2 Timothy 2:1-10; Matthew 8: 5-13
Today we commemorate Saint Joseph of Damascus, a married priest who made the ultimate witness for Christ in 1860. When a brutal massacre of Christians that had begun in Lebanon spread to that city, Father Joseph headed to the Cathedral (where most of the Christians had taken refuge) by jumping from rooftop to rooftop with the Reserved Sacrament. He confessed and communed the aged and infirm who were unable to flee and encouraged them with examples of the great martyrs. As one of only a few who survived the burning of the Cathedral, Fr. Joseph continued to look for those to whom he could minister in the streets until he was surrounded by a hostile mob. He consumed what remained of the Body and Blood of Christ before the persecutors killed him with their axes for being the “leader of the Christians.”
The context in which Saint Joseph of Damascus bore witness to Christ reminds us that allowing passions for power and hatred to corrupt religion is nothing new. Remember that the chief priests told Pilate “We have no king but Caesar!” as they called for the Messiah’s crucifixion (Jn. 19:15). Then pagan Romans killed Christians because they would not worship the gods believed to preserve their empire. And many today have turned away from true faithfulness to Christ due to their primary allegiance to the nations and partisan ideologies of this world.
In today’s gospel reading, Christ teaches that the humble faith of the Roman centurion surpassed that of any of the Jews. Since the dominant expectation in Israel was for the Messiah to set them free from Roman rule by military victory, the Lord’s statement was surely perceived by many as terribly unpatriotic. He made clear that God’s blessings are not defined by nationality or cultural heritage, for “many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…” In Him, the promises to Abraham have been fulfilled and extended to all. Whether we share in His eternal life is not determined by any of the categories and divisions of this world, but by whether we have united ourselves to Christ with the humble, trusting faith shown by the centurion.
St. Joseph of Damascus was also a Gentile who stood apart from the heritage of Israel. He came to shine brightly with the glory of the Lord not because of his ancestry, citizenship, or political agenda, but because he followed in the path described by St. Paul in today’s epistle reading as “a good soldier for Christ” who refused to be distracted from serving His Lord by any earthly cares. He competed as an athlete focused on doing what was necessary to gain a crown of eternal victory. He was a “hard-working farmer” whose single-minded devotion brought in a bumper crop for the Kingdom. Like St. Paul, he “endure[d] everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory.”
No matter our ethnic heritage, national identity, or political learnings, St. Joseph is a model for us all of how to place faithfulness to Christ and service to our neighbors above all else, even to the point of death. We do not remember him simply because he was Syrian and ours is a parish of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese, but because he provides a brilliant example of a life united to Christ in holiness as do all the saints from around the world, no matter the circumstances of their lives. The “great cloud of witnesses” is not divided up according to the categories of this world, for its kingdoms have no particular spiritual significance in and of themselves. As St. Peter wrote to the early Christians, “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” (1 Pet. 2: 9-10) To be “a holy nation” and “the people of God” is an identity make possible by the gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, which we receive through faith in Christ and participation in His Body, the Church. This great blessing is equally available and suitable for all people, no matter where they live or what their language, culture, or nationality may be.
The temptation to be distracted from our true calling to seek first the Kingdom of God is all too familiar and nothing new. Before the Lord began His public ministry, “the devil took Him up on an exceedingly high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” (Matt. 4:8-10) The crowds welcomed Christ to Jerusalem as a conquering hero on Palm Sunday because they thought He was their military liberator from Roman rule. When it became clear that He was an entirely different kind of Messiah with no interest in setting up an earthly kingdom, they yelled, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” a few days later (Lk 23:21).
The Cross of this Messiah stands in contradiction to all who make God in their own image to the point that they would rather reject Him than worship anyone other than themselves. No matter what identity or ideology people claim, this same temptation presents itself to us all. The are many versions of “Christianity without Christ” present on all points of the political and cultural compasses that we use to chart our courses through life. What they have in common is a fundamental orientation toward building a kingdom very much of this world inhabited exclusively by their own kind of people, however they define that. Inevitably, people who embrace these idolatrous perspectives do not love their enemies or those who do not fit neatly into their ideologically prescribed boxes. That should be no surprise, for it is only by finding the healing of our souls in the God-Man that we can gain the strength to love others as He loves us. As Christ said, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you receive? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your own brethren, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do the same? You shall be perfect, therefore, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. “(Matt. 5:46-47)
In the midst of all the problems, divisions, and fears in our society today, we must remain constantly on guard against the strong temptations to think, speak, and act toward anyone or any group in ways that are driven by our passions, whatever they may be. We should mindfully shut our eyes and our ears to media, entertainment, and conversations that serve only to distract us from the calling to love and serve Christ in our neighbors, regardless of who they are or what they think or do. We should guard our hearts from all that leads us to see our world in light of agendas that distract us from following in the way of St. Joseph of Damascus and all the saints in being good soldiers, devoted athletes, and hard-working farmers who will bear good fruit for the Lord.
Like the blessed centurion, our hope to be among those who “come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven” has nothing to do with the kingdoms and categories of our fallen world. They will never conquer death or heal anyone’s soul. Our hope is in the Savior Whose Kingdom stands in judgment over even the best social orders. We have no more right to become “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” than anyone else. As those who share in the life of Christ by grace, let us be vigilant against the temptation to worship the false gods that are all around us and remain single-mindedly focused on serving our Lord, Whose Kingdom is not of this world.