Offering The Eucharist: Christ’s Own

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And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22:19-20)

Orthodox scholar Fr John Behr offers two quotes from St Irenaeus on the Eucharist, followed by a concluding comment of his own:

For we offer to him his own, fittingly proclaiming the communion and union of the flesh and the Spirit. For just as the bread from the earth, when it has received the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread, but eucharist, consisting of two things, earthly and heavenly, so also our bodies, receiving the eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection. (Irenaeus)

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[In the Liturgy, the celebrant says: “Your own of Your own, we offer unto you on behalf of all and for all,” which reflects Irenaeus’ thought that we offer to Christ His own Body and Blood which aren’t merely human but that of the God-man. That which we offer to the congregants in Communion is not merely physical and corruptible for it is also heavenly and eternal. In the Eucharist we experience God and humanity, heaven and earth united in God’s plan of salvation.]

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Just as the wood of the vine, planted in the earth, bore fruit in its own time, and the grain of wheat, falling into the earth and being decomposed, was raised up manifold by the Spirit of God who sustains all, then, by wisdom, they come to the use of men, and receiving the Word of God, become eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; in the same way, our bodies, nourished by it, having been placed in the earth and decomposing in it, shall rise in their time, when the Word of God bestows on them the resurrection to the glory of God the Father, who secures immortality for the mortal and bountifully bestows incorruptibility on the corruptible [cf. 1 Cor 15:53], because the power of God is made perfect in weakness [cf. 2 Cor 12:9], that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, nor exalted against God, entertaining ungrateful thoughts, but learning by experience that it is from his excellence, and not from our own nature, that we have eternal continuance, that we should neither undervalue the true glory of God nor be ignorant of our own nature, but should know what God can do and what benefits man, and that we should never mistake the true understanding of things as they are, that is, of God and of man. (Irenaeus)   . . .

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[Behr concludes with is own thoughts: ]

It is by receiving the Eucharist, as the wheat and the vine received the fecundity of the Spirit, that Christians are prepared, as they also make the fruits into the bread and wine, for their own resurrection effected by the Word, at which point, just as the bread and wine received the Word and so become the body and blood of Christ, the eucharist, so also will their bodies receive immortality and incorruptibility from the Father. Christians themselves, therefore, need to use the fruits of the world eucharistically, for it is by these that they are prepared for the resurrection and the gift of incorruptibility.   (ASCETICISM AND ANTHROPOLOGY IN IRENEAUS AND CLEMENT, pp 71-73)

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The bread and wine of the Eucharist are transformed by the Word and Spirit, uniting Creator to creation. So too, those receiving Communion are transformed by receiving the same Word and Spirit into their lives, into their bodies, hearts, souls and minds and in so doing are united to divinity.

When Did We See You, Lord?

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Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers or sisters, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:37-40)

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To see Christ in the stranger or to see the stranger as Christ is a spiritual discipline for Christians based in Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment.  Church historian Amy Oden comments:

If the first step of being hospitable is remembering who we are as Christians, the second necessary step is recognizing the other, the stranger standing before us. On first glance, the poor at the gate or the stranger at the door may seem to be just that, the supplicant wanting something. The stranger may seem suspicious or even dangerous. The stranger’s presence can be disorienting. But if we look a little closer, we will see our initial reading of the situation is wrong. Over and over again, early Christian voices remind us to be prepared for surprises. The apparent stranger at our door is not simply the poor, the stranger, the widow or the sick, but Christ himself. For those with eyes to see, hospitality offered to another is always hospitality offered to Christ. Receiving others, we receive Christ; rejecting them, we reject Christ.    . . . 

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To recognize Christ, we must have eyes to see. To recognize Christ in the guest at the door is not easy, for the guests may not look like the Christ we expect. We rarely expect Christ. The Matthew passage emphasizes that the Christ who comes will be needy, hungry, thirsty—a Christ known by ‘the least of these.’ Eyes that can only see Christ in the triumphant or powerful will fail to recognize the Christ present in the stranger and the poor. Only proper recognition makes union with Christ possible.   (in ANCIENT AND POSTMODERN CHRISTIANITY, pp 45-46)

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We rarely expect Christ,” writes Oden.  This was just as true 2000 years ago in Israel as it is today.  “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:10-11).  Then, just as now Christ “may not look like the Christ we expect.” We don’t expect Him to look like a stranger or the poor (see also James 2:1-4) and so we too are at risk for failing to recognize Him.  Or, as Isaiah says of the Suffering Servant Messiah:  He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not (Isaiah 53:3).  If we see Christ, we too might be tempted to turn our faces away from Him because He is not what we are expecting or hoping for from God.

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Also, we are reminded again of the words of the Prophet Isaiah about the proper fast for believers:

Thus says the Lord: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

[As disciples, we are to see Christ in the stranger.  Watching the war in Ukraine we can see how an entire Patriarchate can fail to follow Christ.]

The Fast Which the Lord Chooses

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All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the LORD’s, and all its fullness.” If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the LORD’s, and all its fullness.” (1 Corinthians 10:23-28)

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Some of the Epistle readings for the weekends before Great Lent begins have messages about fasting. St Paul often links fasting to issues of love and social/community behavior. For St Paul the issue underlying fasting is for each believer to learn to place the well-being of others ahead of their own well-being.  Everything we do, including fasting, is supposed to be about loving others.  We fast at times to respect the concerns of our neighbors. Fasting not connected with love for neighbor means nothing. “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:3).

St Gregory of Nyssa points out ways in which our fasting is to be connected with our morality and our love for one another. Abstinence from food is only a training for the real fasting we are to be doing which is fasting from harming others and fasting from all sin. As he points out demons perpetually fast since they are incorporeal beings and never need to eat. No demon will ever be accused of gluttony, wastefulness or drunkenness.   Such complete and strict fasting does not help demons as they still don’t love God or others.

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We are to use fasting (something demons do constantly!) to learn how to love others (something demons never do). The goal is not the fasting, for fasting is but a tool to learn to consider the needs of others before thinking of one’s self and to avoid sin. Both of these are the necessary steps towards loving others. Even if we food fast perfectly, never overeating or overdrinking, never partaking of meat or dairy or eggs or alcohol, we will not be doing any more than demons do every day. Only if we use the Lenten season to increase our love for one another will we be keeping a strict fast. St Gregory says:

There is an abstinence that is spiritual, and self-control that is immaterial: this is the renunciation of sin that turns toward the soul. It is on this account that abstinence from food was enjoined. Abstain now from evil. Practice self-control in your appetite for other people’s belongings! Renounce dishonest profits! Starve to death your greed for Mammon. Let there be nothing at your house that has been acquired by violence or theft.

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What good is it to keep meat out of your mouth if you bite your brother with wickedness? What good does it serve you to observe a strict frugality at home if you unjustly steal from the poor? What kind of piety teaches you to drink water while you hatch plots and drink the blood of a man you have shamefully cheated? Judas, after all, fasted along with the eleven, but failed to master his greed; his salvation gained nothing by fasting. And the devil does not eat, for he is an incorporeal spirit, but he fell from on high through wickedness. Likewise, none of the demons can be accused of gorging themselves, of excessive drinking or getting drunk, for their nature makes feeding unnecessary; nevertheless, night and day, they roam through the air, agents and servants of evil, eager for our loss. They ooze with bitterness and jealousy—things it is well to avoid—at the idea that humans may enter into an intimacy with God, since they have fallen from the supremely worthy dwelling.   (THE HUNGRY ARE DYING, p 193)

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[St Gregory like many other church fathers criticizes those Christians who fast from meat but then devour their brothers and sisters in anger, envy, hatred, disgust, indifference, injustice or countless other ways.  We all can look with great sadness at what is happening in Ukraine where Orthodox Christian is killing fellow Orthodox Christian.  The Russian Patriarch may keep the Lenten food fast, but then blesses the devouring of his neighbors.  This will be true for many Russian and Ukrainian clergy and laity but the bishops themselves bear the greater responsibility for not speaking out against this Lenten travesty.  This is all the more glaring since the Russian Patriarch doesn’t see the Ukrainians as ‘neighbors’ but rather as members of his own flock.  His blessing the Russian military or his silence on their war in Ukraine is a spiritual failing on his part, making him a wolf in sheep’s clothing rather than a true pastor.]

Thus says the Lord: “Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of wickedness,

to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him,

and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

The spiritual benefit of fasting is in how we treat others, not so much in what foods we avoid.

When Darkness Descends 

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Now it was the third hour, and they crucified Him. Now when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mark 15:32-34)

Orthodox scholar Olivier Clement comments on Christ’s moment of darkness at His crucifixion and then continues his commentary by quoting St Isaac of Nineveh:

On the journey there are dark nights that are not merely loss of contact with the visible and intelligible but trials of anguish and despair. Then it is important to fall, not into nothingness, but at the feet of the Crucified who went down to hell. One must identify oneself with Christ in his agony when he said not only, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ but also, ‘Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit’.  . . . 

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Now for the quote from St Isaac:

“Let us not be troubled when it befalls us to be plunged into darkness, especially if we are not responsible for it. You must realize that this darkness enshrouding you has been given you by God’s providence for reasons known to him alone. Sometimes indeed our soul is engulfed by the waves and drowned. Whether we give ourselves to the reading of scripture or to prayer, whatever we do we are increasingly imprisoned in darkness . . .  It is an hour filled with despair and fear. The soul is utterly deprived of hope in God and the consolation of faith. It is entirely filled with perplexity and anguish.

But those who have been tested by the distress of such an hour know that in the end it is followed by a change. God never leaves the soul for a whole day in such a state, for then hope would be destroyed . . . rather he allows it to emerge very soon from the darkness.

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Blessed is he who endures such temptations . . .  For, as the Fathers say, great will be the stability and the strength to which he will come after that. However, it is not in one hour or at one stroke that such a combat is concluded. Nor is it at one moment, but gradually, that grace comes to take up its dwelling completely in the soul. After grace, the trial returns. There is a time for trial. And there is a time for consolation (Isaac of Nineveh Ascetic Treaties 57).” (THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM, pp 188-189)

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For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; . . .  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…  (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4)

Experiencing Eternal Life

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And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God. (1 John 4:11-13)

Archimandrite Aimilianos describes life in the monastery – the Christian life with which he was most familiar. As for all Christians, he envisions monks being able to experience the new creation in their own lifetimes. Monks experience this within the confines of the monastic community, while most Christians will be experiencing these same things in their parishes and in their homes, marriages and families. We all are to experience our life in Christ as our mystical marriage/union with God. We each in our own chosen lifestyle experience God indwelling in ourselves as well as in those around us.

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The monks in their monastery, in which they are sojourners (cf. 2 Peter 2:11), lead a natural life and associate with each other on a daily basis, but also strike out each day, as it were from one and the same base camp, in order to achieve an ‘ascent’, to experience the presence of the Saints and the Church, the beloved Kingdom of God. ‘And I saw a new heaven and a new earth… And… the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… Behold, the Tabernacle of God is with men’ (Revelations 21:1-3). This prefiguration tells us something: the monastery is explained. This is both life and ‘works’, an institution which arranges all things. Everything comes ready from God for that unique achievement: the ‘intimacy’, the marriage of God and man. It is communion, discourse and a profound way of life applied in accordance with God. Behold, it is ‘the house of God, and … the gate of heaven’ (Genesis 28:17). It is the locus where man is present and, here and now, the locus, too, of God, where space is dignified and an eschatological orientation assured.

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The aim of living together in this city is not to invest it with secular and ideological goals, but to lead the spiritual life, which consists of asceticism and the mystical contemplation of God. This monastery—cum—city is like a workshop in which the conditions are carefully chosen and measured and where what is sought is not simply a desired product but rather the Desired One Himself, God Who descends from heaven and dwells in this very place, in the human vessel that is each one of us.   (THE AUTHENTIC SEAL, pp 107-108)

Archimandrite Aimilianos speaks about the monastery, but for those of us following Christ in the world, marriage and our families and homes are the ‘workshops’ in which we choose to follow Christ and find ourselves and those around us to be vessels in which God abides.  The family is sometimes called the domestic church in Orthodoxy.  It doesn’t mean we need to turn our homes into monasteries following monastic customs.  It means we learn how to be Christian within our homes and families while still being a neighbor to others, still going to our jobs and schools, earning an income, raising children, maintaining a home, participating in society.

The Devil’s Nationalism

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And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.’” (Luke 4:5-8)

One reason why nationalism might never be a Christian virtue is the above exchange between Satan and Jesus. Satan claimed all kingdoms of the world belonged to him – and thus all nationalism is his as well.  Indeed, Christians who embrace nationalistic ideas are making a bargain with the devil.  Jesus resisted any temptation for worldly power – not only did He reject any one kingdom or nation, He also rejected power in and through any and all of them.  His interest was in the heavenly Kingdom, not in any one earthly one.  Christians of every nation should keep that in mind for all kingdoms/nations will pass away including the ones we now live in (Mark 13:31; 1 Corinthians 2:6).  Even the most powerful of worldly nations/kingdoms will pass away, unlike the Kingdom of God which will last forever (Daniel 7:14).  Christ calls us to serve not that which is temporary, but that which is eternal.

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St Nikolai Velimirovic points out only God’s Kingdom is everlasting – all other nations and kingdoms will come to an end, even ones that exist today.

In a church in Syria founded by the Emperor Justinian, there is an inscription that the emperor himself ordered to be placed there, and that remains to this day: ‘Thy Kingdom is an everlasting Kingdom’ (Psalm 144 \ 145:13). May the Lord help us to make these words our own, to be the expression of our yearning for Christ in our hearts. All else is secondary and unimportant. All other kingdoms on earth will come to the grave and the worm. And when the world and earthly kingdoms are no more, the righteous will sing in heaven with the angels: ‘Thy Kingdom, O Christ our God, is an everlasting Kingdom, and Thy dominion endureth throughout all ages.’ And so may glory and praise be to the most wondrous Teacher under the sun, to Christ our God, together with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit—the Trinity consubstantial and undivided, now and forever, through all time and all eternity. Amen   (HOMILIES Vol 2, p 30-31)

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Those who want to make their nation first, have to deny Christ who commanded us to seek God’s Kingdom first (Matthew 6:33).   And it can’t even be God and country on equal terms for Christ also told us that we cannot serve God and mammon (money, nation, whatever – Matthew 6:24).  We have to make a clear choice about what our priority is.  We are to love God with all our soul, heart, mind and strength, and in that love for God we can love our nation in a godly way, but we are never to make an idol of it or put the nation ahead of our discipleship to Christ whose Kingdom is the only eternal one.  We are to do what is good for God’s kingdom- our relationship to our nation is to fall within that bigger picture of loving God and loving neighbor.

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Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, 

and the heavens are the work of your hands. 

They will perish, but you endure; 

they will all wear out like a garment. 

You change them like clothing, and they pass away; 

but you are the same, and your years have no end.

(Psalm 102:23-27)

The Relationship Between Loving God and Loving Neighbor 

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But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18) 

Three comments from St Maximus the Confessor on loving others and giving charity to those in need: 

If we look inside our hearts and find there even a trace of animosity towards others for the wrongs they have done to us, then we should realize that we are still far removed from the love of God. The love of God absolutely precludes us from hating any human being.

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If you love God, you will certainly start to love your neighbors too. You will find you are unable to hoard your money any longer but will want to distribute it in a godly way, being generous to all who are in need.

If you imitate God by giving alms, you must not discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving, between the wicked and the innocent. For God gives what is necessary to all with an open hand, as is appropriate to them, although he sees the heart’s intention and always honors a good person more than the wicked.   (THE BOOK OF MYSTICAL CHAPTERS, pp 50-52)

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If someone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also. (1 John 4:20-21) 

At Home In a World Which is Not Our Own 

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Fr John Meyendorff came to America as an émigré and became an intellectual leader of the OCA. He understood that for many Orthodox Christians America was a foreign land, and yet he also knew that if Orthodoxy was to thrive in America it would have to come to see America as its home, embracing the problems which this culture presents to the Church and witnessing to Christ, rather than witnessing to ‘ethnic’ Orthodoxy. He didn’t see American culture and American Christianity as threats to Orthodoxy, but rather as the context in which we had to live the Gospel and witness to Christ within our experience of Him and the Faith. We have to open our eyes to the blessings and spiritual opportunities which America offers us.

Since we claim to possess the Christian Faith in its truly “catholic” (i.e., all embracing and universal) form, we must accept with love and humility the problems of the Western Christianity as our own and search for their Orthodox solution. To think that we will convert America to Byzantine culture, or preserve Orthodoxy by locking it in nationalistic ghetto, sentimentally attached to the past – be it “Holy Russia” or “Hellenism” – is possible only through self-righteous naivete.

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The great Fathers of the Church were called “Fathers” because they faced the problems of their time and were concerned with the heresies of their day. Our task is to become their authentic “sons”. This requires a tremendous effort of our part, but an effort which will be immensely profitable for our own sake. It means that nothing but heresy and error should be foreign to us, either in Western Christianity or in the Western World as a whole, which has become our world because God has placed us here. We surely can keep and preserve the great Byzantine tradition which has been tested vehicle of Orthodox Christianity for so many centuries but as a basis, not as a prison.

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The Truth shall make you free”, said the Lord (John 8:32) and St. Paul gives us the great example of the true Christian attitude versus a conflicting society – this attitude is that of a debtor: “I am debtor both to the Greeks and to the barbarians; both to the wise, and to the unwise” (Rom. 1:14). There can be no clearer expression of our task for today.  (WITNESS TO THE WORLD, pp 211-213)

For Orthodox living in the United States, America is the context in which we live the faith.  We are to nurture and grow God’s vine here and now.  Our main task is not to transplant or preserve ethnic customs, which sometimes the Orthodox confuse with Orthodoxy itself or assume is the way Orthodoxy is to be lived.  “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God”  (Romans 14:17-20).

Pursuing the Prodigal Child or the Kingdom of Heaven? 

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Commenting on Christ’s command that we seek first God’s Kingdom before seeking all the things we want in this world (Matthew 6:33), St Nikolai Velimirovic says if we don’t make God’s Kingdom the top priority in our lives, we will simply become like the Prodigal Child (Luke 15:11-32) and will abandon the eternal Kingdom while we pursue earthly things which will only result in our impoverishment.  What is more amazing is that if we have already turned away from God’s Kingdom, we still can turn around and go back to our Father’s house and God will welcome us with open arms as the parable’s Father did the Prodigal Child.

But seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’    Do not seek threadbare rags from Him who can give you kingly vesture; do not seek a beggar’s crumbs from under the royal table of Him whose desire is to seat you at it. He is the King, and you are His sons. Seek that which is suited to king sons: that which you once had, but lost through sin.

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Seek riches that the moth does not consume or rust eat into, nor thieves steal. If you become worthy to receive the greatest, you will also, with it, undoubtedly receive the least. Seek the Kingdom of God, in which God Himself sits on His throne and reigns (cf. Psalm 102/103:19); the Kingdom of blessings and all righteousness, in which the righteous shine forth as the sun (Matthew 13:43), and in which there is no sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing—nor death. Do not be like the Prodigal Son, who having left his father, would willingly have eaten pigswill, but seek to return from the far country to your heavenly Father’s house, for the Kingdom of God is… righteousness and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17). And do not be like Esau, who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage. Will you barter the eternal Kingdom and its blessings for the mess of pottage that this world offers you?

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May God, in his mercy, keep us from this shame and debasement. May He guard the eyes of our minds, that they may not be darkened and led astray by the evil mammon of earthly decay and illusion. May he give us understanding, that we may be as King’s sons who have lost the Kingdom and think of nothing but how to regain it.   (HOMILIES Vol 2, p 30)

The Prodigal Child comes to his senses when he realizes that the wealth and pleasures of this world are completely transitory and quickly evaporate as fortunes change in the world. The Prodigal comes to realize the truth of Psalm 84:11 –

For one day in Your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere; I chose to be an outcast in the house of my God, rather than to dwell in the tents of sinners.