Sunday, August 28, 2016

Homily for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

This morning I want to talk to you about the importance of prayer and fasting. I know we talk a lot about these two subjects throughout the course of the liturgical year but this morning’s Gospel compels us to consider, once again, these two very important aspects of our Orthodox Catholic Faith. Prayer and fasting are two very important and indispensable elements of Christian life. But they are also the two most frequently ignored aspects of our life as Christians. It is for this reason that we need to regularly reflect on and consider them.

Let me begin by saying that I personally believe that there is great power in both prayer and fasting. But like many of you, I am often negligent in the proper practice of both. Like you, I often am distracted and preoccupied with the cares and affairs of daily life so much so that I sometimes neglect my prayer rule and fasting. This is not good at all.

In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus makes it very clear that we cannot do great works without prayer and fasting. These two things are instruments of great power; by them, great miracles and achievements are accomplished. Thus, they are critical to our ability to do great works and to our mission as Christians.

Having returned from His Transfiguration, Jesus enters a enters a village and is met by the other disciples and a crowd of people who were following Jesus to see what miracles He might perform as He went among the people. And the first thing we see is that there was an unmet need. There was a need that Jesus’ disciples could not meet – it was beyond their resources (human or spiritual).

Previous to this, Jesus had already given to His disciples the authority to heal the sick and cast out demons in His name. And they went about preaching Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, and they healed and delivered just as Jesus said they would. But  now, they encountered a need which was obviously too great for them to meet. This young man, so violently afflicted with a devil that tormented him – and the disciples, no matter what they did or tried, had been unable to deal with it. This was the unmet need; it was a failure on the part of the disciples.

Now, let us not be too quick to criticize or fault the disciples in their failure to heal this young man. After all, how many times, even though we truly believe, do we fail in a task or in some good work? Have we not all been in those places where we have tried with all that we have to find answer in our lives to some pressing problem, or in the life of a family member, friend or neighbor? We have tried everything in our power; we have exhausted all our physical or spiritual resources, and still the need is seemingly unmet. The sickness remains; the situation is unchanged; the person is unaffected, unsaved, unchallenged. The need is unmet! What are we to do?

Jesus came down from the mountain, where he and His closest associates had been in the presence of God, to be faced with this unmet need. They came down from the presence of God, where everything was perfect and the possibilities are unlimited – back to the grim realities of life: back to poverty, despair, loneliness, sickness, corruption, greed, death.

Have you ever attended a powerful church service where you experienced the touch of God in such a way that you felt you could turn the world upside down, only to do out of the church and find that your car had been broken into or you bump into someone down the street that you have been praying for and there is no discernable change in their behavior – in fact they seem worse than ever? You feel the wind leave your sails very quickly. You are confronted by the dilemma, the failure, the tragedy.

Jesus and His disciples came down from the mountain to face an unmet need. Jesus does not ignore unmet needs. I praise God that He does not do such things. Jesus is truly the Master of the unmet need. If you have some situation in your life that you have no answer for, then I am here to tell you all is not lost. There most definitely is an answer and a solution, and He is Jesus Christ. No situation or problem is too hard for Jesus to solve, no challenge or obstacle is too difficult or insurmountable for Him to overcome.

In a moment of time, Jesus turns the situation around. What seems impossible for us is not impossible for God. When we have expended all our resources, Jesus reaches out His hand and miracles happen. It is all very wonderful, but as we can see from this morning’s Gospel, even the disciples are amazed and astonished at what Jesus accomplishes. There is no longer an unmet need, but now they are left with an unanswered question.

They had had answers to prayers before, you see. They had ministered very effectively most of the time and they had many successes. So what was different this time? “Why could we not cast out this demon?” “Oh, Lord, we tried everything we knew how. We have prayed just as we have heard You pray for people. Where did we go wrong?” The disciples had an unanswered question: “Why could we not cast him out?”

To their question, Jesus gives an unexpected reply. Jesus says, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” In other words, Jesus is saying something like this to His disciples, “Listen up guys! Your faith is strong and you only need a little bit of it to do great things, but this kind of problem requires more. This kind of demonic problem does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”

There are needs and problems in life that require a different approach. They have a whole different dimension of difficulty to them. Some things require a greater spiritual power. Jesus says there is a way to obtain that spiritual power needed to address such needs and problems, and that way is by prayer and fasting.

When Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil, he entered into a prolonged period of prayer and fasting, 40 days in all, without bread and water. Can you imagine any of us today going through the 40 day season of Great Lent without any food or water at all? As hard as we would certainly try, it would be very difficult for us to make it through the entire 40 days without breaking the fast. But yet, Jesus accomplished it, and it was not simply because He was God. Remember, He took upon Himself our human nature and experienced temptation just like we did. However, Jesus was disciplined. He knew the great value of prayer and especially the great value of fasting. In fact, He developed a lifestyle of prayer and fasting. By His example, Jesus shows us the benefits of such a lifestyle and that we too, should acquire it for ourselves as well.

It is clear that Jesus had been fasting prior to this incident with the demon-possessed boy, for He said explicitly that such a demon can only be expelled by prayer and fasting. Obviously, then, Jesus knew the great power and importance of prayer and fasting. This is a lesson we must learn in great detail. We cannot simply read treatise after treatise on prayer and fasting. We must incorporate all that read into our life and make prayer and fasting a regular part of our life. We must find time each day, as Jesus did, to withdraw from the world and spend time in prayer. We must also fast regularly, and our fasting with intense and concentrated prayer so that the Holy Spirit is not impeded from entering into us, changing us, and strengthening and empowering us for the work of the Lord.

Jesus was ready for every occasion and circumstance of life and ministry precisely because he developed a lifestyle of prayer and fasting. There is great power released in these two physical and spiritual endeavors. Now, you may ask me why? The answer is simple: Prayer is the simplest form of communication between humans and God. Prayer is not only the words of our lips, but the words of our heart. Prayer, when offered from a pure and sincere heart, reaches the ears of the Divine Majesty like a sweet song carried on the wisps of the wind. God receives such prayer and responds to it generously.

I believe in the power of prayer. As I told you earlier, I sometimes have difficulty praying but I find my spots where my prayer is uninterrupted and flows from the heart. For example, I find it difficult to prayer in my home. But when I am in church, especially if I am alone, my heart opens up and soars. I experience the same feeling when I am alone in the outdoors, but away from people, alone in a field or on a hilltop. A monastery is also good for me, but not all of them. There are some monasteries here in the States where I find great peace and consolation. But there are others which I find distracting and unconducive to prayer and meditation, places which are too attached to the world. That is one of the things I love about the monasteries in Greece: you can sense the holiness and the presence of God in many of them. The world as we know it does not exist inside them.

Basically what I am saying is this: you have to find your own special place where you can be alone with God. Wherever it is, go there frequently. It is so important to have a prayer life. You will be amazed how much things in your life will change once you include prayer as a part of your daily life. A properly formed and carefully maintained prayer life will help you in many ways, my children.

And why is fasting so important? Fasting releases great spiritual and physical power. It is that spiritual power that can make us move mountains. Fasting purifies our not only our souls but our bodies as well. Thus, there is a holistic element to fasting which brings us many benefits.

Fasting also reminds us of our humanity. It is always good to be reminded of our humanity when we come to God. To come to God feeling a sense of helplessness is not a handicap but a head start. As we shed ourselves of the spiritual and physical baggage that weighs us down, we realize that we are not what we appear to be. In other words, we recognize our limitations and thus our need for help from the only One who can do all things at all times. Fasting casts off the fa├žade we like to wear and exposes our inner most being for all to see.

Fasting humbles us. Properly practiced, fasting should humble us. It should bring to light just how selfish and self-serving we are, how dependent we are upon this world for the things we believe we need from it in order to be happy and content. Fasting requires us to deny our appetites for physical and material pleasure and satisfaction. Fasting brings to light many negative things about ourselves we would normally not see or even acknowledge, things we try to hide in order to be something other than what we are. Fasting strips away the veneer and reveals the real substance of which we are made.

Fasting is a sign of desire for the divine. Fasting, if undertaken in the proper spirit, brings about spiritual growth, which in turn brings us closer to God. When we fast, we are saying that seeking God is more important to us than the daily routine of finding food for ourselves. We should seek God every day. That is why prayer and fasting are so important for us.

In these difficult times, we have a great need for prayer and fasting. We have great unmet needs in our lives, in the Church, in our parish, in our community, in our families. I believe that Jesus can meet and fulfill these needs in ways that are beneficial for us both spiritually and physically. In fact, I believe that He alone can satisfy and fulfill our needs.

If you want things to change in your life, then you must pray and fast. But even before you do that, you must start with a heart of repentance and forgiveness. You cannot pray properly if your heart is not at peace with others. You cannot begin a fast if you are angry or holding a grudge against someone. If you are going to ask God to hear your voice, then you must be willing to love and forgive others and you must be at peace with your all people. This is hard, I know, but as Christians we are called to love one another, even those who hate and despise us or treat us badly.

If we are not properly disposed to prayer and fasting, then God will not hear our voice or look favorably upon our efforts. For example, merely skipping one or two meals a week is not serious fasting. Our disposition must be that of making changes and seeking God in a more intimate way. Fasting releases spiritual power in our personal lives. It opens the door to a direct and intimate communion with the Father. Prayer and fasting compels us to focus directly on our Creator and Lord. This is where our true strength comes from.

Prayer and fasting are not some kind of magical rituals we employ to move God to action. God wants to do amazing things for His people but He looks for people who are willing to make sincere and honest changes in their lives in order to come into alignment with His. God resists the proud and the arrogant but He gives grace to the humble of heart. Prayer and fasting, especially fasting, are perfect ways to learn patience. It takes patience and discipline to pray and fast but these attributes can be easily acquired if we are sincere in our desire to align ourselves with God.

Fasting is not easy. Those of us who try to fast know that it can be painful. The pain of fasting is twofold. First, there is the physical pain which results from the detoxification of our bodies. All the accumulate poisons and garage in our bodies starts to come into our blood and this causes us to sometimes feel awful. The other pain we feel is spiritual. This spiritual pain is caused by the conflict in the spiritual realm between your flesh and the Spirit of God. Remember the old saying, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak?” We find this to be very true when it comes to prayer and fasting, especially fasting.

As Jesus stated in this morning’s Gospel, there are certain things we can do if we believe, but there are other things that require something greater. If we are going to attempt to do greater and more significant things, if we are going to attempt to solve bigger and more complex problems, then we need to step up our game, and this is where prayer and fasting come in. We must arm ourselves with stronger spiritual power, especially if we are going to fight against the evil one and all his works. Otherwise we will fail. Even if our faith is strong, we will still fail for we have not properly prepared ourselves for the battle at hand.

The importance of prayer and fasting in your life is not something that can be taken for granted. It is for this reason that holy Mother Church speaks frequently about these two very important aspects of our life as Orthodox Catholic Christians. She wants us to be properly armed for the spiritual battles which rage all around us. God will help us in our struggles if we help ourselves by properly preparing for them.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Homily for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Just about every kid has a period in his or her life where they love superheroes. Children idolize the ability of superheroes to do the impossible, to fly, to scale skyscrapers. They are awed by their incredible strength or their x-ray vision. When I was growing up, I loved Superman. I wanted to be just like Superman. I remember running around my house with my homemade cape. Whenever I saw a phone booth I wanted to go in and change into Superman. Superheroes are again becoming popular. New movies are coming out all the time about superheroes. They are so amazing because they can do such amazing things.

Sometimes I think that we read the Bible like we would read a comic book or watch thrilling adventure movies starring a superhero.  We look at some of the amazing things that some of the folks did in the Bible and are amazed by them. We even idolize their lives and their passion for God, but sometimes we see them as superheroes whose super powers are impossible to match. In truth, this is an unrealistic perception. It is unrealistic simply because we forget that with God all things are possible, that is if our faith is strong and sure.

We read of some amazing things and some amazing people in the Bible. Sometimes it is hard to grasp that these were real people who really lived, and not just made up persons or stories. These people had real struggles and real problems in life. They did not have superpowers. They were not superheroes. They were just people like you and me putting their faith into practice. They were super people with super character and of great virtue, but they did not have special powers to live better lives than you and me. They are, however, examples for us as to how we should live our lives.

When I read of people like Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, and Paul I envy them all in one way or another. I envy most especially the closeness they had with God. They had a special relationship with God; they had a constant communication with Him. I envy what they could accomplish and did accomplish for God. Would that I could do the same, but I am so much weaker than they.

It is amazing to me how God can take such weak and imperfect human beings and work great wonders through them. God does not always choose the powerful and strong and wise to do His works, but rather the simple and humble of heart, even the broken in spirit and those on the fringe of society, the outcasts. It is through people such as these that God works great wonders that amaze and stupefy the world. I envy their unswerving faith.

As you read of the key people in the Bible we can see that many of them differ in personality and specific roles that they were raised up for, but one thing is always the same: they had strong faith. They trusted God when it didn’t make sense, when it was not popular and when things were not going their way. They are legends we are talking about thousands of years later because of the kind of faith they had. I hope today that as many of you read the Bible, you will reflect and say, “That’s the type of person I want to be” or “that is the type of faith that I would like to have.”

The bottom line is that we can have that kind of faith. Jesus promised that we would be able to have a faith that could move mountains. We can have that type of relationship with God today. Sometimes, we are way too easily satisfied with mediocrity in our faith. We are satisfied with being a casual Christian in name only. We are satisfied with our lack of commitment, excitement or zeal. We are content to be uninvolved or lukewarm. I hope and pray that as we continue together in our earthly pilgrimage you will want more for yourselves and what you have right now. I am not talking about material things but rather about the holy things of God, those things which bring true and eternal happiness, peace and joy. Today, I hope that you are not content where you are in your faith. I hope that you want to be like some of the incredible people in the Bible and have a faith that can do amazing things.

One of my favorite people in the Bible is the Apostle Peter. Peter was a man who was full of zeal for the Lord. When Jesus was on the mountain and was transfigured with Moses and Elijah it was Peter who wanted to stay and build shelters for all three of them. When Jesus told Peter that He was going to be killed it was Peter who said he would die with Him. It was Peter who assured Jesus that even if everyone else denied Him he would not. It was Peter who drew his sword and cut off Malchus’ ear as the soldiers came to arrest Jesus. It was Peter who ran to see the empty tomb. It was Peter who left the boat and came to the resurrected Lord. People can fault Peter for some of his over-zealous behavior and actions, but overall, Peter had a heart for Jesus and is an example to us all of the excitement we should have in following Jesus.

Peter was always zealous to be with Jesus. Peter’s greatest desire was to be with Jesus in any way possible. In this account of Jesus walking on the water, we see that the disciples are out to sea,and there is a great storm that is around them. These disciples were experienced fishermen, so most likely they knew some things about boating, but it says that they were afraid. Then we learn that Jesus walks out on the water towards them. Peter then speaks up and says, “Lord, if it is you tell me to come to you on the water.” Peter wanted to get to Jesus. He wanted to get to Jesus so badly that the waves did not deter him from getting out of the boat; He knew he would be safe with Jesus near. Did you notice, that Peter didn’t say, He wanted to get to Jesus.  Peter wanted to get to Jesus because he knew that Jesus alone could calm the storms of life.

Today we live a life that is being buffeted by the wind and the storms of life. Sometimes life can be hectic and chaotic, but there is a solution to life’s problems. There is a person who can calm the storms howling around us and beating against us. That person is Jesus. He offers us the same hope of calming the storm that He offered the disciples two thousand years ago.

You know what is strange about us as people; we like to handle our problems on our own. We think that we can fix all of the things going wrong in our lives. I want to tell you this morning that there is one who wants to bear our burdens, struggles, frustrations, and griefs. There is one who wants to make our life easier. If only we would come to Him He would take those burdens away. Sometimes to come to Him we have to get out of the boat and step out on faith and know that Jesus alone can save.

Peter ate up the opportunities he had to be at the feet of Jesus. He loved things like when Jesus picked him to go up the mountain and see Him transfigured with Moses and Elijah. He did not want those moments to end. Peter knew that Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us. He knew that nothing came to be without Jesus allowing it. He knew that Jesus had control over His creation and that is why walking out on the water was not such a big deal. He knew that Jesus could control the wind and the waves. By the time that Jesus’ ministry was over and He ascended to Heaven, it was plain to Peter that Jesus was Lord over the sea, Lord over the sick and diseased, Lord over the demons, Lord over life because He raised Lazarus up from the dead and death could not hold Jesus in.  Peter knew in the depths of his heart that Jesus had control over His creation and he wanted to be with His creator as much as possible.

Peter is often ridiculed for stepping out of the boat, but I believe Peter showed more faith than the eleven that stayed in the boat. When Peter stepped out of the boat, he became afraid because of the wind, he took his eyes off of Jesus and began to sink. He cried out what I believe are some of the most amazing words in all of Scripture. He cried, “Lord, save me!’ These three simple words are so packed with meaning. You know, when people begin to sink and when people are put in a tough spot they often reveal what is really inside. Peter’s cry for his life was for Jesus to save him. He knew that Jesus had the power to bring him up out of the water and save him from sinking. He addressed him as Lord, or Master. That word he used means supreme in authority or controller.

Did you also notice that his faith did not change just because he was sinking? Before he walked out on the water he addressed Jesus as Lord, and even as he was sinking he addressed Him as Lord. Peter knew that Jesus alone at that point could save him. He knew he could not save himself. He knew no one else could save him. Not even the disciples in the boat could save him. Only Jesus, the all-powerful God could save him.

I remember many years ago, over thirty years to be exact, I was serving as subdeacon and private secretary to His Eminence, Archbishop Peter, of thrice-blessed memory, then ruling bishop of the Diocese of New York and New Jersey of the Orthodox Church in America. As was usual, I was accompanying His Eminence on a pastoral visitation to one of his parishes in Upstate New York. During the Divine Liturgy for that Sunday, the Archbishop preached his homily on this very passage. Being that it was so long ago, I must admit I do not remember much of what the Archbishop said, but I do remember him repeating through his homily Peter’s words, “Lord, save me!” At that time I realized something. I realized I like Peter am drowning in a sea. I cannot save myself, and no one else can save me, but Jesus.

Today, as I stand here before you, having gone through so much over the past few years, I can honestly say with all my heart, that only Jesus saved me from drowning in a dark and murky sea of despair and hopelessness. My hope and faith is in the Lord. That is not to say I am out of the storm yet, but I have trust and confidence that I will make it, with the help and grace of God and with Jesus near me always. This is the hope that I give to all of you who may be experiencing the same turbulence, doubts and feelings of hopelessness I have felt and still sometimes do experience.

Jesus is never that far away from us my children that He does not hear our groans of sorrow and despair. And of this we should not be ashamed or afraid. No one knows better our suffering and hurt than Jesus. We are safe with Him.

After the miracle of Jesus and Peter on the water, Jesus taught the large crowds about the Bread of Life. The Bible tells us that the crowds had a hard time accepting Jesus’s message and were offended. (John 6:66-69). Amidst the crowds turning their on Jesus, He looks back to His disciples with a broken heart and asks them if they going to leave him too. Peter is the one that pipes up and says an incredible thing that was no doubt shaped by the incident on the sea just a little while earlier, “To whom shall we go, You alone have the words of eternal life, we believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter is saying, I believe without any doubt that You alone can save.

To whom shall we go if not to the Lord? We too should want to be near Jesus because He alone can save. We should have zeal and a passion about encountering Jesus today and always. We encounter Jesus primarily through His Word and also through His people who possess His Spirit. We should have a zeal for opportunities to encounter Him in those we meet, especially the poor, the marginalized, the lost and the forgotten. In these, the least of our brothers and sisters, we find Jesus in all His glory and majesty. It is in the weakest among us that we see the strength, the power and hope of the Most High God. In their simplicity, in their struggles and in their suffering we find the hope of Gospel and the promise of Jesus Christ most clearly and perfectly.

Christ not only can save but He can transfigure and make new all that is old and weary. Are you weary and tired? I know that I get like that a lot. But then I turn to the Lord and ask Him to lift me up, to save me from all that troubles me. But most importantly, I ask Him to save me from myself, for at times, I am my own worst enemy. One thing that we must remember, my children, is that we are worth more than we sometimes think. God knows this and he wants us to know this as well. Sometimes, I think we beat ourselves up too much over the stupidest things. We take ourselves too seriously and that is when we start sinking in the water. We think we can do everything on our own, that we do not need help, especially help from God. But we could never be more wrong. We need God more than we know. We need to let God take over our lives and direct us along the path which He chooses and knows best will get us to where we want and need to be. St. Peter understood this better than anyone.

Peter was the type of guy that always longed for an opportunity to be used by God. Sometimes it was that same zeal to serve God that got him into trouble. Peter had an unmatched zeal and passion to serve. He was excited about what he believed but sometimes he did not always think things through and spoke before he really had time to consider what he was saying, but his heart was usually in the right place. Sure Peter had faults like the rest of us, but his zeal serves as an example for many. Peter wanted to be an instrument to be used by God and he was. For example, God used him on the Day of Pentecost to lead 3,000 people to Christ.

A lot of times zeal is nothing more than an idle talk of what people want to hear. We as people are good at talking the talk, and not always so good at walking the walk. We should want to be used by God and want to put our zeal and excitement into practice by serving in whatever capacity necessary. A lot of people frequently talk about zeal and excitement, but it is nothing more than just words. Zeal for the Lord should lead to serving the Lord. An excitement and a passion for God should lead to a willingness to work for God.

We as Orthodox Catholic Christians, who possess the fullness of the truth, should be the most excited people in the world. We should be the most eager to be committed to what we believe and we should be the most hungry for more. It seems that sometimes people that have the truth are the least committed to the truth and the zeal and commitment of people of other faith, even if it is based on a lie and wrongly directed, is far greater than our own.

We need to put that zeal for God that Peter had into practice like Peter did. If Peter would have just always been the foot in mouth disciple like he was on many occasions we would never speak of his faith. Though he messed up sometimes and made some big mistakes, and even though he spoke without thinking sometimes, no one questions his desire to serve and to be used by God.

The questions you need to answer today are these, “Will you turn your words into actions?” and “Will you become like Peter?  Perhaps today you have zeal and a love for God. The Scriptures tell us that if you love God you will obey His commandments. Will you turn that head knowledge and love for God into commitment to serve Him with all your heart? Will you go beyond talking the talk and start walking the walk? We are not saved by how good we can talk. Neither are we saved by what we say we want to do, and what we say about God. But putting those words into practice will save us.

If you claim to love God and have zeal for His Word and His work, or if you are excited about what God has done for us, then how will you put those feelings into action? Will you just keep your zeal and your love to yourself, or will you share it with others?

One of the biggest obstacles facing the Church today is our own people and the hypocrisy which so abundantly flows from us. The greatest obstacle and challenge we face in the Church today is people, both clergy and laity, who talk a good talk but do not walk the walk. These are the people and clergy who think that they are good stead in the sight of God because of the feeling they have in their heart about God and because they follow the rules with exactitude. In reality, however, there feelings and behavior are nothing more than a deception. Jesus had a great deal to say about such people. A quick read of Chapter 23, verses 1-36 of the Gospel of St. Matthew will tell you exactly how Jesus felt about such people.

There are many people in the Church today, and even among us here this morning, who have faith. They believe in God and say God should be number one priority, but they don’t show it. I would like to ask you a few blunt, straightforward, heart-examining questions. “When are you going to change? When are you going to go from talking to doing? When are you going to move from being a Christian in name to a true disciple of Jesus Christ in your actions? When are you going to become involved in the mission of the Church? The answers to these questions for most people will be “tomorrow is another day.”

People jump all over Peter because sometimes he was a little over zealous. Remember in the upper room, Peter really showed his zeal. He told Jesus that if everyone else falls away he would not. He also told Him that he would never disown Him even if he had to die. Jesus also got up to wash Peter’s feet, and Peter said, “Lord, You will never wash my feet.” Jesus then said, “You will have no part with Me if I don’t wash your feet.” Peter then replied, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.” Sometimes Peter missed the point. Sometimes Peter messed up. Sometimes Peter was overzealous, but when push came to shove that zeal lead to service and effectiveness in the Kingdom. He wasn’t just a hearer or a talker of the Word he was a doer of the Word. 

Sir Edmund Hillary made several unsuccessful attempts at climbing Mount Everest before he finally was successful. After one attempt he stood at the base of the mountain and shook his fist at it, and shouted, “I’ll defeat you yet, because you are as big as you are going to get, but I am still growing.” Every time Hillary climbed that mountain and failed he learned something new and one time he did not fail. That is a lesson we can learn from Sir Edmund. Troubles and difficulties will always be here and they will only be as big as we allow them to get. We, on the other hand, can defeat them as we grow spiritually. No matter how big the problems and difficulties are or become, we can defeat them.

Peter went through some times of adversity, some very difficult times in fact.. He had times of ups and downs. He promised Jesus that he would never turn his back on Him, but Jesus told him that he would deny Him three times. After Jesus was handed over Peter stayed around the area, and three times he was recognized as one of Jesus’ disciples and asked about it, and three times Peter denied knowing Jesus, even cursing His name. Peter failed big time at a time when he could have stood up for his friend, Master and Savior. After Jesus rose from the grave He reinstated Peter and forgave him for denying Him, but that event actually served to shape the man that Peter was to become. The adversity, difficulties, and failures in Peter’s life served to change and transform him into a better person. 

The reality of life is that we all have difficult times. We all face adversity from time to time, and we all have times when we miss the mark and fail at what we were supposed to do. The option that we have is what are we going to learn from those experiences and how can that adversity shape our character?

We live in an environment where we will all face the storms of life, but we can see that every great person has been shaped by difficult times and struggles and comes out stronger. We must choose how we are going to react to those times of adversity. Some people react by rejecting God, because they cannot believe that a God would give them a bad lot in life. They see it is God’s job just to throw blessing after blessing upon them and the second they do not get what they want they blame Him. Some people, however, through difficult times and adversity learn some things. They learn something about trusting God to carry them through. They learn something about being dependent upon God.

The adversities in life that Peter faced served to shape him into a man that would make an everlasting impact in the Kingdom of God and in eternity. It was through mistakes he made, times of failure, and times of hardship that he did some learning and growing. We, like Peter, have our times on the mountain top when everything seems to be going great. We feel near to God and life is going along smoothly, but we also have times where we are sinking in the waves. We have times of denial and rejection, and we learn through those times.

In our Gospel reading this morning, Peter makes two requests of Jesus. The first is this, “Lord, if it is You, tell me to come to You on the water.” Peter wanted to get out of the boat; he wanted to be with Jesus. I am telling you this morning that sometimes in order to get to Jesus we need to get out of the boat. Jesus told Peter to come out of the boat to Him. Today, He is calling us out of the boat. He is calling us to step out on faith and come to Him. The road isn’t always easy, but the Lord invites us to make the journey with Him. He will never abandon us and will always be by our side, even when the going gets rough.

Some people are more content staying in their boat though for whatever reason. Perhaps it is where you are in life that you feel content. Your boat is whatever represents safety and security in your life apart from God. Your boat is whatever you are tempted to put trust in. Perhaps that boat is worldliness and things that you have. Perhaps you do not want to give that up. Perhaps your boat is yourself, or someone else. Perhaps your boat is success. Whatever your boat is, Jesus invites you to come out of the boat and come to Him, because He alone can save.

When Peter was called out of the boat the storm was howling greatly and the wind was crashing. We all have seen just how powerful water can be. You can see by the floods that have ravaged so many of our communities just how water can destroy anything in its path. The water that Peter and the disciples were in was not calm water and still he stepped into the water to be with Jesus. We need faith to step out of our boat because Jesus is calling us to Himself.

When Peter stepped out of the water and began to sink he cried out, making a second request of the Lord. But this time he was pleading for Jesus to save him. This morning perhaps you need to cry out for the Lord to save you. He is faithful and He extends His hand for you to come to Him. Will you get out of the boat this morning and come to Jesus? Will you get out of the boat and give up whatever it is holding you back from coming totally to Him? Will you get out of the boat and serve Him wholeheartedly?

The storms of life which toss us about do not last forever. They come and go but when they come, they can be terrifying. Do not be afraid, my children, for the Lord is with you. He calls you to come to Him. Do not refuse His invitation, for He alone is life and can save you from all harm.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Homily for the Feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Celebrated every year on August 15, the Feast of the Dormition, or Assumption, of the Blessed Virgin Mary commemorates the death of Mary and her bodily assumption into Heaven, before her body could begin to decay - a foretaste of our own bodily resurrection at the end of time. Because it signifies the Blessed Virgin's passing into eternal life, it is the most important of all Marian feasts and a Holy Day of Obligation for all Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Christians.

The feast was originally celebrated in the East, where it is known, as it is today in the Byzantine Church, as the Feast of the Dormition, a word which means "the falling asleep." We don’t know how the feast first came to be celebrated. Its origin is lost in those days when Jerusalem was restored as a sacred city, at the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine (c. 285-337). By then it had been a pagan city for two centuries, ever since Emperor Hadrian (76-138) had leveled it around the year 135 and rebuilt it as “Aelia Capitolina” in honor of Jupiter. For 200 years, every memory of Jesus was obliterated from the city, and the sites made holy by His life, death and Resurrection became pagan temples.

After the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 336, the sacred sites began to be restored and memories of the life of Our Lord began to be celebrated by the people of Jerusalem. One of the memories about his mother centered around the “Tomb of Mary,” close to Mount Zion, where the early Christian community had lived. On the hill itself was the “Place of Dormition,” the spot of Mary’s “falling asleep,” where she had died. The “Tomb of Mary” was where she was buried. At this time, the “Memory of Mary” was being celebrated. Later it was to become our feast of the Dormition.

For a time, the “Memory of Mary” was marked only in Palestine, but then it was extended by the emperor to all the churches of the East. In the seventh century, it began to be celebrated in Rome under the title of the “Falling Asleep” (“Dormitio”) of the Mother of God. Soon after, the name was changed to the “Assumption of Mary,” since there was more to the feast than her dying. It also proclaimed that she had been taken up, body and soul, into heaven after her death.

The earliest printed reference to the belief that Mary's body was assumed into Heaven after death dates from the fourth century, in a document entitled "The Account of the Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God." The document is written in the voice of the Apostle John, to whom Christ on the Cross had entrusted the care of His mother, and recounts the death, laying in the tomb, and assumption of the Blessed Virgin. Tradition variously places Mary's death at Jerusalem or at Ephesus, where John was living. Eastern Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, continue to refer today to the Feast of the Assumption as the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos.

The document written by St. John the Theologian about the Dormition of the Mother of God recounts how the Archangel Gabriel came to Mary as she prayed at the Holy Sepulchre (the tomb in which Christ had been laid on Good Friday and from which He rose on Pascha. Gabriel told the Blessed Virgin that her earthly life had reached its end, and she decided to return to Bethlehem to meet her death.

“All of the apostles, having been caught up in clouds by the Holy Spirit, were transported to Bethlehem to be with Mary in her final days. Together, they carried her bed (again, with the aid of the Holy Spirit) to her home in Jerusalem, where, on the following Sunday, Christ appeared to her and told her not to fear. While Peter sang a hymn, the face of the mother of the Lord shone brighter than the light, and she rose up and blessed each of the apostles with her own hand, and all gave glory to God; and the Lord stretched forth His undefiled hands, and received her holy and blameless soul. . . . And Peter, and I John, and Paul, and Thomas, ran and wrapped up her precious feet for the consecration; and the twelve apostles put her precious and holy body upon a couch, and carried it. The apostles took the couch bearing Mary's body to the Garden of Gethsemane, where they placed her body in a new tomb. And, behold, a perfume of sweet odor came forth out of the holy sepulchre of our Lady the mother of God; and for three days the voices of invisible angels were heard glorifying Christ our God, who had been born of her. And when the third day was ended, the voices were no longer heard; and from that time forth all knew that her spotless and precious body had been transferred to paradise.”

"The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God" is the earliest extant written document describing the end of Mary's life, and as we can see, it clearly indicates that Mary died before her body was assumed into Heaven.

The earliest Latin versions of the story of the Dormition, written a couple of centuries later, differ in certain details but agree that Mary died, and Christ received her soul; that the apostles entombed her body; and that Mary's body was taken up into Heaven from the tomb.

That none of these documents bear the weight of Scripture does not matter; what matters is that they tell us what Christians, in both the East and the West, believed had happened to Mary at the end of her life. Unlike the Prophet Elijah, who was caught up by a fiery chariot and taken up into Heaven while still alive, the Virgin Mary (according to these traditions) died naturally, and then her soul was reunited with her body at the Assumption. (Her body, all of the documents agree, remained incorrupt between her death and her Assumption.)

We can still see the influence of "The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God" in Eastern iconography today. I speak specifically of the icon of the Dormition, which you see enthroned here before you in the middle of the Cathedral. In the foreground, Mary's lifeless body lies on the couch, as the Apostles prepare to move her body to the tomb. Behind the couch stands Christ, surrounded by angels and cherubim (signifying Heaven), holding in His hands the soul of His Blessed Mother (presented as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, signifying Mary's birth into eternal life).

While Eastern Christians have kept these early traditions surrounding the Dormition (Assumption) alive, Western Christians have largely lost touch with them. Some, hearing the Assumption described by the Eastern term Dormition, incorrectly assume that the "falling asleep" means that Mary was assumed into Heaven before she could die. But Pope Pius XII, in Munificentissimus Deus, his November 1, 1950, declaration of the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, cites ancient liturgical texts from both East and West, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers, all indicating that the Blessed Virgin had died before her body was assumed into Heaven.

The beliefs we hold concerning the death and assumption of the Mother of God into heaven are ancient, dating back to the Apostles themselves. What was clear from the beginning was that there were no relics of Mary to be venerated, and that an empty tomb stood on the edge of Jerusalem near the site of her death. That location also soon became a place of pilgrimage.

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when bishops from throughout the Mediterranean world gathered in Constantinople, Emperor Marcian asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics of Mary to Constantinople to be enshrined in the capitol. The patriarch explained to the emperor that there were no relics of Mary in Jerusalem, that “Mary had died in the presence of the apostles; but her tomb, when opened later . . . was found empty and so the apostles concluded that the body was taken up into heaven.”

In the eighth century, St. John Damascene was known for giving sermons at the holy places in Jerusalem. At the Tomb of Mary, he expressed the belief of the Church on the meaning of the feast: “Although the body was duly buried, it did not remain in the state of death, neither was it dissolved by decay. . . . You were transferred to your heavenly home, O Lady, Queen and Mother of God in truth.”

All the feast days of Mary mark the great mysteries of her life and her part in the work of redemption. The central mystery of her life and person is her divine motherhood, celebrated both at Christmas and on the feast of the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the day after Christmas. The Conception of the Theotokos (Dec. 9) marks the preparation for that motherhood.

The Dormition completes God’s work in Mary since it was not fitting that the flesh that had given life to God Himself should ever undergo corruption. The Dormition is God’s crowning of His work as Mary ends her earthly life and enters eternity. The feast turns our eyes in that direction, where we will follow when our earthly life is over.

The feast days of the Church are not just the commemoration of historical events; they do not look only to the past. They look to the present and to the future and give us an insight into our own relationship with God. The Dormition/Assumption looks to eternity and gives us hope that we, too, will follow Our Lady when our life is ended.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Homily for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The event we read about in today’s Gospel, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, is one of the most extraordinary miracles Jesus did during His earthly life. Even though we weren’t there 2000 years ago to be fed by the hands of the disciples, this miracle is also one of the most meaningful for us today. It shows us clearly that when men and women give Jesus what they have, He can multiply it to do wonderful and miraculous things for us and for others.

Let’s go back in time together to that late afternoon on the seashore of Galilee and look at the scene to make sure we don’t miss any important details. Our Lord had just finished several hours of preaching and healing of the sick. Since it was getting late, and the disciples cared about the people in the crowd, they came to Jesus and told him to dismiss them so that they could get something to eat. The disciples likely knew that the people would stay as long as Jesus was preaching and miraculously healing the sick. If Jesus were here, right now, curing people of their cancer, broken legs, diabetes, deafness, advancing blindness and other maladies, we probably would be in no hurry to leave either. So the disciples cared about the crowds, but their care led them to suggest something that actually was not in the people’s best interest — to leave Jesus, rather than come to him.

Jesus responds immediately to the disciples. “There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.” Feed them yourselves! By the response of the disciples to this, it appears that they would have, if they had the resources. “All we have are five loaves and two fish,” they replied. This response shows clearly the type of lives the disciples were living. First, they were living lives of great sacrifice and also great sharing. They were only carrying seven pieces of food total to feed what at least had to have been Jesus, the 12 apostles and an unnamed amount of other close disciples. You can do the math yourself! They were not going to be eating very much that night. And yet they were willing to share that food with others.

“Bring them to me!,” Jesus said. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, raised His eyes to heaven, said the blessing, broke the bread, handed the loaves to his disciples, who then distributed them to the crowd. Notice that Jesus handed the bread and fish to His disciples who then passed it among the people in the crowd. Some Christian preachers this century have claimed, erroneously, that this multiplication of the loaves and fish wasn’t really a miracle at all, but just a successful attempt by Jesus to get people to share. That He just passed out the seven loaves and two fish, and then everybody else took out the rations they were selfishly hiding and shared with each other. I’ve even heard a priest once say that from the pulpit. That couldn’t be more wrong! Such a claim often comes from those who really don’t believe that Jesus could have performed miracles at all. But we read that Jesus Himself gave the bread and fish to His disciples who passed it out to the crowd. Everyone got bread and fish from this source.

The crowds ate until they were full and then the disciples collected the scraps and filled twelve wicker baskets. This is a curious detail. Jesus is God and easily could have multiplied the loaves and fish such that there would have been no leftovers. But He didn’t. We are told that there were twelve baskets of leftovers — one, basically, for every apostle. It’s almost as if Jesus wanted to be able to give them a tangible reminder, in a certain sense, of what He could do when they gave to Him what they had. It also seems that the baskets that were left over were symbolic of Jesus giving the Twelve food with which to feed those entrusted to their care. In other words, the twelve remaining baskets symbolize not only the responsibility of the Apostles to care for the physical needs of God’s people but also to provide them with spiritual nourishment.

What does this event say to us today? It shows us what Jesus can do when a disciple puts what he or she has at His disposal. The disciples gave Jesus all they had that day — and it wasn’t much — but with the five loaves and two fish Jesus were able to feed a crowd of 5000 men, women and children. Imagine seven pieces of food feeding 5,000 people until they were satisfied and then all of those leftovers, enough to fill twelve baskets. If Jesus performed such a great miracle for those at that time, imagine what He can do for us today.  When we put what we have at the Lord’s disposal - our time, our talents, our resources, even our failings - He can do great and wonderful things.

I want to apply this episode to a very concrete example today. Over the past few weeks, I have had the chance to have conversations with several people in the Archdiocese, all of whom have, in one way or the other, asked or told me: Your Eminence, what can we do about what’s going on in our society? So many young people don’t believe in God anymore. Everyone’s watching television. No one’s coming to Church. How can the Church compete against that? What can be done to turn things around? What can be done to end the violence and killings that occur daily in the world? Doubtless you have similar questions and concerns. All of us must. What does Jesus and His Good News shown to us in the Gospel have to say to us about all this?

When we look over our society, we, like the disciples 2000 years ago, see thousands, even millions, who are hungry — yes some definitely for food, but countless others starving for the word of God in their lives, whether they recognize it or not. Rather than come to the place of true nourishment, Jesus, His Word and His actual flesh and blood, they are instead resorting to all types of junk food that isn’t good for them but which fills their appetites so that they no longer hunger for the real food. So many parents, who would never think of failing to feed their children, starve their children spiritually, never taking them to Divine Liturgy or Mass. Most of us feel helpless when we see just how great a need there is, like the apostles must have felt in front of the enormous crowd. Yet Jesus says in the face of such thousands, to you, to me, to each of us, “Give them yourselves something to eat!” Give them yourselves something to eat! And we reply, all we have are minimal talents. We don’t have great influence. How can we possibly give food to such a crowd? Then He adds, “Bring what you have here to Me!” He can multiply our little contributions, and He will, provided that we bring them to Him in confidence and faith.

I would like to give a couple of concrete ways we can do this. First, we can use the simple fact that we have the gift of life, the gift of a smile, the gift of a tongue and voice, to encourage those who are away from Christ to go or return to Him. We can, moreover, like the disciples in the Gospel who brought the bread to others, bring Christ to others where they are. This goes, of course, for friends or family members who are away from the faith. We can invite them back to Church, especially to participation at the Divine Liturgy. This whole neighborhood, this whole city of Utica, is crawling with people who do not go to Church anymore. When was the last time any of us invited someone nicely to come on Sunday? Such an invitation will not really be successful if we just suggest to someone to come to Church. We need to live the type of life, to show the type of joy that Jesus gives us here at Divine Liturgy, in order to attract others to join with us through such joy.

In a little over a month, there will be an Inquiry Session for the parish RCIA program, for those around who have not been baptized, but also for those who have been away from the faith for a long time. There’s more information in the bulletin. Would it not be a real application of today’s Gospel if each of us were to ask at least ONE person we know who does not go to Church or no longer practices their faith to come to that meeting or to come visit our Church? If you think that that person would never come, or never think about becoming an Orthodox Catholic, put confidence in Jesus, who can take your small efforts, and even gentle question, and multiply its effects beyond your imagination.

A second way we can apply this Gospel is through our parish ministries and programs. There are so many people in our community who are in need. It is easy to make a financial contribution to this or that parish project or ministry, but it is a lot harder to give of your time and talent, especially your time.  In order to be a true disciple of Christ, we must be willing to set aside our own comfort and personal interests to help and assist our brothers and sisters who are in need. It is by serving others that our faith is made real and inspires others to follow our example, especially when we serve with joy and enthusiasm.

Your prayers and your financial support certainly enable us to spread the faith and do the work of the Lord,  but your own physical involvement makes a stronger statement and more vibrant witness. Anybody can write a check. It only takes a few minutes to do that. But to give hours of your time to the physical work of the Church and the parish is a different story. Would it not be a great contribution if the parishioners here at the Cathedral, whom God has blessed so much, together might be able to pitch in and together as a parish give at least five hours a week to help with the ministries, programs and services to the people of Utica and the Mohawk Valley? Again, the few loaves and fish we can give, Jesus can and will multiply.

In Christ, all things are possible. If we give Him what we have, He can do such wondrous things. Look at what He did with Mary’s yes to the Angel Gabriel! Look at what He did to Peter’s profession of faith! Look at what He’s about to do to mere bread and wine! Just as in the Gospel with the loaves, Jesus will look up to heaven, say the blessing, break the bread, give it to His disciples, saying This is My Body — and it really is. This is the one Bread of Life that has been multiplied to feed literally billions throughout the centuries and every week, people who are starving for the Word of God. But just as Jesus told the disciples to distribute the fish and bread to all those who were hungry, so He says to each of us today, to go and distribute Him, His love, His word, to a world that is dying of hunger for Him. If you do that, today, tomorrow and every day, when you arrive one day to see Him in all His glory, He will say to you, “I gave you five loaves and two fish. And you have fed hundreds for Me with that and brought Me a whole basket full of souls.” Well done my good and faithful servant. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world!


Sunday, August 7, 2016

Homily for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

As you know, I do not like talking about politics, be it secular or ecclesiastical, but what has been going on regarding the current presidential campaign and election concerns and troubles me greatly.  Certainly, there are a great many questions that need to be answered and so many concerns that need to be addressed for our nation. One of the greatest concerns I have is the ability of both candidates to direct our great nation along the path of righteousness and justice in a manner that is pleasing to God. The most important questions for our nation, therefore, do not concern topics debated by the candidates or the pundits such as immigration, jobs, border security, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, etc. No. The most important questions for our nation concern God, Who He is and how all of these other issues and topics fit in with His plan for His world.

It is not my intent to put down the importance of the topics being debated in the public forum, not am I trying to minimize the importance of what our political leaders do and say. However, I am trying to put those things back into perspective. I am one of the first to say that we, as Christians, need to be involved in the public forum and in the political process. Our voices need to be heard, both individually and as the Church, because we have a lot to offer in the way of wisdom and truth.

We must be involved in both the public debate as in the political process to the extent that we try to reconcile secular society with the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the way of life Jesus Himself has set for us as an example. But as we do that, we must also remember that neither the communities in which we live, nor the state, nor the nation is changed toward godliness by politics. They are changed as the individuals within them come face to face with Christ and receive Him and accept His teachings and way of life as their own.

It is with that in mind that I say that the greatest questions facing our nation and society are those concerning Jesus Christ, Who He is and what His relationship is to us both individually and as a society. These have always been the paramount questions of life. It was true when Jesus walked the earth and it is equally true today, especially today as we see God and Jesus being pushed more and more out of our society.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see that St. Matthew continues to build his case that Jesus is the Messiah, God in human flesh, because He has authority to do that which only belongs to God Himself. Jesus has the authority to heal the sick and diseased. He has authority to control nature, and the supernatural must also do His bidding. He has authority to forgive sins. He even has authority over death for He has raised the dead back to life. We have seen all of that in the Gospel readings receding this one for this morning. Jesus is the Messiah. He is God in human flesh. That is who Jesus is, but what does that mean to you personally?

Let us listen again to part of our Gospel reading. “And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed Him crying out, and saying, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David!’ And after He had come into the house, the blind men came up to Him, and Jesus said to them, ‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ They said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord.’ Then he touched their eyes, saying, ‘Be it done to you according to your faith.’ And their eyes were opened. And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, ‘See here; let no one know about this.!’ But they went out and spread the news about Him in all that land. And as they were going out, behold, a dumb man, demon-possessed, was brought to Him. And after the demon was cast out, the dumb man spoke; and the multitudes marveled, saying, ‘Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel.’ But the Pharisee’s were saying, ‘He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.’”

Now it may seem somewhat anticlimactic for Matthew to return to telling about Jesus healing the blind and casting out demons after telling about Jesus forgiving sin and raising the dead, but I assure you this is not anticlimactic. Matthew presents in these verses the three responses that are made to Jesus’ ministry. The proof that Jesus is the Messiah has already been given. Now Matthew is telling how the people reacted to Jesus. What did it mean to them personally that Jesus was present? There were those that believed and their lives were eternally changed. There were those that were amazed, but no change took place in their own lives, and then there were those that rejected Him and blasphemed against Him. We still find these same three responses to Christ today. In which category do you find yourself?

The first response is that of the blind men in verses 27-31. “And as Jesus passed on from there, two blind men followed Him…” As Jesus was leaving Jairus’ home, after raising that man’s daughter from the dead, and was proceeding back to the place He was staying in Capernaum, two blind men became aware that Jesus was passing by and they start following Him. The text does not say why they were blind, and there were a lot of causes of blindness in the ancient world (various diseases, blowing sand, blinding sun, accidents, etc.), but regardless of the cause, these men are without sight, and together they start following Jesus hoping that He will help. As they are going, they are “crying out, and saying, ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David!'” The crying out is a very loud shout, a scream. They wanted Jesus’ attention and their request was very obvious: they wanted to see again. They wanted mercy from the Son of David.

Now let me point out here the significance of what they said. “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” It is a simple sentence, but full of deep meaning. Notice first of all that their cry was for mercy. A request for mercy is a request to get something good that is not deserved. Incumbent within such a request is the understanding that 1) you do not deserve what is being requested, and 2) the person you are making your request to can give you what you are seeking. May I suggest to you that these two men were poor in spirit, which is the first requirement for those who would enter into the kingdom of God.

Many in our community and nation today claim to know the Lord Jesus Christ, but as you talk with them it is not the Jesus of the Bible that they describe. Their Jesus is emasculated. He is an old grandfather who can see no wrong in his grandchildren regardless of what they do. Their Jesus can be ignored, treated rudely, and even cursed without consequence to all the good things they expect to receive from Him. The Jesus of the Bible is kind, gentle, merciful, gracious, and loving to be sure, but He never excused sin and is plainly described as the coming judge who executes vengeance with wrath on all the ungodly.

In addition, the actions of so many who say they are Christians give proof that their claim is false. You cannot believe that Jesus is who He claims to be and give such utter disregard to the commands He gives. Yet we find people who have a lifestyle of lying, stealing, cheating, drunkenness, adultery, etc. all claiming to be Christians. We even find some denominations within so called “Christianity” making such people their spiritual leaders. Why do so many make such false professions of faith in Jesus when they do not really know Him?

I believe the foundation of the answer to that question is that these people never came to Jesus the same way these two blind men did. They came in utter humility crying out for God to help them based completely on God’s mercy and not some false claim that they deserved anything. It is the poor in spirit that enter the kingdom of God, and the poor in spirit recognize their sinful and desperate situation. Many of those in our land who say they are Christians have not even reached the first step of recognizing their desperate need for Christ’s forgiveness and cleansing from sin.

These two blind men were crying out to Jesus for mercy because they knew they were not deserving of His help. They also were crying out to Jesus because they knew that He could help. That is the second factor in their request to Jesus. They believed that Jesus could help them. How strong was that belief? Well, a case could easily be made that they believed it because they had heard the stories that Jesus had healed other people and that would point out a strong belief on their part. But the text points out something even more significant and of greater demonstration of their faith. Notice that they called Jesus, “Son of David.”

These men did not just believe that Jesus was a miracle worker like one of the prophets. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah Himself and they addressed Him with terminology that signified that fact. And for these two blind Jews, the fact that the Messiah was present would have brought to mind the hope found in Isaiah 35:4-6, “Say to those with anxious heart, ‘Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; the recompense of God will come, But He will save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, And the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a dear, and the tongue of the dumb will shout for joy. For waters will break forth in the wilderness and streams in the Arabah.” These men believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and therefore, had great confidence that He would have mercy upon them and heal them.

Now though they were following Jesus and hollering very loudly, Jesus did not respond to them immediately. Our text says in verse 28, “And after He had come into the house, the blind men came up to Him and Jesus said to them…” Jesus waited to respond to the two men until after He had reached His destination, which was the house He was living in while in Capernaum. The reason for the delayed response was to minimize the public announcement that Jesus was the Messiah, and if Jesus had responded to their call to Him as the Son of David it would have done just that.

Why would Jesus want to minimize the announcement that He was the Messiah? Were not all the miracles He was doing broadcasting that fact anyway? Yes, but Jesus was not announcing that fact verbally because of all the incorrect political connotations that had become attached to the term. The common thought among the religious leaders and the people was that the Messiah would come as a conquering ruler who would overthrow Rome and set up Israel as the world power. Instead, Jesus consistently let His teaching and His miracles demonstrate that He was fulfilling all the Old Testament Prophecies for the Messiah. You might recall the story recorded in Matthew 11:3-5 that when John the Baptist was in prison he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” Jesus could have easily have just said, “Yes, it is true, I am the Expected One, I am the Messiah.” But instead we find that Jesus says, “Go and report to John what you hear and see; the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” John knew the Old Testament and would know that all these things prove that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus is concerned that the Jews, as God’s chosen people, accept His messiahship on the basis of His fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, not simply on the basis of hearsay or mere verbal claims.

Jesus now has them affirm their faith in Him.  “And Jesus said to them, ‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ They said to Him, ‘Yes, Lord.’” They had already demonstrated they had faith in Jesus by the fact that they were following Him and crying out to Him as the Son of David for mercy. Now they affirm verbally their belief that Jesus was able to heal them. Their use of the term “Lord” is more than just out of respect. Their usage of it is in the sense of deity, for they had already affirmed that Jesus was the Messiah.

Jesus then heals them and gives them their sight. “Then He touched their eyes, saying, ‘Be it done to you according to your faith.’ And their eyes were opened.” We must be careful not to infer that Jesus was limited by their faith in His ability to heal. We have already seen in previous weeks that Jesus can and does heal apart from any faith by the one being healed. The Centurion’s servant was healed without ever meeting Jesus. Jairus’ daughter was dead and incapable of faith, but Jesus raised her back to life. Jesus can heal as He desires and He can also set up criteria by which He will heal. In this case the criterion was according to the faith of the two men and upon His touch. There was little doubt about their faith in light of their actions and affirmations of faith, and so they received their sight. I do not think there is much doubt that they received more than just their physical sight. In view of their statements concerning Jesus and the clear evidence of their faith in Him, I believe they also received spiritual life.

These men were poor in spirit when they went to Jesus. They understood their need and believed Jesus could and would meet that need. They cried out to Jesus for mercy and placed their faith in Him, and upon the basis of that faith Jesus healed them. Such faith is the instrument by which we receive everything. Such faith is the singular connecting link, a pipeline, if you will, between man’s emptiness and God’s fullness, and herein lies all the value faith has. Faith is the bucket let down into the well of God’s abundant life-giving and life-changing grace, without which man could never draw the waters of life and live.  That is the nature of faith. Faith in and of itself is nothing, yet through it comes everything one could ever hope for.

Faith is not something that can be manufactured or made up. It is something God has given to those that will seek after Him. Salvation comes by God’s grace through faith, which always manifests itself in good works. Faith and good works always go hand in hand, for good works are the fruit of love which itself is the essence of the Gospel.

After Jesus opened the eyes of the blind men, Jesus sternly warned them, saying, “See here, let no one know about this!” This was certainly not a command that they should let no one know that they could see, for such a command would have been impossible and nonsensical. Jesus would not command them to now act blind after restoring their sight, and it would be very obvious to all that knew them that something radical had occurred for them to have received their sight. Jesus’ charge is from the same concern and reasoning that He had delayed His response to their cry for mercy. Jesus did not want people to be proclaiming that He was the Messiah prematurely. The religious leaders were already growing in opposition to Him and it was not time to aggravate that. Also, there were too many false ideas about the Messiah and Jesus wanted the Jews to accept His messiahship on the basis of His fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, not simply on the basis of hearsay or mere verbal claims.

Though the command was strong and clear, the two previously blind men did not obey, for the Gospel tells us, “But they went out, and spread the news about Him in all that land.” This was disobedience, and therefore sin and wrong, yet it was a sin born out of overwhelming joy. Most Christians today tend to respond in the exact opposite manner as these who were unable to contain their joy. We have been charged by the Lord in several passages of Scripture to tell others about Him, but too many of us do not obey the command and do not speak up about Him and what He has done in our lives. Out of intimidation, out of fear of others, we fail to proclaim the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. May we be more like these two men who were so overwhelmed with joy and praise that they could not contain it.

The second and more common response to Jesus’ ministry is found in verses 32 and 33. “And as they were going out, behold, a dumb man, demon-possessed, was brought to Him. And after the demon was cast out, the dumb man spoke; and the multitudes marveled, saying, ‘Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel.'”

As the two men who had been blind leave rejoicing, a man who was dumb due to demonization was brought to Jesus. The inability to speak could occur from a variety of sources, but in this case the cause was clear. The man was demonized and therefore in need of Jesus’ help. Jesus helps the man by casting out the demon and thus releasing him from the bondage he had been in, and he regained his ability to speak. This man is a demonstration of God’s general goodness to men including men who do not seek after God themselves.

There are several notable contrasts between this man and the two men who had been blind. First, the two blind men were the focus of the passage they are talked about. The dumb man is nearly incidental to what occurs. He is passive. There is no action on his part. Second, the blind men sought after Jesus. This man had to be brought. It would seem that the two blind men would have needed the help, not a man who could not speak. This demonstrates that he was either indifferent or somewhat resistant to Jesus. Third, the blind men demonstrated and stated their beliefs and their faith in Jesus. Nothing is said about the belief or the faith of this man. Fourth, the two previous blind men made known to all who Jesus was and what He had done for them. The previously speechless man is only recorded as speaking. What he said is unknown.

The response though that needs to be noted is that of the crowd, not the dumb man, for there is not really anything said about his response. We find the crowd is amazed by all of it. And well they should have been, for on that day Jesus had healed the woman with the issue of blood, raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, given sight to the two blind men, and cast out the demon from the dumb man. So it is the crowd that marvels and says, “Nothing like this was ever seen in Israel,” and not only in Israel, but anywhere in the world.

Certainly Israel had seen the miracles during Moses’ day including the ten plagues on Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the many miracles in the wilderness. There were the military victories under Joshua and the judges that came directly at the hand of God such as Jericho, the sun standing still, etc. There were also the miracles of Elijah and Elisha including physical healings and the raising of the widow’s son from the dead. But never had so many significant miracles occurred in such a short period of time by one man. Nothing like this had ever been seen before and they were amazed. But we find throughout the Gospel accounts that the crowd’s amazement did not turn into personal faith in Jesus. They had fickle “faith” for short periods, but they soon changed their minds. Several times Jesus rebukes the crowd for seeking the miracles and not Him. In The Gospel of St. John, Jesus says to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled.” (John 6:26-27). They followed Jesus for the free food and the entertainment of the miracles. There are many so called “evangelists” and “churches” who attract their crowds through the same methods today. The tragedy is that many of these people and groups fleece the flock instead of feeding the flock.

The fickleness of the crowds is most clearly seen during the final week of Jesus’ life. On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem with the people putting down palm branches and their coats before Him while shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord; hosanna in the highest.” Yet five days later they are shouting, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

Most people today believe that Jesus was a good person and they would not purposely malign Him, yet they do so because they do not believe Him to be the Messiah, God in human flesh come to save mankind from their sins by being a substitutionary sin offering. They marvel at His teaching and His life, but they do not follow Him. They pick His teachings apart and do what they want. Jesus said that “He who is not for Me is against Me.” There were amazed, but remain indifferent, and are therefore bound for hell.

The third response to Jesus’ ministry is by those who are openly against Him. We find this in verse 34, “But the Pharisees were saying, ‘He casts out the demons by the ruler of the demons.” Since they could not refute what had happened, they denied the means by which it occurred. They blasphemed and called what Jesus did in holiness a work that was in a league with Satan. They called what was good, evil.

The committed unbeliever will not believe, for no fact or reason, no matter how obvious and convincing, can enlighten him or her. You cannot debate someone into the kingdom simply because a person who is dedicated to darkness refuses to see the light, regardless of the light’s intensity. The only hope for such a person is that their spiritual blindness would be lifted and they will recognize their sinfulness, repent, and turn to Jesus. Otherwise they are doomed for all eternity.

There are really only three responses to Jesus, and only one of those leads to eternal life. The two blind men exemplify this. They knew their need and believe Jesus could rescue them. They cried out for His mercy and received it by faith. The opposite response is the open criticism and rejection by the Pharisees. They condemned themselves to everlasting damnation.

The dumb man and the crowds were amazed and even received temporal benefits from Christ, but their hearts were not turned. They were indifferent to His claim and demonstration that He was the Messiah. And let’s be clear, a person who praises Jesus but rejects Him or ignores and rejects Him is just as damned as those who openly criticize and reject Christ. Any response except the response of faith results in hell, not heaven.

As we get closer and closer to November’s general election, let us all think carefully about our future, both individually and as a nation. Will we accept Christ and the life He offers or will we continue to ignore or openly reject Him? Remember, dear ones, that a life, a community and a nation without God is not blessed. Such a life, such a community, such a nation will struggle and be forever clouded in darkness, chaos and turmoil.

What is your response to Jesus?