Sunday, April 20, is Easter, and I can guarantee you that, right now, all over Central Texas, pastors are already thinking about the sermon that they are going to preach on that day. After all, on Easter, most congregations see their biggest attendance of the year: folks who haven’t been to a service in months show up on that Sunday, and there are always lots of visitors, so most pastors work especially hard on their Easter sermon.
But I don’t have to preach on Easter Sunday. Now, it’s not like I get the day off. In Holy Orthodoxy, the main Easter service is over three hours long, and that comes at the end of a week that includes twenty-two other services. However, Orthodox priests never preach on Easter Sunday; instead, we each read to our congregations a sermon that was written by one of the greatest preachers of all time, an archbishop named St John Chrysostom.
St John wrote this particular sermon about 1600 years ago. But the reason 360 million of us Orthodox Christians still listen to that same sermon each and every Easter is because St John simply nailed it; he literally said everything that needs to be said on the subject. So, we figure, why replace or re-package something that is already perfect?
Now you’d think that a sermon that sums up everything that needs to be said about Easter would be really, really long and really, really boring; however, it only takes about five minutes to read through the sermon, and there is also some call and response dialogue in the sermon that’s actually a lot of fun: there are several points where the priest proclaims a line, and the congregation shouts that line right back. But what makes this sermon so very special is the way St John describes our salvation.
Basically, St John compares heaven to a great banquet. Of course, that’s an image that appears throughout Holy Scripture. But what makes that biblical word picture even more powerful is the fact that, in Holy Orthodoxy, we always celebrate Easter with a huge congregational meal. So, as we all listen to St John’s sermon, we are also thinking about the banquet that we are going to enjoy once the service has ended.
However, St John also makes the point that everyone is welcome to join in the Easter Feast. Here’s how he puts it in his sermon:
Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of the Lord! Ye rich and ye poor, join hands together. Ye sober and ye heedless, do honor to this day. Ye who have fasted and ye who have not fasted, be glad today. The table is full: do ye all fare sumptuously. The calf is ample: let no one go forth hungry. Let all enjoy the banquet of faith. Let all enjoy the wealth of righteousness. Let no one lament his poverty for the Kingdom is made manifest. Let no one bewail his transgressions, for forgiveness hath dawned forth from the tomb.
But here’s the really cool thing: what is true of our Easter celebration is also true of the Great Banquet in Heaven: everyone is welcome. You don’t have to be perfect; you don’t have to subscribe to the right set of ideas; you don’t have to adopt a particular label; you don’t have to reject certain people; you don’t have to say the correct words; you don’t have to follow the rules. All you have to do is show up.
Now that’s pure gospel. And that message is every bit as exhilarating and every bit as scary as it was when Christ Jesus first proclaimed it. In fact, at times, it even scares us Orthodox—which is why, I think, in Her Wisdom, the Church decided a long time ago that St John’s sermon should be read every single year at the very center point of the year: that way, all of us Orthodox are confronted annually with the fact that absolutely everyone, without exception, is welcome at the Banquet of the Kingdom.
Of course, just because everyone is invited to the Feast doesn’t mean that everyone is going to show up. And, in a twisted, grim sort of way, that should reassure all of our fundamentalist brothers and sisters. In other words, we Orthodox don’t teach that everyone is going to be saved. Some folks aren’t going to join in the Feast out of pride; some people are going to stay away out of shame. There will be a bunch of folks that don’t participate because they’re either too lazy or too busy. And there will be just a whole lot of people that don’t attend because they don’t want to associate with folks who might also possibly be there.
So, in Holy Orthodoxy, the Doctrine of Hell is safe. However, because of what our Lord and Master did at Easter, no one—not a single one of us—ever has to go there. And since St John Chrysostom has summed up that message in his matchless sermon, a sermon that is truly for the ages, I’ll just go ahead and quote the holy archbishop one last time:
O Death, where is thy victory? O Hell, where is thy sting? Christ is Risen and thou art overthrown! Christ is Risen and the demons are fallen! Christ is Risen and the angels rejoice! Christ is Risen and life doth reign!
Of course, you are also welcome to join us for the live version on Sunday, April 20.
Just check our website for details.
But, whether you show up this Easter, or whether you don’t make it until we all sit down together in the Kingdom, either way, I’ll see you at the Feast.