Sermon of His Holiness
Mor Ignatius Aphrem II
Patriarch of Antioch and All the East
and Supreme Head of the Universal Syrian Orthodox Church
September 30, 2018, Uppsala Cathedral, Uppsala – SWEDEN
Dear sisters and brothers in Christ.
We thank you for inviting us to be part of this service and allowing us to reflect with you on today’s reading of the Gospel. We bring to you greetings from the Middle East, especially from Syria, from the suffering people of Syria who are fighting terrorism and resisting violence and war in their country. We carry with us their aspirations as well as their firm attachment to the hope in a better future for them in their country and homeland.
“Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven”
(Luke 10: 20)
Before sending them two by two into every city and place where He Himself was about to go, the Lord Jesus Christ forewarned the seventy disciples of the rejection, danger and mockery which they will face. He even told them that they will be like lambs among wolves (cf. Luke 10: 3). Yet, they come back to Him with joy and excitement. They come back happy that even the demons are subject to them in His name (cf. 10: 17). They had every right to be happy, because they felt that their mission was accomplished. They were able to preach to people that “the kingdom of God has come near to you” (cf. 10: 9). Their happiness reminds us of the words of Prophet David in Psalms 126: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.” (Psalms 126: 5-6).
Apparently, many people believed and, as a result, the disciples were able to cast out demons from many and to heal the illnesses of many. Who wouldn’t anyone be happy knowing that he/she has accomplished his/her mission successfully and is ready to face his/her master and give account of the profit which is made?
The response of the Lord Jesus Christ to their report, however, was shocking, something they didn’t expect: “do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you”, He told them, “but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10: 20). The Lord is not denying the disciples the right to be satisfied and to rejoice; rather, He is warning them that happiness should be for the right reasons. He is making them aware that there is false happiness in the world, happiness that is built on pride, false power, and personal satisfaction; false happiness that comes as a result of worldly gains and not heavenly rewards.
Jesus is telling His disciples and all of us that real joy comes from a relationship with Him that secures a name for us in heaven: “rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10: 20). However, the relationship with the Lord is usually marked by suffering and persecution for His Name: “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5: 11-12).
St. Paul, in his epistle to the Philippians, also highlights the fact that our happiness should be rooted in the Lord and no one else, by telling us to: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Philippians 4: 4). This is an affirmation that true happiness which lasts is what comes from the Lord Jesus, from our faith in Him and commitment to living His gospel. Happiness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (cf. Galatians 5: 22) offered to those who live by the spirit and work truly for the Lord, abiding by His teachings and words, and crucifying the flesh with its passions and desires. In short, real happiness comes when the Lord rejoices in us and His joy remains in us; only then, our joy will be a true one: “these things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15: 11).
For Christians, true joy is in the salvation we receive from our Lord Jesus Christ: it is the result of our knowledge that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3: 16). When the faithful realize the greatness of the love of God towards them, joy and peace prevail in their lives. When they understand that no greater love is than that of giving one’s self for others, they will receive inner peace in their lives and will be able to spread it to others as well. They become a new creation capable of radiating permanent joy and divine happiness, as St. Isaac the Syrian writes:
“ܫܽܘܪܳܝ ܕܽܘܒܳܪܐ ܕܒܰܪܢܳܫܐ ܚܰܕܬܐ ܐܺܝܬܰܘܗܝ܆ ܪܘܳܙܐ ܐܰܡܺܝܢܐ ܕܰܒܚܽܘܒܐ ܘܚܰܕܽܘܬܐ ܕܒܰܐܠܳܗܐ܆ ܗܳܝ ܕܡܶܢ ܝܺܕܰܥܬܐ ܚܠܺܝܡܬܐ ܕܰܥܠܰܘܗܝ ܡܶܬܝܰܠܕܐ ܒܢܰܦܫܐ. (ܡܪܝ ܐܝܣܚܩ)
The first transformation in the new man is permanent joy in love and happiness in God, that which is born in the soul from the healthy knowledge of Him” (St. Isaac the Syrian)
When the Lord Jesus Christ wished to expand the scope of the Gospel and reach more people, He increased the number of ministers who will spread the Good News among all people. He explicitly told them that the labor is plenty: “The harvest truly is great, but the laborers are few” (Luke 10: 2). Our Lord Jesus Christ did a crash-course of leadership to the seventy before sending them. He set them on their mission after giving them an overview of what to expect, especially the rejection they might face because of their enthusiasm and the content of their preaching about the kingdom of God (cf. 10: 4-16).
Sending them on this mission, He gave them authority (cf. 10: 19). Their authority is an extension of His power; they could not do it on their own. In order to conquer the world and its lusts, and to win the battles against the evil one, they needed to have a greater authority than that of this world. For this reason, Jesus gave them authority to heal and to preach that the kingdom of God is near (cf. 10: 9). The authority they were given was rooted in love and service.
How enthusiastic were the seventy to preach about eternal life, and the abolition of the authority of the evil one over people, those who believe in Jesus Christ. They proclaimed happiness to a sad world, excitement to a depressed community, faith to an unfaithful people who were driven by lust for materialistic possession and the satisfaction of egoistic desires.
When preaching the Gospel, the receiving community constitutes a challenge for the missionary work: the different cultures and backgrounds with which the disciples of Christ were dealing, resemble to a large extent the cultural diversity that is found here in Sweden and that constitute a challenge to all Christian churches and communities in presenting and offering their Christian message. Sweden hosts a wide diversity of groups with different ethnic, religious, social and educational backgrounds. It is the mission of the Church today to bring back Christ to all the people of Sweden.
Here, we wish to commend the Church of Sweden for the great missionary work in Africa and elsewhere during the past centuries. Likewise, we wish to acknowledge with gratitude the great hospitality afforded to the members of our Syriac Orthodox Church by the Church of Sweden since they started coming in this blessed country over 50 years ago. The Church of Sweden did not try to practice proselytism among our people. On the contrary, the Church of Sweden always showed respect and appreciation for our faith, spirituality and traditions.
Together, we can offer our neighbors the love they are seeking. We can bring hope to the desperate, cast away fear and heal the broken hearted; all in the name of Christ. We are ‘ambassadors of Christ’ and eager to reconcile with God (cf. II Corinthians 5: 20).
Our mission is to bring people to Christ. Therefore, we need to remember the essential elements for witnessing to Christ: faith, prayer, watchfulness, preparedness, peace and joy. Faith is needed because it is the belief in the content of what we are preaching. It shows how sincere and honest we are in our ministry and how committed we are to do what we preach and preach what we do. Prayer is an important element, born of faith, and reflecting the personal relationship with God. It is the glue that binds the community of Christians together and helps present their petition before God, Who hears them and answers their pleads.
Christians, throughout the world but in the context of Sweden also, need to know that danger and rejection are to be expected. For the message of Christ presents a constant challenge to the worldly beliefs and convictions, because we are in the world but not of the world (cf. John 15: 19).
Therefore, pastors, clergy and indeed every Christian on a mission need to be watchful and prepared for refusal and denial. Nevertheless, the peace that comes from the Lord of peace and that comforts in times of difficulties is indescribable.
We need to keep in mind, like the disciples came to learn, that all of this is God’s work, not ours. We labor for the glory of God, not our own. The words of Saint Paul resonate in our ears: “whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3: 23-24). Like the seventy who were told by the Lord Jesus: “Rejoice because your names are written in heaven” (cf. Luke 10: 20), we should rejoice that our names are written in heaven.
Dearly beloved in Christ,
On these blessed days when the Church of Sweden is holding its General Synod, we pray that the Lord Jesus Christ bless all the ministers and pastors of the Church. We pray that they, like the seventy, can come before the Lord and report joyfully and honestly that the talents that were vested in them have returned multifold and yielded fruits to the harvest and souls to the kingdom of God. Success is always pleasant; happiness and gratification follow. Success in mission shows that efforts were not wasted, that perseverance and insistence pay off at the end. We are all more successful if we work together and collaborate, with the same zeal and enthusiasm that the disciples and apostles had when they shared the Gospel, preached it and taught the ‘new’ teaching of Jesus Christ, the teaching of the Kingdom of God.
We ask our Lord Jesus Christ to guide the hierarchs of the Church of Sweden as well as all the clergy and laity who are working in the field of the Lord, and to inspire them to be ambassadors of His mission, strong pillars of faith and true witnesses of His teachings.
May the Lord Jesus Christ’s name be glorified now, always and forever. Amen.