"He was a witness to the early stages of our society’s being toppled from its Christian foundations and its rebuilding as the relativistic, secular, materialistic, and man-centred order that we find ourselves in today. Seeing this, he lived his life as a prophetic witness to Truth, which is the God-Man Jesus Christ Himself, a Truth that Saint John carried with him to give light to a quickly-darkening world."
Sermon given on Sunday Oct. 3, 7530 (Oct. 17, 2021, civil calendar) at St. John the Wonderworker Russian Orthodox Mission Church, Lewisburg PA, by Hierodeacon Theodore (Stanway), Interim Dean of Students, Holy Trinity Seminary, Jordanville, NY
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Dear brothers and sisters!
I feel very privileged to join your mission community on this, its secondary feast day, a feast day which is not celebrated at my own monastery. I rejoice in particular because to magnify the memory of Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco, a great universal hierarch of the past century, is always a most blessed occasion that I am glad to participate in.
The opening of the relics of Saint John almost twenty years ago was, like any such occasion, a real revelation that the God of Israel is truly wondrous in His saints, showing His triumph over death through their incorrupt and death-defying bodies. In the case of Saint John, we have a hierarch, a man of God, whose entire life bore witness to this fact that God is wondrous in His saints, those who act as conduits for His life-giving and soul-saving grace.
I spoke of Saint John as a universal hierarch because, in his holy life, we can see how our church, the Russian Church Abroad, has been providentially given a universal mission in the world and how we have strove with all the powers of our soul to carry out this mission, a mission that was recognised by Saint John from the very beginning. We can see the five marks of our church’s universal mission played out in the path of what we can call Saint John’s universal life, one in which he faithfully served God, the Church, and the faithful all across the face the earth, ministering in numerous countries, cultures, and epochs of modern history.
The first mark of our church’s universal mission is, of course, its ministry to the post-revolutionary Russian refugees who were scattered across the four corners of the globe in the aftermath of the Bolshevik seizure of power and the tragic, yet heroic, defeat of the White Army in the civil war. The young future saint, exiled from his homeland and forced to live in Yugoslavia, began his service to the Church among these refugees who sought to try and rebuild their lives in exile. Following this, the Russian Church Abroad organised monasteries, parishes, and seminaries to serve these people and ensure them that, despite their separation from the earthly homeland, they would not be deprived of their heavenly homeland, which they – and we – can always find in the holy churches. The young Saint John studied and taught in these seminaries, where his reputation as a holy man of God became well-known.
We are not simply a church of Russian refugees, however, for are we not all spiritual refugees, exiled from our heavenly homeland until we come to the knowledge of the true faith? For this reason, the second mark of our church’s universal mission is its being a church of missionaries. The Russian Church Abroad inherited the pre-revolutionary missions of the Russian Church and it is in one of these – China – where Saint John began his episcopal service to the Church. For many years Saint John struggled in asceticism, piety, and humble service to the flock which had been given to him, enduring poverty, disease, civil war, invasion by foreign enemies, and the eventual fall of China to communism. Through all this, the holy hierarch served as a beacon of light in the darkness of that pagan land, not only ministering to the flock entrusted to him, but expanding it through the preaching of the true faith, the serving of the holy sacraments, and through his ascetic and holy example of genuine Gospel love, a love that was not self-interested or self-serving, but self-sacrificing. Here, in the mission field, Saint John gained a reputation as a wonderworker and holy healer, manifesting God’s boundless love for man in all of his actions.
Following the war, Saint John left China to undertake his new responsibility, in which we see the third mark of our Church’s universal mission manifest: its role as the custodian of the universal Orthodox tradition. Saint John was assigned to be the bishop of Western Europe and it was during his time among the ruins of what was once Christendom that we see the large-scale reawakening of interest in the long-forgotten Orthodox saints of the West. Everywhere Saint John the Barefoot, as he is known in France, trod, he revered and revived the memory of its God-pleasers of ages gone by: through his efforts, Saint Genevieve in France, Saint Gall in Switzerland, Saint Benedict in Italy, Saint Dymphna in Belgium, and Saint Edward in England, to name only a few of the thousands upon thousands of saints who shone forth in the West returned to the consciousness of the Orthodox world.
It is to Saint John that we owe this revival in veneration of Western saints, who are now so beloved by many Eastern Orthodox Christians, a love especially manifest in the Russian Church, which now has a church dedicated to Saint Patrick of Ireland in Moscow itself, as well as many others dedicated to Western saints, spread throughout the world. It is to Saint John that we owe this remembrance of the great Celtic saints of old, like Saint Brendan the Voyager, who arrived in these American lands many centuries before Christopher Columbus, and Saint Kentigern, who founded Glasgow, the city of my birth, and serves as one of the heavenly patrons of your very own Father Deacon Paul.
It is not only the remembrance of the ancient saints of the West that we owe to Saint John, but he was also partially responsible for the re-introduction of the Western Rite into Orthodoxy, in which the ancient liturgies of the Orthodox West have been reconstructed, revived, and used as a missionary tool to draw Westerners back to the faith of their ancestors. Despite the criticisms that many had, Saint John placed the salvation of souls first, and sought to make Orthodoxy accessible to all men.
In the final chapter of his earthly sojourn, here in the United States, Saint John lived the fourth mark of our Russian Church Abroad’s mission, which is to be a defender of Truth. Saint John spent the last years of his life in San Francisco during the countercultural revolution that struck the West in the 1960s onward. He was a witness to the early stages of our society’s being toppled from its Christian foundations and its rebuilding as the relativistic, secular, materialistic, and man-centred order that we find ourselves in today. Seeing this, he lived his life as a prophetic witness to Truth, which is the God-Man Jesus Christ Himself, a Truth that Saint John carried with him to give light to a quickly-darkening world.
Seeing the dissolution of the spiritual life of his flock, he did not fear to famously turn up unannounced at their Halloween ball, shaming their impiety with his silent presence. Seeing that the youth of the Orthodox Church were being led astray by strange new doctrines and eastern philosophies, he taught, encouraged, and blessed the young missionary, Father Seraphim Rose, to join him in prophetically witnessing to the Truth, a deed that has impacted many, many thousands of lives throughout the entire world, bringing masses to a knowledge of the True Faith and to a deep desire for a serious spiritual life.
Finally, in his blessed and incorrupt repose, Saint John the Wonderworker displays the fifth mark of our church’s universal mission: that of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Of course, there are a great many stories of Saint John’s mercy in his life time, but there is one particular occasion that manifests this tendency in a tremendous manner. Our Church, long separated from the mother church in Russia, a church that for many years we condemned and fought against, had to make the decision whether or not to show mercy and reconcile with our estranged brothers in Russia, acknowledging that they had overcome their previous compromises under the Soviet regime.
At the 2006 Sobor in San Francisco there was an impasse, no decision could be made, and the future unity of the Russian Church was on the line. The divided group of clergymen and monastics decided to serve a moleben before the relics of Saint John and ask for his intercessions to have clarity mind and discernment in making this massive decision. By the accounts of many, immediately after the prayers were offered, a great peace came upon all assembled and unanimity, oneness of mind, brotherly love, and concord were reached, all divisions, doubts, and fears being washed away by the prayers of Saint John and, thus, unity was achieved in the sorely and bitterly divided Russian Church. God has blessed this reconciliation, as we today see our Russian Church Abroad, remaining steadfast in adherence to the five marks of its universal mission, continually growing all over the world, especially in North America, where this very mission community, dedicated to Saint John the Wonderworker of America, stands as a witness to our ongoing work of bringing the full truth of the Orthodox faith to those who need to hear it.
Now, brothers and sisters, as the world around us continues to darken, we have been given a sixth mark, the mark not assigned simply to our Church, but to all Christians, as commanded by the Saviour Himself: to be the little leaven that leavens the whole lump. Just as the presence of Saint John’s holy relics is seemingly the only thing stopping San Francisco suffering the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah, so too is the presence of faithful Orthodox Christians, struggling in piety, striving to keep the commandments, and endeavouring to grow in genuine Gospel love, the only thing stopping the wrath of God falling upon a world that hates the Truth and, ultimately, hates God.
If this little leaven is nurtured with the pure water of the holy Gospel and warmed with the zeal of faith, then the fragrance of piety and holiness will draw those around us who are hungering for genuine spiritual life to the true faith, to salvation, and to eternal life with Christ Himself, just as the smell of fresh bread draws those who hunger after earthly things to the local bakery. This is not simply the work of the clergy here at the mission, but every one of us who come here to receive the life-transforming teachings of Christ and the life-giving sacraments of the Church. Strengthened and empowered by these things, all of us then have the responsibility of living according to God’s commandments, continually striving to conform ourselves to His will, and become instruments of His grace, love, and mercy in the world.
We cannot do this on our own, however, and it is only by truly being the Church – a Gospel-centred community that commits its whole life and one another to Christ our God – that we can fulfil the mission given us by the Divine Counsel of the Holy Trinity. He does not leave us to our own devices, however, as it is through the holy sacraments that God Himself imparts His life to us, imparts His grace and love to us, and imparts His strength to us, so that we can become fellow workers with Him in the field in which we have been placed, reaping the rich havest that He has prepared for us.
It is to these life-giving sacraments of the Lord’s very own Body and Blood that we are today invited to partake, brothers and sisters, so let us draw near with faith and love. Let us receive the gift of salvation, which is eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven with our Saviour, through the prayers of the Holy Hierarch John of Shanghai and San Francisco, the universal witness of the Kingdom, who stands before the noetic altar on high, ever interceding for us, that we may, in some small part, assist in the apostolic work of making disciples of all nations, bringing men to the knowledge of God, and spreading the Orthodox faith, which is the only path to salvation in Christ. Amen.
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