39 - Saints of America and Russia, June 26, 2011

Hebrews 11:33-12:2 (Saints)

Matthew 4:18-23

Matthew 4:25-18:12 (Saints)

This morning in the OCA, we celebrate all the saints of America and Russia. Most of us here are converts to the Orthodox Faith; we come from ethnic backgrounds that are European and Mediterranean. Only a handful of us come from Slavic or Russian backgrounds. So why would we in the OCA focus this morning on the saints of Russia, when we have little to do with Russia ethnically or culturally?

We celebrate the saints of Russia because it was through the Russian Orthodox Church that the Orthodox Christian Faith came to this land. In the 18th century, the Patriarch of Moscow sent a group of monks to serve the Orthodox Christians who were in Alaska, then a Russian province. Among those monks, of course, was our own patron saint, Herman of Alaska.

The relevant point to this is that the Christian Faith is not a theoretical school of thought. It is a concrete event that occurred in space-time, in history, even as it transcends history. It is full of spiritual meaning, which is communicated through flesh and blood persons. For, the foundation of the Christian faith is not a philosophy or theoretical school of thought. The foundation of the Christian Faith is Jesus Christ Himself. The doctrine that Jesus taught is the words of Him who is Himself the Word of the Father. As Jesus Himself says, the words He speaks are words He heard from the Father; and, they are not for hearing only. They are for doing. And, if we would do them, again as Jesus Himself tells us, they would lead us to Him, to Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life through whom alone one comes to the Father.

Jesus Christ was not a mythical figure. He is not a symbol of some religious truth. Jesus Christ is Himself the Truth; He is the only-begotten Son of God, the Word of God who in these last days became flesh and dwelt among us. This was a real, concrete event, such that what the Holy Apostles proclaim to us is not what they thought or reasoned out; it is what they saw with their eyes, heard with their ears, and touched with their hands.

The Christian Faith is the Life of God, the uncreated Life of God. It is not of the “blood of men, or the desire of the flesh or the will of man.” It is not sexual, biological, worldly life. It is not of this world at all. It is the Life of God. And this Life is in Jesus Christ, so that the Life of God that one receives in the Christian Faith is not some abstraction, either. It is concrete, just as Jesus Christ is concrete. It is personal, just as Jesus Christ is personal.

The Christian Faith is not communicated from mind to mind in books as though it were a school of thought that can be learned by reading and thinking like the different schools of philosophical thought are learned. It is communicated from one person to another in a real, concrete way. It is communicated through deeds, not through thoughts. It is mediated through deeds of love and goodness.

This is how the Christian Faith has been spread throughout the world – from one person to another person. To be sure, the Christian Faith is taught in words and concepts, as in adult education or at theological seminaries. To be sure, the Christian Faith does present us with a certain vision or doctrine of human nature and destiny – as do all religious philosophies. But the words of this doctrine of the Church point beyond themselves to the Word who is the Person of Jesus Christ in whom all things were made. Those who hear these words and attend to them are led beyond their own ears that hear them, beyond their minds that understand them to whatever degree, to the existential center of our being, to the mystery of our inner identity, to the “who” that each one of us is beneath the masks we wear, to reveal us to ourselves as persons created in the Person, the Image of the Uncreated Word of God. And, it reveals to us that the only way we will discover ourselves as persons, the only way we will realize our true nature and destiny, is not by mastering the words of the doctrine of the Christian Faith, but by learning to love God and our neighbor in real space-time existence as He has loved us.

For, this is how the Christian Faith is communicated: through persons loving persons. The personal, loving Spirit of God proceeds from the Father and is given through the Lord Jesus Christ to His Holy Apostles. That Spirit is embodied in the words of the Christian proclamation and in the doctrines of the Christian Faith, so that the words of the Christian proclamation and doctrine are living words, not dead words. They are words that bear witness to the love of God. The love of God permeates the words of the doctrine of the Christian Faith and makes the words of the Christian Faith alive in the power of the uncreated Life of God that is not of this world. It is this love of God that speaks to the heart and soul of each one who hears the words of the Christian Faith. In that divine love, the words of Christian teaching become words of proclamation. Soaking in the living waters of divine love, the word of the Christian Faith penetrates beyond the ears, beyond the mind, even beyond the division of soul and spirit, beyond the joints and marrow, all the way to the thoughts and intentions of the heart, to touch the hearer at the core of his being. It this love of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God who died and rose again, who is embodied in the words of the Church and makes them living words, alive with the uncreated life and light and love of God – it is this love of God the Father in the Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the communion of the Holy Spirit that the hearer responds to in the words of the Church. And, in the love of Jesus Christ, the words of the Church quicken us in depths of soul that we didn’t know were there. From these depths, we respond to the Church’s proclamation not as to a school of thought or an abstract philosophy, but as to the Person of the Living Word of God that is Jesus Christ Himself who so loved the world that He voluntarily ascended the Cross for us.

In commemorating the saints of America and Russia this morning, we celebrate this fundamentally personal quality of the Christian Faith that we have received in our Baptism. In this morning’s Gospel, we read about St Andrew the apostle. I single him out because I venerated his skull on the Holy Mountain at the Chapel of St Andrew the Apostle. And, I received with my brother pilgrims, blessed oil from the lampada that burns before St Andrew’s reliquary in that chapel, with which you all will be anointed this morning after the Divine Liturgy.

Moreover, it was from St Andrew the Apostle that, according to the Tradition of the Church, the Christian Faith was planted in the cities of Byzance that later became the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine missionaries took the Christian Faith to Bulgaria, to the Slavic lands and to Moscow and to all of Russia; and from Moscow, in the person of St Herman of Alaska and those with him, the Christian Faith was brought to this land. See how we embrace the holy Orthodox Christian faith in a line of persons, a line of saints going all the way back to St Andrew the Apostle, who connects us directly, personally – not just in theory but personally – to the Person of Jesus Christ Himself.

In this line of personal continuity that goes all the way back to Jesus Christ Himself, we receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, too, is not an abstract principle; He is not an energy or force field. He is not an idea we can talk about. He is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity whom we receive and whose divine, uncreated Life we live not just in words but also in our deeds. The Life, the Wisdom, the Grace that He gives is not abstract; it is personal and concrete. It has the power to heal us concretely in soul and in body, as the miracles of the saints throughout the ages down to our own day bear witness. It is a healing grace that would raise us up to heaven if we would but live in it, if we would but give ourselves to it and not to the world, if we would but trust in it and not in our own strength or wisdom, if we would but take up our cross to learn and practice the love of Christ. Most Holy Theotokos, save us!