All Saints of North America

Archbishop Seraphim : Homily
"Follow Me"
All Saints of North America
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
29 June, 2008
Romans 2:10-16 ; Matthew 4:18-23
2 Corinthians 11:21-12:9 ; Matthew 16:13-19

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

We hear today the calling of the Holy Apostles, and of course it is appropriate, this being the Feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul. It is also appropriate because the same call went out to those who ultimately became the saints of the Orthodox Church, particularly to those who, for our consideration, became the saints of North America. On this day, as always is the case, the second Sunday after Pentecost, we remember, in particular, the local saints. For a young Church we actually have plenty them. We have to give glory to God that we have been given such shining signs of encouragement for us. It is so easy for us to become discouraged by the difficulties of life, especially the difficulties of modern life with all the pressures that we are under.

I had a taste recently of how life used to be, when I visited the Bishop of Mexico City, Alejo. Mexico City, although it certainly is a modern city, still lives very much in the way people lived when I was a child. For instance, there are still people in a café who will speak to you and who care something about you. They remember your name if you are there more than once. They are willing to talk like human beings to you. These cafés in Mexico City that I encountered were like the ones of my childhood, where cafés were extensions of home where people were offering hospitality. We were guests in these places. In other words, the sense of hospitality and the sense of human relations that we used to have in Canada are, for the most part, lost because we are all so busy. We are all so taken up with ourselves that we have lost sight of much of the basics of just plain human life (let alone what it means to be an Orthodox Christian).

As a result of this, we get depressed ; we feel hopeless ; we feel that life is a big waste, and a huge responsibility. There is no joy left. This happens because we forget to turn to Christ for everything. It seems to me, that one of the reasons that people had joy in my childhood is that they still were remembering to turn to Christ for help, and they were involving Him in the various aspects and burdens of daily life. It is not that life was any easier in those days. I am sure it was not easier for my parents. They certainly did not have all the technology, all the money, and so forth that we have these days. They absolutely did not. Yet, they had joy. Our family had joy. Our neighbours had joy. There was a Christian sensibility about life. I suppose maybe it could very well be that what I sensed in Mexico City was a remainder of Christian awareness that is nowadays getting close to being completely lost in North America.

Our Lord addressed His disciples and apostles by saying : “'Follow Me'”. This way of being as Christians has never changed since that time. Our Lord today says to the apostles : “'Follow Me'”. Today, He still says to you and to me : “'Follow Me'”. Through you and through me, to the people we encounter in our daily lives, He is still saying : “'Follow me'”. It is our responsibility as Christians to be demonstrating what it is like to have a life filled with Christian joy. Our lives must be conveying this joy of Christ.

If we call ourselves Christians, and we do not have joy, well then, what is this ? If someone outside sees us moping around, saying : “Oh my, life is so difficult. It is so painful. It is so hard. I cannot cope with it”. What is that person hearing and seeing this going to say ? The likely response would be : “All right then, what benefit is there in being a Christian ? Why should I want to be a Christian if you, calling yourself a Christian, feel like that and talk like that ? I do not need to feel that bad, and you are not showing me how being a Christian is any better than how I am now”.

It is important for us to remember our responsibility as Orthodox Christians. We have the huge blessing today of the conjunction of the Feast of All Saints of North America and the Feast of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul. There are so many things today to talk about that I cannot address all them all. I might as well confine myself more to the Apostles Peter and Paul.

The Apostles Peter and Paul are very strong personalities. As we encounter them in the Scriptures, we can see that they are very strong persons. They are human beings, and each of them is capable of making mistakes. Nevertheless, they repent of their mistakes, and they keep following Christ as He exhorted them in the passage from the Holy Gospel for today, which we have just heard. They kept following Christ, and they have never stopped until now. Truly, they still are following Christ.

We notice in the Scriptures that these two apostles had some sharp differences. In the normal Orthodox way, they spoke about these differences quite bluntly to each other. They did not mince their words. However, the fact that they had these disagreements did not mean that there was a division. Because they talked bluntly and squarely to each other, by the Grace of God, everything became settled in due course.

How do we see the holy Apostles Peter and Paul represented in iconography to this day ? They are hugging each other. Well, obviously, the tradition of our Orthodox Church is that, from those earliest times, the Apostles Peter and Paul did live in reconciliation and forgiveness with each other, even if they had differences of opinion. If those two Holy Apostles, in the love of Jesus Christ (even if they had strongly different opinions about one thing or another), were able to find their way to reconciliation, harmony, and a concerted effort in the same direction, then we can, too. It is about time we paid attention to this in our lives : living in reconciliation. This really is the way of Christ : living in reconciliation and forgiveness.

There are many things going on in our Orthodox Church in America right now that indicate that people have a really hard time swallowing this particular, obvious command and direction of the Gospel. However, even if people are still having a hard time swallowing it, it is important for us all to remember that this is not an option for an Orthodox Christian. It is not an option that one can take or leave. No matter what anyone does, for good or for bad, no matter what the difference of opinion is, we must still live in reconciliation and forgiveness towards each other. Otherwise, why would our Lord bother to waste His time, and say that we should pray for our enemies. Why would He say : “Pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) ? Why did He bother, then, to direct us so clearly to forgive people who are persecuting us, to pray for our enemies, and even to love our enemies ? Why would He do that and say that if He did not mean it, and if it were not an absolute necessity for us Orthodox Christians to follow ?

He, Himself, hanging on the Cross, with His arms outstretched, was forgiving people from the Cross. He was asking His Father to forgive those who were crucifying Him, because they did not know what they were doing. It has been said, also, that those arms outstretched on the Cross were stretched out not by violence and force. Indeed, our Saviour voluntarily stretched them out on the Cross, and He allowed His arms to be nailed to the Cross. By doing this, with His arms stretched out on the Cross, He is embracing us all, all His creatures, all His creation. This is the wonderful paradox of how our Saviour addresses everything. He is dying, but He is going to live. He is being brutally crucified, but He is embracing the crucifiers. He is blessing them and forgiving them.

This is the paradox that we have to live with, too. This is the extremity of love that we have to grow up into. In growing up into this love, it is not something that we can make ourselves do, either. There is no technique for growing up into His love. For the most part, we simply live our life ; but it is a life that is constantly referring to our Saviour, asking Him to be present in my joy, in my sorrow, in my strong moments, in my difficult moments. We are asking Him in every moment of our life to bless what is happening. We must remember to invoke Him, to call Him into our midst at all times. The more we do this, the more we allow Him to work in our hearts, the more we allow Him to heal our hearts, the more we are enabled to have a positive way of communicating as human beings.

Thus, our life will be full of all sorts of surprises, as my life has been full of surprises. In fact, in the course of my life, I can say that I never know what to expect when I wake up in the morning. I never know what sort of new thing the Lord is going to send ; what new opportunity the Lord is going to send ; who is going to phone me and offer to do this or that or ask the possibility to do this or that. The Lord is full of surprises. A life in Christ is always full of surprises because the Lord loves us. The Lord is the Giver of life, and He multiplies life in us.

It is important for us to remember the apostolic witness. It is important to remember that the apostles were ordinary human beings with ordinary human weaknesses which the Lord filled in, one could say. He healed their weaknesses, and replaced the weakness with His strength, just as He said He would. We have all these saints of North America who are on our calendar now, and who are much loved by many North Americans. Even people around the world love some of our saints because they have come to know them. These saints are ordinary human beings who, weaknesses and all, love the Lord. Their weaknesses were overcome by the Lord. Some of them were martyrs ; some of them were not ; some of them are known, and some of them are not.

Just the other day, I was visiting a women’s monastery near here, and I was hearing the story of a man who, during the course of his whole life, appeared to live an ordinary, nondescript sort of life. He was just an ordinary husband, father, and businessman. He was a little eccentric, too, because he mowed the lawn while wearing a shirt-and-tie. When he died, there was suddenly a surprisingly large number of people showing up at his funeral. There were people that his family had not met, and people that no-one knew at all in the town. They were quite surprised, and they were asking : “How do you know our father/our husband ?” They responded : “For a long time, this man gave us groceries every week” ; or instead, they volunteered : “This man met our need in one way or another”. He never said at all what he did ; however, it turns out that on his desk, they found a list of names of people he was looking after. He was checking them off in a very business-like manner. This man had lived a hidden, Christ-like life of sharing love in very practical ways. Everyone said : “We never knew that we had a saint living in our midst. We did not know”. This is, of course, how blind we can be. It is such a good example of what Christian giving is about, and what Christian service is about. This Orthodox Christian man, by doing good things in silence, was caring for other people that he encountered in his business. When he found out that they had a need of some sort, he juggled his books so that he could meet their need. He met their need, and it never touched his family. There were very many : it was not just five or six.

That a person will do something like this in a hidden way is exactly the epitome of Christian giving : giving, and no-one knows about it ; being a light shining that helps particular people but does not call attention to oneself. This behaviour emphasises the love of Christ. Without words, the behaviour states : “I do not need any medals for all these little things that are being done ; I do not need profuse thanks from anyone. I just give”. This is the ideal Christian way. We have saints that have lived in Toronto : not only this man. I have met a few, actually, but they are nameless at the moment.

We must keep in mind how important our Christian witness is, and, at the same time, the extent of the Lord’s love. The Lord’s love is immense, far beyond our understanding. How many times have I heard in my life (it is now beyond my ability to remember) : “Those Christians are just a bunch of hypocrites”. “They do not practice what they preach”. “They talk about love, but they hate each other”, and that sort of thing. There are so many people that I have met who will not go to church because of bad Christian examples or because Christians go to war with each other.

That Christians will go to war with each other is the worst example. People’s lives are always catastrophically damaged in a war. People dream that at the end of a war a person can carry on, living life as though nothing had happened. However, at the end of a war, there remain all the people who have been battered by the war in one way or another, and who are not being healed. There remain all the people who fought the war, who (because the pain is so great) are pretending in their hearts that the war never happened at all. They live with nightmares, and all sorts of other pain. They have no way to find healing because they, too, are cynical about coming to Christ and trusting Him, because Christians they have met have been so untrustworthy. We can clearly see how important is our Christian witness.

How many times I have met people who have been badly treated in a Christian context, and, nevertheless, by God’s merciful, loving Grace, still are able to live in a sort of Christian-like way, with some sort of positive attitude in life, with some sort of joy, even though they have not the faintest notion why they should be like this. It is because their hearts are still somehow open. The Lord, who loves all His creatures, is still touching them, and meeting their needs. How significant it can be for such a person to encounter an Orthodox Christian (or even any Christian), who is serious, and who is really allowing the light of Christ to shine through.

On this day of All Saints of North America, let us remember that the Lord has called us all to be saints. Saints are not specialist Christians. They are not professional Christians (just as monks are not professional Christians). Neither are priests or bishops professional Christians – they are called to particular functions. Saints are simply persons who have heard our Saviour say : “'Follow Me'” ; and they did follow Him, more and more and more, allowing Him to grow in them into full maturity.

Let us, also, take up our Cross, follow our Saviour and learn to imitate His love more and more. Let us ask Him to be with us and to multiply His love in us, so that we will be able to glorify Him, and shine with Him : Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now, and ever, and unto the ages of ages.