We live in a time of great confusion. Our contemporary culture forms many people who cannot imagine any purpose in life higher than the pursuit of self-centered pleasure on their own terms. For example, patient care for the dying and disabled, sacrifice to welcome and rear children conceived in inconvenient circumstances, and even basic sexual morality in singleness and marriage are often rejected today in ways that keep people from growing in God’s image and likeness. Our society produces too many people who love and fantasize about violence, worship money and what it can buy, disregard their needy neighbors, hate those who disagree with them, and recognize no standard higher than fulfilling their own immediate desires. Such ways of living simply diminish us and enslave us to our passions.
On this Sunday of All Saints, the Church reminds us that we are called to follow a very different and much better path. Last Sunday at Pentecost, we celebrated the descent of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit has been poured out richly upon all in the Body of Christ, showing that God intends to dwell in the hearts and souls of human beings such that we all become partakers of the divine nature by grace.
Today we remember all those who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, whose lives have borne witness to the holiness of God. The meaning of the word “saint” is holy, and surely most saints have not been officially canonized by the Church. Nonetheless, they are known by God and glorified in the Kingdom because they embraced His transforming love and became beacons of light. They followed the true and blessed path for which God created us as His sons and daughters; consequently, they became truly human in the divine likeness.
In today’s gospel text, Jesus Christ teaches that He will confess us to His Father in heaven if we confess Him before other people. But if we do not, He will not claim us before the Father. He says that we must love Him more than anyone or anything else. The persecuted Christians of the Middle East and elsewhere certainly follow His teaching when they become refugees, prisoners, and victims of torture, abuse, and execution for their faith in Him. But we may wonder what our Lord’s words mean for those of us who live in places where we do not experience such obvious threats. Do we have any hope of Christ acknowledging us before His Father when we do not suffer that kind of persecution?
The good news of the gospel is that the Holy Spirit enables us all to become holy in whatever life circumstances we face. The divine breath gave us life in the first place in God’s image and likeness and empowers us all to grow eternally in becoming more like Him, to become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect. As hard as it is to believe, God calls us all to that kind of holiness. He intends to make our lives shine with the glory of His Kingdom, right now and throughout all eternity. For that to happen, we must follow the path trod by all the saints, which is open to every human being in every generation.
Think about what Christ said concerning whether we confess Him before others. That is relevant not only for circumstances of persecution, but also for every day of our lives. Do we act and speak in ways that show we are united to Christ? Are we living witnesses of His victory over sin and death? Does the light of His resurrection shine through us by the power of Holy Spirit? The hard truth is that, whenever Christ is not evident in us, we deny Him. If we speak or act according to our own self-centered desires or the corrupt ways of the world, we indicate that we are not His. That is to veer from the path to the Kingdom followed by all the saints; it is to turn away from what it means to be a human being in God’s image and likeness. When we recognize we have done that, we must repent, reorienting our thoughts, words, and deeds toward Christ in humility.
The Savior gives us an exacting standard to determine whether we are truly united with Him. Namely, He says that those who love even family members more than Him are not worthy of Him. Instead, we must take up our crosses and follow Him in order to be His. As much as we do not like to hear it, even our deepest and most profound relationships in this life must be transformed by an even deeper and more profound allegiance to Christ if they are to become icons of the blessedness of the Kingdom. Otherwise, they will become idols that diminish all concerned and keep us from fulfilling our high calling.
Family life by itself is not the salvation of the world. The relationship between man and woman so easily becomes distorted and brings misery on them both, which is why there is so much divorce today. Parents and children have it no easier, as witness child abuse, abortion, and the neglect of the elderly. When it comes to siblings, just remember Cain and Abel. Even the best human inclinations so easily fall prey to the worst when they are not healed by sacrificial offering to the Lord.
Christ went to the cross for us, bearing the consequences of all human corruption to the point of death, burial, and Hades in order to conquer them and bring us into eternal life through His resurrection. The Father gave the Son and the Son offered Himself up on the cross for salvation. That is the ultimate act of love. If—together with our family members and loved ones– we want to share in the new life that Christ has brought to the world, we must not make idols of any human being or relationship. We must not pretend that they come before God or are fine just as they are. No, we must offer our families and relationships to the Lord and bear the cross of sacrificing the idolatry even of our spouses, children, and parents. For like us, they are simply human beings and not God. And if we make false gods of them, we will bring sorrow to them and ourselves. We will bend everyone concerned out of shape, putting more weight on them than anyone can bear. Instead, we must take up the cross of loving others according to God’s will for them and us.
Purely out of love, the Son went to the cross for the salvation of the world. That is sacrifice beyond what we can understand. And if we share in that love, we must sacrifice the ultimately self-centered illusion that we will find or give other people true fulfillment and happiness apart from Him. And if we put ourselves or others before faithfulness to the Lord, we will end up confessing some false god in place of Jesus Christ. It is not as dramatic as worshiping an idol, but the spiritual significance is the same. It is not the way of the saints, and it must not be our way if we want to open our lives to His glorious blessing and fulfillment.
If we really love others, we will bear the cross for them and offer them to the Lord as best we can. For example, when man and woman join in marriage in the Orthodox Church, they wear the crowns of the Kingdom, which are crowns of martyrdom. Each dies to self in loving and serving Christ in the other. We must not look for unrealistic romantic, financial, or social bliss in marriage, for that leads only to dissatisfaction and divorce. The true calling of husband and wife is to make their life together an icon, a living image of the Kingdom of God. Mutual forgiveness, patience, self-sacrifice, self-control, humility, and steadfast commitment are the signs of a holy marriage. Faithful husbands and wives pray for and with one another. Faithful fathers and mothers do the same with their children. When families worship together and use their financial and other resources to serve God’s purposes in the world, they offer their common life to the Lord. They confess Jesus Christ to one another and the world. They open their lives to the holiness of God and follow in the way of the saints.
Yes, this kind of family life is a cross to bear, and it requires forgoing much that we may well desire. In our age of internet pornography, promiscuity, and routine divorce, there is not much today that supports the holiness of marriage and family. We face great struggles in fulfilling our calling to confess Jesus Christ as Lord with integrity each day in a world that worships pleasure, wealth, and selfishness. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit strengthens us all to take up our crosses, which means confessing our Lord each day of our lives in all we say and do. If we will do so, then we will open ourselves to His mercy and know already the peace and joy of a Kingdom not of this world together with all the saints who have gone before us.