Outside The Gate of the City
Christ is risen!
I spend most weekday mornings driving my daughter to school. She is used to me getting in the car, turning off the radio, and having a conversation all the way to school. “How did you sleep?” “What did you dream about?” “What’s going on in your life?” Eventually, one of the questions kicks off my “morning sermon” as she delightfully calls it. And this morning was no exception. Our conversation eventually turned to the chaos of the world she is entering. I made a confession that I bet most of us parents can (or at least “should”) make: “Babe, I always worry that I’ve not been a good enough father, a good enough teacher, to help you navigate the increasingly chaotic world. Please forgive me.” And you know what she said? “Dad, don’t worry, all of us make mistakes!”
At that moment, I saw what “fruit” our discussions are beginning to bear. And it put my mind at ease.
The truth is we are leaving a world of increased chaos and struggle for our children precisely because we have tolerated too much! We have too often allowed societal “fads” to pass themselves off as “true justice” or “progress” when, in fact, these fads have been nothing more than a narcissistic and desperate attempt to make madness sane. We must give our children eternal truths and eternal wisdom so that they can pass on to their children a robust and well-lived life that reflects a commitment to that eternal wisdom that prepares them to truly enjoy eternity!
Look at our lesson today in Hebrews 13:7-16:
Brethren, remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their lives, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited their adherents. We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat. For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come. Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.
So many religious and even irreligious voices out there today want to distract you from the solid foundation of the Orthodox Faith. But St. Paul reveals that this was the case even in his day as he writes this powerful passage calling on these Hebrew Christians not to abandon the Orthodox Faith. These Hebrew Christians were thinking of going back to the ways that had come to an end in the Coming of Christ. The old animal sacrificial system was just a tutor to bring us to Christ. It was never meant to be eternal. It was always meant to pass away, and these folks were thinking of going backward because the persecution was too hard. I get it, I really do. But it IS going backward and that isn’t wise! Paul shows them of this by looking forward to the “City” to come; an eternal city where the sacrifices outside the city gates are no longer burned, but the Final Sacrifice has already been accomplished for us all in Jesus.
Imagine that, our eternal home is described as a “city.”
Of course, a city is a community of people, and the Church is a community of persons. But that makes sense since God knows Himself as “Persons in Communion.” So our everlasting home is a place where the love of God permeates the whole “city” of His new community, the Church.
And a city is a place of both dwelling and working. Our eternal home isn’t a place of self-centered leisure because our purpose, our reason to exist is to become like Christ. St. Athanasius of Alexandria early on revealed that “The Son of God became man, that we might become god.” (little “g” on purpose!). If our truest destiny is Theosis, to become by grace what Christ is by nature, then we will never be finished in this journey. We will need a community to eternally become who we really are! What a busy place heaven is going to be!
And finally, a city is a place of encounter. Our eternal and truest home is not a place of loneliness or despair. That’s the “other place.” Our eternal home is solid, real, and based on relationships: our relationship with God in Christ and our relationship with each other.
The spiritual disciplines of the Orthodox Faith are meant to form in you the character of Christ so that you will be at home in that “city which is to come.” And come it will. The only matter to be decided is whether will you know how to live forever in that eternal city?
And isn’t it interesting that the Church teaches us about eternal truths THROUGH our veneration of relics? Take today, for example. We recall in our Church calendar the Removal of the relics of St. Athanasius the Great. Exiled 7 times during his service to the Church as Patriarch of Alexandria for 57 years, he spent 16 of those years in exile. He was hunted and lied about and persecuted, but this stellar hero of the Nicene Faith refused to make his life easier by compromising the Truth. He spent the last 7 years of his life in peace as Patriarch and died in 373 AD. This great saint of the Church is so revered that the occasion of the removal of his holy relics is commemorated in the calendar as another opportunity to share the power of the eternal Faith to change not just the world, but the deep needs of every person. Memory Eternal, Holy St. Athanasius the Great.
Today, are you attentive to the purpose of your Faith? Are you actively participating in the powerful formation of your life for citizenship in that city that is to come? As we remember the great hierarchs of Alexandria, Athanasios, and Cyril who led the Church to both realize and protect the eternal wisdom of the Faith, we are called to do the same. Your daily practice of the Faith isn’t optional if you hope to have a Normal Orthodox life.
P.S. You were Orthodoxy’s steadfast pillar, holding up the Church with godly dogmas, O great Hierarch, for you did preach unto all that God the Son is one essence in very truth with God the Father; thus you did shame Arius. Righteous Father Athanasius, please entreat Christ God that His great mercy may be granted unto us.