Cut to the Heart

MP3 Audio: Cut_to_the_Heart.mp3

This homily was preached on Sunday morning, December 27, 2015,
at St. John of Damascus Orthodox Mission in Carbondale, Illinois,
by Fr. Joseph Gleason.

Transcription by Janelle Sipes.


Epistle: Acts of the Apostles 6:8-15; 7:1-5, 47-60
Gospel: Matthew 2:13-23

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God is One.

I was thinking earlier as we were commemorating one of the martyrs for the day, Saint Stephen. He’s called the Protomartyr, the first martyr, the first after the Resurrection to shed his blood for Christ, the first of many millions who have done likewise in the 2,000 years since. And I look at a foretaste of this in the gospel reading today. Jesus has not even become an adult yet. He has not even begun his public ministry. He is an infant. He is not even speaking yet. Nothing has been written down about him yet, at least not in the New Testament. And even in his infancy, his presence is so disconcerting to the powers of this world that Herod demands the blood of children. And so, thousands of holy innocents are slaughtered.

These are not the kinds of things that the world wants to think about during the twelve days of Christmas. During the time of Advent, during the time of Christmas, the world wants to think only positive happy thoughts, only uplifting things. We don’t want to think about martyrdom. We don’t want to think about pain, suffering and the shedding of blood. Stephen, out of all martyrs, has the distinction of being called the Protomartyr – first martyr. And God has a way throughout Scripture and throughout salvation history of setting an example.

The first time you run into something in Scripture or in the lives of the Saints, you see this is the precedent, this is the example that God is setting to point forward what will come after. And so we ask ourselves, “Why was Stephen martyred? Why did they become so angry at Stephen? What made people so upset?” So you turn in the Scriptures and you read in Acts chapter 7, and he ended his life with a sermon. And indeed, I know of some people who have heard sermons that have made them mad enough to want to kill.

You read in this, and he walked throughout salvation history. This man was well catechized. He understood the Old Testament. He understood his history. He understood where he came from. He understood who Messiah was, and he talked through salvation history as if he was to be the Protomartyr.

Then shall we call these the “Pre-martyrs,” the men who shed their blood for God prior to the coming of Christ. God sends prophet after prophet after prophet to call his people unto repentance, that the bride of God – the people of God – might be sanctified and purified  and conformed into the image of the Messiah to come. But one after the other they killed the prophets. They slaughtered those whom God sends to call unto repentance, and Stephen recounts this.

And then as the grand finale for his sermon in Acts chapter 7, he looks at his audience and he says, “You killed Christ. This is your fault. You did this. You have committed murder. You murdered the Holy One. Yes God sent the Messiah and you killed him. And this same Jesus, this same Messiah that you killed, God has raised up and has made both Lord and Christ.” And it says in Acts chapter 7, they were “cut to the heart.”

And you look back and you see similar phrases throughout Acts. In Acts chapter 2 the apostle Peter preaches to thousands of people and he says the same thing. “You killed him. This is your fault. You did this. You murdered the innocent one, the Holy One. And God has raised him up and has made him both Lord and Christ.” Then again in Acts chapter 5, Saint Peter again is preaching to a group of people and he says “You killed Christ. You are murderers and God has raised him up and made him both Lord and Christ.” And then again in Acts chapter 7, the Protomartyr Stephen. The Deacon. Deacons can preach; let us never forget that.

And so this is repeated over and over. This same sermon is preached over and over by different godly men. And the result is always the same. It is biting. It pricks the conscience. It cuts to the heart.

We say, “Is this what we want from a preacher? Is this the kind of preaching we want to hear? It doesn’t sound very encouraging. It doesn’t sound very uplifting, does it?”

Let me ask you something. You’ve heard this saying about the church that it is not a court where you go for condemnation; it’s a hospital. Well, working along those lines, let me ask you if you’ve ever been to a doctor? Anybody?  How many of you are a doctor? Would you rather have – now be honest – would you rather have a gentle doctor or a harsh doctor?

Gentle. I agree. Absolutely. If somebody at the hospital is going to come take your blood, you don’t want them to be randomly poking around and not paying attention. You want them to give you gentleness, to give you care, to watch out what they’re doing. They have to get the blood, but you want them to do it with care. You don’t want the doctor to be rude with his bedside manner. You want him to be gentle and look you in the eye and talk to you as a human being and as a person. So you want gentleness.

So I have a question. Is it possible for gentleness to go too far? Maybe a question you’ve never thought of. Usually that’s not the type of thing we complain about. “Oh that doctor was just too nice to me. . . .”

So let me ask you something. Imagine that you have heart disease. Very serious heart disease. The prognosis is not good. You realize that you are in desperate risk of heart attack and that if you have a heart attack your chances are 50/50 that you’re not going to wake up. And knowing this, you go to a skilled heart surgeon. And the heart surgeon tells you, “I have to tell you the truth. You’re in bad shape. You’re heart is sick. I’m going to have to cut you open from here to here. I’m going have to slice your chest open and rip you apart.” That doesn’t sound good, does it? “I’m going to have to cut into your legs and I’m going to have to get blood vessels so I can do what’s called a bypass surgery. And I’m not just going to cut your chest open, I’m actually going to cut your heart.” Sounds terribly scary, doesn’t it?

And he says, “There’s going to be a lot of stay in the hospital. There’s going to be a lot of different medications you’re going to have to take. There’s going to be a lot of sleepless nights. There’s going to be a lot of pain. There’s going to be risk of infection. But you go through this. I’m one of the best heart doctors around, and if you go through this we will take care of your heart disease. We will take care of the problem. You will be okay. You will be healed.”

And you say, “Man this is way worse than what I was expecting. This sounds absolutely terrifying.” So you go for a second opinion. And you go to the next doctor. And the next doctor says,

“That first doctor wanted you to do what? You don’t want to be cut open do you?”

“Well, no.”

“You don’t want me to cut into your legs?”

“Well, of course not.”

“You don’t actually want me to cut your heart, do you?”

“Well no, I don’t want that.”

“And you don’t like staying in the hospital?”

“Well, no. I hate staying in the hospital.”

“Look, you don’t need to do any of that. I have some medication right here. All you have to do is take this medication and I guarantee instant results. You’re going to feel better right away. The pains that you’ve been having in your heart, those pains are just going to disappear. You’re not going to have to have any surgery. I’m not going to have to cut you open. And you’re not going to need any hospital stay either. And there’s no chance of infection.”

And you say, “I like this doctor. This sounds way better!”

But you find out a little bit more information and you find out that this doctor specializes in hospice care. And the medication he’s going to give you is morphine. Oh, it will take the pain away until you have a heart attack and die. You’ll be comfortable at home until you die.

Now, with that information, would you rather have doctor number one or doctor number two? I’d rather have doctor number one. The one that is going to cut to the heart. And he better know what he’s doing. He better be a heart surgeon.

Well, keep this in mind. The church is not a courtroom where you come for condemnation. But it’s also not a hospice care, where you come for morphine to make you feel comfortable in your sin. The church is a hospital where you come to be healed of your sins, and sometimes that requires cutting to the heart.

Now, I said there’s a lot of similarities between these three sermons in the book of Acts, but there is one significant difference that I left out. The apostle Peter in Acts chapter 2 preaches to thousands of people and he says, “You killed Christ. You murdered the holy one that God sent. You are guilty. And this same Jesus whom you crucified, God raised up and has made both Lord and Christ.” And they were cut to the heart. But how did they respond to the fact that they had been cut to the heart? They responded by saying, “What shall we do?”

They’re desperate. They want to know, what do they do? What’s the godly response to this? How can we be saved? And you know what? Peter was a heart surgeon. He had cut their heart, but he was gentle in his response. When they said, “What must we do?” He didn’t say, “You’re lost. There’s no hope for you. What you did was too bad.” No, he cut to the heart. But he was gentle when he said “Repent. Be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” There’s where gentleness comes in. Gentleness comes in when the person responds in terror at their sins and responds, “What must I do to be saved?” Peter wasn’t gentle about, “Well, I don’t want to cut to the heart because it might make them feel bad.” But he cut.  And when they said, “What must we do?” He responded by saying, “Just repent and be baptized. Wash your sins away.” And three thousand people joined the Orthodox Church in Jerusalem that day after he preached a sermon that cut to their heart.

Three chapters later, in Acts chapter 5, we have the same preacher preaching the same message to essentially the same group of people. It’s just a different group of Jews in Jerusalem and the apostle Peter says the same thing. “You killed Christ. You’re murderers. You have slain the holy one of Israel. You put him on the cross.” And it says in Acts chapter 5, they were cut to the heart. But how did they respond to this cutting? It says they became angry and they began plotting how they might put him to death.

See, that’s the way it works sometimes. A faithful priest of God preaches against sin and cuts to your heart. But you have no desire for repentance. You have no desire to be cleansed of that sin. You like that sin. You like it a lot. But he has cut open your heart, and laid it open to yourself and to all of the world, and this makes you angry.

And so that’s when the backbiting begins. That’s when you go home and you have the priest for lunch.

And then we have Acts chapter 7, where the first drops of the blood of the martyrs was spilled. Deacon Stephen preaches and he says, “You killed Christ. You put him to death. You are guilty. You did this. You stiff-necked, uncircumcised-hearted people.” Read Acts 7. That’s exactly what he says to them. And it says the same thing. It says they were cut to the heart.

He’s a heart surgeon just like the apostle Peter was. And after he has cut the heart, how do they respond? Do they respond with repentance like the people in Acts 2? Do they get baptized and join the Church? No. They don’t even respond secretly, like the Jews in chapter 5 say they have to plan how to get rid of this guy. In Acts 7 they are so infuriated from having their hearts cut open that they rush upon him screaming, with their hands over their ears, and they pick up stones and they stone him to death on the spot.

These are three very different results to the same sermon, three very different results to having one’s heart cut open. And the same options are presented to us every time we step foot in an Orthodox church, and a priest happens to preach against sin and it cuts to our hearts.

The flesh within us wants to become angry. The flesh within us wants to hold onto that sin, and strike out, and lash out in anger at anybody who would dare to reveal it. But if we have soft hearts that are open to the Spirit of Christ, then our first response must be, “What must I do? How can I have this sin taken away?” And a gentle priest will not respond with condemnation but will say, “Repent and be baptized and wash your sins away calling upon the name of the Lord.” You say, “But I’ve already been baptized.” Well, then come to the confessional. Keep short accounts. Confess your sins to God in the presence of the priest. Let him pronounce absolution over you. Then come to the Eucharist with a clean conscience.

It is a godly priest, a good priest, that preaches against sin – even directly – and cuts to your heart. This liturgy that we celebrate today is the liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. And just from a worldly perspective, he is not what we would call a success. Now, he was for a while. He was very popular. But keep in mind that Jesus was popular for a while until he ticked off the wrong people and they crucified him.  The same thing happens with Saint John Chrysostom. He preaches, and crowds follow him and they listen and hang on every word, but he dared to preach against sin. He kept annoying the empress Eudoxia.  Finally she has him exiled. Well, people put in such an uproar that they let him come back. He’s back to being the Bishop in Constantinople, preaching. Then the empress puts up a statue of herself, and there’s supposed to be these secular games that are performed out near that statue.

This really upset Saint John, the Bishop, and he preached against it. He preached against the empress by name, to the point that everyone knew exactly who he was talking about. And do you know what he called her? By some accounts “Jezebel”, and by other accounts “Herodias.” (Herodias was the young shapely woman who danced for Herod and convinced him to cut off the head of John the Baptist.) [She was] vile, base, wicked, and this is the woman that he compares the empress to.

That’s dangerous. She had him exiled a second and final time. And in exile with no parish, no congregation, no stipend – being guarded by a Roman soldier – he dies. From a worldly perspective, a complete failure by the end of his life, and yet it’s his liturgy that we celebrate around the world. It’s his sermons that we preach. And of all Orthodox preachers that have ever been on this planet in the past two thousand years there’s only one Golden-Mouth. They gave him this saying “Chrysostom”, which means, “Golden Mouth”, preacher of preachers, the one who’s speaking, who’s golden. He, like Peter and Stephen, was willing to preach in such a way to cut to the heart.

Now, why am I preaching to you about preaching? It seems like an odd thing to do. Most of you are saying,  “I’m never going to be a priest. I’m never going to preach a sermon in an Orthodox church. Why do I need to hear this?”

There are two very important reasons. First of all, whenever you hear Fr. James, or me, or any other priest preach against sin, you need to be like the first people we talked about – not like the second or third groups. You need to be in Acts 2. When your heart is sliced open and it’s bloody and raw and your sin has been exposed, don’t respond in anger. Don’t respond in fury. Respond by saying “What must we do to be saved? How can we be cleansed of this sin?” That’s the only humble Christian response that you can give, to having your heart cut open by the Word of God.

And secondly, Fr. James and I are not going to live forever. And even if we do, you may decide at some point that you’re going to relocate, and at some time you’re going to decide, “What Orthodox Church am I going to go to? There’s a Greek one over there, there’s a Russian one over there, and there’s a Serbian one over there. They’re equal distance. . . .” Not all priests are equally faithful. You’ll find some that really preach against sin and cut to the heart, and find others that avoid it like the plague.

Don’t be afraid to go to the priest that cuts to the heart. That’s what Peter did, that’s what Stephen did, and that’s what Saint John Chrysostom did.

Or even here – twenty years from now – the day comes that, God forbid, you should get a new priest because this one has moved on somewhere else. Well, you may have different candidates, different people to choose from. Don’t be afraid to pick the one that preaches against sin and cuts to the heart. That is what Saint Peter did. That is what Saint Stephen, the Protomartyr did. That’s what Saint John Chrysostom did.

The church is not a courtroom where you come for condemnation. The church is also not a hospice care, where you come to be made to feel comfortable in your sin. The church is the hospital, and the priest is the heart surgeon. Let him do his work. For that is where the Holy Spirit steps in and does his work.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God is One.


This homily was preached on Sunday morning, December 27, 2015,
at St. John of Damascus Orthodox Mission in Carbondale, Illinois,
by Fr. Joseph Gleason.

Transcription by Janelle Sipes.

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in Acts 2, Acts 5, Acts 7, Fr. Joseph Gleason, Matthew 2, Preaching. Bookmark the permalink.

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