “Orthodox” in name only?

True Orthodoxy always has an edge to it and is never comfortable. It is always challenging and always demands of us more than we think we can give or do or be. That’s how it moves us from where we are to where we need to be. That is how it saves us.

As difficult as it is, we each need to resist trying to have Orthodoxy on our terms, and learn to take it on its own terms. This means we need to pay attention to ourselves and to the excuses we often make, and genuinely seek to change our lives for the better. This morning, St. Photini is our role model for this. Through her prayers may we become true worshippers of God, responding to Him in faith and love, glorifying Him in spirit and truth.

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

Sunday, May 04, 2008

St. Thomas Sunday

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

“Christ is risen!”

Last Sunday at Agape Vespers we read the first half of this morning’s gospel lesson [John 20:19-31], ending with St. Thomas refusing to believe the joyful testimony of his fellow apostles that Jesus had risen from the dead. Today we continue the story to find that, one long week later, the disciples were again gathered behind locked doors and this time Thomas was with them. Jesus came and stood in their midst, and after blessing them with peace, He summoned the suddenly-not-so-doubting Thomas to examine the wounds on His hands and His side and behold the undeniable reality of His bodily resurrection.

Listen to some of the hymns from last night’s vespers:

O good Christ, when Thou didst enter unto Thy Disciples, the doors being shut, Thomas, who was called Didymus, was not with them. Therefore, he doubted what was told to him. Nevertheless, Thou didst not deem him unworthy for his lack of faith, rather Thou assured him of faith, by showing him Thy pure side, and the wounds in Thy hands and feet. Therefore, having sought and beheld, he confessed that Thou art an unabstract God, and an unsimple Man, crying, My Lord and my God, Glory to Thee.

As the Disciples were being doubtful, the Savior, after eight days, came to where they were gathered and granted them peace. Then He cried unto Thomas, Come, O Apostle, and probe the two palms which were pierced by the nails. O the delicacy of the beautiful unbelief of Thomas, as coming with the heart of an unbeliever to knowledge, he called out with fear, My Lord and my God, Glory to Thee.

There are three things I would like us to take note of today. The first is that our Lord did not despise Thomas for his doubts, but in yet one more example of the immeasurable and inexhaustible divine humility, He offered His hands and side to Thomas for inspection, as the disciple had so brazenly demanded just the week before. Now think about that. Even after all the horrible things that Christ had been made to suffer at the hands of sinful men, He still was not out of patience for sinners. He might have had every right to be angry with Thomas. Instead, our Lord showed great meekness, submitting to His disciple, giving permission for him to poke dirty fingers into His blessed wounds if that is what he still needed in order to believe. We are not told that Thomas followed through on that; possibly by this time he was feeling a bit meek and humbled himself.

Because our Lord spoke so often throughout the gospels on the need for faith, it is comforting to know that He also shows mercy toward those whose faith sometimes fails them. In this world of sin and darkness, in a culture that is increasingly secular and hostile toward faith, we might even say that such struggles to believe are to be entirely expected. The gentle compassion which Christ shows here is an assurance that He knows what we go through and is willing to help us. When Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed,” was He not in fact speaking of us? By so doing He was showing that He knows belief can be difficult at times, but that the mercy of God is upon those who persevere in the struggle to maintain an active and growing faith.

The second thing I would like us to notice is the phrase in that second hymn, “O the delicacy of the beautiful unbelief of Thomas”. Now “beautiful” is not an adjective we might normally associate with unbelief, and yet in this case it applies perfectly, because the unbelief of Thomas was so simple and without guile. Overcome by grief and false expectations the Messiah’s ministry—remember that the disciples were all expecting Christ to take a glorious earthly throne, not to die miserably upon a sinner’s cross—the soul of Thomas was stunned. But when Christ appeared to him and he suddenly began to connect the dots, the great purity of his heart allowed the Holy Spirit to illumine him as he cried out “My Lord and My God!”

There certainly exists simple or “beautiful” unbelief. It can be found in many who have never heard the gospel, or those who, through no fault of their own, have only been exposed to distorted or incomplete versions of it. It can be found in some who have suffered great hurt in life, and who thus wonder if God is indeed good and merciful. When such people are presented with the true gospel or otherwise have their sincere questions answered, they may discover (Somewhat to their surprise!) a deep longing in their hearts for God and will joyously come with faith unto Jesus Christ in His Church to receive holy baptism and divine illumination. Such people are truly blessed!

We must add that there also exists “ugly” unbelief. This is unbelief that is rooted in the passions, not in simple ignorance, and which seizes upon some pseudo-intellectual excuse not to believe in God or obey Him. Most often this is accompanied by the desire to “be free” from the morality of the Church to pursue the lusts of the flesh. This is a terrible spiritual condition, and reveals that considerable darkening of the soul has taken place in a person, most often and tragically with that person’s full consent. People afflicted in this way are by no means beyond redemption, but their path back to God will often involve the painful crucifixion of their enormous pride and an ongoing and difficult renunciation of their enslaving passions.

One final thing I’d like to mention regarding our gospel story is that Thomas didn’t do himself any favors by being off in his own private little hell of despair and disillusionment while the rest of the disciples were rejoicing in the presence of the risen Christ. It is never a wise idea to be a marginal participant in the life of the Church, but it is an especially bad idea to withdraw yourself when you’re faced with spiritual struggles. If anything, that’s the time when we most need the Church, together with the support of our brothers and sisters, our father/confessor, and our loving God. There will always be trials and tribulations in this life. We need to make sure we always face them in God’s Church, united to one another as our Lord intended. In this way, we can also experience all the joys together, such as in our celebration of the glorious resurrection of Christ Jesus.

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