Sunday, April 30, 2017

Homily for the Third Sunday of Pascha

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

Christ is Risen!

Today’s Gospel reading tells us of a very courageous man and some very amazing women, all of whom are exemplary models of true Christian love and devotion. While we traditionally call this Sunday the “Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearing Women” it is more appropriately called the “Sunday of the Holy Myrrhbearers,” for the Myrrhbearers consisted not only of women, but of men also; Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus can rightly and legitimately be called “Myrrhbearers” and thus be included in the list of those who concerned themselves with the embalming and entombment of Jesus.

In the burial and Resurrection narratives given us in each of the four Gospels, we hear different women’s names mentioned as witnesses to the crucifixion, death, burial and Resurrection of Christ. Mary Magdalene is the only one mentioned in all four of the Gospels. The reason for this apparent discrepancy is that there were more than three women involved. Each of the Evangelists writes of the particular women who, first, were known to them personally, and second, were known to be at one or more of the four events of Jesus’ crucifixion, death, burial and Resurrection.

According to the ancient tradition of the Church, the group of Myrrhbearers consists of the following individuals: Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of James and Joseph (the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mother of Jesus); Mary, the wife of Cleophas; Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus; Joanna; Salome, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebadee; Susanna; Joseph of Arimathea; and Nicodemus. All of these were eyewitnesses to one or more of the events of Jesus’ death, entombment and discovery of the empty tomb.

Let us begin first with Joseph of Arimathea, a man of singular courage. Joseph was a man of wealth and position but he was also a disciple of Jesus. At the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, the Jewish authorities set about looking for anyone who was a follower of Jesus with the intent to kill them. People lived in great fear and terror and those who were actual disciples and followers of Jesus lived in the greatest fear of being found out, arrested and put to death. But Joseph of Arimathea did not live his life in fear. In fact, Joseph went with great boldness to Pontius Pilate to ask that the body of Jesus be released to him so that he could bury it properly. This is simply an amazing thing, for Joseph was putting his own life on the line for the sake of Jesus.

When Jesus’s own apostles deserted Him and went into hiding after His crucifixion, Joseph boldly goes to Pilate to ask for the Lord’s body. It was a very dangerous thing for Joseph to do, to go and ask for the body of Jesus, who was a known and convicted felon, a criminal subversive, and a heretic. But Joseph not only believed in Jesus, he loved Him dearly; for why else would he risk his own well-being and safety, yes even his own life, by going to ask for Jesus’ body if he did not love Him?

Love does not care about danger. A love that is genuine and strong overpowers fear and uncertainty. Love makes one bold and considers only the one who is loved. Love for another derives from love of one’s self and love of one’s self arises from the knowledge that one is loved by God. There is an intimacy to love that the world does not understand. The love of God permeates all things and only those who seek God first above all things are able to see this reality clearly enough and understand fully the great power love has. Love drives everything that is good and noble, and holy, for love is borne from depths of God. Joseph experienced this love; it was this intense love that gave him his boldness to go and ask Pilate for the body of the Savior.

Where there is love, there is no fear and where there is no fear, God is free to enter fully into us. Filled with God’s love we can accomplish anything, even that which we consider impossible. Just look at what Joseph of Arimathea accomplished in asking for the body of Jesus. It may not seem like such a big deal to you but when you consider that Joseph could have been arrested for being identified or even suspected of being a follower of Jesus and that he could have been put to death for his association with the Lord, it is truly an amazing act: a fearless, noble and heroic act borne out of love.

I am sure that Joseph was nervous and scared when he did what he did, but his love for Jesus was strong enough, was genuine enough, to overcome those feelings and give him the courage to do what he knew had to be done, and that was to do what he wanted to do: to bury the Friend, Master and Teacher whom he loved with all his heart.

While the three Synoptic Gospels tell us only about Joseph of Arimathea and his involvement in the burial of Jesus, St. John, in his Gospel, tells us about Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin but that he believed also in Jesus. Nicodemus helped Joseph take Jesus’ body down from the Cross and place it in the tomb, and brought also the spices and aloes necessary to embalm the body of Jesus.

The kind of boldness exhibited by Joseph and Nicodemus is the same kind of boldness shown by the Myrrh-bearing Women, because they too did something extremely dangerous by going openly to the tomb of Jesus to anoint His Body. Had the soldiers who were guarding the tomb not run away in fear, the women could have been arrested as well for being followers of Jesus. In fact, they could have even been killed on the spot by the centurions, had they been there, because the Romans were known for their brutal and spontaneous cruelty. And most probably, they had orders from their superiors to kill suspected followers of Jesus on sight.

The women, like Joseph and Nicodemus, were not afraid; they displayed their faith with great fervor. It is well known that the women supported Jesus and His Apostles materially and financially throughout the three years of Jesus’ public ministry. It was to Mary Magdalene that Jesus first appeared on the morning of His Resurrection and it was she who told the Apostles shortly thereafter that Jesus was risen from the dead.

These eight women and two men have much to teach us by their example and their depth of love for Christ. First and foremost, we need to understand that where there is love of God, genuine and complete, there is no fear, for perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18).

We live today in a world filled with fear, and that is because there is very little love of God. Hundreds of millions of people throughout the world have stopped loving God; they have denounced and renounced Him. They seek to erase and obliterate His presence and memory from among men. They seek to establish societies free from the influence of God so that they may do whatever they please, whenever they please. This striking and ardent campaign to remove God from the lives of His creatures bodes nothing but disaster for humanity. We see it clearly in the heresies of relativism and secularism which are spreading uncontrolled like a contagious disease throughout the world, especially in countries of the West.

What we need today is boldness; boldness in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and boldness in living the Gospel. We cannot live in fear of persecution and death. We must, like the Holy Myrrhbearers, walk boldly about witnessing and proclaiming the Good News of the Gospel and the glory and promise of the Resurrection. If we love God with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, then how, brothers and sisters, can we fail? Of whom then shall we be afraid? If God is on our side, then who can defeat us?

The boldness of the Myrrhbearers is an example for us; they are models whom we should be pleased and eager to emulate in our own lives. Their love of God was boundless; it was a love that defies all description. Even though they were terrified and scared, their love for Jesus gave them formidable boldness. Oh, that we could be like them!

If we act out of love, only good things will happen. Our love, if it is genuine, sincere, and selfless, will bear much good fruit. We may not always see it, but trust me when I say: God sees it! Like you, I oftentimes feel that the good that I do does not make a difference but when I sit back and reflect on it, I ask myself, “What are you doing it for, and why are you doing it?” If we are expecting something in return for the good that we do for others then we will be constantly disappointed and will always feel unfulfilled. Our love must be selfless and not seek anything in return. When we reach that point, our lives will acquire the same boldness which filled the lives of the Myrrhbearers, a love that caused them to go beyond themselves and live only for the Master.

Because we possess the fullness of the Christian Faith, we are required to act with boldness. But we cannot act with boldness if our hearts and souls are not filled with the love of and for God. God must be in us, His love must be in us and we must love Him with the same depth of love with which he loves and fills us.

God gives us many opportunities each and every day of our lives to become one with Him; by accepting Him more deeply and profoundly into our lives. But if we do not let Him into our lives, if we do not open ourselves up to His love, then we shall remain barren and our lives will wither on the Vine. Because we are the branches which shoot off the Vine, we certainly cannot live apart from the Vine. If we do not cultivate our lives in God, then we shall eventually dry up and die. We cultivate a life in God through regular prayer and fasting, through the reading of Holy Scripture and the writings of the Fathers, and through regular participation in the Divine Services and Holy Mysteries of the Church. If we do not do these things, if we do not pay close attention to them, then our hearts will grow cold and harden. God’s presence in our lives will fade away and the darkness of the corrupt and faithless world will overcome us.

The Myrrhbearers show us by the example of their lives that when we are filled with the love of God, we are also filled with boldness to witness to Him without fear. To be filled with the love of God and to love God completely and perfectly should be our most ardent desire, my brothers and sisters, for such a life is like none other. There is nothing on earth that can compare to the joy and happiness that comes from a sincere and genuine relationship with the Lord.

Each of the Myrrhbearers had an individual role in the events of the death, burial and Resurrection of Christ. We see this in the various differences that exist among the Gospel accounts of the Passion and Resurrection narratives. But they also had a role to play as a group. So it is for us too, brothers and sisters. Each of us has our own part to play in being witnesses to the works of Christ but we also have a role to play as a group, as a community of believers gathered around our Bishops and priests.

The primary responsibility of the Church is to sanctify the world. While we are to be conscious of and concerned about the poor and the marginalized, our first and foremost responsibility is to ensure that the divine mission of the Church to sanctify the world and lead souls to Christ is not neglected or relegated to some secondary position of priority. It is the singular responsibility of the Church to introduce all peoples of the world to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to lead them into His Body, into His life. The Myrrhbearers fulfilled this role being eye-witnesses to the death, burial and Resurrection of Jesus. But they did not keep this knowledge secret; they went and proclaimed it to all, beginning with the Apostles themselves. So great was their witness and boldness, in fact, that the Church has given them the title, “apostles to the Apostles.” In the case of Mary Magdalene, she has been honored by the Church with the title, “Equal-to-the-Apostles.”

We too can be like the Holy Myrrhbearers, brothers and sisters, but only if our love for and of God is genuine and singular. Our God is a jealous God. In other words, He is zealous for our well-being and happiness and thus wants to share Himself completely with us. He does not want us to stray from Him but He will not stand in our way should we choose to do so. The Myrrhbearers show us what our lives can be like if we choose God over the world. Fear dissipates when our lives are filled with the love of God. The Holy Myrrhbearers stand as eye witnesses to God’s love for us: that He does not break His promises and that He lives and can be known.

Let us learn, brothers and sisters, from the example of the Holy Myrrhbearers. Let us take all that we witnessed during Holy Week and Pascha, reflect on and contemplate it in our hearts, and then, like the Myrrhbearers go and announce the joy and promise of the Resurrection to all people everywhere, starting here in our own community, shouting: “Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Homily for the Second Sunday of Pascha

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

If there is a poster boy for “doubting” it must be the Apostle Thomas. Thomas is not often mentioned in Scripture, but where he is, there are examples for all of us in each instance. We have seen that he, like us, had his share of unsettling experiences. One of those is in the eleventh chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which tells of the death of Lazarus. When Jesus tells His disciples that Lazarus is dead, and that for their sake, He was glad that He was not there, so that they may believe, Thomas says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas was not sure what to expect when they arrived at Bethany, yet he encouraged his fellow disciples to accompany Jesus nevertheless. Thomas always seemed uncertain. He was never quite sure what exactly was going on and he always seemed not to really understand what Jesus was talking about. In Chapter 14 of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells His disciples that they know the way where He is going. But Thomas speaks out and says, “Lord, we do not know where You are going; how can we know the way?” It was not that Thomas was stupid or ignorant, but his spiritual eyes were not fully opened; his faith was not fully developed.

One of the questions that has always puzzled me is why Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus appeared to them after His Resurrection. What could he have been doing that prevented him from being with his brothers? It may seem an unimportant question, but when you consider that the disciples were always together as a group, living together, eating together, praying together, it does seem curious that Thomas would be missing from among them, especially during such a tenuous and uncertain time when tensions, emotions and uncertainty were running high. Though he may not have been marked as a follower of Jesus, he could not hide forever, if that is what he was doing. At any rate, he was missing when the ten apostles, as a group, saw Jesus.

We are not told in the Gospel when Thomas finally made contact with the other Apostles. It could have been later in the same day in which the Apostles saw the Lord. All we know is that the Apostles told Thomas that they had seen the Lord but Thomas did not believe them. He also told the others what he would need to see if he were to believe.

It is tragic that in so many cases people demand proof of something that cannot be produced or reproduced. Unless we are able to see or touch something tangible, our basic reaction is to doubt and disbelieve. Even when there is abundant written evidence that someone did truly exist, like Napoleon or Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, we still do not want to believe. Although, for some reasons, it is much easier to believe that the former three were real people than it is to believe that Jesus existed. But I digress.

Sometimes a demand for proof is simply and excuse for not wanting to believe the written records that substantiate that a certain event actually happened or that such and such a person actual lived. In Thomas’ case, it is worse because he had lived with Jesus; he had been one of Jesus’ closest companions for three years. Thomas had heard Jesus tell three different groups of people who demanded a sign that they were not going to get one. Jesus had said the only sign, or substantiating miracle that the unbelievers would get would be the sign of Jonah. He, Jonah, had spent three nights in the belly of a whale, and Jesus said that He would spend three days and nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:38-40). Now, Thomas was demanding a more specific, a more precise sign than anyone else had ever requested. It is unbelievable that an apostle, truly one of the first twelve bishops of the Church, who had preached and done who knows how many things to the point of saying, “Let us die with him” would fail so far and so fast from his faith.

It has been eight days since the Lord first appeared to the Apostles as a group and Thomas is now present with all his brothers. The doors of the place where they were gathered were locked, but Jesus appeared in their midst and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then He said to Thomas, ‘Reach here with your finger, and see My hand; and reach here with your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.’ Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus then says to Thomas, ‘Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, but have believed.’

The other disciples had seen Jesus and knew that He was not a ghost or spirit; they had heard Him say, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:38-39). They even watched Jesus eat a piece of broiled fish.

Now, Thomas sees and hears Jesus for himself for the first time since the crucifixion. Can you imagine, Jesus tells Thomas to examine for himself the wounds in His body? What kind of thoughts must have been going through Thomas’ mind at that moment? He had demanded proof, and now he has it. Pilate had shouted to the crowd, “Behold, the Man!” and now Thomas beheld the Son of God! Jesus did not scold Thomas or make fun of his doubts. He gave Thomas a chance to examine the facts for himself. It is as if Jesus was saying, “Thomas, the ball is in your court now, my friend. Stop disbelieving and start believing.” There was no other choice given. There is no other choice to give.

As we have seen, Thomas was an all-or-nothing type of disciple. If he had doubts, he expressed them. If he did not understand a question, he asked for an explanation. Surely the Lord is pleased when His disciples ask questions and seek clarification of something they do not understand. Those who doubt, as St. James later said, are double-minded people, driven and tossed about like the waves of the sea. (James 1:6).

What, then, did Thomas do with what he saw, literally standing in front of him? We know that He cried out, “My Lord, and my God!” What other response could one possibly utter when confronted with such a clear-cut manifestation of reality? If he still doubted after touching Jesus’s wounds, there would have been something definitely wrong with him. Doubter that he was, Thomas no longer doubted after having experienced Jesus risen from the dead.

I do not think that Thomas ever thought he would gain such notoriety with a few sentences. He became known throughout history as “doubting Thomas” and the saying “seeing is believing” has no doubt caused many people to NOT BELIEVE. Although this story stands as a firm warning against rejecting the Risen Christ, millions of people throughout history have done just that. They have rejected the Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

The problem with Thomas was not that he doubted, but that he was without faith. He was unbelieving. His faith, if it was there at all, was weak. He had no trust in the Lord: “Unless I see, I will not believe that Jesus is risen from the dead.” The word that Jesus uses to describe Thomas is “unbelieving” (apistos); it means to be without faith or to be full of faithlessness.

It is really astounding to hear Thomas’ declarations of distrust when you compare his dedication to Jesus right before Lazarus’ resurrection: “Then Thomas (called Didymus, which means “Twin”) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” When he could see Jesus alive, he was ready to die with Him, but now that Jesus had died, he could not trust what Jesus had promised him, nor did he trust the testimony of those who had seen Jesus.

Do we want to be numbered among the unbelieving? How strong, hoe deep is our own faith in Jesus? Are we like so many other Christians who actually do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? Do we say, together with them, “I will not believe unless I am able to touch Him and see for myself?” Jesus has strong words for those who do not believe. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, we hear Him say, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you?” Do those words of the Lord apply to us here today? I do not know about you, but I do not want to be included in the group of people to whom those words are spoken.

We are a people at risk, beloved. The evil one is always at work trying to make us stray from the narrow path. He wants us to remain in the darkness of avarice and sin so he does things to trick and fool us. He makes evil things seem like they are good and good things seem like they are evil. In doing this he causes confusion in our hearts and minds so that, rather than drawing closer to God, we drift further away from Him. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:4).

Listen to God’s stern warning from the Book of Revelation: “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars, their lot shall be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)

Everybody believes in something, and most of them believe something about Jesus, but Jesus is not concerned about our individual “version” of what we choose to believe about Him. The only things we can believe about Jesus are the things that He Himself has told us. For example, He told us that He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” He has told us also that “no one comes to the Father except though the Son,” and that “I and the Father are One.” Do we believe these statements of Jesus or do we simply write them off as being of no account and importance? Do we really believe in who Jesus is and the reason why He came among us? Or do we just fluff it all off and chalk it up to being a nice piece of fiction? We cannot be like Thomas and believe that Jesus was simply a good man who tried to do as much good for people as He could. We cannot simply acknowledge Him as a mere man, but we must see Him for whom and what He really is, even though we have not personally seen Him perform any miracles. Or have we? Are we so blind, are we so sure of ourselves, that we have not seen the miracles Christ has wrought in the world and in our lives since His Ascension into heaven? They may not be spectacular miracles like turning water into wine, or raising someone from the dead, but He has given us signs and miracles by which we can believe and by which our faith can be strengthened.

St Paul teaches us, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17). If you believe in anything, you must believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, for it is by Christ’s Resurrection only that we are made whole and that new life is given to us. Jesus made it clear that those who believe in Him are not condemned, and that those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the Only-begotten Son of God.

Do not be deceived, beloved, that there are many paths to God. There is only one way, and that is through Jesus Christ. It is true that those who do not know Christ may obtain salvation, but it is only through God’s mercy that this is so. However, for those who have come to know Christ and neither accept Him or reject Him after having known Him, salvation shall not be theirs; they shall be lost forever.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “I have to believe that Jesus was, and is, God. And it seems plain as a matter of history that he taught His followers that the new life was communicated in this way. In other, I believe it on His authority. Ninety-nine percent of the things you believe are believed on authority. The ordinary person believes in the solar system, atoms, and the circulation of the blood on authority, because the scientists say so. Every historical statement is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. But we believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them.” (C.S. Lewis, “A Grief Observed”)

From a human standpoint, I always thought that Jesus would have been somewhat perturbed with Thomas but that is not the case.. Jesus is urging Thomas to come closer to Him. He did not want Thomas to stay away from Him and remain in unbelief. Jesus says to Thomas, “If touching Me will make you believe, then do what you have to do.” Is that not what Jesus says to us every Sunday? Does He not invite us to experience Him in the Holy Eucharist? How many of our brothers and sisters decline Jesus’ invitation to personally experience and encounter the Lord and Savior of all in the Divine Liturgy, at the Eucharistic Banquet? Christ is here among us, especially present in the Eucharist. How can we deny His presence, His reality, if we are all gazing upon Him, seeing Him with our own eyes?

Jesus says to us, “Here I am!” Put your trust and faith in Me. Be not afraid! Believe in me and let not your hearts be troubled. I came to die for you, and I have risen from the dead for you. Do not remain apart from Me, but find in Me eternal rest and everlasting joy. In me, you will be full of faith and life, but apart from Me, you will have nothing.” Remember Jesus’ words, which He spoke in His farewell discourse on Holy Thursday night, “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”

We were there with the Apostles at the Last Supper. We heard the Lord speak those very words. We were witnesses to what Jesus aid, we heard Him speak with our own ears? How then can we possibly say we do not believe when we were the very witnesses to what He said?

Let us praise God every day for the fullness of faith which has been given to us and which the holy Orthodox Catholic Church, of which we are sons and daughters, has held inviolate for more than 2000 years! Ours is the certainty of faith in things revealed by God Himself, things seen and unseen.

The worst mistake anyone can make is to do nothing when a choice must be made. Thomas had doubts and expressed them, but he refuse to doubt any longer when he saw Jesus. Jesus has not left us alone,; he is present o us always in the Eucharist. He fills the Church with Himself and we are the beneficiaries of His selfless giving. Let us not disbelieve but let our belief be confirmed by the knowledge that Christ truly is risen from the dead and that He is always present among us.

As the Chosen people of God, as the people of the New Covenant, God has revealed Himself fully to us. We have knowledge of God which comes only through baptism in water and the spirit. We behold the divine realities; we are the guardians of divine truth and are called to make them known to all the peoples of the earth. May our doubts be washed away and may our faith be strengthened  and like Thomas, let us shout with joy, “My Lord and my God!”

Christ is Risen! Truly He is risen!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Archpastoral Letter for Pascha 2017

Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ; Faithful Children of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church; Friends, Supporters and Benefactors; and People of Good Will:

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

 I greet you all on this great feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ with a sense of profound joy and deep gratitude in my heart. First of all, I wish to thank all of you for your kind wishes and many prayers during my illness and recovery. The expressions and sentiments of love and concern were overwhelming and very humbling.  Needless to say, it was a very difficult, stressful and tenuous time for all of us. I am grateful to Almighty God for blessing me with continued life; the experience of that month and a half in the hospital was truly an eye-opener for me. I am grateful to God also for all of you; you are my life and my reason for being. To serve you all is the greatest joy of my life.

It goes without saying that this Holy Week and Pascha had great significance for many reasons. This was the first time since 2013 that we have been able to join together and observe the High Holy Days as a community. And for that opportunity, I wish to thank Mr. F. Gerard Waterman, Superintendent of Forest Hill Cemetery for allowing us the use of the Child’s Chapel for our Holy Week and Pascha Services. As you know, we will also be utilizing the Chapel for our weekly divines services until further notice while we discern and plan the future of our Cathedral church.

The power of the Resurrection is indisputable. The glory with which the world is bathed this day can be felt even by the most lukewarm of believers. The joy which fills our hearts this day frees us to see life in a new light, that of the blinding light which shines forth from the empty tomb. The world is blinded by the radiance of the Sun which never sets; His glory washes over all the earth and renews every living thing. How could one not be touched and affected by the power and majesty of this day?

Our Paschal liturgies, which begin with the Divine Liturgy of the Harrowing of Hell, celebrate the ultimate victory of our Lord Jesus Christ over sin and death. No longer are we slaves to sin. No longer are we in bondage to the enemy. No longer does death have any power over us. Satan is defeated and the bars which held us fast in his dark prison have been burst asunder. All those whom he held captive since the time of Adam have been set free by Christ’s life-giving Resurrection.

Pascha is a time of great joy and celebration for the Church throughout the world. The Light which shines upon us this day warms our hearts and the Body of the Church. By it we are able to see what awaits us if we are good and faithful servants of the Lord. The Resurrection is Christ’s promise that all those who believe in Him, who confess Him as God, who are faithful and obedient to His Word, will be resurrected on the last day to live with Him and His Father in the glory of Heaven.

The Resurrection of Christ is the culmination of the redemptive and life-giving acts of Christ which began with His Incarnation. So great was God’s love for us that He sent His Only-begotten Son into the world to redeem us and save us. He did this because He wanted us to be one with Him again. Adam’s sin separated us from God, but Jesus opened the path to life with God once more. And so great was Jesus’ own love for us that He laid down His life for us, dying on the Cross for our sins.

The Resurrection is the most important event in the history of mankind. No other event has had such an impact on humanity as the day Jesus Christ rose from the dead. No other event in history can compare to the Resurrection. So important is the Resurrection to the life of man that it is called the Day of days, the First Day, and the Eighth Day.

The Resurrection is the Day of days because it forever changed the course of human history. On this day man’s redemption, and that of the whole creation, was accomplished. All the powers of sin, death and evil have ultimately been defeated by Christ’s death and Resurrection. It is also called the First Day because, as St. Paul says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” The words “first fruits” here mean: the beginning, the “first installment” – that is, in Christ, God showed us all what God will later do for everyone else too. Everyone who has faith in Jesus Christ will also be raised from the dead one day. In other words, Christ’s Resurrection is a sign, a promise, a guarantee that one day God shall raise us from the dead, if we believe. “I believe that my Redeemer lives and on the last day I shall rise; in my body I shall look upon God my Savior.”

As the day after the seventh day (when God rested from His six days of creation, and when Jesus rested in the tomb) and as the day of Christ’s Resurrection, Sunday early on came to be understood in a mystical way in the Church as the “Eighth Day.” St. Maximos the Confessor calls it the day “beyond nature and time.” St. Barnabas calls it, “the beginning of another world.”

So important is this day to the life of every Christian, indeed to mankind itself, that the Fathers of the ancient Church decreed that believers gather for worship every Sunday to commemorate and celebrate the Resurrection. What we celebrate today is not merely a memorial, but rather a re-presentation of what took place more than 2,000 years ago. It is not a “representation” or a “figure”, but an event at which we stand as witnesses and participants. We do not celebrate the Resurrection anew every week, for the Resurrection happen only once, but we stand in the experience of the one event that changed the world forever.

Fittingly, during the week after Pascha, which we call “Bright Week,” the Church celebrates Pascha for eight days, almost as though it were one continuous day. For all of Bright Week, the doors of the iconostasis of every parish church throughout the world remain open, signifying that, by Christ’s Resurrection, the doors of Paradise have been opened to mankind once again. In some Local Churches, the Paschal Divine Liturgy is celebrated every day during Bright Week, as are the Paschal Hours. By tradition, babies are named on the eighth day after birth. And from ancient times, church baptisteries and fonts were built with eight sides, indicating that the newly baptized are entering the realm of the Eighth Day, the day of eternal rest in Christ’s Heavenly Kingdom.

The power and glory of Christ’s Resurrection fills the Church and radiates throughout the world. It is with us, faithful members of the Church, as He promises to be with us in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist. As we go about our lives, the power of the Lord’s Resurrection and His presence among us goes with us and strengthens us in faith, hope, love and joy and enables us to proclaim and spread His Gospel message in our words and actions every day.

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen! This is the greatest news we could ever hear. Let us go out into the world, especially during the next forty days of Paschaltide, and proclaim to all people everywhere that “Christ is risen!” Who knows what will happen when we tell the story of the Resurrection to even the most skeptical and hostile of people? Maybe God, working through the Holy Spirit will change their unbelief into belief, will turn their hearts from stone into hearts filled with love for God and His holy Church. Beloved, never understand the power of the Resurrection!

We who have been baptized “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” and made members of the Body of Christ have been given a wonderful and magnificent gift: we have become the children of God, members of His Household. Thus, God is no longer a stranger to us. Every we hear His voice through Scripture and in the Liturgy, as well as within our own hearts and through the events of our lives. We respond and speak to God and offer ourselves to Him through our prayers, our fasting, our self-sacrifice, and our daily living.

In Baptism there was a seed planted within us, the Paschal mystery we celebrate at the beginning of a journey through life; the seed of faith. We must make that seed blossom into the “the fullness and stature of Christ.” The growth of this seed is first of all the result of its own innate potential. However, in order to successfully grow, blossom and bear fruit, it needs suitable conditions: fertile soil, water and sunshine. Its growth is a continual process of formation and great care and attention and so, throughout each day of our life, we set time aside to pay particular attention to the Vine which has been planted and taken root in us. The fertile soil, water and sunshine needed for the seed to grow is repentance, penance, prayer, fasting, and good works.. These are ongoing endeavors whereby, recognizing first of all our complete and total reliance on the power of the Risen Lord, we also know that our own effort is indispensable.

The development of life has its own rhythm and we must not neglect the discipline necessary for sustaining that rhythm. We should set some rules and goals: what we have to do daily, weekly, monthly and yearly in order to nourish our faith, goals that include prayer, repentance, self-examination, and fasting, along with the good and frequent use of the Holy Mystery of Confession and the frequent reception of the Holy Eucharist.

We are not alone as we walk the narrow path to salvation. We have many brothers and sisters in the faith walking with us and supporting us in our pilgrimage because, through Baptism, we are all members of one and the same faith family which has universal, diocesan and parish dimensions. This family we call the Orthodox Catholic Church: it is the Household of God, the Kingdom of God on earth; a holy nation, a people set apart. As the children of God, we are invited to participate actively and fully in His Life. The Resurrection of Christ opens to us once again the gates of Paradise which were closed because of Adam’s sin of disobedience. By Jesus death on the Cross and His glorious Resurrection, we are again able to become citizens of the Kingdom of God, the New Jerusalem, the City of God, the Church of Christ, established by the Blood of Christ as He hung upon the Cross.

The Resurrection of Jesus makes us a people of the Resurrection. Risen people must stand with head held high. Christ has paid for our sins and has restored our dignity as children of God. People of the Resurrection must love and respect themselves and never fall back into the slavery of sin. The radiance and glory of the Resurrection burns into us and purges all manner of evil and sin from us, that is if we are open to letting the power of the Resurrection change us.

This is the day which the Lord has made, beloved; let us rejoice and be glad in it! It is my sincerest wish and humble prayer that each and every one of you will be transformed by the glory and majesty of this awesome and wondrous day. May your hearts and burdens be lightened and may the joy and hope of Christ’s Resurrection fill your lives to overflowing. I encourage you all to take the joy of this day seriously, and to reflect and contemplate on what this day, specifically the Resurrection, means for you, and for us as a community of faith.

May the Risen Christ, who is the Light and Life of all mankind, be your joy, comfort, and strength always and forever!  Please keep me in your prayers and know that you are in mine.

I wish you all a blessed and happy Easter. Christ is Risen!

Paternally yours,

Most Rev. Archbishop Stephen   

Monday, April 10, 2017

Homily for Palm Sunday 2017

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

Yesterday, we commemorated and celebrated the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It was a joyous celebration, was it not? Everything in the chapel was clothed in white. The vestments of the celebrant and servers were white in color. White and yellow carnations and roses and even fragrant Easter lilies adorned the chapel. One would think that we were already celebrating Pascha! But as we know, Pascha is still a week away.

We have just finished our observance of Great Lent and stand now at the threshold of Holy Week, the most solemn days of the Church’s liturgical year. So Holy Mother Church provides us with a glimpse of what is ultimately to come. Knowing that the coming week will be filled with great sorrow, grief and mourning, the Church, in the observance and celebration of Lazarus Saturday, wishes to remind Her children of the joy that awaits us at the end of Holy Week.  She wants us to make the journey through Holy Week with hope in our hearts, to be mindful of what awaits those who believe in and profess Christ as the Messiah, the Anointed One, even though we will find ourselves witnesses to inhumanity at its worst.

The raising of Lazarus from the dead was one of the greatest miracles and signs Jesus performed so far and Martha’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah bears witness to a faith pure and unadulterated. Martha is an example to us that our faith too can be just as strong if only we believe.

After raising Lazarus from the dead, we find Jesus having dinner at the house of a friend in Bethany. Martha, Mary and Lazarus are there with Him. While Martha is preparing dinner, her sister Mary comes and kneels at Jesus’ feet, not to listen to Him, but to anoint Him. In an act which foreshadows a funeral anointing, Mary anoints Jesus’s feet and wipes them with her hair. The act is one both of love and submission, for Mary, like her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus know who and what Jesus is. Thus she honors Him as a devoted servant would honor and serve a King.

When Judas saw what Mary did with such a costly perfumed oil, He became indignant and wanted to know why the oil wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor. But Judas had no interest in the poor. Because Judas took care of the money for the group, he was angry because He could have benefited by taking the money and keeping it himself. His indignation that the oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor was nothing more than a pretense. In short, Judas had no scruples at all.

Like many other Gospel stories, this morning’s Gospel contains some very significant contrasts. First, there is the contrast between Mary and Judas. Priorities matter, my friends. The contrast between Mary and Judas begs the question, “Where are our priorities?” I have often said that what we do with our money often reflects what our true priorities are. Remember Jesus saying, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also?” Well it works the other way around as well. Where your heart is is where your treasure will find its home. If your heart is centered only on yourself, your treasure will never leave you or will only serve you. If your heart is set on the Gospel, your treasure will find its way into the lives of those in need and who are less fortunate than yourself. It is quite clear where Mary’s heart is, is it not?

A $60,000 car or $5,000 diamond ring or necklace is nothing compared to the privilege of anointing the King of kings. By contrast, Judas is more concerned about how much money that jar of perfumed oil would bring in the marketplace, particularly if he could get His hands on it.

It is interesting, is it not, that though he claims to be a disciple, a friend of Jesus, Judas cares nothing about Jesus or His mission. Here he is, one of the first twelve bishops of the Church, and all he cares about is what he can get out of his association with Jesus. Sadly, the same can be said about many Christians today. They claim to be friends of Jesus, to be followers of Him, but in reality all they really care about is what they can get from Him. And wait until their expectations are not met or their desires unfulfilled. Watch what happens then!

The second contrast of note is between Mary and the Chief Priests, As we saw yesterday, instead of seeing the miracle of Lazarus being raised as sign that Jesus was who He said He was, they see it as the final straw. They have already decided that Jesus must die, not merely punished, but put to death in the most cruel and horrific. Their hatred of Jesus was so great, so intense, that their sense of reason just dissipated in the face of it. Not only did they want to get rid of Jesus, but they wanted to kill Lazarus as well. In other words, if they had their way and they could get away with it, they would kill everyone who associated with Jesus so that His name and memory would be obliterated from the face of the earth.

Jesus made it very clear to the Jews that all the things He did could only be done if God was with Him. This just incensed and infuriated the priests, scribes and elders of the Jewish people all the more. The works Jesus does point clearly to Him being the Son of God as he claims to be. But Pharisees, scribes and elders closed their eyes to the fact and hardened their hearts to any possibility that Jesus was speaking the truth.

There are people even today who have the same attitude. You may have encountered them at one time or another. They are people who refuse to accept the possibility of anything beyond this material world, people who have closed their minds and hearts to God. It is so very sad. One cannot help wonder how a human being who was created by God can so easily abandon and reject Him who gives only what is good to His creation.

Happily they are not the only people around. While they may be greater in number today than those who believe, nevertheless, the power of God still penetrates this world and His Word never fails to dispel the darkness that blankets it. God’s Word will never disappear from the earth. No matter how hard the enemies of God and the Church work to destroy and remove them from society, they will never prevail or succeed in their efforts. It will all come to naught at some point. It may seem to us that they are prevailing over us, but nothing can be further from the truth.

God has not abandoned us. God loves us do much that He sent His Only-begotten Son to save His people. This is what Holy Week is all about. This is why Jesus came into the world and we will see the fruit of His work in the coming days.

Like those who witnessed the raising of Lazarus from the dead we too cry out today, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel!’ Just as Mary professed Jesus as King by anointing Him, now the people do it with palm branches and praise. Jesus affirms their cries by coming into Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy of their king coming in triumph to bring peace to Jerusalem.

It is interesting to note that the disciples do not actually understand the significance of the donkey until afterwards. I am sure Jesus does, but they do not until after He is glorified. That is, after His death and resurrection. Still, even if they do not understand the full significance of this act of entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the crowd hails Him as the promised King of Israel, the One who comes in the name of the Lord. They are ready to proclaim Him king. But it is not quite as simple as all of that, is it?

Jesus says something in this morning’s Gospel that must have both confused and worried the disciples. When Judas complains about the waste of this precious perfume, Jesus says, “Leave her alone.” She bought it that she might keep it for the day of My burial.” He realizes two things. First, as I said earlier, this is as much an anointing for burial as it is for kingship; but more importantly, Christ’s kingship will truly make itself manifest in His Death and Resurrection.

Jesus comes today as the servant king, the one foretold by Isaiah as being like a lamb led to the shearer, silently accepting the stroke of the blades as they take off the fleece. Jesus is literally heading to the slaughter and His Blood will consecrate the ground upon which it falls, seeping deep into the ground, even into the depths of Hell, dissolving forever the chains of death which have held fast God’s people since the fall of Adam.

Let us go back to the crowd for a minute. Why does this huge crowd come out to meet Jesus as He enters Jerusalem? St. John gives us the answer: “ So the crowd that had been with Him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went out to meet Him.” This is important; it is a fact we do not want to gloss over.

The crowd goes out to see Jesus because those who witnessed the raising of Lazarus had been talking about it; they were, in actuality, spreading the gospel. They were evangelizing, spreading the Good News. Is not this what we should be doing today? Witnessing to others the Good News that we have not only heard, but the signs and wonders that we have seen Jesus work in our own day and in our own lives? God certainly does great things for us. Some of these things we take for granted. For example, when someone we love is diagnosed as being terminally ill and then suddenly goes into remission or is cured altogether, we chalk it up to medical science. But is it just medical science? Could not God have used medical science to work a miracle so that we might believe more deeply or turn back to Him after having rejected Him? The reality is this. God is always doing something good in our lives all the time. Sometimes we just refuse to see it.

In the case of the crowd following Jesus, God is working something good for them but they cannot clearly see it and some, like the Pharisees and scribes and elders, refuse to see it at all. They refuse to lift that veil from before their eyes. They choose to remain walking in the darkness. We cannot be like them. We must open our eyes and hearts to let in the light so that we can see the truth. We also need to figure out where our priorities are when it comes to Jesus, to God and to the Church. Are they high on your list? Or are they way at the bottom?

Jesus, God and the Church should be right at the top of our list of priorities. We simply cannot ignore them. Our life is in Christ. When we were baptized, we were baptized into Christ and made part of His Body, which is the Church. Christ lives in us and we live in Him. This is what the Eucharist is all about. When we receive Holy Communion, we are not receiving merely a symbol or a sign; we are actually receiving Christ into ourselves. We become one with Him and He becomes one with us. When we receive Holy Communion, Christ strengthens us with Himself so that we can go out into the world and face and overcome whatever trials and challenges life puts in our path.

Jesus tells us that He is the gate by which all people will be saved. There is no other gate through which we can go that will give us entrance into Paradise, especially when we have been shown and know the True Gate. Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one gets to the Father except through the Son. This is not a fact we want to ignore or even take for granted. These are the words of Christ Himself. You will hear them again both on Holy Thursday evening and on Good Friday during the Passion Service.

We can respond to Jesus’ words by believing in Him, putting Him first, and receiving the eternal life He offers us, or we can respond like the chief priests and Pharisees, by being offended at His claim to be the exclusive source of eternal life. Many Christians and most non-Christians will say that there are many different paths to salvation; that a person can be saved even if they do not know Jesus Christ. In essence, this is true. But if a person has had an opportunity to know Christ and does not accept Him or has had a relationship with Him and then rejected Him, such a person will not be saved. One cannot reject the truth once they come to the knowledge of it; there are always adverse consequences to such actions.

It does not take much wisdom to see that Mary’s approach is the preferred one. Sure she gave up a lot to show her love for Jesus. It can be costly to be a disciple. But what Jesus offers us far outweighs any cost of following Him as His disciple. To come before God the Father without fear, with our sins removed and wiped clean, to live forever in His presence, far outweighs anything we might choose to give up out of our love for Him.

Beloved, let us be like Martha and Mary. Let us serve the Lord Jesus with humble hearts like Mary and like Martha, let us not only acclaim Him, but proclaim Him, as the Messiah so that we may pass from this life in the hope of eternal life, and so attain to the everlasting rest, where the voices of those who feast is unceasing, and the gladness of those who behold the countenance of God is unending.


Sunday, April 2, 2017

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent

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

Sometimes our eyes can play tricks on us. Sometimes we cannot see what is in plain sight: we cannot see the glasses on top of our head, or the car keys on the kitchen table. There are times when we only see what we want to see. For example, we see the lights and excitement of a casino, but we do not see the exploitation, addiction and poverty behind the lights. There are times when things are camouflaged so that we cannot see them even when we are looking directly at them.

St Mark plays with the idea of sigh in his Gospel this morning. He frames Jesus’ three predictions of His arrest, torture and execution with two stories of blind men receiving their sight. The blind men can see, but the disciples cannot see. The questions that haunt us as we read this passage from Mark’s Gospel are “What enables us to see?” and “What prevents us from seeing?”

The apostles only saw what they wanted to see. They saw in Jesus a Messiah who would rid the Jews of the Romans and their oppression. But Jesus was not that kind of Messiah. Jesus’ Messiah – the Suffering Servant – is different from the Messiah that the disciples envisioned. They did not want a suffering servant, or what they believed would be a weak Messiah. They wanted a Messiah who was a political force able to bring down Roman rule and establish God’s kingdom on earth.

Jesus’ prediction of his arrest and crucifixion was too ugly and abhorrent to the disciples. They could not accept it. They did not understand it. In a sense, they refused to believe it. They refused to see it.

There are times when we refuse to see Jesus for what He is and why He came among us. We cannot see the actual picture because we our blinded by our own pride and ego. James and John were like this. They wanted a powerful Jesus and they wanted to share in that power with Him. They wanted to sit at His right and left hands; powerful positions in a monarchy. The other disciples got angry at James and John because they wanted those positions.  The disciples argued and struggled among themselves as to who was the greatest. They saw greatness as a mark of the kingdom whereas Jesus see service and sacrifice as being the hallmarks of His Kingdom.

In God’s kingdom life is not the same as it is in the world and in society. Greatness in God’s kingdom is not success. Greatness is determined by faithful obedience to God’s will and His commandments.

From the story of Jesus’ Passion predictions Mark leads us into a story about a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Though Bartimaeus is blind, he sees who Jesus really is. Bartimaeus calls Jesus “the Son of David” referring to the Messiah as the one who is to restore God’s kingdom. Bartimaeus sees the kingdom of God as a place of mercy and compassion rather than a place of greatness and power. In the kingdom of God, greatness and power are borne from mercy and compassion.

Where Bartimaeus saw Jesus and His mission clearly, the disciples remained blind to the reality. They forgot that God controls the final destiny of each and every one of us. They wanted to share in Christ’s power and authority but they forgot that there was a price to be paid for that they sought.

The disciple would have been wise to remember the old saying, “Be care what you wish for.” Jesus warned them that they would have to suffer like He would suffer. He told them that they would be martyred for their faith, and with the exception of St. John, they all were. St. James was the first to die. John was the last. He died in exile as an old man on the Greek island of Patmos

Sometimes we have the idea that if we follow Jesus we are guaranteed to receive a reward. When that happens we forget that Jesus’ ministry was one of serving others. He gave Himself for the sake of others, including suffering for their salvation.

Christians today should be willing to suffer with and for Christ as they are to reign with Him. Nowhere is this more evident than in countries where being a Christian could lead to jail, physical harm, and even death. In our part of the world we may never have to suffer the same consequences for following Christ, but there will be times where we will have to endure our own brand of trials because of our faith. We must remember that if we suffer here on earth for our faith, we will be greatly rewarded in heaven.

Power as the standard of greatness corrupts people. You only have to look at some politicians, lawyers, judges, law enforcement officers and churchmen to see the truth of this statement. People who are corrupted by power fail to realize that there is only a limited amount of power to go around. While some people may think otherwise, power is actually finite; it has a limit.

People in positions of power and authority want to protect their position, and will do whatever they can ensure they do not lose it, even if it means harming or hurting others. And people without power want it. They too will do everything in their power to get it, even by hurting and harming others. If power, position and authority are the standards for success and greatness in any organization or society, including the Church, ambition will rule and jealousy and corruption will reign.

Those who seek power, position and authority are never satisfied. Their lust for power is never quenched. The lust for power is like an addiction. Once you are hooked, you need more and more to satisfy your craving and desire.

Pride wants strokes, and lots of them; pride loves to get the credit, to be mentioned, to be acknowledged, to receive adulation and glory. For example, many of you are in the workplace have likely been in situations where your bosses should have given you the credit you deserve, but for whatever reason they did not. When that happened, your pride needed to be kept in check.

Jesus had the right to be angry and frustrated with His disciples because they had been with Him so long yet they did not understand the nature of His purpose on earth. Nevertheless, He remained patient in His instruction of them and the formation of their beliefs. He chose to teach them the meaning of true greatness by comparing human standards of greatness with God’s standard of servanthood. In Jesus’s vision, greatness is equal to servanthood.

Jesus redefined the true nature of greatness. To be great does not mean to lord it over someone. It means to willingly serve under someone. By giving His own life as a ransom, Jesus, the Suffering Servant mentioned in Isaiah 53 would soon show His followers ultimate humility.

When we care about the things that hurt others, our hearts will be opened to their pain, and that openness will lead to its own suffering. We need to see other people as they are, to accept them as they are, and realize their importance to God. True humility and love for others flows from the infinite love God has for His people and the love we have for ourselves, which we find in Christ.

When we follow God, we lay the foundation for God’s kingdom here on earth. We have been saved by the greatness of Jesus, and in return we are to serve Jesus by serving others. Someone led us to Christ, so we must lead others to Christ. Someone helped us to grow spiritually, so in return we must help others grow spiritually. Someone was kind to us, and in return we are to be kind to others.

This can be hard to remember in our fast-paced world. It can be easy to lose sight of what it means to be great in God’s eyes, but if we slow down and open our eyes we will see that opportunities to serve are all around us. It is easy to find them when we are at home. For example, we can do someone else’s chores or prepare a special meal. We can also serve outside of our homes as well. We can hold a door for a mom pushing a stroller or for someone who is carrying several packages in their arms. We ca offer ourselves to the service of assisting our elderly and senior citizens by running errands for them or taking them to their doctor’s appointments or taking them out to lunch or dinner once a week or just by being there to converse with them and provide them companionship. Regardless of what we do, we must serve gladly and with hearts filled with joy, because the person we are serving could be an angel in disguise. When we serve others as Jesus served us, we will know the true meaning of greatness. Being called by God is not an invitation of ease and special treatment, but is an invitation to abundant life.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were blind to who Jesus was. Many people living in Jesus’ day were also blind to who He was. They should have been able to see that Jesus was the one foretold by the Old Testament prophets. Instead they rejected Him. The same thing is happening to today.

Religious leaders, even many in the Church, as well as millions of people throughout the world, are blind to who Jesus is.  Some disbelieve His words while others have rejected Him outright. They are blinded by greed and avarice and pride. Their blindness is compounded by the fact that they believe themselves to be greater than Jesus.

The Prophet Isaiah peaks of the Servant of the Lord being despised and rejected, smitten and wounded, all for good reason: to bring us peace and healing. Yet, “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.” Is that not how it is today? How many of our brothers and sisters, in fact, how many of us this morning, have turned and gone our own way? Do we not truly see why Christ came among us and what he is about to do for us in the coming weeks? Are we spiritually blind still?

Jesus cannot make it much clearer can He? But our prejudices and our presuppositions about Him are pretty strong, and we just do not seem to be able to get our minds around the concept of Him suffering death. We want a comfy, cozy religion; a religion that is all about love and beauty and goodness. We do not want a religion that has suffering, a cross and death in it.  

Many of us are like James and John, wanting to sit at the right and left hands of God, but we want no part of the suffering it takes to get there. We, like them, think we are God’s favorites and can ask Him anything and He will give it to us. But the problem is, we do not know what we are really asking for.

Now think about this for a moment. Jesus has just finishing talking about His imminent arrest and execution and they are asking Him about taking up places of honor in His throne room. Now, in one sense, maybe it shows great faith in Him. Maybe they have seen through His talk of death and resurrection to what lies beyond the grave. But at the same time, they seem to have glossed over the realities of the cross to glibly. They almost seem to be saying, “It does not matter how he gets there, as long as we can benefit from it.”

It is very easy, is it not, to overlook the sacrifices of others? Sometimes we do not take into consideration the suffering someone goes through on our behalf, especially when they love us so deeply and completely. This is how it is between Jesus and us.

There is a natural rejoicing at times like Easter and Christmas. We tend to overlook the true nature of the Incarnation. We overlook the fact that Jesus swapped the glory of the heavenly throne for a smelly stable. That He willingly appeared in the form of a baby and to grow as a little child with no rights in a poor village in an oppressed nation. The images we cling to are of a warm, friendly, probably well-kept stable, a beautiful baby, an innocent mother, clean and properly washed shepherds, and richly-robed wise men from the east. It is all so sanitized is it not? Yet the reality was far from that sort of image. Jesus came as a nobody. He was rejected and despised by anyone of note. He suffered the most painful and undignified death you can imagine. But it is much easier to think about the good things, just as James and John did, rather than the reality of how those things were achieved.

So the question for us is the same as it was for them. Are we ready to suffer and die for what we believe? Do we value our closeness to Christ so much that we are willing to stand at His right and left hands as He is tortured and put to death? Or are we interested only in the glory of being with the conquering King in His kingdom? What Jesus is saying is that you cannot have one without the other, but the one makes the other worth going through.

In His dialogue with His apostles, Jesus reminds us, once again, that the standards of the Kingdom are opposed to those of this world. Whereas in the world we expect those in authority to wield that authority justly and fairly, in the Kingdom of God, those who are great are the ones who serve others. The first in the kingdom are the ones who act as slaves to the rest. So much so, in fact, that even the Son of Man, that is, the Messiah, came not to be served but to serve, and give up His life as a ransom for many. Far from valuing Himself and indispensable because of His position, the way others would, he gave Himself up to death so that others could be brought back into the Kingdom.

Are you prepared to give up your life, that is, your rights, your comfort, your familiar church environment, in order to make it possible for others to be brought into the Kingdom? That is what it means to be a servant or slave of all.