By Evan Kardaras, Sub-Deacon at St. Mary & St. Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, Bexley, Australia.
(Sermon given at Passion Week, Monday Eve Service, 2016)
This evening my brothers and sisters we are at the beginning of our Passion Week Journey. We are at the beginning of the holiest of weeks in the calendar of the Orthodox Church all around the world. Those of us who will come to church each day or evening of this week, will slowly walk side by side with our sweet Jesus all the way to the cross and then to His glorious resurrection. We will hear in all the services the corresponding readings, whose goal it is to allow us to enter into the mystery of our Lord’s final week on earth, all the way to his crucifixion.
But why are we here? What is the goal of our church attendance? Are we here because our parents have made us come? Are we here because we feel obliged by family and friends? Are we here because we feel it is our duty as Christians to attend the church services during Passion Week?
Or are we here because we understand what Jesus did for us in His final week on this earth? Are we here because we understand that Jesus endured the all the shame and suffering for our salvation, all for us, all the way to the cross? Are we here because we realise that if Jesus gave himself entirely for us all the way to death, that we no longer belong to ourselves but rather belong to God?
Brothers and sisters, my hope and prayer to God is that we are here for this reason. Because we realise everything that we will hear this week was and is for us, out of God’s immense love for us, out of God’s deepest desire that we all find forgiveness for our sins, unto eternal life, through his sacrifice on the cross. My prayer and hope is that we are here out of a deep gratitude to God for the amazing gift of salvation and thus are willing to give our whole lives to Him out of an immense love for Him and for our neighbour.
For as I said earlier, if He gave himself all the way to the cross so that we may find forgiveness and salvation, then our meagre offering is to give our lives back to the Lord as a tiny offering for His life which He gave for us. If we are here for this reason, with this understanding, our whole experience of Passion Week will be extremely fruitful. It will allow us to have a taste of heaven in our hearts through the touch of the Holy Spirit as with Joy we partake of the fruits of the resurrection.
Our goal then is to focus with much attention on all the readings, which are given to us through our Holy Churches wisdom, to enable us to walk by the Lord’s side, step by step, to the best of our ability. So that we can walk with Him in Jerusalem, stand by His side in His trial before Caiphas, watch the people shout crucify Him, crucify Him before Pontius Pilate, weep by the cross with His holy mother, partake of his sufferings unto His death, be confused when we find the tomb empty and the stone rolled away. And then rejoice with joy inexpressible when we realise He is risen and have our hearts filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit,
This is the goal of passion week brothers and sisters, this is the goal of all the fasting, this is the goal of all the services, all our toil and labour, that we may open our minds and hearts, through our turning our gaze away from our earthly pursuits, and turning our gaze to heaven, so we can allow God to fill our hearts with His goodness, with a deeper experience of who He is and who we are called to be in Him.
In the Gospel we heard earlier from St John 12:24-26, we hear our sweet Jesus say:
unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. 25 He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
I love these verses as they give a beautiful insight into the mystery of our Christian lives. We hear our Lord talk about a grain of wheat, falling into the earth, dying, but then sprouting to produce a crop and much more grain. This is a prophecy of our Lord who will be crucified, die, be buried in the tomb for three days, yet rise again and through this death bring life to the whole world and salvation to all who desire Him. But it’s also a prophecy of the life of all who follows our sweet Jesus and love Him as much as they can.
He who likewise gives His life to Jesus and dies to his earthly pursuits and desires will be a powerful tool in God’s hand and will likewise rise to produce much grain in His life through serving the Lord His Church and his neighbour. Our Lord also says another passage which may sound difficult. He says He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
What does this mean? It means when I as a person indulge in the pleasures of this world, when I don’t fast because I want to enjoy my food, when I don’t pray because it tires my legs, when I don’t give my time to serve my neighbour because I’d rather watch TV; then in essence I am living for myself, for my own selfish goals and desires. Thus I’m “Loving Life”, as we hear people say. We love life because we selfishly do whatever we want pandering to our own ego.
But our Lord says very clearly. He who loves his life will lose it. In other words if you live your life only for your owns desires, only for your own self-seeking pleasures, then you have no inheritance in the kingdom of our sweet Jesus, then you cannot possibly spend eternity with Jesus because you are so different from Jesus. Jesus sacrificed his whole life to serve, heal, and minister to mankind, and do I expect to stand by His side if I spend my whole life ministering to myself? Absolutely not. But as the Lord said He who loves his life will lose it.
On the other hand the Lord also said something else in the same sentence. He said he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. What does this mean? Hating my life? It means that when I turn away from my own selfish desires, when I fast and do not satisfy my appetite, when I stand daily in prayer and don’t listen to my aching legs, when I give my time to serve others and don’t pander to my own desire to watch TV or do other things, then in a sense I am denying myself and my own will and thus can say I hate my life. Not that I hate my existence, but rather that I have with hate, turned away from my self-pleasing egotistical desires, and with love turned toward God and my neighbour and offered my life to serve them as best as possible.
If I do this then I have become an imitator of my Lord and saviour who gave His life for me, and demonstrate in action that I truly appreciate everything He has done for me, by giving my everything to Him. Then with ease our sweet Jesus will welcome as brothers and sisters into His kingdom as we will shine like little stars through the grace He has given us in His kingdom. He will be the bright Sun of righteousness and we in our imitation of Him will be starts shining with His glory. Thus we would have hated our life in this world and have kept it for eternal life.
Let us not think though, that when we give ourselves to God in this way we will hate our existence. On the contrary a person who turns away from themselves and starts to hate their ego, and rather give themselves over to God, to love Him and serve Him, will start to experience heaven here on earth in their hearts. The grace of the Holy Spirit will abide in them in a powerful way and they will start to experience deep joy, peace, hope, faith, love and all the fruits of grace in their hearts. This is man’s goal on earth. To become like Jesus in living our lives for Him and thus be transformed into vessels filled with the Holy Spirit.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus said it himself in the gospel we heard earlier: If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor. Thus brothers and sisters to conclude I put out a challenge here to all of us present to really give our whole selves to Jesus this week. Not to hold back at all, but as much as we can to really walk by His side step by step through as many services we can attend unto the resurrection.
If we haven’t been fasting I challenge all of us to start with zeal this week and thus also partake of the joy of sacrificing food for a deeper experience of Jesus in our hearts. And the greatest challenge of all, that when this week ends, not to go back to our lives as if there was no passion week, but rather to make the decision, a whole hearted decision, to no longer live for ourselves but rather to give our whole being as an offering to the One who loved us and Endured every suffering for us.
Glory be to God forever more amen.