The Persecution of Christian in America

Sunday January 12 (OS: December 30) 2020: Sunday Nativity Afterfeast (30th Sunday) Holy Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, James the Brother of the Lord. Sunday after Nativity

Epistle: Galatians 1.11-19

Gospel: Matthew 2.13-23

Christ is born!

As both today’s readings make clear, the Church has been subject to persecution from the beginning. While there have been times of relative peace, there has never been a time–even in a formally “Christian” culture or nation–where the Church, the City of God, was free from the hostile intentions of the World, of the City of Man.

This makes a certain rough sense.

As Herod and his son Archelaus knew, the Church is a fatal threat to “the rulers of the Gentiles,” to those who desire nothing more than “lord it over” others. The powerful of this World are all too eager to “exercise authority over” those who they should instead serve (Matthew 20:25, NKJV). It was precisely this contrast between the two cities that led to the growth of the Church.

Christians, for example, preached a new and unique doctrine of chastity. Powerful men in the ancient world were free to take sexual pleasure where, how, and from whom they wished among those of lesser status. Adultery was a crime for women but acceptable for men. Masters could abuse their male as well as female slaves and teachers their students.

In contrast, the Christian doctrine of chastity not only highlighted the dignity of women, slaves, and children, it offered them a life free from acts of intimate abuse. Those men who embraced the Gospel understood that following Christ required that they refrain from the casual violation of others that their peers readily and habitually practiced.

By the integrity of his life, the Christian man was an unbearable reproach to the selfishness of those around him. He and he alone refused to degrade others as he himself had once been degraded. With the Christian, the cycle ended.

In addition to this, the Church offered Roman society another, equally radical, different standard for the exercise of political authority. While it is sometimes said that the first Christians were pacifists or practiced non-violence, this is inaccurate. At best it is an anachronism. While Christians were willing to suffer violence, they were not pacifists.

Beginning with Cornelius the Roman centurion who, along with his family, is baptized St Peter baptize there is a long history of Christians who served with distinction in the Roman military (see Acts 10). What was unique about these Christian warriors was their refusal–often at the cost of their own lives–to harm the innocent.

Yes, they served the Empire but not at the expense of the Gospel. In this, as with the Christian doctrine of chastity, they stood in stark contrast to their comrades-in-arms. Christian soldiers were eager to defend the innocent but refused to lift their sword against them.

And there are more examples.

Christians adopted unwanted infants left to die in the wilderness. They did this even when food was scarce and each new mouth increased the likelihood of hunger or even death for themselves or their children.

And when the plague struck, the wealthy together with all those who could afford to do so, fled the city for the relative safety of the countryside. Christians however not only stayed but cared for the sick. Willingly Christians risked their own lives to ease the suffering of those who in normal circumstances despised them.

In all of these ways and others too numerous to mention, Christians were a threat to the willingness of the powerful to abuse and neglect others when circumstances allowed or fancy desired.

Today and especially in America, Christians imagine ourselves persecuted. While there are times when we are met with prejudice, it is frequently the case that we have brought this on ourselves. Rarely, are we the object of derision because of our fidelity to the Gospel or the witness of the early Church.

More often than not, we find ourselves complaining not because of persecution or prejudice but because we want to be exempt from the natural consequences of the political process of give and take, of public disagreement and debate, and the many tradeoffs that come with making policy and enforcing law.

Whether we are on the left or the right, American Christians often seem eager to off-load our obligations to the government. This is why we are so quick to criticize as immoral those who disagree with us politically. We are asking the State to do for us, what we should instead be doing for Christ. This being so, how can a believer help but think a person sinful for disagreeing?

While the State has a role to play, it belongs to those of us who are in Christ to lead by example in areas such as philanthropy and morality. But when we look around, outside of a handful of seminaries, there are precious few Orthodox schools and no Orthodox hospitals–to take only two examples. We have, I’m afraid, failed to lead.

I said a moment ago that many Christians in America–and including Orthodox Christians–complain that we are persecuted. Looking at the history of the early Church it’s hard for me to agree with this. As I said, it seems more a matter that we are simply experiencing the natural costs and consequences of participating in American political life.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, Christians in America are not persecuted; if only we were. If only we were accounted worthy to suffer because we lived as the first Christians did.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be of Good Cheer Little Flock

Sunday, January 5 (OS December 22) 2020: 29th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, of the Holy Fathers; Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ; Holy Ten Martyrs of Crete (III): Theodulus, Saturninus, Euporus, Gelasius, Eunician, Zoticus, Pompeius, Agathopus, Basilides, and Evaristus (250); St. Niphon, bp. of Cyprus (IV); St. Paul, Bishop of Neo-Caesaria (IV); St. Nahum of Ochrid, enlightener of the Bulgarians (910); Nativity fast, wine and oil allowed

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Geneology of Christ according to St. LukeSometimes we think of Christmas as the end of the story. This is, in a certain sense, reasonable. The last almost 40 days have after all been a preparation to celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ.

In another sense though, Christmas is only the beginning. It is the opening movement in a series of events that will see the Child grow into a Man, preach the Gospel, “heal the brokenhearted, … proclaim liberty to the captives, … recovery of sight to the blind, … set at liberty those who are oppressed” and “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4 18, 19, NKJV).

And as the fathers are keenly aware and quick to point out, Christmas Day announces the eventual death of Christ on the Cross, His three days in the tomb, and His resurrection from the dead.

In a similar way, the events of Christmas Day lead to all the good things that today we take, if not for granted, then as natural. Think of all the great accomplishments of Western culture; not only art, philosophy, and literature, but science, politics and economic development. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that in spite of all our failures and enduring sinfulness, these are all the fruit of Christmas.

One can see this not simply in the great Christian cathedrals or lives and writings of the fathers and the saints. We can see this not only in art or liturgy but around us today here in Madison.

A great university, a vibrant (if frequently contentious) tradition of political involvement and philanthropic concern. All of these are at the fruit of the Christmas, the result of generations of men and women who united themselves to Christ in baptism, nourished themselves in Holy Communion and followed Him as His disciples and evangelists.

There is nothing good around us today, that doesn’t owe its existence in large part to the Gospel.

To be sure, this debt is often overlooked or when it isn’t actively denied. But for all that, the roots of not just Western culture or America but Madison are firmly planted in the Gospel.

As I mentioned a week or so ago, we live in politically and culturally contentious times. Whether this is more or less than at other times is an interesting question but rather beside the point. Whatever times we live are always marked by conflict, by the knee jerk willingness of partisans on each side to think the other side is if not actively evil, then benighted or simply foolish.

In this, our time is no different than the time into which Jesus was born. That time, like our time,  was disfigured by violence and contempt for others.

It is into that world, which is our world still today, that Jesus comes and preaches repentance, the forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of humanity with God and so with itself.

And like those times, our own times can seem overwhelming. Like the disciples in the early hours of Pascha, we are tempted to hide if not from “fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19) then, well, pick the person or group you fear most and so love least.

But now, as then, Jesus comes to stand in our midst, granting us His peace, breathing upon us the Holy Spirit and sending us out to proclaim the Gospel (John 20:21-23). Because you see, whether it is Christmas or Pascha, the Annunciation or Pentecost, the Gift, and the Call, are the same.

We are given not a word about Christ or even a share in His life. We are given at Christmas and every day, Christ Himself. And having received Him, He tells us what He told the disciples. “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Look around you.

Everything you see is the fruit of not just of Christmas but of that “little flock.” All around us we see the fruit of those in the Old Testament who lived in hope for His coming and those in the New Testament and throughout the history of the Church down to this day and in this place who in faith followed Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are that little flock not because we are few but because the Church always seems small in the face of human sinfulness. To us today, Jesus says as He did to Israel, never despair, never give up hope.

And He says to us today, as He did His disciples, do not be afraid, rather be “of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Not Good Enough But Really Good

Sunday, December 15 (O.S., December 2), 2019: 26th Sunday after Pentecost. Prophet Habakkuk (VI c. B.C.). Martyr Myrope of Chios (251). Sts. John, Heraclemon, Andrew, and Theophilus of Egypt (IV). St. Jesse, Bishop of Tsilkani in Georgia (VI). St. Athanasius, “the Resurrected”, of the Near Kyivan Caves (1176). Ven. Athanasius, recluse, of the Far Kyivan Caves (XIII). St. Stephen-Urosh IV, king (1371).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:9-19

Gospel: Luke 18:18-27

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Though he doesn’t use the word, in the opening verses of today’s Epistle the Apostle Paul calls us to be discerning. We are, he says, to seek out “the fruit of the Spirit,” Specifically, “goodness, righteousness, and truth” not only because these are good in themselves but because they help us know and so do what “is acceptable to the Lord.”

Doing the will of God requires first that we hold ourselves apart from sin, from “the unfruitful works of darkness.” If we do, we will become in St John Chrysostom’s phrase “a lamp” that naturally “exposes what takes place in darkness.”

We need, I think, to pause here and consider carefully the larger context within which the Apostle is making his argument.

Paul’s primary concern is to encourage us to engage in the evangelical work of the Church. Like the Apostle Andrew, whose feast was Friday, we are called to call others to Christ. Contrary to what we frequently see both outside the Church and (what is worse) within the Church, this can’t be done in a mechanical fashion.

What I mean is I can’t simply memorize a script or a series of bullet points to be repeated when the opportunity presents itself. When I do this, the other person becomes merely an excuse for me to exercise my own ego.

What then should we do instead?

St Jerome tells us “No one is prepared to admonish sinners except one who does not deserve to be called a hypocrite.” In saying this, he is simply repeating what Paul has just told us. To succeed in calling others to Christ, I must first cultivate in my own life the fruits of the Spirit by repenting from sin.

But here’s the thing about the evangelical work of the Church. Whatever the response of the other person, calling others to Christ will naturally bring to light my own shortcomings, my own sinfulness.

This is why after admonishing the Ephesians to be the light that exposes the darkness of sin, St Paul says to them

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.”

He says this not to those outside the Church but to those within. The hardest part of fulfilling the evangelical work of the Church, is this: Whatever else may or may not happen, telling others about Jesus Christ will always expose my sinfulness.

Very quickly the evangelist learns that he is the one who must awaken from the sleep of sin.

This is why the work can’t be mechanical. I can’t hide behind the Gospel. If I do, my witness will ring hollow. Or, and this much is worse, the other person will imitate my hypocrisy, my own lack of repentance, confusing this with life in Christ.

This is why, turning to the Gospel, Jesus tells the ruler to sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Him. This is not a condemnation of wealth or the wealthy. It is instead a warning to all of us.

We all have our idols. We all have things in our life that stand in the place of God.

For the rich man, it was obedience to the commandments. Knowing himself to be a good man, he gave himself permission to not be a better man. He didn’t want to be really good but only good enough. There was nothing sacrificial in his good deeds. His wealth afforded him the luxury of looking good so that he didn’t have actually to be good.

St Ignatius of Antioch warns us to avoid just this state when tells the Romans he doesn’t “want merely to be called a Christian, but actually to be one.” The ruler wanted to be called good without actually becoming good because true and lasting goodness requires sacrifice.

This is why when Jesus tells him to sell all he has, to give to the poor, and because His disciple the man is distressed. He doesn’t want to make the sacrifice that goodness requires. His adherence to the moral law, much like some adhere to the teachings of the Church, is merely mechanical.

Watching all this and hearing Jesus say “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” the crowds and above all the disciples are themselves distressed.

St Cyril of Alexandria observes that the disciples “possessed nothing except what was trifling and of slight value.” But whether we have much or little, he says, “the pain of abandoning is the same.”

Whether Christ calls us to give up wealth or prestige, whether we are called to give up family or friends, we are ALL called to sacrifice. Whatever we had before Christ, indeed whatever we had even a moment ago, we are all called to a sacrificial life of “obedience and good will.” Though we come from “different circumstances,” St Cyril say, we are to practice “equal readiness and willingly” to follow Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Though our sacrifices our different, our calling is the same; To witness to Christ. And just as we have a shared vocation, we have a shared joy.

That joy is this: That in becoming light, in illumining the darkness, we become able to see the true beauty of creation and, what is more important, the real and lasting dignity in Christ to which all humanity is called.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Salvation is Found in the Church

December 1 (OS November 18), 2019: 24th Sunday after Pentecost. Martyr Platon of Ancyra (266); Martyr Romanus the deacon of Caesarea (303). St. Barulas the Youth of Antioch (303). Hieromartyr Zacchaeus the deacon and Alphaeus the reader, of Ceasarea in Palestine (303).

 

SS Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 2:14-22

Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Apostle Paul tells us that salvation is not simply a matter of our personal faith. Much less is salvation the fruit of our virtues, that is to say, being a morally good person.

To be sure personal faith and morality are both important and have their own role to play in the Christian life. But salvation is first and foremost being incorporated into the Body of Christ, that is the Church, through Baptism. This is why St Paul tells us that we “are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

The household of God, as he goes on to say, is a visible community “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” with “Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

In the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, salvation is the restoration of communion between God and humanity. The chasm between humanity and God caused by sin is overcome in the Incarnation. In taking on our humanity, the Son re-establishes in His own Person communion between God and the human family.

Again as St Paul tells us Jesus Christ is “Himself is our peace.” He “has broken down the middle wall of separation” that kept us from God and, in so doing, “create[d] in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, … reconciling us] … to God in one body through the cross.”

This is why we believe as Orthodox Christians that salvation is found in being a member of the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and it is where we “who were afar off” from God discover and make our own what in Philippians (4:7) Paul calls “the peace of God.”

But what then are we to make of personal faith and the life of virtue?

It is a mistake for me to think that having been incorporated into the Church by baptism, nothing more is required of me. Nothing could be further from the truth. The parable Jesus tells me this morning is warning to about the dangers of such self-satisfaction.

The rich man’s great material wealth leads him to believe that he has all that he needs for a happy life. “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’”

What he fails to understand, says St Ambrose of Milan, is that the “things that are of the world remain in the world and whatever riches we gather are bequeathed to our heirs.” And, as he goes on to say, what “we cannon take away with us” when we die are not really ours.

The only thing that I can take with me in death, the saint says, is virtue. “Virtue alone is the companion of the dead, mercy alone follows us.”

Having been united to Christ in baptism we are now “one Body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5). It is this message of unity, of the human family reconciled both to God and with itself, that we preach.

It is not enough to be reconciled with God alone because sin ruptures not only my relationship with Him but you as well.

This means that our membership in the Church is only the starting point. It is, to be sure, essential. But as Orthodox Christians, we do not believe that salvation is a strictly private affair. Sin separates me not only from God but from you as well and so I must be reconciled to both you and God. It isn’t one or the other but both together and one only with the other.

The life of the Church is often contentious. The reason is that we are called not to like each other, though thank God we do, but to love each other. And not only to love each other but to forgive each other.

Our Lord’s expectation is that there will be times when Christians will hurt each other; we will give offense, we will disagree.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To say, as we do, that salvation is found in the Church is to say that salvation begins the Church. The life of the Church is not the goal of life in Christ but only the starting point.

So let us begin!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Become Good!

Sunday, November 17 (OS 4), 2019: 22nd Sunday after Pentecost; Ven. Ioannicius the Great of Bithynia (846). Hieromartyrs Nicander, bishop of Myra, and Hermas, presbyter (1st c.). Ven. Mercurius, faster of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Galatians 6:1-18
Gospel: Luke 8:41-56

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We saw last week that we are naturally attracted to goodness. This why in the moments of their greatest need, both Jarius and the woman with the issue of blood reach out to Jesus. Goodness is naturally attractive to us. This is all the more true in the moments of our greatest need.

It is however not enough to be attracted to the Good. Loving what is good is only possible to the degree that I become good myself. This is why St Paul tells us that “if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”

Jesus has called each of us personally to be both gentle and effective in our love for others. We are each of us called, personally and by name, to become good.

It is easy to correct someone else. But whether we do it bruskly or, as Paul tells us, gently if we don’t do it in a way that helps lift the burden of error from another, then we are no better then the scribes and the Pharisees who Jesus condemns for “bind[ing] heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay[ing] them on men’s shoulders; but … not mov[ing] them with one of their fingers” (Matthew 23:4, NKJV).

Too frequently, as one of my youth ministry students pointed out this week, Christians–and this includes Orthodox Christians–are better know for what we are against than what we are for. If I’m not careful, and sometimes even when I am, I can slip into merely criticizing others. It is easy to tell others they’re wrong; it’s much harder to help liberate them of whatever error is constraining their freedom.

Recently, I was asked to sign a public letter written by a friend of mine who pastors a large, Evangelical church. In the letter, my friend criticizes a proposed change in public policy.

I won’t be signing because as I read it, I realized three things about it.

First, I share my friend’s concerns. Whatever our theological differences, I think morally his concerns are legitimate. Public officials are pursuing a fundamentally unjust policy.

Second, as I read the letter, I also realized that it offered no practical way forward. The letter failed to acknowledge that while the policy was immoral, the underlying concern was legitimate. The policy was pursuing a morally good goal but with morally dubious means.

Third, the takeaway from the letter is that “we” are right and “you” are wrong. True after a fashion but in any case, not helpful.

Jesus Christ has called us not only to love what is good but to be good ourselves. To be good means to help others become themselves good. We are called to help lift from people the burdens that bind them and to heal the wounds that make goodness elusive for them.

Some of these burdens are moral, others material or social. Whatever the burden, our task is to lighten it, to help others become free from what constrains them.

In this process, God has given us among other things the sacrament of confession. When I notice in myself an indifference to what is good or an inclination to criticize rather than help I need to bring these things to confession.

Loving the good makes me good but becoming good means repenting and rooting out my own sinfulness. let me go back to my student’s observation. If I am to be an effective witness for Jesus Christ, it isn’t enough for me to condemn sin in myself or others.

I must also free myself from my own sin so that I can, in turn, help others free themselves from theirs. In this, the sacrament of confession holds pride of place.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us not only love the good but become good ourselves!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be Kind

Sunday, November 3 (OS October 21), 2019: 20th Sunday after Pentecost; St. Hilarion the Great of Palestine (371); Martyrs Dasius, Gaius, and Zoticus at Nicomedia (303); Ven. Hilarion of the Kyiv Caves, First Ukrainian Metropolitan of Kyiv (1067).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19
Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

Glory to Jesus Christ!

As He often does, this morning Jesus tells us a story. There are in this story two men: an unnamed rich man and a beggar Lazarus.

Of all the figures we meet in the parable of Jesus, Lazarus is the only one who is named. All the rest go on named. They are types of human affairs but devoid of personal identity.

Lazarus is named because suffering, like love, is always personal. Even when suffering strips me of my dignity, the loss is always a personal loss. It is Lazarus in all his personal uniqueness that lies outside the rich man’s gate hungry and sick.

As for the rich man, he uses his wealth to hold himself apart from Lazarus. He uses his wealth to depersonalize Lazarus but, in so doing, the rich man strips himself of his own dignity. His indifference to Lazarus’ humanity comes at the cost of his own.

And so we have the nameless rich man, an impersonal type and Lazarus whose humanity shines through even in the midst of his suffering.

This Gospel is one of St John Chrysostom’s favorites. Again and again, he comes back to it in his homilies as a priest and later as the Archbishop of Constantinople.

Looking at the relationship between Lazarus and the rich man, the latter is condemned not because he failed to bring Lazarus into his home. His condemnation isn’t the result of an unwillingness to share his table with Lazarus.

Rather he is condemned because he fails to show Lazarus the mercy shown him by “the dogs came and licked his sores.” It wasn’t because he failed to host Lazarus at a great feast but because he failed to feed him “with the crumbs” from his table. It wasn’t because he didn’t offer Lazarus wine but that he didn’t give him the same favor he asked for himself. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.”

Chrysostom says the rich man is condemned because he failed to relieve, however fleetingly, Lazarus’ suffering. The rich man was condemned not for failing to make Lazarus rich but for failing to be kind.

It is this kindness that is at the heart of our evangelical witness and mission here on the Isthmus.

St Paul in his epistle the Gospel he preaches comes not from man but from God. This isn’t meant to undermine the importance of the Church. Far from it in fact!

After preaching the Gospel with great success for three years in Arabia, the Apostle goes to Jerusalem. The fact that he received the Gospel from Jesus Christ doesn’t mean Paul can do without the Church.

St John Chrysostom says in traveling to Jerusalem, St Paul reveals the depth and breadth of his humility. He doesn’t enter Jerusalem like Cesaer but quietly. He doesn’t seek out the praise of the Church but a quiet meeting with Peter and later James the brother of our Lord.

He who was called by Christ in humility seeks to be confirmed by Peter.

Here we need to pause and ask ourselves, how does Peter receive Paul? He doesn’t castigate Paul for having persecuted the Church. Instead, he receives him as a brother. Rather than shame for the great harm he has done, Peter extends the hand of friendship.

Both in Paul’s humility and Peter’s reception of Paul, we see what it means to respond with evangelical kindness.

When people come to us, we need to open wide the doors of the Church. Far from responding with polemics or words that shame them for past deeds, evangelical kindness demands we lift from their shoulders the burdens that bind them.

To do this requires the humility of both Peter and Paul.

Like Paul, the Gospel we have received comes not from man but God. And, again like Paul, far from separating us from the Church, from those who have gone before us in the faith, the Gospel binds us ever more tightly together.

Like Peter, we must be always willing to receive freely and without demand anyone who comes to us no matter how imperfect and lacking their repentance. After all if, like Paul, they have been chosen by God how can I turn them away?

Brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us learn from Peter and Paul and the failures of the rich man! Let us practice simple kindness. Let us make kindness our daily rule for how we will respond to those God brings to us.

Let us simply be kind and so win the souls of those burdened by sin.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Asking for What We Don’t Want

Sunday, October 27 (OS., October 14), 2019: 19th Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787); Martyrs Nazarius, Gervase, Protase, and Celsus of Milan (1st c.); Hieromartyr Silvanus of Gaza (311); Ven. Parasceva (Petka) of Epibatima, Thrace, whose relics are in Iasi, Romania (11th c.). St. Mykola Sviatosha, prince of Chernihiv and wonderworker of the Kyiv Caves (1143).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9/Hebrews 13:7-16
Gospel: Luke 8:5-15/John 17:1-13

St Augustine in his Letter to Proba observes that when we pray, we ask for what we don’t want. He means by this that when I ask God for mercy or forgiveness, or as we hear in the second Gospel this morning, joy, what I’m asking for is what I understand by mercy, forgiveness, or joy. 

In asking, then, I ask for my will to be done not God’s. I ask for something I don’t want because I ask for something I don’t understand. 

St Paul alludes to this when he tells the Corinthians that the mysteries of heaven are “not lawful for a man to utter.” This isn’t because God forbids us to speak of His “grace and love for mankind” (see Titus 3:4). It is rather that no matter how eloquent the speakers, human words fall far short of reality.

So much of the frustration I experience in the spiritual life comes from my tendency to confuse my understanding of God with God Himself. Again, I ask for what I don’t want because I don’t understand that for which I ask. And when God gives me that for which I ask rather than that I imagined I wanted, I’m disappointed and am tempted to become embittered ask Him for answering my prayer!

The reading for Hebrews is helpful here. We are told to remember those “who have spoken the word of God” to us. We remember and reflect on the lives of the martyrs, the fathers, and the saints because like us they asked for what they didn’t want.

But unlike us, unlike me, they received with joy and thanksgiving that which they were given but didn’t want because it outstripped their understanding.

The lesson of those who have gone before us is this: YesI ask for that which I don’t want because I don’t understand that for which I ask. But if I ask with humility, if I ask aware of my own limitations, my own lack of understanding of God’s will, I can receive with joy what God would give me.

I must, in other words, learn to stand before God with open hands and an open heart. This is what it means to be, as we heard in the first Gospel, to be that “good ground” that “yielded a crop a hundredfold.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do as Orthodox Christians has only one goal. To help us hear the word of God with a noble and good heart” so that we can “keep it and bear fruit with patience.”

Today God stands ready to give us what we don’t want. But what we don’t want is immeasurably better than that for which we ask.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be Perfect

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Jesus Gave You One Job

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

Ss Cyril &Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what is that thing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Co-Workers With Christ & Each Other

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Look at St Peter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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