Monday, June 15, 2009

Sunday of All Saints

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

Today is the Sunday of All Saints. On this day the Church celebrates not just two or three or a handful of saints, but literally all the saints in every generation, including our own. On this First Sunday after Pentecost, we commemorate all the saints to remind us that the Holy Spirit has come for the purpose of making sainthood possible. A more personal way to say this is to say that because the Holy Spirit has descended and now dwells within the Church, each of us has access to being cleansed, sanctified, glorified and numbered with all the saints who have ever walked with God. On this Sunday we don’t simply remember the saints gone before us; we remember that we also are called to become saints or holy ones of God! It is a gracious and highly-exalted calling, representing our opportunity to enter today into the eternal communion of God’s life and love and to be transformed by it from endless shame to everlasting glory.

There are a few things about this we must be certain to understand right off the start. First, that the Holy Spirit has come to make us holy. That is His purpose and His work, and He accomplishes it well. He initiates it, He enlivens it, and He perfects it according to the will of the Father. We do not make ourselves holy; it is the Spirit’s work, thank God! Second, as the Spirit is truly holy, so He makes God’s saints truly holy. There is no such thing as “positional righteousness” except in the imaginations of men who have separated themselves from Orthodox teaching. God’s work is real. His transformation of fallen humanity is real. The holiness He imparts to His people is also real. The lives of the many saints throughout the Church era demonstrate this fact reliably and incontrovertibly. And finally, although sainthood is the work of the Holy Spirit and very real, it is also fundamentally a calling, meaning that it is something we must respond to. God calls, but we must answer. Sainthood will not happen in us automatically. We must give our willing consent to the process and enter into it actively.

When each of us was chrismated, God granted us the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. No one has been denied this precious deposit. From that moment forward we were meant to live by the Holy Spirit, or in other words to follow His guidance into the life of the Church, and by so doing, allow His presence and operation in our lives to become an ever-increasing reality. This process is what some have referred to as acquiring the Holy Spirit.

Addressing this very subject, St. Seraphim of Sarov wrote: “Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as an indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”

“The acquisition of the Holy Spirit” is the fundamental action of the Christian life, and involves submission to the Spirit in order to cooperate fully with His sanctifying work. One who is filled with the Spirit is one who has learned to set aside his own fallen will in order to will and to do what God wills and does.

This is what I like to call “The Gethsemane Factor”. You’ll recall that prior to His arrest, false trial, and crucifixion, our Lord prayed in the garden of Gethsemane with great agony that He might be spared the events awaiting Him, but concluded each request with the words, “Yet not My will, but Thine be done”. This He did for our sakes, to show us how we must live. Our Lord knew He would have to endure these things for our salvation, yet He wanted to teach us how absolutely necessary it is for those who would follow God to submit their own human will to the good and perfect will of God.

This is not to say that our Lord’s agony was an act, or somehow not real. In a mystery both terrible yet beautiful to behold, the God-man Jesus Christ genuinely struggled to bring His human will into full conformity with His divine will to accomplish the great and fearful work He had come to earth to do.

Is it any surprise then that our number one struggle in this life is to bring our own human will into conformity with the will of God? Come to think of it, that might indeed be a surprise to many Christians, for far too many never give a thought to accomplishing the will of God in their lives, and even routinely excuse themselves whenever they choose do that which is in direct opposition to His will.

Here’s something I want you to remember: a willful person can never accomplish the will of God. Human willfulness is always in opposition to the Holy Spirit, and only the one who has learned to crucify his willfulness and submit to God’s will can begin to acquire the Spirit of God.

What do I mean by willfulness? I’m not talking about free will in and of itself, for this is God’s gift to us that we might choose love. Only a person with a free and unconstrained will can freely choose to love his God and his neighbor as himself. It is a free will choice to enter into the communion of God’s love and be transformed by it. But willfulness, at least according to my definition, implies a certain loss of freedom, the misuse and distortion of free will, for it is the habitual and slavish devotion only to the self, to one’s own stubborn desires, passions, and fallen inclinations. It is the natural state of one who has not yet received the Holy Spirit, according to St. Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 2. And after the Spirit is given, the struggle against willfulness to gain the fulness of the Spirit is the major work of the Christian life.

Because of this, so much of the life of the Church engages us in a direct assault upon our stubborn willfulness. We are given a structured worship, authored in antiquity by the Holy Spirit, instead of a contemporary, made-up service that we mislabel as “spirit-led”. We are given a rule of prayer to guide us, rather than letting us entirely make up our own prayers or not pray at all. We are given a Church calendar with seasons of fasting, seasons of penance, and seasons of celebration to sanctify our time and set the boundaries of our life. We are given the confessional to remind us that we do not answer to ourselves alone, but to God, to the the community of the faithful, and to the counsel and guidance of a father-confessor. Many Orthodox Christians fail here, for they either resist confession, or they treat the penance they are prescribed as little more than “advice” which they can take or leave as they please. That’s willfulness!

Everything that God has provided in the life of the Church, everything we are called to do as Orthodox Christians, has as its goal the crucifixion of our fallen self-will and the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. This is why many Orthodox Christians do not live the Orthodox life in fulness, for they are not yet ready to overcome their willfulness and submit themselves to the Spirit’s leading.

I think it is vital to develop an awareness of this, and to keep it before ourselves continually, for we face little conflicts between our willfulness and the Spirit’s leading daily. Shall I say my prayers today, or make excuses for myself? Shall I fast, or eat what I want? Shall I come to the service, or stay home and relax? Shall I be kind today, or treat people badly? Shall I be pure, or give in to my lusts? Shall I go to confession, or keep my little secrets? Shall I obey my penance, or lay it aside to do as I please? Constantly our willfulness challenges the will of God, but do we even recognize that this is taking place? Do we realize that every decision is the choice to either obey God and acquire the Holy Spirit, or to willfully resist Him, grieve the Spirit, and gain nothing? Do we ever consider The Gethsemane Factor in our daily lives and enter into that agonizing struggle to declare, “Not my will, but Thine be done”?

Today we are reminded that we are called to be saints, and nothing less than saints. The Holy Spirit awaits our response. We must crucify our willfulness and submit to the work that the Spirit does in our midst, in our Church, in God’s kingdom. It is God’s work, my beloved. Our work is only this: to give our willing consent, to say “Yes” to the Spirit’s leading, and put to death our stubborn opposition. May God remind us and lead us in this daily.

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