How To Be Resurrected - A Sermon on the 20th Sunday After Pentecost (2023)

How To Be Resurrected - A Sermon on the 20th Sunday After Pentecost (2023) - Holy Cross Monastery

The Gospel reading for this Sunday — the story of the widow of Nain — is very brief. Yet, like all of Holy Scripture, it contains many layers of meaning, each of them true, none of them superseding nor contradicting one another, but all blending together into a chorus of divine truth, containing absolutely everything that we need to know about the Kingdom of God, and about our life on this sinful earth.

Christ, the Giver of Life, comes to the gates of the city of Nain, and there He meets a funeral procession. The Lord comes down from Heaven to our broken world, and immediately and above all He meets us in the midst of profound sorrow: the pain of death itself. He comes upon a corpse — and that not of one gray-haired and full of years, but rather of a young man, a youth whose life was tragically cut short before it had even really begun. And He meets also a mother, totally alone, with no husband and no child except the young man lying dead on the funeral bier. In the person of such a widow, Christ in truth meets humanity as a whole: its hope for the future now lying dead and decaying, about to be cast once more into the cold earth from whence it was taken so many centuries ago in Eden, in a Paradise that it can no longer remember, nor even see any reason to believe exists.

The Holy Fathers tell us that the widow in today’s Gospel is the soul, cut off from her husband: the Word of God. The son of the widow is the mind, slain by sin and being carried out from the city which is the Heavenly Jerusalem, the land of all the living. The bier is the body which has become our tomb, living already in death before our death.

There are many spiritual lessons here, many important truths which the Holy Spirit has spoken to us by the mouth of the Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke. First of all, let us consider today the weeping of the widow.

St. Isaac the Syrian, when asked what work a monk should occupy himself with when secluded in his cell, replied that there is only one task that can possibly occupy a monk who is truly seeking his salvation: to weep constantly for his soul, slain by sin. To look honestly at ourselves — to not only acknowledge theoretically, but to truly and vividly see and weep over all the sin, death and corruption within us — is the chief task in life not only for the monk, but for every Christian. But just as Adam and Eve hid their nakedness in the Garden with fig leaves, just they hid from the voice and the footsteps of God, so also we — their sons and daughters — have occupied ourselves constantly with nothing else than hiding from the truth about ourselves by any means possible, from that moment on.

Truly, the world today is overflowing with all manner of ways to hide our nakedness, our spiritual death. We can distract ourselves with constant entertainments, with our careers, with social media feeds or the latest sports standings, with romance and sex, with drugs or fine dining. We can remake ourselves — in any image of our own choosing — through clothing and makeup, through exercise or diet pills, through cosmetic surgery or carefully curated Facebook profiles. We can choose our tastes, our opinions, our politics — even (so they say) our gender. And we Orthodox Christians can also, if we are not careful, even end up hiding behind the mask of our very piety itself: we can define ourselves by our prayer rule, our fasting regimen, our impeccable church attendance, or our strict observance of even the most obscure church canons. In short, we have been given every tool at the devil’s disposal to help us avoid ever having to really come to know our true selves. And in this we are all too eager to do the devil’s work — because we know that we will not like what we see. Nobody wants to look deeply into their own heart when they know the ugliness and death that lies within.

Yet our Savior has told us: “blessed are they that mourn.” Not because the Lord wants us to be downcast, guilt-ridden and tormented, but because only those who mourn can be comforted. Only those who know the truth about themselves are capable of being changed. Had the widow of Nain stayed at home and drowned her sorrow in a bottle, or fled to a distant land in search of a geographical cure, she would never have met her Lord; and it was only because she stood next to the bier weeping that she received her son restored again to life. Because the Gospel tells us that Christ performed this — the first resurrection of His earthly ministry — precisely because He “saw her, [and] had compassion on her, and said unto her, Weep not” (Luke 7:13).

And this is perhaps the most important point in today’s Gospel story: the Lord did not raise the young boy for his own sake. He did not resurrect him so that he could live a full and happy life in this world, taste of its varied pleasures and delights, marry a beautiful wife and raise a family, achieve a successful career, and finally enjoy a peaceful retirement before going the way of all flesh.

No. The Lord raised the young boy for the sake of his mother.

And this is not some sort of incidental, negligible detail in the Gospel story. All throughout His earthly ministry, the Lord was constantly working miracles, healings, and resurrections — and even forgiving sins — not for the sake of the specific person involved, but for the sake of those who loved them. We see it again and again — with the centurion and his servant, with the ruler of the synagogue and his daughter, with the paralytic who was borne of four, and finally with the resurrection of Lazarus the Four Days Dead for the sakes of Mary and Martha.

So let us always remember that for us too, our resurrection — both bodily and spiritual — is not given to us for our own sake, but for the sake of those around us: those who love us, those who pray for us, and even for the sake of those who hate us and do us wrong. Above all, our resurrection is given to us for the sake of our own mother, the Holy Church of Christ, so that we can truly become Her faithful children. For the Fathers also tell us that the young boy, who sat up and spoke after the Lord raised him in today’s Gospel, symbolizes the Christian who speaks instruction and edification to those around him after his return from spiritual death. For some of us, this might indeed take the form of words. But for each and every Christian, such instruction and edification can and must be manifest first of all in our deeds, in our way of life, and above all in the love that we have for one another — the love by which the Lord said all men will know that we are His disciples (cf. John 13:35), the Love of God which is itself our resurrection.

We also commemorate on this day the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council, who defended the holy icons from the heretical iconoclasts — literally, the “icon-smashers.” But just as we rightly continue to give all honor and reverence to the holy icons themselves, so too we must also take great care to remember that these icons are not the only images of God which surround us daily — for each and every human being, saint and sinner alike, also bears within them the divine and indelible image of God. And although I am quite sure that none of us standing here today would ever be tempted to desecrate the holy icons, yet at the same time we must be honest about the fact that we so frequently defile the image of God within ourselves… and all too often do even greater dishonor to the image of God in the many men and women we so shamefully judge, scorn, and condemn. If we truly wish to show our honor and gratitude toward the Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council, we cannot and must not content ourselves with mere abstract theologizing alone. God does not primarily want from us our correct opinions, our intellectual assent, or even our physical acts of veneration and worship. Above all else, He wants from us our love. Our love for Him, our love for His Church, and our love for one another. And every encounter with even the greatest of sinners is truly a mystical encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, for truly, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40). So let us resolve firmly on this day to no longer allow any such opportunity to show love to our great God and Savior pass us by.

And may the Lord Himself fill each of our hearts to overflowing with such love — the same divine and deifying love which our Savior became incarnate and was crucified and rose again in glory in order to give to us sinners, the very same love which is shared between the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and His Father Who is without beginning and His all-holy and good and life-creating Spirit, to Whom be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

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