Posts tagged ‘ascetic life’

Towards the Other (Colossians 3:12-16)

AUDIO HERE

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

Whether I’m watching TV, or listening to the radio, reading news online, or especially on any social media outlet like Facebook – it seems to me that the predominate way that many people interact with one another is aggressive and adversarial and hateful. People are not discussing issues in a calm, rational, or certainly not loving way, rather people attack and yell and are filled with pride and self-righteousness. We are determined to be right, and no matter how we go about it, we are often determined that others accept our vision as the correct one. This mentality seems to affect people across every spectrum, including those of us in the Church. It’s certainly true that we proclaim the Gospel, the Good News, and that we believe this Gospel to be true and necessary for everyone. But the way we go about sharing this Gospel will have a significant impact on how people receive it. And the same goes for any other point of view as well.

Today’s Epistle reading tells us how we’re to act in our relationships with other people, and the list of words St. Paul leaves us with is the polar opposite of how we often behave. Mercy, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, forgiving one another, and above all else, loving one another. Instead of just having a nice list of words that remind us of the traits of the Christian, I’d like us to at least have a small definition for each of these words…to help us think about the implications of what St. Paul is calling us to…maybe a bit more food for thought as we prepare ourselves receive the Holy Eucharist for the healing of our soul and body. The more aware we are of what needs to be healed, the more we’re able to receive the grace of God and allow it to work in our lives. So, to St. Paul’s list of Christian traits:

Merciful – mercy is essentially extending to someone a benevolence that they don’t deserve. We ask God to be merciful to us constantly, to show us mercy even though we don’t deserve it. We are to treat others not as they deserve to be treated, we treat them as the image of God. This would preclude our being harsh or judgmental towards anyone.
Kind – this is the exact opposite of being mean to people. We treat people with kindness, pleasantly, with a genuine concern for them. If we’re concerned for others, then kindness flows very naturally from that. There’s another trait of kindness, which is we do for others not expecting anything in return.
Humble – we’re not supposed to be puffed up and proud, as St. Paul says in other places. But neither are we to be falsely humble. Humility is really seeing things as they are, and behaving accordingly.
Meek – meekness is often seen in today’s culture as weak. The meek person doesn’t press for his own way, but neither is he simply without backbone. The meek man is the God-fearing man, according to the Saints. Our Lord was meek, but He also rebuked the Pharisees and ran the money changers out of the Temple with a whip.
Longsuffering – this means that we patiently endure the wrongs that people do against us, and we also endure the difficulties that come upon us in the course of our earthly life. Some people will use this virtue to say that Christians are gluttons for punishment – we don’t go looking for hardship, but we do take the hardship that comes and we patiently endure and offer our sufferings to Christ. He says that anyone who follows Him will endure trials, and we’re called to be longsuffering and to go through those things with grace and trust in Him.
Bearing with one another – we all fall, we all fail each other. The Scriptures constantly call on us to bear with one another, and not just to grudgingly do it, but to even to help our brother bear his burden. We can’t just get upset and snap or walk away, but out of our concern for each other we bear each other’s burdens and help each other along the path to salvation.
Forgiving one another – this is huge, because so many of the other things we’ve already mentioned require that we forgive people. We get a lot of opportunity to practice this, and we give each other a lot of chances to practice it as well. To forgive does not mean to forget, but rather that we let go of all of our ill will and hurt and anger. We may still remember that someone sinned against us, but we no longer hold that failure against them. Growing in Christ requires that we forgive each other, and not only our brothers, but even our enemies.
Love – everything comes down to love. “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And we are called to nurture love, to strive to love the other as purely and unselfishly as God loves us.

St. Paul ends out reading by telling us to love, and to live with the peace of God in our hearts. We aren’t perfect, we’re fallen human beings struggling to do our best. So in that spirit, I’d like to end with a quote from St. Isaac the Syrian: “If you cannot be merciful, at least speak as though you are a sinner. If you are not a peacemaker, at least do not be a troublemaker. If you cannot be assiduous, at least in your thought be unlike a sluggard. If you are not victorious, do not exalt yourself over the vanquished. If you cannot close the mouth of a man who disparages his companion, at least refrain from joining him in this.”

We can’t always live up to the call of the Gospel, but as St. Isaac reminds us, there’s always something we can do to be more like Christ.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

Author Matthew Jackson

Slaves of sin, or slaves of Christ and righteousness

What we are each called to be.
[Preached at St. John of the Ladder Orthodox Church in Greenville, SC]
Romans 8:16-23; Matthew 8: 5-13

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

I particularly love to preach on the writings of St. Paul, and we really have a very good one to look at this morning. St. Paul writes and preaches in a very direct and straightforward way. He says things as they are, and leaves us always with a challenge to conform our lives to the Gospel, to conform our lives to Christ.

And so he begins this particular reading (from his letter to the Church in Rome) by saying: “having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness.” This type of language from St. Paul is characteristic – we are either slaves to sin, or we are slaves to Christ and to righteousness. And so, having entered Christ’s Body, the Church, he reminds us that we are to be no longer slaves of sin. 

This concept – slaves of sin – is worth a little more thought for us, particularly considering the frame of mind prevalent in the world today, and at all times to some extent. In the society around us, in the frame of mind that the vast majority of us grew up surrounded by and even sharing in, the ultimate definition of freedom is for us to be able to do whatever we want. This concept is pushed further and further in society, and every now and then we might see something bad come of it, but the general idea is that we should be able to do whatever we want to do – this is freedom. 

The language of St. Paul, however, presents for us a different perspective. He would not say that are exercising freedom in our sinful activities, but rather we are acting like slaves. In the same way that a slave is forced to do things that he doesn’t want to do and has no choice over, sin has this same effect on our lives. It’s not spelled out in this morning’s Epistle, but the basic vision we get of sin in the life of a human being is consistent in the Scriptures and in the writings of the Fathers. Man chooses to sin – sin separates man from God – the more we sin, the further we are from God – the further we are from God, the more distorted our vision of reality becomes – this puts us in an ever repeating cycle where we fail to see reality (will of God) and we’re pulled right and left by our sinful passions. We are very passionate in our fallenness, and its very easy for our passions to entirely take control of our lives. When our passions are ruling our lives, then this imaginary language of choosing in freedom falls by the wayside; we’re not choosing, we’re being ruled, we are slaves.

St. Paul picks up on the reality of our lives, and tells that we have a choice – to be slaves to sin (passions and death), or to be slaves of righteousness. This is why we find St. Paul constantly reminding the Christians and exhorting them to remember that they are no longer slaves to sin – to no longer give ourselves to sin. We turn our back on anything that might separate us from our Christ, and we walk to Him unhindered by our sin. We continue to see this same plea to give no place in to sin even from Holy Men today. Elder Joseph the Hesychast writes: “In whatever battle a person has been defeated once – even if 100 years have passed – as soon as he encounters that same temptation that had defeated him, he is overpowered once again. Therefore, I am saying to you…that in every battle with the enemy, you must emerge victorious. Either die in the struggle, or win with God. There is no other road.” We flee from sin, lest we again become its slaves after having left become the bondservants of Christ.

And now again we have to look at St. Paul’s choice of words – we find the phrase “slaves to righteousness” or “slaves of God” (which are the same thing) 3 times in this very short 6 verse Epistle reading. Calling ourselves slaves of anything or anyone is a bit uncomfortable, perhaps. And some of us might find it odd to call ourselves slaves of Christ. But let’s think about this reality with the mind of the Scriptures and of the Church. Christ loves us more than we love ourselves; He died for us men and for our salvation (Creed); “He desires not the death of a sinner, but that he should turn from his ways and live.” Our Christ desires our salvation. Everything He has for us is to cleanse us from our sins and to place us at His right hand. Everything from Christ is for our salvation. There’s no better exchange than for us to give up our own sinful will and “take the cross as a yolk” (Panikhida). It is only in giving ourselves wholly to Christ that we can truly become what we are created to be. Enslavement to Christ is serving one Who loves you more than you can comprehend, and is always working for your salvation.

This is why St. Paul, and all of the Saints following after him, encourage us so strongly to continually lay aside sin, and every increasingly give ourselves to Christ. And His grace is there to meet us in our weakness, and enables us to do things that we would never have thought possible when thinking with just our human minds. I’ll end with us hearing again the last few phrases from the Epistle: “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

Author Matthew Jackson

Daily Sacrifice for Christ

With increasing regularity, I am seeing phrases such as: ‘we must be willing to lay down our lives for Christ.’  Virtually always, this phrase is then attached to the Christian holding on to his Faith, clinging to his Christ, even in the midst of terrible persecution, even to the point of death.  Obviously, we see exactly this in the Holy Scriptures.  Christ promises that the world will hate us even as it hated Him.  We then see this lived out in the lives of the Apostles, who are stoned and beaten and tortured, and all but one eventually martyred.  Holding on to our Faith in Christ in the midst of persecution has been a basic reality for Christians in at least some part of the world since the time of Christ.
But I have a concern with the frequent use of this phrase as I am seeing it right now.  My concern can be explained to be something like: do we think of laying down our life for Christ only in terms of literal physical death, while not applying it to our lives daily, as the Scriptures and the Saints teach us?
It is very easy for us, both psychologically and spiritually, to look to a particular “event,” and in doing so to escape the struggle that is going on in our lives right now.  In other words, to speak about the resolve and the faith that we have and how that will support us in martyrdom, but then to fail to offer ourselves daily as a sacrifice to Christ.  The daily dying, the daily laying down our lives, setting aside our sins – this is the constant martyrdom that we as Christians should be undertaking every single day of our lives.  When the Fathers teach us about the Holy Martyrs, they tell us that the Martyrs were able to undergo the tortures and being put to death precisely because they lived in Christ!  They had already been martyred in Christ – it was no longer they who lived, but Christ lived in them (Gal. 2:20). 
So this then, is our daily sacrifice.  Regardless of exterior persecutions, we are to persecute sin in our flesh.  We are to constantly see the sin within us, repent, and return our lives to Christ.  This is hard; this is a struggle; this is often unpleasant.  But it must be done.  We are to put off the old man, the man of sin and death, and be clothed in the new man, righteous in Christ (Eph 4:22-24).  St. Paul even uses the image of martyrdom when describing this activity: “put to death your members which are on the earth” – put to death sin within you (Col. 3:2).  Remembering at all time that we cannot do this alone, rather “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
An ending quotation from St. John of Kronstadt – “The loving Lord is here: how can I let even a shadow of evil enter into my heart? Let all evil completely die within me; let my heart be anointed with the sweet fragrance of goodness as with a balsam. Let God’s love conquer thee, thou evil Satan, instigating us to evil. Evil is most hurtful both to the mind and to the body. It burns, it crushes, and it tortures. No one bound by evil shall dare to approach the throne of the God of love.”olHH
May we join our efforts to the mercy and grace of our loving Lord, and escape the snares of evil around, and within, us!

Author Matthew Jackson

Homily on Matthew 17:14-23

  • Text of Gospel Reading
  • In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
    Christ is in our midst!
    If you spend much time reading the Scriptures, the sequence of events and the Apostles’ actions will begin to amaze, even flabbergast, you. Two weeks ago (on August 6) we celebrated the Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ. This morning’s Gospel picks up a mere 5 verses later, with the Lord and His Disciples having just coming down off Mt. Tabor. The Disciples, three of them having just experienced the Transfiguration, having just seen the revelation of the fullness of the glory of God in Christ, are presented with a test. Scripture teaches us that gifts from God—like the Apostles experience on Mt. Tabor—come with testing, to help us preserve what we’ve received and to continue to grow. So the Disciples are faced with a test. A man brings them his son, who suffers from epilepsy. He says the boy often falls, or throws himself in other Gospel accounts, into fire and into water. Not only is the boy afflicted with a terrible, and at that time totally untreatable disease, his family also has to fear for his bodily safety because of the things he does when he suffers from his illness. So this man, having obviously heard of Christ, heard that Christ is a great healer and teacher, some even say He’s the Messiah. So with this knowledge, the father brings his son to Christ. Actually, St. Matthew says he first brought the boy to Christ’s disciples. The disciples were already known by their association with Christ, and they had already been given the power to cast out demons and to heal the sick. But the disciples were unable to heal the boy. What a terrible moment in time that must have been—living and working with the Messiah, witnesses of the full glory of God, they were unable to do one of the things He gave them power to do. So the man brings his son to Christ, tells Him of the terrible affliction the boy suffers, and tells Him that the disciples were unable to help. Perhaps He could help the boy. Then Jesus says some startling words—“O perverse and faithless generation…how long shall I bear with you?” He then has the boy brought to Him, casts out the demon, and the child is cured. Later, in private, the disciples ask, “Why couldn’t we heal the boy?” Christ goes back to the startling words He spoke at the miracle—“Because of your unbelief…if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” In another of the Gospel accounts the contrast between belief and unbelief is made even stronger. Before the miracle, Christ asks the boy’s father—“do you believe I can do this?” And the father responds—“Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” It’s astonishing that after all they have witnessed, the miracles, the feedings, the healings, even the Transfiguration, that the disciples could still be told that they don’t believe. What does Christ mean when He tells them they lack faith? Sometimes we like to approach the Christian life in very much the same way we approach everything. If it makes sense, then it must be right. If I see some proof, then I can believe. So we read the Bible, we “understand” it, we accept the witness of the Church Fathers, our elders, even our own experiences with God. And therefore we believe. But in the Scriptures we’re reminded that the wisdom and way of God is not the wisdom and way of men. The Apostles have no problem believing when Christ is standing before them in glory, or when He’s performing miracles before their very eyes. But when it comes to believing that they also have been given this power, their faith suddenly falters. But it made sense, they saw it, they lived it. But when it came right down to it, they still lacked true faith in Christ. Christ told them if they even had the tiniest bit of faith, like a mustard seed—which is called the smallest of all seeds in the Scriptures. If they even have a tiny amount of faith, nothing would be impossible for them. In fact, in another passage Christ tells them they will do greater things than He does by the power of the Holy Spirit. Faith is not rational acceptance and understanding. If it were, the disciples would have had no problem healing the epileptic boy. They knew Jesus could do it. The faith Christ is speaking of is giving of oneself wholly to Him. If the disciples had fully dedicated themselves, in every way, to Christ, they could have healed the boy. And in fact, after the Resurrection, they do give themselves over entirely to God’s will. Performing countless miracles, spreading the Gospel message, and even dying for Christ. Faith is not believing what you see when you see it, that’s common sense. Faith is believing that every word of Christ is True, and then living those words.
    Christ calls us not only to believe in Him, that He’s real and the stories in the Bible are true. Christ calls us to believe on Him—to believe the promises He made to us and then to live like we believe those promises. “Don’t worry about your clothing or your food, the Father will care for those things,” Christ said. “I come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly,” He preached. “Anything that you ask in My name, the Father will grant it.” “Where two are three are gathered in My name, I am in the midst.” Do we live like these promises are being fulfilled? Christ came to offer us life. To offer us the chance to be entirely healed of our sin, our evil self-destructive desires. And being healed of the broken-ness of this world, brings man life abundantly both in this world and in the next. But we have to see things through the lens of the Gospel. Abundant life in the Gospel is communion with God, regardless of the physical and material situations we find ourselves in. Placing our entire life into the hands of Almighty God. And that’s not an easy thing to do. We like to be in control of ourselves. To hold back little things for me. But Faith of the sort Christ preaches is Faith that keeps nothing for itself, but offers everything to Christ. Faith that begs, “Not my will, but Thine.” Faith that lives, ”It is no longer I, but Christ that lives in me.” True faith in God is not just a belief that the words of the Bible are true, God is real, and maybe I can go to heaven by admitting that. It wasn’t too long ago that even society felt it only common sense to acknowledge the existence of God. True faith is living the commandments of Christ, and knowing that God is faithful and just in all that He has said. In striving for this faith, our prayer should mirror the prayers of those in Scripture, many of which we’ve already mentioned. “Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” “Not my will, but Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” “Lord help my will to be overshadowed by the life of Christ in me.” The only way to have true life, true healing, to be truly human, is to be “a little Christ.” “Lord, we believe. Fill our unbelief with the fullness of Thy eternal life.”
    Glory to Jesus Christ.