Category Archives: Sermons

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (15)

What happens when we die? For the atheist the answer is simple; consciousness disappears and the body disintegrates. Of course, many people believe in reincarnation. This belief was always marginal in the West but Hindus and Buddhists believe in reincarnation. In recent years more and more Westerners have adopted this belief. However, Westerners who believe in reincarnation often have a rather “romantic” view of it. One somehow learns that in a previous life one was Cleopatra or Napoleon and somehow learns that in a future life one will be a king or queen and so one goes on through eternity, experiencing many different lives. However, many Hindus and Buddhists believe that this cycle of birth, death and rebirth is a kind of prison and the goal of religion is to free one’s self from this wheel of reincarnation. Through religious practice one is freed from this when they achieve liberation or enlightenment. To repeat, the idea of reincarnation has always been a marginal one in Christianity. The Christian view is expressed in the letter to the Hebrews 9:27.

“….. it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment…”

We die and then experience the particular judgement and we learn how we will exist until the final judgement when Christ will come with his angels to judge the living and the dead. At this time, the dead will arise.

The Last Judgement is described in Matthew 25: 31-46. Jesus Christ makes it clear that we will be judged on the basis of the love and practical charity we have practiced during our lives. If we have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked and visited those who are sick or in prison, we have done these things to Jesus Christ and will be sheep who will enter heaven. If we have not done these things we will be among the goats who do not enter the Kingdom. This is a severe judgement and we must prepare for it.

However, we should ask who the judge will be. We will not be judged by God the Father in Heaven. Rather we will be judged by Jesus Christ, as we see in John 5:26-27.

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man.”

In other words we will be judged by the Son of God who became the Son of Man. Jesus took on the fullness of our humanity. Jesus Christ knows what it is to be human. As the letter to the Hebrews says in 4:14-16.

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

We all will face a judge who shares and knows our humanity. Therefore let us lead lives of forgiveness and be prepared to be judged by the one who is love incarnate.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (14B)

As stated in the previous article, God never ceases to love anyone. God loves those who turn away from Him and hate him. However, this love can seem painful to those who hate God. After all, if one hates God’s presence then His presence will make such a person uncomfortable, to say the least.

But how can this be? Why would God’s presence make someone uncomfortable? Let us consider an analogy (not original with this author).  Let’s imagine we love some kind of classical music, say Bach’s piano concerti. We listen to them at home and in the car. We go to concerts as often as we can. We may even read books about them. At some point we get tickets to a live performance by a world famous pianist. We are overjoyed and we sit there enraptured listening to the performance. This is somewhat similar to the way those who love God feel in His presence.

But imagine we hate classical music, maybe we have no interest in music at all. We like to be outdoors, to play sports, etc. In that case, two hours at a Bach concert would seem like a punishment. It would be painful for us. This is the way sinners feel in the presence of God. The music is the same – it acts on people in different ways. God’s love is always present but it acts on people in different ways. As Fr. Thomas Hopko writes,

“The doctrine of eternal hell, therefore, does not mean that God actively tortures people by some unloving and perverse means. It does not mean that god takes delight in the punishing and pain of His people whom He loves. Neither does it mean that God separates Himself from His people, thus causing them anguish in this separation. It means, rather, that God continues to allow all people, saints and sinners alike, to exist forever. For those who loved God, resurrection from the dead and the presence of God will be paradise. For those who hate God, resurrection from the dead and the presence of God will be hell.”

When we think of the punishment of sinners, we sometimes wonder whether hell is eternal. Does it come to an end? There are some passages in the Bible that seem to imply that it does. For example, St. Peter’s speech in Acts 3:21:

“ ….. whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.

Or St. Paul’s letter to Timothy which states the following:

“… desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

There was an early Christian theologian, Origen (184-259AD) who taught that everyone would be saved, including the devil. However, the teaching was condemned at a local synod in Constantinople in 543 AD. The condemnation was repeated at the 5th Ecumenical Council in 553 AD. So Origen was condemned as a heretic for holding this idea of universal salvation (among other things). However, another early Christian writer also taught this. St. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395 AD). St. Gregory is one of the greatest theologians in Church history and he was never condemned as a heretic, although later Fathers of the church did not accept his position on the restoration of all things. So scripture teaches that hell will be eternal and there will be no universal salvation. However, in the 20th century several important theologians taught that punishment would eventually cease and all will be saved. They include Paul Evdokimus, Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, among others. So there have been modern theologians who expressed the hope that punishment will not be eternal and all would be saved. These theologians have not been condemned for holding these views, so we can certainly hope and pray that all, in accordance with God’s will, be saved.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (14A)

There are some people who cannot accept the God of the Bible, the personal God. They prefer to think of God as an impersonal being or consciousness or even impersonal force – “May the force be with you.”
There are no doubts, many reasons, for rejecting the personal God of the Bible. One reason for doing this is some people think that the personal God is a tyrant who only created humanity in order to give us orders, one who punishes us in hell for not following the rules. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As St. John writes: “He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” (I Jn 4:8) God created us for an everlasting relationship with love. But what are we to say about the situation where it seems God is punishing us? For example, when God casts Adam and Eve out of paradise for eating the forbidden fruit. After all, God says to Adam:
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, `You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil, you shall eat of it all the days of your life…” (Gen 3:17)
And to Eve:
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain, you shall bring forth children, yet
your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen 3:16)
This sounds as if God was punishing them for disobeying Him. No doubt there is that element there because certainly He did not want human beings to disobey Him and there are consequences for that. But that is not the only thing going on. Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But there were two trees in paradise. The other is the tree of life. If Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the tree of Life they would have received eternal life. This sounds good, but if they had eaten of this tree their sin would be eternal also. I other words, they would have lived forever with this sin on their conscience. This would be a terrible burden to carry. God knew when he cast Adam and Eve out of paradise that He would send His Son into the world to save Adam and Eve and all humanity with them. In other words, there would be life without sin for all eternity.
Now, what about hell? Jesus certainly tells us about hell. Does this mean that God hates the people in hell? No. God never hates His people or wants them to suffer. However, God respects human freedom. It’s difficult to understand how people can be made for an eternal, loving relationship with God and other people, but then turn away from God and other people. But God does not force people to love Him. God always respects human freedom and will never take our free will from us. But some people refuse this love. For them, God’s love will seem negative. After all, if human beings hate and reject God’s love, they will not accept the love and it will feel like a torment to them.
It is a mystery, but some people choose to reject God’s love and God respects their free will to do so. As St. Isaac the Syrian wrote:
“…. Those who find themselves in Gehenna [i.e., hell] will be chastised with the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understood that they have sinned against love undergo greater sufferings than those produced by the more fearful torture. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart which has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God. But love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the proud and as joy in the blessed.”
But how can love be experienced as something painful? We will see in the next article.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (13)

In our culture there seems to be a fascination with the end times, with the end of the world. In addition to serious theological studies, there are many popular treatments of the end of the world in the movies, on the internet, in television shows, books, magazines, etc. Of course, much of this interest in the United States comes from Christian sources. But not all. One sees material taken from Nostradamus, the Maya and countless numbers of others.

Much Christian thinking about the end times comes the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. This book was written in the late 1st century by the Apostle John, probably from the island of Patmos during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian when the church was undergoing fierce persecution ordered by the Emperor. The book, indeed, talks about the end times in quite startlingly images and language. Since the time the book was written Christians have tried to predict the time of the end of the world through interpreting the words and images in this book. In a certain sense this is not wrong because the Book of Revelation is indeed written to talk about the end times. But time and time again, people have tried to learn, not only the exact time of the end, but also detailed descriptions of the people, places and events of the end times, trying to prove when this will take place. However, Jesus Christ, shortly before his return to heaven said: “…”It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.” (Acts 1:7) Here Christ is clearly telling future generations that they will never know the exact sequence of the end. Many times people have tried to fit the images and language of this book exactly to their own time, which in hindsight, seems silly to us. For example, once the author of these lines was shown a book written in the early 19th century proving that every detail in the Book of Revelation specifically pointed to Napoleon as the one who is bringing about the end of the world. And of course, before and after this time Christians have seen different historical figures as the Antichrist, who will come before the end and do horrible things. So different persecutors have been called Antichrist: Attila the Hun, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, etc. so trying to use this book as a book of details of the immediate future. So there was every reason to read this book in times of persecution. Doing this shows us the real meaning of this book is to comfort and strengthen Christians undergoing persecution. As said above, this work was written at the time of the persecution ordered by the Emperor Diocletian and it does brings comfort to Christian undergoing persecution. Indeed, this is, despite the quite graphic and violent images and language, does give comfort. As St. John writes: “… he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

This book tells us that ultimately, God is in charge, and will finally save His faithful people.

Of course, one reason that God does not tell us either the time of our own death or the end of the world is so that we will always been vigilant. This is not to say that God is trying to frighten us, but rather to prevent us getting lazy in living the Christian life. Christ told us through parables about vigilance. For example:

“Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing. Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, `My master is delayed,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and eats and drinks with the drunken, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him, and put him with the hypocrites; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” (Matthew 24:45-51)

In this parable, as well as others, Christ tells us always be vigilant, but concerning our own end and the end of the world.

But again, Christ is not trying to frighten us. The whole meaning of the Book of Revelation is one of hope. It tells us that no matter the suffering which we personally experience and the whole world experiences, God is in charge. One of the most touching verses of the Bible is found in Revelation 21:4 “… he will wipe away every tear from their eyes…” This is what God has instore for each of us and for the whole world.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (12)

​Many people has asked: “What is man? What is humanity?” The Bible itself asks the question:“What is man, that thou dost make so much of him, and that thou dost set thy mind upon him,…” (Job 7:17)

Many people have a rather low view of humanity. Some people think that human beings are simply animals and have developed consciousness by some unknown process. Others think of human beings in economic terms. People are simply economic units who produce and consume. In some Asian religions the human person has no ultimate reality.

​The Bible has a different view. The Book of Psalms says

“… what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.” (Ps 8:4-5)

And the Book of Genesis says:

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (Gen 1:26)

In other words, human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and no matter how far one strays from God, no matter how far the image and likeness has been replaced by sin, the image and likeness can never be lost and a person can always repent and restore the image. In the words of St. Gregory the Theologian:

“Let us offer to Him who suffered and rose again… ourselves, the possession most precious to God and most proper.”

​In other words, human beings are God’s most precious possession. For that reason God never gives up on humanity no matter how much we have strayed from God’s path, which is the reason that God chose the Jewish people for the coming of Christ to restore a damaged image. And finally Christ comes into the world to save us. Christ’s saved us by his life, death and resurrection. Christ’s life is salvific but in many respects the crucifixion is the heart of Christ’s mission. Quoting St. Gregory again, “A few drops of Blood recreated the whole of creation.” Christ’s death on the cross and His resurrection renews and saves, not only human beings, but the whole of creation. In fact as 2 Peter 1:4 says:

“Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”

​This is what humanity is called to and destined for.​
We should realize that Christ never abandoned his humanity, but Christ’s humanity sits at the right of the Father. In other words, Christ, by ascending into heaven, has taken humanity into heaven. In this way Christ is divinizing or humanity and we all will be in heaven with God in our deified humanity. In other words, Christ ascension into heaven, body and soul, points the way to our life in heaven, body and soul.

Fr. John