We have come to take for granted that nearly any information in the world that we might want is at our fingertips at all times. We no longer have to seek out wise and educated men to teach us, or travel to distant libraries and pore over books from centuries past in order to understand the world around us. As a child my family had a set of encyclopedias taking up an entire book shelf in our house, and now I have all that information and more in my pocket most of the time.
While it is wonderful to be able to learn things, we have largely lost the ability to think for ourselves as we have shifted more of the responsibility for thinking onto our devices. We are faced with so much information, that we don’t know what to do with it all, and so more and more we don’t seek facts themselves, but we seek interpretation of facts, or opinions about facts, or merely mindless entertainment that helps us forget about the facts we don’t like thinking about. All the while, we feel like we know what we need to know.
But we don’t know what we need to know. In this morning’s gospel we hear our Lord say: “And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent.” (John 17:3) We will not find this kind of knowledge by googling it. If we are careful and discerning, we can use technology in order to further our spiritual lives, but we will not really come to know God through research and study, but by prayer and fasting. It is not through our intellect that we reach out and find God, but rather it is through our faith. Saint John of Kronstadt says “Unfortunately our faith is hindered by the short-sightedness of our reason. Faith understands directly whilst reason arrives at the truth by circuitous ways.” All of the truths that we have learned about the world only tell us some things about the One who created the world, but they do not bring us into communion with Him. We have given up on thinking for ourselves and allowed technology to make us feel smarter, and yet we often choose to rely on our intellect to know God who can only truly be known by faith. It is no wonder that God seems so foreign to us.
So Who is this God that we should know by faith? This morning, still in the afterfeast of the Ascension of our Lord, and awaiting the Descent of the Holy Spirit at the feast of Pentecost, we remember the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. These Fathers came together in the city of Nicaea to defend the Church against the Arian heresy. Arius was a priest of Alexandria, and he taught that the Son of God was not one in essence with the Father and that He was created by the Father. In the canon last night we heard “the infamous Arius, who adulterated the Orthodox Faith with his foolish mind, was cut off from the Church like a rotting member.”
The teaching of Arius, which was a product of his mind and his thinking, and was opposed to the revelation of God. This was not simply a difference of opinion, or a finer point of theology that only theologians need to care about. Who the Son of God is effects everything we know about our very salvation. All of creation came to be through the creative action of the Son of God. In the words of the Prolog of Saint John’s gospel that we read at Pascha: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” The heresy of Arius affects our understanding of where we came from.
Furthermore, Saint Athanasius tells us that “the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it at first.” And so the heresy of Arius also affects our redemption, or salvation.
Indeed, the resurrection was accomplished in the words of Saint John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily because Hades “took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.” In the feast of the Ascension, we celebrate because Christ ascends into Heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father as both God and man. The heresy of Arius changes everything about Who God is and what He has accomplished for us.
But the Fathers who gathered in Nicaea to refute Arius did not gather to theologize, they did not gather to think and reason – indeed it was thinking and reasoning that had gotten Arius in trouble. The Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council gathered to prayerfully proclaim that which had been handed down to them. In the gospel this morning we heard Jesus say “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to Thee. Holy Father, keep through Thy name those whom Thou hast given Me, that they may be one as We are.” (John 17:11) Kept by God in one heart and one mind, they professed the one faith that had been once delivered. Some of the Fathers were brilliant thinkers, others were more simple men, but they all shared the same teaching because it was what had been handed down, but also because it was the God they knew through their faith in Him.
The teachings of the Church about the Most Holy Trinity, about the Incarnation of our Lord, about our Salvation, about the great Mysteries of the Church, are the most important teachings in the world. They are what God wants every man, woman, and child to understand, and yet this information is not understood through the mind, but through the heart by faith, and so it is not really ours to give. It is not something that can be shared on the internet like a recipe, a historical fact, or scientific data. It is something that comes to each of us from God.
When we who are not yet purified in our own hearts try to teach theology as a science to those who likewise are not purified in their hearts, we cheapen theology to a set of facts or propositions to be accepted or dismissed. Saint Gregory the Theologian wrote: “Not to every one… does it belong to philosophize about God; … the Subject is not so cheap and low; and I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits.” He points out that theology shouldn’t be a source of amusement like the theater or horse races. Theology is our attempt to put into words what is beyond comprehension, but has been revealed to us by faith and by prayer; it is not entertainment, it is not trivia, and it is not a matter of personal opinion.
Because these things are so important we might think that we should occupy ourselves with them at all times. We are not called to theologize incessantly, but to pray ceaselessly. Saint Gregory writes, “I am not maintaining that we ought not to be mindful of God at all times, It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe. So it is not continual remembrance of God I seek to discourage, but continual discussion of theology. I am not opposed either to theology, as if it were a breach of piety, but only to its untimely practice, or to instruction in it, except when this goes to excess.”
In the Epistle this morning, we heard Saint Paul say “I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves.” (Acts 20:28-30) It did not take long for these savage wolves to appear, and the Church has always had to contend against those who would tear apart the flock and devour them. This morning we remember those Holy Fathers that drove away that wolf Arius.
But let us not forget to beware of that savage wolf that makes his den in our pockets and purses. We need to put away that false notion that we know everything because we have access to all the world’s knowledge, and seek to really know God by remembrance of Him and ceaseless prayer. We need to put away the notion that God is known by the mind and know Him in our hearts by our living faith. And living our faith, we must show God to all the world instead of merely telling people about a God we barely know.
This is our challenge -- to know the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent, to be one as They are one, and to let the world see that there is something much more important to know than all the world’s knowledge. And when they ask us what we know, we bring them to the place where all of their questions can be answered. We answer these questions primarily by illumining them by the grace of baptism, and we teach them to pray, that they might know God, and not just the things we say about God.
Acts 16:16-34 John 9:1-8
Orthodox Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs and practices – in fact these things are only secondary to the true nature of our faith. Orthodox Christianity is at its core the encounter of man with God. Everything that we do is to facilitate that encounter and everything that we believe, our theology, is the description of that personal encounter with God. Today, like all the Sundays since Pascha, we read about a personal encounter with God. This man who had been born blind encountered the God/man Jesus Christ and his darkness was turned to light; he was no longer blind but could see. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world and where the source of the Light is, darkness can no longer exist. When this man encountered God, his life was altered for no one can see God and be unchanged.
We were created to live in union and communion with God, but because of the sin of Adam we are now estranged from God. But God loved us so much that He could not tolerate that separation and so He Himself came to us and opened the way that we might again live in union and communion with Him. His incarnation, His worldly life, His death and resurrection make it possible once again to encounter God face to face. But Jesus Christ no longer bodily walks the earth for after the resurrection, He ascended into heaven (as we will celebrate this coming week). How then can we encounter Him face to face now?
Although our Lord ascended into heaven, He also sent to us the Holy Spirit Who fills us and who unites us to God. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the Church – not the building, but the body of all believers – becomes the Body of Christ. In the Church then, we encounter God face to face. Today’s Gospel reveals to us a great deal about the nature of the Church and how we encounter God within her.
This miracle of the healing of the man born blind teaches us about the sacramental nature of the Church. When Jesus healed this man, He made some mud and put this mud on the eyes of the man who could not see and sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam. Now Jesus was God and could have healed in an instant with only a word or even just a movement of His will, but He did not. Instead He employed this elaborate ritual. This is the same as the sacraments. The sacraments have not only a spiritual element, the grace of God, they also have a physical element. This is because we are not simply a soul trapped in a body or some kind of spiritual being with the illusion of a physical existence, but rather we are a unity of soul and body, of spiritual and physical. In order to encounter God with the fullness of our being, we must do so in both the spiritual and physical realms, with both the soul and the body. Thus when we receive the sacrament of Baptism, we not only receive the grace of God by which we are given new life, but we are also immersed in water that has been blessed. Not only is the soul washed but the body as well. Likewise in the sacrament of Chrismation, we are not just mysteriously filled with the Holy Spirit but we are anointed with the oil of Chrism as well. We commune with God not only in spirit, but we also commune with the elements of His Body and His Blood under the form of bread and wine in the chalice. It is likewise with all the sacraments, indeed with all the blessings we receive – there is a physical element and a spiritual element for we are creatures of both soul and body and we encounter God with the fullness of our being.
The healing of the blind man also instructs us as to the nature of our interaction with God in the Church. It is not just God acting on us from the outside, but rather our interaction is a synergy of God with us. We do not sit passively and idly by and wait for God to do something to us, rather we offer our own efforts to Him and act in concert and union with Him. When Jesus had anointed the eyes of the blind man with clay, He then instructed him to go and wash. It was necessary for this healing to occur for the man to act as well as for God to act. He had to go and wash the clay from his eyes, bending his will to that of Christ and acting in obedience to the will of the Master. Our interaction with God is one of synergy, of acting together, of bending our will to conform to His and then acting according to His will. This blending of the divine and human actions, this synergy leads us into union and communion with God. Our Christian life, our encounter with God is not passive – it requires that we act together with Him.
How then do we shape this synergetic action? That is the next element of the Church about which this healing instructs us. The Church gives to us, through Holy Tradition and through the lessons of Scripture, a course of life to follow. There is a rhythm and routine to the life of the Church. That rhythm is expressed in the times of prayer, both our private prayer rule and our public prayer in the services. There are times to pray alone, times to pray together, times to pray for ourselves and one another. We also experience this rhythm of the divine life in the feasts and fasts of the Church. The way of life that we are given instructs us in works of righteousness – in charitable giving, in compassionate works, in loving our neighbor, in bearing one another’s burdens. All of these things that we do are the actual working out of the Life of Christ in the Church.
There are times when it might seem to some that the requirements of this life are just a bundle of rules that restrict our lives, but in fact the purpose is entirely different. The practice of the life of Church is given to us for our health and salvation. These are all instructions in how to act, what to do, how to live in order to conform our will to the will of God, in order to strengthen both body and soul so that we can live more fully in union with God. This way of life is no different from a man who diets and exercises according to a certain regimen prescribed by a physician or trainer so that he might be more fit for some sport or other physical activity. The Great Physician, Jesus Christ has prescribed for us the regimen of diet and exercise of the life of the Church so that we might become more fit to live in union and communion with Him. We can choose whether or not to follow this regimen or how intensely to train, however the consequences of neglecting this life are that we do not prepare ourselves fully for life in the Kingdom of God and our desired union and communion with God (for which we should be preparing) is lost. Do you love and desire God? then keep His commandments. Live in the way that He has prepared for you so that you might be able to enter into His Kingdom.
When we do all these things, when we encounter God and are changed by that encounter, then we no longer quite fit in the fallen world. Rather than rejoice with the blind man who was healed, the religious authorities reviled him and condemned him because this miracle did not occur according to their ideas of how God should act. We too, if we follow Christ, will face difficulties and resistance from those in the world who demand that God act according to their rules. When they see us acting according to the life of the Church rather than the life of the world, they may question us and even turn against us. The same thing occurred to the Holy Apostles Paul and Silas as we heard in the epistle today. They healed a woman tormented by a demon but were accused and reviled by those who valued the money that this woman’s torment brought them than they valued compassion and love for another human being. The values of the Kingdom of God, though they at times appear to be the same as worldly values, are in the end different and will come into conflict with the world. Our encounter with God will change us and we will no longer walk according to the way of the world, but rather we will endure difficulty and resistance from the world when we forsake its ways for the path of salvation.
Finally the epistle reminds us of another characteristic of the Church and that is the communal nature of our faith. We are not saved as individuals, but rather as a community. When Paul and Silas were brought by the jailer to his home, he asked them how he might be saved. Paul replied, “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved and thy house.” And in the same night this man, and his entire household (wife, children, servants and all) was baptized. We are saved as a part of the community of the saints, as a part of the family of the Church. It is not just “Jesus and me” but rather “Jesus and all of us” Even the saints who have finished their course on this earth and who stand at the threshold of the Kingdom of Heaven are waiting for us, not yet entering into their reward until we are all united and enter together into the Kingdom of Heaven. We are saved, not by ourselves, but together with the whole Church. We encounter God together.
When we encounter God, we will encounter Him through the Church and the nature of this encounter is described for us today in the Scripture. Our encounter is sacramental – that is it encompasses both body and soul, both our physical and spiritual nature. Our encounter with God is synergetic – we act in concert with God, bending our will to His and then acting according to His will. Our encounter with God is defined and given shape and form by the life of the Church. The life of the Church is the life of Christ and as we adopt His life, we become more and more able to live in union and communion with Him. Our encounter with God will put us at odds with the world, for the ways of the Lord are foolishness to the world. The worldly life will lead us away from God, but the heavenly life will lead us into union and communion with God. Finally our encounter with God is not individual but communal. We encounter God as a part of the unity and community of the Church. In all these ways we encounter God face to face and entering into his Kingdom, we live in union and communion with Him.
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