Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the 4th Sunday after Pentecost & Feast of St John the Wonderworker

Matt. 8:5-13 & John 10:9-16

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Fathers, brothers and sisters: Spraznecom! Happy Feast!

Today is another truly joyous feast for us here in this diocese as it is the actual feast day of our beloved Vladyka St John who was our Archbishop in London during the 1950s in between his assignments to Shanghai and San Francisco, the title by which he is normally known. For us here in Mettingham, today is almost a second patronal feast, as our church is dedicated to the Ikon of Joy of All Who Sorrow, as this was the dedication of Vladyka’s Cathedral in San Francisco and where his incorrupt relics remain to this day. How apt it is as well that during this Pentecostal period when we are thinking so much about the saints and that great Mystery of sanctification whereby the Holy Spirit turns sinners into saints, we should celebrate the feast of this great saint of our church, not a saint who lived hundreds of years ago, but one who laboured here in this country, and in our modern, latter times. Coming straight after our celebration of that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ who we commemorated last week, the British Saints of the first millennium, it is important to mention that St John was also a great venerator of the local saints of the West. From his time as a law student at Karkhov University in what is now Ukraine, St John was known to spend more time reading the lives of the saints than attending lectures and this love of the saints remained with him throughout his life. When, by God’s providence, he became Archbishop of Western Europe, St John would always investigate the lives of the ancient saints both of Gaul, Switzerland and also here in England. And it was St John who petitioned the Synod of the Church Abroad to include the names of many saints of the West in the Church calendar, many years before other Local Orthodox Churches had even thought of doing this.

To turn now to our Gospel readings today, I would like to take first our second reading from St John’s Gospel where our Saviour talks of Himself as the Good Shepherd. This beautiful image was one which has captured the hearts of Christians from the earliest times, and in the frescoed walls of the catacombs one of the most popular depictions of our Lord is as the Good Shepherd, often carrying the lost sheep (mentioned in the parable) upon his shoulders. This reading is also the general one which is set in the menaion for a hierarch as the bishop should rule and govern his diocese after the pattern of our Lord, the Good Shepherd. The bishop’s role as shepherd is emphasized in two of the items he is given at his consecration: the first is the Omophorion or the pallium as it is known in the West, which was originally made of wool, but is now generally made of stiffened brocade with crosses and is worn over the top of his vestments behind his head and hanging around his shoulders. This symbolizes again the lost sheep on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd, and reminds the bishop of his pastoral role and responsibility. At the end of the consecration, the bishop is then handed his episcopal staff, or in the West, the crosier, which represents the Shepherd’s crook, through which he goes out into his diocese and tends his sheep.

In St John, in this, as Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky) would write, ‘little, frail man, looking almost like a child’ we see someone who was a true bishop, a true Vladyka, the term of esteem and endearment which Russian Orthodox give their hierarchs. Indeed his sanctity as well as his episcopacy were even recognized by those outside the Church, even by Protestants!

After visiting the churchwarden, Count Vladimir Kleinmichel, Vladyka declined to take a taxi, preferring to return to town by tube. The warden accompanied Vladyka to the station. As he was leaving, the ticket agent asked him whom he was seeing off. ‘That was our Orthodox Archbishop’, replied the churchwarden. ‘I’m a Baptist’, said the ticket agent, ‘but I can see that your Archbishop is a saint’.

In our Gospel reading we see distilled some of the most important characteristics of a bishop who when serving at the Holy Altar, surrounded by his priests, resembles our Lord surrounded by his holy apostles. And in this reading we see that the bishop is called to become a shepherd of spiritual sheep, according to the Form of our Saviour, the Great High Priest and the One Good Shepherd.

A strong contrast is made between the Good Shepherd and the hireling, the one who is simply hired and paid to look after the sheep, but has no real relationship, no love or personal attachment to the sheep. By contrast our Lord says:

I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.

Such is the love of the Shepherd for his sheep that he is one with them, he is connected with them and cares for them with real love and tenderness and they know his voice. As a reflection of this Love of our Saviour. such was the great love of St John for his far scattered flock wherever he went, whether he was in the Shanghai slums or in the streets of London, Paris, Brussels or San Francisco. It was a profoundly Christian and self-sacrificial love through which day after day he sacrificed his own comfort, rest, privacy for the sake of his sheep.

I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.

St John was not a distant bureaucrat-bishop, spending all of his time typing decrees and documents, no, he was a true Shepherd, crook in hand, out everyday with his sheep. Heeding the words of St James, Vladyka also did not show partiality in his pastoral care, and limit himself to pleasant cups of tea in the drawing rooms of rich parishioners. He went where he was needed and cared for all the sheep that were entrusted into his care. After allowing himself a few hours seated uncomfortably in his armchair or huddled in prayer at his ikon corner, St John started each day with his rule of prayer and then onto serve Matins and Divine Liturgy, sometimes at the Cathedral or in his house chapel. After this, he would then spend the whole of the day, as well as the nights, with the sick, the ill and the dying. There are countless, countless stories of Vladyka’s pastoral care for the sick up and down the hospital corridors of Asia, Europe and America, bringing Holy Communion or serving molebens at the bed sides of whichever of his sheep needed him and at all times of the day or night, whatever the weather or circumstances. He was also known to visit those with severe mental illness in asylums as well as the cells of prisoners. There is then his care for children, for his spiritual lambs. In Shanghai he founded an orphanage and would go out in the evenings finding lost, abandoned, starving babies and children from the streets and gathered them into his orphanage. Beginning with eight children, the orphanage later housed up to a hundred children at one time, and some 3500 in all. His orphans loved Vladyka and to many he became a true and real father figure whose love and presence in their lives healed the hurt and pain that many carried inside. One of Vladyka’s favourite mitres was the one which had been made by his dear orphans, made of velvet with simple felt ikons sewed upon it.

As a good shepherd St John kept his flock together and in the fold. This can be understood both physically and spiritually. Physically, St John protected his sheep when he escorted the whole community safely first from China to the island of Tubababao in the Phillipines, an island directly in the path of seasonal typhoons which he kept safe from destruction by blessing each of the corners of the camp with the sign of the cross. Next St John personally negotiated with the president of the US and the authorities in Washington on behalf of the Russian community, and was then able to safely escort the whole camp off the island to settle in America. Spiritually St John – as a true shepherd – was to protect his flock, not only by his constant prayers and intercessions, but also through his inspired teachings and theology (we think especially of his critique of the heresy of sophiology) as well as his stern rebukes at impiety, particularly that well known Halloween when St John noticed that many of his flock were not present at the vigil of the newly glorified St John of Kronstadt, whose service St John had written. When he heard that some of his flock had missed vigil due to celebrating Halloween in which they had dressed up as devils and witches, he went to the hall where the unfortunate party was in process and entered. The music stopped and all hid their faces in shame as St John without saying a word slowly walked around the room staff in hand, looking deeply and searchingly into their eyes.

And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.

Alongside Vladyka St John’s pastoral care for his flock, is his evangelical love and care for those outside his fold, outside the boundaries of the Orthodox Church. Throughout his life, St John had a true apostolic zeal to reach out and to draw people outside the Russian émigré community into the True Ark of Salvation. Perhaps more than any of the other hierarchs of the Church Abroad, Vladyka St John made this a clear priority in his pastoral work that he should not be limited to simply serving the divine services in Slavonic exclusively for the Russian community.

Here we can see the same unlimited love of our Saviour which would not be confined to the Jews alone, but was open to the Gentiles. And this connects our second reading with our first Gospel reading where our Saviour encounters this meek though powerful Centurion, who despite being a Gentile demonstrates great faith in our Lord’s power as well as humility in considering himself unworthy of receiving Him into his home. This leads our Lord to wonder and marvel at the faith of the Centurion and then to prophesy –

And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven.

Again throughout his multinational episcopacy whether in the farthest East of farthest West, Vladyka showed an openness to preach the Gospel to all peoples. As our Archbishop of Western Europe, Vladyka saw that the Orthodox Faith was the true and original inheritance of all the peoples of Western Europe, and it was the savour of Ancient Christianity which the people here hungered for. Thus, when he served the Liturgy, it was typical for Vladyka to serve in many languages including Dutch, French and English. He was always supportive of attempts to translate divine services and spiritual books into English and other languages as well as printing the lives of the ancient saints of the West.

My dear fathers, brothers and sisters: what an example of a bishop, what an example of a shepherd do we have in this small, frail man our beloved Vladyka St John! In a dream shortly after his repose, the manager of the St. Tikhon Zadonsky Orphanage Home, Mrs Shakmatova, saw a crowd of people carrying Vladyka in a coffin into St. Tikhon’s Church; Vladyka came to life and stood in the royal doors anointing the people and saying to her, ‘Tell the people: although I have died, I am alive!’. Truly, our Vladyka St John is still alive in the Holy Spirit, let us turn to him as to one who loves and cares for us and seek in some small way to emulate his radiant life of self-sacrificial love and service.   

Holy Vladyka St John, pray to God for us!