Consider today the preaching of Jesus and what it means for each of us. St Matthew has placed this story in today’s gospel of how Jesus began to preach immediately after the trials and temptations of Jesus in the desert. So it is with us: Our service to God and to others often begins after many trials and temptations, many experiences in the deserts of life.
Today is a time of special significance here at St Aidan’s because it is the first Sunday after Theophany, the baptism of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit came down upon Jesus. Here today the Holy Spirit has come down upon baby Nicholas. Now we did not hear a voice say, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” but we can be confident that the Holy Spirit is pleased with Nicholas and his parents, with their decision that Nicholas should begin his life as an Orthodox Christian. Next week James will be chrismated so that he can continue his journey as a Christian within the fullness of the Orthodox faith.
The Gospel and epistle for today explain what Jesus gives to Nicholas and to James and to each of us from His preaching and service. St Paul suggests that grace will be given to us “according to the measure of Christ’s gift;” and that this grace will lead to quite different gifts as different people become apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, or serve in other ways. I think the really important point here is that all of these gifts are to equip us, as St Paul phrases it, “for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God…to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of God.”
The chrismation which James will receive next week and which Nicholas has just received as a part of his baptism will bring to each of them unique gifts. The same is true for you and me. Precisely what gifts has Jesus Christ given to each of us and how does Jesus Christ intend for each of us to live? Consider: What service do you already give to those around you and to the Orthodox Church? That service may be within the family or the neighborhood, to your friends or to larger purposes in the context of economic and social justice. You have decided how and whom to serve in the past; and you will continue to do so in the future. You need to know yourself well enough to know your talents and your limitations. What brings you joy and what brings you grief? You need to be aware of your current responsibilities and options. What can you do well? How can you serve and whom will you serve during this particular season in your life?
Jesus suggests that the first step in our discovering our own missions in life is: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Notice that Jesus does not tell us to go out and tell others that they should repent. No, He tells us to repent. We have to examine our own lives in relation to the reality that the preaching of Jesus has now begun. We can listen to that preaching of Jesus today in each of our lives. A Biblical note on this verse comments: “Repentance is more than a change of mind or feeling sorry for one’s sins. It is a radical and deliberate turning or returning to God that results in moral and ethical change and action.” That comment is well phrased. The Greek word is metanoia—a change of heart, a change of intent in how we choose to live our lives.
To be transformed, to deliberately turn or return to God, we need to face the resentments we all build up in the struggles of our daily lives. Metropolitan Jonah, the head of the Orthodox Church of America, has written in his new book, Reflections on a Spiritual Journey: “One of the most valuable and important things that we can do in our spiritual [lives] is look at all of the resentments that we have. One of the best ways of accomplishing this is to make a life confession. And not just once, before we’re baptized or chrismated. In the course of our spiritual [lives] we may make several [life confessions], in order to really dig into our past and look at these resentments that we bear against other people. This will enable us,” writes Metropolitan Jonah, “to do the difficult work that it takes to overcome these resentments through forgiveness.”
We can forgive, both formally through confession and informally within ourselves, before God. That is a real possibility before us today. We can walk out of this church aware that by forgiving others and by taking Holy Communion in a spirit of repentance we link our lives to Jesus Christ to such an extent that we are each transformed by the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
We do receive gifts of grace that empower us to decide how best to live our lives and precisely which people and purposes we will serve. That decision is ours: we can serve ourselves or we can serve others. We can decide and pray now to build up a sustained work of service in the context of both our secular work and our lives within the Orthodox Church. Let us each pray about how we might serve and receive the grace we need for that service. Then we can act with the strength that grace brings us.
Now, how can we build up the body of Christ so that we experience together the fullness of the Orthodox faith? I think that we build up the body of Christ in our prayers and in our service, in humility and forgiveness, and especially by going to Holy Communion. Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke, as well as St Paul, all tell us that Jesus blessed bread, and then told his followers, “Take, eat; this is My body.” St Paul even confronts us with the incredible statement in First Corinthians, Chapter 12, verse 27: “You are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.” It’s true!
When we go to Holy Communion we become a part of Christ’s body; and at the same time we are joined individually as members of the body of Christ within both our local church and the universal Orthodox Church. We build up the body of Christ by going to Holy Communion; and by that act we are united in the living experience and the proclamation of being an Orthodox Christian. That unity is already there within the universal Orthodox Church; and we gain the fullness of that unity when we join ourselves to Christ in Holy Communion.
To conclude, we all share in the preaching and service of Jesus which began in Galilee in the first century and has continued for 2,000 years. That very life of Jesus Christ reaches out and touches each of us. That touch is very personal, perhaps very private, but we each do receive our very own gifts from the life of Jesus Christ that build us up to reach the fullness of Christ. It is, as the apostle St John has written in verse 16 of the first chapter of his gospel: “From His fullness [that is, the fullness of Christ] have we all received, grace upon grace.” In other words, to receive “grace upon grace” from “the fullness of Christ” means that we each receive gift upon gift to transform our lives into oneness with Jesus Christ. It happens right now, here today, and next week and in the weeks to come if we choose to forgive others and to go to Holy Communion.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.