In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God is one. Amen.
God calls us to closeness. The entire witness of the Scripture, from the beginning on, is of God’s desire to have close and intimate relationship with His creation, and with those who are in His creation–His creatures. As far back as Genesis, we have that very moving image in which it talks about God walking in Paradise, walking in the Garden at the cool of the day, and of course of Adam and Eve’s fear once they had fallen, and hiding from God whom they knew they would encounter intimately and closely in His creation. It’s a marvelous image of just what kind of relationship–what we’re supposed to have with our Creator.
Further on, in Exodus, it talks about how God spoke to Moses as if He were His friend. Even Jesus, later, will say, “I no longer call you disciples; I call you friends.” What a profound thing, to be called a friend of God!
You can search the history of other religions, read their books, their Scriptures, their writings, and not find anything similar. You go back and read the pagan myths, and of course they have the stories of–you know–how Zeus would occasionally come down and frolic, and hang out, and drink with some buds, and–you know–chase a few women or what have you, but that’s not the same thing at all. And in none of the pagan religions that I am aware of–and I freely admit not to be an expert in the history of world religions–but in any of them I remember–we happened to study, for example, in world religions in high school–most of them are rooted in a relationship of fear. And even though the Jews had a profound concept of their relationship with God, still, the idea of Jesus telling them that they are His friends was probably a bridge too far for many of them, because it posited a relationship which they weren’t used to thinking in terms of.
So God calls us to closeness. But beyond that, God calls us to union with Him. And you could have a relationship with closeness, and still not meet God with that. You could share many ideas, conversations; you could share many experiences; you could come very, very close as friends. But still, the idea of union is a bridge beyond. And yet this is precisely what the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had called His people Israel to, throughout all the history of His relationship with them. And some of them became very close. Like I said, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, many of the holy people in the Old Testament, [were] illuminated to the degree that they could see the uncreated light of God. That started with Adam and Eve. Perceive the closeness of the relationship, the union, oneness. That’s beyond.
And of course this is the reason why the Word became flesh. This is why the Son of God became a human being like you and I. Again, if you look at the history and teachings of other religions, you don’t find this kind of sharing and oneness with creatures, with beings that God himself had made. And so the Word becomes flesh and dwells amongst us precisely so that you and I can be in a relationship of such deep intimacy with God, that He literally becomes one of us. And we, by virtue of baptism, become one with Him, so that an eternal, divine nature, a godly nature, is joined to a human nature, to a human body, to a human psychology, to a human soul, to create a unique being–a God-Man–there was never any before; there will not be another since. With this God we are called to such a relationship of intimacy that He becomes one with us.
And so we begin after we are joined in union with Him, what St. Paul refers to in Philippians as the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus“, corruptible putting on incorruption, a fallen humanity taken into the fullness of the divine life of God, in which we are called and allowed to experience the same kind of being that exists between God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–we are taken into this; we are adopted into this. We have become, as Paul says in Romans, children of the promise, heirs of the promise. Everything, therefore, that God has offered to His Son in terms of promise, He shares with us as well–if we respond to this upward call of God to live heavenly lives.
Very often, people will look at Christians and say critically, “Well, they’re not much better than anybody else.” And tragically, very often, they’re pretty darn close with that. But you see, we are not baptized into Christ and therefore taken into the life of God–Father, Son, and Spirit–in order to be better than other people. We should be, but that’s not the point. What happens when we are baptized is not that we become better than other people. We become different than other people. We have put on Christ. And therefore there is an ontological difference between the baptized and the non-baptized–between those who have been taken into the life of the Holy Trinity, and those [who have] not.
Now, yesterday, we inaugurated five new members into God’s Kingdom–five new brothers and sisters taken in by the same adoption and grace that you and I were–taken into the same ever-expanding family of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–which picks up brothers and sisters all throughout history. My Scots forbears called Jesus the “Elder Brither“, the Elder Brother, the firstborn of many brethren. And from now until the end of the age, brothers and sisters are taken into His family and given the same equality as human beings as creatures can possibly have, that He has as a Son of the Father. Now, He’s always going to be God. We don’t become that. But this is the love that the Father lavishes upon us.
And so we try to walk this walk in Christ’s family, being brought in there by baptism, our certificate–it’s our adoption paper–eating and drinking heavenly food and heavenly drink, realizing that for us there is between this world and our commonwealth in heaven but a diaphanous veil through which we can see God, the saints, and He [sees] us, and we interact, because every time we come together to offer this Eucharist, whether it is in Omaha, or Eustis, or Damascus, or Brooklyn, that veil is pulled aside. Remember the veil in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom to show that it was God’s action, because a man could have torn it from the bottom to top. And there is no longer between us and heaven–anything between us–except those things which we place there.
So [Alan], and Guinevere, and Michael, and Rebecca, and Alexander have been brought into this life. Now, they’ve done the easy stuff. They rejected Satan; that’s easy. They have confessed their sins; that’s easy. Now they have the hard part: They have to get along with us–and we with them. And this is frequently where it all starts to unravel. But if you see, although we are taken into God’s light, we still have to deal with our sins. We still have to strive to overcome our passions. There’s nothing magical about this, but there is something wondrously transforming and powerful, that in the life of Christ’s Body, that in the sacrament of His Body and Blood, and through the confession of sins regularly and faithfully–all the material means by which God conveys His grace to us–We are changed. We are molded. We are transformed. The first anointing we did at the baptismal service yesterday was the first shaping of the new life and character in the life of Christ.
And so now, with faltering and often hesitant steps, they join with our faltering and hesitant steps . . . towards the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven. And there is for us as Orthodox Christians a tempt to respond in the upward call of God in Christ Jesus, a great temptation and a great trap, because there are many things out there within the life and tradition of the Church which for many Orthodox Christians become a snare, become a stumbling block, become a bondage. Our website should read, “Externals-Я-Us.com“.
And very often the mistake that new people make when they come into this life is to wander around like children in a candy store, looking for all the wondrous things that we can try: one from column A, the Russian tradition; something from column B, the Greek experience; now something from column C, the Western Rite; all of these externals out there which exist only to provide us with context within which to live our lives.
So what do we do? How can we tell if we are making any progress whatsoever? Is it where we reach the point that we can stand through Russian liturgies until we’re numb from the knees down and not notice? Or we can do double-genuflections at the veneration of the cross on Holy Friday and not feel it. Or we can get through the entire fast existing perhaps on peas and hummus. Or we can make the sign of the cross three times real fast so that people know that we’re genuinely Orthodox. There is only one infallible test of spiritual growth: If you are sinning less, and if you are loving more, you are growing. And nothing, absolutely nothing else, matters.
You can have visions, you can levitate off the floor, you can hear voices, you can do all kinds of things which in and of themselves mean nothing. I have told you this before: you can take a rock out of the garden out there, and you can bring it in here and we can wash it with holy water, and we can anoint it with sweet smelling oil, and we can wrap it in fancy brocade cloths, and I can cense it until we can’t see anything else in this building except smoke, and it is a washed, anointed, sweet-smelling rock, and nothing else. So if we go through this walk concentrating on external things, and our heart is hardened, and our anger becomes fixed inside of us, and our resentment begins to poison our soul, and our depression begins to darken our vision, none of that will do us any good.
But if we confess our sins, get a handle on them and we sin less, and if we look at each and every one of us as we stumble along in this walk each day with just a bit more patience and love, then we’re doing the only thing God really cares about. It is said that at the end of his life, St. John the Theologian–the author of the fourth Gospel–in exile on Patmos, was so weak and infirm he had to be carried into church. And they would ask him–of course, as
he was the famous resident preacher–to preach, and the only thing he could get out was,
“My children, love one another.” That was all he needed to say. That was all they needed to hear. Each day of the week, whether you are here, whether you are in your homes, whether you gather, whether you don’t, love one another. And you will triumph in Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God is one. Amen.
This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, November 18, 2012, at Christ the King Orthodox Church, in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser.