The Reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans. (12:6-14) and The Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (9:1-8)
St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome. He wrote into the very center of the empire that so many had understood to be evil. We do not have to look far and we see evil all around us. Some believe that the United States is the modern equivalent to the Roman empire. And we as Christians are here, now. One of the powerful aspects of our faith is the belief that Holy Scripture and the New Testament are alive and rich with meaning for all generations and all peoples. What St. Paul spoke to the Romans is now very important for us to study. We might be questioning what is going on all around us, we may be anxious, fearful, maybe even falling into despair. Allow the words of the great Apostle to guide and comfort you during this time. Let us hear again these words given to us in today’s epistle,
“Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads,f with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. 9 Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. 10 Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit,g serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”
What St. Paul is telling us is that each one of us has a part to play within this story of life. Each one of us has been placed here by God in order to serve and to love and to help one another. In whatever we do to use the gifts that God has given each of us, St. Paul exhorts us not to be lazy but fervent and energetic in our service to God and the body of Christ, which is the members of the Church. God has given us amazing strength and gifts and talents in various ways. As things may get more difficult for us, it is necessary for us to use these gifts wisely and bear fruit for the Lord. What is this fruit? It is the fruit of holiness. The fruit of lives that are sanctified and offered to God, to the doing of His will, to the keeping of His commands.
St. Paul not only reminds us to love one another and serve one another, he goes further to encourage the Christians in Rome. He tells them to “rejoice in hope.” How can he dare to say this? He saw the way that Christians were treated. He understood that they were persecuted unjustly. Was he insensitive to their predicament? No, he understood it quite well, yet he had a hope that remained in his heart because he met with the risen Lord Jesus Christ. His hope was found in the resurrection of Christ. His hope was in the Lord’s defeat of death. St. John Chrysostom speaks about tribulation and hope when he says “All these things are fuel for the fire of the Spirit.… There is nothing which makes the soul so courageous and (adventurous) for anything as a good hope.”
Where is our hope my brothers and sisters? Where was the hope of the Roman Christians? Did it matter if the authorities were unjust to the Christians? They were also unjust with the Lord Jesus. What did it matter if the Christians were persecuted and killed, if the authorities could not break their spirits and kill their souls? Everything in life is turned on it’s head by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything in the life of a Christian is turned on it’s head and given new meaning by entering into and living within the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. Your life is not your own, it belongs to Jesus Christ. You have nothing to fear if Christ is with you. But without Christ in your life, you will fear everything, even your own shadow.
As Christians we are not guaranteed peaceful and comfortable lives. We have mostly lived in comfort but we should always be ready for trials and difficulties. Perhaps that is one of the lessons the Church teaches us through the ascetic disciplines. Yet St. Paul has a word for us in case we do run into trials and difficult circumstances. He says we should be “patient in tribulation.” But how can we possibly do this? How can we go on when we feel great difficulties in our lives? How do we manage when we feel that we are under a cloud and unable to lift our heads? St. Paul tells us the answer and it is so simple that I think we often take it for granted, “continue steadfastly in prayer.”
Prayer is our bridge to God and God is our only source of strength and hope. St. Joseph of Optina writes “Prayer is food for the soul. Do not starve the soul, it is better to let the body go hungry.”
Similarly St. Gregory Palamas writes “Prayer changes from entreaty to thanksgiving, and meditation on the divine truths of faith fills the heart with a sense of jubilation and unimpeachable hope. This hope is a foretaste of future blessings, of which the soul even now receives direct experience, and so it comes to know in part the surpassing richness of God’s bounty, in accordance with the Psalmist’s words, ‘Taste and know that the Lord is bountiful’ (Ps. 34:8). For He is the jubilation of the righteous, the joy of the upright, the gladness of the humble, and the solace of those who grieve because of Him.”
When we are most hungry, most thirsty, most weak, that is when it is easiest to give up. This is often when we turn to the smartphones and the televisions and others turn to drugs or alcohol. But these are all thieves and robbers. They steal your attention, your lives and your hearts while they offer you very little in return. And that is precisely the wrong solution to our situation. This is precisely when we should be most diligent and eager to do the work and run to Christ in prayer. We call God our Father, but do we live this reality and understand just how much God loves us and wants to support us? He wants to give us everything that He has because we are His children. Let us trust Him and have hope that we will be victorious with Him. Be courageous in hunting for pure prayer with Christ. Turn your life upside down and be disciplined in the small things in order to find the pearl of great price and the treasure of prayer. Everything else will pass away but what we have cultivated between us and God will remain forever. This is our hope and in this hope we will be conquerers with Christ, the victorious King, to Him be the glory with His Father and the Holy Spirit forever, AMEN.