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Fear Not: God’s Love in an Anxious Age

Opening Sermon by Metropolitan Tikhon

National Council of Churches

3rd Annual Christian Unity Gathering

Doubletree Hotel/Baltimore-Washington Airport

May 4, 2016

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

I greet all of you, faithful representatives of the member communions of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, with these words of the Lord to His disciples before His Passion. I pray that all of us, who have come together for this 3rd Annual Christian Unity Gathering, will find comfort and courage in these words as we sail upon the stormy waters of this anxious age.

It was with great joy that I received the invitation from our General Secretary and President, Mr. Jim Winkler, to offer the opening sermon for this important event. It was also my pleasure to participate in the meeting of the Governing Board this afternoon and to hear first-hand of some of the accomplishments and challenges facing this organization. I am pleased to join His Grace, Bishop Demetrios, of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and other representatives of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox member churches of the National Council of Churches who are here this week.

Our gathering for Christian unity indeed comes at a time when anxiety and fear overshadow the entire world.  This fear and anxiety are multiplied

when we, as Christians in the United States, are seen to be ever more divided.  The historians among us may be able to point to bitter divisions in the past, but I can’t think of a time when fundamental differences over our understanding of Christian doctrine, scripture and behavior have been so widespread.  The founders of the ecumenical movement could not have imagined that we would have such divisions not only between us, but within our churches as well.  So one has to ask, is our gathering for Christian unity a vain and hopeless exercise in misplaced optimism? Are we just whistling past the graveyard of Christian unity? 

We have cause to be anxious and all of this is reflected in the theme of our gathering: “Fear Not: God’s Love in an Anxious Age.”

You may know that Orthodox Christians have just celebrated Easter this past Sunday, so the words of our Holy Week and Paschal services are still very much echoing in our hearts and our liturgical experience of the great cataclysm of the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord continues to shake our being as we ponder the reality of Christ’s overcoming of death by His own voluntary death.

In fact, so central is this reality to our lives as Christians that this present week is known as Bright Week and is taken as one single day of Paschal celebration. How else would it be possible to process the spiritual, emotional and psychological ups and downs in our own hearts as we follow Christ through His ascents and descents? As Saint Paul reminds us:

Grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.  (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

We have experienced the joy and exhilaration of the resurrection, but also the fear of the disciples who forsook Him and fled, who denied him and even betrayed him. We have experienced the wonder and the fear of the women who came early to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus with spices, and when the angel announced to them the glad tidings of the resurrection, went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.

So even at the resurrection, there was fear.

In the understanding of the Orthodox Church, the passions (such as gluttony, lust, anger, and pride) arise in the hearts of human beings when natural virtuous dispositions are perverted into ones that go against nature. Each of the passions is overcome by an opposing virtue, although the difference lies more in the disposition of one’s heart. So it is with fear. There is a fear that leads one closer to Christ and a fear that separates us from Him and from one another. St John of the Ladder writes: “He who has become the servant of the Lord will fear His Master alone, but he who does not yet fear Him is often afraid of his own shadow.”

The task of the Church, and our task as Christians, is to make manifest the will of God and to solve our problems, to address the fear that hovers over us, with the life of Christ that is within us. In another context, but one that is timely for us, a contemporary monk of Mount Athos offers these words about the challenges of our times:

“The Church is the God-man Himself. This is the fact that keep us alive. So the question is not how to provide solutions to our problems [“as the world gives”]; it is a matter of letting it become apparent how our problems are solved by the Lord who lives in us. When that happens, then peace and calm reign among all.”

And here Saint Paul’s words come to mind, which we read on Great and Holy Friday: I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Paul’s single-minded focus on Christ crucified might be what we all need to recover to answer the question about God’s love in an anxious age.  Can we take the focus off ourselves? Can we turn away from the myriad of concerns that might draw our attention and decide, like Paul, to know nothing else? If we focus on Christ and Him crucified, I believe we will also be drawn together as Christians in a deep spiritual unity that defies our differences.  The early Christians used the image of the spokes of wheel: the more we draw near to the center, the closer we draw at the same time to the other spokes.  The Cross of Christ is our center and each of us is the spokes.

Some live the cross every day, as they have their own sufferings that make it easy to look to Christ and His Cross. They see in the crucified Savior a God who is not at a distance, a God who knows anxiety and affliction from within.  A God who went into the Garden of Gethsemane wanting the cup of suffering to be taken away.  A God whose sweat was like great drops of blood falling to the ground. A God who wanted his friends to stay with him and comfort him, and was disappointed when they could not.  Suffering people who look at the Cross understand what it means to have a crucified Savior.

But then there’s the other side.  The late Fr Thomas Hopko, who was no stranger to the National Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement, often used to quote H. Richard Niebuhr on the comfortable ethos of American Christianity which we all share: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

To both the afflicted and the comfortable we point to Christ and His Cross.  More than anything, we as Christians from various churches need to see ourselves, and be seen by others as “People of the Cross.” We may not be called to suffer as the Coptic Christians who were beheaded last year by ISIS, or by suffering Christians throughout the Middle East.  But like them, we need to be seen as “people of the Cross,” by both our friends and our enemies. Who are the Christians? “People of the Cross.”

The Cross is God’s answer to fear and anxiety.  The Cross of the crucified God transforms defeat into victory.  This is what has united Christians from the beginning as they faced misunderstanding, opposition, and suffering.  The early Christians saw Christ and the cross everywhere, especially in the pages of the Old Testament.  For example, one of the most frequently cited Old Testament stories was the story in Daniel of the three holy youths in Babylon.  This was also one of the earliest depictions in Christian art, in the catacombs of Rome.

The three youths refused to give in to the king’s idolatry and were thrown into a burning fire.  And suddenly the astonished King Nebuchadnezzar saw them walking in the midst of the fire accompanied by a fourth person, walking with them in the midst of the flames.   And said the king, “…they are not hurt, and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” It took very little imagination for the early Christians to recognize the fourth man as the eternal Word of God, the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

As we sing in the Orthodox Church on Holy Thursday:

The blessed youths in Babylon

Braved dangers for their fathers’ laws.

They ignored the ignorant command of the king.

United by a fire which did not consume them,

They sang a hymn worthy of the Almighty:

Praise the Lord, all works of the Lord!

Exalt Him throughout all ages!

“United by a fire which did not consume them.” This hearkens back to the unconsumed burning bush that Moses encountered.  And it looks forward to the Cross that equally unites the disciples of Christ as they—we—face threats and anxiety in every age down to the present. 

To the afflicted we say: embrace Christ and His Cross and you will find a God who accompanies you.

To the comfortable we say: embrace Christ and His Cross and your life will be shaken and overturned. 

And to both we say: embrace Christ and His Cross and you will discover the transforming, death-defying love of God that cannot be taken away.

When Christ said: “Fear not” he was usually speaking to his disciples and apostles, but that means that He was speaking to the leaders, and future leaders, of the Church. So it is important for us, as leaders within our communions, to foster in our own personal lives, this certainty and this hope of the resurrection, so that we might direct our fear in the right direction, and help our flocks and communities to do the same.

There are those who would say that all religion is based on fear, but we would say, along with Saint Maximos the Confessor, that the: “Fear of God is the result of faith in God.” When we have faith in God, we fear to offend him, so we then work to overcome the passions of our heart which separate us from Him. This, in turn, leads us to bear afflictions patiently, which brings hope. “Hope in God separates us from every worldly attachment and when the intellect is detached in this way, it will acquire love for God.”

As a final reflection, I would ask us to hear again the verse with which I began but within the broader context of our Lord’s prayer in the Gospel of John, words which He uttered as a prelude to his oft-quoted verses about unity:

These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you.  But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I go away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father; for the Father is greater than I.  And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place, you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go hence.

With these words, the Lord made his way to the Cross, in which He endured the actions of those whose hearts had been overgrown with fear, hatred and anxiety. But through that ordeal, He Himself came, and brought us with Him, to the light of the resurrection.

Let me conclude with verses that the Orthodox sing throughout the Paschal season:

This is the day of resurrection.

Let us be illumined by the feast.

Let us embrace each other.

Let us call “Brothers” even those that hate us,

And forgive all by the resurrection,

And so let us cry:

Christ is risen from the dead,

Trampling down death by death,

And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.