Sunday, June 29, 2008

How do You Get to Heaven?

If I were to ask the question, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” many of you might say, “Practice! Practice! Practice!” If you’re not into music but you read science fiction instead, and I asked, “What is the meaning of life?” you might say, “42!” and you would be correct if I were talking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. We ask a lot of questions as human beings to find our way either to Carnegie Hall or just around town. I’m still asking questions about how to find different places here in Florence. We ask so many questions in life, that after “no” and “mommy” I think “why” is the most common word we use as infants trying to learn our way around this new life of ours.

My life has been very blessed these past two weeks to have had many dialogues with so many of you. I have heard about the great early years of our parish and I have heard of the great plans for the future. My favorite dialogues have been about your personal stories. All of us have stories about our childhood years; how we met our spouse; how we got our first jobs. I have also heard some really exciting conversion stories about how some of you came to know Jesus Christ or how you discovered the Orthodox Church.

I’m still learning about our Parish here in Florence, but I do know this….of all the things I’ve learned in the past two weeks, one thing we all have in common is our need for Christ. We all need Christ in different ways, but we all need Him and we all should want to know more about Him. Maybe that is why it seems so comforting to hear Christ ask the Apostles, “Who do people say that I am?” (Matthew 16.13) We want to know the same thing but we just don’t know how to have a dialogue with Him. Life is a constant dialogue and this morning’s Gospel begins a very important dialogue for the future of the Church and the answer to our questions about Christ.

As we commemorate the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul the Church has placed this particular dialogue in this morning’s Gospel to help us answer our questions about Jesus, “What is the meaning of life?” and “How do you get to heaven?” We’re not reading Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy this morning and we’re not trying to get to Carnegie Hall. We’re reading the Bible and trying to get to Heaven, and the answer is the same for both questions, “Repent! Repent! Repent!” as many times as it takes to get it right and Saints Peter and Paul are two people who realized the same thing.

The Church has given us these two great saints to study this morning as a way of helping us get to heaven. Both have very much in common and both suffered for the Faith. Both denied Christ at one point in their life and both were later realized to be among the greatest saints of the Church leading thousands of people to Christ. Just as each of us has a story, these two great Saints have stories. Reflect with me for a moment on the stories of these two great Saints.

First we have Peter who is the main character in this morning’s Gospel. Peter was a fisherman when Christ called him to ministry. We know from the Gospel (Matthew 4.18) that he and his brother Andrew left their nets aside to follow Christ with no debate. In this morning’s Gospel, Christ says “On this rock [the rock of Peter’s Faith] I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16.18) Peter was a great believer in Christ, but when Christ was suffering, where was Peter? He denied even knowing Him. Peter had seen the uncreated Light of Christ at the Transfiguration and he still denied Him. BUT after dialoguing with the Resurrected Lord, Peter repented and became the Chief of the Apostles. Repentance saved Peter.

How about Paul? Paul was a Pharisee who led a great persecution on the Christian Church. We know from the Book of Acts that Paul took his dedication to killing Christians so seriously that he would travel to other cities just to find Christians to bring back to Jerusalem to be killed. It was on one of these journeys to Damascus that Paul had a revelation (Acts 9) and after a dialogue with Christ, he repented and became the greatest missionary the Church has ever known. Repentance saved Paul.

It was repentance that allowed both Peter and Paul to really know who Jesus was. It was repentance that led them to confess Christ to the world and become the great Saints we celebrate today. It is repentance that will allow us to know who Jesus Christ is. Repentance is nothing more than changing direction. When John the Baptist said, “Repent, For the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3.2) he wasn’t just saying change your morals; he was saying “Hey you’re headed right for trouble if you don’t change direction. That’s the wrong street. It is a dead end…” All this talk of repentance and changing direction, no wonder the early Christians referred to our Faith the “The Way” since it is the way to heaven.

So how do we get to heaven? Our life is a journey and like any journey it starts, weaves in and out of a variety of side trips and eventually come to an end. The longer the journey the more detours life seems to have and these side trips and detours waste gas. We just hope that we get to our destination before the car runs out of gas. And sometimes we get plain old lost and have to change directions; we have to repent, to get back on track.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, today we celebrate two great stories of men who denied Christ but also repented and got to heaven. They should be an inspiration to us that we too can repent. It doesn’t matter what we have done in our lives. There is nothing from which we cannot repent. There is nothing we have done that cannot be forgiven by God. Paul was killing Christians and Peter denied even knowing Christ and they were forgiven by God when they repented. Surely whatever we have done can be forgiven by God when we repent.

Let’s take to heart the message of this morning’s Gospel and engage in a dialogue with Jesus and repent. This week let’s commit to engaging Christ in a dialogue. Let’s all do one simple thing….every morning this week let’s all commit to saying the following prayer before our feet even touch the ground…

“Lord God, how do I get to heaven?” and then listen and watch for the answer.
So….what is the meaning of life? To get to heaven. And how do you get to heaven? Repent! Repent! Repent!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Confess Christ and Live Forever

Like most of you I can remember a day not too long ago when gas was less than a dollar a gallon. When I was learning how to drive I remember paying 83 cents per gallon, but I also remember when I was a little boy just learning how to pump gas, that the price on the pump was only half what it really cost because it was so expensive. As an adult I know now about the oil embargo years of the 1970’s but I can fondly remember relatively cheap gasoline. Not anymore. Again this week the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline remained above $4 per gallon and there is no end in sight.

There seems to be no end in sight to rising costs of living, everywhere we turn from gasoline to groceries, so it seems appropriate to ask the question, “Now what?” What is the Lord asking of us now that it cost so much to live? At first the answer in this morning’s Gospel seems pretty simple. “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10.32-33) We are supposed to confess Christ in front of others. That sounds easy enough, now what? This is the same question, albeit in different words, the Apostles asked our Lord in this morning’s Gospel Lesson. Peter said, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you, what then shall we have?” (Matthew 19.27) There are two parts to this morning’s Gospel Lesson. First we are encouraged to confess Christ in front of others. Second, and this is the harder of the two for us especially here in America, we are expected to leave everything behind and follow Christ.

What does it mean for us to confess and follow Christ? Let’s start in the context of the Divine Liturgy. In a few moments we will have the opportunity to recite the Creed, “I believe in one God…..” When we do this, we are confessing Christ in front of others. But this is easy isn’t? After all, we are all believers here this morning. Confessing Christ outside the Church is sometimes much harder than inside. There are many ways we can confess Christ outside the Church but I‘ll just name a few: we can do our cross before we eat at a restaurant; we can wear our cross; or, maybe a bit more difficult, we can place an Icon of Christ above our desk at work; or we can give glory to God when others praise our accomplishments.

My brothers and sister in Christ, this is where the two parts of this morning’s Gospel come together. When it gets difficult to confess Christ in front of others we are forced to make a choice. Do we deny Christ just so we aren’t so uncomfortable in front of others or do we confess Him and risk our business or our networking or worst of all, our life? Our Lord tells us, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, [and I might add or businesses or networking or marketing opportunities] for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19.29) This is exactly what we are doing when we choose to confess Christ in front of others especially when it isn’t easy. We are leaving behind, or at least we are willing to leave behind, the comforts of our American life and that shall be blessed by God.

Don’t be fooled. Denying Christ is easier than you may think. Just because we don’t actually deny our faith in Him doesn’t mean that we have confessed Him. Remember the story of Herod in the Book of Acts when he didn’t give God praise after offering a great speech and the people shouted, “The voice of a god and not of a man! Then immediately and angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God.” (Acts 12.22)

There is an absolute guarantee that we will be rewarded in heaven not just IF we confess Christ but EVERY TIME we confess Him. This was told to Peter when Peter wanted to know what benefit there was to following Christ, but there can be earthly benefits as well. The Gospel is full of stories of earthly blessings bestowed to those who follow Christ. Just look at the ancient Church and see the great blessings those earliest believers, the martyrs and confessors who preserved the Faith for us to have today. Again we read in Acts, “And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4.33) The blessings of our confession will benefit not just us as individuals but the entire Church, here in Florence and throughout the world.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, today we celebrate the Sunday of All Saints, all those who have stood up and confessed Christ in front of others, all those whose names are known and those whose names are not known to us, but are known to God because they too confessed Christ in front of others. As we heard in the Epistle this morning, St Paul tells the Hebrews, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” (Hebrews 12.1)

It is my prayer this morning that we here in Florence can look up at these Icons of the Saints of God as examples and as encouragement for us to confess Christ in front of others as they did. We did not paint these Icons on the dome and hang these Icons on the walls of our church just for looks, but to remind us that others have been where we are and THEY were able to confess Christ. Why can’t we? It is my prayer that we will leave this Church this morning willing to make the difficult choice and confess Christ this week in front of others. When we do this, we and our entire community will be blessed.

In a few moments my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we will participate in the Holy Eucharist and receive into our own bodies the very Body and Blood of God. How blessed we are to be able to be so close to the same God that created the universe. This week, let’s show how grateful we are for everything God has given us and confess Him as Our God and Our Savior in front of others in our businesses, on the street and in the markets and stores of Florence or when we are pumping gas. Grace will pour down upon our Church and our Community. Don’t take my word for it, Christ said it. Everyone who leaves everything behind and follows Christ will be rewarded a hundred fold.