Homily: What Love Demands
Sunday, July 23, 2017: 7th Sunday of Matthew; Phocas the Holy Martyr, Bishop of Sinope, Ezekiel the Prophet, Pelagia the Righteous of Tinos, Trophimos & Theophilios and the 13 others martyred in Lycia, St. Anna of Levkadio, The Icons of the Most Holy Theotokos of Pochaev, Icon of the Mother of God
Epistle: Romans 15:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 9:27-35
When the Apostle James reminds us that faith without works is dead, by “works” he means our acts of practical, and this is the important point, effective charity. Wishing someone good luck and that they are “warm and well-fed” it isn’t enough. Put another way, while good intentions matter they aren’t sufficient.
Turning to this morning’s epistle, St Paul tells us to “bear with the failings of the weak.” Paul isn’t counseling “tolerance” as it is often understood in our culture. God doesn’t call us to moral indifference. In this life, we regularly meet people whose lives are marked, scarred really, by serious moral failing. Paul doesn’t tell us to turn a blind eye to this.
So, to understand what the Apostle means when he says “we who are strong,” we need to read on.
First, compassion for others is not about pleasing myself but pleasing my neighbor. Charity for my neighbor isn’t about doing something that makes me feel good about myself. In fact, if I take charity seriously, there are times when doing the morally and practically right thing will be costly. Failure to pay that cost because I don’t want to make the sacrifice is bad enough. But failing to do what love requires because it contradicts my self-image? This is by far an even worse sin because it makes my own comfort rather than Christ the standard of my life.
So, to understand what the Apostle means, we need to read on.
To please my neighbor doesn’t mean to do what he wants. Rather it is to act, as Paul says, “for his good, to edify him.” I must be for you, as Christ is for me. To do what is good for my neighbor is to do not what I want or even what my neighbor wants. It is rather to do what God wants from me for my neighbor.
Love, properly understood, means I want what God wants for you. And because “faith without works is dead,” love in its fullness always includes a practical dimension. God doesn’t simply desire our salvation, He does what our salvation requires even when doing so is costly to Him. “Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The reproaches of those who reproached thee fell on me.’”
To avoid the temptation to sentimentality, to “faith” without works, we need to remember that actions worthy of the name “charity” demand practical skills. While our emotions have a role to play in our spiritual lives, like good intentions, they aren’t sufficient. More importantly, and again like good intentions, detached from the moral obligation to practical and effective good works, our emotions can easily deceive us.
To grow in holiness, I need to guard against prelest; I need to guard against spiritual deception or delusion. This doesn’t just mean not thinking that I am better than I am. I also need to avoid thinking I am worse than I am. Both self-aggrandizement and self-degradation are the fruit of pride.
Our need for realistic self-knowledge is why repentance (metanoia) is important. St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.” Where we often go wrong, is that we assume repentance means to think less of ourselves; it doesn’t
St Theophan the Recluse, “Repentance is the starting point and foundation stone of our new life in Christ; and it must be present not only at the beginning but throughout our growth in this life, increasing as we advance.” Where we often go wrong, is that we assume repentance means to think less of ourselves; it doesn’t
To feel bad about my past actions isn’t repentance. Rather, repentance means to accept with thanksgiving that I am loved and accepted by God. This transforms not only how I see myself but changes my relationship with you. This is because the same God Who loves and accepts me also loves and accepts you. And if we love someone don’t we naturally, spontaneously love what they love?
It is this conviction that everyone is loved by God that gives us the courage to do as Paul tells us, to act on behalf of our neighbor’s good. But what about those times when I don’t have the practical ability to care for my neighbor?
As we grow in our experience of God’s love for us and for our neighbor, something changes in us.
Like when we’re children, at the beginning of our spiritual life, will have a sincere but narrow sense of what love means. In our culture, that usually takes the form of refraining from judgment. This isn’t bad but (again!) it isn’t enough.
One of the great strengths of our culture, and especially of the young, is the importance we place on not rejecting others because of our moral disagreements. At the same time, we are called to something more.
Not just to refrain from judging but to help people grow in the knowledge of God’s love for them and, in so doing, become who God has called them to be.
Put another way, because we love others, we refuse to judge them or turn away from them because of their failings. But, because we love not only our others but God, we want for our neighbors what God wants for them. The power of our witness as Orthodox Christians is that we know from our own experience, that metanoia is wholly positive. It is through repentance that we are freed to not simply to be who we are but are freed to love our neighbor and to do so practically and sacrificially.
And what we want for others is they too have what God has given us.
Part of the sacrificial character of love is realizing that there are times when my practical skills are simply not sufficient to my neighbors need. But if I have come to accept God’s love for me, and so accept who God has created me to be, I can be at peace with my limitations. Not only that, but I can see my limits as an invitation to draw others into the circle of charity.
No, maybe I can’t help you in the way that you need. But I may know someone who can.
Love worthy of the name looks not only to serve but to help other also learn to serve. In Christ, I rejoice in my weaknesses, my practical limitations, because they make room for you to serve those who I can’t serve.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, God has called us not simply to do good for others but to help others become good according to the path God has called them to walk. What better way is there for us to live than this?
Homily: In Praise of Good Works
Sunday, July 16, 2017: Sunday of the Holy Fathers; Athenogenes the Holy Martyr of Heracleopolis, Julia the Virgin-martyr of Carthage, 1,015 Martyrs in Pisidia
Epistle: Titus 3:8-15
Gospel: Matthew 5:14-19
The epistle this morning begins and ends with St Paul telling Titus to encourage the faithful “to apply themselves to good deeds.” Paul is here repeating what Jesus told the disciples that we must be “the light of the world” and must live in such a way that seeing our “good works” those outside the Church will “give glory” to God.
For many Christians, the centrality of good works to our salvation is much contested. And even when it isn’t, many Christians get anxious whenever they hear someone say that there are good deeds are expected of them. So what do we mean by “good works”?
Paul tells us that good works are those deeds that “are excellent and profitable to men.” More specifically, we are “to help cases of urgent need.” As used in the New Testament, “good works” are more than simply the result of a vague, philanthropic sentiment.
In the verses that immediately proceed those we just heard, St Paul says that disciples of Christ must “be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all” (vv. 2-3). Within the limits of the law of God, we are to be good citizens and good neighbors. Yes, as Paul makes clear here and in other places (see, Galatians 2:10), we are to help those in need, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ.
But our good deeds can’t be limited simply to caring for those in urgent need. Again, we are to be good citizens and good neighbors. In other words, our philanthropy isn’t a “one off” event, it isn’t something we do “now and then.” It is rather the fruit of a virtuous way of life.
A life of Christian virtue has implications for how we live as citizens. We cannot divorce our life in Christ from how we engage in the political life of our city, county, state, or nation. We cannot and must not separate our political decisions from what we believe as Orthodox Christians.
Likewise, what we believe has implications for how we live not only our private lives in our homes but also our social lives. Not only the books we read, the television we watch but also the social events we take part in and how and what we do in the workplace, these are meant to reflect our commitment to good works.
For the Christian, there can be no area of life that remains untouched by the Gospel and so no part of human life that can’t be transformed by grace. This is why, to return to this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that our good works fulfill the teaching both of the Law and the Prophets. We must live, I must live, so that in each moment of my life God’s mercy and love for humanity is made clear to those around me.
We have to live this way because it is our calling as Orthodox Christians to be co-laborers with Christ. In each moment of our life, in each encounter with our neighbor, God is present. This means in each moment of life, the possibility exists for someone to meet Christ in us, in you.
Today we remember the fathers of the seven ecumenical councils. Each council dealt with its own, unique, dogmatic questions. What unites them, however, is a concern to defend and proclaim the truth of the Incarnation. That in Jesus Christ, God the Son truly becomes Man.
The Son becomes as we are, says St Irenaeus, so that we can become as He is. That God truly becomes Man, takes on our nature in the technical vocabulary of the councils; isn’t just an abstract dogmatic concern. As St Gregory of Nazianzen writes, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” If the Son doesn’t take on all of human life–including our life of social involvement–then we aren’t saved.
But because the Son does assume the whole of human life, all of our life, of your life and mine, is revealed to be a sacrament of God’s presence. In each moment of our lives, in all that we do and say, we have the ability by grace to do “good works,” that is to make tangible God’s love for humanity.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! When Jesus and St Paul encourage us to do good works what they are asking us to do is become who we are!
By God’s grace, we are set apart as witnesses and sacraments of God’s love. This necessarily touches and transforms the whole of our lives.
Let us now become who we are!
Homily: Who Would You NOT See Saved?
Sunday, July 9, 2017: 5th Sunday of Matthew; The Holy Hieromartyr Pancratius, Bishop of Tauromenium in Sicily, Dionysios the Orator, Metrophanes of Mount Athos, Patermuthius the Monk, Euthymios of Karelia, Methodios the Hieromartyr, Bishop of Lampis, Michael Paknanas the Gardener
Epistle: Romans 10:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 8:28-34; 9:1
The readings this morning contain an implicit challenge: Who would we not see saved?
Look at the Gospel. Jesus comes to redeem even those who despise Him. St Paul, likewise, preaches “in season and out” (see 2 Timothy 2:4) in the hope that those who despise him might themselves one day be saved. For both Jesus and Paul, everything is secondary to the salvation of others.
Jesus goes “to the country of the Gergesenes,” to those who are not of “His own city” but Gentiles. Once there He encounters two demons who, St John Chrysostom says, were engaged in acts of “horror … incurable and lawless and deforming and punishing” against the residents of that place. Evil though they were, even the demons knew they deserved condemnation.
Rather than turn His back on the Gerasenes, Jesus casts out the demons. For their part, the Gentiles are moved to repentance by the mercy Jesus shows them. St Jerome says that the residents of the city ask Jesus to leave “not out of pride … but out of humility.” Like St Peter, the Gergesenes “judge themselves unworthy of the Lord’s presence.” Though their words are different, their intent is the same as the Apostle’s. As one, they fall “before the Savior” and say “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (see Luke 5:8).
Like his Lord, St Paul has only one goal, that “all might be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (see 1 Timothy 2:4). For the Apostle, the salvation of the Jews is so important that, as he says in another place, if it were possible he would himself be “accursed from Christ” so that they could be saved (see Romans 9:3). The salvation of his fellows Jews matters more to the Apostle to Gentile than does his own.
And so I return to where I began and ask myself who would I not see saved?
Would I exclude those who, like the Jews, had zeal without knowledge?
Would I exclude those who my own people tell me to despise?
Would I exclude those who hate me and work against me?
Would I exclude others by remaining silent when, in my heart, I know I should speak about Christ and the Gospel?
Who would I exclude from the Church? Who would I not see saved?
These are hard questions.
Yes, I rarely explicitly seek to exclude others from the Kingdom of God. What usually happens is that I remain silent when I know I should speak. It’s all too easy to leave undone what I can do to fulfill Jesus’ command to “preach the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15) and to “make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Or maybe like the Gergesenes I’m overwhelmed by the sense of my own sinfulness and inadequacies. Maybe it isn’t a matter that I don’t want others to be saved but that I’m not sure of my own salvation.
Maybe it isn’t so much that I doubt God’s love for you as it is that I doubt His love for me.
But listen again to what Paul tells us this morning about God’s love for each of us:
The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.
Through Baptism, Chrismation and above all Holy Communion, Christ has come to live in our hearts, in your heart and mine. He does this out of His great love for each of us.
For our part, all that remains is for us, as St Augustine says, to “profess with our lips the faith we carry about in our heart.” We can only do this, he says, if we are motivated not simply for our own salvation but our neighbor’s as well.
To profess Christ for our neighbor’s salvation can never be a purely formal action. There can be nothing mechanical about sharing the Gospel with others. What we say must be the fruit both of our love for Christ and for the person with whom we are speaking. If love is missing, whatever I say will be artificial or manipulative. It will feel to people as if I’m trying to win an argument or, worse, humiliate them.
So what should we do?
Paradoxical as it sounds, we must first learn to remain silent. When God speaks to us He does so out of silence. Jesus is the Word spoken out the profound silence of the Father.
And when He speaks, Jesus points not to Himself but to Him Who sent Him. In other words, when Jesus speaks He invites us to enter more deeply into a relationship of love with the Father.
None of this can happen however if I fill my life with noise. Hard though it can be to do so, I need to carve out moments of silence in my life. It is in these moments, brief though they might be, that I’m able to hear the Word.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
Let us pledge to keep silent so that we can hear. And then, having heard, let us then speak of the mysteries of grace God has entrusted to us. And finally, let us do this not only for our own sake or for the salvation of others but for God’s glory.
The Vocation of the Laity
Sunday, July 2, 2017: 4th Sunday of Matthew; Deposition of the Precious Robe of the Theotokos in Blachernae, St. Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Juvenal the Protomartyr of America & Alaska, John Maximovitch, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos of the Orphan
Epistle: Hebrews 9:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13
For the fathers of the Church, the Temple sanctuary is an image, a type, of the Theotokos. Like the mercy seat, she too has been overshadowed by grace though not by an angel but by the Holy Spirit. There is for the fathers a clear continuity between the events of the Old Testament and of the New. It is this sense of the organic connection between the two covenants and so between the two Israels, that allows them to see Christ foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament.
When we shift to the relationship between the Gentiles and the Gospel, however, the continuity isn’t as clear. Yes, as St Justin Martyr tells us, God prepares all people to receive the Gospel. But, unlike the Jews, God doesn’t explicitly reveal Himself to the Gentiles. His presence is, as Justin points out, seminal. God the Word is seminally present and it belongs to the Church to discern what is, and so what isn’t, of God in any given culture.
In this morning’s Gospel, for example, Jesus commends the humble faith of the centurion. St Matthew tells us that Jesus “marveled” at the man saying that He hadn’t found faith like the centurions “even in Israel.”
But what about the rest of the man’s life? Jesus says nothing (one way or the other) that the man is both a Roman officer and slave owner. We need to be careful here that we not make arguments from silence. And while the tradition of the Church offers us some guidance, even here there can be room to disagree and debate.
When in the earliest years of the Church, the apostles looked at pagan culture there was surprisingly little ruled out as being absolutely incompatible with the Gospel. For example, in Acts we read that the new, Gentile Christians, must “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (see Acts 15:29, NKJV). As for the rest of pagan culture, even if it fell short of the Gospel, it wasn’t necessarily seen as incompatible with being a disciple of Christ.
So, this all very interesting but what does it have to do with us, with our lives as Orthodox Christians? As with earlier Christians we need to be discerning about what in our culture is, and isn’t, compatible with the Gospel. What, in other words, in our common cultural inheritance as Americans might serve as a preparation for the Gospel?
Seeing how the culture opens the human heart to Christ has a long and venerable history in the evangelical and pastoral practice of the Church. Just as the ancient Greeks and Romans love of virtue prepared them to receive Christ, we need to ask what in our culture can serve as a bridge to Christ? With this we must also ask what in the culture around us is a barrier to Christ?
What we can’t do–and what sadly some Orthodox Christians try and do–is “baptize” the culture.We can’t uncritically accept everything in American culture as compatible with the Gospel. Christians are called to be “in the world” while at the same time not being “of the world.” This means that there are times when we will stand apart from, and even in opposition to, what the surrounding culture considers good and even “Christian.”
That said, we need to keep in mind that it is equally false to say there is no disagreement between American culture and the Gospel as it is to say that there is no agreement. To say that the culture has nothing in common with the Gospel is risk falling into despair. Even if He is hidden, God is always (as St Justin reminds us) in someway present in the culture. It is our task to discern and nurture that presence.
What complicates all this is that the points of convergence and divergence between Holy Tradition and the surrounding culture (any culture by the way, not just American culture) are often the same.
For example, Americans value freedom not just our own but other peoples. We are often ready to make great personal and national sacrifices in defense of human dignity and rights at home and abroad. Laudable as this is, the American vision of freedom often borders on license. Many Americans seem to have forgotten, or never knew, that real freedom isn’t ability to do what we want but what ought. This, defective, view of freedom both flows from and fosters a serious misunderstanding of human dignity and human rights. We see this misunderstanding all around us in those laws that degrade rather than uphold the image of God in us.
Together with this sometimes the very nobility of our goals make us indifferent to the path we take to accomplish them. We are a people of good intentions who sometimes assume that this is enough. It isn’t.
When I focus simply on my good intentions I leave myself vulnerable to seeing those who disagree with me as the enemy or as morally bad people. The simply fact is, we are all of us called by God to good works. But often we are called to do different good works. Or, if we are called by Him to pursue the same good goals, we might do so in different ways because of our different gifts, life experiences or starting points.
In any case, this is a sermon not a lecture in political theology. Please forgive me for offering more theoretical, observations than is my habit. But these more abstract considerations are sometime necessary. And, as in the current case, there are times when they are all that the clergy can offer the laity.
The reason for this that while the clergy have our own role in the work of discerning what in the culture is compatible with the Gospel, it is not–fundamentally–our vocation. It belongs primarily to the laity to discern what in the culture can serve the Gospel and how it can do so More importantly, it is your vocation as baptized Orthodox Christians, to shape the culture according to the Gospel.
You do this first in your own hearts, then in your own homes and families. You do this in the workplace and in schools. You do this with the votes you cast and as members of the different communities in which you take part. You do this in whatever part of society you find yourself.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! It the vocation, great responsibility, right and privilege of the laity to introduce not just individuals to Christ but to bring American culture into an ever greater harmony with the Gospel.
So go! Do what God has called you to do by being faithful to who God has called you to be!
No Peter, No Paul; No Paul, No Peter
June 29, 2017: Feast of Saints Peter & Paul
Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:21-12:9
Gospel: Matthew 16:13-19
St Paul looms large in the Christian imagination. There are a number of reasons for this. Paul’s letters make up a significant portion of the New Testament. The Pauline epistles are so important that St John Chrysostom devotes some 250 homilies to them.
Nor should we discount, for good and ill, the influence of the Reformation, and especially Martin Luther. For many Christians, St Paul’s writings have come to matter more than the Gospels. It is not uncommon to meet Christians who, while they know Paul, are unfamiliar with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Yet as important as he is, without Peter there is simply no Paul.
As with Paul, our view of Peter is as skewed by later developments in Church history and their supporting polemics. Specifically, I’m thinking of the role St Peter has come to play–again, for good and ill–in the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding of the role fo the Bishop of Rome in the life of the Church. Just as it can be hard to see past Luther to Paul, it can be hard to see past papal polemics (pro and con) to see Peter.
These concerns aside though, the difficulty in finding Peter is that at least relative to Paul, we hear so little from him in the New Testament.
Even while though debate the implications for the life of the Church, Peter’s prominence in the Gospels is unquestioned. But when we step back and look at the whole New Testament we see so little of him. We really meet Peter only at the beginning and end of his ministry.
By the time we meet him in the epistles bearing his name, the brash and at times fickle disciple has become a man of sober faith. It is surprising to realize that is the impulsive young man of the Gospels, is the same person who now, at the end of his life, tells us
…gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully upon the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:13-16, NKJV).
Over the course of his life as a disciple and apostle, Peter changes. He becomes more thoughtful, discerning, more sober and disciplined.
We begin to see evidence of this transformation when Saul, now called Paul, approaches the Church in Jerusalem. Peter listens carefully to Paul and it is through him that God’s will for the Church is made clear. Despite internal disagreements and external opposition, the Gospel is preached to the Gentiles. The Apostle Paul’s ministry is affirmed. The Christian faith and the life of the Church aren’t exclusive to the Jews; they are for all people.
But, and here we need to avoid the temptation to polemics, Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles is confirmed precisely because it is an extension of Peter’s, earlier, call: “Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe” (Acts 15:7, NKJV).
We need to always keep in mind that the charismatic and prophetic dimensions of the Church are not opposed to the hierarchical and traditional dimensions. In fact, and here we can appeal to Acts of the Apostles, it belongs to the hierarchical and traditional dimensions to confirm the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church.
For us as Orthodox Christians, this means that while we must always remain open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and the work of grace in the human heart, these cannot be opposed to what has gone before. Not only doesn’t Paul trump Peter, it belongs to Peter to bless and confirm the ministry of Paul.
Again, the witness of Paul is dependent upon the ministry of Peter. It belongs to the hierarchy of the Church, to the bishops who profess Peter’s faith and who, as successors of the Apostles sit on the Chair of Peter, to “bind and loosen.” This is not an arbitrary power for the bishop to do as he pleases. It is rather the freedom by grace to do as he ought: To “rightly divide the word of truth,” to discern the will of God and to defend and nourish the bonds of charity that are the life of the Church.
My brothers and sister in Christ! As we celebrate the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, let us not neglect one for the sake of the other. Rather, let us see in each the fulfillment of the other. Because while there is no Paul without Peter, Peter without Paul remains an unfulfilled promise.
Having now received the fulfillment of God’s promise given from before the foundation of the world (see Ephesians 1:4), let us join hands with Peter and Paul and fearless and with joy bear witness to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ and the liberating power of His Gospel!
Obscured But Not Destroyed
June 25, 2017: Third Sunday of Matthew, The Holy Venerable Martyr Febronia
Epistle: Romans 5:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 6:22-33
St Paul’s command that we rejoice in our suffering has always been a hard sell.
Yes, we can see how “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” But until we have experienced “God’s love … poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” the positive potential of suffering is lost to us.
Unfortunately, we sometimes encounter those who encourage us to endure suffering but fail to tell us about God’s love for us. But, again, apart from the experience of God’s love for us, suffering–whether physical or emotional, social or spiritual–has no positive value. It is the experience of God’s love that transforms suffering into something of value.
Jesus tells us to not be “anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” There are two conclusions we can draw from our Lord’s words.
In other words, deprivation–like suffering–can’t separate us from the love of God. We are always tempted to imagine that when life isn’t what we want it to be that we’ve been abandoned by God. But listen to what Jesus tells us:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?
St John Chrysostom telsl us, Jesus’ words here remind us of “the dignity of the human race.”
Our dignity, the saint tells us, is precisely this: that God has given us not simply a soul but a body. And not just these. God has also sent us “Prophet and gave His Only-Begotten Son (Homily on St Matthew, xxii). This brings us to our second point.
Just as faith transforms suffering, it transforms how we view ourselves and our neighbor. Seen in the light of the Gospel, human life is more than food and drink, more than clothes and material possessions. Our true and lasting dignity is found in God’s love and care for us. To understand who we truly are, to be the men and women God has created us to be, we must “seek first” the Kingdom of God “and his righteousness.”
Commenting on this passage, St Augustine tells us that we ought not “to preach the Gospel” so “that we may eat” but rather “eat… that we may preach.” To do otherwise he says is to “reckon the Gospel of less value than food.” It is here that we find the cause human suffering, of the myriad crimes and offenses, great and small, committed against human dignity.
Again, listen to what Jesus tells us in the Gospel:
No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
The pursuit of wealth instead of a life of obedience to God, the fathers say, turns us into robbers and slaves. Robbers because we will take from others even the little they need to survive; slaves because we become increasingly ruled not by reason illumined by faith but by the ever-changing cascade of our own desire.
When we fail to seek first the Kingdom of God, Chrysostom says, we make ourselves vulnerable to “strifes and toils.” Most “more grievous of all,” we become unfit for “God’s service” which is “the highest blessing.”
So how do we avoid this? How do we transform suffering into something positive and the necessity of body life into service to God? The answer is found in the opening lines of this morning’s Gospel:
The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
St Gregory the Wonderworker says that by “eye” is meant “love unfeigned.” Such love is nothing less than a glimpse of God’s glory and our sharing in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
For the fathers of the Church, we grow in virtue by first laying aside vice. In this case, to transform suffering and to grasp our true dignity, we must first lay aside what Gregory calls “the pretended love which is also called hypocrisy.” Yes, we can, he says, “produce words that seem to be of light” but these are “in reality wolves… covered in sheep’s clothing” but when we do, we alienate ourselves from God and enslave ourselves to our own will.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
God has poured out His grace into our lives through the mysteries. It belongs to us to accept what we have been given and then to act on it.
We do this not only through our participation the sacraments and the worship of the Church but also a life of personal prayer and ascetical struggle. Taken together, all these work to first uproot hypocrisy and then to teach us what it means to love as Christ loves.
As we grow in love, we come to find meaning not only in suffering but even the most ordinary aspects of human life. In turn, this allows us to see the depth and breadth of human dignity.
To borrow from C.S. Lewis, after the Eucharist “your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.” While suffering may obscure this holiness from our sight, it can’t destroy the dignity of the human person created in the image of God. And this why that, with St Paul, we can rejoice in our suffering. Simply put, suffering and sin can’t destroy the image of God that is our true and lasting identity.
The Blessings of Liberty: the Challenge of Success
Sunday, June 18, 2017: 2nd Sunday of Matthew; Leontius, Hypatius, & Theodulus the Martyrs of Syria, Leontios the Myrrh-Streamer of Argos
Epistle: Romans 2:10-16
Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23
For some Orthodox Christians, today–the second Sunday after Pentecost–is a day set aside in the liturgical calendar to commemorate the saints of their local Church. Having last week commemorated all the saints, especially those known only to God, today we commemorate all the saints, again known and unknown, of America, Russia, Mount Athos, Palestine, Romania, & the Iberian Peninsula.
We do this as a reminder that just as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NKJV), God freely bestows “glory and honor and peace” on all those who “do by nature what the law requires” as we just heard.
This obedience to the divine will. St Paul points out, is possible because God has written the demands of the law on our hearts. If I still myself, if I cultivate a sense of external and internal quiet, in the secret of my heart, I can hear the Word of God.
Another way to say this is that to grow in holiness, to become a saint, I must listen to my conscience. Again as St Paul reminds us, though we are all sinners, God has not abandoned any of us.
Rather, and now we turn to the Gospel, God calls each of us. Even as He called Peter and Andrew, James and John, He calls each and every single human being to follow Him as His disciple and apostle.
And He doesn’t simply call us as individuals–though we each of us must respond personally or else love isn’t love–but as a people, as a nation.
For Americans, this might at first seem to be a problem. We are after all not a nation established by blood or soil. We are rather a people united by an ideal, a conviction, as we read in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This is not the time or place to examine the particulars of what these unalienable rights. Nor is it the time to examine the many ways in which we have as a nation we have failed to live up to the ideals that Jefferson outlines.
For now, let me simply point out that in many ways America has been a blessing for the Church. For the first time since the Edict of Toleration, the Church is not only free politically to live her life as she sees fit, she has the economic and social resources to do so.
In America, not only are we not persecuted, we are also not established. We are not a department of State and we are not a despised minority. Moreover, we are well-educated and, frankly, wealthy personally if not always institutionally.
We are wholly and truly free. This means that there are, if I may say it this way, no external constraints on our growth in holiness either personally or as a community.
All though isn’t necessarily well with us.
It seems sometimes that the sheer breadth of our freedoms and the extent of our wealth undermines our pursuit of holiness. We are free and wealthy beyond what any of the fathers could have imagined. And yet, how do we respond, how do I respond, to the “blessings of liberty” that God has given the Church in America?
As we reflect on the saints who God raised up in other lands, we need to ask ourselves, I need to ask myself, what return are we–am I–making on what God has freely given?
Orthodox Christians have remained faithful in obscurity, poverty, and persecution. We have found a modus vivendi, a way of life, conducive to holiness in many different cultures, economic circumstances and under even the cruelest and most repressive political regimes.
Now, though, we face the challenge of success! There are times, in what I hope are my lesser moments, when I worry that America will do what the Romans, the Ottomans, and the Communists, could never do. In these moments I worry that a Church that raised saints under persecution will collapse under liberty.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has called each us to follow Him as His disciples and apostles. And He has called us to do so here, in America, in a land of unparalleled wealth and freedom.
Let us exploit with gratitude the liberty we have been given!
Let us follow Christ as His disciples and apostles “doers of the law.”
Let us with our time, talent and treasure teach and preach the gospel of the kingdom God so that through us God can heal “every disease and every infirmity among the people” of this place.
To do this we need only respond affirmatively to God call.
To do this we need only say “Yes!” to the God Who has this day said “Yes!” to us and called us to be His disciples and apostles in America.
To do this, to say yes, we need only to prayer as we can, read the Scriptures as God’s word to us and do good when the possibility presents itself.
Above all though, we need to come to God in Holy Communion and Holy Confession. It is here, in these two sacraments above all else, that we are transformed and so are able to make a worthy returning to God for the blessings of liberty He has granted the Church in America.
St Irenaeus: Homily on the Holy Spirit
Sunday, June 4, 2017: Holy Pentecost;: Our Father Metrophanes, Archbishop of Constantinople, Mary & Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, Sophia of Thrace, The Mother of Orphans
Epistle: Acts 2:1-11
Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12
When the Lord told his disciples to go and teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, he conferred on them the power of giving men new life in God.
He had promised through the prophets that in these last days he would pour out his Spirit on his servants and handmaids, and that they would prophesy. So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in men and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in men who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.
Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord’s ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was that men of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the first-fruits of all the nations.This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in
This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for
If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for man, who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up his wounds and left for his care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted him to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord.
St Irenaeus, “Against the Heresies”
Homily: God’s Laid Out the Path in Each Human Heart
Sunday, May 28, 2017: Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council; The Holy Hieromartyr Eutychius, Bishop of Melitene, Nikitas, Bishop of Chalcedon, Eutechios, Bishop of Mytilene, Helikonis the Martyr, Heladios the Hieromartyr of the East, Zacharias the New Martyr
Epistle: Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Gospel: John 17:1-13
Let’s look ahead for a moment.
Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost. We sometimes, wrongly but understandably in my view, refer to this feast as the “birthday” of the Church. And yet, if we read the Scriptures and the fathers carefully, we discover that Pentecost is but one moment in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. Clement of Alexandria puts the matter this way: “Just as God’s will is creation and is called ‘the world,’ so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called “‘the Church’”
And so in Holy Tradition we see a series of churches. There is Israel, the Church of Jews. In the liturgical tradition, paganism is called “‘an infertile, sterile church,’ but a church nonetheless.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote
Writing some 200 years after Clement, St. Epiphanius, argues that the Church is the goal of all things (Panarion 1,1,5:PG 41,181C). This make sense if we remember that the Church is the Body of Christ and that the world is “made through Him” (John 1:10, NKJV) and “were created … for Him (Colossians 1:16, NKJV) and “through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6, NKJV).
The centrality of the Church to creation and to God’s plan of salvation is why we are always concerned not just about our relationship to Christ as His disciples, or our love for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ but also the dogmatic integrity of what we preach and teach. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that whole of created reality–visible and invisible–depends on the Church because it is in and through the Church that creation finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
And the centrality of the Church’s teaching also explains one of the central–and to those outside the Church sometime puzzling and even offensive–aspects of the Church’s worship. Orthodox worship is for all its grandeur and beauty is unapologetically dogmatic.
In part this reflects the ancient Christian norm–lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi–the rule or law of prayer, is the rule of faith and the rule of life. While we share this with our Western Christian brothers and sisters, as Orthodox Christians we positively delight in weaving dogmatic formula into our worship.
In the Creed, we use highly technical, theological language when we say that the Son is “consubstantial” or (in a different translation) “of one substance” (homoousion) with the Father. Frequently in our services we say that God the Father is “super-” or “supra-” substantial.
And of course, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy we don’t simply formally proclaim the Orthodox faith and remember the Ecumenical Councils and saints who defended it but also solemnly anathematize those who reject “…the Faith of the Apostles, … the Faith of the Fathers, … the Faith of the Orthodox, … the Faith which has established the Universe” (Synodikon Of Orthodoxy). Our anathematizing of the heretics doesn’t end here.
At Matins for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we also read about the death of Arius, the heretic whose false teaching was refuted and rejected at the First Ecumenical Council we commemorate this morning.
Because Arius denied that the Son was consubstantial with the Father, that Jesus was really and truly God and not simply the most magnificent (as he taught), the liturgical tradition calls him the “arch-heretic.” This doesn’t simply mean that he is the worst (or among the worst) heretics. No, the prefix “arch” means that he is the pattern on which all heretics base themselves.
We need to know all this to understand the graphic detail in which we recount the story of Arius’ death. You read the whole account in the Synaxarion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy that having only pretended to repent of his false teaching Arius dies in a public toilet on his way to serve Liturgy with Patriarch Alexander of Constantinople. This may seem to us a rather vulgar story to read in church but it is include to stress the lifegiving importance of the Church’s dogmatic witness.
Given all this, it isn’t surprising that sometimes, alright often, we can be triumphalistic and even arrogant in how we present the faith. Let me say first of all, that triumphalism has no place in our lives as Orthodox Christians. We harm the Church’s witness when, however we might justify it to ourselves, we denigrate the convictions of others.
Trying to convince someone of the Gospel by offering long, laborious explanation on Church history and the theological underpinnings of Orthodoxy is foolish. It’s like trying to save a drowning man by lecturing him on the evolution and functioning of the human respiratory system. What you say may very well be true but you can’t save him unless you jump into the water and pull the man out.
Trumphalism is lecturing a drowning man about respiration. What I say may be true but it saves no one.
So what are we to do instead?
Recall what I said a moment ago. The Body of Christ, the Church, is the reason for everything. Because God wills that Christ be “all in all” (see, 1 Corinthians 15:28) He also wills the same for Christ’s Body. We don’t need to coerce people emotionally, intellectually or spiritually. The acceptance of the Christ, the Gospel and the life of the Church taken together are the fulfillment, the reason, for each human life.
This means that God has already inscribed the path of salvation in the heart of each person we met. Far from being something imposed from outside, the desire to follow Christ, to accept the Gospel and to live the life of the Church is as natural to each human being as breathing. It is sin that is unnatural to us and grace that makes us most fully ourselves.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We oppose heresy because we love our neighbor!
We battle spiritual wolves because we have accepted Christ’s call to be witnesses to the Resurrection!
To lovingly bear witness to the Truth of the Gospel means to reveal to others the presence of Christ in their hearts. We haven been given to Holy Spirit so that we can do this. So let us now proceed to do what we have been given to do.
Homily: Holy Ascension
Thursday, May 25, 2017: The Holy Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Epistle: Acts 1:1-12
Gospel: Luke 24:36-53
The reading from Acts reminds us though God reveals His will to us, though He reveals Himself to us and draws us into communion with Him, there are some things about His will, about Himself, that God doesn’t reveal. And, of course, because these things aren’t revealed, we don’t know what they are.
There is, however, one thing we know we don’t know because God has told us He won’t tell us.
We don’t know when, in the words of the Creed, Jesus will come back as Judge of the living and the dead. This is what the Apostles asked Jesus in the moments before His Ascension: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?” Jesus answers that it isn’t for them, it isn’t for the Church, it isn’t for us, for you or for me “to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”
St Ephrem the Syrian says that God hides things from us, and tells us He is doing so, to inspire us to “keep watch.” If the time of the Last Judgment, “were to be revealed,” it would be to our harm. If we knew when Jesus was coming as Judge we would grow indifferent to His judgment. While God “has indeed said He will come, … He did not define when,” St Ephrem says, so that “all generations and ages will thirst for Him.”
In other words, in this and in all things God acts in such a way as to keep the desire for Him alive in the human heart.
And so immediately after telling the Apostles what they won’t know–after kindling their desire–Jesus tells them they “shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”
But even here, the fine details of the future are left unspoken. But this doesn’t cause the Apostles to be discouraged. Why? Because Jesus speaks in such a way as to inspire deeper love and greater devotion in the Apostles.
Remember what we just read in the Gospel.
Though they are momentarily stunned by seeing Jesus ascend into Heaven when the angels explain to them what has happened the Apostle return “to Jerusalem with great joy” and are “continually in the temple blessing God.”
Sometimes we think–sometimes I think–if only God’s will was laid out for us clearly and in minute detail we would be happy. But if God were to do this, what would happen to human freedom and creativity? If everything was laid out for me, if I had a step-by-step plan that I followed as I would a recipe, I wouldn’t be God’s co-worker but merely a spiritual functionary who blindly and thoughtlessly did as I was told.
This isn’t what God wants from us. God loves us. He and wants us to return His love. But love isn’t love unless it is free.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as God is for me, I must be for others.
God doesn’t compel me, He woos me. God doesn’t just passively leave room for my freedom, my creativity, He creates the space, the conditions, for me to discover and exercise my freedom and creativity.
And as God has done for me, I must do for you.
To be disciples of Christ means that we help others find true freedom in Christ. This is why compulsion is foreign to the life of the Church. Like God, we must respect each others’ freedom. Anything less is not worthy of the name “Christian” because anything less is contrary to the example of Christ, “Who in glory ascended from us into Heaven” and now sits “at the right hand of God the Father for our salvation”!