Tenth Sunday After Pentecost, August 21, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
“Behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves.” These are the words that were heard nearly two thousand years ago by a man named Thaddeus, and they were spoken by the Lord Jesus when He sent out the Seventy Apostles, other disciples of His beyond the Twelve who were commissioned to bring the Gospel to the world.
Thaddeus, whose feast day is today, was originally from the city of Edessa, which is in modern-day Turkey at a place now called Urfa, a bit over four hundred miles north of Jerusalem. Before he met Christ, Thaddeus had come to Jerusalem to worship in the temple there, as he was born a Jew. During his time in that area, he came to hear the preaching of John the Baptist, and like some of the Twelve, became a disciple of John’s and was baptized by him in the Jordan River. In due time, John pointed his disciples to Jesus, and Thaddeus, though not one of the Twelve, was among the many who followed Him and witnessed His teaching and His miracles.
The story of Thaddeus is linked to a curious feast day that we celebrated earlier this week. On the 16th of August, the Church remembers the story of an icon, a very special icon that was not made by human hands. The Church historian Eusebius records a story about Christ that was not included in the Gospels but is nevertheless part of Orthodox tradition. In this account, the king of the city of Edessa, a man named Abgar, sent a message to Jesus to ask Him to come and heal Him of the terrible disease of leprosy.
Jesus responded with a letter, saying that He could not come to Abgar at that time, but that after He had ascended into Heaven, He would send one of His disciples to him to heal him and to preach to him the Gospel. Along with the letter, the Lord sent a piece of cloth. That cloth, the Lord Jesus pressed to His face, and as He pulled it away, it was seen to have left behind an imprint of His countenance. That cloth has come to be known as the “Icon Made Without Hands” or the “Holy Napkin,” and it has served as the prototype for almost all iconography of the face of our Lord. That’s how we know what He looked like. And when King Abgar received the letter and the icon, he was partially healed of his leprosy but waited patiently for the sign he knew would come.
After the Lord’s passion, resurrection and ascension into Heaven, Thaddeus returned home to Edessa, having been told to go there both by Christ Himself and also by the Apostle Thomas, one of the Twelve.
It was not long before Thaddeus became known to the king, who heard of the healing and the preaching he was doing among the people. Perceiving that here was the one whom Jesus had promised him, he asked that Thaddeus come to him. The saint appeared before the king, healed him of the remainder of his leprosy, and preached to him the Gospel. Abgar was converted, and gradually the city of Edessa also listened to the preaching of Thaddeus and turned to faith in Christ and were baptized into the Church. The king even used his own hands to help build a church. Abgar wanted to invade Palestine to punish the Jews for crucifying Jesus, but Thaddeus convinced him that such violence was not becoming of a Christian, and he also insisted that force never be used in the spread of the Gospel.
And so we have the story of a lamb sent out among wolves, of a king converted by seeing the image of Christ on a napkin, healed by the touch of a follower of Jesus, and leading his own people to the knowledge of the true God. As with all accounts from the Scriptures or from the history of the Church, the questions we ask ourselves are, “So what will I now do? How does this apply to me?”
If you try to live the Christian life, even just a little bit, it will become clear to you that you are a lamb among wolves. Sometimes, we even have that experience within our own families, as not everyone in our households or extended relations is actually willing to repent, to humble themselves, and to give their lives over to God.
We also may experience this reality at school or at our jobs, where our Christianity stands out among those who think it’s a joke, those who just don’t care, those who would prefer faith to be reserved only for Sunday morning, those who may actively attack us as we seek to do God’s will and not our own will.
There is a difference between those who are really followers of Jesus and those who are not. Jesus said that His disciples would be known by their love for one another. Jesus’ disciples are known for setting aside their personal ambitions and desires, for doing what God wants them to do, for ordering their lives as God wants them to be ordered, for giving themselves not only to their own families, but to everyone who walks in the door of the church or is outside it, everyone in need, whether they like them or not, whether they are the same color as them or not, whether they’re the same ethnicity or not, whether they share the same temptations to sin as them or not.
Jesus said that, if we are like Him, then the world will hate us, persecute us, and attack us for our faith, because it did the same to Him. And if we’re not getting any resistance against our faith, if it’s easy to be a Christian, then we have to question whether our faith is really there or not. If we look just like the rest of the world, if we blend in just fine with the rest of the world, if we are successful according to the standards of the world, then are we not therefore of the world? He said that the world would hate us and persecute us if we followed Him.
When Christ sent out Thaddeus and the rest of the Seventy Apostles, He told them that He was sending them as “lambs among wolves.” When Jesus was brought the epileptic boy in today’s Gospel and was told of the faithlessness of even His chosen Twelve, His response was, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?”
The picture that Jesus paints of the world in which we live is not a nice one. It’s a world of wolves, a world of the faithless and the perverse. Look around you, and you’ll see that it’s still the same. Except instead of the seductions of paganism and the constant pressure to bow to the Roman Empire, we are now faced with other kinds of seductive addictions.
We are being seduced with the addiction to possessions. 2/3 of our economy is dedicated to consumptive spending. Our ongoing economic crisis is a crisis of debt and credit. We as a culture are spending far, far beyond our means, and a lot of that spending is on things we do not need.
We are being seduced by the addiction of pornography and other sexual addictions. Nearly 43% of all Internet users view pornography. More than 1/3 of all Internet traffic is dedicated to downloading porn. 47% of American Christians report that pornography is a major problem in their homes. 90% of 8-16 year olds have viewed porn online. The average age of the first exposure to Internet porn is 11 years old.
And perhaps most perniciously, most subtly, we are being seduced with the addiction to constant busy-ness. At every waking moment, we must be entertained. We must be busy with some extra-curricular activity. We must be on vacation, on the Internet, in front of the TV, playing a game, playing a sport, texting, plugged in, tuned out. Noise. Busy-ness. No time for what is eternal.
O faithless and perverse generation! How long will Christ bear with us? In the midst of all this, He sends us out as lambs among wolves. This world is spiritually very, very dangerous. It is only because addiction has become the “new normal” that so many are oblivious to its siren song of seduction. We are lambs among wolves.
But Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world, as St. Thaddeus heard from John the Baptist so long ago. What will save this world, what will save us, is not that we become wolves, not that we respond to the violence of addiction with more violence and more addiction. What takes away the sin of the world—my sin, your sin—is that we become lambs, following the Lamb, the Lamb Who is mocked, the Lamb Who is hated, the Lamb Who is sacrificed, because on that altar, the very hand of God reaches down, shows us a vision of His holy image, and heals the leprosy of our sins. And we will be changed.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.