In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Beloved Brethren, we are now in the midst of the great Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, during which we recall how, on the 40th day after His Resurrection, Our Divine Savior ascended bodily before the eyes of His disciples, returned to His Heavenly Father, sat down at the Father’s right hand in the glory of the Holy Trinity, and thereby placed our humanity in the bosom of the Holy Trinity.
Now think about this: this same flesh and blood that you and I have, Jesus also has. By His death and resurrection, He has glorified this human nature of ours, and by His ascension He has taken it up into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity. This same human flesh Jesus shares with us He united with God, and He placed in God, in eternal glory. By so doing, He has revealed to us what is the true calling, the true purpose of a man, of each of us: to rise above this earth and to be glorified forever with God, in the eternal Kingdom of the Heavens.
This is so great, so divine, so marvelous that it does not seem real to us. We formally accept it, and we say, “Yes I am an Orthodox Christian, I believe this.” But our day to day experience is that we are totally pre-occupied with this world, that we feel ourselves to be entirely of this world - and often not even the best aspects of it. How can we rise above our daily grind, our daily concerns, our daily worries, and remember our heavenly calling? How can we remember that we are made not for this fallen life which is passing away, but for Paradise?
First of all, we must not run away from reality and flee into distraction and delusion. Today people are so disgusted or so bored or so scared by how their lives are going that they are all running off into a dream-land of television, internet sites, professional sporting events, addictive rock music, and a thousand and one ways of anesthetizing the psychic pain they feel from the lack of love, lack of community, lack of purpose, lack of meaningful work in their lives, which is striking them in the face every day, hour after hour.
Some people become workaholics and just bury themselves in their jobs to escape the pain within themselves. This must not be so with us! The Orthodox Church is not about escape but reality. We honestly face the real situation of our lives and what the world is like today, and what it is becoming, but simultaneously we do not lose hope, for we do not look to this world for the answer to all this. We look up, to where the Lord Jesus Christ sits at the right hand of God. We do not need to create a dream world of fake earthly happiness, because our happiness is not of this world, but of the Kingdom which is to come.
Second: Once we have faced the reality of our situation, we must at that moment, immediately, turn to God in prayer. In today’s Gospel, we read how Our Divine Savior, on the night before He is to suffer His terrible Passion and Death for our salvation, prays for His disciples.
Our Holy Father Theophylact of Ochrid writes, concerning this passage: Having encouraged the disciples to face bravely the coming tribulations, Christ raised their spirits again, this time by prayer. By praying, He teaches us that when temptations assail us we should put everything else aside and flee to God. “When temptations attack us, we should put everything else aside and flee to God.” By doing this, we are going straight to the source for all the solutions to our problems, without torturing our minds with ten thousand worries and ten thousand false ideas based on our fallen and easily deluded intellect.
When we admit to the Lord that we do not have the answers, that He alone can open the door for us, He loves this prayer, and He shows us the way. He gives us what we need to know, what we need to do, today, in order to please Him. When we receive this comfort, this enlightenment, this divine assurance, we experience in our own souls, in our deepest thoughts and feelings, that, Yes, we really are not of this world, but of that better world, where Christ sits at the right hand of God. We are made for heaven.
Third: We must beg the Lord to give us a burning love for the truth. In the same chapter seventeen of the Gospel according to St. John, from which today’s reading is taken, in the same prayer of the Lord Jesus Christ to the Father, later He prays for His disciples saying, “[Father,] sanctify them through thy truth. Thy word is truth.” Let us ask ourselves, Do we really love the truth? As Orthodox Christians, do we say coldly, “Yes, yes, I accept the Church’s teaching because it is expected of me, because I ‘have to,’” or do we actively, ardently, with great love, study God’s Word, read the lives of His saints, seek out constantly the treasures of our Faith, desiring to learn ever more and more about our Faith, desiring, above all, to live it with devotion and longing, to be on fire with love for the Lord, for His Truth?
Today, on the Seventh Sunday of Pascha, we celebrate the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. We remember how St. Spyridon worked his miracle with the fire, earth, and water from the brick. We remember how St. Nicholas in his great zeal struck Arius on the mouth to silence his blasphemies against the Holy Trinity. We remember how for many years after the Council, great confessors like St. Athanasius endured exile, prison, false accusation, and every kind of suffering, in order to hold and to preach the true dogma of the Holy Trinity.
These men loved the truth; they hated all falsehood, all error; they hated every teaching, every idea, that would lead men away from the true God and the true Faith. They were not indifferent to what other men believed.
They did not say, “Hey, man, believe whatever you want, as long as that what makes you feel good.” They knew that there is only one path to salvation, and they strove with all their hearts and all their minds and with every drop of energy in their bodies – and, yes, often with every drop of their blood - to know that Path accurately, to walk that Path without hypocrisy, and to teach it to others.
If we want to realize our heavenly vocation, if we want to ascend to where Jesus sits at the right hand of God, we too must love this Truth, this One True Path, this One True Faith, and we must study it, live it, and share it with others. We will face the reality of this life today as it really is without trying to escape into the la-la land of entertainment and distraction; we will run to the Lord in prayer for the solutions to the terrible obstacles and temptations which surround us; and we will study our Faith, embrace it with all our hearts, and fight for it, fight for our salvation and the salvation of those around us.
The Lord said to His disciples on the night before He died: “Be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). The Lord has already conquered: He has conquered death and the devil and sin and hell, and He stands at the door of Paradise holding out to us the wreath of victory. He speaks to each of us this very moment, and He says, “I will be your great reward.”
O Risen and Ascended Lord, sitting at the right hand of Thy Father in glory, look down upon us, Thine unworthy disciples, and give us the burning love for the Truth which Thou gavest Thine apostles and fathers, Thy martyrs and all the saints, and make us to realize in our hearts, in our deepest thoughts and feelings, and in the daily actions of our lives, that our true happiness, our true life is not here, in this corrupt world which is so quickly passing away, but there, in the Heavenly Kingdom, where Thou livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, unto the ages of ages. Amen.