As we come into the holiday season, one of the recurring themes that we will hear and see over and over is the cry of the angels to the shepherds announcing the birth of the messiah – the appeal for “peace on earth” and “goodwill to men”. Indeed this appeal is good and one to which we should pay attention. But as we look around the world, we don’t really see this “peace on earth”, instead all around us there are “wars and rumors of war”. Not only our own wars, but it seems as though everywhere that you look in the world someone is at war – there is some kind of strife and conflict and someone is in danger. Then of course we have the wars on our streets with riots threatening the safety and well being of the people innocent or not who find that they are in the midst of hostility. We have the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, the war on anything and everything that is perceived as a threat. We live, now more than ever, in a “world at war”. Even though there may not be a single global conflict (such as the “world wars” of the past century), still the whole outlook of the world, of all the people in the world is “war”. And as if wars weren’t enough, now we have the “pestilence” of the coronavirus and the plague that makes us suspicious of one another and isolates us still further. Nor do we see “good will toward men”. In the aftermath of a contentious election, political strife still dominates our lives. We accuse one another, we hold grudges against one another, we build emotional walls to keep others away. Jealously we guard our privacy, our possessions, our rights, even our identities from those who would try and take these things away. We treat others not with “good will” but with suspicion and fear. The good news of the angelic choir announcing “peace on earth” and “good will to men” is drowned out by the clamor and ruin of war, natural disaster and pestilence; locked away outside the walls of our personal fortresses.
Whence does this war and fear and suspicion originate? It comes from our sin – our sin which creates a condition of alone-ness of separateness from every other person. We are divided from one another and so we are at war, we are afraid, we are suspicious of everything that is “not me.” This isolation extends even to God Himself, our Creator, our Lord, our beloved Father. He too is excluded from our lives and we are “at war” with Him, preserving our own ego and self-will from His transforming and all encompassing love. This tragedy of separation, of isolation and hence of war and fear and suspicion is the heritage of our fallen and sinful nature. How then can we be rescued, how can we be restored to the oneness and unity with God and our neighbor in which we were created?
Today in the Epistle to the Ephesians, we heard the word of the Apostle Paul, “walk worthy of [your] calling…endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. There is one body, one Spirit…, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” Here he declares to us that the cure for our isolation and separation from God and one another is in the oneness and unity of life that we find only in Jesus Christ. To live in that unity is our calling, it is our purpose and the destiny for which we were created. We, who are alone, sacrifice ourselves, our self-will, our desires, our possessions, our lives of isolation and individuality – through self denial and ascending the cross with Christ, we give up these things and die to the world. The exchange is that in having died to the world, we gain the life of Christ and are alive not only now in our own selves, but also alive to Jesus Christ, to the Kingdom of Heaven and to our fellow citizens there, the members of the one Body of Christ. We give up our life of isolation and fear, and the wars and suspicions that come from it and instead we are given the life of Christ, full of light and love and unity with God and with our brethren.
Only in Jesus Christ is there truly “peace” and “good will” for only in Jesus Christ is there one-ness and unity. He is our only help, our only hope. He is the only source of peace and the only fountain of good will. Through Him we are called to love God and to love our neighbor and it is His love and grace that fills us, enabling us to fulfill that calling. It is the love of God that creates unity with God and it is the love of God that fills us and which creates unity with our neighbor. These things we have in Christ and nowhere else.
Many years ago, prior to the second world war, the nation of Italy began to make war upon the tiny nation of Abyssnia (modern Ethiopia) in Africa. This tiny nation was no match for the might of arms and modern weapons brought to bear by Italy and so in desperation the King of that tiny country came to the League of Nations to beg for international assistance. But he was not heard and when he realized that no help would be forthcoming, he lifted up his hands to heaven and said, “O Lord of heaven and earth! The nations of the earth have left your people unprotected. We can expect help from nowhere. You remain our only protector!” And the Psalmist also reminds us, “put not your trust in the princes of men for in them there is no salvation … blessed is he whose hope is in the Lord.”
We are united to one another in Christ and in that unity we find true peace and goodwill. This then is our calling, to live in unity within the kingdom of God. We truly have “one body, one Spirit…, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.” We are of one family, one body – that is the Body of Christ, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Within the Church we are united to one another and whenever we create or maintain disunity or strife or scandal within the Body, then we are in error. To cut ourselves off from the Church, through heresy or schism or simple rebellion, is to cut ourselves off from Jesus Christ and to deny the oneness of the life that He gives. We are called not to hate and fear one another and to hold grudges against one another but rather we are called to love one another, to forgive one another (even 70x7). When there is strife within the Body of Christ, we should strive to be the first to ask forgiveness, the first to offer the embrace of brotherly love. It is in this spirit that the Apostle instructs us to “walk worthy of [your] calling, with lowliness (that is humility), gentleness, longsuffering, and bearing with one another in love” All this is accomplished not by our own strength, our own ability, or our own will but instead it is accomplished by the one Holy Spirit Who dwells within us. We share God Himself, the Holy Spirit living in us and this is the one Spirit of which the Apostles speaks. United together in the one Body by the one Spirit we then naturally have one Lord – our Lord Jesus Christ. We have one faith, that is the path of salvation that our one Lord Jesus Christ sets before us and we set foot on that path by sharing in one and the same baptism, the sacrament of rebirth by which we die to the world and are reborn into the Kingdom of God. By this process of regeneration and healing, we are restored to the unity with which we were created, as the children of the one God and Father of us all.
Whenever you hear the angelic salutation, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men” this holiday season let it bring to mind this great calling to which you have been called. Peace and goodwill have come to us and are opened to us through our unity with the one Lord Jesus Christ, bound together by the one Holy Spirit and living in the family and household of the one God and Father of us all.
There is a fear that seems to grow stronger all the time that we are entering into a period of persecution. This fear is often fed by the politics of the day, and by our consumption of a relentless 24 hour news cycle and social media. Sometimes the fear comes from uncertainty which is made more acute by the pandemic and attempts to control it. Sometimes our fear comes from an increasingly secular, sometimes even anti-Christian society in which we live. This fear is not unfounded as the Church has lived under persecution across cultures and across time for most of its existence. Any time there is a drastic change in society, fears are intensified because of our assumptions, because of the unknown, or because we know that persecution has happened before.
And yet, each week we hear the words of our Lord in the beatitudes: “Blessed are you, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven…” (Matt 5:11-12) We are to rejoice in being persecuted, in being slandered, reviled and mocked. And yet, most of the time we react to these things by complaining about them. We don’t rejoice in them, we point out the injustice that is being done to us. Immediately after these words spoken by Christ, he says “for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” We can look to the Prophets, we can look to the Saints, we can look to Christ Himself and see the persecutions that they face. It is not that persecutions have occasionally occurred over the history of the Church, but that it is the normal life of the Christian. If we actually seek to follow Christ with our hearts, we will be persecuted, we will be falsely accused, and we will be mocked for our beliefs. Even if we flee the company of all others and live in seclusion, the demons themselves will attack us in this way.
So if this is the normal life of the Christian, how can we complain when it comes to us? And even if we choose to accept persecution, slander, or unjust treatment – for indeed these things will come – how do we actually rejoice and be exceedingly glad?
We must first learn to see all things – the things that we acknowledge as blessings, as well as the things that appear to be curses – as instruments of our salvation. While we choose to say that some things are good simply because we like them, and that some things are bad because we don’t like them, all things are given to us by God to bring us closer to Him. Our Lord said “for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matt 5:45) The same sun that warms us and causes crops to grow, can burn us or cause the land to dry out. The same rain that washes us and waters the fields is capable of destroying houses and towns and drowning people. Persecution, slander, and injustice are only destructive if we allow them to be. But they can give occasion for our repentance, they can give us patience and resilience and more perfect love if we allow them to. When we learn to see all things as a blessing by which God is trying to perfect us, we no longer have to try to discern God’s plan in our suffering, we don’t have to make sense of the motivations of the people hurting us, we don’t have to see the future and how it will all end up, it doesn’t matter to us whether we are truly being persecuted or merely inconvenienced. We view all things as rain and sun, and give thanks for it all because it is all from God and all for our salvation. From that same passage of scripture :“Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.” (Matt 5:44)
Even if we recognize the good that can come from suffering, it may still be difficult to give thanks to God in the midst of the pain, illness, or suffering. But even in the midst of these things, there is still beauty, love, and joy around us if we are willing to look for it. Spend time giving thanks for all that you can see in your life that is a blessing, and ask God to show you more. This week, we will pray the Akathist of Thanksgiving. Among the many amazing things we pray in that service, there is one line that always amazes me: “When the lightning flash has lit up the camp dining hall, how feeble seems the light from the lamp. Thus dost Thou, like the lightning, unexpectedly light up my heart with flashes of intense joy. After Thy blinding light, how drab, how colourless, how illusory all else seems. My souls clings to Thee.” In a time of persecution, in the midst of a metaphorical or a literal storm, there is still the opportunity to see beauty, and in that beauty to be reminded of God and run to him. When we find it hard to thank God for the difficulties in life, it is often because we have not tried to thank God for other things, for even the blessings in our lives. The Akathist takes its name from the words of Saint John Chrysostom whose feast day falls on Thanksgiving this year. Saint John died in exile with thanksgiving in his heart and the words “Glory to God for all things.” We must give thanks for the small as well as the great, for hardship and fortune, for sorrow and joy. But certainly it is easier to practice giving thanks when we are happy and joyous.
Finally, we must come to view our suffering as yet another way that God honors us with His image. Man was created in the image and likeness of God. Even having tarnished and tainted that image, our Lord came to us in the flesh. He dwelt among us and restored that image in Himself, that we too might share more fully in His image and in His likeness. But our Lord was not simply praised and exalted in His flesh. He was slandered, He was persecuted, and He was falsely accused. Even in the gospel this morning, we hear that the people who had believed that He could heal the daughter of Jairus laughed Him to scorn when He suggested that she was not dead but sleeping. It is an honor to share in His sufferings because it makes us more like Him. When you share in His humiliation, if nothing else, take the opportunity to cast off all that tarnishes the image of God in you. In false accusation we tend to react by pridefully pointing to what virtue we do have instead of using the accusation to remind ourselves of our sinfulness. We have today the example of Saint Nektarios the wonderworker of Aegina who endured great slanders from false witnesses and endured it all without even denying the things of which he was accused. He knew that Our Lord, the Just Judge sees all and that he was not guilty of the accusations. We may not be guilty of the things people accuse us of, but that does not mean we are innocent. We all sin and fall short, and are in need of repentance. Take the slanders and accusations, take the persecutions and trials that you face and accept them as something you are deserving of for whatever sins you have committed and repenting of them, ask God to make you more and more like him.
Our Lord, speaking to His Disciples said: “Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (John 15:20) Do not be fearful of what may come. Be prepared for persecution, false accusation, and mockery, because it will come to you as to the prophets, the saints and the Lord Himself. Accept that all that comes to you is for your salvation, learn to give thanks for all the blessings in your life, and ask the Lord to help you see all things as blessing, and thank the Lord that in your suffering you share in His image and likeness, that you may become closer to Him through everything that you face.
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