2nd Sunday After Pentecost: North American Saints

  2nd Sunday after Pentecost             June 14, 2015             All Saints of North America    

Gospel: Matt 4: 18-23 ;         Epistle: Rom: 2: 10-16 ;                                Fr. Andrew

Glory to Jesus Christ! Today is the second Sunday after Pentecost, and also the Sunday of all the Saints of North America. We started celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit given to the church two weeks ago at Pentecost. Then last Sunday we celebrated the results of this gift, by considering all of the millions who have been transformed into saints through this continual outpouring of the Holy Spirit ever since Pentecost. Today we get closer to home, and honour some of the saints that have walked here among us. These would be saints that perhaps our patents or grandparents, or even we ourselves, if we were active in the Church, could have met and known. And then next Sunday we resume our regular Sundays after Pentecost Gospel lessons, as we start to consider exactly what we need to do to join the ranks of the saints, and what it means for us personally to trust in God completely. What wisdom is possessed by our Orthodox Church!

We are a mission Church. Our mission is to reach out to the thirsting people all around us and show them the love of Christ and the fullness of the Orthodox Church. The community around us knows almost nothing about the Orthodox Church, and most of what people do think they know, is based on their encounters with the Roman Catholic or Protestant church. This often has little resemblance to what the Orthodox Church teaches. Our view of original sin, of the wrathful God and hell, of missionary outreach, prayer and union with God, and much else is radically different. Yes, we are a mission of a mission Church here in Cranbrook and the East Kootenay Valley. Today all of the more than 250 million world wide members of the Holy Orthodox Church that we are part of are celebrating the saints on their home soil. Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Georgia and other countries are each celebrating hundreds of local saints today. Greece and Constantinople are celebrating thousands. I think we at last count had 14 officially glorified, although a few of them were actually glorified by Russia and Serbia and only 2 were actually born in North America. Yes, we are all very much part of the Orthodox mission church here in North America.

The Church is a hospital; she provides everything needed to bring us fully into the healing restoration of life in Christ. But in order to be healed within the hospital, we must first realize that we have a serious disease, which is surely and relentlessly killing us. It is known as sin. It has a myriad of different presentations but always attempts to stay hidden, away from the light of exposure. Once we understand we have a terminal disease that can be treated, we will of course run to check ourselves in for treatment. But if we are unaware that we even have a disease that is continually working away destroying our very life, why would we consider going to a hospital – they are only for sick people after all. Christ clearly tells us that (Mark 2:17) “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” However, scripture also tells us that (Rom. 3:23) “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:10) “There is none righteous, no, not one.” and (1John 1:8) “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So Christ is telling us the prerequisite of Him being able to come and heal us is for us to realize our broken and wounded state and ask for His healing. Christ tells us (Matt.15:14) “The blind can not lead the blind as they will both fall into a ditch,” so our first job as missionaries is to check ourselves into the hospital, the Church and fully avail ourselves of every needed treatment that we may have our vision corrected, and be restored to health, replacing the spirit of infirmity with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then, in God given health we are to go out and bring others to Christ, for treatment into the spiritual hospital of the Church. This is our mission here in Cranbrook and the East Kootenay Valley. We are presently small in numbers but we have a large mission and the God of all creation to equip and strengthen us to do His will in this.

The Orthodox Church has existed and has been creating saints continuously from its beginning, from when Christ first called Peter and his brother Andrew and James and John the sons of Zebedee. They immediately left their nets and followed Him as we hear in today’s gospel. I am always humbled by this response. I tend to respond more in a “just need to finish off this one last thing” way. Funny how often there ends up being a continuous collection of “one last things” that always seem to need to be taken care of.

Christ in His earthly ministry honoured the assembling together to worship God in the synagogues and spent much time there. In today’s gospel we have a perfect summery of Christ’s ministry “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people.” Note; His first activity was to go attend and preach in the synagogues. He said to St. Photina, the Samaritan women at the well “You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship for salvation is of the Jews.” In Acts we see Paul starting at the synagogues. When he first went to Thessalonica, scripture says he went to the synagogue (Acts 17:2) “Then Paul as his custom was, went into them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the scripture.” Christ and the Holy Spirit in His Apostles and saints, established His visible Church where all people could come to worship God in a God-given and God-pleasing way – in Spirit and in truth. God has always blessed those who seek Him in His house, first in the synagogues and now in the Church. When Paul went to the synagogues, it was to show the Jewish people, through their own scriptures, the revelation of the new age, brought into being by Christ the Messiah. Led by the Holy Spirit, the Apostles established the Churches with an ordered pattern of liturgical worship. As early as the 1st and 2nd century we see in the writings of Justin Martyr and other saints, the skeleton of the Liturgy we follow today in the Orthodox Church.

The Liturgy teaches us to how to pray and worship and give proper thanksgiving unto God. We gather to eat and drink of the very body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to be mystically transformed and united into the body of Christ, together to become saints. We pray in the Anaphora prayer “we ask You, and pray You, and supplicate You: Send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these Gifts here offered” Christ clearly tells us in John (6:53, 56) “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you…He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him” Our Liturgy is God-given, to lead us into communion with God. We may not always feel the joy, and comprehend the eternal mystery that without exception takes place when we gather to celebrate the Divine Liturgy; but this is due to the dullness of our own God-receptors, not because anything is absent from the throne of God. The more we fully and with godly effort participate in the Liturgy, the work of the people, worshiping with the angels and with the saints gone before us, the more our contaminated God -receptors are cleansed. We begin to become more consciously aware of God being ever present and filling all things. Through every generation for 20 centuries, from the Apostles, through all the saints and right up until today here in St. Aidan’s, God has been faithfully present in every Liturgy, transforming hearts and calling His people to union with Himself.

We are sometimes tempted to judge whether God is active by our own emotional response. We tell each other “Wow, God was really here today.” Was He on vacation yesterday? This is a grave error that will leave us very susceptible to being manipulated by false Christ’s and teachings. God is always with us, not just when someone or something manages to cause an emotional reaction within us. Every one of the cults and other religions can promise their followers great emotional highs, and often are expert at producing the environment to achieve these feelings. We usually place far too much trust in our ability to discern when we are thinking in error, or being lured off the path. Faith is the evidence of things not seen – or felt.

When we hear a song that expresses what we wish to pray, we unite our hearts to it. Keith Green nailed it for me years ago with “No Compromise”  “Make my life a prayer to You, I want to do what You want me to, No empty words and no white lies, No token prayers no compromise.” Unfortunately there was also much in Keith’s and other Christian music writer’s lyrics that was pretty flakey so it’s nice to be able to quote his good stuff when you can. But the principle of really uniting our hearts to a God-pleasing lyric, to a solid prayer is a very valuable practise. That’s what liturgical prayer is all about, except we do not have to wonder if what we are repeating and allowing to sink into the depths of our heart is truly coming from God. These prayers have passed the test of centuries of use and are well proven to help lead us into true union with Christ as we make them ours.

One of the great prayers of the church that I have found helpful comes from St. Philaret where He prays “O Lord, I know not what to ask of You. You alone know what are my true needs. You love me more than I myself know how to love. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I dare not ask for either a cross or consolation…”  The struggle of Liturgical prayer is to unite our hearts with the prayers and make these prayers our own. Asking that our hearts can be transformed, becoming infused with the wisdom and purity being expressed by the saint who wrote the prayer in Christ. When we are having difficulty with this, we can ask the saint whose prayer we are using to intercede for us and ask Christ to fill us with the reality of the prayer. In the Orthodox Church we have 2000 years of the collected and non-conflicting wisdom of the saints. If what we are struggling with or thinking doesn’t square with what is called Church tradition, the same tradition that gave us the New Testament and has been carefully guarded and passed on to us by every generation of those who faithfully served Christ within the Orthodox Church, perhaps it would be wise to consider that we may be in error. It is sometimes put that we are safer letting the Church judge us when we disagree, than for us to be judging the Church. This is a very counter-cultural idea in our society were we are constantly being encouraged to “do it my way” and not let anyone tell you what to do. “Sola scriptura” has come to mean “my own private interpretation of the scriptures alone” is the only right one – a sure recipe for complete chaos.

So what has all this to do with the saints of North America whom we are celebrating today? Everything. They were all formed within the bosom of the Church. You will find reading the lives of the saints that they immersed themselves in the cycles of the Church. They availed themselves of every opportunity to be present, to receive communion and pray, eagerly cooperating with the transforming grace of God.

We too are all called to be saints of God, this is our job description, our very purpose in life. Today is also our feast day! We all have but one thing to contribute to God to this end, our free will. In today’s epistle we are given very good instructions about what is required. “Be not hearers of the law but doers.” Coming to Church and learning God’s truth is very good. But then choosing to ignore it will only harden our hearts and make us crazy in the long run. I remember listening to Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory, and someone asked him why some people come to Church and seem to get sweeter and more loving, yet with others it seems the longer they come, the more twisted and bitter they become. He answered that when we are encountering the living God on a regular basis, receiving communion while not allowing Him to forgive and heal us, we are likely to get worse rather than better. This isn’t magic. Coming to Church really doesn’t do us a lot of good if we are not willing to change, to put into practise what we hear. Choosing to stay hurt and not to forgive when we are insulted and wounded, choosing to close our eyes to the pain and poverty around us when our conscience is pleading with us to be generous, these choices will not enable us to grow closer to Christ, no matter how much we go to Church.

Let us do all we can to learn from the saints, asking for their intercessions before the very throne of God, and imitating them as best we are able.   Glory to Jesus Christ!

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