July 29 (O.S., July 16) 2018: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Councils. Hieromartyr Athenogenes, bishop of Heracleopolis, and his ten disciples (311). Martyrs Paul and two sisters, Chionia and Alevtina, (308). Martyr Antiochus, physician (4th c.). Virgin-martyr Julia (440).
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 3:9-17/Hebrews 13:7-16
Gospel: Matthew 14: 22 – 34/John 17:1-13
Ss Cyril & Methodius Mission, Madison WI
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Because we are co-workers with Christ, we are also co-workers in Christ with each other.
Just as the gifts (charismata) we receive in Holy Baptism are the concrete ways in which we are connected to God and come to share in His life, so too with our working together. Our communion with Christ is embodied and lived out on our willingness to share a common life and work.
Or, as an ancient Christian maxim has it: unus Christianus, nullus Christianus. One Christian is no Christian.
The importance of our co-laboring with each other in Christian is why for the fathers of the Church, schism–division in the Church–is as bad and even worse than heresy. While heretics “violate the faith by thinking falsely about God,” St Augustine says, that “schismatics break away from fraternal love by their wicked separations although they believe as we do.” (De fide et symbolo, 21).
To refuse to work together with the whole Church is to pursue my own salvation while neglecting your salvation.
Co-working with Christ means, as we’ve already discussed, that I commit myself willingly to helping you pursue faithfully and generously your own vocation. This isn’t my obligation because I am a priest but because I am a Christian. Ordination–like all vocations–builds on and confirms the dignity we receive in Baptism.
Does this mean that the clergy have no unique or particular obligations? God forbid we should think this!
Today we celebrate the fathers of the first six ecumenical councils. Briefly, these councils were called to heal divisions in the Church. The councils, in other words, we called to defend not just the common faith of the Church but also the bonds of charity of our co-working in Christ with each other.
From this, we get a sense of the obligation of the clergy in the Church. The clergy’s task is to defend and strengthen the bonds of charity that unite us to Christ and each other. There is nothing sentimental about the love that binds us to each other. Christian charity is concrete. It is the practical and tangible manifestation of divine grace in our life together.
This means that my job as the priest is to help you discern and live your personal vocations. This must be done in harmony with the Tradition of the Church. But a purely formal adherence to the moral or dogmatic Tradition of the Church is not sufficient for salvation any more than not committing adultery makes for a happy marriage.
Helping you live your vocation means helping you help others live their own. The clergy, in other words, are set aside in the life of the Church to help us learn to work together, to be co-workers with Christ and each other.
There shouldn’t be anything that resembles coercion in our co-working. What we do together we must do freely, that is personally. This means that we must shun any hint of emotional or social–much less, physical–violence in our life together.
As a practical matter, this means that there will be times when not much will get done because we lack agreement among ourselves. But these disagreements are different or at least should be different, then what we see in the world.
Our disagreements are not a matter of who is “right” and who is “wrong,” who is the “good” Christian and who the “bad” Christian. Statements like this are more often than not, subtle (or not so subtle) ways of refusing to work together.
No for us, our disagreements are the opening moment of discerning God’s will for us. The question is not who is right and who is wrong, who is moral and who immoral, but what does God want from us here and now in the concrete circumstances of our life together?
My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are called by Jesus not only to be co-workers with Him but with each other. This is why we can gather together this morning to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and receive the Precious Body and Blood of Christ.
And it is our working together with each other in Christ, that is at the heart of what it means to be saved.
July 22 (O.S., July 9) 2018: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. Hieromartyr Pancratius, Bishop of Taormina in Sicily (1st c.). Hieromartyr Cyril, bishop of Gortyna (250-252). Martyrs Patermuthius, Coprius, and Alexander (361). St. Theodore, bishop of Edessa (848).
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Gospel: Matthew 14:14-22
St Paul demands from us a humanly impossible standard.
We are, he says, to “all speak the same thing,” that “there be no divisions among” us, and that we “be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
Reading on in the epistle, it is clear that the Church in Corinth fell shorts of this. The Church was so corrupted by dissension that their witness was to a “Christ divided” and a “Paul crucified”!
So deep–and presumably bitter–were the divisions that Paul actually thanks God for not baptizing people.
As he often does, Paul holds himself up as an example of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.”
While we should always be cautious in reducing conflict to a single cause, in referring to his own ministry St Paul gives us at least one, possible, explanation for the difficulties plaguing the Church in Corinth. Paul is faithful to the task to which God has called him. He isn’t called to baptize but to preach the Gospel. Not only is he called to preach, he is called to preach in a particular way.
St Paul doesn’t preach the “profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” by those who “strayed concerning the faith” (1 Timothy 6:20, 21, NKJV). No Paul preaches nothing “except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). The Gospel he preaches is “a stumbling block” to the Jews and “foolishness” the Greeks foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23). But, as he reminds us this morning, “to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
St Paul is not counseling folly for folly’s sake. He isn’t anti-intellectual. He is, however, aware of the limits of human reason especially in response to God’s grace. “If human wisdom is at war with the Cross and fights against the Gospel,” St John Chrysostom says, “it is not right to boast about it. Rather, we should recoil in shame” (“Homilies of the Epistles of St Paul to the Corinthians,” 3.7 in ACCS, NT vol VIII, 1-2 Corinthians, p. 12).
The war between human reason and grace consists of my tendency to prefer my own thoughts and desires to the will of God. “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” Chrysostom says, “because it makes those who have it unwilling to learn more” (“Homilies of the Epistles,” 5.2, p. 17). It is my pride, not science or philosophy, that causes me to wage war against God. It isn’t what I know that causes me to turn from God but my misuses of what I have learned.
And having abandoned the God Who created me in His image for a god I create in my own, it follows naturally that I seek to refashion my neighbor in my own image and after my own likeness. It is this tendency to put God and my neighbor in a box that is the causes division in not only the Church but also the family and the nation.
Paul’s counsel to us is not that we abandon reason but pride. He isn’t telling us to be illiterate but humble. It is this reasonable humility that is absent among the Corinthians. They choose sides, one for Apollos, one for Cephas, another for Christ. While they are divided in the names to which they rally, they are united in their disregard for each other. Each one agrees on nothing except that his neighbor is his enemy.
Compare this to Jesus in the Gospel.
There is nothing forced or self-seeking in our Lord’s actions. Moved by his great love for each of us, He heals the sick.
And when it is time for the hungry to eat, Jesus doesn’t glorify Himself. Rather he invites the disciples to share in the miracle He is to perform. As God, He has no need for the disciples’ assistance. But He wants to show a “more excellent way” (see, 1 Corinthians 12:31). He wants to reveal to the disciples–and so to each of us–that we are His co-workers (see, 1 Corinthians 3:9).
This is what the Corinthians don’t know about themselves. That each one of them is a co-worker with Christ and so with each other.
This co-laboring, this working together, is not simply a practical standard. It is the defining quality of the Church because it is the central quality of God. Just as the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity work together, we who are in Christ must work together.
This doesn’t mean trying to fit each other into little boxes. Working together doesn’t mean I tell you what to do or you tell me what today. Rather, we are to help each other pursue the work God has called each of us to accomplish in this life.
When this happens, when each of us pursues our personal vocation and supports each other in doing so, there is abundance. And when we don’t? There is division.
God calls us to be His co-workers. He does this in the gifts He pours out on us in Holy Baptism.
But these gifts, given to us for God’s glory and our own salvation, also bind us to each other. This means that I can’t pursue my vocation without supporting you in yours. And this is true not simply for me but for you and for each of us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Unity in the Church is found in the gifts God has given each of us personally in Holy Baptism. These gifts bind us to Him and to each other in love. So let us exercise our gifts and, in so doing, love God and one each other.
Practing Hospitality, Pleasing Others
Sunday, July 15 (O.S., July 2), 2018: 7th Sunday after Pentecost; Placing of the Robe of the Mother of God.
Epistle: Romans 15:1-7/Hebrews 9:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 9:27-35/Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28
Glory to Jesus Christ!
We have been looking at the importance of taking seriously the spiritual gifts that each of us has been given at baptism. The thing I want you to consider today is this: Because our personal vocations emerge out of the exercise of these gifts, hospitality is essential to the life of the Church.
Hospitality is not a matter of potlucks or fellowship meetings or open houses. Seen in the light of our baptismal vocation, hospitality is the willingness–the eagerness really–to support each other as we pursue our personal vocations.
This reveals a depth of meaning in Paul’s admonishment that we “who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak” and that we “not to please ourselves” but rather seek to “please” our neighbor.
This doesn’t mean giving in to each other. Rather, we are to act for the “good” of each other and for our mutually “edification.” This is only possible, however, to the degree that we each of us personally pursue the will of God for our lives.
So, again, hospitality is rather more encompassing–and serious–than potlucks, fellowship meetings, and community open houses.
In the full sense, hospitality means dedicating ourselves personally and as a community to fostering each other’s vocation. This is why St Paul tells us to “receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.”
Turning to the Gospel, we get a clear picture of what it means to practice hospitality.
Jesus doesn’t simply heal the blind men. He does first something He often does. He affirms the faith of the two men. In doing this He also creates the opportunity for them to affirm their faith in Him.
Jesus saying “Yes!” to the men is what makes it possible for them to say “Yes!” to Him.
In doing this, Jesus also ennobles the men. Or rather, He reveals to them–and to those around them–their true dignity. These men, blind and broken, poor and on the margin of society, though they are can nevertheless approach the Creator of the Universe and make a direct request of Him. A beggar can stand before the King and expect to have his petition not just heard but granted!
I suspect this as much as the restoration of their sight is what inspired the men to go and “spread the news about Him in all that country.” Even though Jesus told them to remain silent, experiencing the mercy of God and grasping for the first time their own value, these men became bold.
St John Chrysostom says that the “command to silence” was meant not to constrain the men but to rebuke “the religious leadership” of the Jews. As we see in the next verses, many among the Pharisees were hard-hearted. They refused to accept that “the crowds placed Jesus before everyone else–not merely before people who lived at the time but even before all who ever lived.”
Chrysostom goes on to say that the crowds put Jesus first not simply “because He was healing people but because He healed them quickly, …. easily” and of “countless” incurable diseases (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily 32.1, in ACCS, NT vol Ia, pp. 187, 188).
In other words, what Jesus does, He does freely and with authority. His love and mercy are not conditioned by anything other than His willingness to make right that which is wrong and broken in us.
As Jesus is for us, we must be not only for each other but for all we meet.
As Jesus is always ready to heal us, we must be willing to do for each other and all who we meet.
As Jesus reveals to us our true dignity and worth, we must do for each other and all who we meet.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! We hear today that the Theotokos is worthy of praise not because she gave birth to God but because she heard the word of God and keep it!
Today God speaks to us and tells each of us to practice hospitality. God calls each of us to assist each other in fulfilling our vocations. The details of these vocations are as different as the gifts we each have been given.
But for all that they, and we, are different, we share one vocation. To reconcile the world to God and to reveal to each person their true worth and dignity as those loved by God.
Grace is not an Abstraction
Sunday, July 8 (O.S., June 25), 2018: 6th Sunday after Pentecost; Virgin-martyr Febronia of Nisibis (304).
Epistle: Romans 12:6-14
Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8
Glory to Jesus Christ!
God’s grace in our lives is not abstract. This is what St Paul tells us today and we neglect his teaching to our determinant.
The gifts given to each of us at baptism aren’t simply practical ways to preach the Gospel and bring others to Christ. To be sure, they are these but they are more than this.
Our gifts are the concrete manifestation of God’s grace, of His love and divine life in our lives. This means that our gifts are how we are connected to God and so, as St Paul makes clear, to each other.
When we are ignorant of our gifts or neglect their exercise, conflict and discord arise. This is true in the family, the parish and even the Church. Again, the spiritual gifts that St Paul speaks about are nothing less than the manifestation of divine life in our lives and the concrete bonds of charity that unite us one to another in Christ.
Apart from God’s gifts, I’m not morally or spiritually different than the paralytic was bodily. Like the paralytic’s desire to walk, apart from the gifts received at baptism a life of Christian faith, hope and love remain just beyond my grasp. Faith is mere conformity, hope just optimism and love? Love becomes mere sentimentality.
This situation is made all the worse when, on the social level, we actively stifle the discovery and expression of the gifts received.
One way we do this is that we deny the possibility that God pours out His grace in the form of concrete gifts. Do this and it is only a short hop to denying that each Christian has a personal and unique vocation.
Our vocation is not a predetermined “slot” or “job” or even “office” in the Church. Rather it emerges slowly as we exercise the gifts given in baptism. There are few things more deadly to appreciating the baptismal vocation of each and every baptised Christian than the simplistic confusion of a person’s calling with discrete tasks.
Much of the confusion we see in the Church, to say nothing of our inability to retain young people, is the result of neglecting the intimate connection between baptism, the spiritual gifts, and personal vocation. When these connections are not made, or worse denied, being Christian becomes nothing more than being “a good person.” Or worse, “being nice”!
This moralizing view of the Christian life attracts no one. It is especially uninspiring to the young. If this is all it means to be Christian, why be Christian at all? After all, society is filled with morally good people who are often more “Christian” than Christians.
Ignoring or denying the personal vocation of each Christian has another negative consequence. It is the beginning of a demographic death spiral. It contributes to a situation in which the most thoughtful and idealistic believers–often the young and converts–walk away.
They walk away not from Christ and His Church but from the frankly superficial idol that we offer them instead. Bad as this is for the individual, it is worse for the Church.
As those who are seeking something deeper leave, the spiritual vitality of the parish, the diocese and eventually the Church suffers. We become complacent. At first, we are satisfied with a pat answer. We don’t concern ourselves with a vibrant life of faith, hope and love. In time though we lose our taste for a Christian way of life that is deeper, wider, more comprehensive and that can transform not only our lives but the lives of those around us.
Over time, we lose as well the sense of sin and so the magnificent liberating effect of the forgiveness Jesus extended to the paralytic and wishes to give to us as well. The Christian life becomes flat, uninspiring and, frankly, dull and unattractive. What beauty do we have to offer, after all, but the beauty of a repentant soul made whole by forgiveness?
My brothers and sisters in Christ! This doesn’t have to our lot! On that first Pentecost, the Resurrection of Christ was preached by those who only recently cowered in fear. Those who, only days before, abandoned and denied Jesus, became His apostles and evangelists.
Those who the world persecuted and despised would shortly turn the “whole world upside down” (Acts 17:6). How did this happen?
The world was turned upside down because the disciples took seriously what St Paul tells us today. The disciples knew that they were richly blessed by God with gifts given to them for their salvation, the salvation of the world and the Glory of God!
Secure in this knowledge they transformed the world through the preaching of the Gospel, making of disciples of the nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
Join Zeal to Knowledge, Faith to Works, Piety to Technique
Sunday, July 1 (O.S., June 18), 2018: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost; Martyrs Leontius, Hypatius and Theodulus, at Tripoli in Syria (73); St. Leontius, canonarch of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).
Epistle: Romans 10:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 8:28–9:1
What might St Paul mean when he criticizes the Jews for having “zeal without knowledge”?
The first thing to keep in mind is that when in his letter to the Romans the Apostle criticizes–or for that matter, praises–the Jews he does so to make a similar point about the Gentile converts to Christ. St Augustine puts it this way: “Paul begins to speak of his hope for the Jews, lest the Gentiles in their turn become condescending toward them.”
The bishop of Hippo goes on to say that if the Jews were proud “because the gloried in their works,” the Gentiles became proud because of their mistaken belief of “having been preferred over the Jews” (On Romans, 66).
Zeal without knowledge isn’t, in other words, an intellectual deficit but a lack of charity born of pride. It is “faith without love” (see 1 Corinthians 13:2).
The sign that my faith lacks love, that I have zeal without knowledge, is that I lack patience, that I am unkind or even cruel. Zeal without knowledge is revealed in the person who is envious, who acts immorally, is proud, ambitious or self-seeking (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-8). The person whose zeal lacks knowledge does all these things and “teaches others to do so” (Matthew 5:19) by his actions if not always by his words.
This is why Paul reminds the Romans that they must not only confess with their “mouth the Lord Jesus” but believe in their “heart that God has raised Him from the dead.” While words are easy, heartfelt belief requires repentance and a radical transformation in how I treat others. For those of us who are in Christ, there is no escaping the practical demands of charity.
Here then is the temptation we face. Or at least which I face.
I am tempted not only to separate my faith from charity but to separate my charity from the skills which God has given me as part of my natural talents and which he has helped me develop through grace as my life unfolds.
Given the practical demands of charity that are essential to life in Christ, how do I guard against the trap of “zeal without knowledge”?
I must cultivate through practice the abilities God has given me.
St Gregory of Nyssa writes
When people are feeble, although many may wish the sufferer freedom from his pain, it is only those who have the technical skill that can make their choice effectual and cure the patient. This means, in effect, that [practical] wisdom must always be closely allied to [moral] goodness (Oratio Catechetica, 19).
Piety, in other words, is no substitute for technique. It isn’t enough for me to have good intentions. I must, as the Apostle James reminds us, be able to translate my compassion for others–like my faith in God–into action.
We see this ability to match deeds to intention in the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t simply want to liberate the men from the demons. No, he actually does something to free them. Jesus joins good intention to effective action, piety to technique, faith to works, zeal to knowledge.
It’s worth noting that while the residences of the nearby city were impressed by Jesus’ actions, they wanted nothing to do with Him. There is something similar that can happen in our spiritual lives or the life of the parish.
Like the residence of the city I may not welcome zeal combined with knowledge, right faith joined to good works, or piety to technique. Sometimes, I prefer pleasing thoughts about Christianity to actually being a Christian to paraphrase St Ignatius of Antioch.
What I mean here is this.
It is, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence that when we come to church, we leave our talents and our professional training at the door. I confuse “laying aside the cares of this life” with coming before God as if I was someone else, someone who didn’t have the skills or competencies that I have.
To do this, to neglect the abilities that God has given us, to imagine that they are of no value in our spiritual life or, what is worse, that they are somehow obstacles to our life in Christ and not bridges for us and others to Christ is to harbor a misunderstanding of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. That this misunderstanding is common makes it no less wrong.
Your natural talents, your spiritual gifts, your professional, technical or artistic knowledge and training, all of these are given to you by God. And they are given to you not only for your salvation and the salvation of the world but also for God’s glory. And in the Scriptures, the “Glory of God” is the most Real of all real things.
The besetting sin, if I may speak boldly, of Orthodoxy in America, is that too often, we tell the laity to leave their professional and technical competencies at the door to the Church. We–and by “we” I mean primarily (though not exclusively) the clergy–encourage people to pretend to be someone other than who they really are. We do this when we do not welcome, bless, and make use of their abilities for the salvation of the world.
And frankly, we do (o rather don’t do) this out of pride. Welcoming others and valuing their gifts this requires that the clergy not only guide the laity but be guided by the laity.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! When you come to the Divine Liturgy, don’t leave your abilities at the door! Bring them in, offer them to Christ in the sacrifice of the altar and receive them back purified and transformed in Holy Communion!
And then, be bold in the exercise of your abilities not only in the workplace but in the Church.
Freedom in Christ
Sunday, June 24 (O.S., June 11) 2018: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost;Holy Apostles Bartholomew and Barnabas (1st c.).
Epistle: Romans 6:18-23/Acts 11:19-26, 29-30
Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13/Luke 10:16-21
Glory to Jesus Christ!
With his usually understatement, the Apostle Paul contrasts the two forms of slavery to which we may be subjected. I am either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness.
Paul’s language here, though stark, is not meant to be taken literally. He is speaking, as he says, “in human terms” to help us understand from what we have been saved.
More importantly, he wants us to understand that for which we have been saved: to share in the life of God. Or, as he says, to receive “holiness, … everlasting life” which taken together are “the gift of God, eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We tend to associate holiness with moral rectitude. A holy person is a virtuous person. While holiness and virtue are related, we often misunderstand the relationship between them.
A saint is not holy because he is virtuous. Rather, he is virtuous because he is holy.
In the Scriptures, God is called holy not because He is virtuous as we understand the term but because He is sovereign. God is not, as we hear again and again, the god of this place, or these people. He is rather the God of god, the God of All. As such, His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts.
Holiness is another way of saying that God is wholly and absolutely free. Or maybe more accurately, nothing and no one compels God.
It is this freedom that God gives us in Jesus Christ. This why the baptismal service begins with prayers of exorcism. Not because we believe the candidate is possessed by a demon but to give the devil formal notice that this person is no longer his but now belongs to Christ and His Church.
Only once this notice is given, is the candidate is baptized. That is to say, through the faith of the Church and the words of the priest, the candidate is adopted by God and comes to share in that deep and expansive freedom we call holiness.
So, having been made holy in baptism, what now?
Now, as Paul says, we are to be obedient to God; we are now “slaves of righteousness.”
In the World, and let’s be frank sometime even in the Church, “obedience” is a harsh word. Obedience in Christ however is not a matter of humiliation. It is not a means of degrading others or asserting control over them.
Rather to be obedient to Christ means to join our will to His. To want, in other words, what God wants for us.
Look at the first Gospel reading. The centurion is a man of obedience. He knows how to command because is “a man under authority” to others. Obedience comes if not easily to him, then freely.
Just as he joins his will to that of his superiors, so too he joins his will to the will of Jesus. He has no need for outward shows of grace. It is enough for him that Jesus wills that the servant be made well.
The centurion’s obedience and faith are absolute.
True obedience, true holiness, is to want what God wants. As for true freedom, it is to do what God would have us do. Or, to put it simply, obedience, holiness and freedom are all facets of love.
If I love you I want for you what God wants for you. Love begins in my willing to make my own God’s will for the person.
As love matures, I move from sharing in God’s desire to action. It is this that is true and lasting freedom. And so we see in the second set of readings, the willingness the disciples to preach the Gospel, heal the sick, cast out demons, and to care for the poor from out of their own funds.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! To be truly free means to love others as God loves them. To be free means that we not only want for others what God wants for them but that, like God, we are willing to sacrifice to help this come to past.
And of this because we have “first been loved by God.”
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.
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
Read 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.
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!
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!