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
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).
From 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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?
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.
The Boldness of Humility
Sunday, May 19 (OS May 6), 2019: 4th Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Paralytic; Righteous Job the Long-suffering (c. 2000-1500 B.C.); Martyrs Barbarus the Soldier, Bacchus, Callimachus, and Dionysius in Morea (362); Martyr Barbarus the former robber in Epirus (IX). Righteous Tabitha of Joppa (I). (moveable feast on the 4th Sunday after Pascha).
Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Epistle: Acts 9:32-43
Gospel: John 5:1-15
Christ is Risen!
Following the biblical witness, the fathers of the Church saw bodily infirmity–blindness, deafness, or in the case of today’s readings paralysis–as symbolic of humanity’s fallen condition. The Venerable Bede writes that “anyone who embraces the unstable joys of the present is as through flattened upon his bed, devoid of energy” trapped as they are by the “sluggishness” of “worldly pleasures” (Commentary of Acts of the Apostles, 9.33).
It’s important to say that neither Bede nor any of the fathers were denying the goodness of Creation or the delights that are to be found in this life. Marriage, to take only one example, is a sacrament of the Church and according to St Paul a revelation of the love Christ has for the Church (see Ephesian 5:32).
No, the problem is not the goodness of Creation but the human hearts indifference to God. As in any relationship, indifference today becomes hostility tomorrow.
It is this hostility born of indifference that leads some among the Jews to condemn the paralytic for violating the law by carrying his pallet on the Sabbath. They do this, St Augustine says, because to condemn the healing would have been to invite the rebuke they heard from Jesus at another time. “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5, NJKV)
Instead of criticizing Jesus–and so have their hypocrisy exposed–“they addressed the man, … as if to say: Even if the healing could not be delayed why command the work?” Even so, the question exposes their hypocrisy. Augustine says that to ask this is to invite a response that testifies to the divinity of Christ: “Why should I not receive a command if I also received a cure from Him?” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 17:10)
For the person, indifferent and even hostile to the presence of God brings with it a heavy cost. Unaware of God’s presence in their lives means as well that they live unaware of His great love for them and for the dignity to which they are called in Jesus Christ.
The full implications of what has happened will take the rest of the paralytic’s life to understand. But while his understand is immature, his experience of God’s love for him makes him bold!
When confronted the man doesn’t conceal the miracle. He doesn’t hesitate to proclaim that he had been cured “of his illness.” And when falsely condemned he did not ask “for pardon. Instead, he boldly confessed the cure. This is how he acted” and this is how we are called to act as well (St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 37.2).
Both sin and love make us bold. But where the boldness of sin is fool hearted and rash, love’s boldness is courageous.
Look at St Peter.
At this point in Acts, he has already been arrested twice and beaten once. Stephen has been martyred, Saul is arresting and handing Christians over to the authorities, and “a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).
And yet, Chrysostom says, Peter walks about “like a general … inspecting the ranks.” Because of his great love for Jesus, Peter always
…goes about first. When an apostle had to be chosen, he was first; when the Jews had to be told that these were not drunk, he was first; when the lame man had to be healed, he was first; when the crowd had to be addressed, he was before the rest; when the rulers had to be addressed, he was the man; when Ananias had to be addressed, when healings were worked by the shadow, still it was he.
When “the situation is calm” the disciples “act in common.” But when “there was danger” Peter acts alone. In all of this he “did not seek a greater honor. When there was need to work miracles, he leaps forward, and here again he is the man to labor and toil” (Homilies on Acts of the Apostle, 21).
And when it is time for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles, Peter once again takes the lead in following the path Paul has blazed.
In the Christian economy, evangelical boldness the fruit of humility. Peter like Jesus, “Who conquered persecutors [here] below and reigns over angels [in heaven] above spoke … in a humble voice,” (St Ephrem the Syrian, Homily on Our Lord, 26.1) because the word he speaks is not his but God’s word to him for the life of the world (see, John 7:16, 12:49, 14:10).
To remain silent about the Gospel is not humility. We have all of us been given a word to speak; we are all of us in baptism called to be witnesses of the Resurrection and evangelists of the Gospel.
But a problem remains. If remaining silent when we are called to speak is not humility, how then are we to speak? In this as in all things, Jesus shows us the way.
Before He heal the paralytics Jesus asks the man “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus invites the man to cooperate with grace.
Jesus question reflects the humility of the Father Who never imposes Himself on us but woos us. In doing this He also makes clear “the cruelty of those … who were well” but who never lifted “their hand to help” the man but instead treated him “like an enemy” when he asked for help (Amphilochius of Iconium, Oration, 9).
My brothers and sisters in Christ! Every day, we meet those who ask for our help in coming to know Jesus Christ; every day we meet those who even if they do so poorly ask us about the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.
Humility, to say nothing of love, demands we speak.
A Sign of Contradiction
May 12 (O.S., April 29) 2019: Third Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women; Sts. Myrrh-Bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Nine Martyrs at Cyzicus: Theognes, Rufus, Antipater, Theostichus, Artemas, Magnus, Theodotus, Thaumasius, and Philemon (3rd c.); St. Memnon the Wonderworker of Corfu (2nd c.).
Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43–16:8
Christ is Risen!
As we’ve seen before, the authors of the New Testament are not afraid to air the Church’s dirty laundry. The weaknesses and moral failings of the Apostles and disciples are there to be seen by all. This is certainly the case in the conflict we hear about today.
In the early days of the Church, there was disagreement about whether or not the two groups of widows–those who spoke Hebrew and those who spoke Greek–were being treated the same. Whether it was actually the case or merely a perception, the Greek-speaking Christians complained that their widows were being “were neglected in the daily distribution” of food.
If only in passing, it’s worth noting that though they spoke different languages, not only were both groups Christians, they were both ethnically Jewish. In any case, St Luke is silent as to the exact nature of the complaint; it is enough for him to note that there was a division in the Church.
This division was sufficiently serious that it distracted the Apostles from their primary mission of preaching the Gospel. Instead, they had to involve themselves in making peace between arguing factions in the Church.
Events like this frequently cause those outside the Church to say “See! You Christians are no better than anyone else!” Fair enough. The Church is as subject to the kinds of petty–and not so petty–divisions that we see in the world.
And why wouldn’t this be so?
After all, what is the Church but that part of the world that is struggling against the very same sins that afflict all humanity? Put another way, the difference between the Church and the world is that the former struggles against the sins that the latter embraces.
This similarity sometimes causes us to act unwisely and make common cause with the world. While there are times when we can work together with those outside the Church, we need to do so prudently. And we must never lose sight of the fact that the Church is fundamentally a sign of contradiction to the world that the world can never embrace without thereby ceasing to be the world (compare, Luke 2:34 and Acts 28:22).
Take, for example, what happens today in the Gospel.
Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. For all the glory of the Roman Empire, it was a brutal and cruel regime that ruled not only by instilling fear but by humiliating its enemies. In times of social unrest, one could walk along the fabled Roman roads and see mile after mile of crucified criminals and rebellious slaves.
As enemies of the State they were also denied one of the universal marks of respect in the ancient world. The crucified were not buried but disposed of like garbage. There were as humiliated in death as in their dying.
By their quiet acts of piety for their dead friend, Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrh-bearing women stood in opposition to the Empire.
We shouldn’t think that the cruelty of the Roman Empire was a peculiarity of the times. While not always so dramatic in form, the world–and those who embrace the intentions and purposes of the world–are equally cruel.
Though sympathetic to the real virtues of the Roman Empire, St Augustine in The CIty of God is clear that the City of God and the City of Man are locked in competition for not only the human heart but also material resources and social authority.
To bring home to his readers the willingness of the City of Man–that is, the world–to act unjustly and even cruelly in its competition with the City of God, the Church, he quotes an exchange between Alexander the Great and an unnamed pirate.
In their conversation, the pirate tells Alexander, the difference between an emperor and a pirate is simply this. The size of their navies. That difference aside, they are in all other respects the same since both are willing to act savagely in pursuit of their goals.
And so back to Acts.
What is surprising is not that there is conflict in the Church. And while it might sadden us to see it, we ought not to be surprised or discouraged when now or then we glimpse pettiness our even cruelty in our Church leader, in our brothers or sisters in Christ, or in ourselves. Again, the Church is simply the world in the process of being redeemed. To not see serious sin in the members of the Church is like not seeing serious disease in a hospital. Both are built to heal, the latter the body, the former the soul.
No, the surprise in Acts is not the conflict, not the willingness of Christians to ape the empire. The surprise is not division but reconciliation. The surprise is not that Christians are afflicted with the same passions that lead to war in the world but that we struggle against them (see James 4).
My brothers and sisters in Christ! We can never lose sight of the dignity of our great calling in Jesus Christ to be a sign of contradiction to the world. To borrow from St Leo the Great:
…recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.
By our fidelity to our calling, we not only contradict the powers of this world, but we also offer those enslaved to these powers the possibility of true and lasting freedom in Christ Jesus.