Monday, October 29, 2007

October 31: Priestmartyr John Kochurov

A Meditation for Sunday, October 28 on Galatians 6:11-18

One of the most difficult truths in life may sound quite simple: Appearances can be deceiving – things are not always as they seem.

That may sound self-evident, but I think the case can be made that we all fall prey to certain deceptions and delusions in this life. For example, someone suffers some great adversity, like a painful, terminal illness or perhaps the loss of a child. People whisper behind her back, asking what she did “to deserve” such calamity.

Or perhaps we see someone who is very wealthy, dressed in fine clothes, and living in a fine home. We think, surely God has blessed him! What could he have done to deserve such wealth, such prosperity? But do you remember the parable Jesus told in last week’s Gospel – how a rich man and a poor man died, and the rich man was tormented in the afterlife because he had neglected the needs of the poor man? The spiritual truth of their situations was exactly the opposite of the way it appeared in this life.

Again, the truth is that appearances can be deceiving. Circumstances are not always what they appear to be. This was the issue Saint Paul was facing with the Church in Galatia, to which he was writing in the epistle reading for this morning. There were powerful leaders in the congregation there that were calling for a return to certain Jewish customs, especially the practice of circumcision. Some commentators have called these powerful leaders “super-apostles,” because they were apparently very eloquent and charismatic and influential. From what we know, one reason for their popularity was that they and their followers, by following the Jewish customs, were able to avoid persecution. They were prospering, they were thriving, they were avoiding the hardships being endured by other Christians, and they boasted about their success.

And Saint Paul makes it very clear in his letter that their worldly success was completely faithless, utterly wrongheaded. “God forbid,” he writes, “that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.”

Saint Paul insists that faithfulness to God may involve defeat and persecution and complete demoralization in this world. That is the cross of Christ. That is the cross that we are called to take up and bear as we follow Christ. For in Christ Jesus, he writes, “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything” – neither of those outward practices ultimately matters at all. What matters is the new creation, the life God has shared with us in Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit. What matters is how we come to share in that mercy, that faith, that hope, that love. Inasmuch as Christ’s life becomes our life, burdens and crosses will come our way. But as Saint Paul insisted, “let no one trouble me about that – I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” He’d been beaten, his health broken. But he had lived faithfully.

Whatever his outward appearance, he knew the peace and mercy of God.

As I thought about this passage during this past week, I was reminded of the life of Saint John Kochurov, whom the Church will commemorate this coming Thursday, October 31. Do you know Saint John? He’s one of our own – he ministered right here in the United States. Born in rural Russia in 1871, he was an excellent student who earned the privilege of studying at the Saint Petersburg Theological Academy, one of the greatest schools in Russia at that time. His dream was to be a missionary in the United States. And after graduation, that dream was fulfilled. In 1895, he made the journey to America, was married, and ordained a priest. He was assigned to a small mission in Chicago, where he labored for years building the community, ministering to new immigrants, and incorporating people from all kinds of different backgrounds into parish life. Eventually, he was rewarded for his labors with the rank of Archpriest and given administrative responsibilities under Archbishop Tikhon, the Metropolitan over all America.

But family needs back in Russia required his return to his homeland. He returned, and in 1907 he was assigned to teach high school in Estonia, a position which didn’t allow him to be involved in the regular services of the Church. But he persevered for nine heart-breaking years and finally, in 1916, he was given pastoral responsibilities at a beautiful and thriving Cathedral Parish outside of Saint Petersburg. At last, life seemed to be calming down, falling into place – he was doing the work at which he excelled.

But the very next year, the Revolution exploded. The Bolsheviks seized power and artillery fire from the opposing armies pounded the city. The people fled to the Churches for refuge and prayers, and Father John led litanies and processions for peace throughout those horrible days. At one point when the Red Guard had the upper hand, a number of priests were arrested – including FatherJohn Kochurov of St Katherine's Cathedral. Though their prayers had been for peace, they were accused of supporting the enemies of the Revolution. On October 31, 1917, they were taken outside the city and executed by firing squad.

Thus, Saint John is remembered as a faithful pastor and preacher who died as one of the first martyrs of the Soviet yoke.

His life seemed so full of promise, he worked for years to build and cultivate faithfulness, only to experience one setback after another. And then, just when he found himself doing the work he enjoyed the most, he was martyred. Was he a failure? By the standards of this world, many would probably say so.

But the Church knows better. We know that appearances can be deceiving – things are not always as they seem.

We remember the words of Saint Paul: “God forbid that we should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to us, and we to the world.”

Like Saint Paul, Saint John Kochurov came “to bear in his body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Remember his holy example, and that of all the saints and martyrs.

For they teach us that often, it is in our failures, our weaknesses, and our defeats that the power and love of God are made known. Amen.