The Blessings of Liberty: the Challenge of Success
Sunday, June 18, 2017: 2nd Sunday of Matthew; Leontius, Hypatius, & Theodulus the Martyrs of Syria, Leontios the Myrrh-Streamer of Argos
Epistle: Romans 2:10-16
Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23
For some Orthodox Christians, today–the second Sunday after Pentecost–is a day set aside in the liturgical calendar to commemorate the saints of their local Church. Having last week commemorated all the saints, especially those known only to God, today we commemorate all the saints, again known and unknown, of America, Russia, Mount Athos, Palestine, Romania, & the Iberian Peninsula.
We do this as a reminder that just as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NKJV), God freely bestows “glory and honor and peace” on all those who “do by nature what the law requires” as we just heard.
This obedience to the divine will. St Paul points out, is possible because God has written the demands of the law on our hearts. If I still myself, if I cultivate a sense of external and internal quiet, in the secret of my heart, I can hear the Word of God.
Another way to say this is that to grow in holiness, to become a saint, I must listen to my conscience. Again as St Paul reminds us, though we are all sinners, God has not abandoned any of us.
Rather, and now we turn to the Gospel, God calls each of us. Even as He called Peter and Andrew, James and John, He calls each and every single human being to follow Him as His disciple and apostle.
And He doesn’t simply call us as individuals–though we each of us must respond personally or else love isn’t love–but as a people, as a nation.
For Americans, this might at first seem to be a problem. We are after all not a nation established by blood or soil. We are rather a people united by an ideal, a conviction, as we read in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
This is not the time or place to examine the particulars of what these unalienable rights. Nor is it the time to examine the many ways in which we have as a nation we have failed to live up to the ideals that Jefferson outlines.
For now, let me simply point out that in many ways America has been a blessing for the Church. For the first time since the Edict of Toleration, the Church is not only free politically to live her life as she sees fit, she has the economic and social resources to do so.
In America, not only are we not persecuted, we are also not established. We are not a department of State and we are not a despised minority. Moreover, we are well-educated and, frankly, wealthy personally if not always institutionally.
We are wholly and truly free. This means that there are, if I may say it this way, no external constraints on our growth in holiness either personally or as a community.
All though isn’t necessarily well with us.
It seems sometimes that the sheer breadth of our freedoms and the extent of our wealth undermines our pursuit of holiness. We are free and wealthy beyond what any of the fathers could have imagined. And yet, how do we respond, how do I respond, to the “blessings of liberty” that God has given the Church in America?
As we reflect on the saints who God raised up in other lands, we need to ask ourselves, I need to ask myself, what return are we–am I–making on what God has freely given?
Orthodox Christians have remained faithful in obscurity, poverty, and persecution. We have found a modus vivendi, a way of life, conducive to holiness in many different cultures, economic circumstances and under even the cruelest and most repressive political regimes.
Now, though, we face the challenge of success! There are times, in what I hope are my lesser moments, when I worry that America will do what the Romans, the Ottomans, and the Communists, could never do. In these moments I worry that a Church that raised saints under persecution will collapse under liberty.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has called each us to follow Him as His disciples and apostles. And He has called us to do so here, in America, in a land of unparalleled wealth and freedom.
Let us exploit with gratitude the liberty we have been given!
Let us follow Christ as His disciples and apostles “doers of the law.”
Let us with our time, talent and treasure teach and preach the gospel of the kingdom God so that through us God can heal “every disease and every infirmity among the people” of this place.
To do this we need only respond affirmatively to God call.
To do this we need only say “Yes!” to the God Who has this day said “Yes!” to us and called us to be His disciples and apostles in America.
To do this, to say yes, we need only to prayer as we can, read the Scriptures as God’s word to us and do good when the possibility presents itself.
Above all though, we need to come to God in Holy Communion and Holy Confession. It is here, in these two sacraments above all else, that we are transformed and so are able to make a worthy returning to God for the blessings of liberty He has granted the Church in America.
St Irenaeus: Homily on the Holy Spirit
Sunday, June 4, 2017: Holy Pentecost;: Our Father Metrophanes, Archbishop of Constantinople, Mary & Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, Sophia of Thrace, The Mother of Orphans
Epistle: Acts 2:1-11
Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12
When the Lord told his disciples to go and teach all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, he conferred on them the power of giving men new life in God.
He had promised through the prophets that in these last days he would pour out his Spirit on his servants and handmaids, and that they would prophesy. So when the Son of God became the Son of Man, the Spirit also descended upon him, becoming accustomed in this way to dwelling with the human race, to living in men and to inhabiting God’s creation. The Spirit accomplished the Father’s will in men who had grown old in sin, and gave them new life in Christ.
Luke says that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost, after the Lord’s ascension, with power to open the gates of life to all nations and to make known to them the new covenant. So it was that men of every language joined in singing one song of praise to God, and scattered tribes, restored to unity by the Spirit, were offered to the Father as the first-fruits of all the nations.This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in
This was why the Lord had promised to send the Advocate: he was to prepare us as an offering to God. Like dry flour, which cannot become one lump of dough, one loaf of bread, without moisture, we who are many could not become one in Christ Jesus without the water that comes down from heaven. And like parched ground, which yields no harvest unless it receives moisture, we who were once like a waterless tree could never have lived and borne fruit without this abundant rainfall from above. Through the baptism that liberates us from change and decay we have become one in body; through the Spirit we have become one in soul.The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.
The Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of God came down upon the Lord, and the Lord in turn gave this Spirit to his Church, sending the Advocate from heaven into all the world into which, according to his own words, the devil too had been cast down like lightning.If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for
If we are not to be scorched and made unfruitful, we need the dew of God. Since we have our accuser, we need an advocate as well. And so the Lord in his pity for man, who had fallen into the hands of brigands, having himself bound up his wounds and left for his care two coins bearing the royal image, entrusted him to the Holy Spirit. Now, through the Spirit, the image and inscription of the Father and the Son have been given to us, and it is our duty to use the coin committed to our charge and make it yield a rich profit for the Lord.
St Irenaeus, “Against the Heresies”
Homily: God’s Laid Out the Path in Each Human Heart
Sunday, May 28, 2017: Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council; The Holy Hieromartyr Eutychius, Bishop of Melitene, Nikitas, Bishop of Chalcedon, Eutechios, Bishop of Mytilene, Helikonis the Martyr, Heladios the Hieromartyr of the East, Zacharias the New Martyr
Epistle: Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Gospel: John 17:1-13
Let’s look ahead for a moment.
Next Sunday we celebrate Pentecost. We sometimes, wrongly but understandably in my view, refer to this feast as the “birthday” of the Church. And yet, if we read the Scriptures and the fathers carefully, we discover that Pentecost is but one moment in the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation. Clement of Alexandria puts the matter this way: “Just as God’s will is creation and is called ‘the world,’ so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called “‘the Church’”
And so in Holy Tradition we see a series of churches. There is Israel, the Church of Jews. In the liturgical tradition, paganism is called “‘an infertile, sterile church,’ but a church nonetheless.”FOOTNOTE: Footnote
Writing some 200 years after Clement, St. Epiphanius, argues that the Church is the goal of all things (Panarion 1,1,5:PG 41,181C). This make sense if we remember that the Church is the Body of Christ and that the world is “made through Him” (John 1:10, NKJV) and “were created … for Him (Colossians 1:16, NKJV) and “through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6, NKJV).
The centrality of the Church to creation and to God’s plan of salvation is why we are always concerned not just about our relationship to Christ as His disciples, or our love for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ but also the dogmatic integrity of what we preach and teach. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that whole of created reality–visible and invisible–depends on the Church because it is in and through the Church that creation finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
And the centrality of the Church’s teaching also explains one of the central–and to those outside the Church sometime puzzling and even offensive–aspects of the Church’s worship. Orthodox worship is for all its grandeur and beauty is unapologetically dogmatic.
In part this reflects the ancient Christian norm–lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi–the rule or law of prayer, is the rule of faith and the rule of life. While we share this with our Western Christian brothers and sisters, as Orthodox Christians we positively delight in weaving dogmatic formula into our worship.
In the Creed, we use highly technical, theological language when we say that the Son is “consubstantial” or (in a different translation) “of one substance” (homoousion) with the Father. Frequently in our services we say that God the Father is “super-” or “supra-” substantial.
And of course, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy we don’t simply formally proclaim the Orthodox faith and remember the Ecumenical Councils and saints who defended it but also solemnly anathematize those who reject “…the Faith of the Apostles, … the Faith of the Fathers, … the Faith of the Orthodox, … the Faith which has established the Universe” (Synodikon Of Orthodoxy). Our anathematizing of the heretics doesn’t end here.
At Matins for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we also read about the death of Arius, the heretic whose false teaching was refuted and rejected at the First Ecumenical Council we commemorate this morning.
Because Arius denied that the Son was consubstantial with the Father, that Jesus was really and truly God and not simply the most magnificent (as he taught), the liturgical tradition calls him the “arch-heretic.” This doesn’t simply mean that he is the worst (or among the worst) heretics. No, the prefix “arch” means that he is the pattern on which all heretics base themselves.
We need to know all this to understand the graphic detail in which we recount the story of Arius’ death. You read the whole account in the Synaxarion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy that having only pretended to repent of his false teaching Arius dies in a public toilet on his way to serve Liturgy with Patriarch Alexander of Constantinople. This may seem to us a rather vulgar story to read in church but it is include to stress the lifegiving importance of the Church’s dogmatic witness.
Given all this, it isn’t surprising that sometimes, alright often, we can be triumphalistic and even arrogant in how we present the faith. Let me say first of all, that triumphalism has no place in our lives as Orthodox Christians. We harm the Church’s witness when, however we might justify it to ourselves, we denigrate the convictions of others.
Trying to convince someone of the Gospel by offering long, laborious explanation on Church history and the theological underpinnings of Orthodoxy is foolish. It’s like trying to save a drowning man by lecturing him on the evolution and functioning of the human respiratory system. What you say may very well be true but you can’t save him unless you jump into the water and pull the man out.
Trumphalism is lecturing a drowning man about respiration. What I say may be true but it saves no one.
So what are we to do instead?
Recall what I said a moment ago. The Body of Christ, the Church, is the reason for everything. Because God wills that Christ be “all in all” (see, 1 Corinthians 15:28) He also wills the same for Christ’s Body. We don’t need to coerce people emotionally, intellectually or spiritually. The acceptance of the Christ, the Gospel and the life of the Church taken together are the fulfillment, the reason, for each human life.
This means that God has already inscribed the path of salvation in the heart of each person we met. Far from being something imposed from outside, the desire to follow Christ, to accept the Gospel and to live the life of the Church is as natural to each human being as breathing. It is sin that is unnatural to us and grace that makes us most fully ourselves.
My brothers and sisters in Christ!
We oppose heresy because we love our neighbor!
We battle spiritual wolves because we have accepted Christ’s call to be witnesses to the Resurrection!
To lovingly bear witness to the Truth of the Gospel means to reveal to others the presence of Christ in their hearts. We haven been given to Holy Spirit so that we can do this. So let us now proceed to do what we have been given to do.
Homily: Holy Ascension
Thursday, May 25, 2017: The Holy Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Epistle: Acts 1:1-12
Gospel: Luke 24:36-53
The reading from Acts reminds us though God reveals His will to us, though He reveals Himself to us and draws us into communion with Him, there are some things about His will, about Himself, that God doesn’t reveal. And, of course, because these things aren’t revealed, we don’t know what they are.
There is, however, one thing we know we don’t know because God has told us He won’t tell us.
We don’t know when, in the words of the Creed, Jesus will come back as Judge of the living and the dead. This is what the Apostles asked Jesus in the moments before His Ascension: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?” Jesus answers that it isn’t for them, it isn’t for the Church, it isn’t for us, for you or for me “to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”
St Ephrem the Syrian says that God hides things from us, and tells us He is doing so, to inspire us to “keep watch.” If the time of the Last Judgment, “were to be revealed,” it would be to our harm. If we knew when Jesus was coming as Judge we would grow indifferent to His judgment. While God “has indeed said He will come, … He did not define when,” St Ephrem says, so that “all generations and ages will thirst for Him.”
In other words, in this and in all things God acts in such a way as to keep the desire for Him alive in the human heart.
And so immediately after telling the Apostles what they won’t know–after kindling their desire–Jesus tells them they “shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”
But even here, the fine details of the future are left unspoken. But this doesn’t cause the Apostles to be discouraged. Why? Because Jesus speaks in such a way as to inspire deeper love and greater devotion in the Apostles.
Remember what we just read in the Gospel.
Though they are momentarily stunned by seeing Jesus ascend into Heaven when the angels explain to them what has happened the Apostle return “to Jerusalem with great joy” and are “continually in the temple blessing God.”
Sometimes we think–sometimes I think–if only God’s will was laid out for us clearly and in minute detail we would be happy. But if God were to do this, what would happen to human freedom and creativity? If everything was laid out for me, if I had a step-by-step plan that I followed as I would a recipe, I wouldn’t be God’s co-worker but merely a spiritual functionary who blindly and thoughtlessly did as I was told.
This isn’t what God wants from us. God loves us. He and wants us to return His love. But love isn’t love unless it is free.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as God is for me, I must be for others.
God doesn’t compel me, He woos me. God doesn’t just passively leave room for my freedom, my creativity, He creates the space, the conditions, for me to discover and exercise my freedom and creativity.
And as God has done for me, I must do for you.
To be disciples of Christ means that we help others find true freedom in Christ. This is why compulsion is foreign to the life of the Church. Like God, we must respect each others’ freedom. Anything less is not worthy of the name “Christian” because anything less is contrary to the example of Christ, “Who in glory ascended from us into Heaven” and now sits “at the right hand of God the Father for our salvation”!
Homily: Transformed by the Divine Light
Sunday, May 21, 2017: Sunday of the Blind Man; Constantine and Helen, Equal-to-the Apostles,Constantine and Helen, Equal-to-the Apostles, Pachomios the Righteous New Martyr
Epistle: Acts 26:1, 12-20
Christ is Risen!
The Scriptures see blindness as having two, fundamental meanings. Like deafness, blindness is both a terrible physical affliction, It is also a sign humanity’s estrangement from God. For example,in the Prophet Isaiah, God complains about the spiritual indifference of the leaders of Israel: ““Hear, you deaf and look, you blind, that you may see. Who is blind but My servant, or deaf as My messenger whom I send? Who is blind as he who is perfect, and blind as the Lord’s servant? Seeing many things, but you do not observe; opening the ears, but he does not hear” (Isaiah 42: 18-20, NKJV).
Likewise, in the New Testament, Jesus often calls the Pharisees “blind guides” who will not only fall into a pit themselves but causes others to do so as well (Matthew 15:14). These “blind guides” are also morally obtuse confuse the means God has given us to grow in holiness with holiness itself (Matthew 23:16-26).
Following the biblical tradition St John Cassian says that anger isn’t a matter of affect, it isn’t a feeling. Cassian’s understanding of anger as spiritual blindness. As for the feelings I associate with being angry, these are the symptoms that I’m numb to the presence of God in my life. They reveal to me that I’m blind to the presence of God in my life.
Symptomatic of this blindness, as St Paul tells St Timothy, is to have “a form of godliness” while nevertheless “denying its power.” We are, St Paul says, to “turn away” from such people who instead of preaching the Gospel “creep into households and make captives of gullible women.” Rather than repent, these blind guides are “ loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:5-7, NKJV).
While Jesus will,as we see in today’s Gospel, sometimes heal physical blindness, His fundamental mission is to heal the human heart of its insensitivity to the presence of God in human affairs. It’s easy for me to identify others who are blind to God’s grace and mercy. My real fault is that I overlook my own blindness. I need to learn and accept that Jesus comes not simply to heal you but me as well. The word spoken through Isaiah to the leaders of Israel and by Jesus to the scribes and the Pharisees is spoken to each of us.
Like the scribes and the Pharisees I’m blind because I’m a sinner. It is this spiritual blindness to the presence and mercy of God that is the singular source not only of my anger but also my despair and my many lapses in, and offenses against, charity.
There is, however, another form of blindness that isn’t the result my sinfulness but of the brilliance of God’s grace. The Apostle Paul describes this grace in his defense King Agrippa as “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun.”
St Gregory of Nyssa in The Life of Moses, describes this second blindness as “luminous darkness.” He says that “Scripture teaches” the knowledge of God “comes at first to those who receive it as light.” This why, he says, anything contrary to the Gospel is called “ darkness, and the escape from darkness comes about when one participates in light.”
As we grew in the spiritual life, we experience a change.As we grow in our intimacy with God, we come to see that “the true knowledge” of God “consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge.” It is because in contemplation we come to experience to limits of reason, that the experience of God is “a kind of darkness.”
This wholly positive and illuminating blindness is the result of God drawing close to the soul. This new blindness is like the momentary blindness that comes from looking directly at the Sun. This second blindness is source of not just of humility, but also hope in God, charity for others, and the faith needed to proclaim the Gospel with the courage of the martyrs. This, second blindness, is the experience of being overwhelmed by the brilliant light of God’s beauty. It is the experience of this second blindness that transform Saul ,the Persecutor of the Church, into St Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles
Unfortunately, many in the Church today don’t actively pursue the kind of intimacy that St Gregory describes. Too many of us are content with knowledge about God rather than have knowledge of God. Of the former, Gregory says that “The man who thinks that God can be known does not really have life.” Why? Because he knows not the One, True God but only a facsimile of God “devised by his own imagination.”
Whether willingly or not, the individual who has only an abstract knowledge about God is spiritually crippled. For all that they may know about the canons, or liturgy, or Church history, they don’t understand that all that God has given us, He has given us for one reason, and one reason only, to inspire in the soul a desire for God that “never ceases.”
For St Gregory of Nyssa and for the Tradition of the Church, be a disciple of Jesus Christ, to center our life around His Persona and shape our life according to His teaching and example, means continually grow in our desire to draw close to God.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Listen again to the Gospel we heard this morning. When the blind man is healed, the restoration of his sight inspires the man not only to witness to Jesus Christ but to seek Him out:
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe”: and he worshiped him.
Let us this morning, and everyday going forward, strive to lay aside our anger, our despair, our lapses in charity and instead draw close to the God Who has drawn close to us in the Scriptures, the sacraments, the worship and the tradition of the Church.
Let us, like St Paul, not be “disobedient to the heavenly vision” but rather ly aside our sins and turn to God, offering to Him “deeds worthy of … repentance.”
Homily: Christians Are Exiles
Sunday, May 14, 2017: Sunday of the Samaritan Woman; Isidore the Martyr of Chios, Holy Hieromartyr Therapontus, Holy New Martyrs Mark and John, Serapion the Holy Martyr, Leontius, Patriarch of Jerusalem
Epistle: Acts 11:19-30
Gospel: John 4:5-42
Christ is Risen!
Human beings are different from each other it two, broad ways.
The first is that we are created “male and female” in the words of Genesis (1:27).Though this distinction is under attack by some–even by some in the Church–it remains the most basic human difference. Before we are anything else, we are either male or female and this is a created distinction inherent to being human.
All the other differences in the human family–nationality, language, social status–are secondary. And these other differences are–again, broadly–God’s merciful response to human sinfulness. To see this we need to go once again to Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel.
To summarize, after the Flood during Noah’s time, God makes a covenant with humanity:“I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done” (Genesis 8:21, NKJV). As time goes on though, humanity begins, once again, to doubt God. Eventually, we simply no longer trust God to keep His word to us and so when we come to “the land of Shinar” we decided to “build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:3,4)
We exercise our creativity and technical genius in rebellion against God. Key to our ability to rebel is that we had “one language and one speech.” Seeing our rebellion, God destroys the Tower and confuses our speech and scatters humanity over the whole face of the earth so that, while we are one in our humanity, we become different peoples (see Genesis 11:5-9).
Again though, the differences in language, culture and nation aren’t a punishment but an act of mercy as God seeks to slowly redirect our rebellious spirit.
Today’s Gospel highlights for us the different differences in the human family. Not only male and female but between of culture, language and nation. To the surprise of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus doesn’t respect these differences. Or rather, it is more accurate to say, He doesn’t respect the way in which these differences are used as an excuse to divide humanity.
Just as from the covenant with Noah to the Tower of Babel, humanity lost sight of God’s promise, from Babel to the Well, we have lost sight of the fact that human diversity is given as a cure for sin. What God meant as a mercy, we have turned not just into an occasion of sin but a justification for sin.
Just as in the time of Jesus, the fact of human difference is an excuse for hatred, or at least indifference, to our neighbor, How easily we, I, can find a reason to ignore, minimize, degrade, or even reject, my neighbor’s humanity. How easy it is for me to deny that we share a common humanity not only with each other but with Jesus Christ.
And yet, it is that common humanity that the Son assumes in His incarnation. He becomes as we are, in the patristic formulation, so that we can become as He is. Notice please, the use of the first person plural pronoun. God becomes man not so I can become God but so that we, together, can become “sharers in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
In being freed from slavery to the powers of sin and death, we are freed as well from the tyranny of loneliness and isolation that is its hallmark. We shouldn’t imagine that these experiences are somehow unique to modern phenomena; they aren’t. Likewise, with hatred and prejudice. There was never a time when we didn’t use our differences as a reason to turn our back on our neighbor or to deny someone else’s humanity.
To see this, look no further than the Gospel. There we see that the fear and division between the Jews and the Samaritans, while different in content, is as real as any racial, or economic, or social, or cultural division we see today.
And yet, as He did after the Flood and the Tower and at the Well, God is merciful and works to heal the divisions between us by reconciling us to Himself. This work of reconciling humanity to God, and so in turn with itself, is the fundamental work of the Church.This is why, though “man meant it for evil, God meant it for good” (see Genesis 50:20), even the persecution and scattering of the Apostles worked for humanity’s salvation.
Just as He did for the sons of Israel in the time of the Patriarch Joseph, God used the persecution of the Church to bring salvation to the Greeks. Before they were scattered, the Apostles only spoke to the Jews. But afterwards, as an almost natural result of their new situation, the Apostles found that they had Gentile listeners.
So what about us? How has God called us to share in the work of reconciling humanity to Himself and so to itself?
Let me suggest that to answer this question, we need to look to those parts of our life when we find ourselves on the margins. The ancient Irish monastic had an interesting take on this. As an ascetical and evangelical discipline they would voluntarily accept exile from their native land and people. For the sake of their own salvation and to spread the Gospel, these monks would become strangers in a foreign land (see Exodus 2:22).
My brothers and sisters in Christ! This willing exile, though undertaken for many reasons, is how the Orthodox Church came to North America. We are, all of us, spiritually, and more often than not biologically, the sons and daughters of exiles. Many of us, in fact, willingly left our native lands and came to this place and time.
And so, as the spiritual sons and daughters of exiles, we too need to go to the margins, to the edges, of our own lives. We do this not to bring Christ where He isn’t but (to borrow from the Fr Alexander Schmemann), to find Him there waiting for us!
Both the Gospel and Acts of the Apostles are clear. The Church grows and humanity is saved, because (like Jesus) Christians are willing to go where God the Father will lead them. And where the Father leads us, spiritually (and sometimes literally) is always to the margins of our own lives. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ always means to be an exile.
Let us become, willingly and joyfully, who we are!
Homily: To Obey is Better than Sacrifice
Sunday, May 7, 2017: Sunday of the Paralytic; Commemoration of the Precious Cross that appeared in the sky over Jerusalem in 351 A.D., Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Akakios the Centurion of Byzantium, Pachomios the New Martyr of Patmos, Repose of St. Nilus, abbot of Sora
Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15
Christ is Risen!
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three.” writes St Paul, “but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NKJV). It’s important to emphasize that the Apostle says this immediately after warning us of all the deficiencies inherent in our current relationship with Christ:
…whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away (vv. 8-10).
Though real, these lapses are not in and of themselves sinful. Rather they reflect that, in this life, we are in our spiritual infancy; we understand and think as children who have yet to “put away childish things” (v. 11). This isn’t to say that we live in spiritual ignorance; like a child, we are young but not stupid. But, for now, Paul says, “we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (v. 12).
The Christian lives in expectation of the revelation of Jesus Christ which is to come. This should foster in me not only a joyful expectancy but also a loving attention to the gentle prompting of divine grace. While the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is still to come, this life is not devoid of His Presence. Like He did at His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor God makes Himself known to each of us to the degree we are able to receive the revelation.
And it is here, in my capacity to receive God, that I find the meaning of Jesus’ last words to the Paralytic:”See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.”
Sometimes in our anxiety to avoid suggesting that by our works we somehow merit salvation, we downplay any suggestion that we are, again as St Paul says, “co-workers” or “co-laborers” with God in our own salvation (1 Corinthians 3:9). And yet, it is precisely by His grace and with our co-operation that we are saved. To be saved is not to be the merely passive recipient of divine grace or the object of a divine fiction that images we are other than as we. To be saved means to say with the Virgin Mary, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NKJV).
Or sometimes because our anxiety to avoid any suggestion of moralizing, we try and sever any connection between human behavior and our condemnation. And yet, the Scriptures are more than clear. Some actions are so immoral that they bring about out condemnation. The Apostle John refers to these as “sins unto death” (1 John 1:5, KJV). St Paul refers to them as “the works of the flesh.” It is these–”adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like”–that we must avoid, or if we fall into them repent of in confession, if we wish to “inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21, NKJV).
Returning to the Gospel, Jesus tells the Paralytic, and us, two things.
First, avoid the sins of the flesh; avoid those sins that kill faith, hope and love. It’s worth noting, if just in passing, that every age has works of the flesh that it tends to minimize or even glorify. Our own age tends to downplay the deadly seriousness of sexual sins even as earlier ages had their own lists of sins that they would not acknowledge as sins. No age is morally superior to another in any absolute sense. Rather each ages and culture people have their own, preferred, ways of turning their back on love.
Second, it isn’t enough to avoid sin, we must cultivate virtue. We must cultivate those three things that last: faith, hope, and above all love. In one of his homilies on John’s Gospel, St Gregory Dialogos asks his hearers whether or not they, personally, belong to Jesus Christ as members of “his flock.” He goes on to ask them, and us,
…whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action. John the evangelist is my authority for this statement. He tells us that anyone who claims to know God without keeping his commandments is a liar.
The saint reminds us that as important as are faith and hope they aren’t in and of themselves enough. To St Gregory’s appeal to the Apostle John, we add our appeal to the Apostle James:
You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (2:19-20, NKJV)
A living faith in the revelation we have received, a living hope that is yet to come, requires that I love God and love my neighbor.
To love God means to keep His commandments the second of which is to love you. And to love you means to want what God wants for you. And what God wants for you, is for you to return His love for you. This isn’t an emotional response but obedience. We love God as He loves us by keeping His commandments and being faithful to His will for our lives.
And second, He wants you to love others as He loves you. This can’t be done except that you are faithful to your own, personal, vocation. It is in and through our fidelity to our vocation that we not only grow in the love of God but also the love of our neighbor. This is they way we grow in the love of God. And unless we aid each other in this process of vocation discernment and fidelity, we can’t truthfully claim to be obedient to God or to love our neighbor.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us begin the great work being of faithful to our own vocations and an aid to others as they live theirs!
Homily for Sunday April 30, 2017: Vocation
Sunday, April 30, 2017: Third Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Pious Joseph of Arimathea & Righteous Nicodemus
Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43-16:8
Christ is Risen!
God has called each of us, each of you, personally to a ministry that you–and only you–can do. This ministry, this life of sacrificial love and service, is for the glory of God and your salvation and your neighbors’.
The broad outline of your vocation is found in the natural talents and spiritual gifts God has given you. To borrow from the Divine Liturgy, when God called you “out of non-existence into being” in your mother’s womb, He gave you a particular constellation of abilities. Maybe you are naturally athletic or mechanically inclined. Or maybe you are natural compassionate or patient. Or maybe you love a good argument or like to talk.
To the talents He gave you at your creation, at your baptism He added spiritual gifts. Unlike our talents, the spiritual gifts we’ve been given manifest themselves in the ways in which God draws others to Himself through us. The are in New Testament several different lists of these gifts (e.g., Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 28, Ephesians 4:11, Galatians 5:22-23). Because these gifts reflect the presence of God in our lives, the exact combination of the gifts is effectively infinite. What unites them all, according to the Apostle Peter, is they are given so that in our lives “God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11, NKJV).
Today we recall two events in the life of the early Church that highlight the importance of glorifying God through our care for the most vulnerable members of the Body of Christ.
Sometimes we might imagine that tensions between different ethnic groups in the Church is unique to our own time. These tensions arise because we tend to focus on the superficial, differences between those raised in the Church and those who joined as adults. In the early days of the Church, no one was raised a Christian from infancy. Everyone was a convert! And yet, we see that dissension (murmuring) that arose between the Hebrew and Greek-speaking Christians about how the Church was, or wasn’t, caring for the widows from each community.
It was to solve this problem while leaving the Apostle free to pursue their own vocation “to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” that the Church establishes the order of deacons. We can talk about the diaconate another time. For now, though, it’s worth noting that in the New Testament understanding, the pursuit of one’s vocation is not “zero-sum.” Fidelity to your vocation doesn’t in anyway harm my pursuit of my vocation.
And how could it otherwise? Since all our vocations come from God Who “is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33, NKJV). But this, largely negative view of vocations, doesn’t exhaust what we see in Acts. It isn’t simply that we don’t get in each other’s way.
It isn’t simply that we don’t get in each other’s way. For example, the deacons’ fidelity of the vocation supports the apostles’ fidelity to their vocation. The deacons, in other words, make it possible for the apostles to do as God has called them even as the apostles confirm the deacons in their own vocation to serve at table.
This is the key to understanding what it means to pursue our own, personal vocations. Not only is fidelity to my vocation to my advantage–it is after all the means God has given me to grow in holiness–it is to your advantage as well. One sign that we are living in obedience to God’s will for us, is that we become a source of support and encouragement to others as they live out their own vocation.
Or, if you’d rather, the only way I can become a saint is if I help you become a saint as well!
Turning to the Gospel, we see that vocation fidelity requires not only obedience to God but courage. It was dangerous for Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene and the other Myrrh-Bearing Women to care for the Body of Jesus. Doing so was a direct challenge to the civil and religious authorities. Caring for their deceased friend meant, at a minimum, risking being ostracized. It could easily have meant death.
Courage is necessary to pursue our vocation becomes obedience to God will inevitably bring us into conflict with the powers of this world. As the Apostle Peter tells the Jewish authorities who ordered him to stop preaching that Jesus rose from the dead: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (see Act 5:12-42, NKJV). We cannot obey to God without at times being disobedient to men.
As important as courage is, more important still, however, is a life of personal prayer. Nourished by the sacraments and guided by the liturgical life of the Church, the reading of Holy Scripture and the fathers, I have to pray–and pray daily–to know and do the will of God.
This is what the Apostle Paul means when he tells us “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2, NKJV). Apart from a life of prayer, there is no transformation and without transformation, I remain conformed to this world and enslaved to the powers of sin and death.
Taken together the discernment and pursuit of our personal vocation is nothing more or less than the path to liberty in Christ. Whatever our vocation, it is always the means by which we come to be “partakers of the divine nature” (see 2 Peter 1:4). As I said a moment ago, God has called each of us, each of you, personally to a ministry that you–and only you–can do. This ministry, this life of sacrificial love and service, is for the glory of God and your salvation. It is through fidelity to your vocation that you will become by grace what Christ is by nature.
Our vocation is not only the source of our freedom in Christ but all the good things that flow naturally from life in Christ.
Through our vocation we grow in “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23, NKJV).
And it is through our vocation we discover what it means, concretely, to love “the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:30-31, NKJV).
My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is no other way to love God and our neighbor, there is no other way to grow in holiness or to bear witness to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ but through fidelity to our personal vocations! We must do what God calls us to do so that we can become who God has called us to be!
Distraction, Detachment, and Discipleship
Sunday, April 23, 2017: New Sunday or Anti-Pascha Sunday of Thomas the Apostle, Called “The Twin” Great-martyr George the Trophy-bearer.
Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31
Christ is Risen!
To follow the Person of Jesus Christ, to shape our lives around His teaching and the example of the saints and martyrs who have gone before us in faith (Hebrews 12:1), this is the essence of our life in Christ. While our particular vocations are different, as Orthodox Christians we share a common call to be His disciples and to preach the Gospel to all the world (Mark 15:16). Each of us follows a unique path in life but we have a common goal.
Because we have the same destination–the Kingdom of God–our personal vocations also share common features. Chief among these is the need to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope, and love. These are the fruit of divine grace poured out in the sacraments of the Church, the life of prayer and ascetical struggle. Apart from these, whatever else might be the value of what we do, what we do isn’t Christian.
Just as there are common sources for our unique vocations, there are common dangers. In the Gospel this morning we hear about the Apostle Thomas and his unwillingness–at Vespers last night we hear it referred to “the delicacy of the beautiful unbelief of Thomas”–to believe that Christ is Risen. In a word, Thomas doubt.
Doubt is an interesting thing.
We tend to think that the solution to doubt is more information or a better, clearer explanation. If however you have ever struggled with doubt, or indeed any distraction in the spiritual life, you know that this solution is no solution.
The cause of doubt is not a poverty of information but of attention. Doubt, like fear, anxiety, despair and any number of other temptations in the spiritual life, is the fruit of distraction. Doubt arise when I shift my attention from Jesus to my own thoughts.
At the beginning of this morning’s Gospel, it isn’t so much that Thomas doesn’t believe that Jesus is Risen from the dead as it is he attached to his own thoughts. He is willing to believe in the Resurrection, if and only if, it is revealed to him on his own terms. “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.”
In effect, Thomas will accept the Resurrection if it comes to him, not the free gift of God but as the fruit of his own effort. Thomas can’t believe because he is attached to his own thoughts.
This then is the heart of doubt and all the other distractions of the spiritual life: My attachment to my own will.
While this attachment might, at first, seem sweet, very quickly my thoughts come to torment me. My thoughts enslave me. I make myself a slave to myself. I am as bound by my own thoughts, as Peter was by his chains before the angel of the Lord freed him from prison.
I cannot live as a disciple of Christ if I am attached to my own will, my own thoughts about the spiritual life. It is my plans, my vision, that obscure Christ and so become the source of doubt and the other distractions.
What I need to learn to do–and this takes not only divine grace and real effort on my part but time–is to become detached from my own thoughts. Notice please, I didn’t say I need to NOT have my own thoughts, plans, or feelings. It is “proper and right” to have these. Where I go wrong is in my attachment to them, to caring more about my own thoughts and feelings than I do Christ.
Like I said, finding the balance between prayerful and obedient attention to Christ and respecting the integrity of not only my own thoughts and feelings but those of other people, is the work of a lifetime.
Too often Christians neglect this work and instead give themselves over to one form or another of fundamentalism. Or, to look at the other deformation, they neglect faith altogether and given themselves over to a life of self-aggrandizement.
The irony here is that whichever deformation they choose, in the end, what is chosen is the person’s own will. Both paths elevate the preferences of the individual above the love of God or neighbor.
So, to follow Christ, the be His disciple, I must like Thomas, take my eyes off myself and instead look to Jesus Christ as “My Lord and my God!”
I won’t lie to you. There will be times when doing this is hard, harder than anything you have ever done.
But there will also be times when shifting your focus to Jesus, will not only come easily but joyfully. Over time, what was once hard becomes, if not exactly easier, than to be a moment of liberation.
And with that renewed inner freedom comes not only a more mature, sober way of life in Christ but also an ability to, like Peter, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”
Clinging to Peter and John
Saturday, April 22, 2017: Bright Saturday; Theodore of Sykeon, Nathaniel, Luke, & Clemente the Apostles, Nearchos the Martyr, Gregory Gravanos of Nisyros
Epistle: Apostles 3:11-16
Gospel: John 3:22-33
Christ is Risen!
While not wholly unique to Orthodoxy in America, there is a pronounced temptation among us to imitate the “healed lame man” and cling “to Peter and John.” Let me explain.
The Gospel always comes to us in a particular form or in a particular way. My first encounter with Orthodoxy was as a student traveling in Greece. A few years later, I encountered the Church again this time in its Russian form.
In both cases, my experiences were largely positive.What I need to avoid is assuming that the Greek or Russian expression is exhaustive of the life of the Church. Much less can I see in either an exhaustive expression of the Gospel. The Church is larger than my experience of it because the Gospel is larger than what I can comprehend.
Failure to see that the Gospel is greater than my experience of it is how I succumb to the temptation to cling to something other than the Gospel as the Gospel. Worse still, this is how I come to cling to someone other than Jesus Christ as if that person were Christ.
Put differently, I must always be on guard against preaching another gospel because I serve a different Christ. To be blunt, if St Paul needs to guard against this in himself see 2 Corinthians 11:4 and Galatians 1:8) and if St Peter actually succumbs to it (see Galatians 2:11-21), why would I that I’m exempt from the same temptation?
Like I said, the temptation to preach another Gospel, to serve another Christ, isn’t unique to Orthodox in America. We fall into this sin when, again like the healed lame man, we cling to something–or someone–other than Christ.
So how do we avoid the lame man’s fault?
As disciples of Jesus Christ, our fundamental task is to do as did St John the Baptist. We, I, need to point to Jesus Christ. “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
And not just me but everyone and everything that is not Christ must decrease.
St Seraphim of Sarov says that every good work we do is in the service of deepening our communion with Christ. It is this communion which is both the goal and source of our lives as Orthodox Christians.
Without this communion, nothing we do–however good it may be in itself–makes any sense or brings us any spiritual profit.
The late Fr Alexander Schmemann wrote witheringly about how we turn the Church–and specifically the local parish–into an idol. We do things he says for the Church or (more likely) our parish that we would condemn if done for any other reason or purpose. This what I mean when I say we need to cling to Jesus Christ and not to the means by which He saves us.
To follow Christ, I need to root out from my tendency to cling to “Peter and John”– to see the means of salvation as if they were the goal of life in Christ.
The only goal we have is Christ. It is Christ we preach, it is to Christ we cling. Anything other than Christ is unworthy of us because it is unworthy of the great gift He has given us: Himself and His life.