In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Your Grace, fellow clergy, and brothers and sisters in Christ.
250, 000 people, over a four-day period, crowded into the football stadium in St. Louis, Missouri a month ago to hear Evangelist Reverend Billy Graham preach. In a society that's steeped in secularism we might ask why? We might ask: what motivates people who would rather sleep-in than attend church, people who spend their lives pursuing the American dream of more and more material things. What motivates people who spend a good deal of their time trying to find happiness in entertainment, sports and alcohol, to go to a football stadium to hear an Evangelist?
The answer is simple: People are looking for happiness, searching for hope, grasping for something to hold on to. And pop religion promises an easy way to be saved from our hum drum existence, like most things in America - - a quick fix - - a happy meal, an instant solution. And if you've got $2.6 million to spend, and an all-American name like Billy Graham, and you promise people a little religion and a lot of gospel rock, then any one of us could fill a large auditorium.
Today people are sick - - sin sick, their spirituality incapacitated - - and they need God. What they don't need is a vanishing vapor, which palms itself off as that " good old-time religion." They need authentic Christianity and they need Christ's church, not a false church. But how can we compete? The answer is that we can't and we shouldn't, for what does light have to do with darkness and what does Christ have to do with Baal. In order to win souls, in order to bring people to the true faith we must also evangelize, but we must do so by bringing the authentic gospel to the world, the gospel which is proclaimed by the church that Christ Himself founded almost 2000 year ago.
And how do we do that? We do it as it has always been done. We must walk in the footsteps of the Apostles, and of the great missionaries of the church, Saints Peter and Paul, St. Nina, St. Cyril and Methodius, and St. Innocent. We must respond to heterodox prosylization with a vigorous missionary effort firmly rooted in a love that nourishes faith.
What the world needs, and what we are in a unique position to give is love, not the romantic notion of love, which the world promotes, but real Christian love, which is love for God and love for our neighbor. A love that reflects God's love for us. The kind of love that was shown by the Good Samaritan. A love which sees a need in our fellow man and unselfishly responds without being asked and without expectation of reward. A love which emanates from the love of God and which sees God in all men.
The world has grown cold and has turned love inward. The world has fallen to the sins of pride and selfishness. Pride is a bacterium, which infects not only our souls, but also the souls of those around us. It has infected the whole world causing a great plague. The symptoms of this sickness are selfishness, anger, hatred and depression.
As a priest, I talk to a lot of people and I find that a great many people exhibit the symptoms of being infected by pride, and by its offspring, anger. Anger is especially dangerous because it breeds so many other sins. It turns us from Christ, causes us to hate our neighbor, to lose control of our actions, and eventually to despair. Anger is usually aroused when someone has done, or seems to have done, something to us. Something that blocks what we want, something that offends us or threatens us. Anger dominates the soul and destroys any virtue that we have managed to build in ourselves.
It is very difficult to deal with anger, hatred and depression because the anecdote -- humility -- is a difficult pill to swallow. This is especially true today when we are taught that we must love ourselves in order to be complete human beings, and that we must take pride in what we do. Pride is elevated to the status of a virtue, and being selfish as a key to success. And, when we don't get what we want, we get angry. Anger eventually turns to depression. Depression because we somehow have not gotten what we deserve, our future looks bleak, there is no hope for us - - only death.
However, a far greater tragedy in all of this is the death of the soul. In order to strive for what is Godly, in order to love our neighbor, in order to come out of the darkness into the light, and in order to bring others to Christ, we must heal the disease which lingers within us. We must acquire the Spirit of God, which is the cure for our enslavement to the passions. In this is true freedom from passion, and true peace, such as the world cannot understand.
I would like to tell you a story which I think illustrates these points. There was a young woman, let's call her Sophia, who was an Orthodox Christian. Like so many young people she was totally beguiled by the world. Sophia had a bright future ahead of her. She graduated from college, got a good job, and was very popular. As a result of all of this she had little time for church or religion. But one day Sophia got sick. At first she thought that she had the flu, but her symptoms continued over several weeks. Finally she went to a doctor, and after many rounds of tests she was diagnosed as having a rare form of connective tissue disease, in which the muscles turn to mush, eventually causing total paralysis and death through suffocation.
Sophia was devastated; she refused to acknowledge the inevitable consequence of her illness. She became more intense in worldly pursuits until she began to lose control of her legs. Soon she was completely bed ridden, unable to move. When I saw her she was angry and she was depressed. Although it was difficult for her to talk, she was able to let me know that she wanted nothing to do with God or any priest. She was humiliated and didn't want to see anyone. She just lay there. After several months, and hours of talking, she began to accept her condition, and she began to think about death - - her death.
By this time she was totally incapacitated and all she could do was pray. One day she told me that she wanted desperately to love God, she wanted to be reconciled with the church and, can you believe this, she wanted to do something for others. But what could she do? Of course, she could pray for them! Her good work took an extremely unusual turn. She prayed for her family and her friends, but then she started praying for the dead. She thought, "Many of these people don't have anyone to pray for them." She had the obituaries clipped from all the local papers and she prayed the prayer of the Optina elders for each name. Soon people were sending her obituaries from newspapers from across the country. She was praying almost 10 hours everyday. And do you know what -- she became filled with love, she became totally reconciled with God, she exhibited an overwhelming calmness. This went on for over two years, and just before she died she said that she had never been happier in her life! All those around her experienced a tremendous spiritual rebirth and a renewal of their faith. Many were later baptized and became Orthodox Christians.
This story may be an extreme example, but it points out rather dramatically how love can turn us and those around us back to God, and how we can love our neighbor and in so doing convert those around us, for Sophia was responsible for bringing untold numbers to the Church.
St. Seraphim of Sarov said, "Acquire the Holy Spirit and those around you will be saved." How do we acquire the Holy Spirit? We acquire Him by opening ourselves to His grace, which dwells in the Church. And what are the graces of the Holy Spirit, which we must acquire to save those around us? St. Paul tells us in the 5th chapter of his letter to the Galatians. They are love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But first among these is love. We must learn to love, that's what our faith is all about. For did not our Lord say "Love God with your whole heart, your whole mind and with all your strength. And love thy neighbor as thyself for in this rests the law and the prophets."
Before we can become missionaries to those around us, we must first cleanse ourselves from defilement, we must acquire the Holy Spirit, and we must ignite a spark of love within ourselves, and allow that flame of love to illuminate all those who come into our presence. For just as a lighted candle illuminates our way, it can also light other candles without diminishing its own flame.
And why is love so important, so essential, if we are to bring others to the faith? Because love is to our fellow man as a flame is to a moth. If we have love in our hearts, others sense it and are drawn to it. God is the greatest love. St. Tikhon said, "To love God is the greatest good. To love God is happiness in misfortune, riches in poverty and comfort in want." But why do we only see this dimly, if at all? It is because our hearts have become hardened and our spiritual side darkened by sin. Christ came into the world to rekindle our sense of love for God, to make natural once more that which had become unnatural. A child loves its mother because she naturally loved the child first. God from the beginning - - no, from before the beginning - - loved man, and it is therefore natural for man to love God. We love God because he loved us first (I Jn. 4: 19). Love calls forth love. We can cite all manners of proof of Gods love for us, but all pale next to, "He loved us first." Next to God we must love our neighbor for this is God's commandment. And we must love our neighbor in a way that is every bit equal to our love of self. We love our neighbor because of the image of God which abides within his soul. True Christian love loves all equally as God loves us equally, whether heretic, brother, robber, or murderer, rich man or poor man, fellow orthodox or heterodox. Love is compassionate and long suffering; it is bound to humility. All difficulties related to our ability to love are the result of pride. Love excludes pride and pride excludes love. If we have compassion for all creatures, if we judge ourselves to be the worst of men, this shows that we have begun to acquire grace. As St. Silouan says, "Humiliate yourself; then grace will teach you love." Think others better than yourself and refrain from judging others. Have compassion for those who have no compassion, especially for your enemies and for those who show the presence of an evil spirit. In loving our visible neighbor we show love for the invisible God. How can our love for God be made visible if not on those around us? God is touched by our love, by our love for neighbor, in the same way that our mothers are touched by the admiration of a stranger toward us. According to St. John we are liars if we say that we love God and not our neighbors, for he that does not love God will only delude himself if he says he loves his fellow man. The greatest works of love are acts of charity, prayer for others, support of the weak and infirm, and the giving of ourselves for others.
There is a story about an old monk who lived alone in a cave deep in the Egyptian desert. And in the desert caves there were others also, but these were not monks - - they were rather the outcasts of society. They were lepers who were abandoned by the nomadic tribes of the region. It was the closing days of World War II and a young British officer had become separated from his regiment, and after wondering in the desert for many days came across the monk's cave. He was half dead and the old monk cared for him, slowly nursing him back to health. The old monk never said a word, but each day he would take food and water and disappear into the desert for several hours.
One day the officer offered to go with the Monk, who nodded his assent, and so he followed the monk out into the desert. After a time they came upon a large cave. They entered and when his eyes became accustomed to the light he was aghast to see the people, or rather what used to be people, who inhabited this place. The old monk gently embraced each, changing putrid bandages and cleaning oozing flesh. The soldier was amazed at the old monk's compassion and tenderness. All this finally got to be too much for him, and he blurted out, "I would not do that for a million dollars (i.e. pounds)." And then much to his surprise the monk turned to him, and in perfect English replied, "Neither would I."
For a million dollars he would not touch those running sores, but because Christ dwelt in the souls of those outcasts who society had banished and forsaken, he devoted his life to caring for them, and to loving them.
Christ comes to us everyday in disguises - - He walks among us, and we don't recognize Him. Maybe that's because we're looking for the wrong thing? Christ walks among us not as the image that we see in our icons. He comes to us as an ordinary person, as our brother or sister, our neighbor, our friend and our enemy and yes, even as the outcasts of society -- the hungry, the untouchable, the naked, the poor, the sick -- the heretic and the atheist -- all are in need of our assistance. Real love is exhibited in love for all men, especially for the least of our brethren. For these too are all born to become members of Christ, living parts of Christ's body (Eph. 4&5, Cor. 6: 15). We are all growing within a living organism into the Church, whose head is Christ. Therefore, through love, we must help the spiritual growth and progress of one another. When one part of the body makes progress this is for the good of the whole body. When one part of the body is sick, the whole body suffers. Our love for our neighbor serves the health of both our neighbor and ourselves. Love is health; hatred is sickness. Love is salvation; hatred is damnation. In truth it can be said that all good that we are capable of doing comes from love of God and neighbor. Likewise it can also be said that all the sins that have ever been are sins against love, either for God or for our neighbor. It can be said to that both heaven and earth depend upon love.
But now the question becomes, how do we love, if love is a prerequisite for acquiring the Holy Spirit and for bringing those around us to the faith? Writing early this century, Metropolitan Gregory of St. Petersburg says that before we can develop love in our hearts we must first develop what I'll call "Christian good manners." These are: to wish the best for all and rejoice in their happiness, not to speak ill of anyone, defend and excuse all, don't expose your neighbors sin or weaknesses, help others who are in need, pray for the salvation of the departed and show kindness to all. Now this is only the beginning - -this is just a foundation of Christian conduct, a platform from which we can begin to love. What is it then that we must do to love? Among those things St. Silouan of the Holy Mountain said that we should: "Do only good, don't seek revenge, never hold grudges, be happy and joyful, don't get upset, feel no hatred, anger or resentment, have no aversion nor repulsion against anyone, don't judge, sincerely forgive, strive to be reconciled with all, feel compassion and pity for all, sincerely wish salvation for all, pray for all, and love equally no matter who or what they are." Now that is quite a list! How can we expect to come anywhere close to conducting our life in a Christian manner, let alone practice these virtues, which lead to the acquisition of the Holy Spirit? How many of us have been successful? If we're perfectly honest with ourselves, I think we would have to answer that very few of us have gotten very far down the narrow way of Christian love.
I know; I myself used to reject the notion of perfect Christian love. I used to justify that position by saying to myself that our enemies are so toxic and so venomous that, like a snake, we must keep our distance else we get stung. "Oh yes. God wants us to love our neighbor, but we can love some of them at a distance." It's ok to be revolted by revolting people, it's ok to shun people who do not practice the faith in the same way I do, it's alright to be harsh, thus sending the message "stay away from me today." It is alright to avoid those I don't like, and to ignore the plight of the persecuted, to dislike the Kosovan Albanians, because they hate and ravage my Christian brethren and on, and on, and on. Of course, I tried to practice the safe virtues like wishing the best for all, giving a few dollars for the needy. I tried not to expose others' weaknesses, at least those of my friends. My ultimate justification was that I prayed for those who were too toxic for me to love. In other words I practiced safe love. I am very successful at separating the sin from the sinner, and in hating the sins of others, but a miserable failure at loving the sinner. But there is hope. We are all in the process of becoming. Becoming perfect in love. God has restored to us that possibility and through our Baptism we have been given all that we need to acquire the Holy Spirit and to save the world. In the beginning we must force our hearts to practice true love. We start by sincere prayer, repentance of our sins, especially those against love. Prayer is the sine qua non of good works, for prayer unites us with God and directs our good deeds to be done for Christ's sake and thus invites the grace of the Holy Spirit to enter our souls. Prayer is always possible for everyone; it is not dependent on time or place, on health or sickness, whether we are noble or humble, strong or weak, righteous or sinful. Repentance turns our heart back to God and prepares the soul to receive the Holy Spirit. Seeing our sincere prayers and repentance the Lord assists us. Suddenly, we can do all things through Christ who gives us the strength that we need to love (Phil. 4: 14). We can all receive this help from God. In love we realize that we must strive for the salvation of all. For His strength is sufficient for us.
After our Lord's resurrection, He breathed on the Apostles, restored the breath of life lost by Adam, and gave them the same grace of the all Holy Spirit of God that Adam had enjoyed before the fall. Christ ascended into heaven and sent the Comforter. On the day of Pentecost He sent the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. We have inherited the same grace that the Apostles received. We are heirs of the Apostles, and like them can acquire the Holy Spirit. After the Apostles acquired the Holy Spirit they immediately went out and converted 3000 to Christ. We can do the same, but to do so we must have faith, we must grow in love and come to possess the Holy Spirit who fills our hearts with the kingdom of heaven. The grace of the Holy Spirit is a sacred melody, which attracts those around us to the faith. Through our love, the spirit of the Gospels plays out into the life of the world, transforming and sanctifying all who hear. We can't despair; we must take up the harp of the spirit. We must have confidence in our ability to love for we have been empowered to do so by Christ Himself. Don't tarry, begin to practice love in your life, and if you fail, get up and begin again, and again, and again. Plough the ground of your own soul through prayer and repentance, and then reach out from within your heart, becoming a beacon, leading all through the turbulent waters to the fertile land of the faith.
Imitate the Lord, giving your love for the salvation of many. Tell your joy to all who will listen. The harvest is great but His laborers are few. The Lord has led us out to work and given us the gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to reap a harvest of our fellow man, and to bring many into the kingdom of heaven. We are all called to spread the Gospel and to bring all to the faith. He has given us the gift of grace in order to succeed. By illuminating the way for our neighbors to enter into His kingdom we bring God the fruits which we have harvested. Let us bring in a double yield of what we have received, for what we do for our neighbor's spiritual benefits brings glory to God and salvation to our souls.
Fr Martin Swanson is the pastor of St Basil the Great Orthodox Church, St Louis MO. He may be reached at: · 323 Stonecrest Ct , Chesterfield, MO 63017-3027 · Tel: 314/576-5161 · E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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