A Sermon on Zacchaeus Sunday and the Feast of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, 2008
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Over the first three centuries AD, the Church was transformed from what was seen as a tiny persecuted Jewish sect in Jerusalem to the Church of the Roman Empire and beyond. Members of dozens of races had become Orthodox Christians and their total numbers reached millions. This was the story of Christian David overcoming pagan Goliath all over again.
How was this triumph of Orthodoxy possible? Already in the third century the Christian writer Tertullian had answered this question and the bishop St Cyprian of Carthage repeated it, with these words: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’. Yes, it was the blood of the martyrs that made the acorn of Orthodoxy grow into the gigantic oak that had within 300 years spread its many branches across Asia, North Africa and Europe.
However we should not forget that not all saints are martyrs. The martyrs are those who die for Christ. There are also those who live for Christ. These saints are called confessors. Between 1917 and 1991, nearly seventy-five years, the lands of the former Russian Empire saw the martyrdom and confessordom of millions. One sixth of the world’s territory became a new Golgotha. Nobody knows how many martyrs there were, some estimates say a million, some say more. However, it seems certain that this period of martyrdom and also confessordom produced more saints than the rest of world history put together.
So far, following careful investigations, some 30,000 new martyrs and confessors have been canonised. However, as archives are opened, ever more saints are being discovered, their lives and their glory revealed. The list is growing constantly.
Such sacrifice has an effect. Today there walk the streets people whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, brothers, sisters, children, uncles, aunts and cousins are saints. If you have ever met anyone who has a saint in their family, you will know that it changes them, it changes the way they live, they are guided in their lives by unseen but ever-present powers. These saints pray for us. Thus, when in 1991 Communism fell in the geriatric Soviet Union, it was if a dam had burst and a giant flood of water, a spiritual reservoir, surged into people’s lives, washing them and renewing them. The waters of holiness began baptising anew.
Moreover, it has been noted that there is a mysterious but real relation between the numbers of glorified New Martyrs and Confessors and the number of Russian Orthodox churches. Just as there are some 30,000 New Martyrs and Confessors today, there are today some 30,000 Russian Orthodox churches worldwide. Since 1991 some four Russian Orthodox churches have opened every day and approximately one monastery or convent every ten days.
However, there is still a chronic shortage of churches in Russia. There are still vast Soviet housing estates with their rows of blocks of flats. One hundred thousand people crammed into blocks without a single church. This is why plans are afoot to provide prefabricated churches, so that there will be one church for every 1,000 people. This means the construction of another 100,000 churches. Can we even imagine this? The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the Church.
In 1993 a woman called Ludmila had a car accident in Russia. In her view, she miraculously avoided death. This helped to transform her life. You may say that this is nothing special, that car accidents happen all the time, that this is nothing to do with what has been said so far. But let me tell you that this woman was married to a KGB officer and that her surname was Putina.
You see, when the elite comes to faith in a country, then changes in that country go all the faster. The elite has a huge influence in a country. Like the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century. The masses generally follow the example set to them by the elite. We can see this today in Western countries. Elites here all too often set examples of atheism, immorality, greed, corruption, infidelity and even perversity. So what do the masses do? They imitate them. On the other hand, of course, if the elite sets an example of spiritual and moral life, then the masses will also imitate them.
Let us be careful. We are accustomed to judging people by their past lives. This is natural - that we look at past events and make judgements. However, we can be very wrong. It is for example what the pharisees did to Zacchaeus. They said: he is a thief, a corrupt tax-collector, a traitor. And in condemning him, they also managed, to their glee, to condemn Christ as well. And they were wrong. For they had not understood that Zacchaeus was not a corrupt tax-collector, but a disciple of Christ the Son of God. And so also with Ludmila Putina. The pharisees reckon her to be a KGB officer’s wife. But in fact, however imperfectly, she also tries to be a disciple of Christ. Thus, from the Gospel of Zacchaeus which we have heard today, we can learn two things:
First of all, we should be careful in making judgements. We can only have some judgement if we know what is inside people’s hearts, if we know the state of their souls. Hearsay about people’s past is not enough. The pharisees judged wrongly precisely because of this.
Secondly, we should know that people change. To deny this is to deny the possibility of repentance, to deny the possibility of the action of the grace of God, of the Holy Spirit. And that would be a grave sin.
And from the New Martyrs and Confessors, we can learn a third lesson:
That God is wonderful in His saints, not only transfiguring individual human souls, but also whole countries and whole Empires. Glory to Thee, O God, Glory to Thee! Amen