This morning we heard the familiar story of Christ feeding the five thousand. We marvel that from five loaves and two fish our Lord could feed so many, but this miracle only points to a greater miracle -- that of the Church, the Body of Christ.
The account begins with our Lord healing the multitudes that came to Him. In the presence of our Lord, partaking of the grace of the miracles He performed among them, and the words which He spoke to them, they did not hunger. They were nourished in their souls by the words and actions of the Lord, but once He stopped speaking, and working miracles, they became hungry. By this time, it was too late for them to go find food with which to feed themselves, and so the Disciples came seeking our Lord’s help, not to feed the people but to send them away.
Our Lord, who had so recently spoken about how God provides for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, did not send the people away to seek food and to feed themselves, but presented a different solution to the problem. He tells the disciples that they should feed them. And here is where we arrive at the great mystery of the Church. Our Lord can provide for us Himself, and while He acts directly in our lives in a providential manner, He also directs us to minister one to another.
The Disciples, however, had nothing to offer. The disciples could not send down manna from heaven, and they had no food of their own to share. Even the five loaves and two fish that they bring to the Lord are not their own, but belonged to a young boy. But the Lord takes this small offering, and with His blessing, He broke the bread and the disciples distributed it and all were filled.
As the first leaders of the Church, the disciples did not have anything to offer. They were not the wisest of men, they were ignorant fishermen. But they gave their five loaves and two fishes -- they gave themselves, soul and body, wholly to the Lord and the service of His people. And from this they nourished the whole world.
But if we look at Saint Paul’s words to the Corinthian church in this morning’s epistle, we see that the body of Christ cannot be divided up. We do not belong to Paul, Apollos, or Peter; we do not belong to a particular Patriarch, bishop, or priest, we belong to Christ. Saint Paul is glad that he did not baptize the people of the church of Corinth, and that even His words of preaching are not effective because of the wisdom of his words. He offers nothing of Himself, but rather offers Himself to the service of the Lord, and the Lord provides.
The greatest of miracles in the Church is that we bring to God five loaves, with a little wine and water, and when they are blessed and the bread is broken, our Lord transforms these things into His very body and blood. After the consecration of these precious gifts, the priest prays “Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God, broken, yet not divided; ever eaten, though never consumed, but sanctifying them that partake thereof.” On all the altars throughout the whole world, this same mystery takes place and there is but one bread, one lamb that is distributed to all the faithful. We all receive this same Christ, we all eat His flesh and drink His blood and yet He is never diminished at all by our doing so. It is a great mystery that Christ is present here and there, now and then -- that He fills all things with Himself.
The miracle of the Church is that God provides us with everything that we need for our salvation, that we are born into this heavenly Kingdom, that we are nourished, and guided, and protected. The grace of God is spread to all the world through His Holy Church. All of the greatest Saints of the Church, all of the miracles they performed, all of the sacraments offered and received are the gift of God, not of the Saints themselves, or the Apostles, or the clergy or ministers of these gifts, but of God.
There are those outside of the Orthodox Church who therefore wonder why Saints, Apostles, or clergy are even needed. If God alone does the work, what need is there of man? But without the small boy with his five loaves and two fish, that multitude would have gone away hungry.
We must bring ourselves to God, we must bring all that we are, all that we have, and we must offer them to God for His purposes. If even Saint Paul thought that his contributions were small, we should not expect that we would have much to offer to the Lord, but it is not the amount that we bring, but the fact that it is all we have which makes it precious. Whether you are a widow with two mites, or a boy with barley loaves and fish, or a woman with a jar of costly ointment, you bring what you have, all of what you have and you offer it to the Lord that it might benefit those whom He loves.
And what we see in the gospel is that when we do this, when we offer our simple and meager gifts, no one goes away hungry, and there is plenty leftover. We give all and it is very little, and God gives back an abundance but it does not diminish Him at all. The disciples took up twelve baskets of fragments which were leftover after everyone had eaten. There was more leftover than there was at the beginning, and each basket was carried away by one of the disciples, that even Judas might see the increase and the great providence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Though it is God who gives the increase when we offer our whole selves and all that we have to Him, we benefit in being able to see this unfold. We become aware that our gifts matter even though they are small. And yet we are not able to take pride or boast in our gifts because the greater portion comes from God.
So recognize that all that you have has been given you from God. Even the richest person in the world enters into this world with nothing, and when we depart this life we will take nothing with us. All that we have is because God has given it to us to use for His glory. Take stock then of what you have, and offer it back to Him. Offer it for His glory, for the glory of His body, for the service and care of the members of His body, for the nourishment of others. Marvel at the ways that God multiplies your gift and the gifts of others, marvel at the way that others grow and flourish when they are satisfied with God’s heavenly gifts, and as you bear baskets full of leftover fragments which are greater than all you brought to Him, know that the greatest miracle possible is the salvation of your soul which is only accomplished by bringing it all to God and allowing Him to work wonders with it.
In his letter to the Church in Rome, the Apostle Paul wrote: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we, through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.” Of course here the apostle is referring to that which was written in the Law and the Prophets, since at that time that was the scripture. All that our Lord Jesus Christ taught during His life, and all that the Evangelists and Apostles wrote, and indeed all that has been proclaimed, written and embraced by the Church since then was already contained in the Law and the Prophets, for the Word of God is not divided but rather expresses the one Truth that is personified in the incarnation of the God/man our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus we can take this assurance of the hope given to us by the apostle Paul and apply it to all the writings, proclamations and teachings of the Church.
Nicholas Motovilov, the close disciple of our Father Seraphim once spoke to the elder expressing his concern about the state of the world. Even in that time – more than 200 years ago – it was apparent to Nicholas that the world was becoming more and more evil and that people, even Christians were falling into the deception of the godless philosophers of the world and were becoming enslaved by lives of impurity. Nicholas asked our Father Seraphim what would become of the Church because of this slide into evil. St Seraphim began to speak to Nicholas of the prophet Elijah (whose feast follows the day after that of St Seraphim). The prophet, seeing that everyone around him had “bent the knee to Baal” cried out to God that he alone remained faithful, that there were no others who followed the One True God. But God replied to Elijah – “I have left seven thousand men in Israel who have not bent the knee to Baal.” See how God answers Elijah’s lament and encourages him – Elijah saw only the outward lives of men, but God saw into their hearts and knew that there were many who were faithful who were hidden from Elijah. St Seraphim told this to his disciple to encourage him also that even though it seemed as though the whole of society had fallen into sin and deception, still there were many – indeed thousands upon thousands who still worshipped God and believed in Him.
St Seraphim said, “In this same way the Lord will preserve, as the apple of His eye, His people, that is, Orthodox Christians who love Him and serve Him with all their heart and all their mind, both in word and deed, day and night. And such are they who preserve entirely all the rules, dogmas, and traditions of our Eastern Orthodox Church, and who with their lips confess the piety which has been handed down by the Church and who act in every deed in all circumstances of life according to the holy commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Today as we look at the world around us, we too see the continued departure of the world from our Lord Jesus Christ. We have our own “godless philosophers” who teach that the world is only what we see and perceive by our own senses. They tell us that by our reason we can apprehend every truth and unravel every mystery. Everything, they tell us, has a “natural cause” and when we understand those “natural causes” we can control the whole world making it a paradise for man. There is no sin – everything is simply the result of the way we were born or perhaps the way we were taught. God, if there is such a person, wants us to ascend to the mastery of this world so that we can be gods and rulers over all that we can see in our own right. Then there are the “culture warriors” who seek to tear down what they consider to be our outmoded and flawed culture so that it can be replaced with one that is full of “tolerance” and “acceptance” of every expression of self-centered indulgence, embracing as it were, this “new normal” (and if we do not we will be castigated, persecuted, judged and condemned as full of hate). We see that in an ever increasing manner the world around us is falling into enslavement to sin, that men can no longer free themselves from their own passions but are driven to indulge in ever greater filth. Everywhere we look, it seems as though the whole world is racing towards the abyss of perdition – and we ask how can we be saved in the midst of this, are we the last to believe in God, will we be able to resist the militant corruption of the world. It is for us that our Father Seraphim spoke to Nicholas with assurance of God’s protection and care. The elder gives us the exact means by which we can survive this self destruction of the world around us for he says that “the Lord will preserve, as the apple of His eye, His people” and that His people are, “Orthodox Christians who love Him and serve Him with all their heart and all their mind, both in word and deed, day and night.”
This then is our calling, to serve God by preserving “all the rules, dogmas, and traditions of our Eastern Orthodox Church, and who with our lips confess the piety which has been handed down by the Church and who act in every deed … according to the holy commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.” For this we must fill our hearts and minds with that which is needful for this cause. First and foremost we must pray, communing with God, and fill our minds with His Word, that is the Gospel, Epistles and all scripture. Secondly we must immerse ourselves in the lives of the saints so that we can live as they did and be encouraged by their example – also we should read and take as our guides their words. Thirdly we must live in the Church – attending the Divine Services as often as possible and while here listening and concentrating on what we hear. We must separate ourselves from all those things in the world that would separate us from our Lord Jesus Christ and order our lives according to the life of the Church – keeping the rhythm of the prayers, feasts and fasts and conforming our lives to the moral life of the Church. Remember that we are no longer “of the world” for we have died to the world in baptism, but we are only strangers and pilgrims journeying through the world, gathering the riches of grace wherever we may find them, on our way to our true home in the Kingdom of God.
St Seraphim also tells us that in the last days – the days of great sorrow – that we the “remnant of the faithful are to experience in (our)selves something like that which was experienced by the Lord Himself when He, hanging on the Cross, being perfect God and perfect Man, felt Himself so forsaken by His Divinity that He cried out to Him: My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me. The last Christians also will experience in themselves a similar abandonment of humanity by the grace of God, but only for a very short time, after the passing of which the Lord will not delay to appear immediately in all His glory, and all the holy angels with Him. And then will be performed in all its fullness everything foreordained from the ages in the pre-eternal counsel [of the All-Holy Trinity].”
He tells us this not to lead us into despair, but rather, as the apostle reminds us, that we might have hope, that we might be likeminded toward one another. For this reason he reminds us that “we then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak and not to please ourselves” in order that bearing one another’s burdens, encouraging and helping one another, being knit together with one mind and one heart, we thus glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
As we endeavor to face all this, my brothers and sisters, let us also hearken also to the words of the beloved Apostle, John the Theologian who commands us, “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God and everyone that loveth knoweth God … if God so loved us, we ought also love one another.”
The paralytic in this morning’s gospel was brought to the Lord and the Lord forgave him his sins and healed him of his infirmity. He who was confined to a bed was now free to move on his own. Our Lord, after healing him, instructs him to rise, take up his bed, and go to his house. These same words are wise instruction for each of us.
For the paralyzed man, life was lived in that bed. Every experience of this life, every person that he loved or hated, All of the joys of his life, and all of the sorrows were had in the bed on which he was captive. As a paralytic, he would have been free of some of the passions and enticements of the flesh, and yet our Lord first forgives his sins and then heals his infirmity. His life which was bound to that bed, which was that bed, is what he was required to take up, and he was instructed to bear it home.
Since the fall of Adam, man has been paralyzed spiritually. We find ourselves cut off from the life of the spirit, we don’t feel that life calling to us, and even if we do, we find it difficult to act upon it. But Christ comes to us, and he gives us forgiveness of our sins as the means of our healing, of making us whole again, of allowing the spirit to rule over the body and cause it to act. And so in the midst of this life, in the midst of our present circumstances, we are told to arise and take up our bed, our life, and to go to our home, to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Saint Paul, in his second epistle to the Corinthians this morning, pleads with us “not to receive the grace of God in vain.” We have been given forgiveness of our sins, we have been instructed to take up our life renewed by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and to walk worthy of our calling, that we might receive the inheritance prepared for us.
Each Christian has certain temptations with which he struggles, or certain gifts or talents that he was given by God. Because each person is unique, each person must by the grace of God arise from their sins and the temptations that would hold them down, take up the life that they have been given and walk.
It is with this in mind that we hear the words of Saint Paul to the Romans this morning, “Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them.” This teaching is so beautiful in that it doesn’t require us to live some life that is out of reach. To be a Christian is not to be a prophet, or a theologian, or a wonder-worker. We don’t have to forsake this world and live as a stylite on top of a tower in order to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven, we don’t have to dwell in caves as some did, or to die as martyrs, or to travel to the ends of the earth preaching the gospel in order to be saved. Rather we look at those things that are within a few feet of our bed, those things that are closest to us, and we lift up that life. To be a Christian is to use the gifts given to us in our life, the ones which before we couldn’t use to the glory of God and our salvation, but which we can now.
Saint Paul speaks to those who are given the gift of prophecy, but he also speaks to those who show mercy. He addresses both those who give, and those who minister. He tells each person the qualities that God is looking for in how we live our particular lives.
So look at your life, look at the people that God has put in your life. Just like the paralytic, you didn’t seek them, they came to you. Look at the gifts that God has given you. Don’t seek to acquire greater or more exalted gifts in which there will be great pride, but rather seek to perfect the use of the gifts you have already been given. Use those gifts to help those whom God has given you, use your gifts to demonstrate your love for them.
The Christian life as seen in the lives of our great Saints can seem so magnificent, so grand that it may seem impossible to live up to, but it is made up of such small things. “Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good.” Leave your sins behind you as trash or sewage that you want no part of and cling with all your strength to the all-good God. Place God before all others, but most especially before yourself.
“Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another.” Choose to put others before yourself. Don’t seek glory and honor, but seek to give honor and veneration to those around you. Recognize the image of God in the person in front of you, and seek to reverence that image out of love for God if not simply out of love of neighbor.
Be diligent, fervent, patient and steadfast in the spiritual life. Recognize that walking worthy of our calling is hard enough, but when we also bear our beds, our lives in the walk, it is difficult and will demand a lot of us. Be prepared to carry all the burdens and blessings of this life until you reach your heavenly homeland.
Remember also that the one whom God forgives more loves more, and the one whom God forgives less loves less. The greater our sins, the more we have transgressed and done wrong, the heavier that bed feels when we try to lift it, the more we should thank God that we are able to walk again, much less bear a burden as we do so.
So arise from the sins that held you down, and the paralysis that kept you captive, take up the bed of this whole present life, and walk home, walk toward that Kingdom which awaits those who have been made heirs and children of the Most High God.
The apostle wrote: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.” With this admonition we understand the two great aspects of our salvation: faith and works. It is necessary first of all to believe – to have faith. And it is not just any faith that is needed here but faith that results in justification – that is the true and correct faith that realigns us with the will of God. Having believed then our belief must be made manifest by our works – that is our confession. Faith by itself is incomplete and must be made active by our works in accordance with that faith.
A person can have faith in many things – some good and some less good. Here the Apostles enjoins us to have faith in the promises of God which allow us to turn away from our sinful self-will and to align ourselves instead with the divine will of God. Thus it is important to be certain that our faith is founded upon the Gospel, on the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ, for there is no other means by which we can enter into God’s saving promises. But to merely have “faith”, to simply “believe” is insufficient – such faith only points us in the right direction, but in order to proceed on the path of salvation, in order to come close to God we must act on that faith – we must confess it first with the words of our mouths and then by the actions of our whole body. We must have both faith and works in order to draw near to God. If I have faith but no works then my faith is empty and powerless – it only shows an unfulfilled potential. If however, I act according to my faith, then those works bring out the potential and I move towards its actualization in my own life.
This whole process of faith and works is not limited to a single event or to just one accomplishment. It is, rather, a characteristic of one’s entire life. When we place our faith in Jesus Christ, when we embrace Him as our Lord and Savior, from that moment on He begins to show us the way into the Kingdom of Heaven. Step by step we follow Him, demonstrating by our actions that we do indeed believe in Him and trust Him to guide us on the path of salvation. This step by step progress, following Jesus Christ on the path that He shows us by our faith, is what we refer to as the “working out” of our salvation. We are not accomplishing our own salvation, we know that only God Himself can save us by His grace, rather we are making the salvation that He has manifested in us real in our own lives – we are acting according to that salvation. This step by step process as we daily follow Jesus Christ, doing in our lives His will that He shows us, continues throughout one’s whole and entire life until finally we stand before Him. It is imperative that we do not loose heart or get distracted or stray from this path for our Lord also told us concerning this work of salvation that “he who endures to the end shall be saved.” (Mt 10:22) And so every moment of every day we believe with our heart and confess with our mouth and so work out our salvation.
If you take a plant that has been lovingly started from seed until it is ready to grow on its own and plant it in good soil, provide it with sunlight and water and all the other necessities of life, then that plant will grow and bloom and produce fruit. Take that same plant and continually uproot it and transplant it again here and there and somewhere else then it will be unable to put down deep roots and grow strong and will not bloom and produce fruit. So it is with the soul – it is ideal to “work out” one’s salvation in one place – not moving from here to there to find a better “spiritual home” but rather to remain where God has placed you to grow and produce fruit until the time comes when He Himself moves you. This spiritual quality of staying in one place is often called “constancy” or “stability”. If you truly want the working out of your salvation to blossom and bear fruit, it is best to stay where God has placed you and not to drift from here to there in search of something “better”. Even when things get difficult in the place you are, still it is best to trust in God and endure all that He has given you to the end and so you will be saved, even in the most hostile environment. Sometimes it’s necessary to endure hardship in the working out of your salvation for by this hardship the plant of the soul becomes stronger and will bear its fruit in greater abundance.
As an example of this spiritual life that we spoke of today, we are given a great example – the Royal Martyrs, Tsar Nicholas, Tsaritsa Alexandra, Tsarevich Alexei, and the Grand duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia. In them we can see all the qualities of the spiritual life that we have heard today. First they believed – their belief in Jesus Christ was strong and shaped every aspect of their lives. They trusted in God to provide everything necessary to their salvation and lived according to His provision. Their Orthodox Christian faith shaped their lives and pointed them in the direction that they then chose to travel. They strongly believed with their hearts and so set their feet on the path of salvation.
But it is not enough to believe – one must also act on that belief. And this action, this “confession of faith” by their works also was manifest. There was a deep piety in the family, following the traditions and customs of the Church. They prayed, they fasted, they kept vigil, they attended the divine services, they gave alms. Every action was produced by their faith. When life was pleasant and abundant, still they placed their hope on God and sought out the spiritual joys rather than to indulge overly in earthly pleasures. By enduring these voluntary hardships, when their lives became difficult, it was a simple thing to bear the difficulties that came to them. They acted on their faith, putting trust in God for every aspect of their lives.
And they endured – even to the end, an end which turned out to be bitter indeed. When the storms of the revolution and civil unrest overtook them, they accepted this as the will of God and remained in place to await God’s deliverance. It might have been possible to have left Russia and the Russian people to the hands of the godless revolutionaries and the ruthlessness of civil strife – but they did not do so, did not even attempt to leave the place where God had planted them. As a true father of his nation the Tsar did not abandon his people when life became difficult. He remained with them to suffer their fate alongside them. Even those who imprisoned him and who were charged to act as his jailors were treated with kindness and gentleness and love. The entire family demonstrated Christ-like love to all despite the difficulty of their outward condition. And so the Royal Martyrs endured all – they remained on the path of salvation that God provided to them no matter what – and so they were saved. Not only were they saved for themselves, but because of their great faith and their unwavering confession and works they were granted also great grace by God. It is by this grace that they continue to help those who call on them in every aspect of the Christian life and have become intercessors for us before the throne of God. This is the great example of the Christian life that is presented to us today – the example of faith, works, endurance and stability.
My brothers and sisters, let us therefore strive this day to hold onto our Orthodox Christian faith as the guide and direction of our lives. Let us confess this faith by our words and by our actions, living every moment of every day according to that faith. Let us also not turn aside from this working out of our salvation, but rather let us endure to the end that we might be saved and finally let us exhibit stability and constancy, remaining where God has planted us that we might grow strong, bloom and produce fruit. This is the path of salvation, this is the entry into the Kingdom of Heaven where our Lord awaits us with open arms to welcome us into His rest.
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