This sermon was preached on the eve of All Saints Day, Saturday evening, October 31, 2014 by Dn. Joseph Gleason at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.
Transcribed and edited by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit
Our God is One.
Saints and Sinners
Ultimately, there are only two classes of people, not three. Some people seem to think that there are three: The first class of people are the worst class. Those are the ones who completely turn their backs on God, utterly reject His Church, and spend eternity in hell separated from fellowship with Him. The second group is the best of the people: Those who are exalted in heaven as saints. Then the third class is the rest of the people, the rest of us, who are just lazy, bumbling Christians who could never live up to the saints. Thankfully, though, we still manage to stumble into heaven somehow.
In fact, the Church does not have such a distinction. There is not a separate class of people who are naturally super-spiritual ready-made saints, and the rest of us are not relegated to second-rate status just hoping to stumble into heaven through the back door. As I have pointed out before, this sort of thinking actually dishonors the saints. Now, if I could see a show of hands – anybody that wants to dishonor the saints, raise your hand. I don’t see anybody raising their hand. We’re here to honor the saints not to dishonor them.
When we say that the saints are far holier than we could ever be, we are not paying them a compliment.
Gremlins and Ferraris
An analogy that Subdeacon Jeremy and I have discussed at various times and both of us have used in sermons in the past is the difference between a Gremlin – an old, beat-up car from the 80’s painted some color that you wouldn’t want to see – and a NASCAR – one of the best, most souped-up, state-of-the-art engines that you can imagine, in perfect condition manned by one of the top drivers in the field. If you were to take an old, beat-up car from the 80’s that you got for $500 off of an old jalopy car lot, and you were to put it in a race against a NASCAR, or against a Ferrari Testarossa, or against a Porsche, and a sports car were to beat the old Gremlin, how shocked would you be?
Let me ask you something: How much would you congratulate the driver of the sports car? You sit there, and you watch this race; and this master NASCAR driver gets in his state-of-the-art machine; and he slams down the gas, and he speeds out; and, almost as soon as he hits the gas, he’s crossing the finish line. About three or four minutes later, putt putt putt putt backfire putt putt putt putt, this old car finally putters across the finish line. After watching such an exciting race, would you walk up to the NASCAR driver and say, “Man, that was amazing! You just really knew what you were doing. You just creamed him. You really beat him! Good job!”? Would you praise him?
Why wouldn’t you be impressed? Why wouldn’t you go pat him on the back and congratulate him? Why not? [Someone replies: “They’re not in the same category.”] Exactly! They’re not even in the same category.
It’s only impressive if they start with the same engines, the same level of cars. Now, if you put two NASCARS head-to-head, and you put Dale, Jr. in one of those cars, and you put Henry David Gross in the other car, and Henry David beats him, he’s going to get a lot of pats on the back. He’s going to get a lot of congratulations. He’ll probably be on Channel 3 News. And in some local race, if you were take a couple of old, beat-up cars, you paid $500 for each of them, and you put two people in there, you still might have a pretty exciting race. I’ve seen some cool races between bikes, between side-by-sides, just about anything. As long as it’s evenly matched, then you’re impressed when somebody wins.
You see, we treat the saints like they’re NASCARS. We treat the saints like God gave them something that we don’t have. “Well, how come we don’t have everything together? How come we’re not as faithful with our prayers? How come we’re not as faithful with how we’re raising our children? We’re not quite as deep into reading the Scriptures, and we don’t really know what the Church Fathers taught, but, you see, that’s just because God just, He didn’t give us what He gave the saints. He gave them a Porsche, and He gave me a jalopy. He gave them Ferrari Testarossas and He just gave me a Gremlin. He gave them NASCARS! Well, God, He just stiffed me. He just gave me a little moped. How am I supposed to compete on that?”
You see, we think we’re honoring the saints. We think we’re lifting them up, but actually, we are dishonoring them. What we are saying is: “You being a saint? That’s no big deal. That’s not impressive. God gave you more than he gave me. If God had given me what He gave you, then I would be a saint just like you.”
That’s pride. That’s not honoring the saints. That’s pride!
You want to honor the saints? Read the lives of the saints. See how they struggled against sin. See how they fell into sin and then repented of it and then turned their backs on it and conquered it. See how they struggled, not for days, or weeks, or months, but for years in deprivations, in tortures, in ridicule, in hunger, in famine, being poor, having nothing but the clothes on their backs if that.
They weren’t given anything that you weren’t given. The only thing different between the saints and us is our choice.
At the same time, this is sobering and it’s encouraging. It’s sobering because you go home, and you look in the mirror, and you don’t see a saint there, and it’s not God’s fault. But it’s also very encouraging because it means we’re not stuck here. What you see when you look in the mirror – you’re not stuck with that! You don’t have to stay there.
You see, here’s the deal: God gives everybody old, beat-up cars. In this world, we all end up with old, beat-up cars. That’s what we start with. That’s not God’s fault. If you want to see the fault behind it, look at Adam and Eve and the sin that came into the human race. But we all start out broken. We all start out [as] beat-up jalopies, old cars.
Here’s the deal: God gives us the Church where we can get a new engine, body work, paint, the best fuel. You can be fixed up to the point that you are a NASCAR. You can be fixed up to the point that you are a Ferrari or a Porsche.
But it takes a lot of work to turn one into the other! It’s not something you do overnight, and it’s not something you do being lazy. And it’s not something you do with minimal sacrifice. You’re going to have to spend a lot of time in the body shop if you’re going to turn a Gremlin into a Ferrari!
God intends all of us to become saints without exception. In eternity, there are only two classes of people: You’re going to have those in hell, separated from fellowship with God, and you’re going to have full-blown saints and nothing in-between. You’re either going to be one or the other.
You face struggles? Well, the saints faced the same struggles. They conquered their struggles. You can conquer yours if you choose. They were victorious over sin. You can be victorious over sin if you want.
A Lifetime of Repentance
While the Protestants are busy filling the world with books, the Orthodox are busy filling the world with relics, for we are all called to be saints. Therefore, halfway is not good enough. We are called to become saints, and that requires a lifetime of repentance.
Repentance is not something you do once and then get it over with. That is the lie, the outright lie, behind the “sinner’s prayer” and the “eternal security” that is taught by certain branches of Protestantism. This [is the] idea that if, just one time in your life, you feel bad enough about what a wretched sinner you’ve been, that if you come down front [of the church], and kneel down, and cry, and ask God to forgive you, that that one event once in your life, that is repentance, and now you’re a Christian, and you can’t lose it, and you’re going to heaven. That’s a lie! Millions of people go to hell because they believe in that lie!
Repentance is not something you feel. Feeling bad is not repentance. Feeling bad is the motivation to repent. Repentance is what you do after you feel bad about what you did. If you say, “I’m so sorry. I feel bad that I hurt you like that,” and you don’t change your actions, you have not repented!
Repentance, metanoia, literally in Greek, means to change your mind. Meta is change. Noia is mind. That means you literally have to turn a 180 and start thinking differently.
You are thinking selfishly. Now you are thinking, “Okay, how can I give?” Your thoughts were constantly dwelling on yourself. Now turn your thoughts away from yourself and onto the other person. Your thoughts before were greed and “give me.” You’ve got to turn your back on that and say, “Okay, how can I give? How can I give to somebody else to help them?”
Repentance is something you do daily until you look like Jesus. Our goal is to be like Christ in every way, and that goal is attainable.
I’m going to say that again. You have heard for years that, yeah, we’re supposed to be Christ-like. We’re supposed to be little Christs, Christians, but you can’t do that, so don’t even try. No.
Our goal is to be like Christ in every way, and that goal is attainable.
The Race of Faith
The only way you cannot be like Him is [that] you cannot become the second Person of the Trinity. You can’t be God. But you can become just like Him.
However, it is not easy. It requires great struggle. When I was twelve, the school coach put me in a race called the 800-meter dash. Twice around a quarter-mile track, I started well, and my schoolmates cheered for me. But I got tired too quickly and slowed down. Then I got a pain in my side and slowed down even more. I was so far behind that I think the next-slowest person crossed the finish line about a minute before I did. It was bad. I don’t even think they registered my time, because the coaches had stopped looking at the finish line before I ever arrived there.
This is not how we are supposed to run this race – the race of the Christian faith. We must take the faith seriously as life and death and give it our all.
At a recent matins or vespers at home, I had a talk with my kids about what it looks like to be faithful, about what it looks like to be an Orthodox Christian. I talked about one of the ways that Satan commonly deceives us to convince us that we’re okay when we’re actually in great danger. You see, one of the best strategies that Satan has devised to keep us from following Christ is sort of like vaccinations. He inoculates us with such a weak strain of Christianity that we build up our defenses, and we never contract the real thing. We have such a watered-down faith that we never actually catch the real disease.
And here’s what we do: We compare ourselves, not with Christ but with others. We say:
Man, look at all those people out there that are so wicket. Look at all that gay marriage out there. Look at all the abortions. Look at all the Protestants, and Catholics, and all the Buddhists, and all the false religions, the Christian religions but that aren’t Orthodox, and they reject the true Church. And look at me! Look at my family! We pray three times a day. That’s 21 times a week. Every morning, we’re praying matins as a family. Before lunch, we’re praying noon prayers. Every evening, we’re praying vespers. You know what? Some of us are so holy that we’re throwing compline in too! And then there [are] other prayers throughout the day. And we’re reading Orthodox books. And we go to Orthodox Church, not just every Sunday morning but every Saturday evening. And not only that, but on feast days in the middle of the week we show up for church for that too! And we have icons in our house and incense! God is so lucky to have us. God has got to be so pleased with us!
This is where I said:
Kids, I want to ask you a question. I want you to imagine that three times a day, without being forced, without being told to, just three times a day because you want to, on your own, you come into the room where your dad and your mom are, and you listen carefully. Mom and dad sit down with you and they tell you: “This is what you need to do: You need to clean your room. You need to get along with your brothers and sisters. You need to eat your vegetables. You need to do your school work. You need say your prayers. Here’s all the things that you need to do.” And you listen, and you memorize what we say, and you not, and you say, “Yes, Daddy. Yes, Mommy.” You hug your mom and dad. Then you go out, and you do absolutely nothing that we told you to do.
Then faithfully, at noon, you come back in again and listen, and Mom and Dad tell you again, “Okay, here’s what you need to do.” And you say, “Yes, Daddy. Yes, Mommy. I love you.” And you hug us, and you walk out, and you do absolutely nothing that we told you to do.
Then in the evening, a third time, you come into the room, and you listen carefully. Mom and Dad tell you, “Here’s what you need to do.” Then after that you walk out, and you disobey everything that Mom and Dad said.
I said, “If a day went like that, by the end of the day, do you think your Dad and Mom would be smiling and patting you on the back saying, ‘Good job! You came and you listened to us three times today, and you listened to everything that we told you to do. Good job! We’re so proud of you!’?”
Well, my kids unanimously agreed that would not be the result of that day. The result of that day would involve some paddling. It would involve some sore behinds that would not be able to sit down for a while. Mom and Dad would not be pleased at all.
“But three times that day we came right before you, and we asked you what you wanted. And you told us, and we memorized what you wanted. And we hugged you, and we said we loved you.” That’s true, but then when you walked out, you did not do what we said. So, by the end of the day, we’re not proud of you. We’re not pleased with you. We’re not patting you on the back. Now it’s time to pull out the rod of discipline, for you have not honored our words with your actions.
Now we, as adults and children come before our Father in heaven every Sunday morning to partake of Christ’s Body and Blood. From the preaching, from the reading that we do in the lives of saints, through the Liturgy, through the hymns, through the Psalms, through the Scriptures; we hear what our Heavenly Father has told us we must do.
He doesn’t keep secrets from us!
He tells us:
- This is the way marriage is supposed to work.
- Here is what is required of husbands.
- Here is what is required of wives.
- Here is required of money. It’s not yours. Even the job that you worked to earn that money – I gave that job to you! That’s a gift. Everything you have is Mine. Here’s what I require you do with your money.
- Those kids you think are yours – I knit them together in your womb. I loaned them to you for a while. You are a steward of My children, and you will answer to Me for how you raise them.
- Here is what I am telling you to do when you raise your children.
- Here is what I am telling you to do with your food.
- Here is what I am telling you to do with your body.
- Here is what I am telling you to do with your clothes.
- Here is what I am telling you to do with your speech and your tongue.
- Here is what God tells you to do with your entertainment!
100% of your life, God has something to say about it. You come Sunday morning, and you hear from the Heavenly Father [that] this is what you are to do. On Saturday evening at vespers, you come before your Heavenly Father, and God says, “This is what I want you to do.” Wednesday morning, the ladies get together to study Scripture and the saints together, and the Heavenly Father tells us, “This is what I want you to do.” Thursday morning, the men get together for their men’s Bible study, and our Heavenly Father tells us, “This is what I expect you to do.”
Every day in our homes, we pray together as families at matins. In those prayers, in those prayers, in those psalms, in those Scripture Readings, our Heavenly Father says, “This is what I expect of you.” When we pray together at noon, God says, “Here’s what I expect.” As families, when we daily come before Him and pray at Vespers, our Heavenly Father says, “This is what is required.”
I don’t want to hear about how many times you pray, or how many times you go to church, or much Scripture you’ve memorized, or many chants you know, or how much incense is stuck in your clothing or your head coverings.
What I want to know is: In between your prayer times, in between the times you go to church, are you doing what your Heavenly Father told you to do? If not, then at the end of the day, don’t expect Him to pat you on the back and say, “Good job! You showed up to hear My commands.” He never says, “Well heard” or “well memorized, my good and faithful servant.” The only congratulations that He ever gives is, “Well done” [cf. Matthew 25:23].
You come to church, you pray, you read the books, you study the lives of the saints, not because those things do one little bit to get you into heaven. You do those things so that you may learn what it means to be a saint, and to think like a saint, and to live like a saint, and to do the things that saints to. Then when you leave the church, when you leave the Bible study, when you set down that book, when family prayer time is over, now let’s see you worship God with your life! Now let’s see whether that prayer that you just prayed did any good. Let’s see whether that church service you just went to has done any good.
- How do you love your wife, husbands?
- Wives, how do you respect your husbands?
- Parents, how diligently on a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute basis are you raising up your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord?
- Children, how consistently are you honoring and obeying your father and mother?
- Are you obeying God with your entertainment?
- Are you obeying God with your reading and music choices?
- Are you obeying God with your money?
- Are you obeying God in your marriage?
- Are you obeying God with alms, and tithes, and offerings?
- Are you obeying God in regard to prayer?
You see, prayer is double-sided. During prayer we learn how to obey God, but prayer itself is also something which He tells us to do. Studying the Scriptures tells us how to obey God. However, studying the Scriptures is also something that He has told us to do.
This is not a time to be overwhelmed, and to give up and to say, “I fall so far short that I might as well give up and leave.” No, this is a time to say:
Wow! I have already repented so much. I’ve already grown so much. I’m already so much better off now than I was a year ago or five years ago. But you know what? When you put it like that, when you start comparing me to Jesus, when you start comparing me to the saints, when I look in the mirror, I see [that] I have a whole lot more repenting to do.
And that is exactly where each one of us needs to be: Rejoicing in hope, knowing that God has already cleaned out so many of the rooms and the closets of our lives but humbled by the fact that there [are] a whole lot more closets that need to be cleaned out, made sober by the realization that we are not saints yet, at least not in the sense of the saints that we venerate. We have not been perfected yet in the same sense that saints in heaven have been perfected. And until we have reached perfection – for God says, “Be perfect as I am perfect” [cf Matthew 5:48] – until we have reached perfection, we daily need to be repenting. We daily need to be growing. We daily need to be looking at our lives and saying, “Okay, is there one more corner of my life where I still have not submitted to Christ? Okay, that corner goes down today, because I am going to be closer to Christ today than I was yesterday.” Then tomorrow, you say, “There’s another corner of my life where I still haven’t submitted to Christ. I’m taking that one down today. I’m going to make progress every day. I am going to plod ahead, because I still have a long way to go.”
If you think that you’ve already arrived, you’re already backsliding. But in humility, if you recognize that you still have a long way to go, and, instead of giving up, if you say, “I am going to go there. However hard it is and however long it takes, I am going to defeat sin, and I am going to be like Christ,” if you do that in humility, then Christ will be right there with you. And whether you die today or fifty years from now, God will meet any gap that is there. He has promised to be patient. He has promised to be gracious. He has promised to forgive us our sins, to be kind to us in our weaknesses. There is one promise, however, which even Jesus did not give us:
Jesus did not promise to be there by our side and to carry us through even when we are willfully lazy.
See, the moment you decide you want to be lazy in the faith, the moment you decide that, “I’ve already come far enough. There’s no need to press on. I’m going to make it to heaven anyway,” that is the moment when you’re in trouble.
So, if you don’t want to be in trouble, if you want to be the recipient of the promises of Christ, then press on diligently every day to repent of more thing. Then repent of one more thing. Then repent of one more thing. And take it seriously, not stopping until you have crossed the finish line.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
Our God is One.
 Greek: μετάνοια, from μετανοεῖν (metanoein), μετα is change, νοεῖν is from νοῦς (nous), meaning mind.
This sermon was preached on the eve of All Saints Day, Saturday evening, October 31, 2014 by Dn. Joseph Gleason at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois.
Transcribed and edited by Maria Powell of Dormition Text Services. Dormition Text Services offers full-service secretarial support, including transcription, editing, and publishing services to Orthodox clergy and communities.