Homily: Transformed by the Divine Light
Sunday, May 21, 2017: Sunday of the Blind Man; Constantine and Helen, Equal-to-the Apostles,Constantine and Helen, Equal-to-the Apostles, Pachomios the Righteous New Martyr
Epistle: Acts 26:1, 12-20
Christ is Risen!
The Scriptures see blindness as having two, fundamental meanings. Like deafness, blindness is both a terrible physical affliction, It is also a sign humanity’s estrangement from God. For example,in the Prophet Isaiah, God complains about the spiritual indifference of the leaders of Israel: ““Hear, you deaf and look, you blind, that you may see. Who is blind but My servant, or deaf as My messenger whom I send? Who is blind as he who is perfect, and blind as the Lord’s servant? Seeing many things, but you do not observe; opening the ears, but he does not hear” (Isaiah 42: 18-20, NKJV).
Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus often calls the Pharisees “blind guides” who will not only fall into a pit themselves but causes others to do so as well (Matthew 15:14). These “blind guides” are also morally obtuse confuse the means God has given us to grow in holiness with holiness itself (Matthew 23:16-26).
Following the biblical tradition St John Cassian says that anger isn’t a matter of affect, it isn’t a feeling. Cassian’s understanding of anger as spiritual blindness. As for the feelings I associate with being angry, these are the symptoms that I’m numb to the presence of God in my life. They reveal to me that I’m blind to the presence of God in my life.
Symptomatic of this blindness, as St Paul tells St Timothy, is to have “a form of godliness” while nevertheless “denying its power.” We are, St Paul says, to “turn away” from such people who instead of preaching the Gospel “creep into households and make captives of gullible women.” Rather than repent, these blind guides are “ loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:5-7, NKJV).
While Jesus will,as we see in today’s Gospel, sometimes heal physical blindness, His fundamental mission is to heal the human heart of its insensitivity to the presence of God in human affairs. It’s easy for me to identify others who are blind to God’s grace and mercy. My real fault is that I overlook my own blindness. I need to learn and accept that Jesus comes not simply to heal you but me as well. The word spoken through Isaiah to the leaders of Israel and by Jesus to the scribes and the Pharisees is spoken to each of us.
Like the scribes and the Pharisees I’m blind because I’m a sinner. It is this spiritual blindness to the presence and mercy of God that is the singular source not only of my anger but also my despair and my many lapses in, and offenses against, charity.
There is, however, another form of blindness that isn’t the result my sinfulness but of the brilliance of God’s grace. The Apostle Paul describes this grace in his defense King Agrippa as “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun.”
St Gregory of Nyssa in The Life of Moses, describes this second blindness as “luminous darkness.” He says that “Scripture teaches” the knowledge of God “comes at first to those who receive it as light.” This why, he says, anything contrary to the Gospel is called “ darkness, and the escape from darkness comes about when one participates in light.”
As we grew in the spiritual life, we experience a change.As we grow in our intimacy with God, we come to see that “the true knowledge” of God “consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge.” It is because in contemplation we come to experience to limits of reason, that the experience of God is “a kind of darkness.”
This wholly positive and illuminating blindness is the result of God drawing close to the soul. This new blindness is like the momentary blindness that comes from looking directly at the Sun. This second blindness is source of not just of humility, but also hope in God, charity for others, and the faith needed to proclaim the Gospel with the courage of the martyrs. This, second blindness, is the experience of being overwhelmed by the brilliant light of God’s beauty. It is the experience of this second blindness that transform Saul ,the Persecutor of the Church, into St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles
Unfortunately, many in the Church today don’t actively pursue the kind of intimacy that St Gregory describes. Too many of us are content with knowledge about God rather than have knowledge of God. Of the former, Gregory says that “The man who thinks that God can be known does not really have life.” Why? Because he knows not the One, True God but only a facsimile of God “devised by his own imagination.”
Whether willingly or not, the individual who has only an abstract knowledge about God is spiritually crippled. For all that they may know about the canons, or liturgy, or Church history, they don’t understand that all that God has given us, He has given us for one reason, and one reason only, to inspire in the soul a desire for God that “never ceases.”
For St Gregory of Nyssa and for the Tradition of the Church, be a disciple of Jesus Christ, to center our life around His Persona and shape our life according to His teaching and example, means continually grow in our desire to draw close to God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Listen again to the Gospel we heard this morning. When the blind man is healed, the restoration of his sight inspires the man not only to witness to Jesus Christ but to seek Him out:
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe”: and he worshiped him.
Let us this morning, and everyday going forward, strive to lay aside our anger, our despair, our lapses in charity and instead draw close to the God Who has drawn close to us in the Scriptures, the sacraments, the worship and the tradition of the Church.
Let us, like St Paul, not be “disobedient to the heavenly vision” but rather ly aside our sins and turn to God, offering to Him “deeds worthy of … repentance.”
Homily: Christians Are Exiles
Sunday, May 14, 2017: Sunday of the Samaritan Woman; Isidore the Martyr of Chios, Holy Hieromartyr Therapontus, Holy New Martyrs Mark and John, Serapion the Holy Martyr, Leontius, Patriarch of Jerusalem
Epistle: Acts 11:19-30
Gospel: John 4:5-42
Christ is Risen!
Human beings are different from each other it two, broad ways.
The first is that we are created “male and female” in the words of Genesis (1:27).Though this distinction is under attack by some–even by some in the Church–it remains the most basic human difference. Before we are anything else, we are either male or female and this is a created distinction inherent to being human.
All the other differences in the human family–nationality, language, social status–are secondary. And these other differences are–again, broadly–God’s merciful response to human sinfulness. To see this we need to go once again to Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel.
To summarize, after the Flood during Noah’s time, God makes a covenant with humanity:“I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done” (Genesis 8:21, NKJV). As time goes on though, humanity begins, once again, to doubt God. Eventually, we simply no longer trust God to keep His word to us and so when we come to “the land of Shinar” we decided to “build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:3,4)
We exercise our creativity and technical genius in rebellion against God. Key to our ability to rebel is that we had “one language and one speech.” Seeing our rebellion, God destroys the Tower and confuses our speech and scatters humanity over the whole face of the earth so that, while we are one in our humanity, we become different peoples (see Genesis 11:5-9).
Again though, the differences in language, culture and nation aren’t a punishment but an act of mercy as God seeks to slowly redirect our rebellious spirit.
Today’s Gospel highlights for us the different differences in the human family. Not only male and female but between of culture, language and nation. To the surprise of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus doesn’t respect these differences. Or rather, it is more accurate to say, He doesn’t respect the way in which these differences are used as an excuse to divide humanity.
Just as from the covenant with Noah to the Tower of Babel, humanity lost sight of God’s promise, from Babel to the Well, we have lost sight of the fact that human diversity is given as a cure for sin. What God meant as a mercy, we have turned not just into an occasion of sin but a justification for sin.
Just as in the time of Jesus, the fact of human difference is an excuse for hatred, or at least indifference, to our neighbor, How easily we, I, can find a reason to ignore, minimize, degrade, or even reject, my neighbor’s humanity. How easy it is for me to deny that we share a common humanity not only with each other but with Jesus Christ.
And yet, it is that common humanity that the Son assumes in His incarnation. He becomes as we are, in the patristic formulation, so that we can become as He is. Notice please, the use of the first person plural pronoun. God becomes man not so I can become God but so that we, together, can become “sharers in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
In being freed from slavery to the powers of sin and death, we are freed as well from the tyranny of loneliness and isolation that is its hallmark. We shouldn’t imagine that these experiences are somehow unique to modern phenomena; they aren’t. Likewise, with hatred and prejudice. There was never a time when we didn’t use our differences as a reason to turn our back on our neighbor or to deny someone else’s humanity.
To see this, look no further than the Gospel. There we see that the fear and division between the Jews and the Samaritans, while different in content, is as real as any racial, or economic, or social, or cultural division we see today.
And yet, as He did after the Flood and the Tower and at the Well, God is merciful and works to heal the divisions between us by reconciling us to Himself. This work of reconciling humanity to God, and so in turn with itself, is the fundamental work of the Church.This is why, though “man meant it for evil, God meant it for good” (see Genesis 50:20), even the persecution and scattering of the Apostles worked for humanity’s salvation.
Just as He did for the sons of Israel in the time of the Patriarch Joseph, God used the persecution of the Church to bring salvation to the Greeks. Before they were scattered, the Apostles only spoke to the Jews. But afterwards, as an almost natural result of their new situation, the Apostles found that they had Gentile listeners.
So what about us? How has God called us to share in the work of reconciling humanity to Himself and so to itself?
Let me suggest that to answer this question, we need to look to those parts of our life when we find ourselves on the margins. The ancient Irish monastic had an interesting take on this. As an ascetical and evangelical discipline they would voluntarily accept exile from their native land and people. For the sake of their own salvation and to spread the Gospel, these monks would become strangers in a foreign land (see Exodus 2:22).
My brothers and sisters in Christ! This willing exile, though undertaken for many reasons, is how the Orthodox Church came to North America. We are, all of us, spiritually, and more often than not biologically, the sons and daughters of exiles. Many of us, in fact, willingly left our native lands and came to this place and time.
And so, as the spiritual sons and daughters of exiles, we too need to go to the margins, to the edges, of our own lives. We do this not to bring Christ where He isn’t but (to borrow from the Fr Alexander Schmemann), to find Him there waiting for us!
Both the Gospel and Acts of the Apostles are clear. The Church grows and humanity is saved, because (like Jesus) Christians are willing to go where God the Father will lead them. And where the Father leads us, spiritually (and sometimes literally) is always to the margins of our own lives. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ always means to be an exile.
Let us become, willingly and joyfully, who we are!
Homily: To Obey is Better than Sacrifice
Sunday, May 7, 2017: Sunday of the Paralytic; Commemoration of the Precious Cross that appeared in the sky over Jerusalem in 351 A.D., Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Akakios the Centurion of Byzantium, Pachomios the New Martyr of Patmos, Repose of St. Nilus, abbot of Sora
Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15
Christ is Risen!
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three.” writes St Paul, “but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NKJV). It’s important to emphasize that the Apostle says this immediately after warning us of all the deficiencies inherent in our current relationship with Christ:
…whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away (vv. 8-10).
Though real, these lapses are not in and of themselves sinful. Rather they reflect that, in this life, we are in our spiritual infancy; we understand and think as children who have yet to “put away childish things” (v. 11). This isn’t to say that we live in spiritual ignorance; like a child, we are young but not stupid. But, for now, Paul says, “we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (v. 12).
The Christian lives in expectation of the revelation of Jesus Christ which is to come. This should foster in me not only a joyful expectancy but also a loving attention to the gentle prompting of divine grace. While the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is still to come, this life is not devoid of His Presence. Like He did at His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor God makes Himself known to each of us to the degree we are able to receive the revelation.
And it is here, in my capacity to receive God, that I find the meaning of Jesus’ last words to the Paralytic:”See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.”
Sometimes in our anxiety to avoid suggesting that by our works we somehow merit salvation, we downplay any suggestion that we are, again as St Paul says, “co-workers” or “co-laborers” with God in our own salvation (1 Corinthians 3:9). And yet, it is precisely by His grace and with our co-operation that we are saved. To be saved is not to be the merely passive recipient of divine grace or the object of a divine fiction that images we are other than as we. To be saved means to say with the Virgin Mary, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NKJV).
Or sometimes because our anxiety to avoid any suggestion of moralizing, we try and sever any connection between human behavior and our condemnation. And yet, the Scriptures are more than clear. Some actions are so immoral that they bring about out condemnation. The Apostle John refers to these as “sins unto death” (1 John 1:5, KJV). St Paul refers to them as “the works of the flesh.” It is these–”adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like”–that we must avoid, or if we fall into them repent of in confession, if we wish to “inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21, NKJV).
Returning to the Gospel, Jesus tells the Paralytic, and us, two things.
First, avoid the sins of the flesh; avoid those sins that kill faith, hope and love. It’s worth noting, if just in passing, that every age has works of the flesh that it tends to minimize or even glorify. Our own age tends to downplay the deadly seriousness of sexual sins even as earlier ages had their own lists of sins that they would not acknowledge as sins. No age is morally superior to another in any absolute sense. Rather each ages and culture people have their own, preferred, ways of turning their back on love.
Second, it isn’t enough to avoid sin, we must cultivate virtue. We must cultivate those three things that last: faith, hope, and above all love. In one of his homilies on John’s Gospel, St Gregory Dialogos asks his hearers whether or not they, personally, belong to Jesus Christ as members of “his flock.” He goes on to ask them, and us,
…whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action. John the evangelist is my authority for this statement. He tells us that anyone who claims to know God without keeping his commandments is a liar.
The saint reminds us that as important as are faith and hope they aren’t in and of themselves enough. To St Gregory’s appeal to the Apostle John, we add our appeal to the Apostle James:
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (2:19-20, NKJV)
A living faith in the revelation we have received, a living hope that is yet to come, requires that I love God and love my neighbor.
To love God means to keep His commandments the second of which is to love you. And to love you means to want what God wants for you. And what God wants for you, is for you to return His love for you. This isn’t an emotional response but obedience. We love God as He loves us by keeping His commandments and being faithful to His will for our lives.
And second, He wants you to love others as He loves you. This can’t be done except that you are faithful to your own, personal, vocation. It is in and through our fidelity to our vocation that we not only grow in the love of God but also the love of our neighbor. This is they way we grow in the love of God. And unless we aid each other in this process of vocation discernment and fidelity, we can’t truthfully claim to be obedient to God or to love our neighbor.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us begin the great work being of faithful to our own vocations and an aid to others as they live theirs!
Homily for Sunday April 30, 2017: Vocation
Sunday, April 30, 2017: Third Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Pious Joseph of Arimathea & Righteous Nicodemus
Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43-16:8
Christ is Risen!
God has called each of us, each of you, personally to a ministry that you–and only you–can do. This ministry, this life of sacrificial love and service, is for the glory of God and your salvation and your neighbors’.
The broad outline of your vocation is found in the natural talents and spiritual gifts God has given you. To borrow from the Divine Liturgy, when God called you “out of non-existence into being” in your mother’s womb, He gave you a particular constellation of abilities. Maybe you are naturally athletic or mechanically inclined. Or maybe you are natural compassionate or patient. Or maybe you love a good argument or like to talk.
To the talents He gave you at your creation, at your baptism He added spiritual gifts. Unlike our talents, the spiritual gifts we’ve been given manifest themselves in the ways in which God draws others to Himself through us. The are in New Testament several different lists of these gifts (e.g., Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 28, Ephesians 4:11, Galatians 5:22-23). Because these gifts reflect the presence of God in our lives, the exact combination of the gifts is effectively infinite. What unites them all, according to the Apostle Peter, is they are given so that in our lives “God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11, NKJV).
Today we recall two events in the life of the early Church that highlight the importance of glorifying God through our care for the most vulnerable members of the Body of Christ.
Sometimes we might imagine that tensions between different ethnic groups in the Church is unique to our own time. These tensions arise because we tend to focus on the superficial, differences between those raised in the Church and those who joined as adults. In the early days of the Church, no one was raised a Christian from infancy. Everyone was a convert! And yet, we see that dissension (murmuring) that arose between the Hebrew and Greek-speaking Christians about how the Church was, or wasn’t, caring for the widows from each community.
It was to solve this problem while leaving the Apostle free to pursue their own vocation “to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” that the Church establishes the order of deacons. We can talk about the diaconate another time. For now, though, it’s worth noting that in the New Testament understanding, the pursuit of one’s vocation is not “zero-sum.” Fidelity to your vocation doesn’t in anyway harm my pursuit of my vocation.
And how could it otherwise? Since all our vocations come from God Who “is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33, NKJV). But this, largely negative view of vocations, doesn’t exhaust what we see in Acts. It isn’t simply that we don’t get in each other’s way.
It isn’t simply that we don’t get in each other’s way. For example, the deacons’ fidelity of the vocation supports the apostles’ fidelity to their vocation. The deacons, in other words, make it possible for the apostles to do as God has called them even as the apostles confirm the deacons in their own vocation to serve at table.
This is the key to understanding what it means to pursue our own, personal vocations. Not only is fidelity to my vocation to my advantage–it is after all the means God has given me to grow in holiness–it is to your advantage as well. One sign that we are living in obedience to God’s will for us, is that we become a source of support and encouragement to others as they live out their own vocation.
Or, if you’d rather, the only way I can become a saint is if I help you become a saint as well!
Turning to the Gospel, we see that vocation fidelity requires not only obedience to God but courage. It was dangerous for Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene and the other Myrrh-Bearing Women to care for the Body of Jesus. Doing so was a direct challenge to the civil and religious authorities. Caring for their deceased friend meant, at a minimum, risking being ostracized. It could easily have meant death.
Courage is necessary to pursue our vocation becomes obedience to God will inevitably bring us into conflict with the powers of this world. As the Apostle Peter tells the Jewish authorities who ordered him to stop preaching that Jesus rose from the dead: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (see Act 5:12-42, NKJV). We cannot obey to God without at times being disobedient to men.
As important as courage is, more important still, however, is a life of personal prayer. Nourished by the sacraments and guided by the liturgical life of the Church, the reading of Holy Scripture and the fathers, I have to pray–and pray daily–to know and do the will of God.
This is what the Apostle Paul means when he tells us “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2, NKJV). Apart from a life of prayer, there is no transformation and without transformation, I remain conformed to this world and enslaved to the powers of sin and death.
Taken together the discernment and pursuit of our personal vocation is nothing more or less than the path to liberty in Christ. Whatever our vocation, it is always the means by which we come to be “partakers of the divine nature” (see 2 Peter 1:4). As I said a moment ago, God has called each of us, each of you, personally to a ministry that you–and only you–can do. This ministry, this life of sacrificial love and service, is for the glory of God and your salvation. It is through fidelity to your vocation that you will become by grace what Christ is by nature.
Our vocation is not only the source of our freedom in Christ but all the good things that flow naturally from life in Christ.
Through our vocation we grow in “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23, NKJV).
And it is through our vocation we discover what it means, concretely, to love “the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:30-31, NKJV).
My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is no other way to love God and our neighbor, there is no other way to grow in holiness or to bear witness to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ but through fidelity to our personal vocations! We must do what God calls us to do so that we can become who God has called us to be!
Distraction, Detachment, and Discipleship
Sunday, April 23, 2017: New Sunday or Anti-Pascha Sunday of Thomas the Apostle, Called “The Twin” Great-martyr George the Trophy-bearer.
Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31
Christ is Risen!
To follow the Person of Jesus Christ, to shape our lives around His teaching and the example of the saints and martyrs who have gone before us in faith (Hebrews 12:1), this is the essence of our life in Christ. While our particular vocations are different, as Orthodox Christians we share a common call to be His disciples and to preach the Gospel to all the world (Mark 15:16). Each of us follows a unique path in life but we have a common goal.
Because we have the same destination–the Kingdom of God–our personal vocations also share common features. Chief among these is the need to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope, and love. These are the fruit of divine grace poured out in the sacraments of the Church, the life of prayer and ascetical struggle. Apart from these, whatever else might be the value of what we do, what we do isn’t Christian.
Just as there are common sources for our unique vocations, there are common dangers. In the Gospel this morning we hear about the Apostle Thomas and his unwillingness–at Vespers last night we hear it referred to “the delicacy of the beautiful unbelief of Thomas”–to believe that Christ is Risen. In a word, Thomas doubt.
Doubt is an interesting thing.
We tend to think that the solution to doubt is more information or a better, clearer explanation. If however you have ever struggled with doubt, or indeed any distraction in the spiritual life, you know that this solution is no solution.
The cause of doubt is not a poverty of information but of attention. Doubt, like fear, anxiety, despair and any number of other temptations in the spiritual life, is the fruit of distraction. Doubt arise when I shift my attention from Jesus to my own thoughts.
At the beginning of this morning’s Gospel, it isn’t so much that Thomas doesn’t believe that Jesus is Risen from the dead as it is he attached to his own thoughts. He is willing to believe in the Resurrection, if and only if, it is revealed to him on his own terms. “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.”
In effect, Thomas will accept the Resurrection if it comes to him, not the free gift of God but as the fruit of his own effort. Thomas can’t believe because he is attached to his own thoughts.
This then is the heart of doubt and all the other distractions of the spiritual life: My attachment to my own will.
While this attachment might, at first, seem sweet, very quickly my thoughts come to torment me. My thoughts enslave me. I make myself a slave to myself. I am as bound by my own thoughts, as Peter was by his chains before the angel of the Lord freed him from prison.
I cannot live as a disciple of Christ if I am attached to my own will, my own thoughts about the spiritual life. It is my plans, my vision, that obscure Christ and so become the source of doubt and the other distractions.
What I need to learn to do–and this takes not only divine grace and real effort on my part but time–is to become detached from my own thoughts. Notice please, I didn’t say I need to NOT have my own thoughts, plans, or feelings. It is “proper and right” to have these. Where I go wrong is in my attachment to them, to caring more about my own thoughts and feelings than I do Christ.
Like I said, finding the balance between prayerful and obedient attention to Christ and respecting the integrity of not only my own thoughts and feelings but those of other people, is the work of a lifetime.
Too often Christians neglect this work and instead give themselves over to one form or another of fundamentalism. Or, to look at the other deformation, they neglect faith altogether and given themselves over to a life of self-aggrandizement.
The irony here is that whichever deformation they choose, in the end, what is chosen is the person’s own will. Both paths elevate the preferences of the individual above the love of God or neighbor.
So, to follow Christ, the be His disciple, I must like Thomas, take my eyes off myself and instead look to Jesus Christ as “My Lord and my God!”
I won’t lie to you. There will be times when doing this is hard, harder than anything you have ever done.
But there will also be times when shifting your focus to Jesus, will not only come easily but joyfully. Over time, what was once hard becomes, if not exactly easier, than to be a moment of liberation.
And with that renewed inner freedom comes not only a more mature, sober way of life in Christ but also an ability to, like Peter, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”
Clinging to Peter and John
Saturday, April 22, 2017: Bright Saturday; Theodore of Sykeon, Nathaniel, Luke, & Clemente the Apostles, Nearchos the Martyr, Gregory Gravanos of Nisyros
Epistle: Apostles 3:11-16
Gospel: John 3:22-33
Christ is Risen!
While not wholly unique to Orthodoxy in America, there is a pronounced temptation among us to imitate the “healed lame man” and cling “to Peter and John.” Let me explain.
The Gospel always comes to us in a particular form or in a particular way. My first encounter with Orthodoxy was as a student traveling in Greece. A few years later, I encountered the Church again this time in its Russian form.
In both cases, my experiences were largely positive.What I need to avoid is assuming that the Greek or Russian expression is exhaustive of the life of the Church. Much less can I see in either an exhaustive expression of the Gospel. The Church is larger than my experience of it because the Gospel is larger than what I can comprehend.
Failure to see that the Gospel is greater than my experience of it is how I succumb to the temptation to cling to something other than the Gospel as the Gospel. Worse still, this is how I come to cling to someone other than Jesus Christ as if that person were Christ.
Put differently, I must always be on guard against preaching another gospel because I serve a different Christ. To be blunt, if St Paul needs to guard against this in himself see 2 Corinthians 11:4 and Galatians 1:8) and if St Peter actually succumbs to it (see Galatians 2:11-21), why would I that I’m exempt from the same temptation?
Like I said, the temptation to preach another Gospel, to serve another Christ, isn’t unique to Orthodox in America. We fall into this sin when, again like the healed lame man, we cling to something–or someone–other than Christ.
So how do we avoid the lame man’s fault?
As disciples of Jesus Christ, our fundamental task is to do as did St John the Baptist. We, I, need to point to Jesus Christ. “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
And not just me but everyone and everything that is not Christ must decrease.
St Seraphim of Sarov says that every good work we do is in the service of deepening our communion with Christ. It is this communion which is both the goal and source of our lives as Orthodox Christians.
Without this communion, nothing we do–however good it may be in itself–makes any sense or brings us any spiritual profit.
The late Fr Alexander Schmemann wrote witheringly about how we turn the Church–and specifically the local parish–into an idol. We do things he says for the Church or (more likely) our parish that we would condemn if done for any other reason or purpose. This what I mean when I say we need to cling to Jesus Christ and not to the means by which He saves us.
To follow Christ, I need to root out from my tendency to cling to “Peter and John”– to see the means of salvation as if they were the goal of life in Christ.
The only goal we have is Christ. It is Christ we preach, it is to Christ we cling. Anything other than Christ is unworthy of us because it is unworthy of the great gift He has given us: Himself and His life.
What I Have, I Give
Friday, April 21, 2017: Bright Friday: Theotokos of the Life-giving Spring; Holy Hieromartyr Januarius and Those With Him, Our Holy Father Maximian, Patriarch of Constantinople, Theodore the Holy Martyr & his mother Philippa of Perge, Alexandra the Martyr, Anastasios the Monk of Sinai
Epistle: Apostles 3:1-8
Gospel: John 2:12-22
Christ is Risen!
There’s enough in today’s Gospel to make all of us uncomfortable.
For those who imagine that buying and selling, whether on behalf of the church or not, is an unalloyed moral good, we see Jesus cleansing the Temple of moneychangers and tradesmen. And the way He does it–overturning tables and ”making a whip of cords”–should disquiet those who prefer a gentle, non-judgmental god.
Before we go any further, it is important to stress that the Church’s moral tradition sees business as fundamentally a good thing. The tradition also makes room for both the pacifist and the soldier and sees each as legitimate vocations and responses to a broken and often conflicted world.
Jesus’ actions in the Gospel aren’t a blanket condemnation of business–of buy, selling and making a profit. Nor are they a blanket endorsement of the use of force in response to wrongdoing. As with all things, virtue is found not in the extremes but in balance.
Especially if we have a family to support, we can’t be indifferent to the financial aspects of life. We are obliged to care for others and not be a burden to them. Yes, there are times when all of us will need other’s help. However, to the degree that we are able, we ought to support ourselves and our own family.
Charity, love, demands that I care for my spouse and children but also my parents and my siblings. And so charity demands that I see to the financial well-being of my own life so that I have the resources to care for others.
Charity also requires that we protect the weak and the innocent from those who would harm them. In a fallen world, this means that are times when charity demands the use of force to protect others. To fail to prevent harm or punish wrongdoers is as much a moral failing as to neglect to care for them because I am a bad steward of the material blessings God has given me.
So what then are we to do? Where is the middle ground, the royal road between the extremes? Acts is helpful here.
Not unreasonably, the beggar hopes for a coin from Peter or John. And, again, not unreasonably he was disappointed to hear they had neither silver nor gold to give.
What Peter does have, though, is more than money. It is, even more, the healing of the beggar’s body. The man received forgiveness of his sins, the tangible sin of which is the healing.
Having been healed physically and spiritually, the once beggar jumps up and walks singing and dancing into the Temple (compare, 2 Samuel 6:14).
While we can’t be indifferent to the myriad financial or social needs we see around we need to remember two things.
First, we should respond generously, even sacrificially, to the needs of others. Often though we will say with Peter, “I have no silver and gold.” There is no sin in acknowledging your limitations and accept them for what they are: the boundaries of your own vocation.
Second, we must also always say with Peter “I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” forgiveness and an invitation to walk with me as disciples of Christ.
It Starts With God
Thursday, April 20, 2017: Bright Thursday; Theodore the Trichinas, Zacchaeus the Apostle of Caesaria, Gregory & Anastasios, Patriarchs of Antioch, Athanasios, Founder of the Monastery of Meteora
Epistle: Acts 2:38-43
Gospel: John 3:1-15
Christ is Risen!
Nicodemos commends Jesus for the signs He performs and affirms that God is with Jesus. We might expect Jesus to say to Nicodemus something like what He will later say to Peter when the apostle makes his profession of faith. “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17, NKJV).
Jesus seems to respond oddly. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Until he is born from above, Nikodemos will be unable to receive Jesus’ testimony about Who He is. And that rebirth awaits the Cross; “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Far from being an afterthought, the Cross completes the earthly ministry of Jesus. “So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’ And bowing His head, He gave up His spirit” (John 19:30, NKJV).
What we hear in the Gospel is repeated by the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost. We must repent and be baptized not only for the forgiveness of our sins but so that we can “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It is the Spirit, teaches us “all things.” The Holy Spirit also reminds us all the things that Jesus has said to us (see, John 14:26).
When as Orthodox Christians we talk about the importance of Holy Tradition we are simply affirming what Jesus says and what the first Christians on that Pentecost did. It isn’t history or a plain reading of Scripture that is the standard of the Gospel but the continual, living presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
Just as there is a parallel between the earthly ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the Church in the New Testament, so too there is a parallel between the history of the Church and the history of our own, personal, relationship with Jesus Christ.
The same Spirit that leads the Church has come to dwell in our hearts. What the Holy Spirit said, publically to the whole Church in Holy Tradition, He says quietly in our hearts. The same God Who inspired the apostles and disciples, the martyrs and confessors, the saints and prophets in every age of the Church, comes and dwells in our hearts at our baptism and chrismation.
To be born from above, to be made new, means to become a part of this great work of the Holy Spirit across generations. What He said to those who have gone before us, the Spirit says to us. Anything that deviates or denies what the Holy Spirit has said before, is simply not from God but from the flesh.
As we make the journey from Pascha to Pentecost, we need to keep in mind that what we believe as Orthodox Christians, we received as a gift from above. Our faith–both shared and personal–is one and the same because it has One and the same Source: the Holy Spirit Who comes to dwell in us and reveal Christ to us.
Called by God to Proclaim Freedom in Christ
Wednesday, April 19, 2017: Bright Wednesday
Epistle: Acts 2:22-38
Gospel: John 1:35-52
Christ is Risen!
Today’s readings focus our attention on Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” the sacrifice that takes away the sins not only of the Jewish People but all the world. He does this by His death on the Cross. The evidence of the sacrificial and soteriological (saving) character of Jesus’ death is that He rise from the dead on the third day.
When we exchange the Paschal greeting–”Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!”–what we are in effect saying is this:
By His sacrificial death and resurrection, Christ takes away the sins of the world!
Indeed, by His sacrificial death and resurrection, Christ takes away the sins of the world!
Rightly understood, the Paschal greeting is kerygmatic, it is a brief, evangelical statement of the Gospel. When we exchange this greeting with each other, we are not only reminding and encouraging each other to stand firm in the Gospel but rehearsing the Good News that as disciples of Christ we are called to share with the world.
We need this reminder and encouragement because, as the reading from Acts makes clear, the religious and civil powers of this world reject the Gospel. This rejection is the definition of what it means to be a power in this world.
The irony here is not lost on St Peter.
It is precisely those charged with the power of the sword (see Romans 13:3-4), the Roman authorities, and those who sat on the seat of Moses (see Matthew 23:2), the Jewish authorities, who put Jesus to death. The very men who were called by God to uphold the civil and religious laws were themselves the same “lawless men” who “crucified and killed” Jesus. These men of the law became betrays of the law so that they could hold on to power.
In all ages and in all places, to proclaim the Gospel puts Christians at odds with the lawless men and women of that time and locality.
As followers of Christ, we threat the powers of this world. We do so not by preaching armed insurrection but by our gentle invitation to others that they “Come and see.” For you say to your neighbor “Repent, and be baptized” is an affront to those who usurp the place of God in their desire to rule over others.
The Gospel liberates, the powers of this world can only enslave.
At our baptism, God has called each of us to be His disciples. In our chrismation God has given us the Holy Spirit. Together these two sacraments allow us to make Jesus’ words our own:
He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18, NKJV).
When we exchange the Paschal greeting–Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!–we need to remember that these words not only tell us what we believe, they remind us of who we are: Disciples and apostles called by God to proclaim freedom in Christ!
Allow Yourself to be Wooed by God
Tuesday, April 18, 2017: Bright Tuesday; The Commemoration of Saints Raphael, Nicholas, Irene, and the Other Newly-revealed Martyrs of Lesbos
Epistle: Acts 2:14-21
Gospel: Luke 24:12-35
Christ is Risen!
Without wishing to in any way diminish the role of the Holy Spirit, the boldness we see in Peter on Pentecost didn’t “just happen.” Even if it might feel like it, the action of grace isn’t like turning on a light bulb. We don’t go instantly from one way of life to another. Thinking that we do is always a source of frustration in our personal lives and in the life of the Church.
God reveals Himself to us slowly.
God also slowly reveals us to ourselves. He grants us glimpses of our vocation. If He didn’t, if He revealed the whole of our vocation to us at once, the sheer weight of it would crush us. And so God reveals Himself and our calling to us slowly.
Back to Peter.
The boldness we see in him on Pentecost is a purified boldness. While he is more mature, more sober, than when we first meet him in the Gospel, it is still the same Peter. But what was once recklessness is now courage. How does God bring about this change in Peter and so in us?
To answer this let’s look at this Gospel.
“Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home wondering at what had happened.” Having heard from the women that Jesus had risen, Peter wants to see for himself.
And he doesn’t just go, he runs to the tomb. He is curious. He wants to know what happened.
And when he sees the empty tomb and “the linen cloths by themselves” he pauses. Curiosity brings him to the empty tomb but wonder returns him to himself.
Often in the spiritual life, we confuse curiosity–a desire to know or understand–with faith. But curiosity begins in ignorance, in a felt deficient in one’s self. Faith, however, begins not in my poverty but awe at God’s fullness.
To glimpse God fullness isn’t so much to feel that I’m small as it to experience awe at God’s greatness. And, again, faith begins in awe.
It is through awe at the mystery of the Resurrection that foolhardy and impetuous Peter becomes the bold and courageous preacher we see at Pentecost. Awe transforms Peter.
Likewise with us. We need to be transformed by our awe at the majesty, power, and beauty of God.
We grow in awe if, again like Peter, we return “home.” That is if we quiet ourselves if we surrender our desire to know and open ourselves to the fullness of God.
But again, awe begins in quiet. We must, I must, quiet myself, put aside the many distractions of my day, so that I can hear the gentle voice of God that doesn’t overwhelm but woos us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us allow ourselves to be wooed, to be loved, by Christ!