Sunday of All Saints, June 26, 2016
Hebrews 11:33-12:2; Matthew 10:32-33, 37-8; 19:27-30
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. (Matt. 10:37-38)
Later on in this same passage, the Lord Jesus also includes “houses” and “lands” in the list of things to leave behind—and we should interpret this not only to mean real estate but any possession. And He expands the list of family to include “wives,” as well, and we may reasonably extend this to mean husbands and all of our family—after all, if He expects us to love parents, wives and children less than we do Him, certainly He cannot mean that it’s okay for us to put our grandparents or cousins or uncles above Him.
This is hard language coming from the mouth of the Lord Jesus. But there it is. It is perhaps easier for us to swallow when Jesus says that our possessions should not come before Him—at least the idea of it, even if we are often rather bad at the practice. But He explicitly says to us that our families cannot come before Him.
If we take the words of Jesus Christ seriously—and since we are Christians, we take the words of Jesus Christ seriously—then these words in particular are hard to hear. But we cannot ignore them. He is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, God Himself incarnate as man. When He speaks, we listen and we obey.
It’s hard to hear that we have to put our family behind Jesus Christ in our lives. It is natural to human beings that we love our families. The bonds between us are more than just biological. They are deeply spiritual. And so when we hear that our families cannot be our number one priority, that rankles.
And we often may feel that there is a tension between family and church. There are youth sports events that now take place on Sunday mornings. Saturday nights are, for most of us, not spent at Vespers but relaxing at home or in other kinds of family pursuits. We’re taken away from our spouses and our children for so much of the week because the kids are in school or because we have to work that there is a tension there when the Lord calls to us to sacrifice our evenings and weekends for worship, education and fellowship in the Church.
And, if we are honest, we will have to admit that, if there’s a competition between worship and just about anything else, it is worship that will lose. Our average Sunday Liturgy here sees less than a third of our total population, which in this parish is well over 250, and a goodly number—usually at least half—are not here for the beginning of the service but arrive later. Our average Saturday Vespers is lucky to see even ten people, which is not even 5% of our parish. Sunday Matins before Liturgy is also lucky to peak out at ten, and that’s taking the count well into the service. And things are, in general, much worse on weeknights. This is the situation not just in our parish but in most Orthodox parishes in America and, indeed, most churches of any kind.
What is going on? Are people just “less religious,” less committed, less Christian than they used to be? Why is it that inconsistent attendance to worship and very low participation in education and fellowship is now the norm? And certainly Christians have already essentially lost the “culture war.” The basics of Christian morality and the Christian insistence on the worth of every person from conception into eternity are no longer taken for granted by our society. If there is a battle between the concerns of this earthly life and those things which mark us out as Christian, it seems that the Church is in the midst of a long defeat.
Still, most Christian ministry and outreach is still predicated upon the idea that there is an ongoing battle between the Christian and the secular, that we have to keep pushing back and giving information and stating our “position.” That battle is over, though.
While Peter could say to Jesus, “Lo, we have left everything and followed Thee,” most people would now say the opposite, “Lo, we have left Thee behind and followed everything else.” That’s the actual world we live in, so if we who follow Jesus and heed His words are going to do our ministry, we have to accept that the battle for the soul of the culture has been lost and even profoundly affects those who consider themselves as serious Christians.
So where does that leave us? When we look at the reality of life in America these days, and even at our own lives, the words of Jesus about putting our possessions and even our families after our love for Jesus seem almost laughably impossible. Shouldn’t love for Jesus just sort of “fit in” somewhere in our lives?
I would like to suggest to you another way of doing ministry and another way of looking at what it means for us to be Christians with families and lands and houses and possessions, etc. First, we should say that there is nothing wrong with having families or possessions. These are gifts from God to us, and the deep attachment that we have especially to our families is part of God’s gift—though I think it is fair to say that our attachment to possessions should not be so deep.
We’re in a place now where everyone experiences pressure from all directions, both the earthly and the spiritual, the immanent and the transcendent, the secular and the Christian. It’s become very hard for Christians who want to be faithful even to do the very basics of Christian spiritual life. In this sense, it is much harder at this point in cultural history to be Christian than it was for folks even one generation ago.
So, again, what should we do? How should a Christian who is probably trying as hard as he can to understand the Lord’s words to put even our families behind Him, especially when it seems like it’s all we can do these days just to scrape some time together and try to be something like good spouses, parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and cousins?
We need a change in our thinking about Jesus and our families, Jesus and our possessions, Jesus and our schedules.
First, we should realize that it is Jesus Whom we are considering here. It is not just “church participation” in the sense of being part of an organization that we somehow try to fit into our lives somewhere. We’re talking about Jesus, a real Person, the Second Person of the Trinity. He is not saying that we should put an organization before our families and possessions. He’s saying that it’s Him whom we love before all else. Putting Jesus before everything else is different.
The second way we need to change our thinking is to realize that it isn’t Jesus versus our families or versus our possessions or versus even the world. Jesus did not come to condemn the world. Rather, He came to save the world (John 3:17). So instead of trying to figure out how to fight a battle between Jesus and all these things, we ask how we can participate in Jesus saving all these things—saving our families, saving our possessions, and saving the world.
When we put the love of Jesus Christ first, then we begin to see our families and possessions and even the world in a very different light. We don’t see them as things we hold onto with a sense of ownership or mere loyalty but rather as having the possibility for bearing the presence of God, of being the vessels of healing and redemption in this world.
It can be so hard to hold onto all these things in today’s world. What we discover when we put Jesus first is that that is when we finally gain our families and even the things we own, because it is only then that we can see them for what they really are and what they can really become.
Do you want to keep your family together in harmonious love? Dedicate yourself first to prayer and to bringing Christ to them and being Christ for them. Do you want to be free from the unending pressure of managing a portfolio of possessions? Follow the teachings of Jesus on non-possessiveness and generosity. Do you want to be free not to be cynical and depressed about the world? Pray for the world, love the world, sacrifice yourself for the world—just like Jesus did—and you will see it the way that God Himself sees it, as filled with His suffering creatures, inviting them into the healing peace of His Kingdom.
When we do that, then we will truly gain all these things, perhaps for the first time. That is why Jesus said in response to Peter about the Apostles: “Truly, I say to you, in the New World, when the Son of Man shall sit on His glorious throne, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
And then He says to all of us: “And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My Name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold, and inherit eternal life. But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”
In your life, who will be first? If you make Jesus first, then everything else will follow.
To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.