38 - All Saints, June 19, 2011

Hebrews 11:33-12:2

Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30

On these Sundays immediately following Pentecost, in addition to the specific saints that we commemorate on that particular day, we also commemorate different groups of saints. This morning, we commemorate all the saints, both those that are known to us and also those who are known only to God.

As we move through the Church year, we count each Sunday as so many Sundays after Pentecost, so that Pentecost, as the crown, the perfection and completion of Pascha, as that by which the faithful are made into saints, is the reference point of the Church year. This indicates that the Church, the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation and His Holy Pascha are all about making sinners into disciples of Christ, and disciples into saints.

A theme, then, that is most natural for us to contemplate on these Sundays immediately following Pentecost is saintliness and the accompanying doctrine of the election of the saints. There is a doctrine of election in the Church. We see it in this morning’s Gospel: there are those whom Christ will acknowledge or confess before His Father in Heaven, those whom He will elect; and there are those whom He will disown, those whom He will not elect. But the doctrine of election that we learn in the Holy Faith of the Orthodox Church is different from what we hear outside the Orthodox Church. The Holy Orthodox Church teaches that we can become elect if we make ourselves attractive to God so that He will want to elect us. How do we make ourselves attractive to God so that we can be counted among the elect as saints in whom God loves to rest?

I learned that this is the doctrine of election in the Orthodox Church when I read a homily delivered by St Gregory Palamas (whose relics, by the way, I venerated in Thessaloniki; and I also stood at the pulpit from which St Gregory may well have preached this particular sermon I’m referring to).[1] I was especially excited to read this in St Gregory’s homily because a short time earlier I had come to the same conclusion from my own study of the first epistle of St Peter. For St Peter, the work of faith is to make yourself into a smooth stone, so that when God looks over the selection of stones, He will find you, a smooth stone, and will select you, i.e. “elect” you to be used in the building of His Church.

So, how do we make ourselves attractive to God? I believe our Gospel this morning is telling us. Confess Christ, do not deny Him; and, love Christ more than father and mother, brother and sister. Now, what does that mean? Does it mean to leave father and mother, as St Peter says in the Gospel this morning? How does Christ leave His Father and Mother, His brothers and sisters? Surely, that will give us a better idea of how we should understand this command of the Lord.

Did Christ forsake His Father and Mother? Yes, He did on the Cross, when he left them, in a profound divine irony, out of obedience in expression of His love for them.

For, He does what His Mother asks Him to do at the marriage of Cana of Galilee. That miracle, when He changed water into wine, has clear Paschal overtones. His time had not yet come, so He complained to His Mother. Even so, He did as she directed Him. And what He did when he changed the water into wine was to pre-figure His death on the Cross when He would deny Himself out of His obedience to God His Father. For it is as St Paul tells us: “Though He was in the form of God, He emptied Himself and assumed the form of a servant, and was obedient to God His Father even to the point of death on the Cross.” In His obedience to His Father and His Mother, did He not show His great love for us. He emptied Himself; He denied Himself even to the point of death on the Cross. And because He left His Father and Mother, because He denied Himself in obedience to them, He destroyed death by His death. He changed water into wine when He changed us who were children of men into children of God, born of His Holy Spirit at our Pentecost, our Holy Baptism and Chrismation. He made us saints by granting us to live in His own divine life that is eternal in the love of God the Father and in the communion of the Holy Spirit – the communion of all the saints in whom God loves to dwell as in His Holy Temple.

When in this context of Christ’s own love and obedience to His Father and Mother I contemplate His command to us to love Him more than father and mother, brother and sister, I see Him directing us to unite ourselves to Him in the likeness of His death on the Cross, in order to die to the old man in us that is selfish and who lives to indulge himself, in order that we might be raised up in the likeness of Christ’s Holy Resurrection into the divine life of the New Man that is in Christ, and in that divine life of Christ to offer ourselves in Christ to God on behalf of all and for all.

And this, I believe, is how we make ourselves attractive to God so that He will want to “elect” us. We make ourselves attractive by repenting; and, by humbly and meekly submitting ourselves in obedience to the Lord’s command to deny ourselves, to take up our Cross and to follow Him. We make ourselves attractive to God, that is to say, as we work in the fear of God, with faith and love, to cultivate a broken and contrite heart; and in that contrition to acknowledge and confess our sins. That means that to become attractive to God we have to stop blaming everyone else for our problems or our unhappiness or our own misbehavior. Our touchy-feely society today especially likes to blame our parents for everything that’s wrong with us. I see the Lord’s command to us this morning telling us sternly to leave such self-centered indulgence behind, to leave our grudges and anger behind, our blame-shifting, our habitual tendency to accuse and condemn even those who love us the most, our parents, and to follow Christ to the cross in loving obedience to the Father and Mother of Christ, in order to crucify our vanity and our self-centeredness, in order to follow Christ into the joy of His Holy Resurrection and the forgiveness of sins.

This gives a Christian understanding of the purpose of this life. It’s like a stone quarry. We are stones lying on the ground of this quarry. We submit ourselves to Christ in obedience to Him, in a humble spirit, a broken and contrite heart, and in that humble simplicity of obedience we remain faithful to Him as He uses the trials and afflictions that beset in this life as the means by which He makes us into smooth stones, so that when our Guardian Angel presents us to Him at our death, He will find us attractive, filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, in love with His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, and elect us to be one of the stones he uses to build His heavenly Church.

Contemplate the inner dispositions that would be required in order to submit in obedience to Christ and to follow Him to His Cross, and I think we will uncover those qualities that would make us attractive to God so that He would make us one of His elect saints. I see the qualities of selflessness, humility, simplicity and meekness. I see an absence of malice, bitterness and resentment. I see a contrition that is conscious of one’s own sins and that leaves the judgment of others to God. I see the practice of charity in forgiving others. And above all, I see in these qualities a mind and a heart that wants to grow in the fear of God, in faith and in love. When we do these things, we are confessing Christ before men; we are loving Him more than father and mother, brother and sister. Then, we are beginning to participate in His Holy Resurrection. And, in the joy of His Holy Resurrection, we receive and begin to grow in the Holy Spirit that was given to us at our Baptism and Chrismation, our Pentecost. Then, when we return to our father and mother, brother and sister, we do so in a selflessness of love that is already anointed with the spirit of gladness, of joy and overflowing charity. This, I think, is what it means to gain our father and mother, brother and sister a hundredfold. We gain them a hundredfold because we gain them in the joy, the love, and the eternal life of Christ’s Holy Spirit. We gain them in Christ as we deny ourselves in obedience to Christ’s Father and Mother; and, in the fear of God, and with faith and love we take up the cross of obedience and humble submission to Christ and His holy commandments to become one of His elect saints in whom He loves to dwell, a select stone more precious than silver and gold that He will want to use in the building of His Holy Church. Amen.

[1] Homily 41.