Equally Guilty, Equally Free In God

Passages: Zech. 3:7-4:9; Heb. 9:1-10; John 10:22-30 
Ընթերցուածքներ՝ Զաք. Գ 7-Դ 9; Եբր. Թ 1-10; Յով. Ժ 22-30

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen!

What does St. Gregory the Illuminator, St. Paul of Tarsus, St. Vibia Perpetua of Carthage, St. Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Bolson, and Michael Franzese have in common? The truth is apart from some of the more well-known names, most of the other names might be unfamiliar to us and so it would be difficult to know what they share in common with people such as St. Gregory or St. Paul, whom we know very well. All the names of those above are names of criminals according to the laws of the land. Each one of them broke the law, whether justly or unjustly today we might say in hindsight, but in their times they broke the law. St. Gregory, St. Paul, St. Perpetua, St. Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. each broke the law by preaching the word of God, by living out their Christian faith, by protecting civil rights and speaking out for those who suffer in a world that openly rejected and persecuted Christianity and it’s teachings. Charles Bolson, aka the “evil genius” under the Nixon administration, was involved in Watergate and charged with obstruction of Justice. Whereas, Michael Franzese, was a member of the Columbo syndicate mafia family and was indited for things such as racketeering, extortion, etc.

So what do St. Gregory, St. Paul, St. Perpetua, St. Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Bolson, and Michael Franzese have in common? If it was only that they all had issues with the law, they would be incomparable as their crimes are so different. No, my dears, what these individuals have in common is that they all gave their lives and trusted God. The saints and those people to died protected the rights of others we can understand and see clearly. Yet, Charles Bolson and Michael Franzese, who are modern day criminals and no one would argue that they are guilty of their crimes, even they while in prison, repented and became Christian, living the rest of their lives serving God and helping others not go down the same path as them. You see, when someone goes to prison or is persecuted for faith, we as Christian’s look with admiration and love. But we are too quick to judge someone who is a “real” criminal, and who in prison repents and turns to God. We think they are taking an easy way out, and often think it is too late for them to change now. The truth is many of us would feel uncomfortable if someone who had been incarcerated and sent to prison sat next to us in these pews. It’s hard to imagine “real criminals” who have done horrific things, truly change their lives and come to faith. 

Yesterday the Armenian Church celebrated the Feast of St. Gregory the Illuminator’s coming out of the pit or prison. And today the Armenian Church celebrates the founding of the Cathedral of Holy Etchmiadzin. How do these things connect my dears? When St. Gregory was taken out of the pit, and according to the historian Agathangelos, he preached, instructed, and ultimately baptized King Trdat and the Armenian kingdom as Christian, God through a vision, spoke to St. Gregory. St. Gregory saw Christ descend from heaven, with a golden hammer and strike the place where Holy Etchmiadzin, which is what that word means, would be built. Tradition says, that place was a pagan place of worship, which was destroyed and upon which our Holy Church was built. Now I’m certain all of you are still wondering what the connection is.

My dears, we are all criminals; we are all guilty of breaking the law of God and we are all incarcerated, lost in the pit of darkness. We are all sinners in the eyes of God, we have broken the law, and our sin has imprisoned us and surrounded us. Through sickness, pain and suffering; through our fears and anxieties and life’s uncertainties, we feel trapped! I remember the first time I went to jail, and the bars crashed behind me, regardless of what I had done, there was no escape. However, Christ Jesus, God, has not abandoned us even in this darkness and prison. In that place of no escape, where we feel trapped, God calls us to repent, to let go of our egos, arrogance, our “way”, our justifications, our hardheartedness and hardheadedness. If we, even if we think are not worthy, allow God’s presence into our lives, then we will be taken out of that pit of sin, of despair and Christ will descending into our lives will recreate each one of us into a living Church. During the pandemic, and even today, so many people say they don’t need to come to Church physically because the Church is the people, God can hear us everywhere.

While this is true, however, the Church is not for God to hear our prayers. It is for us to hear God. It is for us to come into the light and be surrounded by the saints and martyrs, those so-called criminals who serve as an example to us of what it means to trust God in the face of suffering, persecution and fear. The Church is a gift from God where we are instructed and guided towards life, hope and true freedom. If prison, real or spiritual, is a place meant to strike fear in us and remind us of what we have lost, then the Church is a sacred place to remove that fear and remined us of the gift of freedom that God gives to us. And it is the gift that is given to all people, sinners or criminals, mothers or fathers, widows or widowers, children, or adults, black or white, democrat or republican, Armenian or non-Armenian, tall or short, male or female, etc. Whatever definition this world can create whatever limitation or “prison” our society can dictate, through God, by His grace we are given the Church to repent, to be transformed and turned towards Him, so that we then can also take that faith, take the love, hope and life in God to those who are still lost and imprisoned, physically, emotionally, or psychologically. 

This means my dears it is never too late to come to God; it is never too late to come to Church. It is in the Church where Christ descends into our lives and strikes the pagan and sinfulness of our lives, destroying it and building us up from within. We come to Church to become the Church. Because yes, my dears, we are all guilty of sin, from the Holiest of us to the “greatest” criminal. God equally call us to turn to Him, to confess, repent and come to Him. John 10, we read today, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand.” My dears, the Church is for us to hear God’s voice, to know Him and follow Him. We in turn then become the Church by which God works in this world. 

Therefore, what St. Gregory the Illuminator, St. Paul of Tarsus, St. Vibia Perpetua of Carthage, St. Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., Charles Bolson, Michael Franzese, all these saints around us, you and I have in common? The love of God, the renewal of life in Christ Jesus and ultimately that this world does not define our worth, our purpose or level of love. This world does not dictate when we can come to God. It is God who calls us home every day, to His Holy Church. It is here in this Church we are illuminated and instructed to be the Church, the voice of God for the rest of the world. All are welcome here and we welcome all. That is why we acknowledge that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. Our future is in God, whom we glorify now and always, Amen!

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