In Each Moment, Trust in God

Sunday, June 17 (O.S., June 4) 2018: Third Sunday after Pentecost; Synaxis of Halych Saints; Synaxis of Odessa Saints; Saint Metrophanes, First Patriarch of Constantinople (325).

Epistle: Romans 5:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 6:22-33

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Thinking is so much easier than praying.

It’s easier to have good thoughts about God or my neighbor than it is to stand before God in prayer. It is likewise easier to make plans for God than it is to give myself over to God. Hardest of all though, is to learn to trust God not just in the big things–which after all, come only now and then–but in the myriad little things that make up my daily life.

And yet, that daily, hour by hour, minute by minute, trust in God is precisely what Jesus asks from us. He asks us to have the same trust in Him that He has in the Father. And this is hard.

Most Orthodox Christians in America, thank God, don’t worry about food or drink or clothing. This doesn’t mean we don’t have our own worries. Neither wealth nor poverty frees us from concerns that distract us from the Kingdom of God. Whether rich or poor, hungry or full, naked or clothed, we are all subject to worries that cause us to make small compromises.

For most of us here this morning, these compromises in and of themselves, are rarely significant. Most are minor, petty even. But in the aggregate, they tend to blind me to the presence of God in my life.

And yet in each moment, God offers Himself to me and to each of us. At times, He offers Himself to us in the good things He bestows. But there are other times when He offers Himself to us through the good things He withholds or even takes away.

Whether God offers Himself to us in what He gives or what He takes, in each moment God nevertheless offers us Himself. It is up to each of us–you and me–to accept God’s offering of Himself to us. We do this by offering ourselves back to Him. I must entrust the whole of my life to God.

This is what it means, turning briefly to the epistle, to live by faith. It isn’t a matter of denying the bad things that happen to us. We are simply lying to ourselves when we pretend that everything is really alright when it really isn’t.

To live by faith means to be willing to receive the God Who offer of Himself to us by entrusting our lives to Him in each moment of our life. To live by faith means to respond to God’s sacrifice in Jesus Christ by freely offering my life back to God in every moment of my day.

Like I said, praying is harder than thinking. But trusting, trusting is harder than prayer. It requires from us real effort. It is tempting when I don’t get what I want, or when I lose what I have, to turn bitter against God. It’s tempting when life is disappointing, to lay the blame on God and to turn my back on Him.

Thinking of my life, and especially of the things I hope to get or do but never did, I can’t help but wonder. What did I want then that matters more than who I have in my life today? What sacrifice did God ask of me yesterday, that was so great, so onerous, that I would prefer that you not be in my life today?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! St Paul tells us to “rejoice in suffering.” He says this not because suffering is good–it isn’t–but because our sacrifices make clear to us the true worth of what God gives us in every moment of every day. Himself.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Grace is Promiscuous

Sunday, June 10 (O.S., May 28), 2018: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints of Ukraine and North America.All Saints of the Holy Mount; Ven. Nicetas, bishop of Chalcedon (9th c.). St. Eutychius, bishop of Melitene (1st c.). Martyrs Heliconis (244). Hieromartyr Helladius, bishop in the East (6th-7th c.). St. Ignatius, bishop of Rostov (1288).

Epistle: Romans 2:10-16/Hebrews 11:33-12:2
Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23/Matthew 4:25-5:12

imageRead St Paul quickly and you’ll miss what he’s saying.

Yes, we all have sinned; on this, there can be no debate. Based on the evidence of my own life, it is simply a lie for me to suggest otherwise.

I know that I have sinned and that I have fallen short of the glory of God. The Apostle, however, introduces a distinction here that (like I said), I might overlook if I just read him quickly.

Yes, we all have sinned but this isn’t primarily why we fall short of the glory of God.

We fall short because we are creatures. Sin complicates this, it makes rigid an observation that should inspire us to humility in the presence of God, gratitude for His grace, and a desire to give ourselves over in love ever more fully to Him.

Instead what we do, what I do, is look for reasons to condemn my neighbor for his shortcomings while being willing to excuse my own. Basically, “you” fall short of the glory of God because of sin; “I” fall short of the glory of God for perfectly understandable–and so excusable–reasons.

Paul anticipates my self-justification. After pointing out that all have sinned and that all have fallen short of the glory of God, he reminds us of something else we too easily forget or overlook. God has inscribed His law in each human heart.

If sin is ubiquitous, divine grace is promiscuous.

There is no human heart that has not been touched by God’s grace. And as firmly as we are in the grip of sin, we are held more firmly–and more gently–by divine grace. Sin has neither the first word nor the last word in our lives.

Though sin would have us believe otherwise, our lives are acts of divine grace. No matter how terrible the sin, no matter how hard the heart, no matter how unrepentant the sinner, God is there wooing us, inviting us back to our one true homeland.

Sin cannot undo the fact that we belong to God and our sustained by His grace.

Today the Church celebrates an interesting feast. Last week, we celebrated all the saints of the Church–known and especially unknown. Today, we celebrate all the saints–again known and unknown–of a particular place. While the feast is the same throughout the Church, the locality changes.

Like politics, holiness is local. And so today Orthodox Churches throughout the world celebrates the saints of their nation, the saints of their place. Today we profess and proclaim in our liturgical life that God’s grace has touched the hearts of those who have gone before us in this place wherever this place might be.

So what does this mean for us?

It means this: Today we thank God not simply for the saints of North America, or the United States. No today, we thank God for the saints known and unknown, of Wisconsin, Madison, and even the Isthmus.

The challenge this places before us is this: How has God’s grace touched this place–Madison–and these people who live here?

This isn’t an idle question. Much less is it mere sentimentality, of telling ourselves “Let’s all feel good about where we live.” We are not asking the question because we the spiritual equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce or the tourist board.

Rather we ask the question because Jesus has commanded us to imitate Him. Just as He called Peter and Andrew, James and John, and made them “fishers of men” He has also called us to be His disciples, apostles, and evangelists.

And He has called us to do this here. Not in North America, or the United States or Wisconsin, or even Madison but here, on the Isthmus.

This means, to return to St Paul, that Jesus has gone before us and by His grace and love for mankind prepared the hearts of each person we meet here. Again, if sin is ubiquitous, divine grace is promiscuous; God has poured out without measure or consideration His grace into the life of each and every single person.

Our task? Our task is to discern what God has done. And so we ask:

How has God prepared the people of this place to receive the Gospel that they might be saved?

How has God prepared the people of this place to participate in the sanctification of the world?

How has God prepared the people of this place to join us in conforming society evermore closely to the Gospel?

How has God prepared the people of this place to become part of that great cloud of witnesses?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! At the Divine Liturgy, we sing the Beatitudes. These outline for us how we are to go about fulfilling the task we’ve been given. We will at another time look at these in more detail.

For now though, let us draw encouragement and comfort from our Lord’s promise that if we are faithful to Him, He will bless and sustain us even when the world turns against us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Today, We Are Called to Surrender

Sunday, June 3 (O.S., May 21), 2018: First Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints; Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles Emperor Constantine (337) and Helen, his mother (327). St. Cassian the Greek, monk (1504).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:33-40; 12:1-2
Gospel: Matthew 10:32-33; 37-38; 19:27-30

Glory to Jesus Christ!

There’s something odd about the spiritual life.

Generally, we think about life as a process of acquisition. As we grow older we gain knowledge and skills, friends and possessions. Taking St Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews as our guide to the spiritual life, however, points us in a different direction.

For the Apostle, the spiritual life is not about acquisition but, as he says, “laying aside every weight and sin” which would keep us from running “with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Especially at the beginning to follow Jesus, “the pioneer and perfector of our faith” will often feel like a series of loses.

Jesus Himself alludes to this in His words to the disciples:

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Hearing this, and with his usual self-effacing subtly, St Peter replies “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?”

If Paul would have me lay aside my sin, Peter reminds me that I must lay aside not only sin but “everything.” That is to say, I can’t love anything or anyone more than Jesus. Even those relationships that are the foundation of human life and have been with us from the beginning–father, mother, son and daughter–must be surrendered.

In their place, I am called to take up my cross and follow Jesus unreservedly.

As I said, especially in its first moments, the spiritual life often feels like a series of losses.

What is lost, however, is not “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands”–these are returned to us “a hundredfold” and with “eternal life” as well. The command to pick our cross and follow Jesus is not a command to hate our family, to despise the work we do, or to turn against our native land.

It is rather to give all these things their proper weight and value relative to God. What feels like a loss, isn’t really; it is an incalculable gain. Now we have all these things in Christ. And that which is in Christ will last forever.

When I stop demanding from family, or work, or country, or myself for that matter, what only God can provide, I am free to delight in these same things. The real sorrow of being a sinner is that my selfishness keeps me from loving family, work, country and yes, even myself, as they really are and as God would have me love them.

Instead of loving my friend, I am infatuated with my thoughts about my friend. The same thing happens in the other relationships and tasks that make up my daily life. They are idols of my own creation rather than what they really are meant to be for us: Messengers and channels of God’s love.

The problem, to put it directly, isn’t that I love father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, house, work, country or myself but that I fail to love them all. What I must give up to follow Jesus are my selfish illusions about life. I must give up the comforting half-truths I tell myself to avoid accepting responsibility for my actions.

Once we make this initial sacrifice something wonderful and awe-inspiring happens. We find by God’s grace an unimaginable willingness and ability to love. Saying “Yes!” to God allows us to in turn say “Yes!” to all creation.

When I stop seeking my own will and instead seek the will of God, I discover what it is to love because I discover what it is to be loved by the God Who created me.

It is because they experienced God’s love for them that the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, the saints,

…conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection.

Torture, mocking, scouring, imprisonment all these and worse paled in comparison to the saints’ love of God that followed naturally and in abundance from their experience of God’s love for them.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today we are called by God to surrender everything so that we can receive those things that last: faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13)!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we can receive the peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7)!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we can receive the many gifts contained in the One Gift of Holy Spirit which received a short time ago!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) the source of all good things!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we become saints!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What Gifts Have You Been Given Today?

Sunday, May 27 (O.S., May 14), 2018: Eighth Sunday of Pascha, Pentecost-Trinity Sunday;
Martyr Isidore of Chios (251). Martyr Maximus, under Decius (250). Ven. Serapion the Sindonite, monk, of Egypt (542). Ven. Nicetas recluse of the Kyiv Caves (1109). St. Leontius, patriarch of Jerusalem (1175).

Epistle: Acts 2:1-11
Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12

What must that first Pentecost have been like for the disciples and apostles?

Just 10 days ago they saw Jesus ascend into heaven. However joyful that was, it means that–once again Jesus has left them. And the pain of that loss is beginning to make itself felt. As their memories and love for Jesus wane, their fear of the Jews takes hold growing ever stronger.

And so they hide. They return to the upper room where they celebrated their last Passover with Jesus.

And they wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to them that they will be clothed with power from on high.

And as they wait, they wonder. What have they gotten themselves into? Jesus is gone. And, out there, are the people who crucified their friend.

And didn’t Jesus tell them, that they too will be hated? If they crucified Jesus what would they do to his disciples?

And then, FIRE!

Tongues of fire appear and come to rest on the heads of the disciples!

And suddenly, in an instant, fearful men and women become fearless preachers of the Gospel!

And, wonders of wonders, not only do they proclaim the Resurrection, their words are understood by those who don’t speak Aramaic.

At first, they are accused of being drunkards. But just as faith retreated and fear asserted itself, now skepticism gives way to faith. Thousands believe and are baptized.

And then what?

What must it have been like on the day after Pentecost when the disciples and apostles to woke up and realize–however faintly–the enormity of what they did?

Or rather, what God did through them.

What must it have been like to wake up the day after Pentecost and realize that now you were responsible for preaching a Gospel that will in short under turn the world on its head?

What must it have been like to realize that you were now leaders of thousands of new believers in Jesus Christ?

Make no mistake. The apostles were right to be worried.

These weren’t wealthy or powerful. They were illiterate men and women living on the margins of a society that was itself on the margin of a vast, wealthy and powerful empire that, for all its grandeur, was cruel.

The disciples and apostles weren’t anyone’s idea of leaders. Least of all, their own.

And yet, God choose them to be His witnesses to the world. It fell to these poor, illiterate, marginal men and women to renew the human family grown old and rigid because of sin.

Today these men and women receive the “Gift of the Holy Spirit” even as we did at chrismation. In this One Gift we, like them, received many gifts.

And all gifts contained in the Gift have one purpose: To draw others to Christ. To renew the whole human family by the renewal of each human person heart.

Unlike the disciples on that first Pentecost, the Church is now rich and even powerful.

And yet, like the disciples of that first Pentecost, for all that we have gained materially and culturally, we too are poor.

Or maybe better, we too have been given a task that–apart from the gift of the Holy Spirit–is beyond the abilities of even the most talented among us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The task given to the disciples on that first Pentecost is given to us today. Their vocation, their calling, is ours as well.

And like the disciples on that first Pentecost, God pours out His Spirit on us today and every day making up by His grace what is lacking in us.

And all this He does for one reason, and one reason only: To renew the human family by restoring each human heart to communion with Himself through His Son our Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit!

So let us take up the task we have been given!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

You Say “Dogma” Like It’s A Bad Thing

May 20 (O.S., May 7), 2018: Seventh Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council; Afterfeast of the Ascension; Commemoration of the Apparition of the Sign of the Precious Cross over Jerusalem in 351 A.D.; Martyr Acacius the Centurion (303).

Epistle: Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Gospel: John 17:1-13

Dogma has a rather bad reputation.

Not wholly without reason, we associate being “dogmatic” with rigid and merely formulaic thinking. A “dogmatic” thinker doesn’t think at all. Instead, he parrots what he’s been told.

The first thing I should point out is that there is more than a little justice to this criticism of dogma. There are many individuals, including many Orthodox Christians, who seem to resist ever having a new thought. For these people–did I mention some of these are Orthodox Christians?–the old answers are sufficient not so much because they are true (even if they are) but because they are old.

Clinging to the old answers, the old ways, simply because they are old has the advantage of being easy. And there is, to be sure, comfort in knowing what we believe and how we are to live.

But excluding anything that might challenge my beliefs and practices isn’t a good thing. I do this because I’ve fallen into the trap of holding on to the old answers, the old ways, and the received views because they are old rather than because they are true.

It is as dangerous to accept tradition simply because it is old as it is to reject it for the same reason.

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church, “dogma” is not a matter of what is old but what is true. As the word itself suggests in Greek (dogmatika) means clear or right thinking. The “dogmatic” person, in other words, is the one who thinks clearly and rightly.

This has two, important, applications.

We must think dogmatically about the Gospel not because we are slaves to external authority but because the Gospel is true.  It is when we fail to think dogmatically about the Gospel that we become slaves to our emotions or to passing social fads.

Most of all though, our thinking about the Gospel must be dogmatic because our thinking about the Gospel must be guided by the truths.

It is all too easy, as St Paul warns about in today’s reading from Acts, for me to be swept away by glib preachers. In every generation, there are in Church “fierce wolves” who speak “perverse things in an attempt “to draw away the disciples” from Christ. For all that they offer an appealing face to their listeners, these are cruel individuals who in their pursuit of power and control over others will be unsparing in their lies and half-truths.

We need to think clearly lest, when these false witnesses appear in our lives, we are seduced by their charm or confused by their lies.

Such clear thinking, and this the second point, is not simply a matter of theology. Yes, we need to know the Scriptures–is there any Orthodox Christian who doubts this? And yes, we need to know the Creed and the basics of the faith.

But our clear thinking, our dogma if you will, must embrace not only the truths of the faith but also of creation, of human life and society and of our own identity in Christ. Divorced from these, our theological thinking will sooner or later (and usually sooner than later) devolve into heresy. When this happens, our community in Christ becomes a cult that apes the Church and in which the things of God are distorted and put at the service of binding us to the fierce wolf’s cruel control.

In Holy Tradition, the truths of the Gospel are not opposed to those of philosophy. Likewise, sacraments and science are not enemies but rather, in Christ, divinely bestowed gifts give to us for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

Faith and reason, in other words, are not opposed but–to paraphrase St Maximus the Confessor–the two wings by which the soul ascends to God.

To be sure not all Orthodox Christians have the same intellectual gifts. Nor do we all share the same interests.

But whatever might be our personal differences in our abilities and interest, theology and philosophy, sacraments and science, faith and reason, are all God’s gifts. To think dogmatically, that is to think clearly, is to understand that each element in the pair compliments and deepens our appreciation and understanding of its partner.

All this is possible because Jesus Christ is not simply a good man but God become Man. In Christ, the Eternal Word of God speaks in human words. He Who together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, creates the universe, drawing it from us “nothingness into being,” creates and shapes the creation with human hands and according to the insights of a human intellect.

All this He does without loss of His divinity.

As truly God, He creates even as truly Man He shapes the creation. He Who as the Word of God from All-Eternity is beyond what our minds can grasp, as truly Man speaks words we can comprehend though never exhaust.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! In the Incarnation, human life, human thought, human labor, and human society are come to share in Divine Life, Divine Thought, Divine Labor and the Divine Society of the Most Holy Trinity.

To think dogmatically is to see the revelation of God not only in the pages of Scripture but in the Book of Nature.

To think dogmatically is to overcome the chasm sin would place between faith and reason, science and sacrament, created and Uncreated.

To think dogmatically is not to cling to the old answers because they are old but rejoice in them because they are true.

To think dogmatically is to see that in each moment “all things are made new in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

To think dogmatically, means to think clearly, because we think with “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:6), “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), and so conform ourselves to His example (see Romans 8:29) for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Witnesses to Beauty

Sunday, May 13 (O.S., April 30), 2018: Sixth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Blind Man; Holy Apostle James, the brother of St. John the Theologian (44); St. Donatus, bishop of Euroea (387); Uncovering of the relics of Hieromartyr Basil, bishop of Amasea (322). Martyr Maximus.

Epistle: Acts 16:16-34
Gospel: John 9:1-38

Christ is Risen!

St Paul tells the Church at Ephesus that they are to speak “the truth in love.” He tells them this so that they might not be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men” and “in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.”

And they are to speak the truth in love so that they

…may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (see Ephesians 4:14-16, NKJV).

We need to pay close attention to what the Apostle says here.

The command to speak “the truth in love” is not something we do to draw others to Christ. Speaking “the truth in love” is essential for our own salvation, own growth in Christ and spiritual maturity.

Compare this to the idea that, as I’ve heard more than one Orthodox Christian say, “The most loving thing I can do is to tell someone the truth.” Did you catch the difference?

Paul says that for your own salvation and to become more like Christ, let love guide your words. This is different from the rather crass assumption that my words are loving because they are true and I’m telling you something for your own good.

The naked expression of the truth is not loving. Far from it. It is simply a means of gaining power over others by shaming them. Rarely, if ever, are the people who say the most loving thing you can do is to tell someone the truth open to such “love” themselves.

Look at the reading today from Acts.

The slave girl is saying something which is indubitably true. St Paul and his companions “are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And yet, as events unfold, we discover that while what is said is true, it is said not “in love” but because of demonic possession. The girl says something true in the service of extending the power of demons.

Her owners, by the way, are fine with this. They are happy to see this girl enslaved to a demon because it makes them rich. They are willing to grow wealthy by enslaving not only the girl’s body but also her soul.

And in all this, she tells the truth but she does so without love.

Compare the situation of the slave and her owners with what happens at the end of today’s reading.

A “great earthquake” opens all the doors of the prison freeing all the prisoner. Because of this, the jailer is prepared to commit suicide rather than face the consequences of allowing the prisoners to escape.

But what does Paul do?

At the cost of his own freedom, he remains in his cell with Silas and cries out to his jailer: “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”

Speaking the “the truth in love” is salvific because it puts the good of my neighbor before my own. To speak “the truth in love” means that I sacrifice myself for you. And it is this sacrifice for others that join us ever closer together in Christ and which fosters our spiritual maturity.

What, though, does it mean–concretely–to speak “the truth in love”? We get a glimpse in today’s Gospel.

While the text says Jesus restored the man’s sight, this isn’t strictly speaking true. The man was, after all, born blind. He didn’t live in darkness because, never having seen light, he had no understanding of its absence.

While he felt the sun on his face, he never saw its light. He felt the wind but never saw trees bend. He felt the rain but never saw clouds.

And then is one amazing moment–and for the first time in his life–the man born blind saw the beauty of creation. And he saw this beauty not gradually but in an instant!

He saw the sun he only felt.

He saw the trees bend in the wind.

He saw the clouds that carried the rain.

All around him and all at once, he saw the beauty of creation. And, in that same instant, he saw the face of Jesus, of God become Man.

To speak “the truth in love” is to heal the blindness of the human heart. It is to reveal to others a beauty that, like the blind man, they could not even imagine.

To reveal this beauty to you, I must first see it you, in creation, in myself and in God. That which is True, and for that matter what is Just and Good, is Beautiful.

And because Truth is one, if I can’t–or won’t–see the beauty in one part of creation, I can’t see the beauty elsewhere. If I can’t see beauty here, I can’t see it there; if I can’t see it in you, I can’t see it in myself and I certainly can’t see it in God.

Or rather, I fail to see the beauty around me and in me because I fail to see it in God Who is the Uncreated Source of all the is Good, True, Just and yes Beautiful.

Why does beauty matter? Because it is in the nature of beauty, of beautiful things, to attract us. To speak “the truth in love” is to make manifest not simply the beauty of the Gospel but of the person to whom we speak.

And. as I said, I can’t do this unless I have grasped something of the beauty of God and creation, of my neighbor and myself.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has called us to reveal beauty to the world. We are here, in this small and poor room today, for no other purpose. This is why we concern ourselves with, among other things, not only being the Church but building a church. So that we can through our words and deeds reveal the Beauty of God to the world.

May God bring to completion the good work He has started in us.

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Only Got One Job

Sunday, May 6 (O.S., April 23), 2018: Fifth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Samaritan Woman; Holy Glorious Great-martyr, Victory-bearer and Wonderworker George (303). Martyr Alexandra the Empress, (303). Martyrs Anatolius and Protoleon (303).

Epistle: Acts 11:19-30
Gospel: John. 4:5-42

Christ is Risen!

Marriage is hard and because it is hard sometimes a marriage will fail.

The woman in today’s Gospel has tried and failed at marriage five times. Not surprisingly, she has given up on marriage and has chosen simply to live with the latest man in her life.

And Jesus knows all this about her:

Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.”

This might at first sound harsh but the woman takes no offense. In fact, and surprisingly for the time, she goes on the offensive. The woman challenges Jesus on, as she says, the Jewish contention “Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” God.

In short order, this heretic (which is how the Jews saw the Samaritans), this public sinner is transformed! By the simple fact of His presence, Jesus reveals this woman her dignity and value.

Secure in who she now knows herself to be, the woman races back to the city and began to tell people about Jesus. And, amazingly enough given her reputation, people believe her!

So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the city and were coming to him.

Through her encounter with Jesus, this woman becomes an apostle to the Samaritans who tirelessly preached the Gospel in Carthage.

Later in life, after she is arrested for being a Christian, this woman–St Photina–is entrusted to the care of Nero’s daughter Domnina pending trial. And, again, the saint leads someone to faith in Jesus Christ. This time Nero’s daughter.

The saint ends her life as a martyr. But the boldness she had before Christ is boldness with which she dies. As her last act St Photina spits

…in the face of the emperor, and laughing at him, said, “O most impious of the blind, you profligate and stupid man! Do you think me so deluded that I would consent to renounce my Lord Christ and instead offer sacrifice to idols as blind as you?”

And all of this because she has the experience of being known, really being understood, by Jesus.

For all the differences between our time and that of St Photina, like her we all of us want to be understood. We don’t necessarily want someone to like us or agree with us. But we want to be seen for who we are and, on that basis, taken seriously. We want to be heard and, like Photina, really understood.

Unfortunately, and again like in Jesus’ time, we often misunderstand others. We reduce people to categories, we pigeonhole other people.

To love someone, however, is to see them as they really are without embellishments and with all their blemishes.

To love someone, in other words, is to see them as God sees them. But love is more than this.

Through His conversation with St Photina Jesus awakens something in her that she likely never suspected was there. He awakened in her a vocation–a calling–to be an apostle, an evangelist and eventually even a martyr.

When we love someone, we don’t simply see them as God sees them, we work to help them discover and fulfill their vocation. We commit ourselves to help them realize the life work that God has given them to do. To love others as Jesus loves them, is to see who they are and then to help them become who they are.

You see the great sorrow of human life is that most people don’t know who they are, they don’t know what God has called them to do and so become. Many, even most Orthodox Christians, are in this situation. This is why so few of us attend church and even fewer of us regularly receive the sacraments.

Without a sense of my own, personal vocation, the life of the Church will feel artificial. Prayer and fasting, the sacramental and liturgical life of the Church, and the sacrifices and good works we are all called to do, all of this will feel like an imposition.

And friendship with my brothers and sisters in Christ?

Even this will be at best superficial; often it will be fraught with tension and drama. Why? Because apart from Christ, we can’t see each other as we truly are.

And who are we? After Christ, we are each of us God’s gift to each other.

It is because we don’t see each other as God’s great gifts, that we are so often lonely and discouraged.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We don’t need to live this way!

No one here starts as far from Christ as did Photina at the well! And everyone here is capable of doing things greater than the saint!

Why?

Because everyone here has a vocation, a call from God to do a great work only he or she can do.

Discovering and living that vocation is the inner meaning of all we do in the Church. How do we do this? Through prayer, confession and the sacraments.

And here’s what I’ve figured out about my vocation.

I’ve only got one job: To help you discover and become the person God has created and called you to be. That’s it. The vocation of being a priest and, for that matter, the vocation of the deacon and the bishop, is to help other people discover and live their own vocation.

The clergy only have one task in life: to help you become who God has called you to be.

Put us to work!

Christ is Risen!

Being Responsible

April 29 (O.S., April 16), 2018: Fourth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Paralyzed Man. Righteous Tabitha (1st c.); Translation of the relics of Martyr Abramius of Bulgaria (1230). Virgin-martyrs Agape, Irene, and Chionia in Illyria (304). Martyrs Leonidas, Chariessa, Nice, Galina, Callista (Calisa), Nunechia, Basilissa, Theodora, and Irene of Corinth (258).

Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

Before Jesus heals the paralytic He asks the man a question. “Do you want to be made well?”

On one level, this would seem to be an unnecessary question. The man is at the pool of Bethesda in the hope of being made whole. There is, however, a deeper meaning to Jesus’ question.

God respects our freedom; He doesn’t impose Himself on us. While “God created us without us,” says St Augustine, “He did not will to save us without us.”

This means Hell isn’t so much a punishment for sin but a sign of God’s great respect for our freedom. Out of His great love for me, God allows me to turn my back on Him even if this results in my condemnation.

Divine love is as different as can be from mere human sentimentality that seeks to alleviate suffering by violating the freedom of the person. For God, the human person is not an object of His love but a subject.

This means that God waits patiently for our free response to Him. He Who is our Friend desires that we should freely choose to be His friend (see John 15:15). And so Jesus asks the paralytic: “Do you want to be made well?”

Just as the question reveals to us something about God–that He respects our freedom–the man’s answer reveals something about our predicament as fallen human beings. “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

Hearing the same Gospel readings year after year can cause us to miss important points in the text. In this case, we might overlook the fact that the man’s paralysis is not absolute. He can move, if slowly and no doubt painfully.

Rather than taking his limitations into account–say by staying closer to the pool or asking for assistance–the man blames others for his inability to get to the pool. However understandable, the man doesn’t want to accept responsibility for his life.

When Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made whole, He is asking the man if he wants to be responsible for his own life. And his willingness to be responsible for himself is in important.

A paralytic, after all, can live by begging. But an able-bodied man? He must work for a living. Being made whole means that he will now have to take care of himself. No more blaming others for what his situation.

The hymnography of the Church draws a parallel between our spiritual state and the man’s paralysis. Like the paralytic, I have reasons for not accepting responsibility for my decisions. And, just like the paralytic, my reasons are, to me at least, reasonable.

They are however only excuses.

In ways subtle and not so subtle, I want to want to hold other people responsible for my situation. Like Adam, I want to blame someone else for my sins. First, I’ll blame you; ultimately, I’ll blame God (see Genesis 3:12).

At some point, becoming an adult–to say nothing of becoming a saint–requires that I stop blaming others for my decision and accept responsibility for my own life. This, psychologically, is the essence of repentance.

Spiritually, repentance means more than just accepting responsibility for my life. The repentant heart is one that sees the whole of life as a gift to be received with gratitude from the hand of an All-loving God.

In the first flush of grace, this is easy.

But as we see toward the end of today’s Gospel, obedience to God will eventually put me in conflict with others. Obedience to God means conflict with those who prefer their own will to the will of God. “And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews, therefore, said to him who was cured, It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.’”

Even if I (mostly) avoid such conflict, being responsible for my own life means accepting the fact that my life unfolds in unexpected ways. Accepting with gratitude this life with all its successes and failures, its joys and disappointments, is the beginning of wisdom.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be wise!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Conflict With the World

Sunday, April 22 (O.S., April 9), 2018: Third Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Martyr Eupsychius (362). Martyrs Desan bishop, Mariabus presbyter, Abdiesus, and 270 other martyrs in Persia (362). Hieromartyr Bademus (Vadym), archimandrite of Persia (376).

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43-47; 16:1-8

Christ is Risen!

Given our history, it isn’t surprising that sometimes Orthodox Christians forget that there is a certain, necessary and inescapable tension and even conflict between the Church and the World. If at times, the City of God (the Church) and the City of Man (the World) can work collaboratively, this doesn’t mean that fundamentally the two cities aren’t in competition with each other.

We compete with the World for the human heart, for material resources, and space in the public square. Though we might sometimes shy away from thinking of the City of Man as in competition with the Church, if we are faithful to Christ we will inevitably find ourselves at odds with those around us. Or as the Apostle James bluntly puts it “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

Today’s commemoration of the Myrrh-bearing Women and the Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus is an example of the tension between the City of God and the City of Man.

Jesus was put to death by crucifixion because the Roman Empire saw Him as a threat to their power and so the civil order. The Jewish authorities make exactly this charge against Jesus to force Pilate’s hand “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (John 19:12).

This means that to be a friend of Jesus was to be–at least potentially–an enemy of Caesar and against all that the Empire represented. This is the political and cultural context within which Joseph of Arimathea “taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” Joseph isn’t simply risking the bad opinion of the other members of “the council,” of the Sanhedrin, of the ruling authority of the Jews.

As potentially harmful as this would be, by his actions Joseph also risks being labeled an opponent of Caesar. In asking for the body of Jesus, Joseph makes himself vulnerable to the charge of insurrection. This means that, like Jesus, Joseph could end his life on a cross.

Courageous though Joseph, and for that matter Nicodemus are, they are not the liturgical focus for the third Sunday after Pascha. That honor belongs to the Myrrh-bearing women “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome.”

Early on that first Pascha morning these women first “bought spices” and then went to Jesus’ tomb “so that they might go and anoint” His body. What Joseph and Nicodemus do privately in the presence of Pilate, these women do publicly. Before they go to the tomb, the women, known disciples of Jesus, go to the marketplace to buy what they need for his burial.

By their actions, the Myrrh-bearing women make clear their friendship with Jesus. By their actions, the Myrrh-bearing women make themselves the object of gossip. And in a small community, gossip can be deadly.

Like Joseph, doing this places the women at odds with Rome and the Sanhedrin. Doing this in the marketplace, however, places them at odds with their families and their friends, their neighbors and the whole community.

None of this, I should emphasize, was chosen by the women. They did not intend to do what too many Christians today seem dead set on doing.

They didn’t intend to give offense. They didn’t intend to set themselves at odds with the Jewish community and the Roman Empire.

All they wanted to do was mourn the loss of someone they loved.

Love for Jesus moves the Myrrh-bearing Women, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to challenge both civil and religious authority. They don’t engage in revolution but they do remind both Jewish and Roman authorities that they too must be obedient to God. Real though their power is, neither Rome nor the Sanhedrin has the final word. This final word, as we soon see in the Gospel, belongs to Jesus.

Coming to the Tomb, the women find it empty.

Well, not exactly empty.

…entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”

So overwhelming is the message that the women flee “from the tomb.” Initially, at least, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Soon though the same love that gave them the courage to proclaim their love for Jesus in the marketplace, will turn Mary Magdalene into the “Apostle to the Apostles.” Her joy at the Resurrection will overwhelm her grief, her love will banish her fear, and she will tell the disciples that “Christ is Risen!”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Whenever we can, however we can, we should live peacefully with others. We should be eager to cooperate with other Christians as well as those of good will in whatever projects that alleviate suffering, foster a more just society or lead to a more peaceful world.

But what we can never forget is that there will be times when our love for Jesus Christ, our faith in Him as Lord and God and our witness to His Resurrection, will put us at odds with even those who are–in every other way–like a second self to us. Unpleasant, or worse, that these moments might be, they are not only for our salvation but for the salvation of the world and for those who, in the moment, make themselves opponents of the Gospel.

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Love Sustains and Strengths Faith in Christ

Sunday, April 15 (O.S., April 2), 2018: Antipascha; Second Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of St. Thomas; Ven. Titus the Wonderworker (9th c.). Martyrs Amphianus and Edesius of Lycia (306). Martyr Polycarp of Alexandria (4th c.).

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

From the beginning, doubt has traveled alongside the proclamation of the Gospel. Take the response of the disciples in the final moments before Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

We read in today’s Matin’s Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) that when the disciples saw, for what would be the last time, their once-dead Friend now clearly very much alive again “they worshiped Him; but some doubted” (v. 17). Even though they had spent 40 days with the Risen Lord Jesus and even though they worshipped Him as “Lord and God” (see John 20:28), some still struggled with doubt.

While the Good News of Jesus risen from the dead is often met with great joy by those closest to Him, some will respond with disbelief.

Look at Mary Magdalene out of whom Jesus “had cast seven demons.” Though initially overcome with amazement and fear on that first Pascha morning, she quickly gets control of herself and goes to the other disciples “as they mourned and wept” and tells them that Jesus is alive. But, as St Mark says the apostles “did not believe” her (Mark 16:9-11). Or, as St Luke bluntly states, the Good News of the Resurrection seems to St Peter and the other apostles seems “an idle tale.” Mary and the other women are simply not believed (Luke 24:11).

Seen in the light of these events today’s Gospel is neither a surprise nor a scandal. We shouldn’t imagine that the apostles and disciples had an easier time of believing because they were witnesses to the Resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection was not simply a new thing, it was unheard of. Yes, the disciples eventually became witnesses–even to the point of death–but for all of them, faith in the resurrection only came over time. Even when standing before the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, faith can be a struggle.

In the tradition of the Church, doubt isn’t fundamentally a matter of intellectual uncertainty. If it were, then proclaiming the Gospel would be simply a matter of presenting solid evidence in a logically and compelling fashion.

We think of doubt as intellectual uncertainty because we have confused the Church with the school room or the law court. This though makes faith in Jesus Christ not a gift of divine grace to be received with a humble and thankful heart but the work of human reason; not the work of God but of the skilled debaters of this age (see 1 Corinthians 1:20).

To say that faith is not the work of human reason doesn’t make faith in Jesus Christ unreasonable. Look at St Thomas in today’s Gospel. When his fellow disciples tell him “We have seen the Lord,” he demands a very particular kind of proof. He will not believe, he says “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.”

Thomas demands not biblical citations or philosophical arguments but empirical validation. He will only believe when the evidence of his senses confirms the Resurrection. In this, the Apostle Thomas is one of the first Christian scientists.

It’s worth noting that when Jesus again appears to the disciples–this time with Thomas among them–He doesn’t dismiss Thomas’s call for empirical evidence. Instead, Jesus freely offers it. This is why the icon for today’s feast is called in Greek, “The Touching of Thomas” and in The Slavonic “The Belief of Thomas.”

Thomas asks for and receives from Jesus the evidence he needs to believe.

The first lesson here for us is clear. Contrary to what we often hear, science and the Gospel are not opposed. Far from being the enemy of faith, science can support the Gospel and even lead us to faith. Yes, as St Thomas and the other disciples find out, the glory of the Resurrection transcends what empirical science can know; Jesus walks through locked doors; St Peter’s shadow, as we read in Acts, restores the sick to health.

To say that science supports and can even lead to faith in Jesus Christ is very different from saying that faith is dependent on human reason. While Jesus is willing to provide the evidence Thomas needs, our Lord immediately follows this with a caution: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

The Apostle Thomas asks for a particular kind of evidence–in this case empirical–because he doesn’t trust the testimony of his fellow apostles. In fairness, as we’ve seen and will see again next week, Thomas is not unique in this. Again, on that first Pascha morning, the apostles doubted the Myrrhbearing Women even as the women doubted the testimony of the angel.

Why didn’t Thomas trust his fellow apostles?

The answer is easy enough. He didn’t believe them because he knew them! St Peter denied Jesus three times. Except for John, all the apostles abandoned Jesus.

But even John’s witness was lacking. In the days leading up to Holy Week, he and his brother James try to promote themselves over the other disciples asking Jesus to allow them to sit at His right and left hands when He comes in glory (see Mark 10:35-37).

The very presence of the apostles in the upper room reflects their lack of faith. They were there, behind locked doors, “for fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19).

So what does this all mean for us as Orthodox Christians as we gather together to pray in a small room on the campus of a sometimes aggressively secular university campus?

First, we must keep in mind that human reason and science are not the enemies of the Christian faith. This is so even when, as often happens, they are misused. As St Paul reminds us whatever is true, just as whatever is noble, … just, … pure, … lovely, … of good report,” virtuous or “praiseworthy” all these can and often do strengthen us in our faith even as they can lead those outside the Church to faith in Jesus Christ (see Philippians 4:8).

Second, I must attend to the moral integrity of my witness. By my actions, I can be a bridge to Christ or a wall that obscures Him. Am I a credible witness to divine love, mercy, and forgiveness or do my actions bear witness to some other god, a god of my own creation?

Third and for now last, what of the quality of our life as a community? Tertullian in his defense of the Gospel writes “It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead” the pagans to recognize Christians as followers of Jesus. “See how they love one another,” he says the pagans say. For while the pagans “are animated by mutual hatred” Christians are “are ready even to die for one another” (The Apology, 39).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! It is our love for each other and for those outside the walls of the church this morning that leads others to faith in Jesus Christ. This mutual love also sustains and strengths our faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

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