Perseverance Despite Disappointment: Homily for the First Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

St. Luke 5:1-11

       We have all felt at some point in our lives like Peter, James, and John when Jesus Christ found them washing their nets after a long night of unsuccessful fishing.  They had worked hard for hours and had caught nothing.  Fishing was not a leisure activity for them, but their livelihood.  They were disappointed and frustrated to the point of giving up, but then the Lord told them to let down their nets just one more time.  Probably with a good bit of doubt, they did and caught so many fish that their nets were breaking and their boats began to sink.  Nothing could have been more surprising to them.  Peter was so amazed that he fell down before Christ and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” The Lord responded, “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”  That is how He revealed to them that their calling was to bring people into the eternal life of the Kingdom of God.  Then the disciples left behind their boats and nets and followed Christ as His disciples.

We celebrate tomorrow the conception of St. John the Baptist, whose parents were well acquainted with disappointment and frustration.  Zacharias and Elizabeth were an elderly, faithful Jewish couple who had never been blessed with children.  Like the disciples, their nets were empty and they had given up hope, an especially painful situation for Jews who were to continue the family line of Abraham that God had promised to bless in the Old Testament.  The story of the Hebrew people had begun with Abraham and Sarah, whom God blessed in old age with a long-awaited son.  Zacharias initially responded to the message of the Archangel Gabriel about John’s conception with doubt, as though he had never even heard of what God had done for Abraham and Sarah.  Nonetheless, God enabled them to fulfill their unique role as the parents of the Forerunner of the Messiah.

Their life was certainly not easy, for Zacharias was martyred when the wicked King Herod murdered the young boys of Bethlehem.  Elizabeth died forty days later and John grew up in the wilderness as an ascetic prophet who would eventually lose his head for criticizing the immorality of the royal family.  God worked through faithful people in painful circumstances to prepare the way for the ministry of Jesus Christ, Who fulfilled all the promises to Abraham and extended them to all with faith in Him.

Obviously, these great saints had unique callings to fulfill as they played their distinctive roles for the salvation of the world.  Even as our Lord enabled barren elderly couples to have babies and filled the nets of frustrated fishermen with a catch so large that their nets broke and their boats began to sink, we must trust that He will strengthen us to serve Him in unanticipated ways that only we can.  In the midst of the inevitable frustrations of our lives, He calls us to offer ourselves to Him for blessing.  We ourselves must trust in Christ as we patiently endure our struggles.  If we do not let down our nets one more time, who else is going to do that for us?  Remember that God calls each of us to fulfill a unique role in accomplishing His gracious purposes for ourselves, our neighbors, and our world.

Perhaps decades of barrenness had opened the eyes of Zacharias and Elizabeth to receive their son as such a unique blessing from God.   The night of fruitless fishing put Peter, James, and John in the place to see that their great haul of fish was a sign of their calling to a new life of service for the Kingdom.  Our experiences of failure, frustration, and weakness present needed opportunities for growth in patience, humility, and devotion. By responding to them faithfully, we will become able to receive God’s healing, mercy, and calling in our lives in ways that would have been otherwise impossible.

Doing so requires us to resist the common temptation to fall into despair when things do not go as we had hoped, and especially when we cannot see how anything good could come out of our disappointments.  Many people give up on themselves, their loved ones, and even God as they interpret their struggles as a sign that life is meaningless. Pain, suffering, and disappointment are quite real in the world as we know it.  Jesus Christ has entered fully into the dark night of the tomb through the sheer terror of the Cross.  Instead of being destroyed by the consequences of sin, He arose victorious over them in His glorious resurrection on the third day.  The hope of life eternal in our Risen Lord strengthens us to resist the temptation to despair of finding any meaning or purpose in even the deepest and most painful struggles of our lives.

Regardless of whatever sufferings and disappointments beset us, we may use them for the healing of our souls.  Christ does not call us to follow Him in an imaginary world where there are no trials or temptations.  We are all broken people who live in a world of corruption.  From generation to generation, we endure the consequences of the failings of others, both individually and collectively.  Instead of imagining that life should be easy for those who seek to follow Christ, we must recognize that the difficult life of discipleship is for the healing of our souls and of the world in God.  It is for the restoration of the human person in God’s image and likeness.  Remember that both Zacharias and John the Baptist met violent deaths.  From the apostolic age to the present day, countless Christians have made the ultimate witness for the Savior as martyrs by shedding their own blood.

Christ did not work our salvation through a successful ministry by earthly standards.  Instead, He was hated, condemned, and killed by religious and political leaders, and even betrayed, denied, and abandoned by His own disciples.  If we want to share personally in the joy of His resurrection, we must refuse to distort the Christian life into an easy path of success according to the standards of our, or of any other, culture or society.  We must not be so terrified of recognizing the infinite distance between God’s holiness and our sinfulness that we fool ourselves into thinking that something has gone terribly wrong if our lives remain characterized by apparent failures, disappointments, and struggles.  To do so is to fall into a form of idolatry in which we will worship only a false god made in our own image.

Christ’s Kingdom remains not of this world.  If we want a Savior to give us what we want on our own terms in this life, then we will end up serving some other lord.  In the bitter disappointment of barrenness, Zacharias and Elizabeth had wanted a child, but they could not have known of the deep struggles that they and he would face, even to the point of death.  Peter, James, and John originally simply wanted to catch fish for their livelihood; but when the Lord filled their nets to overflowing, He called them to a different and far more demanding way of life.  We must make our pleas to God for blessing and healing a way of offering ourselves to the Lord for Him to do in us what is best for our salvation and the accomplishment of His gracious purposes for the world.

There is simply no way to know in advance what that will mean, but experience teaches that it will likely not be what we had anticipated or desired on our own terms.  It will be difficult and require sacrifice, including dying to our addiction to serving our own desires and preferences. Since our souls remain in need of healing, that should not be surprising.  Nonetheless, we must trust that the One Who rose victorious over the apparent despair of death itself will extend His great victory to us as we offer even the most broken and painful dimensions of our lives to Him.  In order for that to happen, we must respond like Peter did and, despite our doubts, keep letting down our nets in faith and obedience.  We must do it time and time again and refuse to give up the struggle to live faithfully. That is how the disciples opened themselves to receive abundant blessings that they could not have anticipated, despite their many sufferings.   May the same be true for us as we make the offering to Christ that only we can make:  that of ourselves in free obedience to His gracious command.

 

 

 

 

2 comments:

  1. Thank you, Fr. Philip.
    The sentiment of this post is similar to the main idea in a book I am in the midst of: Letters to Spiritual Children, by Abbot Nikon (Vorobiev). Briefly, it is that trials and suffering are not only part of this life, but indeed necessary for our salvation. This flies in the face of much of modern evangelicalism (but not all). The Abbot advises us to acquire the greatest virtue in his eyes: humility, the opposite of the primary sin, pride. Like your blog, I would recommend this book to every Orthodox believer.

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