16th Sunday after Pentecost – Orthodox Homily on the Witness of St. Innocent

Today we commemorate the Feast of St. Innocent, Enlightener of North America, the first bishop in this land, a lover of the native American peoples of Alaska, planter of the True Faith on these shores, and example to us in our own day of the courage that comes from a life lived for the glory of God in witness to His timeless truth.    

Christ, our Great High Priest, has left us through His Church the Apostles and through the Apostles, their successors, the bishops and priests of the Church to carry on the Apostolic work through the ages.  St. Innocent embodies so well the meaning of the word, “Apostle” (Apostolos), which in the Greek means, “sent.”  The Church in Russia sent St. Innocent to Alaska to pour out God’s love and the truth of Christ that liberates all people.  In St. Innocent’s time, most native Alaskans had not yet heard the Gospel, living in a vast wilderness that had only begun to be evangelized 25 years earlier by his predecessor, St. Herman.    

It’s hard for us living in the 21stcentury to envision how daring and perilous (from a human perspective) such a journey to Alaska, let alone day to day life in Alaska was like in 1823. Some of you may have seen the television show, “Deadliest Catch,” that depicts the harrowing exploits of Alaska’s commercial fishermen, who have access to all the modern technology and conveniences and still risk peril every time they are at sea.  Picture for a moment Alaska in St. Innocent’s day in the early 19th-century, when almost all transportation had to be accomplished by boat.  Imagine the cold of Alaska winters and the infinite darkness. 

St. Innocent undertook all such perils, visiting remote villages and all the habited Aleutian Islands on those deadly seas, often in no more than a kayak.  In fact, he founded and built Ss. Peter and Paul church on the remote island of the same name in 1830, where today the faithful still celebrate the Divine Liturgy almost two hundred years ago.  He faced severe conditions and served at great risk to life.  But listen to the fruit of his work: he baptized ten thousand people, he built numerous churches—many with his own hands and those of his spiritual children, he founded schools and he himself taught the fundamentals of the Christian life. He learned six dialects of the native languages of Alaska and translated the Gospels, the divine services, and much of the hymnody of the Church into those native languages and dialects.  

What could have motivated St. Innocent to do so much?  What drove him to risk his own life countless times and endure the harshness of 19thcentury Alaska?  St. Innocent was driven on by the love of Christ for his flock, for all those he could reach, teach, and inspire.  Mor than anything, he desired that others would embrace the Gospel and the fullness of the life in Christ in the Church Christ founded. He didn’t come to make them good Russians; he came to make them true Christians, followers of Jesus Christ. This is seen by the fact that he didn’t let them stay worshiping in Russian, but rather, undertook the daunting task of learning their various native languages and translating the divine services into those native languages.  

In other words, St. Innocent followed the pattern that had been handed down to him through 2,000 years of generations in the Church.  Through him, we get to see a true model of the Orthodox Church’s missiology in keeping with what we read in the New Testament and see throughout her history: He came to baptize the culture with the truth of Christ, not to obliterate it or make it into 19thcentury Russia.  

St. Innocent’s example is also a good one for us to follow as the Church in America today because it is the example of the Apostles.  We do not seek to become like the culture, nor do we seek to obliterate the culture; instead, we seek to baptizethis culture, to transfigure this culture with the light and truth of Christ found in the fullness of His Church of which we are a part.  

We may not face the physical perils that St. Innocent did: we may never have to endure an Alaskan winter without electricity or travel by canoe on deadly ice-cold sees, or travel by land weary of Grizzlies in order to preach the Gospel and share our Orthodox Faith.  But ask yourself, what do I do to live out the Gospel and the Orthodox Faith to those around me?  

Do we love those around us, our co-workers, are fellow students, the people we know in town or who we run into time and again at the post office or the grocery store?  We often prefer to remain quiet about our faith out of fear or preoccupation with our own problems to such an extent that we are inward focused and not outward focused on the needs around us.  Yet everywhere, there’s an opportunity to love as Christ teaches us and to throw off any indifference to those around us.

Many are the struggles with our culture today and those who taste of its nihilism.  The calling of Christ to deny ourselves and live for Him is a challenge in our culture, but it is also liberation, just as it was to the animists in Alaska. Listen to these words of truth from St. John Chrysostom: “As we endure His dying now, and choose while living to die for His sake: so also He will choose, when we are dead, to beget us then into life.  For if we come from life into death, He will also lead us by the hand from death into life.”  Are you ready to die to self and live for God?

God in His great love for us is always bent on our growing in humility and trust in Him.  Nothing is too great for God; no temptation, no spiritual or physical sickness, nothing that this world can do to us can rob us of the love of God and our communion with Him if we’re willing to struggle, to die to self, in order to live for God.  

In His love for us, God gives us all the tools we need through His Church: divine worship, opportunities to come outside ourselves to serve others and learn to love Him and others more.  He gives us the Sacraments, the disciplines, the prayers, accountability, and authority—all of which save us from this or any adulterous generation.  

As we die to the world and live for Christ, we give others hope that they too can overcome this world.  As we live out our baptism, we give others hope that they too can be baptized and put on Christ, as we show others that because we so love God, we are ready to share His love with them too.  And step by step, following in the footsteps and example of St. Innocent as his spiritual descendents, we baptize the culture around us with the light and life and truth of Jesus Christ.  Holy St. Innocent, pray for us sinners for our healing and salvation before the throne of Christ God in whose near presence you now worship with us.