On this day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church. There was a great noise, like a mighty, rushing wind and tongues of fire descended from heaven and sat upon each of the Holy Apostles. At this moment, their mouths were opened and they began to proclaim the Gospel of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in a variety of languages. At that time, there were people from many different nations in Jerusalem – Jews from all over the known world gathered to celebrate the Jewish feast of Pentecost or Shavout (which marked the time when the Hebrew people were given the Torah) were present in Jerusalem and the Apostles spoke to them in their own languages. This marks the beginning of their evangelic ministry symbolically proclaiming the Gospel to the whole world.
The descent of the Holy Spirit was not limited only to the Apostles (who were specially chosen and singled out by the tongues of fire) but was given to the whole company of believers, the whole Church at this time. From that time on, when a person was baptized into the Church, the baptism of water was given for the remission of sins, but then the person was also sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands by the apostles or bishops. Later this seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit was accomplished through the anointing with Holy Chrism. Thus, each one of us within the Church of Christ is indwelt by the Holy Spirit Who “seals” us with His presence and grace. Each of us has passed through not only Christ’s death and Resurrection in Baptism, but also through the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost through Chrismation.
The effect of the Holy Spirit began to be manifest in the people of the Church in a variety of ways; as the apostle says, “Some are apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers.” In other places he talks about how some are workers of miracles, some are healers, some are governors and so on. In this, the apostle likens the Church to a body saying that there are many members, yet one body. So indeed, it is the Holy Spirit that empowers each of us to take our place in the Body of Christ, that is the Church, all working together for the common health and well being of the Body.
In order to enable the members of the Body to fulfill their place and to grow nearer to God, the Holy Spirit grants various gifts to Christians – each gift is given at the proper time to the person who is prepared to receive it for the uplifting of the saints. These gifts include prophecies, miracles, healings, diversities of tongues (as the Apostles received at Pentecost), the ability to see the inner man with the eyes of the heart (what we sometimes call “clairvoyance”), and so on. These gifts are not experienced by all people at all times, but only at those times and places that they are bestowed by the Holy Spirit for the welfare of the whole Church.
There are, however, some definite indicators of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a person. Just as a plant produces fruit, each according to its own kind, so also every Christian who is living according to the direction of the Holy Spirit produces in his life spiritual fruit. The Apostle identifies these fruits for us saying, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith meekness, temperance...” We who are filled with the Holy Spirit at Chrismation should all be manifesting in some way or another these “fruits” of the Holy Spirit as the natural result of His presence in us.
However, we do not all manifest these fruits. What happened? Did we not receive the Holy Spirit, does He not dwell in us? Where are the fruits of His presence? We do not produce those fruits because we do not live according to the guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit in us. He directs us to the way of life that will produce such fruit, but too often we resist His direction and choose instead to follow our own passions and exhibit the fruits of sin and death. We are given, in our Baptism and Chrismation, the same Holy Spirit that was bestowed upon the Apostles and indeed upon all Christians. But in order for us to have the same result as the Apostles and the other saints, we have to do as they did and cooperate fully with the action and prompting of the Holy Spirit in us. As our Lord Himself instructed us we must deny ourselves and our own desires and instead do the will of God; we must take up our cross, dying to sin, to the world, to our passionate urges, to ourselves even; and follow Christ, living according to His law which is given to us by His own words and example and written on our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Our spiritual “success”, our ability to produce spiritual fruit then is up to us – whether or not we choose to follow our Lord Jesus Christ every step of the way, trusting in Him entirely and turning away from the demands of our fallen ego.
On this day of Pentecost, let us then set aside all those things which hold us back, all those things which impede the action of the Holy Spirit in us. Let us instead submit ourselves to the Holy Spirit Who descended upon us in Chrismation, Who sealed us with His grace, Who is constantly prompting us to turn away from sin and to live according to the righteousness of Christ. Let us today and each day hereafter renew our vows to renounce Satan and all his works and all his service and all his pride; and instead to embrace Christ and follow Him as King and Lord. Let us today and each day hereafter strive to bring forth in our lives not the fruit of sin and death but rather the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Today is Pentecost – it is our Pentecost, it is the descent and indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us. Today, let the grace of the Holy Spirit take root and begin to grow and multiply and produce abundant fruit in our lives. One of the traditions of the Hebrew feast of Shavout was to bring first fruits as an offering to God – today let us also bring the first fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives as an offering to God that He might multiply them in us so that we might carry these great eternal riches with us as we enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.
This past week, we celebrated the Great Feast of the Ascension of our Lord. This event is mentioned or alluded to several times in Scripture – in the Gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Epistles. On a superficial level it might seem like one of the less important events from the life of Christ on which to focus. After all, if He came down from Heaven, it is only natural that He would go back up to Heaven. This sentiment even finds expression in one of the hymns for the feast which says, “Christ hath gone up to where He was before.” But if we only understand the feast on this level, we will miss the great mystery of this day.
When we celebrate the Lord Jesus Christ taking on flesh, whether on the feast of the Annunciation, or His Nativity, we marvel that God who is before the ages, the Creator of all, who holds all of creation in His hands became what He was not before – a man. As one of the hymns for Nativity puts it: “Today the Unoriginate beginneth to be.”
Our Lord came down and took on flesh from the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God; He entered into His own Creation and became like us in every way except for sin; but in doing so, He didn’t stop being God, He didn’t change into a man. Whereas the Incarnate God-man Jesus Christ has a beginning in time and place, the Son and Word of God does not.
In fact, as God, He didn’t leave heaven so that He could be here. The Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God expresses it this way: “This was a divine condescension and not a change of place.” Indeed in the hymns of the Church for the Ascension, we heard “having gone up whither Thou hadst never left, Thou didst send forth Thy most Holy Spirit. Who enlighteneth our souls.” The importance of this feast is not that God has returned to heaven, but that a man has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. The Hymns of the Feast proclaim “Seeing human nature ascending with Thee, O Savior, the ranks of the angels were amazed and unceasingly hymned thee.” The angels were amazed when God came down at the Great Feast of the Nativity, and they are equally amazed that man ascends to the throne of God.
So Christ condescends to take on our flesh without losing His Divinity and without leaving heaven; He is now glorified, ascending into the Heavens without losing His humanity. In the Kontakion for the feast we hear: “Thou didst ascend in glory, O Christ our God, in nowise departing from us, but remaining inseparable, and crying out to those who love Thee: I am with you, and no one is against you.” So God who came down without leaving heaven, now ascends from earth to the heavens without leaving us. He ascends in order to send to us the Comforter, the Holy Spirit to dwell in us.
In the appointed gospel reading yesterday, our Lord said, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” He has chosen to dwell among us, and in us. Adam once dwelt in an earthly paradise, but now paradise dwells in each one of us by our reception of the Holy Spirit. And Christ making His way into the Heavens to be enthroned as the God-man makes a way for each of us to likewise ascend to the Heavenly Kingdom.
But today is a curious day that sits between the Feast of the Ascension of Christ and His sending down of the Holy Spirit at the feast of Pentecost in one week’s time. Today we celebrate the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea. These 318 Fathers gathered together to refute the heretic Arius and to cut him off from the Church like a rotting member. It may seem odd that this is what we remember on this particular Sunday every year. And yet, this council is tied to the Feast of the Ascension.
Arius in his wicked imaginings sought to tear asunder the Most Holy Trinity, dividing the Son from the Father, claiming that He was not of one essence with the Father, and that He was a created being. The Feast of the Ascension is key to understanding why this is in error. It was indeed one of the Holy Trinity Who became incarnate, Who suffered, was buried, Who rose again on the third day and Who ascended into Heaven. Saint Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews, speaking of the only-begotten Son of God the Father and His ascension into Heaven, writes “who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
While it is a man who ascends to the throne of God, that throne already belonged to Him. This is not the ascension of a man to godhood, or even an ascension like the Prophet Elijah who was taken up in a fiery chariot but did not ascend of His own accord. The man Jesus Christ is God come down, Who became man without suffering change and now ascends as man and gives this glory to those who share human nature with Him.
As God Who is everywhere present and filling all things, He ascends yet remains with us. He has not left us as orphans, but indeed continues to keep us in His Body, through the sacraments of the Church, and by the power and operation of the Holy Spirit.
We heard Saint Paul’s words to the leaders of the Church, “Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For 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.” This is indeed what has happened over the years.
Arius was just one such savage wolf, but our Lord remains with His Church and protects it as the Good Shepherd. The bishops, those who have been made overseers of the flock of Christ, are given to us to drive way these savage wolves.
The work of this council was not the work of professional theologians or academics who sought to know about God through the wisdom of the world. It was the work of pious, God-loving men whose only desire was to cling to the faith once-delivered and to protect it from the perverse things that were being taught by Arius. But even more important, it was the work of God. As a testament to this, there were two of the Fathers who died during the council. Copies of the resolution were sealed in the coffins of these two shepherds of the flock, and when later the coffins were opened, they were found to have been signed and sealed.
Every day, we should pray the Nicene Creed, the Symbol of Faith. We must believe it to be true, but we ought to do more than that. We ought to think about it, reflect upon what it means, to dive into the revealed mystery of Who this God is that we say we believe in.
When you look at the heavens and the earth, when you consider the visible and invisible creation, when you marvel at the complexity of it all, understand that the God who made all these things who has no need or lack of anything, still chose to become incarnate for us men and for our salvation. In the reading from Deuteronomy that was used in Vespers last night, Moses described Him as “the Lord your God, He is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, and strong, and terrible God,” and yet He tells us that this God cares for the widows, orphans, and strangers.
Consider the things that our Lord Jesus Christ taught us by both word and deed, consider that He was tempted like us but did not sin, consider the many ways He suffered for us, consider the life that He gave us by His death, and understand that His Ascension made a pathway for us to the Kingdom of Heaven. He Who is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, became lower than all of us that He might lift us up. He did these things and continues to do these things not because He has to, but because He loves us and chooses to act in accordance with this love.
And He gives us the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, to protect us, to keep us, to strengthen us, to change us and lead us on this path. Our Lord prayed for His disciples in the gospel reading this morning, saying: “Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.” He gives us the Holy Spirit in order that we might be one as the Holy Trinity is one. The Church is one because God desires it to be so, and because He has not left us orphans but continues to be our Good Shepherd.
Having considered all these things that we profess every day, and pondered them in your heart, live in thanksgiving toward the one God in Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In the words of last night’s reading from Deuteronomy: “He is thy boast, and He is thy God, Who hath wrought in the midst of thee these great and glorious things, which thine eyes have seen.”
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 more 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) were 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. (Heb. 11:39,40) 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.
Due to modern conveniences, water has become something that we pay very little attention to. For most of human history this would have been inconceivable. People spent so much of their energy going to draw water from wells, or working to divert water to where they needed it, or praying for God to bring rain to them. These days, unless there is a very severe drought, or flood, or our water source becomes polluted, we don’t worry about it. We trust that when we turn on the faucet safe, clean water will come out of that faucet.
Though we are glad for this modern convenience, we have lost the clear awareness of what water does for us, particularly as an agent of change. Through water, God brings to life the seeds of the field, or by withholding it, He causes full-grown plants to wither and die. By God’s direction a land can be lush and verdant, or arid desert. The very earth itself can be carved and shaped by the movement of water. Even the hardest of rocks can be smoothed and cut by the flow of water and time. Deprived of water for a relatively short period of time, plants, animals, and man will perish. We make things clean with water; and by water, God cleansed the earth of wickedness in the time of Noah. The Israelites passed through the Red Sea unharmed while Pharaoh and his soldiers were drowned.
It is with this kind of understanding that we should hear the words of the gospel this morning. Our Lord sat by the well of Jacob in a city in Samaria at mid-day. The Samaritan woman came to the well to draw water, and our Lord asked her for a drink. It would be normal for a traveler to be thirsty at mid-day, but this request was a surprise to her because Christ was a Jew and such a person would not normally have talked to her.
Our Lord redirected her thoughts, saying: "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, 'Give Me a drink,' you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water." This is a strange response given that He had just asked her for water because He had none to drink. But with these words our Lord starts to reshape the heart of this woman. The Samaritan woman did not simply blindly accept what the Lord had to say, but questioned Him throughout as a way of understanding and increasing her faith.
She wanted to understand who Jesus was that He claimed He could provide her with living water. She asks Him if He is greater than Jacob who gave them the well. Our Lord without boasting of His greatness simply responds that those who drink from the well of Jacob will thirst again, but that whoever drinks of the living water that He offers will never thirst again. Furthermore, our Lord tells her this water is a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.
Throughout their conversation, the Samaritan woman came to gradually understand that the water that Christ was offering was not just material water, but something more. She still didn’t really know what, but she could already sense that she needed this living water. He doesn’t even require her to believe in Him as Lord and God, but rather to simply believe that He will give her this water if she is willing to receive it. And so she asks the Lord to give her this living water that it might quench her thirst, and that she might be relieved of the daily labor of retrieving water.
Our Lord then tells her to call her husband. In the exchange that follows, the Samaritan Woman comes to see Jesus as Prophetic. He knows her life and sees her as she really is. Our Lord leads her further upward in her mind and in her heart, and they begin speaking of worship, but not just worship in earthly temples. He reveals to her the worship in Spirit and in Truth. It is only after all of this, that she said, "’I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When He comes, He will tell us all things.’” And He replied, "I who speak to you am He."
This exchange which began with a request for a drink led to the Samaritan woman telling the men of her city, “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” The ability to see someone as they are, and to tell them their sins, comes from God, and indeed, we see such a gift in many of the lives of the Saints, the ability to know by the work of the Holy Spirit what could only be known and revealed by God.
The change in the Samaritan woman in this story may seem so fast, so immediate. We might think that someone who could reveal to us all our sins could likewise bring us to such immediate repentance, but in His mercy, our Lord is often much slower in revealing to us what is hidden from our own eyes. We see in ourselves how difficult it is to know ourselves, how hard it can be to change, and how long it can take. The message from this gospel lesson, however is that the Lord does not change us all at once, even the Samaritan woman was led step by step to a new life.
In Baptism, water becomes the agent of change for our lives. We are given this living water, the fountain of water springing up into everlasting life – the Holy Spirit. We receive the Holy Spirit as the means of our gradual change. But we are not meant to just passively let the Holy Spirit work on us, but to work with Him.
How often do we, instead, block or divert the flow of this living water by our sins, or by the distractions of this life? Or worse yet, we allow ourselves to build dams of habitual sin that keep us from being changed, or even from quenching our spiritual thirst. Saint John Chrysostom in his homily on this passage chastises his people for being more interested in the things of this world than in spiritual things. He says that they know the names of wrestlers, dancers, and charioteers but don’t even know the number of the books of Holy Scripture. They would rather watch men wrestle each other than learn about a man wrestling with the demons and being victorious over them. How little has changed since his time.
When we look at the lives of the Saints, they sought out wells, they dug irrigation ditches, and they collected this living water in cisterns. They knew the power of this living water; they put nothing ahead of the pursuit of everlasting life. They found holy men and women who were filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit as wells from which they could draw constantly. They sought through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, through spiritual reading and receiving the Holy Mysteries to direct this living water of the grace of the Holy Spirit into the arid ground of their souls until the cisterns of their hearts overflowed with this water.
The waters of Baptism are given to us that we might begin to be changed by the Holy Spirit and given life. But we cannot continue in sin and slothfulness and expect this grace to change us against our will. We must repent of our sins, and be prepared to labor to allow this water to reach even the most parched ground of our hearts, to fill us, and to overflow from us to others.
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