In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God.
That epistle lesson and that gospel lesson are cut from the same cloth, not just the same inspiration of the spirit of God, but the same themes, the same focus to convince us, we disciples of the Savior who listen to his word, to convince us of the certainty and the depth of his love for us. The epistle lesson focused upon the needs of the soul before God. How shall we who, in the words of that lesson, are sinners, ungodly, and enemies—how shall people like that be justified before God? And St. Paul puts forth our Savior, he who has justified us by his precious cross, he in whom we have been reconciled to God, he who is our peace and has caused the peace of God to overflow onto us so that now we don’t stand before God any longer as enemies or as ungodly or as sinners but as dear children, reconciled and saved from wrath.
This is the theme of the epistle: God’s love caring for all the needs of our soul, and the message of the gospel, which is taken, excised, right from the Sermon on the Mount, our Savior presses home to his listeners how much God cares for the small things of life, for all of the necessities of the body—clothing and food and drink and a place to live. All of these things he cares for. Nothing about our existence, nothing, nothing we need is not known by our heavenly Father and provided for abundantly out of his great love. This is the theme of these readings.
I would like to expand on just one of them. It comes from the epistle lesson. If you were paying close attention—which is necessary for the readings to come in—you would have heard, amidst many phrases of jubilation and exaltation by St. Paul, those eleven verses from Romans 5 are packed with exclamations of happiness. You would have heard him repeat the same combination of words three times: “We rejoice… We rejoice… We rejoice…” At the beginning, at the middle, and at the end of that epistle lesson. He provides a direct object as well: three different causes of rejoicing.
But before I tell you what those three are and remind you from the epistle lesson, brothers and sisters, I want you to feel the weight of his repetitions. This is what a Christian is: a rejoicer. You can compare that with the gospel lesson, where the Lord says the world is anxious. The Gentiles ask things like “What are we going to wear?” “What are we going to eat and drink?” Jesus says those are the concerns of those who are not rejoicers. This is the world’s preoccupation. Fretting is not Christian. Our faith spills into our disposition, does it not? Is our disposition not determined by our confidence and the love of God for us? That’s why we rejoice.
Being rejoicing people means to be Christian people. This is normal for us. We don’t need something special to happen in the day to be a happy day. We don’t have to get up in a fuss-eria and hope something’s going to happen to make the day good. That’s not how we live. For us, the day is good. It is good. We get up in the love of God the same way we go to bed in the love of God, the same way that we’re preserved in the night by the love of God. When we get up, our natural disposition is to rejoice. If we have this mentality, and it shows itself in our prayers early in the morning, especially in the prayer of thanksgiving, which is appointed to be read in the beginning of morning prayers, then already we have set our course for that day.
If these are the scales of life, holding the good and the bad, which every day has some mixture; if these are the scales of life when we get up as Christians and we remember the love of God, this is how we’re starting our day: weighed heavy in the good. Then as we meet those conflicts and those challenges that mount up throughout the day, bit by bit, we can still endure. It takes a lot to have a terrible day, a lot, but you can imagine if you start like this, one little bad thing and all of a sudden you’re pushed over into the majority bad.
St. Paul says we rejoice. Now listen to these three things he says. Three different causes of rejoicing. Having just described our justification before God through Christ and his precious cross, he says:
Therefore, having been justified by his grace, we rejoice in our hope of sharing in the glory of God.
This is number one. St. Paul is rejoicing in what’s coming in the future. He has plenty to rejoice about that he just named in the present—our peace with God, our forgiveness, our justification, our new boldness, our becoming family members of God’s house—all of those things he just mentions, but now he’s taking our gaze to the future, as if that wasn’t enough. He wants us to know that God will not rest for us. He will not rest until his children share in his glory. This is the future.
Do you know, that is so central to the heart of God that the wonderful prayer of our Savior, sometimes called his high priestly prayer, that’s recorded in the 17th chapter of St. John’s gospel, that gospel alone records this prayer and allows us to penetrate to see, like a fly on the wall, the intimate relationship between the Lord Jesus Christ and his Father in prayer. At the heart of his request to his Father before he went to his death was that we might share his glory. This is what he asked God, that we his children might be where he is in the glory of his Father and might share with it. This is his ambition. This is the future. This is what’s coming to you. So don’t just think about the present, and when you give thanks and are looking for something to give thanks for, something to move your heart to rejoicing, think not just about the things that you possess, but let those also be a witness for God’s intention for the future, which, by the way, is far greater. What is coming is far beyond your conception.
He continues, and in the middle of this passage he says, “More than that…” So he’s giving gradations to the causes of his rejoicing.
More than that, in the hope of sharing the glory of God, right now we rejoice in our sufferings. We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that they work patience, and patience produces proven character.
The word is dokimos. By the way, that’s the word we use when someone goes to a monastery and they become a novice for three years. A novice is a dokimos; he’s someone in testing, someone under probation. And that is the kind of character, attested character, St. Paul says is produced by sufferings.
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings because we know, in fact, that sufferings produce patience; patience produces a proven, tested character; proven, tested character produces hope; and hope does not disappoint.
These are his words. Now let me convince you that this is true. It’s the character of children to have a difficulty to see beyond the present into the future. For instance, this week I received an email from one of our moms who is very concerned because she had to take her very young son to the dentist, but it wasn’t a fun meeting with the dentist where you get your little toy at the end and you have clean teeth. That had already happened. The bad report card had already come back: teeth needed to be removed, pulpotomies needed to be done. It was a nightmare report card.
Now, many of you—I would dare say all of you—have had pain in the teeth. [Laughter] You know what it feels like to have a root canal or even a crown put on. Mmm! Ouch. But we nevertheless voluntarily submit ourselves to the hands of the dentist—why? Why do we allow ourselves to go through that terrible suffering? [Drill sounds] Oh! Shaving of the tooth! Poking of the nerves! It’s awful, absolutely awful—but why do we do it? Because we know the fruit of that work will mean no pain in the teeth, and that if we don’t do it, something very, very bad, worse, is going to happen. So we submit to it.
Children can’t fathom this. They hear the blade… We used to have a dentist, a wonderful dentist, who had all of his dental instruments named so that they wouldn’t be scary to the kids. “This is Dave the Drill.” [Laughter] It worked, of course, until the drill hit the tooth, so children had to be put out, as this young man in our parish did. He had to have gas. He had to be completely knocked out.
Now why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this because, brothers and sisters, sometimes we’re just like the kids with regards to our soul. The drills are the sufferings that the Lord God brings into our life, the contradictions of our will that we have to face, the reversals of fortune which we never would have written into our own script but were somehow written into our life by the hand of God. Those things we have a choice to either endure like going to the dentist, confident in fact that there will be beautiful fruits like St. Paul and not just enduring, but if we truly believe that, we will rejoice in the pain. We will rejoice in the sufferings, confident that we are undergoing personal transformation through those sufferings, alteration, preparation for what’s coming. Or we can complain, be bitter, and act like children, and have to be bonked on the head by God to endure it. One way or another.
Thank God we have the saints, who give us a lift, who build our confidence to accept our problems without fuss. I received a wonderful email this week by one of our parishioners who discovered one of our recent saints. This is the kind of emails pastors need. Pastors love this kind of emails. Let me read just a portion of it to you.
Dear Father, So-and-so lent me the Life of Fr. Arseny.
Some of you have read the Life of Fr. Arseny. There are two volumes now published on his life. I’m holding it up as show-and-tell to motivate you to walk after the liturgy to your right, through that door, and to purchase the book. [Laughter] St. Vladimir Seminary Press publishes volume one and two, stories from the life of Fr. Arseny.
So-and-so lent me the Life of Fr. Arseny, and in just reading the accounts of his life, he has left a profound impression upon me. I am moved by his faith and by his utter resignation to God’s will. I have a question about this, and it’s really the same question that I have long had about prayer. Whatever misfortune befalls Fr. Arseny, whether it’s being assailed by the freezing winds…
He lived under the Soviets in Russia, and as a priest he was put into prison for years, decades.
...whether it’s being assailed by the freezing winds or suffering a vicious beating at the hands of the guards or at the hands of fellow prisoners, he responds by simply reciting the Jesus Prayer and concluding with these words: “Thy will be done.” I marvel at his faith, and I have begun to take this attitude in my own life. It seems that we humans will always have a portion of suffering.
It takes a brain surgeon. [Laughter]
It seems that we humans will always have a portion of suffering. It’s vain and spiritually stifling to wish for an easy life. Nevertheless, I don’t quite understand how prayer works exactly. I could have saved you a lot of time, reading this email, by asking again the name of that book you once recommended to me on prayer. If it’s called On Prayer, I’m going to feel really ridiculous.
And it is, by the way. [Laughter] But you see this, brothers and sisters. Here is someone who wasn’t just believing that tribulations and sufferings are causes for rejoicing. Here is someone, Fr. Arseny, who was actually doing it, living it, and his life was transformative. How is it that a man who spent most of his life under the thumb of a brutal dictator and his minions, who lived in the middle of nowhere, would have his life being read by Americans in English and people praying to him for help? What an amazing thing. That’s glory through tribulations. That’s cause for rejoicing.
I want to end by pointing out number three. The very last verse of the passage, St. Paul says:
And again, we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is how he ends. So first he tells us we hope in the sharing in the glory of God in the future. Then he tells us how we’re going to get there, and he says that’s by rejoicing in tribulations, being confident that your character will be better if you accept them by faith. And then he climaxes it all by saying what our true treasure is. We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have received the reconciliation.
All of these things in life, all these things that God gives, are nothing, brothers and sisters, compared to the Giver. Our greatest treasure, our greatest possession, is to know and to live with the one true God. And this is us. This is us. We don’t claim to represent him well. We don’t claim to be great children, but we do claim, in fact, to be children of the one God who has made his face known to us. We don’t worship an undeciphered, vague God. We worship the one God who has revealed himself to us, and to have the gifts, the many gifts of God, even to have a changed character and to see yourself making progress in your own transformation—nothing is as good that God gives as the Giver himself. One whisper from him, one touch of hope, one breath of consolation and encouragement—to have God near us is the greatest joy of all.
Yesterday I was speaking with one of our couples—been married lots of years, thank God, and have a very beautiful marriage—and I learned about one of the beautiful devotions, marital devotions, of the husband. I had to be very humble to listen to it, because it put me to shame. [Laughter] But over the decades of their marriage, their anniversary is on the 12th—I’m not going to say what month to give them away. Their anniversary is on the 12th, so the 12th of every month the husband recognizes as a special day. On their yearly anniversary, he gives to his wife a little box that has twelve little thingies in it that she pulls out on the 12th of each month, connecting their two anniversaries. It’s an award for five minutes of a back-rub and a movie or something like that. Whatever he writes something down, he gives her a gift on the monthly anniversary.
Some of us sometimes forget the yearly anniversary. [Laughter] This man in his fervency remembers it monthly in preparation. Those little tiny gifts, those little mementos, what do they mean? They’re expressions of the giving of a person. The joy is not the gifts of the beloved, but the presence of the beloved that the gifts attest to, and it’s true with God. Every good thing we have, brothers and sisters—our new church temple, our precious faith, all the things that God has provided for you mentioned in the Gospel, everything you need to eat, everything you need to clothe yourself, everything you need to care for your families, the care for your soul, for your justification—all of those things, they’re gifts that bespeak the love of the Giver who is even more glorious. So we rejoice in God himself.
This is our boast, and this is our glory, and I ask you to continue being what you are, but more so: rejoicers, rejoicers. And may the glory of God be yours forever.