The True Israel of God are those who Imitate the Faith and Virtue of Abraham
A Homily on the 29th Sunday after Pentecost
December 23 / January 5
IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, AND OF THE SON, AND OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.
Last week, we commemorated the ancestors of Christ which helps us to understand the earthly lineage from which Christ came and through which it was prophesied that He would come. Today, they are included along with those others who have found favor in the eyes of the Lord, showing that grace overflows the bounds of the lineage of the Messiah to engulf not only the Jews but the Gentiles also. Soon that grace will flood the earth, and we will hear the angels speak to the shepherds, and say, “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people (Luke 2.10) and understand that the love of God was and is, not only for Christ’s ancestors or the righteous of the Old Testament, but for all people.
In the Scripture readings we heard today, we listened to the genealogy of Christ traced not back to Adam and Eve, as it is in Luke’s Gospel (3.23-37), but back to Abraham.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, we heard of Moses and of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of the wondrous deeds that they performed – the hiding of baby Moses in a basket on the Nile, the offering up of Isaac by Abraham, fire quenched, the dead raised, the martyrdoms by stoning, sawing, and sword; the destitution, the wandering. What is more significant than these events themselves is that they occurred, and were endured, through the faith of the individuals involved. The faith of the parents of Moses, allowed them to hide their son from a murderous Pharoh believing that God would protect him. By faith, Abraham sojourned in a strange country, looking for that city where the foundation and the building are wrought by God. By faith, Abraham offered up Isaac, his only child of the promise, because He knew that God was able to raise him from the dead. It is by faith that the things which are hoped for are obtained despite destitution, despite torture, despite lions, fire, the sword, mockings, scourgings, bonds, imprisonment. Despite not having received the promise, yet by faith, they obtained a “good report” (vs. 2 and 39), that is, the life they lived by faith was a commendable life.
The True Israel is the Offspring of Abraham who Imitates the Virtues of Abraham
The significance of these two passages of Scripture read today is that from the God-seer Moses forward, the people of God were not a particular race of people, but those who shared a common faith and lived similarly virtuous lives. We find this not only in the Epistle to the Hebrews but in the Apostle’s Epistle to the Romans. Herein, Paul, responds to the accusation that God has not kept His promise. For the Jews were saying that God raised up Israel, only to desert them and replace them by a people who never knew God (cf. 9.6). Paul reorients his listeners to the promise that was given by God beginning with the Patriarch Jacob, saying, “It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. The Apostle Paul refers to the Patriarch Jacob as “Israel,” and for a significant reason, notes St. John Chrysostom. Using the name Israel, he writes, is a sign of the virtue of this just man. For the children of Abraham, the “children of the promise,” were never the children by birth. “Neither, because they are the seed of Abraham, are they all children” writes the Apostle Paul (Rom. 9.7f).
If the promise was to come to the seed of Abraham (physically), why was Ishmael not a child of the promise, for was Abraham not his father? Why was not Esau, for he had Isaac and Rebekah for his parents and Jacob as his twin? Instead, as the Apostle Paul continues, “They which are the children of the flesh, these are not the children of God: but the children of the promise are counted for the seed.”(Rom. 9.8).
When the promise which came to Abraham that said, “To thee and to thy seed will I give the land,” and “In thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 12.7,3) it was not to the offspring of Abraham that this promise came. This is what Christ not only implies but asserts when He says to the Pharisees who say to Christ that Abraham is their father. Christ responds not by contradicting their ancestry but by speaking spiritually to them, and not about human relations, when He says, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham” (John 8.39). Instead, Christ says to them that they are the children of the Devil, because they do the works of the Devil, because they murder and listen to lies (John 8.44).
St. Justin Martyr writing in the second century, says, “For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.”
The true Israel are not the children by blood, but the children of Abraham through the bloodline of virtues, who do the “works of Abraham,” as Christ describes in John’s Gospel (8.39). Moreover, St. John Chrysostom writes, “You see how this happens not in Abraham’s case only, but also in that of his son himself, and how it is faith and virtue in all cases that is conspicuous and gives the real relationship character.” For “noble birth after the flesh is of no avail, but we must seek for virtue of soul…”
Being a child of Abraham does not depend on being a Jew or a Gentile. As the Lord did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it, so may we understand that the Church of the New Testament is the continuation of Old Testament Israel, and as Baptism is the doorway and entrance into the Church, yet this does not secure God’s favor if we do not strive to keep the commandments of Christ. The fifth-century monk, St. Mark the Ascetic, writes, “Grace has been given mystically to those who have been baptized into Christ, and it becomes active within them to the extent that they actively observe the commandments. Grace never ceases to help us secretly; but to do good – as far as lies in our power – depends on us.”
While we receive the “good news” that is for all people and not only for some, this increases our responsibility to struggle to become worthy of the gift that we have received, to run the race now set before us and not through laziness lag behind, to arm ourselves for the spiritual battle which rages all around and not to be negligent.
Moreover, may we attend to the end and goal of all this work and not forget that it is all directed towards Christ. Where does virtue for its own sake get us? What kind of fruit can it bring unless we are striving to become that which God had originally intended us to be? We reap the fruit of the unwise virgins who, not having enough oil in their lamps, went looking for more and were locked out of the bridal chamber. What they lacked is the life lived for Christ.
St. Silouan, interpreting the asceticism of St. Anthony the Great, writes, “reclusion and desert life and every other form of asceticism will continue to be fruitless because the essence of our life is not arbitrary asceticism but obedience to the Divine will” which becomes manifest in humility and is directed towards the love of God.
Like those Pharisees who appealed to Abraham as their biological ancestor and therefore sought to justify themselves, so also do “we love to glorify the saints, but we do not want to emulate them,” says St. Seraphim of Sarov. Even if we cannot imitate their lives, we can strive to imitate their virtues. How easy it is to become complacent, lazy, and discouraged, especially when we hear of such great saints, the likes of which St. Seraphim was. How can one compare to him, or to those saints of our own day such as Paisios of the Holy Mountain (1924-1994), Iakovos of Evia (1920-1991), Joseph the Hesychast (1897-1959), Ieronymos of Simona Petra (1871-1957), Sophrony of Essex (1896-1993), and Ephraim of Katounakia (1912-1998)? Nevertheless, we need not compare ourselves to them. They did not become saints in one day; yet they can light the fire of zeal within us for it is in their lives where we see “the great, the good, and the virtuous” which we easily forget when we look around us. However, what will injure us the most in struggling to live a life for Christ is to seek out comfort. This does not mean that one should seek out such ascetic feats so as to cripple oneself, seeing in this the way of God. Instead, the hope of comfort, is what hampers the spiritual life. St. Isaac writes,
Unless [men] resolve in their minds to suffer hardships, not even those who are found in this present world in the life of the flesh can attain the end of their desire. And since experience testifies to this, there is no need to prove it with words. For in every generation of those who have gone before us, even until now, it is this and nothing else that has made men feeble, so that they do not gain victories and are hindered from excellent deeds.
Moreover, when we look for comfort, instead may we look to Christ; who made himself nothing and became obedient even unto death; look to Christ who for the joy set before Him, endured the cross; look to Christ, who was born in a manger.
In Christ is the good news, not for the Jews only but for all people. Therefore, may we strive to be worthy of being called sons and daughters of God, true children of Abraham in whom the bloodline of faith and the virtues exist.
THROUGH THE PRAYERS OF OUR HOLY FATHERS, LORD JESUS CHRIST, HAVE MERCY ON US. AMEN
 “Homily XVI,” The Epistle to the Romans, NPNF, 464f.
 Chapter 11 in Dialogue with Trypho.
 The Epistle to the Romans, 465ff.
 Ibid. 465ff-466f.
 On Those who Think that They are made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred and twenty-six Texts, #61, cf #92
 Archimandrte Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite. (Crestwood:St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991), cf. 140 43, 172, 177.
 Kontzevitch, Helen. Saint Seraphim Wonderworker of Sarov and His Spiritual Inheritance. (Wildwood: St. Xenia Skete, 2004), 347.
 The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian. 2nd ed. (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011), 505.