Sunday, July 23, 2017: 7th Sunday of Matthew; Phocas the Holy Martyr, Bishop of Sinope, Ezekiel the Prophet, Pelagia the Righteous of Tinos, Trophimos & Theophilios and the 13 others martyred in Lycia, St. Anna of Levkadio, The Icons of the Most Holy Theotokos of Pochaev, Icon of the Mother of God
When the Apostle James reminds us that faith without works is dead, by “works” he means our acts of practical, and this is the important point, effective charity. Wishing someone good luck and that they are “warm and well-fed” it isn’t enough. Put another way, while good intentions matter they aren’t sufficient.
Turning to this morning’s epistle, St Paul tells us to “bear with the failings of the weak.” Paul isn’t counseling “tolerance” as it is often understood in our culture. God doesn’t call us to moral indifference. In this life, we regularly meet people whose lives are marked, scarred really, by serious moral failing. Paul doesn’t tell us to turn a blind eye to this.
So, to understand what the Apostle means when he says “we who are strong,” we need to read on.
First, compassion for others is not about pleasing myself but pleasing my neighbor. Charity for my neighbor isn’t about doing something that makes me feel good about myself. In fact, if I take charity seriously, there are times when doing the morally and practically right thing will be costly. Failure to pay that cost because I don’t want to make the sacrifice is bad enough. But failing to do what love requires because it contradicts my self-image? This is by far an even worse sin because it makes my own comfort rather than Christ the standard of my life.
So, to understand what the Apostle means, we need to read on.
To please my neighbor doesn’t mean to do what he wants. Rather it is to act, as Paul says, “for his good, to edify him.” I must be for you, as Christ is for me. To do what is good for my neighbor is to do not what I want or even what my neighbor wants. It is rather to do what God wants from me for my neighbor.
Love, properly understood, means I want what God wants for you. And because “faith without works is dead,” love in its fullness always includes a practical dimension. God doesn’t simply desire our salvation, He does what our salvation requires even when doing so is costly to Him. “Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.’”
To avoid the temptation to sentimentality, to “faith” without works, we need to remember that actions worthy of the name “charity” demand practical skills. While our emotions have a role to play in our spiritual lives, like good intentions, they aren’t sufficient. More importantly, and again like good intentions, detached from the moral obligation to practical and effective good works, our emotions can easily deceive us.
To grow in holiness, I need to guard against prelest; I need to guard against spiritual deception or delusion. This doesn’t just mean not thinking that I am better than I am. I also need to avoid thinking I am worse than I am. Both self-aggrandizement and self-degradation are the fruit of pride.
Our need for realistic self-knowledge is why repentance (metanoia) is important. St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.” Where we often go wrong, is that we assume repentance means to think less of ourselves; it doesn’t
St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.” Where we often go wrong, is that we assume repentance means to think less of ourselves; it doesn’t
To feel bad about my past actions isn’t repentance. Rather, repentance means to accept with thanksgiving that I am loved and accepted by God. This transforms not only how I see myself but changes my relationship with you. This is because the same God Who loves and accepts me also loves and accepts you. And if we love someone don’t we naturally, spontaneously love what they love?
It is this conviction that everyone is loved by God that gives us the courage to do as Paul tells us, to act on behalf of our neighbor’s good. But what about those times when I don’t have the practical ability to care for my neighbor?
As we grow in our experience of God’s love for us and for our neighbor, something changes in us.
Like when we’re children, at the beginning of our spiritual life, will have a sincere but narrow sense of what love means. In our culture, that usually takes the form of refraining from judgment. This isn’t bad but (again!) it isn’t enough.
One of the great strengths of our culture, and especially of the young, is the importance we place on not rejecting others because of our moral disagreements. At the same time, we are called to something more.
Not just to refrain from judging but to help people grow in the knowledge of God’s love for them and, in so doing, become who God has called them to be.
Put another way, because we love others, we refuse to judge them or turn away from them because of their failings. But, because we love not only our others but God, we want for our neighbors what God wants for them. The power of our witness as Orthodox Christians is that we know from our own experience, that metanoia is wholly positive. It is through repentance that we are freed to not simply to be who we are but are freed to love our neighbor and to do so practically and sacrificially.
And what we want for others is they too have what God has given us.
Part of the sacrificial character of love is realizing that there are times when my practical skills are simply not sufficient to my neighbors need. But if I have come to accept God’s love for me, and so accept who God has created me to be, I can be at peace with my limitations. Not only that, but I can see my limits as an invitation to draw others into the circle of charity.
No, maybe I can’t help you in the way that you need. But I may know someone who can.
Love worthy of the name looks not only to serve but to help other also learn to serve. In Christ, I rejoice in my weaknesses, my practical limitations, because they make room for you to serve those who I can’t serve.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, God has called us not simply to do good for others but to help others become good according to the path God has called them to walk. What better way is there for us to live than this?