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Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you

5th Sunday after Pentecost / Tikhvin Icon of the Theotokos; St. David of Thessalonica / Romans 10:1-10; Matthew 8:28 – 9.1

F/S/HS.  Brothers and sisters, in just a few minutes I want to address the subject of appropriate physical contact during dating and preparation for holy marriage, a subject that came to me this last week in two different conversations—one on Monday and then two days later, on Wednesday. 

This subject however is really secondary to a far greater subject that concerns me of late.   And this greater subject is this: When someone from within our own Orthodox faith comes to us with a concern or question, or with an opinion that we disagree with, do we have a response or answer for them?  As opposed to finding ourselves tongue-tied, either because we don’t have words or answers, or because we are afraid that our words or answers might offend; too afraid or worried that that person might feel judged by us.  And so we say next to nothing.

It will be an answer to my prayers, a joy in my heart, if the singular thing you take from this homily is the need to find your voice to address some of the difficult issues that come our way from fellow Orthodox Christians.  And so let me say a few words about the importance of finding your words, finding your voice.

You are likely familiar with the Great Commission—our Lord’s post-Resurrection commission to His Disciples that concludes Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus tells His Disciples: All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.  Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Mt. 28.18-20).

We dear ones are Christ’s current-day disciples, our Lord’s presence here on earth and in the church.  Authority has been bestowed upon us; the authority to baptize and to teach others to observe holy things as passed on to us from our holy Orthodox tradition.  As St. John Maximovich used to say to the members of his Parish Council—You are Christ’s presence to others in this church and in the world.  Go forth then and be Christ to others.  Share His teachings, because you yourself first live those teachings.

In other words, find your voice, find the voice of authority to address any number of situations that come your way, praying all the while that God gives you the right words and a humble spirit free of judgment yet using wise judgment.   

There is another versions of the Great Commission that appears at the conclusion of Mark’s Gospel.  This same narrative makes up the third of our eleven Gospel readings read during every Matins service.  In Mark’s narrative Jesus informs His followers that we will be given special authority and powers, and be able to cast out demons and lay our hands on the sick and restore them to health (Mark 16.17-18).

In one of his meditations on the importance of speaking Christian truth to a given situation, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov chastises the faithful for not believing Jesus; not living as if we do indeed possess the authority to teach or heal others, or cast out demons.  Because if we did believe, we would strive within ourselves to find words to teach others, words to heal, words to cast out demons.

Compelling, St. Ignatius draws from two phrases in this morning’s Gospel reading, phrases uttered by the two demon-possessed Gadarene demoniacs who encounter Jesus.  (V. 29) What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God?  Have you come here to torment us before the time?  

I love St. Ignatius’ take on these verses.  He believes that these two men were one time faithful attenders at their temple; that they went astray given the allure and temptation of making money by joining a local swine farming operation; that demonic possession finally consumed them. 

Jesus, now before them, does indeed want something to do with them; He does indeed want to torment these demons by casting them out of these two men.  And so Jesus does not play nicey nicey.  He invokes one simple word—the word Go.  And with that word the demons depart from the two men and take up residence in a herd of pigs, who dash down the hillside and into the lake, and perish.

This past week I was pondering this Gospel; I was pondering St. Ignatius’ words to boldly speak truth to certain situations wherein I find myself; and I was striving to repent of those times where I have failed to speak truth, where I became tongue-tied, where because of my default to man-pleasing I withheld a truth that I knew I should have spoken.  Lord have mercy.   

My phone rang.  It was Monday morning.  It was a priest I know, who wanted to run a situation by me.  He had just returned from a summer youth conference on the east coast.  One of his roles was to facilitate a discussion involving several young men, ages 17-25, about the subject of dating, engagement, and the place of physical intimacy prior to Holy Marriage.

I caused quite the stir, quite the controversy, he shared with me.  He seemed rather shaken.  About what?  I asked.  Well, one of the young men in this group, during one of our discussions, inquired about how far a couple could go physically before they were married.   All of us had just come from a talk on holy marriage, but the speaker never really gave much practical advice on this particular subject.

Before my priest friend could address the young man’s question, another young man jumped in, articulate, exceedingly confident in himself, lacking humility.  And his answer essentially sanctioned a wide range of physical intimacy prior to marriage, as long you abstain from full conjugal relations.

My priest friend went on.  Some of the other young men agreed with this man’s assessment.  Those who agreed were the only ones to speak.  I finally asked if anyone disagreed.  One other young man raised his hand hesitantly and then in a sheepish voice stated that he disagreed.  A couple of the other men shook their heads in agreement, but said nothing. Still others seemed quite confused.  Everyone became rather silent. 

A darkness of sorts descended upon the group, the darkness of silence, the darkness of a lack of clarity about the subject at hand.  Eventually all eyes turned my way.  They wanted to hear my perspective.  I felt it was incumbent upon me to be Christ’s presence, to give voice to the teachings of our church on this subject.  It was as if most of these young men had lost sight of these teachings, or didn’t really know them.  So I disagreed with those who sanctioned physical intimacy outside of marriage.  I drew the line at holding hands, with hugging, and an occasional dispassionate kiss once you are very serious or engaged.  Some of the men nodded with relief.  Others disagreed with me.  Two got up and walked out of the discussion.

Hearing this priest’s narrative, I thought of words from this morning’s Gospel: Jesus, Son of God, have you come here to torment us before the time?  Yes, my priest friend, in the name of Jesus, with the authority of Jesus, had come to torment some of the young men in that group, to call out their teaching as inconsistent with our Orthodox tradition on the full meaning of chastity prior to marriage.

Then two days later, this past Wednesday, a phone call from a young man.  I am his father confessor.  A very similar subject as two days earlier, only rather than a spirit of permissive excess as espoused by a some of those young men at that conference, this time the spirit was one of rigid and puritanical legalism.   Fr. Daniel, I’m so confused.  I’m friends with a group of young guys.  We all go to different churches.  Many of us met at Camp Saint Mary over the past several years.  We were on Zoom the other day, talking about dating and marriage.  One of the guys said that you can’t marry a woman unless she’s a virgin.  Is that right?  And on a related subject, he said that if you get engaged and succumb to temptation and then fall before you are married, that you can’t marry that person.

This young man and I had an honest and candid and wonderful conversation over the next hour.  Virginity and chastity outside of marriage is the ideal, I told him.  But it is a false and dangerous teaching that the only person an Orthodox Christian can marry is a virgin.  And then we unpacked what is true; true about the nature of chastity; true about confession and God’s forgiveness; true about restoration and healing when one has fallen; and what is true about the dangers of a rigid and puritanical legalism.  How I yearned for that herd of pigs to cast that legalism into. 

This young man went on to say that he had called the priest of the church where his friend attends.  He wanted to know where his friend had received such a rigid teaching.  The priest did not know.  This young man then said to me, Father Daniel, this priest told me to call you, to hear your own perspective on the subject.  And thankfully your two perspectives are almost identical.  So I am relieved. 

Sisters and brothers, there’s some dark stuff, some dark and wrong teachings about our Orthodox faith running around out there.  Especially where that darkness resides in our own Orthodox houses of Faith, we must be Christ’s healing presence to confront such false teachings and cast them out.  Be bold.  Be courageous.  Be Christ.  Find your words to confront false teachings that often wreak havoc on the souls of the faithful.  With the authority of Jesus, cast these demons out; use wise judgment without being judgmental.  F/S/HS