On the fourth day of July, Americans celebrate Independence Day. On this particular day has we remember American independence from Britain and its king, George III. On this day, Americans focus on the ideals of independence, freedom, and liberty. In honesty, much of American life is concerned about these things. Particularly in the past year, we have been heavily engaged in struggles about these issues. Most of us have read, heard, spoken about, or even been consumed by issues of constitutional rights, civil liberties – whether it is government mandates about where we can go, how many people we can meet up with, how far apart we have to stand, or whether we have to wear a mask; or perhaps freedom of religion when we must decide if churches are exempt from regulations on assemblies; maybe we are concerned with protests or riots or the removal of symbols, flags and statues across the country because of questions about race and civil rights. We are a nation consumed by questions of liberty and freedom.
But this morning we heard in the epistle, “having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life.” As much as we might get caught up in all of the issues our society is struggling with right now, Independence, Freedom and Liberty are not the goals of the Christian life – dependence, slavery and servitude are.
In last week’s gospel, we heard our Lord say, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” We cannot serve two masters, but neither can we be without a master. Even if we should choose to not serve God, even if we should live outside the reach of any government or ruler, even if we should opt out of any economic or social systems, we still have a master. We are ruled by our needs, our desires and passions, our inclination toward sin. If we attempt to rule ourselves, we are ultimately choosing to be ruled by the evil one.
We can’t be set free from the rule of the evil one except by baptism. We must choose dependence upon God and renounce Satan, and all his angels, and all his works, and all his service, and all his pride. We become free by rejecting one master and choosing another. The people of Israel cast off the slavery of Pharoah, and passed through the Red Sea where they had to choose to live as servants of God. As long as they kept His commandments, as long as they obeyed God and put no other gods before Him, they would be His people. Despite their murmuring and their frequent falling away and eventual repentance, He fed them with manna and quail, He gave them water when there was no water, He protected them from calamity and from their enemies. As we heard in the gospel last week, God cares for us more than the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, and He will provide for all our needs if we seek His Kingdom, if we allow Him to rule our lives. We must declare our independence from the evil one, and choose God as our master, becoming dependent upon Him as the source of our life.
Unfortunately, we often undertake the Christian life in the same manner that we undertake things in this world, with a desire to maintain control. We decide which church to attend, how often we will go; we choose how we will pray, when we will pray, what we will pray for; we choose whether we will fast, how often, and what we will abstain from; we choose how we will practice charity, who we deem worthy enough to receive it; we decide whether we will forgive others, or whether we will love our neighbor. This gives us a sense of control to be sure, but it also means that our master is not God, but ourselves and ultimately the evil one.
When the Prodigal Son comes to himself and resolves to return home, he does not presume to take his place as the son of his father, but as a hired servant. He desires nothing more than to fall under the care and provision of his father. He makes no decisions about how he will behave, what he is willing or unwilling to do, or what he expects. He chooses to be enslaved to his father who loves him instead of being joined to a citizen of a far country and serving that man’s swine. In the gospel this morning we heard the centurion with the sick servant say to Christ, “For I also am a man under authority, having soldiers under me. And I say to this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it.” We must choose to do what God tells us to. We must keep His commandments. We are truly free in that we can choose whether to follow the commandments – we have free will – but we must follow the commandments, we must do the will of God if we want the great blessings of the Kingdom.
For the Christian, not only must we actively choose to be servants of God, we must also give up our desire to be a master to others. Our Lord tells us: “whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” We can’t be the servant of God if we would place ourselves even above our Lord who came to serve and minister to us. This is not to say that no one can have authority over anyone else, that we can’t be part of any earthly hierarchy, but rather that no matter what authority we have we must exercise that authority as servants of our master in Heaven, and as servants of one another. Saint Paul and Saint Peter both tell earthly slaves to obey their masters, even when they are unjust because that obedience is obedience that we give to God Himself. Likewise masters of others are told that they must be just and fair in the fear God who is their just judge.
For those who have escaped slavery to sin by passing through the waters of baptism, there is still the choice set before us of who will be our master. Having renounced Satan, we can still choose to serve him in our lives. We, like the Israelites can look at our adversities in this life and desire to return to Egypt, we can be enslaved by our stomachs, by our desire for safety, security, or a place to lay our heads; or we can choose to serve God, knowing that we must go when He tells us to go, that we must come when He tells us to come, and that we must do what He tells us to do, knowing that we must serve Him with our whole selves, we must obey those in authority over us, and serve others. As with the Israelites, we have set before us life and death, blessing and curses. We must choose who will be our master. Pay careful attention daily to the words of our morning prayers: “Vouchsafe me, O Lord, to love Thee now as fervently as I once loved sin itself, and also to work for Thee without idleness, diligently, as I worked before for deceptive Satan. Supremely shall I work for Thee, my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, all the days of my life, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
“We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us.”
Indeed it seems that we are faced these days with a multitude of tribulations – both large and small. Our society and culture seem to be disintegrating before our very eyes. There are protests and riots seemingly everywhere. The belief and faith that we all hold as Christians is challenged and our values are being described as “hateful” and “intolerant” and “unloving”. And then there’s the plague and quarantines, social distancing, masks and all the other little inconveniences that come with it that also magnify the “normal” stresses that we face daily; not to mention the very real fear of getting sick and perhaps even of death. Yes, all these things are “tribulations” and it is these very tribulations that the apostle tells us are a cause for glory. But sometimes finding the glory in all the struggle is difficult.
Our Lord, in speaking to the Apostles just before His betrayal and arrest tells them many things pertaining to His own imminent suffering and death on the cross as well as the things that would happen later. He foretold to them many of the “tribulations” that they would face (and that we shall also face) as His disciples. All these things that we experience now have already been described by our Lord and by the Apostles themselves. Jesus said of this, “These things have I spoken to you, that ye should not be offended” and “these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.” (Jn 16: 1-4) These things that we face today are not new or unexpected – indeed our Lord knew that they would come and He warned us so that we would not be frightened or discouraged but rather so that we might be assured that He has us in His care and will provide for us. He also comforts them (and us) saying, “Ye shall weep and lament … ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman when she is in labor hath sorrow because her hour is come, but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world.” And “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”
The persecutions of the Jews and the crucifixion of Christ were only just the beginning. After the Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and the Church as a whole were met with persecutions from the Jews, from the pagans, from the empire. In all of these circumstances, the suffering and sorrow of the Christians was turned into joy for they saw not the darkness and suffering this world, but the light and ineffable glory of the Kingdom of God, just as our Lord had promised. The Apostles and many saints since then have also pointed out that this “tribulation”, the persecution of the Church by Satan, will continue and escalate until the end of the world and the coming of Jesus Christ in judgement. The Apostle Paul warns the Thessalonians, “be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled … for the day of Christ is at hand (and) that day shall not come except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed… Therefore brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught.” (2Ths. 2:2,3,15) The Apostle John was granted a great vision of these tribulations which he described in the book of the Apocalypse. In interpreting this greatly mystical and highly symbolic revelation for us, the fathers teach us that these persecutions and tribulations will occur over and over again, escalating each time as though in a spiral until finally the world will have completely fallen away from Christ and only a remnant will remain. And so we see today things that seem to be unprecedented and of incomparable intensity. This is told to us as our Lord said, “these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them” and “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. … (for) I have overcome the world.”
How then shall we prepare to meet these tribulations – what do we have to do to get ready? There are those who, putting their trust in the things of this world, stockpile food, clothing, and other necessities of life and prepare even to run to some refuge or defend with force their safety. The Apostle Paul, however, in his words to the Thessalonians says something different. He encourages us to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught.” The Apostle Paul goes on to say to his spiritual children, “the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and keep you from evil.” (2Ths 3:3) Here is the essence of our preparation – to become strong in our faith so that when we are faced with trials and difficulties, putting all our trust in God we will acquire that which is most important – the grace and joy of the Lord even in the midst of adversity and to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
In today’s Gospel we heard our Lord describe for us this same path of preparation in detail: “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat and the body more than raiment? … But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Our efforts are directed away from the things of this world; here our Lord speaks specifically of the most basic of needs – food, drink, clothing – and if we are not to concern ourselves with these basic needs, then it follows that all other worldly concerns are even less important. Instead of focusing on the necessities of this world we are instructed to focus our efforts on acquiring the Kingdom of God, that is to acquire the grace of God by which we are transformed into His likeness. How are we to go about acquiring this grace?
This does not mean that we neglect our responsibilities, caring for those things that God has provided for us in this world. If God has provided for you a job, then do that job not for yourself but for the glory of God; if God has given you a home, then remember that the home belongs not to you, but to God and you are simply taking care of it for Him; if God has given you a family, then love your family as yourself, or better yet love them as God loves them. We live in the world and so we must function in the world – but we function not for our own gain, but as God’s servants and for His glory. Remember the servants who were each given a sum of money by their master and when he returned he asked for an accounting of how they had used and taken care of that with which they had been entrusted. God has given each of us many things in this world and it is up to us to use them to our profit. In addition to the things of this world that God has entrusted to us, He has also given to us our lives; He has given us a span of years in which to live profitably upon the earth. Let us use this wisely as well.
In order to acquire the grace of God, we must first repent of our sins, asking forgiveness for having lived according to our own self-willed desires and passions rather than living according to the will of God. Then, having turned aside from our previous path, we must begin to change our lives and conform to the law of God – living righteously rather than living in our sins. The first and most important quality of this life is humility; acquire humility and the grace of God will flow abundantly in you. Humility is the setting aside of self-will, admitting that before God we are completely without merit – weak and needing His help. To be humble first means to deny ourselves and this is accomplished most effectively by obedience. Obey your parents, obey your spouse, obey your spiritual elders, obey the civil authority. Take advantage of every opportunity to obey someone other than yourself. Do nothing of your own will and seek a blessing from your parents, your spouse, your children, your elders for those things you wish to do. Humble yourself at every opportunity. In this way you take up your cross and die to yourself. This is the first step towards the kingdom of God.
The second step is to feed your soul, fill your mind and heart with the things of the Kingdom of God rather than with the things of the world. Read the Gospel and all of the Holy Scripture. Read the lives of the saints. Read the writings of the fathers – and here choose to read those that are simple, addressed not to those who have already advanced in the spiritual life, rather the things addressed to beginners. When we read things beyond our capacity then we open the door to either deception, thinking we are better than we truly are, or we become despondent being unable to actualize in our own lives that which we read. Meditate on what you have read, let it become the topic of your conversations with others, let it pervade your life. Listen to the spiritual fathers and mothers that God has given to you, learn from them as a child learns from his parents. Fill your heart with hymns, psalms and spiritual songs (rather than worldly songs) so that it might be enlightened and refreshed.
The third step is to pray. Don’t just recite the words of prayers, but truly pray with your whole being, with your lips, your mind and your heart. Remember that to pray is not simply to say the words of the prayer, but to truly pray one must commune with God. In the beginning (and remember we are all beginners here) we use the words of the prayers to occupy the lips and fill our ears with the sound, focus the mind, driving out all worldly thoughts and evoking the feelings of the heart with warmth toward God. Pray with your whole being and you will be filled with the grace of God.
Do these things: repent of your sins and live according to the law of God; feed your soul with spiritual food; pray with your whole being. If you do this then your sorrows will indeed be turned to joy, tribulation will result in glory and you will find the Kingdom of God that you seek.
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