Sunday, December 17, 2017 (December 4, OS): 28th Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 3; Great-martyr Barbara and Martyr Juliana at Heliapolis in Syria (306). Ven. John Damascene (776). Ven. John, bishop of Polybotum (716).
Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison WI
Leprosy in the Scriptures is a symbol of human sinfulness.
Just as leprosy makes the person more prone to infection and decay because it numbs the body’s ability to feel pain, sin deadens the heart’s sensitivity to the presence of God. It isn’t so much that the person denies God’s existence but that he or she is indifferent to God.
The heart’s indifference doesn’t harm God. It does, however, harm us. Indifference to God condemns the person to the kind of social isolation that we see in the Gospel this morning. St. Dorotheos of Gaza explains why.
He says that God is the hub of a wheel on which we are spokes. The closer we draw to God, the closer we draw to each other. Likewise, the further I am from God, the further I am from you.
“This is the very nature of love,” the saint writes.
The more we are turned away from and do not love God, the greater the distance that separates us from our neighbor. If we were to love God more, we should be closer to God, and through love of him we should be more united in love to our neighbor; and the more we are united to our neighbor the more we are united to God (Discourses and Sayings, p. 139).
Because we are social beings, in separating us from God and our neighbor, sin also separates me from myself. Sin makes me not only a stranger to myself but my own worst enemy. “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice” says St Paul. When I look into my own heart, I realize that “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:19, 23, NKJV).
For all the good we see around us–and there is real and substantial goodness to be seen if only I am willing to see it–we live in a community that fosters indifference to God. This is why God has called us to establish a parish on the Isthmus.
Left unchecked, the secularism that is advanced by the institutions like the UW-Madison or groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation is corrosive to the human heart and civil society.
Please note I said “unchecked secularism.” The separation of church and state that is the hallmark of the American Experiment is a precious safeguard of human conscience and the ability of the Church to structure her internal life and her external witness according to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
The problem arises when secularism is imposed. This might happen by law as it did during the Soviet era. In Madison, however, what typically happens is social pressure is subtly (and sometimes, not so subtly) brought to bear to silence or marginalize believers.
Our mission has a mission: to offer a gentle but faithful witness to the presence of God. We offer this witness not only for the sake of others but also for our own. Let’s look at each in turn.
Reflecting on his own experience, St Augustine comes to see that what is true for his life, is true for all of us. He says to God “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (The Confessions, I.1). While most of those we met will not become Orthodox Christians, we shouldn’t minimize the positive effect we can have on others. Apart from God, the human heart will not know lasting peace.
The fathers are clear: “what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world.” Even if most will not come, in this life at least, to faith in Christ, God nevertheless will our witness to help heal the restlessness that afflicts those around us.
To be sure, there are times when this will feel like a thankless task because “the world …hates the Christians, though in no wise [are they] injured, because [we] abjure pleasures.” But just as the “soul is imprisoned in the body, yet keeps together that very body … Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they keep together the world. … God has assigned [us] this illustrious position” and it is “unlawful for [us] to forsake” it (The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, VI).
This brings us to our next point. Our witness here is not simply for the sake of others but our own salvation as well.
Created in the image of God, we never really become fully ourselves until–like Christ–we give ourselves away in love for the sake of others. So many Orthodox Christians experience unnecessary suffering in their spiritual lives because for all that they love God and the Church they fail to serve others.
The fact is, we never really will possess the Gospel and the peace that St Paul describes in the second epistle this morning, until we hand that faith on to others;”if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
My suffering is unnecessary and pointless to the measure that I fail to bear witness to Christ. The less willing I am to work for your salvation, the less willing I am to see you liberated from sin, the more I am enslaved to sin and the more my own salvation is in doubt.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! What a great honor God has given us by calling us to establish a parish here on the Isthmus!
We get to bear witness to a way of life that is deeper, satisfying to the human spirit.
We offer a witness that tempers a life of mere professional, academic or social success by reminding people that, as good as all these can be, there is more–much more–to life than these.