Sermon for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son (2018)

February 04, 2018

Sermon for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son (2018)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Introduction

In the life of a martyr, the greatest of all virtues is seen: love - love for Jesus Christ. “Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends” (cf. John 15:13-14). And who is our supreme friend if not Christ? As He himself says, we are His friends, and not His servants, if we keep His commandments.

It is only through the lens of love that we can see that all things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to His purpose.For God’s love and His purposes are less apparent to us in a life of pleasure and ease than they are in a life of hardship and suffering.

“He came to himself.”

Where does this love begin? When we come to ourselves.

In the parable of the prodigal son, this young man, after leaving home and spending all of his inheritance, and having hired himself out and is feeding swine, about him it is said, “He came to himself.” What does it mean that he came to himself? It means that he came to know the errors of leaving his father’s household and he repents: “I will arise and go to my father and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.” And what does the young man find? His father, running to meet him and looking to celebrate his return with no hint of chastisement in his disposition.

We may recall the similar story with Father Melchisedek of the Pskov Caves Monastery who after exhaustively working in the monastery woodshop fell down and was presumed dead by those who saw him. When he came back to life, he was a different person and afterward was tonsured with the Great Schema, living a life of greater seclusion and prayer.

In these two scenarios, we note that it was the hardship and suffering of external circumstances which brought them to repentance. They were not looking to do so and yet they found themselves in a situation out of which they desired to be closer to God.

Apart from God waking us up through such situations, for our part, what can we do who desire such contrition of heart and want to know God’s love?

The Deceit of Pleasure

Although we desire nearness to Christ, perhaps it is we who are creating the distance by living in such pleasure and comfort which has made us numb to divine things. We are taught from every corner to avoid such a life.

In the parable of the Sower and the seed, Christ says that the seed which fell among thorns is choked due to the cares and riches and pleasures of this life (Luke 8.14). And He, who did not even have any place to lay his head (Matt. 8:20), says, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24), “he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me. He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” (Matt. 10:38-39).

The Apostle Paul writes to Timothy telling him that there will be perilous times for those who are lovers of pleasure more than they are lovers of God” (cf. 2 Tim. 3:4). “She that liveth in pleasure is dead while she liveth.” (1 Tim. 5:6).

In his work entitled On the Spiritual Law, St. Mark writes about afflictions and pleasures saying,

Afflictions bring blessing to man; self-esteem and sensual pleasure, evil.

Consider the outcome of every involuntary affliction, and you will find it has been the destruction of sin.

Accept present afflictions for the sake of future blessings; then you will never weaken in your struggle.[1]

Christian Ascent

The Christian life is not a stationary life, as though we become a Christian and that is the end of the story. No, it is a ladder ascending closer and closer to God, where we climb spiritually and at times regress, where we draw nearer to God in prayer and repentance and at times distance ourselves from Him by giving into to our passions and sins. The Christian life is a movement and a struggle upwards but never stationary, and not a life of pleasure as the world counts pleasure.

In his autobiography entitled, Report to Greco, Nikos Kazantzakis describes his forty day sojourn on Mount Athos in 1914. While there, he had the following conversation with an ascetic named Makarios:

He said, “You live a difficult life, my elder. I also wish to be saved. Is there no other way?”

“More convenient?” said the ascetic as he smiled with compassion.

“More human, my elder.”

“Only one way.”

“How do they call it?”

“Ascent. You must climb a ladder; from satiety in food to hunger; from satiety in drink to thirst; from joy to pain. At the peak of hunger, thirst, and pain sit God. At the peak of good times sits the devil.

“I am still young. The earth is good. I still have time to choose.”

The ascetic stretched out his five bony fingers, squeezed my knees and nudged me.

“Wake up, my child, wake up, before death wakes you up.”

I shuddered.

The Rejection of Pleasure and the Acceptance of Affliction

As the soul is of more value than the body, so one should not give way to the body but should discipline it in order not to be its master, in order to give life to the soul. But despite our own disciplining of our bodies, we will also have the involuntary disciplining, involuntary suffering. As Ilias the Presbyter writes, “Suffering deliberately embraced cannot free the soul totally from sin unless the soul is also tried in the fire of suffering that comes unchosen.”[2]

Perhaps when we speak of voluntary hardships and involuntary afflictions we become fearful. Fearful for our own constitution, fearful for our future, for those we care about, for our own health, whether or not it will make us falter or crumble. But may the prodigal son be an example for us. When he was in dire straits he turned in repentance back to his home. It is these so-called “harmful things,” these afflictions which turn to our profit instead and not to our destruction. Take for instance the thief on the cross, as St. John Chrysostom notes: when crucified, when nailed to the cross, and reviled, and suffering ills unnumbered, not only was he not hurt but even gained the greatest good from them.[3] And what about Lazarus, about whom Chrysostom says:

For he was crowned not merely on account of his poverty, or of his hunger or of his sores, or of the dogs licking them: but because, having such a neighbour as the rich man, and being seen by him every day, and perpetually overlooked he endured this trial bravely and with much fortitude, a trial which added no small flame but in fact a very strong one to the fire of poverty, and infirmity and loneliness.[4] He was crowned!

We are never taught about pleasure, ease, wealth, and a good reputation, etc., etc. as virtues. Instead, we hear, “Blessed are they who mourn, who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, who are reviled, and spoken falsely about for Christ’s sake.” These are they who are blessed and this is the life worth living.

Afflictions Are Accepted Out of Love for God

In this context, one may recall the life of St. Gabriel of the Seven Lakes Monastery. Perhaps you remember that he was at “death’s door” many times and even in these moments he would hear outside of his door, “When Fr. Gabriel dies, I hope to get his cell.” His response, as it was so many times in his life, “I need to love more.” He wrote, “I was willing to remain eternally alone and suffer, if only I could be with the Lord and be filled with love for Him.”[5] What I may think about criticizing, talking back, defending myself, or arguing is only from the devil and will destroy me if I give in to those suggestions. We are not commanded to love those who love us.

As well, some of you may recall, in the life of the newly canonized St. Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia, when he was thought to be dying, he writes,

I didn’t remember my sins, although I had many. I set them aside. I remembered only the love of God and was glad. And I made entreaty, ‘O my God, for the sake of your love, may I also be there... I abandon myself to Your love. If you want to place me in hell, then do so, only don’t let me lose Your love.’ For so many years I lived in the desert with love for Christ.[6]

This is the secret of the saints: love for God. As St. John Chrysostom writes,“For one needs only one thing, a genuine love for God, and all things follow that.”[7] And St. John Climacus enjoins, “So who is a faithful and wise monk? He who has kept his fervour unabated, and to the end of his life has not ceased daily to add (not only) fire to fire, (not only) fervour to fervour, (not only) zeal to zeal, [but] love to love (1:27).

The New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

Before we conclude, let us say just a few things about the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, who laid down their lives for their friends. We should recall the words of Christ and not be surprised, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you,” (John 15:20) to which the Apostle Paul adds, “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (II Tim. 3:12). But may we ask, what did they lose? Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell (Matt. 10.28). Though they lived a short time, were persecuted and suffered yet they gained an imperishable crown. And what is more, it is we who are the fruits of those labors. If the persecution had not arisen and the Russian population had not emigrated where would we all be? Their sufferings have given us life and we have become their friends. Mind you, of course, God in His goodness would have brought something else to pass for us, but instead it was through the great suffering of innumerable martyrs the amount of which has never been seen in the history of the Christian Church; their life and death has brought Christ in His Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia to us, not in contrast to any other jurisdiction but to itself, it’s history, and significance in the world.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8. 35-39).

Conclusion

Fathers, Brothers, Sisters, may we come to ourselves; may we avoid pleasure; and may all our afflictions, all our struggles, propel us on in repentance and love towards Christ.

Through the prayers of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.


[1] The Philokalia. (Boston: Faber & Faber, 1984) 1:#42,67,156.
[2] Ilias the Presbyter, “Gnomic Anthology” in The Philokalia. (Boston: Faber & Faber, 1984) 3:35.
[3] “The Epistle to the Romans” in Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, Schaff, Philip, ed. in NPNF, 1st series. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999)11:453f.
[4] Ascetical Homilies, Stephens, Rev. W.R.W. (trans.), in NPNF, 1st series. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999) 9:279f.
[5] Kholmogorov, Archimandrite Symeon. The Love of God: The Life and Teaching of St. Gabriel of the Seven Lakes Monastery. (Platina: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2016), 120-121, 127.
[6] Raffan, Father John (trans.).Wounded By Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios. (Crete: Holy Convent of the Life-Giving Spring, 2015), 226 (with minor editing).
[7] “The Epistle to the Romans” in Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, Schaff, Philip, ed. in NPNF, 1st series. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999)11:453f.




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