I am sure that most of us have already heard the sad news that our Father in Christ, His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP, fell asleep in the Lord earlier this week. Funeral services will be in New York in a few days. We will remember him in our prayers for the departed in our services for the next forty days and we should also remember him in our daily prayers.
On this third Sunday of Great Lent, we are halfway through our penitential journey and reminded of the need to persevere to the end. That is certainly what Metropolitan PHILIP did, serving as bishop since 1966 and leading the Antiochian Archdiocese in ways that greatly strengthened and expanded the presence and unity of Orthodox Christianity in North America. His leadership was a key factor in the formation of mission parishes like St. Luke and in welcoming so many converts, of whatever religious and ethnic backgrounds, into the Church. Ordained as a deacon sixty-five years ago, our departed Father in Christ shaped the Orthodox Church as we know it in ways too numerous and profound to describe in a homily. Suffice it for now to say that his long ministry impacted the faith journeys of all of us here today in ways of which we are probably not even aware. We should all thank God for richly blessing us through him.
I know that Lent may seem like a long, difficult period of intensified prayer, fasting, generosity, forgiveness, and reconciliation, but it is actually only a few weeks of spiritual preparation to follow our Savior to His cross and empty tomb. If we want to become the kind of people who can persevere in faithfulness for however many years the Lord chooses to give us, then we need to prepare in order to take up our crosses, die to our self-centered desires, and follow Him. As Metropolitan PHILP and other steadfast Christians know, the really hard challenges are not following fasting guidelines or making it to a few extra services. They are found in crucifying the habits of thought, word, and deed that lead us to worship and serve ourselves instead of God and neighbor. They are found in learning how to offer even our broken relationships, deep sorrows, personal weaknesses, and pains of body and soul to the Lord as opportunities to grow in obedience, humility, and self-sacrificial love for the sake of our neighbors and the fulfillment of His gracious purposes for the world that He created.
If you are like me, you need the intensified spiritual practices of Lent to help you gain the strength necessary to take up the crosses in your life. If you are like me, you need to acquire a new perspective on the daily circumstances in which you find yourself, on how you have learned to think about and treat the neighbors you encounter every day. If you are like me, you need to die to living according to the familiar conventional ways of life in the world as you know it. In other words, we all need to follow Jesus Christ to the cross, dying with Him to how sin and corruption have taken root in each of us so that we may rise with Him to the new life of the Kingdom.
As we see in great examples of perseverant faithfulness like Metropolitan PHILIP, that is not done in an instant, but over the course of a life. No matter how old or young we are, now is the time to look to the trophy of the cross for inspiration and hope. Remember that we do not go to the cross alone. No matter what we are tempted to think at times, our Savior is no stranger to temptation, suffering, pain, and death. He sympathizes with our struggles because He endured them. He was literally nailed to a cross, died, was buried, and descended into Hades in order to bring the joy of life eternal to corrupt, weak, imperfect people like you and me through His glorious third-day resurrection. And in order to follow Him to the joy of Pascha, we must likewise take up our crosses, which we do one day at a time by learning to obey God a bit more faithfully in the small details of our lives. Giving more attention to the Lord and the needs of our neighbors, fighting our addiction to self-centered desires, confessing our sins, and doing our best to reconcile with our enemies, these are all ways of gaining the strength to take up our crosses and follow Jesus Christ into the heavenly joy of His glorious resurrection. He is our hope and our salvation.
May God grant our departed Metropolitan PHILIP paradise as His good and faithful servant, and may He grant us all a blessed remainder of Lent as a time of preparation for the many challenges in faithfulness that surely lay ahead in our lives. We need not worry or cower in fear about our struggles, for our Savior has turned those challenges into opportunities to share more fully in the victory over sin and death that He worked through His cross and empty tomb. As did our departed Father in Christ, let us all persevere in following Him.