Sunday, May 28, 2017

Ascending with Wounds into Heavenly Glory: Homily for the Sunday After the Ascension in the Orthodox Church

John 17:1-13
With all the problems in the world today, as well as the challenges in our own lives and families, it is tempting to lose hope.  It is easy to think that the best we can do is simply to cope with the difficulties that we face from day to day.  We may think that there is no alternative to living in terms of whatever helps us make it through the day in the world as we know it.
            During this season of the Ascension, the Church calls us to an entirely different way of responding to our persistent challenges.  Our Savior did not only conquer death through His glorious resurrection, He also ascended into heaven with a glorified body that still bore the wounds of the crucifixion.  Now He sits at the right hand of the Father in eternal glory as the God-Man in Whom the very causes of our corruption are healed.  The Ascension fulfills our original vocation as human beings to become like God in holiness. Even as we are baptized into His death and rise up with Him into eternal life, Christ calls us to ascend with Him into the Kingdom of Heaven.  He makes us participants by grace in the blessed communion shared by the Holy Trinity.
That is not only a future hope, but also a present reality for the members of Christ’s Body, the Church, whom He nourishes with His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  In every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, we enter mystically into the heavenly banquet, the wedding feast of the Lamb.  When we unite ourselves to our Lord’s great Self-Offering, we offer ourselves as participants in His complete restoration of the human being and of the creation itself.  We offer not only bread and wine in the Liturgy, but ourselves and every dimension of our lives in the world for fulfillment as we share personally in His eternal life.  Because our Lord has ascended in glory as a complete human being Who is also divine, we may participate even now in such profound blessedness.  That is His will for each and every one of us.     
In order to do that, we must ascend with the Lord Who conquered death, “the wages of sin,” and brought even the wounds of crucifixion with Him as He sat down at the right hand of the Father in eternal glory. Instead of using our wounds, or those of our society and world, as reasons to think that God is cruel, irrelevant, or does not even exist, we must see the Ascension as a clear sign that death, destruction, and decay will not have the last word.  They do not shut us off from the blessedness that transcends what this world provides on its own terms.  Instead, it is in the midst of our deepest pains that we know the brokenness of our lives and relationships and find the strength to offer ourselves more fully to the Lord as we actually are in this world of corruption.
As long as we fool ourselves into thinking that all is well when we live according to our passions and familiar self-centered desires and habits, we will not be able to ascend with Christ.  For it is always the case that we must die to sin in order to rise up in holiness, that we must humbly repent in order to receive our Lord’s gracious healing.  He ascended after rising from the tomb, and we will ascend with Him when we share in the glory of His resurrection by turning away from the corrupting effects of sin and death.  If we remain wedded to them, we will remain captive to the distorted ways of the first Adam, the ways of this fallen world.  But if we die to them by uniting ourselves to our Lord in His journey from the cross to the heights of heaven, we will participate already in eternal blessedness even as we walk on this earth.
As the 318 Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea knew, only One Who is truly God is able to raise us up from captivity to this world of death into heavenly glory.  If Christ were merely a creature, He could never make us participants in the eternal life of God.  If He were not truly divine, His Body, the Church, would be simply another social organization operating like any other group.  But because He is “very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father by Whom all things were made” while also being fully human, every dimension of our humanity may become radiant with the brilliance of heaven through Him.
The Lord ascended with His glorified and wounded body.  Those wounds did not compromise His divinity or holiness, of course.  Indeed, it was through them that He conquered death and made clear that He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.  And our wounds, no matter what they are, do not shut us out of the Kingdom.  We must, however, offer those wounds to Him, opening them to the healing light of His gracious divine energies.  When they are the results of our sins, we must confess and repent in humility.  When they are not, we must learn to make them points of contact for ascending with Christ in holiness.  That requires that we learn to see what our wounds reveal about our lives, our relationships, and our world, no matter how difficult that is.   We then can make them entrances into heavenly glory when they become opportunities to grow in “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22-23) By offering even our darkest struggles to the Lord, we will ascend with Him to personal participation in His healing of our humanity.   
The same is true of our common life in the Church.  We will provide no credible witness to our neighbors if we do not visibly manifest a life of holiness that stands in stark contrast to the corrupt ways of a world enslaved to the fear of death.  We will not be able to speak of the Ascension with integrity unless we, as a community, become a living icon of loving union in Christ such that we are one in righteousness.  Both as a community and as particular people, we must be on guard against anything in our lives that distracts us from strengthening the Church as a sign that Christ has ascended and really does enable us all to rise up with Him into the life of heaven.  Anything that would hold us back from that high vision has no place in our lives, individually or collectively.  The more that we live out our unity in pursuing such a life, the more integrity we will have in inviting friends, neighbors, and strangers to join us as we enter in each Divine Liturgy into the heavenly banquet.  If we do not display the joy of the Ascension in our own lives each day, then we are very poor witnesses to the fullness of the Orthodox Christian faith.  The world already has enough religious organizations that do little more than help people feel better about themselves as they cope with life’s problems.  We must be something very different.  

Contrary to what many people in our culture think, the mission of the Church is not to provide us a means of escaping the world and its problems.  It is not to distract us for a couple of hours each week from our challenges or to make us think that they are somehow not real.  It is not to work us up into an emotional state that helps us feel better about ourselves.  Instead, the Body of Christ is to be a brilliant icon of what happens when this world, and its inhabitants with all their wounds, enters into heavenly glory.  Anything less is a failure to manifest in our common life the communion of love shared by the Holy Trinity. So let us all offer every aspect of our lives to our Lord Who has ascended in glory so that we may participate fully by grace in the joy that He shares eternally with His Unoriginate Father and the All-Holy and Good and Life-Giving Spirit, to Whom be all glory, laud, and honor, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.             

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