Healing on the Sabbath: The Kingdom is in your midst

Ephesians 6:10-17; Luke 13:10-17

Glory to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

During the Roman persecution, Christians would go outside the city to visit the graveyards on the anniversary of a saint’s martyrdom, and celebrate the Eucharist over their relics. Later, in the cities, they’d meet in the catacombs where the martyrs were entombed, and there they would serve the Divine Liturgy. Saint John foresaw the time when the Lord’s return was near, and said, “When he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held” (Revelation 6:9-11).

This is still the case in every church, but instead of going outside the city walls to the graveyards, now we keep relics inside the altar table, or on it.

Soon after the Roman Empire legalized Christianity in 313 AD, the Church began formalizing many of the old, underground practices of the persecution era, as well as establishing new, more public ones. One of these practices was that of the “station days,” when the clergy would go in procession and serve the Liturgy at a church dedicated to the saint of the day.

Now, instead of secretly visiting the tomb of a martyr, now on certain fast days all the faithful in the whole city would march in procession to the church of the day, clergy and laity in order, singing hymns along the way. Once they arrived at the church that was their destination, the bishop would do the Entrance with the Gospel, and serve the Liturgy.

This is why to this day, we begin the Divine Liturgy with antiphonal psalms and repeated litanies. We don’t do a procession all morning long through the whole city, but we still sing the processional antiphons, “Through the prayers of the Theotokos” and the rest, until we come to the Entrance. Then, in a small procession, the clergy carry the Gospel book into the Holy Place: “Come, let us worship,” (Psalm 94:6LXX/95:6KJV), and the service of reading and preaching begins, followed by the Eucharist.

The procession was intended to resemble a military drill. Clement of Alexandria calls the Church an “army of peace that sheds no blood,” whose primary allegiance is not to any worldly empire.

Gerondissa Eupraxia, the abbess at the monastery in Goldendale, has referred to monks and nuns as the army of the Church. They enlist and enter into a life of discipline and spiritual warfare in our defense.

Father Joseph Copeland in Yakima compared the monastics to the Rangers in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: the happy hobbits live their peaceful, carefree lives in the Shire, unaware that their peace is bought by the watchfulness of the Rangers who secretly patrol and do battle with monsters.

Most of us are not going to become monks or nuns, but our life is still shaped by our citizenship in the Kingdom that is not of this world, our allegiance to a King who is above any law of this country. For soldiers of Christ, Wednesdays and Fridays and fast seasons like this one are “drill periods” for the Second Coming, when the Law of Christ will be present here on earth and Christ’s Kingdom will have no end.

As a people under discipline (and anyone with no discipline is not a disciple) If we are under discipline then how do we train?

For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor 10:4-5).

Our enemy is not any human person; our battlefield is our thoughts and actions. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

The old word for the disciplines and exercises of an athlete or soldier is: Áskesis.

So: there are the two sides of our life as disciples: Liturgy and Askesis. Liturgy is our common task of lifting up to God an offering of peace, a sacrifice of praise; it happens here in the temple, and in a sense whenever we offer prayers and carry out the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. And Askesis – ascetic struggle – is our training that consists in practicing our prayer rule, setting a guard over our mouths, giving alms, doing love for our family and our enemies and the poor, practicing kindness and modesty and humility – and occasionally fasting from foods.

But don’t make fasting only about cheese and meat: St John Chrysostom says that in fasting we “visit the sick… take pity on the tortured, comfort those who grieve and who weep, be merciful, humble, kind, calm, patient, sympathetic, forgiving, reverent, truthful and pious.”

When we take up these disciplines and practice them, we are drilling as soldiers of an army in service to an invisible King, unmercenary combatants under the banner of the Prince of Peace. The sign of the life-giving Cross is “the weapon of peace, the invincible trophy.”

And so we practice these exercises of spiritual warfare in service of the King, while at the same time we concern ourselves with the bills and the taxes, making the car payment and reducing the laundry pile and reading Instagram. Most of the time we can’t help but live in a distracted state, seven days a week.

But on Sunday, the “eighth day,” outside of normal time, we experience the Second Coming, the presence of the Lord. We stand at the Liturgy together with all the angels and the saints, our ancestors and fathers in the faith, and even our great- great grandchildren not yet born, the Church eternal and triumphant in Christ, as his awesome and fearful presence is revealed in the consecration of bread and wine. The Lord who poured out his life “once for all” is now present for us, just as He was then.

When the New Testament speaks of the Return or Coming of the Lord, most often it’s using a word parousía whose primary meaning is presence. Not just the scheduled arrival of a king or governor, but his presence, dwelling in and among the people, making the laws and ordering all things.

When Christ was asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The Kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21).

Only seventy years after the Cross, the bishop of Antioch, St Ignatius, wrote:

Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God… They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes (Letter to the Church of Smyrna, Ch 6).

And an ancient Irish manuscript confesses:

The body which was born of the Virgin Mary, without any stain, without destruction of her virginity, without opening of the womb, without presence of man;  and which was crucified by the unbelieving out of spite and envy, and which arose after three days from death, and sits at the right hand of God the Father in heaven, in glory and in dignity before the angels of heaven. It is the body the same as it is in this great glory, which the righteous consume off God’s table, that is, off the holy altar. For this body is the rich medicine of the faithful, who journey through the paths of  pilgrimage and repentance of this world to the heavenly homeland. This is the seed of the resurrection in the life eternal to the righteous” (from the Leabhar Breac, the “Speckled Book”).

There’s a silent prayer the priest prays during the Liturgy; you usually hear only the last part. The priest says:

Remembering … all the things that have come to pass for us: The cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming again, we offer You Your own, from what is Your own, on behalf of all and for all.

Remembering all these things that already have come to pass for us — including the second and glorious coming, the presence of the Lord. In a Mystery, the Lord is present in our midst when the Kingdom comes and we receive him in the Eucharist.

If you came up in certain Evangelical circles, you probably learned a whole chronology of events for the Last Days: Seven years of tribulation, the mark of the beast, 144,000, and all that. And there have certainly been particular Orthodox saints and teachers who had their own thoughts on these things. But our dogma about the second coming of Christ is refreshingly simple: “He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; his Kingdom shall have no end… I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.” Everything after that is commentary.

The return of Christ – the presence of God – What does it mean? When we pray, “Let thy Kingdom come, let thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it means that reign of Christ our King, when all the world will be set right, is coming. And we pray, Lord, bring it here and now! But it’s more than that. The Kingdom has already come. It’s here, breaking into this moment.

Do you remember the Kool-Aid TV advertisement throughout the 1970s? Kids are hot and thirsty, and then a gigantic animated pitcher of Kool-Aid crashes through  the wall into the room.

In places with hurricanes, before a storm they board up the windows because otherwise the hurricane wind will break through into the house and ruin everything.

Wherever God’s will is being done, here and now, the Kingdom has come breaking into this world, disrupting and turning everything upside down. Then the Day of the Lord has appeared, for a moment, here in the middle of our day. Heaven on earth.

When your kids take up their cross, forgive one another and practice patience; when you have the opportunity to help someone with a word or a meal or a rent payment; when a familiar temptation comes up, and with peace you simply don’t worry about it and after a moment it passes by – then the Kingdom has come, in that moment God’s will was done on earth as it is in heaven. And your passions and sins have been shaken by the Kingdom that cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:28).

Here’s another way to think about it. The Kingdom of God is in the future, but it’s like a time machine. Grace is when something from the future – something joyful and powerful and whole – shows up in the middle of today. Here it is, right in front of us, this piece of the future, this bit of heaven. The God of grace, by his presence, starts healing our passions, empowering us to do love to our family and our enemies. “Thy good Spirit leads us in a firm and level place” (Psalm 144:12 lxx/143:10 kjv) and we are safe in the care of God our King.

But there’s more: If you are a Christian, then the Kingdom of God isn’t just a time machine from the future. If you are a Christian, you are the time traveler from the future. That means you don’t belong here to this time and place (Hebrews 13:14).

Sons and daughters of the Kingdom of God are no longer strangers to grace, no longer aliens separated from the communion of saints; now we are citizens with the saints in the Kingdom of God, joint heirs and members of the household of God. (Ephesians 2:19) We are subject to the law of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 22:34-40; James 2:8).

You’re from the future, but living in today’s world. Which means that, like a time traveler, you know how it all ends. You’ve seen the future. And that lets you know how to live today (Ephesians 5:8-9).

Knowing the end of the story, you’re going to live in a way that won’t make sense to a lot of people. They will look at you and ask, “Why are you doing this? You people are crazy.” And you can say, “I know it looks that way. But what I’m doing actually makes a lot of sense. See, I’m from the future. And I’m acting this way because know how the story ends.”

*        *        *

In today’s Gospel reading, the president of the local synagogue shows that he doesn’t understand the Sabbath. He rebukes the Lord for working on the seventh day of the week, which the Law separated from daily work for divine purposes. “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work” (Exodus 20:9).

The Jewish law was a shadow and a promise, looking forward to fulfillment in Christ. And in the cross and burial, the Lawgiver fulfilled that promise, by resting from all bodily work while lying in the tomb throughout that entire Sabbath on Holy Saturday. And meanwhile, of course, he was active as God, bursting the bonds of hades, releasing all the prisoners, and leading them out into paradise.

That’s why in his letter to the Hebrews Saint Paul writes,

Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it… For we who have believed enter into rest, as he said… There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also has ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest, lest any man fall after the same example of unbelief (Hebrews 4:1-11).

On this day in the synagogue, Christ honors the sabbath by resting from any human endeavor, farming and fishing and paying the bills and arguing on the internet, and instead he does the work of the Kingdom: Healing, meeting needs of someone who’s suffering, bringing release and joy.

Is our citizenship in heaven? (Philippians 3:20). As residents in this world we can’t completely neglect our responsibilities to work, pay the rent, mow the lawn. But we have entered into the sabbath rest of Christ, and our duty is to the laws of his Kingdom. To pray, give alms, fast, and make our whole life an offering, a liturgy of thanksgiving and service to the King.

Because the day is coming when we will see the King and we hope to hear the words. “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master!” (Matthew 25:21).

Then I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people… And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him receive the water of life freely. He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming quickly.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Revelation 21:2-4; 22:17,20).

To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.