Troparion of the Resurrection, Tone 8. You came down from on high, O Merciful One, and accepted three days of burial to free us from our sufferings. O Lord, our life and our resurrection, glory be to You.
1 Corinthians 3:9-17 Matthew 14:22-34
It is difficult at the present time to think of the Church as being built, when daily news arrives of our ancient sanctuaries being destroyed, either as collateral damage in war, or as a direct act of intended destruction on the part of violent, jealous men, who hide behind religious zeal their true identity as bank robbers, as perverts that rape girls and disabled old ladies, and as psychopathic serial killers that are even now murdering our brothers and sisters in the Household of Faith, or condemning them to the searing heat of the desert without food, water or shelter. It looks like the Church is being destroyed in the lands where it first took root, Iraq - the cradle of civilisation, where different peoples (such as the Assyrians, Arabs, Turkics and Persians) and different faiths (such as Sunni and Shia Islam, Zoroastrianism, Assyrian and Syriac Christianity, Catholic and Orthodox) have lived in harmony side by side for centuries.
But somehow and somewhere in all this we are to see the work of the Lord who is faithful to his people and to all humanity, even when we are tested, as St Paul tells us, in the fire. The apostle’s words recalls to us the Lord’s own parable of the house built upon sand and the house built upon the rock. The point he is making is not about the relative strength of faith, but the strength of the grace that we rely on, as opposed to our own efforts. It almost goes without saying that the House of the Lord which is the Church of God in Iraq, led so nobly by the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon, Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, is a house whose foundations are the gold and silver and precious stones that really have been tried in the fire. The buildings and everything they have may have been taken away - as St Paul says “the builder will suffer loss”; and did not our Lord say “from those who have nothing even what they have will be taken away”? – but the grace of God has been shown to be the foundation not just of an ethnic or religious identity, but of the house of their faith.
Compare this with the story of St Peter, bidden by Christ to walk on nothing more than water to meet him. Peter did not believe that it was possible, started out, thought again and began to sink. It was the Lord’s hand, not his own efforts and will power, that caught him. Jesus questions the strength of Peter’s belief in him, yet at the same time makes it clear that everything that can be achieved and withstood depends not on our strengths but on the hand of God.
Paul speaks of testing construction handiwork by fire; the construction of Peter’s foundations in faith is flooded out by water. But it is the same story. In time, with the help and grace of the Holy Spirit, he rebuilt and became the Rock on which Christ was able to build his Church. Likewise the Christians of the old Roman Empire were able to face the onslaught, knowing what was to be demanded of them, because they saw that Christ is the centre and summit of all existence and of human society, whatever the appearances. Thus Paul clearly recognised the coming of a moment when God’s temple, where the Spirit dwells in Christ’s own people, would be destroyed.
I cannot presume to know what our brothers and sisters in Iraq are going through, having lost not only everything they have but, for the second time in a century for some of them, being driven out of their historic lands and holy places. I cannot begin to enter into their grief, bitterness, desperation and mourning: now is not the time for those in the comfort of Britain to exhort them to fortitude, courage and joy in adversity. But we and they can recognise in their suffering and destruction the Lord who trod this path before and who, as he passed through death, spoke somehow of forgiveness, redemption and the promise of paradise.
Because of this, we who are Christians pin all our hopes on the resurrection, knowing that it is not some far off after-life, or a dream to console us in our pain and misery. The resurrection of Christ back then, is the same as the coming of the Kingdom of God now. For as we sing today, “You came down from on high, O merciful One, and accepted three days of burial to free us from our sufferings.”
St Paul said that if anyone destroys God’s temple, the holy place which we Christians are, then God will destroy that person. So let our prayer today on behalf of all our suffering brothers and sisters in the temple of God, the House of Faith in which we all dwell in the Spirit, be that those who hate the Church and who hate the humanity made in the image of God’s Christ himself, may be brought not to the destruction of their lives but of all that is wrong in them. Let them now be put to the test – whether it be water or fire – so that all that is evil and vain, and resentful and unforgiving and merciless, may melt away and the underlying structure of God’s handiwork be revealed – a frame on which there can be more grace, more forgiveness, and more humanity. Let them be converted to the Lord and live.
And as for us, in this Cathedral of the Holy Family, under the patronage of St Joseph who provided a home for Our Lord and the Mother of God, which began as a Church for inspiring and consoling those in exile, and which now stands as a sign for nations and societies in whom the Temple of the Lord is being rebuilt, let us remember that we have nothing to stand on unless it is the Lord that reaches out his hand to hold us up. We stand because he has stood up having been beaten down by death. Now risen from the dead, he leaves nothing behind that calls out to him, “Lord save me.” For, seeing us, who call upon God’s help to be the human beings that God means us all to be – people of love, and grace, forgiveness and hope –the world recognises Christ and turns to him as Lord. So, hearing our words and our songs ringing true, could it be that those who do not know him and even now oppose him and would bring down his Kingship - could it be that they too - would sing:
O Lord, our life and our resurrection, glory be to You?
In hope of this, let us say with Patriarch Louis Raphael the prayer he has just written and issued to all the world that the cries of the Christians in Iraq will be our own in complete solidarity:
Lord, the plight of our country is deep
and the suffering of Christians is severe and frightening.
Therefore, we ask you, Lord,
to spare our lives, and to grant us patience,
and courage to continue our witness of Christian values
with trust and hope.
Lord, peace is the foundation of life;
Grant us the peace and stability that will enable us
to live with each other without fear and anxiety,
and with dignity and joy.
Glory be to You forever.