Be Perfect

Sunday, September 8 (OS August 26) 2019: 12th Sunday after Pentecost; Martyrs Adrian and Natalia and 33 companions of Nicomedia (4th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Gospel: Matthew 19:16-26

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Especially in the Old Testament, the understanding of wealth and poverty is different than what we hear today both in secular culture and even from Christians. It’s important to keep this in mind to rightly understand the events in today’s Gospel.

While the modern concern, for example, with “income inequality,” is not absent in the Scriptures, the fact that some are rich and others poor is not taken as inherently unjust. Rather a person’s economic condition is seen as reflecting the will of God for that person.

This doesn’t mean–in either case–that my economic condition determines my moral standing in the presence of God. While God makes some rich and others poor, all are bound by the same obligation to keep the commandments as Jesus reminds the rich young man.

Additionally, to say with the Old Testament that wealth is a blessing doesn’t mean that it isn’t without its own moral obligations and dangers. With wealth comes the responsibility to use wealthy wisely.

Those who have more have a heavier obligation to care for others; not one’s own parents and children but the poor as well. As we hear in today’s Gospel, fidelity to these specific obligations–to act justly, to love mercy “and to walk humbly” with God (see Michah 6:8)-is the start of perfection.

Listen again to the conversation between Jesus and the rich young man. In response to the man’s question “what must I do to be saved?” Jesus says simply and directly that he must keep the commandments.

It is only when the young man wishes “to justify himself” that Jesus invites him to live by a higher standard. While his salvation is not in question, he is still lacking. He can be perfect if only he is willing to do what perfection requires.

And what must he do? What does perfection require? The man must sell all that he has, give the profit to the poor and to follow Jesus as His disciple.

In saying this, Jesus is not calling into question the moral goodness of wealth. But what He is doing is highlighting an Old Testament concern about wealth

Too easily, wealthy can be used to buy illusory independence from God and neighbor. “Those who trust in their riches will fall,” we read in Proverbs (11:28, NIV) “but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.” Likewise, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31).

The question for my life then becomes this: What is it in my life that keeps me separated from God and neighbor?

For the rich young man in the Gospel, it was his many possessions but what it is for me? The specific command of our Lord to the young man is helpful here.

Jesus doesn’t condemn wealth as such but He does challenge the man to put his wealth at the service of others. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

And so the question for me becomes, what am I holding on to that can be put at the service of others? What am I holding on to that keeps me from drawing closer to Jesus Christ by keeping me separated from you? What are the areas of my life where I think God is absent and where my will rather than His will is sovereign?

The other thing about wealth is that it is often used to buy the appearance of respectability. Put slightly differently, what in my life do I use to earn the favor of others rather than the favor of God?

Or how do I use you to bolster my own self-image rather put the gifts God has given me at the service of your flourishing and sanctification?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! All of us can be like the rich young man. We can all hold on to things that we use to justify our separation from God, our indifference to those in need and our pursuit of worldly success at the expense of the Kingdom of God.

The solution to this is not to pretend that our wealth isn’t wealth. It is rather to make a conscience and consistent effort to put our wealth–material, intellectual, or social–at the service of the Kingdom of God.

Today, Jesus calls each of us to perfection. He calls each of us to take that which keeps us from Him and put it the service of God and of our neighbor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Jesus Gave You One Job

Sunday, August 25 (OS 12), 2019: 10th Sunday after Pentecost; Afterfeast of the Transfiguration; Martyrs Anicetus and Photius (Photinus) of Nicomedia (305); Hieromartyr Alexander, bishop of Comana (3rd c.); Martyrs Pamphilus and Capito. 

Ss Cyril &Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 4:9-16
Gospel: Matthew 17:14-23

We need to understand carefully what St Paul does and doesn’t mean when he describes himself as the least among men. We shouldn’t take this to mean that the Apostle felt himself to be useless or having nothing to say. This is not “apostolic” self-loathing or negative self-image.

It rather much like what we say when we realize that someone really and truly loves us. We look at the person and wonder, how can they love us? They know us and yet, they love us. How we wonder is this even possible?.

Looking at Christ, Paul realizes that God’s love for Him is wholly a gift. He speaks about himself the way he does because he is overwhelmed by the magnitude and gracious nature of God’s love for him.

And yet Paul’s humility doesn’t prevent him from preaching the Gospel. It doesn’t keep him from reminding the Corinthians that they too are loved by God.

And neither does it keep him from speaking a hard work of correction when needed.

This leads us to another question. Why odes St Paul call himself a fool and the Corinthians wise? Here the Apostle engages in a bit of irony. 

The Corinthians have misunderstood what it means to be forgiven and to find freedom in Christ. For them, freedom is license. For St Paul freedom is something altogether different.

To be free in Christ means to accept the awesome and humbling invitation to preach the Gospel “in season and out” as he tells St Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2). 

It is his wholehearted commitment to preach the Gospel that makes the Apostle able to bear up under hunger and thirst.

Because he knows he is loved by God he can endure being homeless and naked.

Because he knows he is loved by he can be dishonored, persecuted and defamed but never wavers in his preaching of the Gospel.

At the same time, there is in his heart no hint of the suggestion that he deserves to suffer. Neither is there anything to suggest that his sufferings are anything other than evil. 

But for all that he suffers, Paul remains faithful because, again, he knows God’s love for him.

Though they received the Gospel from St Paul. the Corinthians struggle to accept this same love. Do they know they have been forgiven? Yes, absolutely! Their debt to God is paid in full. But the understanding of forgiveness is shallow, transactional really.

But loved? This is something they can’t wrap their minds around and so can’t seem to accept. And because they are unsure of God’s love for them they remain attached to the standards of this world. 

This is why Paul tells them that he and the other apostles “are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!”

But the Corinthians are not wise and strong and distinguished by God’s accounting but by the world’s.

In the view of the world, my value is determined by what I do, by my position in society, by my wealth and the power I command. Sadly, this rather than God’s love for them is still the standard for many of the Corinthians.

To see the harm done by the world’s standards to our life in Christ, we need only look to today’s Gospel.

The disciples fail to cast out the demon because of the weakness of their faith. They travel with Jesus. They listen to His teachings. They eat with Him. Their every waking moment is an experience of communion with Jesus.

And yet for all this, they don’t understand the gift they’ve been given. 

Like the Gentiles, like the Corinthians, like too many Orthodox Christians today, they still love power. They still think that being a disciple is a matter of authority rather than service. They fail to cast out the demon because they are still seeking the first place in the Kingdom of God (see, Matthew 20:23 and Mark 10:40).

Gently but firmly, Jesus corrects them. He tells them they failed because they lack even faith the size of a mustard seed.

And what is this faith? That the Creator of the universe loves each and everything single human being. There is no one we meet who isn’t loved by God.

The struggle we face is not convincing someone of the truth of our theology–true though it is. Neither is it making clear to others the beauty of our worship, the depth of our spirituality. All these things are easy enough to do relative to the one thing that we must do first.

And what is that thing?

To help people come to know and accept that they are loved by God.

Though they received the Gospel from St Paul, the Corinthians did not believe they were loved.

Though they lived and traveled, eat and prayed and were taught by Jesus, the disciples only slowly came to believe and accept His great love for them.

Before all else, we need to introduce people not just to the God Who loves them but God’s love for them. In this task, we need to be patient with others and with ourselves. 

It just takes time for others to believe they are loved.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We need to be faithful in the work to which we have been called. We need to resist the temptation to substitute theology or history, liturgy or ascetical struggle for a clear and convincing proclamation and demonstration of God’s love.

While God’s love is one and the same for each of us, the form it will take, the words we will use, will be different for each person. For some, love will require a word of consolation; for other, moral challenge. 

And yes, some will come to know God’s love through theology or history. Through liturgy or asceticism.

But whatever the medium, we can’t lose sight of the goal. Helping the person in front of us know God’s love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Co-Workers With Christ & Each Other

Sunday, August 18 (OS, August 5), 2019: 9th Sunday After Pentecost; Forefeast of the Transfiguration of our Lord; Martyr Eusignius of Antioch (362); Hieromartyrs Fabian (250) and Antherus (Antheros) (257), popes of Rome; Martyrs Cantidius, Cantidian and Sibelius (Sobel), of Egypt.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 3:9-17
Gospel: Matthew 14: 22-34

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Though he does not use the word here, St Paul is calling the Corinthians to imitate the kenosis, the self-emptying, of God. Writing to the Church at Philippi the Apostle says that in the Incarnation the Son of God “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8. RSV).

christ walking on waterFrom start to finish, God’s work in Jesus Christ is one global act of divine “voluntary self-restraint.”

God does this so that there is room for human freedom. God limits Himself so that you and I can “live and move” (see Acts 17:28) and discover who He has called us to be.

God constrains Himself so that we can express ourselves. He limits Himself so that we can flourish. He becomes sin (2 Corinthians 5;21) so that we can share in His divine nature, and so become holy and virtuous, and united to Him and each other in kindness and love (see 2 Peter 1:4-7).

All this is summed up when St Paul calls us “God’s fellow workers.”

Secure in his understanding that the whole Church is called to partner with God for the salvation of the world, St Paul is able to embrace with joy and thanksgiving the diversity of gifts in the Church. This is a theme to which he will return multiple times in his epistles (for example, Romans 12:6–8; 1 Corinthians 12:8–10; 28–30; Ephesians 4:11).

This is why for all his struggles and disappointments, St Paul is a man without resentment. When he sees that others build on the foundation he laid his preaching in Corinth he is not threatened or insecure.

Nor do the different structures built on the foundation of Christ cause him any anxiety. Some build with gold, silver, or precious stones, while others with wood, hay, or straw. St John Chrysostom says that by this St Paul means to tell us that in the Body of Christ

…the faith is not in one case less, in another more excellent, but the same in all those who truly believe. But in life there is room for some to be more diligent, others more slothful; some stricter, and others more ordinary; that some should have done well in greater things, others in less; that the errors of some should have been more grievous, of others less notable.

He concludes by saying the judgment is “not according to the result, but according to the labor” (Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 9.5).

If I am honest with myself, I realize that I have very little control over the results of my actions. The outcome of my work more often than not depends on factors not just outside my control but outside my awareness.

Look at St Peter.

Once again his impetus character causes him to overreach. If success were the standard, Simeon would never have become Peter.

And yet, it is Peter who answers Jesus while the others remain paralyzed by fear. While the other disciples “were troubled, saying ‘It is a ghost!’” Peter risks all saying “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”

Much as St Thomas’ doubt becomes the occasion of our faith, Peter’s fear but comes the occasion of our peace.

St John Chrysostom says that while “the sea caused his dizziness,” Peter’s “fear was caused by the wind” even though the “sea was the greater threat” and “the wind the less[er].” Though he struggled “with the sea” he suffered “from the violence of the wind.”

And so, Chrysostom concludes, “Such is human nature that we so often feel exposed to the lesser danger but experience it as the greater” (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 50.2). One of the greatest obstacles to the life Jesus would have for me is my tendency (like St Peter) to be afraid of the wind when the sea is the threat. 

That is to say, I worry and fret about outcomes or the actions of others, even those these are not under my control.  Much less are they standard against which God will judge me.

When I give in to this fear resentment takes hold of my heart. Yes, outcomes matter; God preserves and protect us from the those who mean well, from the believer who has piety without technique. 

But when success matters more than fidelity, when success matters more than obedience, I have replaced the will of God with my own.  When I should I do when I realize I am a slave to my own will?

I must with St Peter cry out “Lord, save me!” and with St Paul see my brothers and sisters in Christ for who they are–for who you are–my “fellow workers” in the proclamation of the Gospel.

Having led the disciples “by degrees” to understand more fully the Gospel as Chrysostom says, Jesus accepts their repentance and confirms their faith. How does He do this? 

He crosses over with His disciples “to the land of Gennesaret” and heals the sick. That is to say, He continues the work His Father has given Him.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God asks of us today, what He asked of His Son. Like Jesus, we must be faithful to our vocations, to the work that God has called each of us personally to do. But I can’t be faithful to my vocation unless I support you in yours. 

We are all co-workers in Christ, each with our own tasks given to us by God not only for His glory but our own; not only for our salvation but for the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Spiritual Gifts & Christian Unity

Sunday, August 11 (OS July 29), 2019: 8th Sunday after Pentecost; Martyr Callinicus of Gangra in Asia Minor (250); Virgin-martyr Seraphima (Serapia) of Antioch (2nd c.); Martyr Theodota and her three sons, in Bithynia (304); Martyr Michael (9th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 11:31-12:6
Gospel: Matthew 14:14-22

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul’s words in today’s epistle always stop me cold. “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.”

Think about that for a moment. The Apostle to the Gentile says he thanks God that his preaching of the Gospel didn’t lead to more people from death to life. He thanks God that by his hands, not more unbelievers were joined to the Body of Christ. He thanks God that those outside the Kingdom did not enter into the KIngdom through his ministry.

None of this is to suggest that Paul didn’t want these things to happen; he did. But looking at the situation on Corinth he realizes that something is terribly wrong there.

It isn’t just that the Church at Corinth has fallen back into the same divisions that afflict the world; they have embraced them. Worse, where worldly dissension is rooted in differences in ethnicity, language, religion, social class, or sex, the Corinthians’ separation from each other is justified by an appeal to apostolic authority.

So badly divided are the Corinthians that the things of God are now the cause of schism.

To be sure, all this is not the fault of the apostolic witness or the sacraments. It is rather the fault of hearts grown cold where once they were on fire for Christ and the Gospel.

And, lest we think ourselves better, the divisions of Corinth are still with us today. It isn’t just that we see Christians divided into Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical Christians. Bad as this worse still are the divisions we see among Orthodox Christians not just worldwide but in America.

And not just in American but even here in Madison, the temptation to sectarian divisions even if not formally proclaimed is here to be seen.

While we must not minimize the importance of “the faith delivered once and for all to the saints,” too often creedal fidelity is a mere pretext, a self-serving justification for Christians to remain divided from each other.

At its base, what we have forgotten is that not only does baptism unite us to Christ but, in Christ, to each other.

And this unity is not an abstraction; our unity is not merely formal or theoretical. In our baptism, we have each of us received spiritual gifts (charismata). These gifts are concrete–God calling “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers”–and the means by which the Christian is lived out corporately and personally.

The gifts God gives, He gives “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13, NKJV).

All of these gifts, God gives us not simply to proclaim the Gospel and to build the Church but as the concrete means by which we are united to Him and, in Him, to each other.

We are divided into Orthodox and Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical because we have lost sight of the meaning of the gifts we have received in baptism. Having lost the living sense of our gifts–and in most cases, even that there are gifts given–our lives in Christ have become consumed by abstract concerns about doctrine or morality, about liturgy or church growth, personal virtue or social witness.

But the gifts you received in baptism are the ways in which God has joined you to Himself. The gifts you have been given layout for you the path God has called you to walk as His disciple and witness.

Maybe He has called you to be an evangelist. Maybe He has called you to be an icon of hospitality for strangers or of mercy for the wounded. He may have set you aside to interceded in prayer or to oversee the material left of the Church in philanthropy or administration.

Whatever the gifts you have been given, their practice is how God has called you to serve Him in this life as His disciple and witness.

And, to return to the problem of the divisions among Christians, this can only be overcome through a life of generous fidelity to our personal vocations.

Until I am personal faithful, I will not understand that far from being a zero-sum game your vocation doesn’t that harm me but adds to me. To see this we need only call to mind the multiplication of bread and fish in today’s Gospel.

This is what grace does, it creates abundance where once there was poverty.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we suffer division not primarily because of theological differences–though these exist and matter–but because we have lost the living sense of what it means to be united to Christ–and so each other–through the unique gifts God gives to each of us in holy baptism.

We find our unity not primarily in what is external but in the grace of God in our hearts and in the myriad gifts He has given to each of us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Remember

Sunday, July 28 (OS July 14), 2019: 6th Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Councils; Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Great Prince Volodymyr, enlightener of the Kyiv Rus (1015); Martyrs Cyricus and his mother Julitta (305); Martyr Abudimus (4th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrew 13:7-16/ Galatians 1:1-11
Gospel: Jn. 17:1-13/ Jn. 10:1-9

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We cannot hear enough what we heard this morning; “remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.”

On one level St Paul is telling us to reflect not simply on his teaching but his life and the lives of all the apostles. If the teaching of the apostles–contained above all in the Scriptures–is the touchstone of the Christian faith, it is the integrity of the apostles’ lives that demonstrates the truth of the Gospel.

The first thing I learn from the saints is that to grow in Christ, I must return again and again to the text of Sacred Scripture. To borrow from St Jerome, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

We fulfill St Paul command to “remember,” through our faithful, daily, reading of Scripture. But while we begin and end in the Scriptures, we don’t limit ourselves to the text; to so limit ourselves is to betray the Scriptures themselves.

For the Scriptures, creation itself is a type of revelation. Since “the creation of the world, Paul says, God’s “invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20, NKJV). This is why St Paul chastizes the Gentiles for their lack of faith. Even though they didn’t have access to Scripture, they could have known God through reason. God is there to be seen in Creation.

King Solomon tells us God has “arranged all things by measure and number and weight” (Wisdom 11:20, NRSV). Reflecting on the empirical character of creation, St Augustine confesses he doesn’t know “why mice and frogs were created.” Nevertheless, he does know “that all things are beautiful in their kind, even if, because of our sins, they seem otherwise to us.”

He then goes on to say

When you see in all these beings their measure, their proportion and their order, look for the Creator in them, since you will find none other than the One in whom is supreme measure, supreme proportion and supreme order, that is, God, … In this way, in the smallness of an ant you may find more reason to praise God than in crossing a river astride a tall beast of burden (On Genesis: Against the Manichaens, 1.16.26).

Scripture reminds us that God draws us to Himself not only on words printed on a page but through the diversity and beauty of the material world. And to the fount of faith, we must add Creation itself. And not only as a whole but in all its pieces.

We must not, however, confuse how we come to know God with Who teach us about Him. In both Scripture and Creation, we are instructed, as Paul says of himself, not by “man” but by Jesus Christ through the power and operation of the Holy Spirit.

It is Christ Who speaks in Scripture, the holiness of the saints and Creation. Though different in form, they are in harmony with each other. This is because the have the same Source.

And because they also share One Source there is a harmony, a synergy between what revelation reveals and what reason grasps.

This harmony is found not in the human mind, it is not something we impose on the world around us. No, the order of the material world, the partnership of reason and revelation, of Scripture and Creation, and the witness of holiness down through the ages is found in God Himself.

What Jesus says about how “the Scriptures are fulfilled” by His death and resurrection apply as well to Creation. For St Ireneaus, far from being motivated by the Fall, the Incarnation of the Son and the subsequent establishment of the Church are the very reasons for Creation.

God creates, the saint says, so that His Son can be Incarnate and the Son becomes man so that humanity can come to share in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) as members of His Body the Church (see Romans 12:5;1 Corinthians 12:12–27; Ephesians 3:6; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 24).

All this means that far from being limited to an artificial sphere of human life called “religion” or “spirituality,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the key to how we understand not only salvation but all of human life and creation itself.

This may seem an extravagant claim. And in a sense it is. Jesus Christ is a challenge to the fantasy that I can live a neatly ordered life merely according to my own desires.

In my confusion, I cling to my own projects as if these were the source of my worth rather than God’s love for me.

And how easily I fall into thinking that my salvation, my happiness, my peace, and joy depend on the success of my plans rather than God’s great love and mercy for me.

In the face of these, to human willfulness and much as our best good intentions, the Scriptures tell us “remember.”

Remember the martyrs and saints, who found glory in their obedience to Christ.

Remember our teachers and friends who introduced us to Christ and the Gospel.

Remember all that God has done for us day in and day out.

Above all, remember God Who has come to dwell in our hearts in baptism and Who makes us His tabernacles through Holy Communion.

Remember all these things. Remember Jesus.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Listen to Jesus

Saturday, July 20, 2019: Thomas the Righteous of Malea; Kyriake the Great Martyr; Akakios of Sinai; Willibald, Bishop of Eichstatt.

The Wedding of Eric Bowser and Savannah Albrecht
Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Madison WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:20‑33
Gospel: John 2:1-11

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Eric and Savannah,

The prayers of the Church are clear. Marriage plays an essential role in the great sweep of salvation history. As part of the work of redemption, in every generation, God has called men and women to marry. Today, you join that great assembly of married couples like Abraham and Sarah, like Isaac and Rebecca, like Joachim and Anna, like Joseph and the Virgin Mary, who by their love and fidelity to God and each other prepared the way for the coming of Jesus.

But this isn’t all.

From the first moment of creation, through the trials of Israel, and through the life, death, resurrection of Jesus and down through the generations until today, God has done all these things so that today you could stand here together as husband and wife.

All this, and more, God has done out of His great love for you.

Thinking about all this can be overwhelming. This why some couples simply drift through marriage. To avoid this, how then should you live what St Paul calls this “great mystery” of marriage?

For this, as in all things, we need to look to the first and greatest disciple of Jesus, His Mother the Most Blessed and Ever-Virgin Mary.

St John tells us that when they ran out of wine at the Wedding in Cana, Mary intercedes with her Son. She does this not for the pleasure of the guests but for the sake of the wedding couple. She speaks to her Son to spare them the embarrassment of being thought to be inconsiderate hosts.

While Jesus’ response might seem harsh–“O woman, what have you to do with me?”–in saying this He reveals the depth of His Mother’s faith and her commitment to care for not just one couple but all married couples.

Mary doesn’t argue with her Son. She certainly doesn’t contradict Him or chastise Him. Instead, she does what mothers do. Mary does what is necessary.

She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” She tells the servants–and so each of us–to listen to Jesus.

As you start your life together as husband and wife, listen to Jesus.

When the inevitable disagreements arise, listen to Jesus. Listen because your disagreements aren’t a question who is right–and let me tell you now, you’re both wrong–but an invitation to discern God’s will for you.

When trials come, listen to Jesus.

When successes come, listen to Jesus.

When your children are born and you struggle to raise them in the Lord, listen to Jesus.

Throughout all your life together, listen to Jesus. Pray both in private and as a couple opening your hearts so that you can hear the voice of Jesus.

Above all, listen to Jesus because, as much as you love each other, He loves you more. No one loves you more than Jesus.

The love your friends have for you, the love your parents have for you, and the love you have for each other, all of this love is His gift to you. Our love for you, as sincere, deep and unwavering as it is, is only a reflection of Jesus’ love for you.

So listen to Jesus.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

It’s About God’s Love

Sunday, July 21 (O.S., July 8), 2019: 5th Sunday after Pentecost; Great Martyr Procopius of Caesarea in Palestine.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 10:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 8:28-9:1

Glory to Jesus Christ!

One of the great temptations we face is forgetting that we are human. Or, maybe more accurately, I am tempted to forget that my neighbor is human.

This most frequently takes the form of imagining that I am somehow exempt from the faults I see in others. But the fact that I recognize them in others strongly suggests that these are rather more than possible for me. If I recognize them in you, it is because they are my shortcomings as well.

Accepting this about myself, helps me understand St Paul when he says his “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” He recognizes an obstacle to the salvation of his kin because he sees a similar temptation in himself. Just as the former Saul, “they have a zeal for God” but “not according to knowledge.”

St Augustine says zeal without knowledge is symptomatic of living by “self-confidence” rather than “grace.” As he goes on to say that

…they were ignorant of the righteousness of God, not that righteousness whereby God is righteous but the one which comes to man from God (Grace and Free Will, 12.24).

Like Israel, I am enslaved to sin and controlled by my passions not because I am ignorant of God but because of a poverty of self-knowledge. I remain unrepentant not because I don’t know the glory and majesty of God. What I don’t understand is that all I have, all that I do, all that I am is first and foremost God’s gift to me.

This is precisely the situation of the demons in today’s Gospel. They recognize Jesus as the Christ “and tremble” (see James 2:19) but don’t understand, or rather won’t accept, that they live because of His great love for them. This makes the presence of Christ and the announcement of grace–as the demons themselves say–a torment.

There is though a difference between the demons and the human heart. To see this, we need to read a bit more of the Gospel.

The demons ask to be sent into the swine while the herdsmen ask Jesus to “depart.” The fathers of the Church are divided in how they understand this request from the herdsmen.

While “many believe” they make their request “out of pride,” St Jerome this they do so because

They judge themselves unworthy of the Lord’s presence, just as Peter after the catch of fish fell before the Savior’s knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Commentary on Matthew, 1.8.34)

Jerome, I think, is correct. For all that it can at times seem otherwise, human beings are not demons. Even at our worst, we are no more than poor imitations.

More importantly, God becomes Man, not an angel; Jesus shares in our nature, not the angels’ and this makes all the difference. While everything that exists, exists by the grace of God it is only human beings who were created to share in the divine nature.

The angels worship God as “outside” themselves as it were. We, however, worship God Who not only “dwells among us” (See John 1:14; Revelation 21:3) by His incarnation but in us (Ephesians 3:17) by baptism and, above all, the Eucharist.

Just as we say that Christ is “the end of the law” because He is “the cause of it” (St Ireneaus, Against Heresies, 4.12.3), Christ as the Creator of All is the fulfillment of each human heart. This means that however tenacious the hold of unbelief on society and the human heart, we should never underestimate the presence and power of Christ in both.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The most basic truth about everyone they meet is that they are loved by God. It is out of this great love that God in Christ joins Himself to the whole human family personally. God dwells with all even if not all dwell with Him.

Our task as Orthodox Christians is to first accept God’s love in Jesus Christ of us and then to help others see that they too are loved by Him. Everything else we do, good as it is in itself, serves these two goals.

It is only the love of Jesus Christ for all that make lasting sense of human life,

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Freedom is to Do the Will of God

Sunday, July 14 (O.S., July 1), 2019: 4th Sunday after Pentecost; Holy and Wonderworking Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, Martyrs at Rome (284); St. Angelina, despotina of Serbia (XVI); Martyr Potitus at Naples (II). St. Peter the Patrician, monk of Constantinople (854).

Epistle: Romans 6:18-23

Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Holy Apostle tells us that once we were held under bondage to sin but now we under bondage to Christ. Though he is speaking “in human terms” his assertion that “having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” is still an affront to our sense of freedom.

For most of us, freedom means freedom of choice. But the naked ability to choose between options is not real freedom. Think about it for a moment. To be here this morning requires giving up being somewhere else.

As important as freedom of choice is to our moral life and our life in Christ–and let’s not make any mistake, freedom in this sense is essential–it is inherently self-limiting. When deciding between options we quickly discover that every “yes” contains within itself a “no.” This is why even the best of our choices restrict our freedom.

Returning to St Paul, we can grasp easily enough why sin undermines our freedom of choice. We all know what it means to be trapped by anger or resentment or worry. Try as I might in these moments, I can’t do what I want because my negative feelings don’t just bind me, they tear me apart.

This is what the fathers mean when they talk about the “passions.” Sin cripples me by fostering in me evil habits. I am enslaved to habits of thought and action that cause me to turn my back on God and neighbor. The fact that these habits arise from my own desires only compounds the tragedy of sin.

I am enslaved to my passions and it is from the passions that Christ comes to free not only me but all of us by His death and resurrection. We can summarize the whole of the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church as one as being progressively freed from the passions.

But this still leaves us with the Apostle’s provocative statement that we are now “slaves of righteousness.”

Freedom is not simply a matter of choice. If I seek freedom here I will in short order discover, as I said a moment ago, that I have enslaved myself to my own desires.

Seen in this light, we can understand why freedom is not doing what I want but, as Paul suggests, doing what I ought. That is to say, doing the will of God.

To those who associate freedom with freedom of choice, obedience to God seems an unbearable imposition. To those who value above all the human ability to choose, obedience to God is an offense and assault against human nature.

But again, let’s think a moment about what it means to do the willing of God.

Far from limiting your freedom, love opens a world of ever-increasing possibilities. Commit yourself to love your neighbor as yourself, make this the choice that guides all your choices and you never want for new opportunities.

Not only that. As you love this person you learn at the same time how to love more fully not only this person but all other persons.

Likewise, forgiveness liberates you from resentment, faith from a life of distrust and even as hope liberates you from anxiety for the future.

To see how this happens, we need only look at the Gospel.

It was unheard of for a centurion, a Roman officer, to approach a Jew for help. No Roman would humble himself to become a supplicant to a Jew. And yet, the centurion does exactly this because he loves his servant.

The centurion’s love is not only of benefit to the servant; it is to his benefit as well. Likewise for all of us, love for our neighbor blossoms into the love of God. The real, if limited, love of one man for another opens up to the unending love of God.

We can look as well at Ss. Cosmas and Damian whose memory we celebrate today.

Skilled as they were in the technical demands of being physicians, their faith in Jesus Christ able them to heal the soul as well as the body. As physicians of the body, they were able only to delay death; as physicians of the soul, they offered their patients eternal life.

When I understand freedom not as doing what I want but what I ought, I transcend the inherent limits of the former and enter into the unending possibilities of the latter.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To be truly free means to do the will of God; nothing more and certainly nothing less.

May we live our lives from this day forth as free men and women in Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

All the Saints of This Place

Sunday, June 30 (O.S., June 17), 2019: Second Sunday after Pentecost; Sunday of all Saints of Mt. Athos; Sunday of all Saints who have shown forth in missionary lands; Sunday of All Saints of Rus-Ukraine; Sunday of All Saints of America.

Epistle: Romans 2:10-16

Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Monastics and missionaries; mill and mine workers; any number of seemingly ordinary men and women who simply lived their lives, day to day, in fidelity to Christ.

We commemorated all the saint only last week. Today we remember them again. But today we fix our gaze on them once again but now as saints of particular places. Mount Athos, the mission fields where they brought the Gospel, Rus-Ukraine and here in North America.

Men and women of different backgrounds, living very different lives, all of them united by a common faith in Jesus Christ and life as Orthodox Christians.

St. Cyril of Alexandria says that “we make images” of the saints “not so that we might adore them as gods, but that when we see them, we might be prompted to imitate them.”

And what we imitate is not the externals of their lives but their commitment to Christ; their love of God and neighbor. The form of their commitment, the form of their love, takes the shape it does based on the unique circumstances of their lives. But that commitment to Christ is the same.

As we heard last night at Vespers,

…let us praise the Saints of North America, Holy hierarchs, venerable monastics and glorious martyrs, pious men, women and children, both known and unknown. Through their words and deeds in various walks of life, by the grace of the Spirit they achieved true holiness.

Hearing this you might ask, what do we mean when we say the saints “achieved true holiness”? What did it mean for them, and for us, to be free in Christ and to experience the abundant new life that He offers?

If you know the history of the Church in America, you know that many of the saints we commemorate today were often not free in the usual sense of the world.

The bishops and clergy were bound by the obligations of their ministries. Like their parishioners, they often lived in poverty holding secular jobs to support not only themselves and their families but also their parishes or dioceses.

The monastics lived under obedience and, again, often in poverty.

The martyrs lost their lives. In some cases, they willing returned to their native countries knowing that doing so would mean persecution, imprisonment and even death at the hands of Communist or Muslim regimes.

And then there were those whose livelihoods depended on the harvest on farms in the Midwest, on the good graces of the owners of the mills and mines that built America and the vagaries of the market place even as others depended on their luck at fishing or hunting in the wilds of Alaska.

And then there was the persecution they suffered in America.

Mainline Protestants professed friendship while proselytizing Orthodox Christians.

The Klan persecuted Greek Orthodox Christians in the South.

And as they did in the Lower 48, the US  government took native Alaskan children from their families and villages sending them to Protestant missionary schools to become “American”  a process that required stripping them of their culture, their language and, above all, their Orthodox Christian faith.

And yet for all they suffered, the Orthodox Christians we remember today not only kept their faith but loved the country that was  a source of joy and opportunity of prejudice and persecution.

The witness of the saints of America is this: Holiness and being American are not fundamentally opposed to each other. Or, at least, being an American is no more an impediment to life in Christ than being a member of any other culture or citizen of any other nation.

And for us? What does this mean for us personally and as a community?

Just this. If our ancestors in the faith could become saints in their circumstances so can we. If being American, with all its opportunities and temptations, was not for them an obstacle to faith in Jesus Christ and holiness, can it be any different for us who live in Madison?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us imitate the fidelity of those saints we commemorate today, those of North American but also of Ukraine, of the missionary lands and Mount Athos. They remained faithful to Christ and His Church. And they did so in what were often difficult economic, political and personal circumstances can we, can I, do any less?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Preaching the Gospel

Sunday, June 16 (O.S., June 3), 2019: Holy Pentecost-Trinity Sunday; Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Church.

Epistle: Acts 2:1-11

Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12

Today, our Lord Jesus Christ sends the Holy Spirit down on the disciples and apostles. Receiving the Spirit, those who were once frightened men and women boldly proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The disciples and apostles don’t proclaim the whole Christian faith in all its particulars. They don’t speak about sacraments and fasting, they didn’t engage others in debates about doctrine and church history. Instead, they proclaim the kerygma that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

While the rest of the teaching of the Church is important–essential in fact–it rests of the foundation of the kerygma. Unless and until a person understands, accepts, and believes that out of His great love for us God sent His only begotten Son into this world as a sacrifice for sin and that by His death and Resurrection Jesus has overthrown the powers of sin and death, the rest of the Gospel is mere moral philosophy. Without belief in the kerygma, what the Church teaches is at best only a set of interesting ideas that have no power to save.

Unlike the disciples on that first Pentecost, not only do we often fail to begin the evangelical work at the beginning–that Jesus loves us–we often speak to peoples whose hearts–unlike the hearts of the “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” in Jerusalem–are not ready to hear the Gospel.

At least some of the those in Jerusalem were able to accept the Gospel because their hearts had been prepared by the Law of Moses or the study of philosophy. These were men and women who already believed in God, who cultivated the life of virtue, and who had confidence in the ability of human reason to know the truth.

Today though many of the people–I dare say most–of the people we speak to have hearts that are not ready to hear the Gospel. They have an impoverished view of human reason and they think the moral life is a matter of opinion or preference that has only one standard: that we don’t hurt others.

As for the existence of God, the best we can say is that many–including many Orthodox Christians I’m sad to say–believe in a God Who asks nothing and offers nothing beyond a wanting us to be happy.

Added to all this we must overcome the moralism, bad preaching and erroneous theology that have become associated with the Gospel in our popular religious culture.

Like the disciples and apostles, we have each of us personally received the Holy Spirit not in part but in full. But the way in which we fulfill our evangelical vocation is different than how they did it. Before we can preach the Gospel, we must do the hard work of preparing the hearts of those to whom we would preach.

This work begins in friendship.

Not a calculating friendship that draws close to someone simply to make them Orthodox. We must rather be true friends–to unbelievers and believers alike. We must be committed to seeking what is best for them and we must respect their consciences. Many, most really, of those with whom we are friends will never commit themselves to Christ. Among those who already have, most will likely not become Orthodox.

Whatever they may or may not do, our task is above all else to love them. When and how someone responds to God’s grace is beyond us. This doesn’t mean we are indifferent to the salvation of our friends. It does, however, mean we must remember that while “one sow” it is often another who reaps (John 4:37). We have our role play in the salvation of the world. But frequently it is to prepare the heart so that someone else at some other time, can lead the person to Christ and His Church.

This is why, and this the second thing we must do, we must cultivate a life of prayer. We must pray not only for each other but for our friends and, yes, even our enemies and antagonists. It is much better, to borrow from St Paisios of Mount Athos, to talk to God about our friends than to talk to our friends about God.

To friendship and prayer, we must add respect for the ability of human reason to know the truth and a practical appreciation for the life of virtue. Too many Orthodox Christians I am sorry to say have made their own the world’s conviction that truth is really about power and that what really matters is not virtue but good intentions.

When we deny reason’s ability to know the truth and the necessity of living a morally good life–and please understand, these are two sides of the same coin—we set ourselves adrift in the sea of relativism. This doesn’t free us. Instead, it degrades us.

When “true” means “true for you” and the only moral standard is “don’t hurt others,” we don’t free ourselves from conflict or disagreement–these are always with us–but lose of the desire and the ability to resolve our differences. Absent reason and virtue all we are left with is our desires and so the unchecked pursuit of power.

It was this, the imposition of the strong on the weak, that the Gospel corrected. In Christ, I discover that power, authority, wealth are not for my own self-aggrandizement but of my service to my neighbor.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We have received in fullness they same Spirit as the disciples and apostles on Pentecost. And, like them, we are called to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the particulars of how we fulfill our evangelical vocation are different, the work is the same.

Like the disciples and apostles in Jerusalem, seeing the enormity of the task or the anger of those who disagree with us, we might be afraid. And realizing our fear and seeing the obstacles before us we might be tempted to remain silent and justify our silence by appealing to a false sense of humility.

But when we are overwhelmed by the work to which we are called, we should remember that–like the disciples and apostles–we have received not a portion of the Holy Spirit but the fullness of the Spirit so that, again like the disciples and apostles, we can preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 ) to the world and so lead others to faith, to the forgiveness of their sins, and to becoming themselves shares in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and witness to the Resurrection.

Blessed Feast!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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