Church and HIV/AIDS
HIV-AIDS - Christian perspective
The sermon delivered by Father Vladimir Shmaliy at the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity at Khoroshevo during a prayer service for the people with HIV-AIDS
Today in our church just as in many other churches in our country, prayer services are held for the health of those who for various reasons have found themselves affected by a serious illness - the human immunodeficiency virus.
The Church never abandons her children. In the most severe and tragic situations, she prays for them, landing them her helping hand and strengthening them spiritually. Today all who share in our common prayer here and in other churches, ask the Lord wholeheartedly to give health and spiritual strength to those who suffer from the pain of this disease.
Today I would like to say a few words about the spiritual meaning of disease. During the pagan times the opinion was popular that demons or gods send diseases to those who breach the rules of pagan worship. Accordingly, one could deliver oneself from a disease only through a propitiatory offering to demons or other magic actions.
In the Old Testament times, there was a conviction among the Israelites that a disease was a direct and explicit consequence of a sin committed by a person and that it was, in a manner of speaking, proportionate to the sin committed by him or some elder of his tribe. According to the Old Testament understanding, a disease is sent or allowed by God for sins, and He cannot give recovery to the sinner unless the latter appeals to Him. Healing is possible but not through the medical skill alone. Since the root of diseases lies in sinning before God, cure will be effective only if accompanied with return to the ways of God.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the one hand, confirms the Old Testament idea that a disease is linked directly with personal sin. Thus, He says to an ill person He has healed: "Thy sins be forgiven thee" (Mt. 9:2). In another passage however, Christ shows a different attitude to the cause of a physical illness when He says about the man who was blind from his birth: "Neither hath this man sinned; nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" Jn. 9:1-3.
The Church teaches us that disease and, speaking more broadly, suffering are consequences of universal sinfulness, which stems, according to the Book of Genesis, from the pre-historic fall that occurred in Eden. God, Who has created man and given him all the blessings and called him to participate in divine life, eternal life, happiness, absolute beauty and knowledge of eternal meanings, has also called him to love - love of people, love of God-created world and above all love of God Himself. God created man perfect. It means first of all He created him a free creature, because love is possible only in freedom. Freedom, however, presuppose a possibility of rebellion and the rejection of love in favor of hatred, life in favor of death, happiness in favor of suffering and diseases. Man voluntarily, though at the instigation of the devil, rejected God. Before the fall, for man to live in God and with God was more natural than to breath. Sin became an unnatural, irrational and tragic act of self-destruction. Since God is the source and the most important goal of the life and being of man and all the creation, man, having rejected life, voluntarily committed suicide voluntarily by subjecting himself to the horrors of death, diseases and suffering.
The entire world has found itself lying in sin, evil and disease. The distortion of the human nature caused by the sin of the forebears has brought suffering to all - innocent children, adults and old people. Thus, disease, suffering and eventually death are results of the general state of the sinful distortion caused to our world by the abuse of God-given freedom.
The ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ Who came to earth in the fulfillment of time consisted in healing the spiritual wound inflicted on man by sin, but in healing without violating the human freedom. The Lord wished to return to Himself the human beings who rejected Him, using not power but humbleness. God does not destroy this world, nor does He eliminate freedom to make man healthy and happy automatically or mechanically. Christ calls man to follow Him on the basis of man's free choice. Therefore, the Christian understanding of disease and suffering is based on the idea of the free following of Christ.
The Savoir did not came to the world as a triumphant earthly king seeking to establish his dominion over the world or a great magician demonstrating his power over nature and capable of giving effortlessly abundance, peace and health to people. No, Christ came to the world as the meekest man of sorrows, as a servant of Yahweh, about whom the "Old Testament evangelists", the Prophet Isaiah, prophesied in times of old: "...he hath nor form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is not beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised; and we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed" (Is. 53:2-5).
God Almighty, the Creator of the world and man, became man and assumed full responsibility for all the suffering and misfortunes that people experience, though this suffering was rightful since it was freely chosen by people themselves. Christ, when He comes to the earth, does not punish sinners, nor does He burn them by fire or inflicts penalty or judges anybody. He chooses another way by taking upon Himself with meekness and humbleness the terrible Cross, the heavy burden of all the sins and suffering, all the guilt and untruth of the world. The Church believes that Christ, abandoned by all including His closest disciples at the hard time of passions, experiences the full measure of human suffering and all the horrors and diseases of the world from its creation to its coming end. Therefore, every one who suffers today, every ill person can and must see in suffering and humiliated Christ the answer to the question about the meaning of his own suffering and illness. True, sin, disease and death are meaningless, cold and horrible. The darkness of meaninglessness and global horror can be dispelled only if we accept Christ, if we agree to follow Him. And we know that to follow Christ is an easy yoke and a light burden (Mt. 11:30). For those who are in Christ and with Christ accept their suffering freely and humbly; those who are with Christ will have spiritual health, happiness and eternal life.
But, some will say, it follows that for an ill person it does not make any difference to be Christian or not, for he will still remain ill. First of all, it is not true because in the Church of God there are plenty of beneficial means that can help heal people. Moreover, we know great many an example where one's spiritual changes led to miraculous healing or a beneficial impact on one's physical health. It does not mean, however, that the Church offers to her suffering members some universal magical remedies for physical healing. In some cases, the healing of an ill person brings him spiritual benefit, while in other cases it does not. Let us remember that Christ calls us first of all to spiritual life that begins with spiritual healing. Spiritual life, however, is paradoxical and independent of the elements and visions of the sinful world. From the spiritual point of view, for the soul ill with sins and passions, the physical health can become a source of no longer temporary but perpetual illness and eternal death. At the same time, in the understanding of the Church, a physical illness can be not only an illness proper but also a remedy. True, this remedy is sometimes very bitter and the treatment appears dreadful. But we can also witness this in ordinary life, when a serious illness can be healed only through very painful means. We should remember therefore that in spiritual life much that seems attractive and beneficial to the sinful world might prove to be poison for us.
Those of us who are physically healthy now should remember that suffering is not only a direct punishment for our own sins. What is really a terrible sin is that of judgement, including judgement on those who are ill. It is quite possible that our neighbour suffers from an illness not at all for some offence he committed. We should treat our suffering neighbour as Christ Himself, that is to say, an ill person should be for us an image of suffering Christ Himself, a participant in the suffering of Christ, who, according to the daring word of the apostle, completes for the measure of Christ's suffering. And our task is by no means to condemn a sick and suffering but to have compassion for him as Christ Himself has compassion for him. You should see Christ Himself in your suffering brother and share the illness and suffering of another. It is to those who are able to see Christ Himself in their suffering brother that the words to be pronounced by the Saviour at His Last Judgement apply: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom... For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me... Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me" (Mt. 25:34-40). But those who judge the sick and despise them in the wrong belief that they are punished by the Lord actually do the work of the liar, the devil, when they appropriate the Lord's right to make His merciful judgement and unlawfully judge those who may suffer quite innocently.
To those who are ill today let us say the following: may be you have been given a special revelation in your disease, an opportunity to share in the mystery of the suffering of Christ Himself. In a sense, disease and suffering are a beneficial visitation of God. For instance, most of the prophets were suffering and ailing people: the Lord visited them with ulcers and illnesses. But why did He do it? He did it to enable them in their humility to rise to the meaning of that coming, that task which Christ was to perform by revealing Himself to the world as a prophetic man of sorrow, the humble lamb of God, Who took upon Himself the sin of the world.
Let us then look at our illnesses and suffering and the illnesses and suffering of others with humbleness, love and meekness. And let those of us who are affected by a disease not loose heart but remember that Christ is with them. I will dare say: you are more likely to find Christ not in the houses of light-hearted joy and merriment, but with those who suffer, with those who are ill, with those who feel bad now, with those who are dying and may be in inconsolable grief. Let us remember that there is no despair, nor death, nor disease, for Christ is with us, Who has overcome death and disease by His Passions, by His voluntary death on the Cross, and Who has turned them from curse into a means of acquiring eternal glory. When ill, we participate in the illnesses of Christ. Let us peacefully enjoy ourselves, let us be courageous in this hour of trial; let us be strengthened by the prayer of the Church and love of her faithful children. Let us endure our suffering to the end and try to see in our illnesses a visit from God and rise to the meaning of the coming of Christ, to the essence of our salvation. Rising in illnesses to the meaning of Christ's suffering, let us not withdraw into ourselves. Let us rush to those who do not yet know Christ, the Lamb of God Who takes upon Himself the sin of the world. In defiance of evil advice and ways of the sinful world, let us not in our illness blame or curse the world, but let us try to help our neighbours and those who may be worse than we are. There is no longer a situation that could seem hopeless, dark and dreadful. For Christ also seemed to have been forsaken by all in the Gesthimane garden and on the Cross, but on the third day He rose from the dead in glory, thus giving us eternal life, happiness and the meaning of life. Amen.
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