Fr. Matthew and me performing a Chrismation, Pascha 2010
Here is the sermon that I preached at the funeral service for Fr. Matthew MacKay on July 30.
The Archpriest Matthew MacKay, my spiritual father, pastor, brother priest and friend, was the epitome of what a Christian priest and pastor should be. He radiated the life of Jesus through his own life. He even looked like Jesus! He was a little bit older , he had a little less hair, and his hair and beard were whiter than those of our Lord, but in spite of this, when you were with him, you felt like you were with Jesus.
My daughter Beth certainly thought so, at least. One time several years ago, when Beth was two years old, she saw Fr. Matthew standing in the hallway after the Divine Liturgy. She was very thirsty, and Fr. Matthew was standing next to the water fountain. So, she went up to him and said, “Jesus, I need some water!” In his typical humble way, Fr. Matthew laughed and said, “No, I’m not Him. I just work for him!”
In this time of great shock, loss, and grief, today’s Gospel offers us hope in the form of three promises straight from the word of our Lord Jesus. First of all, our Lord says “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but has passed from death to life.” So if we hear Jesus’ words – not just hear them in the same sense that we hear the TV or the radio, but hear them so that we believe them, we will be given the gift of eternal life. And this believing that Jesus speaks of is not, of course, making a one-time decision to follow Christ. Rather, believing in the NT sense of the word, is a continual action; it is not something we just do once, but is instead something we do every day. We must continue in our belief and not turn away from our Lord. This is not easy; but if we will only do it, our Lord promises us eternal life.
Our beloved pastor, father, husband, brother, son, and friend Fr. Matthew was a man who believed in our Lord and his Gospel with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. And his belief issued forth not just in pious words, but in actions. Because of these, even though in one sense we would say that Fr Matthew has passed from life into death, in an even more real sense, what he has really done is pass from death to life—eternal life.
The second promise that we hear from our Lord in today’s Gospel is this: “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” And so, even though we will very soon be lowering our beloved Fr. Matthew’s precious body into the ground, this will not be the end of the story. For as Jesus goes on to say, “The hour is coming when all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” One day, as St. Paul tells us, “the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise.” So the grave where we will lay our beloved spiritual father will not be his final resting place. Fr. Matthew was a man who has done good. He was a man who most assuredly was “in Christ.” Because of this, we can have faith that one day, Fr. Matthew’s body, reunited with his soul, will “meet the Lord in the air. And thus [he will] always be with the Lord.” He will come forth to the resurrection of life.
But even as we have this hope, we still face the stark reality of death. What is it about death that makes even non-emotional people break down and weep? I have often heard death referred to as “The Great Equalizer,” and this is certainly true. All of us, no matter whether we are rich or poor, good or evil, Christian or non-Christian, have an appointment with death. And yet, the facet of death that makes it so hard to deal with is its being what I call “The Great Separator.” Perhaps the worst thing about death is that it separates us from those whom we love. When someone we loves dies, we lose the joy of being in their presence—seeing their face, hearing their voice, and feeling their embrace. And even if they seem to have died in Christ, there always remains that slight inkling of doubt: will I really ever see him or her again?
As I have been reflecting on my dear spiritual father’s sudden departure from this earthly life, I have been reminded of the story of the raising of Lazarus. As you know, this passage contains the shortest verse in the Bible, at least in the English version: “Jesus wept.” I often used to wonder exactly why Jesus wept. He did not weep for the same reason that all of us weep today. For the Lord knew that his separation from Lazarus would be very short-lived. He knew even before Lazarus died that He would raise him from the dead. So why, then, did he weep?
Many Bible commentators have suggested that Jesus wept out of compassion for Mary and Martha. To be sure, there is no question that this is part of why Jesus wept. He deeply loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and it was hard for him to see them experience a loss as great as that of their beloved brother, especially at a relatively young age. As the prophet Isaiah wrote of our Lord, “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (53:4a, NKJV). And yet, I think that there is much more behind Jesus’ tears than merely compassion and empathy, great though they were.
I believe that the clue to Jesus’ tears lies in a verb that St. John uses in verses 33 and 38. This Greek verb is usually translated into English as “groaned in his spirit” or “was deeply moved in spirit”. Both of these translations give the impression that Jesus was moved solely by grief. However, as Fr. Lawrence Farley points out in his commentary on St. John’s Gospel,
“The Greek word…savors not of grief, but of anger. It is used for the snorting of horses in secular literature; in Mark 1:43 and Matthew 9:30, it is translated "sternly warn,” and in Mark 14:5, it is translated “scold.” In all of its uses, the word conveys the idea of indignation. Christ, therefore, was not here moved with grief over His friend; He was moved with anger at the Enemy, and indignation that all the Father’s world could be so ruined.”
So more than being moved by mere grief or compassion, our Lord was “furious at the ancient serpent for wreaking this havoc.” In his thirty-something years of life, Jesus had no doubt seen a great deal of death…but now he had had enough! He was not going to allow death and Hades to claim his beloved friend, at least not now.
And so, the Lord Jesus, fed up with the Great Separator, marches to the tomb as a conqueror, intent on denying Death yet another victim. And “looking on that blocked-up cave, He beheld not just the buried corpse of His friend, but the corpse of the whole world.” By raising Lazarus, Jesus gives the world a foretaste of the victory that he would win over death through his own death, resurrection, and ascension, as well as an anticipation and an image of the final resurrection from the dead.
So Jesus was angry. He was angry at death itself, and he was angry at the Evil One, who introduced death into the world when he tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God in the Garden of Eden. Today, I am angry too. I am sick and tired of death stealing away people that I love. In the last 8 years, I have lost my mother, my father, a niece, and know my spiritual father, mentor, and dear friend. I’ve had enough! I want nothing more to strike back at Satan. But how can I do this? How can we all do this?
Over the last 9 years, whenever I have had a spiritual question like this, Fr. Matthew was there to answer it. And I believe that if he were here today, he would answer my question like this: the best way to strike back at Satan is to pray. Keep praying. For prayer pushes back the darkness.
I believe Fr. Matthew would also say that if we want to strike back at Satan, we must not give in to despondency. Yes, we can and should grieve over our loss. But we must never lose hope. And we must continue the work that Fr. Matthew began here. We must continue to serve the Divine Liturgy. We must continue to share the Gospel in all its fullness with the world around us. We must continue to feed the poor and help the needy. And again, above all else, we must continue to pray.
Toward the end of his life, St. Paul wrote the following words to his beloved disciple Timothy: “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that day,” If anyone could truthfully claim these words of St. Paul, it would be the Archpriest Matthew MacKay. So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us honor his memory by continuing this work that he began, until one day, we are reunited with him in the presence of our dear Lord Jesus Christ. Now unto him be all glory, honor, and praise, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.