St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

For God So Loved the World

Sermon Preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, September 11, 2005

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

When we want to express love to a special person we often tack on the little word "so". I love you soooo much and, of course, the more you want to express it the longer you stretch the word. St. John uses the word in much the same way. He means to say that the amount of love God has for the world is inexpressibly large, limitless and unbounded. "God soooo loved the world."

Today's Gospel fills us with immense joy. Spiritual life in Christ is a celebration, a continuous festival, an unending prayer of thanksgiving. "God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten son."

The mystics of the Church often appear to us as crazy, but they are not. It is just that they came to have a direct experience of God's love in such a way that they literally explode with joy. They dance, they weep, they sing! They cannot contain their ecstasy. It pervades their lives and overflows to all and everything around them. Often they shine with uncreated light or exude a beautiful, unearthly fragrance. The peace that passes understanding invades the core of their lives and makes them appear foolish, but this is what life in Christ produces and is not meant for a special few, but for all.

I like country music, particularly the old songs, roots music. For example, I much prefer Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash to Garth Brooks and Leanne Rimes. But there was a song out a few years ago I deeply enjoyed called "I Hope You Dance." I know this is every parent's prayer for their children, to love, enjoy and celebrate life as it comes. But I also believe it is God's hope for all of us. A student from Holy Cross told me that he often passed by the apartment of a venerable, old Bishop who lived and taught there. And as he passed one day he happened to glance into the window and saw the old man dancing in his living room.

Divine Grace surrounds us every moment, like an atmosphere ready to seep into every breach it can find, the chinks in our steely armor. The walls and battlements of our defenses are not as secure as we think. We are in constant danger of invasion. A disappointment, a tragedy, a death can make a breach large enough for grace to enter. Or something beautiful might stir us, a glorious day, a flower, a quiet moment on the beach, the smile or voice of a loved one. We must not dare to notice the beauty of creation unless we are ready to watch our defenses crumble.

From this little verse comes our reason for being. Because Jesus has come we know that we are loved, we know what God is like and we know what he has called us to be, we know why God created all things and why he sustains them, we know that the deepest mystery of the Godhead is really quite simple: the heart of God overflows with compassion.

Would that all of us would make it our prime directive to welcome the God of Love moment by moment into our hearts!

It is the goal of human life to become one with God. How can this happen without our effort? How can we be like him if we refuse to be like him? Do our lives not need to change? Are we so blind that we do not see the pride and anger that motivates so much of what we do? Can we not understand that our definitions, our opinions, our ideas, our pet peeves are not sacrosanct, that our lives really do not reflect the perfection that is God, that there is no excuse for passing judgment on other human beings, for belittling those with whom we disagree, that we are not the great interpreters and defenders of truth we pretend to be if our lives do not reflect the radical self-sacrificial love that moved Christ to mount the Cross even for those who scourged him, even for those who hated him all the while knowing that a great many would never come to accept his free offer of forgiveness and eternal life? If we think for a moment that we have made it, we are lost and deluded.

The spiritual teachers instruct us to rise every morning giving thanks for a new day full of possibility. We know that each day is a gift from God and that were it not for his limitless compassion life would simply end for all of us. But I think we need to take this to the next level. I think we need to begin to recognize that every moment is a gift rich with potential. I think we need to recognize every single moment as a Christmas moment, a moment in which we can be reborn and Christ can be born in us. We need to begin to see each moment as a Paschal moment, a moment in which we can rise again to new life.

Do we not lose focus often throughout the day? Do we not often get distracted from the "one needful thing" of listening to the Lord's voice deep within our hearts? Do we not over and over again close our eyes to the presence of God, to the beauty of life and the call of the Lord to love and be loved? Yes, we do and as often as we do we need to refocus, to listen more attentively, to reopen our eyes, recognize him and begin again to do the work he has called us to do, loving our neighbors as ourselves. So each moment is a potential Christmas. Each moment is a potential Pascha. Each moment demands our full attention. What else could Paul mean when he instructs us to pray without ceasing and then to "rejoice in the Lord always"? We say it in the Liturgy several times, "Wisdom. Let us be attentive!" In other words shut up for a moment, stop the noise in your heads and pay attention for a moment and listen to the Word of God.

The Gospel tell us that the Lord of Love has come and that those who believe in him will have eternal life. To believe is to live, to live is to act, to act is to be. "Faith without works is dead," and the first and foremost work is to live a Christian life full of conscious awareness moment by moment. Attentiveness connects us with the indwelling Spirit giving us a direct experience of Christ that moves beyond theory and idea to the Kingdom of Heaven itself.

St. Cyril of Alexandria writes that "Participation in the Holy Spirit gives human beings the grace to be shaped as a complete copy of the divine nature." St. Irenaeus writes "It is not possible to live without life and there is no life except by participation in God. Such participation consists in seeing God (always) and rejoicing in his goodness." Thus, it is the prime act of faith for everyone who believes to attend to the presence of the Lord of Love moment by moment.