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 among us here. 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 have a new Icon to venerate today that is quite appropriate to All Saints day. Fr. Michael Oleksa from Alaska has been designing it and having some iconographer friends of his paint the actual icon. His inspiration was when he was at an All saints of Russia feast day around 1970, listening to a homily about some of the Russian saints with an icon of a few of them that looked a little like this one (icon from Altar), it really struck him that our North American Icon only had one – St. Herman was the first glorified and this was in 1970.
We have made some progress in the last 40 years or so – there are 16 on our new icon of the saints of North America – but compared to other Orthodox jurisdictions we still have a way to go. You will find Blessed Olga and a couple others on the icon that haven’t yet been officially glorified but whom are pretty much accepted as saints among the Orthodox faithful. This is how saints become recognized in the Orthodox Church. Those who knew the saint and those living in the region where they lived, start the process by simply recognizing that this person exceptionally cooperated with God to have the image of Christ – which we all have residing within us and which is alive and active from our baptism on – grow to become the obvious and visible likeness of Christ. There is a commonly shared understanding that this person was exceptional in how their lives witnessed and manifested the grace of God while alive. They faithfully lived their lives in the fullness of the Orthodox Church and did not stray into questionable areas of theology or non-Orthodox understanding. After their death there is a growing of the awareness that Theosis was well developed in this person, the local community naturally starts to venerate and ask for the prayers of their very special departed saint. This starts to spread beyond the local region to the rest of the Church. There are often stories of miracles associated with the saint while they were alive, and also miracles and visions of them helping others after their departure. Their memory and reputation grows as these stories are shared and often new incidents occur. Finally the Church officially recognizes what is self evident. The Church does not create a saint but simply recognizes what they already are. It is a very organic process starting from the local Church where the saint lived.
There is not a top down 4 step process like in the Roman Catholic Church where once the Vatican researches to make sure the prospect lived a morally good life they need one verified miracle before being named Blessed and then one more miracle performed after being named blessed and then they are in.
We are all called to be saints of God, this is our job description, our very purpose in life. This is 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”. It is good to listen to God’s word, this helps greatly in training our mind and even our conscience, in understanding what is good and right and pure. But Paul says that even those who do not have the benefit of this training, who are not within the Church, have truth written in their heart and are pleasing to God when they listen to their conscience and DO what is right. Coming to Church and learning God’s truth and then choosing to ignore our conscience will only harden our hearts and make us crazy in the long run. I remember listening to Fr. Thomas Hopko a while back and someone asked him why some people come to Church and seem to get sweeter and more loving and 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. 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.
However, when we realize we have once again made a bad choice, that we have been selfish and self absorbed and we cry out to God – Lord have mercy, help me to follow your ways and forgive me – then we have made a choice that allows God the freedom to heal us, and our hearts begin to soften. The choice we need to continually make is the choice of repentance. It is always available, instantly we can choose to come again to the warm and healing embrace of our heavenly Father and start again. This is the way of the saints. This is very counter-culture however. Looking out for #1 and tuning in to WIFM – What’s In It For Me? – is what we are taught in the media and the prevailing message of the day. The instructions for growing in Christ and becoming saints are found in the wisdom of the Church, seldom in the wisdom of the age, although there are glimpse of truth everywhere. God can use even talking donkeys to reach us as He did with Balaam (Num.22.28) not to be confused with the questionable wisdom of donkey in Shrek.
Beware of the many self help and new age sources of wisdom as they usually contain just enough truth to get you started and attract you and then throw you more and more off the path. If you want to be successful you must have a vision – great advice – however let me submit to you that the vision we are called to is Theosis, to following Christ with all our heart and soul and mind and being transformed into saints. Too lofty we think, we need to concentrate on our career goals, on our own personal development, on our education… we need a nicer vehicle and a boat, and a bigger house. These are not bad goals, but they should be given to God with an open hand. Everything we ask for and desire should come with “however, not my will but Your will be done”. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you says our Lord. You fathers know how to give good things to your children, if they ask for a fish will you give him a serpent? God knows what we need far better than we do. His greatest desire is to grant us the grace to become saints in Christ. This is not some lofty far fetched goal; this is the primary will of God for us. However, for this to happen it must also become the primary goal for us.
Our Gospel reading today is the calling of Andrew and Peter and James and John to leave their nets and come and follow Christ. It says “immediately they followed Him”. 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 said to Martha that her sister Mary, by leaving everything and focusing on Him was doing the “one thing needful” and it would not be taken away from her. St. Andrew, pray for me that I may be more responsive to immediately following Christ and choose that one thing needful. Let us start from today and not wait until our schedules are a little better to re-new our commitment to truly follow Christ, to put Him first, before everything else in our lives. Let us ask that the Holy Spirit would to renew in us, our desire to follow Him in all things, and to keep unspotted that precious robe of light we were given, when we first put on Christ at our baptism. Glory to Jesus Christ!