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!
All that it Means to Be Christian
Monday, April 17, 2017: Bright Monday
Epistle: Acts 1:12-17, 21-26
Gospel: John 1:18-28
Christ is Risen!
In the weeks following Pascha, we read from the Acts of the Apostles. What we read in Acts parallels what we see in that day’s Gospel reading about Jesus. The ministry of the Apostles in the early days of Church is shown to us as a continuation or extension of Jesus’ own ministry while on earth. This parallelism is nowhere seen as clearly as it is in today’s reading from Acts.
Even before Pentecost, the Church understands that Judas’ betrayal and apostasy are more than simply his personal failure. His departure from the Apostolic college represents a real loss for the whole Church.
To correct his deficiency–and to ensure a living continuity in the Church with Jesus–the Apostles seek to fulfill the office once held by Judas. The requirement for this new apostle is straightforward. He must be “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us.” But while the Apostles set the standard, it is God Who makes the final choice of Matthias through the casting of lots.
This morning we see that like St John the Baptist before them, the Apostles are concerned with ensuring the integrity of the Church’s witness to Jesus Christ. Matthias, like all the Apostles–and like all of us–has only one job. Together with the other Apostles, he is called by Christ to be “a witness to his resurrection.”
The care the Apostles take in choosing a replacement for Judas reflects not simply the seriousness of the task but also its unprecedented nature. The Good News of the Resurrection is so much more than we could ever dare expect there is always a temptation to minimize its radical character, to make it more acceptable, more easily understood but also less demanding, less a threat to our own, my own, self-aggrandizing tendencies.
Like the Apostles in their choice of Matthias, in the time between Pascha and Pentecost, the Church asks us to reflect on the experience of the early Church to help keep us connected to Jesus and the radical nature of the Gospel. Year after year we return to the struggles and triumphs, the successes and failures of the Apostles to keep alive in our own hearts and communities what it means to be a Christian.
And what does it mean? Simply this, to be a witness to the Resurrection of Christ. In the Resurrection, Christ has made God known to us and it is with this knowledge that we find our personal vocation as Orthodox Christian.
Christ is Risen!
If any be a devout lover of God,
let him partake with gladness from this fair and radiant feast.
If any be a faithful servant,
let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have wearied himself with fasting,
let him now enjoy his reward.
If any have labored from the first hour,
let him receive today his rightful due.
If any have come after the third,
let him celebrate the feast with thankfulness.
If any have come after the sixth,
let him not be in doubt, for he will suffer no loss.
If any have delayed until the ninth,
let him not hesitate but draw near.
If any have arrived only at the eleventh,
let him not be afraid because he comes so late.
For the Master is generous and accepts the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him who comes at the eleventh hour
in the same was as him who has labored from the first.
He accepts the deed, and commends the intention.
Enter then, all of you, into the joy of our Lord.
First and last, receive alike your reward.
Rich and poor, dance together.
You who fasted and you who have not fasted, rejoice together.
The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it.
The calf is fatted: let none go away hungry.
Let none lament his poverty;
for the universal Kingdom is revealed.
Let none bewail his transgressions;
for the light of forgiveness has risen from the tomb.
Let none fear death;
for death of the Saviour has set us free.
He has destroyed death by undergoing death.
He has despoiled hell by descending into hell.
He vexed it even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he cried:
Hell was filled with bitterness when it met Thee face to face below;
filled with bitterness, for it was brought to nothing;
filled with bitterness, for it was mocked;
filled with bitterness, for it was overthrown;
filled with bitterness, for it was put in chains.
Hell received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven.
O death, where is your sting?
O hell, where is your victory?
Christ is risen! And you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is risen! And the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is risen! And the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen! And life is liberated!
Christ is risen! And the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be Glory and Power, now and forever, and from all ages to all ages.
Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom
Charity & Evangelism
April 14, 2017: Vespers of the Disposition
Nicodemus. Joseph Of Arimathea. The Myrrh-bearing Women. Mary Magdalene.
Because they love Jesus, all of these find the courage to defy both the Roman Empire and the Jewish authorities. It is this love that causes them to bury the body of Jesus and so openly bear witness to their love for Jesus.
God uses their loving courage for their dead Friend and transforms each of them into witnesses to the Resurrection. Each will become an evangelist to different places and people. For her part because is the first to meet the Risen Lord Jesus, Mary Magdalene will hold a special place. She announces the Resurrection to the Apostles. For this reason, we call her the Apostle to the Apostle.
As God transforms these first disciples into fearless witnesses, so too God is ready to transform us.
As He uses their love, He stands ready to use ours.
Our willingness to care for others in their need is the beginning of a life of active, if often quiet, Christian witness. While words about Jesus and the Gospel are always important, it is our acts of simply charity, that are most able to touch the hearts of those who don’t yet know Christ or His Body the Church.
We can’t argue someone into the Kingdom of God. If this were possible, Jesus wouldn’t have had to suffer and die.
What does draw others to Christ is our love for them. Seeing in us something sacrificial and caring inspires in others a curiosity about why we are different. This curiosity is the seed of faith. It was precisely because Christians were a peculiar people, that the Church was able to evangelize the Roman Empire.
What was peculiar about us was our love not only for each other–which is after all only natural–but also for those outside the Church.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we commemorate this afternoon the taking down on Jesus from the Cross and reflect on the courage of those who carried for Him Who they loved, let us also commit ourselves to imitate the charity of these first witnesses to Christ.
Death is Overcome!
April 14, 2017: Royal Hours for Great & Holy Friday
In many parishes either during Royal Hours or just after, the laity will decorate the tomb of Christ where later in the day the priest will place the Epitaphios. There isn’t anything strange or morbid about doing this. In fact, it is one of the most natural, one of the most human, things in the world.
From earliest times, human beings have taken care to honor the graves of our departed loved ones. One of the most serious moral obligations in the ancient world was to bury the dead with proper honor and respect. Failure to do was a grievous sin and one that the gods would punish.
For Christians, the decoration of the graves of our loved one flows naturally from the veneration we show to the Tomb of Christ. In both cases, we honor not simply the life of a loved one but bear witness to our conviction that death has been overcome “and joy has come into all the world.”
Theologically, decorating the tomb of Christ or the grave of a loved one is more than merely a question of expressing our affection and love for those who have died. It is, fundamentally, a proclamation of the Gospel. We decorate the graves of our loved ones because we venerate the Tomb. And all this we do because
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
So today as you arrange flowers on the bier, remember that what you’re doing is proclaiming the Resurrection of Christ! When, as always happen, you find yourselves getting annoyed with one each other, don’t despair! This is simply the devil trying to rob distract you from the joy of the Resurrection.
And when, as always happens, you find yourselves getting silly, maybe even laughing or singing, don’t berate yourselves (much less you neighbor!) but thank God! In that moment you are experiencing the joy of the Resurrection, of Death being trampled down by Death and liberty being proclaimed to all Creation!