Tag Archives: Love

Homily: Growing in Love

Sunday, February 11, 2018 (O.S., January 29): Meatfare Sunday; Sunday of the Last Judgment; God-bearer(107). Martyrs Romanus, James, Philotheus, Hyperechius, Abibus, Julian and Paregorius (297) Martyrs Silvanus, bishop of Emesa, Luke the Deacon, and Mocius (Mucius) the Reader (312). St. Laurence, recluse of the Kyiv Caves and bishop of Turov (1194).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Reflecting on his love of tragedies and of the grief he feels when a character in a play suffers, St Augustine says he did this not because he loved sorrow but because he wanted to think of himself as the kind of man who feels pity at the sufferings of others. He wanted to think of himself in other words as merciful.

After all,he asks himself, “what kind of mercy is it that arises from” fiction? The audience isn’t asked “to relieve” the suffering they see on the stage “but merely … to grieve.” The more we sorrow, the more we applaud. In fact, he says the “insanity” is so perverse that if we don’t go away feeling bad, we feel cheated. Perversely, if we grieve at the fictitious suffering we shed “tears of joy” (Confessions, III:2).

Writing some 15 centuries later, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would refer to the insanity Augustine saw in himself as “cheap grace” describing it as “the grace we bestow on ourselves.” “Cheap grace,” he says, “is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (The Cost of Discipleship, 44,45).

Whether we call it “insanity” or “cheap grace,” St Paul in his epistle condemns it. Because of sin, there is in me a tendency to selfishness, to deal sharply with God as I seek to minimize what He asks of me. Like Augustine, I want to feel mercy but not act mercifully. Or, to return to Bonhoeffer, I want to be forgiven but not asked to repent.

As we look forward to the beginning of the Great Fast, the Church asks us to reflect once again on St Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.” This isn’t a rejection of fasting but a sober reminder of its limits. Indeed of the limits of all of our efforts.

Many of us, whether we Christian or not, fall into the same trap as Augustine. We imagine that it is enough if we feel bad for others. We think it is enough to have the right feelings or to hold to the right opinions. If our heart is in the right place, it doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do.

I desperately want to be judged not by what I do but by what I feel. In the grip of this madness, I think my words and actions don’t matter as long as they “come from a good place.” I want, in other words, “grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

This was the spiritual illness that afflicted the Corinthians. They thought their liberty meant they could do as they please without any thought to the consequences of their actions for other people.

As important as fasting is for the fathers of the Church, it is only a means to an end. I fast in order to overcome my selfishness so that, in turn, I am able to love.

And just as “cheap grace” isn’t really grace but a counterfeit, love without sacrifice isn’t really love. True love isn’t just sacrificial, it longs to sacrifice. If I love you, I want what is best for you. And if what is best for you is costly for me? I am glad to pay that cost and more.

St Maria of Paris reminds us that “The way to God lies through love of people.” Reflecting on the Gospel we just heard Mother Maria goes on to say that

At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead, I shall be asked did I feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked.

The reason that I will be asked this, and nothing else, is because

About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Savior says ‘I’: ‘I was hungry and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.’ To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need. . . . I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe (The Pearl of Great Price, 29-30).

Not all of us are called, as Mother Maria was, to open a hostel for the poor. But, as the Gospel makes clear, whatever our state in life, all of us are called to care for those in need as best we can. St John Chrysostom says even the poor are called to care for rich by speaking a kind word or offering a prayer.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do in the Church is done for one reason, and one reason only. To heal the human heart of the selfishness that is the defining quality of sin.

As selfishness recedes so too will fear.

As fear recedes, your desire to love will grow.

As the desire to love grows, your willingness to love sacrificially will also grow.

And as your willingness to love grows, you will begin to discover more and more opportunities to love!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

For Consideration: Love

People are renewed by love. As sinful desire ages them, so love rejuvenates them. Enmeshed in the toils of his desires the psalmist laments: “I have grown old surrounded by my enemies.” Love, on the other hand, is the sign of our renewal as we know from the lord’s own words. “I gave you a new commandment—love one another.”

St Augustine

Homily: Holy Ascension

Thursday, May 25, 2017: The Holy Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Epistle: Acts 1:1-12
Gospel: Luke 24:36-53

The reading from Acts reminds us though God reveals His will to us, though He reveals Himself to us and draws us into communion with Him, there are some things about His will, about Himself, that God doesn’t reveal. And, of course, because these things aren’t revealed, we don’t know what they are.

There is, however, one thing we know we don’t know because God has told us He won’t tell us.

We don’t know when, in the words of the Creed, Jesus will come back as Judge of the living and the dead. This is what the Apostles asked Jesus in the moments before His Ascension: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?” Jesus answers that it isn’t for them, it isn’t for the Church, it isn’t for us, for you or for me “to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”

St Ephrem the Syrian says that God hides things from us, and tells us He is doing so, to inspire us to “keep watch.” If the time of the Last Judgment, “were to be revealed,” it would be to our harm. If we knew when Jesus was coming as Judge we would grow indifferent to His judgment. While God “has indeed said He will come, … He did not define when,” St Ephrem says, so that “all generations and ages will thirst for Him.”

In other words, in this and in all things God acts in such a way as to keep the desire for Him alive in the human heart.

And so immediately after telling the Apostles what they won’t know–after kindling their desire–Jesus tells them they “shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”

But even here, the fine details of the future are left unspoken. But this doesn’t cause the Apostles to be discouraged. Why? Because Jesus speaks in such a way as to inspire deeper love and greater devotion in the Apostles.

Remember what we just read in the Gospel.

Though they are momentarily stunned by seeing Jesus ascend into Heaven when the angels explain to them what has happened the Apostle return “to Jerusalem with great joy” and are “continually in the temple blessing God.”

Sometimes we think–sometimes I think–if only God’s will was laid out for us clearly and in minute detail we would be happy. But if God were to do this, what would happen to human freedom and creativity? If everything was laid out for me, if I had a step-by-step plan that I followed as I would a recipe, I wouldn’t be God’s co-worker but merely a spiritual functionary who blindly and thoughtlessly did as I was told.

This isn’t what God wants from us. God loves us. He and wants us to return His love. But love isn’t love unless it is free.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as God is for me, I must be for others.

God doesn’t compel me, He woos me. God doesn’t just passively leave room for my freedom, my creativity, He creates the space, the conditions, for me to discover and exercise my freedom and creativity.

And as God has done for me, I must do for you.

To be disciples of Christ means that we help others find true freedom in Christ. This is why compulsion is foreign to the life of the Church. Like God, we must respect each others’ freedom. Anything less is not worthy of the name “Christian” because anything less is contrary to the example of Christ, “Who in glory ascended from us into Heaven” and now sits “at the right hand of God the Father for our salvation”!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Growing in Love

March 12, 2017: Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas; Theophanes the Confessor, Symeon the New Theologian, Gregory Dialogos, Bishop of Rome, Phineas, grandson of Prophet Aaron

Epistle: Hebrews 1:10-14; 2:1-3
Gospel: Mark 2:1-12

Before both the epistle and Gospel reading, we are commanded to pay attention. This is sensible. When God speaks I ought to listen.

But God being God, when does He not speak? When is God not speaking to the human heart? When is not revealing Himself to us?

To be sure, God can (at least from my point of view) speak with greater or lesser subtlety. Yes, He appeared to Moses in a burning bush(Exodus 3:2) and lead the Hebrew children to the Promised Land as a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night (Exodus 13:21-22).

And yet, when He spoke to the Prophet Elijah, God spoke not in “a great and strong wind” that “tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces.” God didn’t speak in “an earthquake” or “a fire.” No, when He spoke to Elijah, He spoke as ultimately He always does, in “a still small voice” (1 Kings 9:11-12, NKJV) in the depth of the human heart.

This is why, as we heard in the epistle, “we must pay closer attention to what we have heard.” God’s voice is small and still and unless we quiet ourselves and listen so we can hear what He has to say, we will simply “drift away.”

While we might imagine that people make a conscience decision to separate themselves from the Church and to stop following Christ, more often faith—like marriage—dies by a series of small acts of neglect. It is indifference and distraction that usually steals the soul from Christ. Major sins, what the Apostle John calls sins “leading to death” (1 John 5:16, NKJV), are never the starting point. They are rather the fruit of a habit of spiritual or moral negligence; of prayers rushed or skipped, sins of omission rather than commission.

Recall the miracle in the Gospel we just heard.

Like many of our Lord’s miracles, this one was public; Jesus heals the paralytic scribes who only a moment ago accused Him of blasphemy for forgiving a man his sins. Given the times, it isn’t wholly unreasonable that the scribes took offense at Jesus’ words.

But their anger at Jesus is so overwhelming that it causes them to miss what the crowd saw. The crowd was attentive and so when the man ” took up the pallet and went out before them,” they were “amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We never saw anything like this!’”

The difference between the scribes and those in the crowd wasn’t what the eyes saw but what the heart heard. For all their ignorance of the Law, the hearts of those in the crowd were open to hearing the small, still voice of God.

And this brings us the saint who we commemorate today: Gregory Palamas.

There is neither the time nor the place to explore the subtle of the saint’s theology. Suffice it to say that for Palamas the voice that we hear in our hearts is really the voice of God. It isn’t a psychological phenomenon but God speaking to us directly and personally. He was tenacious in his argument that our experience of God in prayer, in the Liturgy and the others sacraments and services of the Church is a real, unmediated and direct experience of God.

What we have, in other words, is not knowledge about God but knowledge of God. A real, unmediated, direct, and personal intimacy or communion with God.

We can summarize the goal of the asceticism that so occupies us during the Great Fast in this way. First, the ascetical life helps us overcome the myriad distractions in our lives that come between us and God. How frequently, to speak only for myself, I become fascinated with some idea I have about God. That this idea is true is, from the point of view of our communion with God, is secondary. The spiritual life isn’t a collection of true ideas or wholesome feelings about God any more than it is about living a morally good life. To be sure, these all have their place but in service of pointing us beyond themselves to God. Or, as St Seraphim of Sarov says:

Prayer, fasting, vigil and every Christian work, however good it is in itself, does not constitute the goal of our Christian life, but serves as a means for its attainment. The real goal of human life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.

As distractions wane, our ability and desire to focus on God, and God alone, waxes. This second goal of the ascetical life is often overlooked. Christian asceticism is not about being able to perform great feats of physical endurance. No, asceticism is rather about learning to fix the heart and mind, indeed the whole person, on the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.

Asceticism without love makes me no better than then the demons. Think about it. The demons keep vigil because they don’t sleep, they fast because they don’t eat. Not having physical bodies as we do, their attention never wavers. What they lack is not the elements of asceticism but it’s inspiration and goal, the love of God.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! As we enter now into the third week of the Great Fast, let us ask God to help us grow in our love for Him and in Him for our neighbor and in this way fulfilling the whole of the Law.

To this end, that is to grow in love, let us as well offer to God not only our heartfelt prayers but also our ascetical struggles. We offer them not because God needs them but because we do so that we can celebrate Christ’s Glorious Resurrection a little freer from sin, a little freer to love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

St Porphyrios on Obedience

For Christians as well as those outside the Church, probably no topic is as misunderstood as obedience. And yet, obedience is foundational not only to our relationship with Christ but for the whole of the Church’s life. Obedience to Holy Tradition, to our bishop and our conscience all serve to keep us united to God and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Again, for many people—Christian or not–obedience is morally problematic. In most cases this reflects not ill-will but a lack of understanding. In the Scriptures the command to be obedience is not a command that we give a mechanical submission to an authority (divine or human). Obedience isn’t passive submission of the vanquished to the victor, it isn’t “‘giving in’ or ‘surrender’ but freely chosen, voluntary mutual cooperation–or synergy” (here).

Elder Porphyrios

In Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios. Elder Porphyrios (+1991), a Greek monk and priest “tells the story of his life and, in simple, deeply reflected and profoundly wise words, he expounds the Christian Faith today.” Writing on obedience he recalls that as a young monk

My whole life was a paradise: prayer, worship, handicraft, and obedience. But my obedience was the outcome of love not coercion. This blessed obedience benefitted me greatly. It changed me. I became sharp-witted, quick and stronger in body and soul. … Obedience shows love for Christ. And Christ especially loves the obedient (Wounded by Love, p. 25).

At a minimum, obedience requires the absence of coercion. There can be nothing abusive or forced if obedience is going to be true to what it means to be human. Obedience properly so called is always an appeal to human freedom and an affirmation of human dignity.

For the fathers of the Church, freedom is “one of the manifestations of God in human nature. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Man became Godlike and blessed, being honoured with freedom (αὐτεξουσίῳ)’ (Sermon on the Dead). For this reason, the Church in her pastoral practice and spiritual guidance takes so much care of the inner world of a person and his freedom of choice. Subjection of human will to any external authority through manipulation or violence is seen as a violation of the order established by God.”

We can’t, however, make “freedom of choice … an absolute or ultimate value.” As it comes to us from the hand of God, our freedom is “at the service of human well-being.” This means that when a person exercises his freedom he “should not harm either himself or those around him.” Unfortunately, “due to the power of sin inherent in the fallen human nature, no human effort is sufficient to achieve genuine goodness” (see The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights, II.1).

Elder Porphyrios is helpful here.

I can’t give you an example of what real obedience is. It’s not that we have a discussion about the virtue of obedience and then I say ‘go and do a somersault,’ and you obey. That’s not obedience. You need to be entirely carefree and not thinking at all about the matter of obedience, and then suddenly you are asked to do something and you are ready to do it joyfully (Wounded by Love, p. 19).

Freedom, love and joy; these are characteristic of Christian obedience. But these are also all inter-personal; they are social and not merely individual. Being obedient means learning to make choices that foster freedom, love and joy not simply in my life but yours as well. It isn’t so much a matter of my being obedient to you (or the other way around) but our being obedient together to God Who is the source of all good things. Obedience, in other words, is mutual; what we do together and not what I do alone.

To be obedient means to live as a member of a community in which we work together for the flourishing, sanctification and salvation of each other. It is the end of mere individualism and the beginning of life patterned after the Holy Trinity.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love is the Goal

As important as inner stillness and the Jesus Prayer are, we can never lose sight of the goal of both: love.

For all that is wrong with me and with the world, God’s love is always greater. Seeing this requires that I truly repent. This isn’t a matter of looking in the mirror and saying “BAD!” Rather repentance worthy of the name means seeing myself as God sees me. Though I a sinner, what matters, even more, is that God loves me.

The medieval Catholic monastic reformer St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) helps us understand what it means to be loved and to love God. In On Loving God Bernard traces out the four degrees or stages of our journey from immature to mature love.

I begin this journey in self-love. Bernard doesn’t judge this harshly. Rather he sees it as a necessary concession to our fallen state. He writes that “nature is so frail and weak that it has to love itself first.” And so love at this stage means “loving oneself selfishly.” As he explains (#8)

“The spiritual does not come first. The natural comes first and is followed by the spiritual” (1 Corinthians 15.46). This is not what we are commanded, but what nature directs: “No one ever hated his own body” (Eph. 5.29).

Over time, though, the command to love my neighbor comes to play a role in our lives. This happens because I can’t love myself, even selfishly, without also loving those around me. I am to a greater or lesser degree dependent on my neighbors. Even if this doesn’t take the form of a material dependence, I still need the affection and support of others.

And so I grow, however faltering, in love for my neighbor.

Soon though I come to realize that I can’t really love my neighbor unless I also love God. What causes me to have this realization, according to Bernard,  are the life’s troubles. These teach me the limits of human strength and my dependence not simply on my neighbor but on God. It is because we “suffer troubles” that we “begin to love God through our own love for ourselves.” As troubles wax and human strength wanes, we learn that “in God we can accomplish anything and without God we can do nothing.”

This leads us to the next two stages of love.

We begin to love God for our own sake and grow in time to love Him for His own sake.

If frequent troubles drive us to frequent prayer, surely we will taste and see how gracious the Lord is (Ps. 34.8). Then, realizing how good he is, we find ourselves drawn to love him unselfishly, even more powerfully than we are drawn by our own needs to love him selfishly (#9).

St Bernard has helped me understand that the great moral and spiritual problem of my life isn’t that I don’t love but that my love is too frequently immature and selfish. And yet, even though my love is damaged by sin, it is still love and God wants to heal my love. This means that even my  “worldly wants,” he says, “have a speech of their own, broadcasting the gifts they have received from God.”

Once we recognize this, “it will not be hard to … love our neighbor.” As I come to understand that even the most selfish of my own desires is really a frustrated search for God and a step along the way towards Him, I can have compassion on others. After all, what is human weakness, what human sinfulness–mine or yours–but the disfigured love for God and His creatures?

Seeing this in myself allows me to see this in my neighbor and so selfish love is made “pure, and finds not burden in the command” to love others “in unfeigned love” (see, 1 Peter 1:22)

This love, Bernard says,

… is thankworthy, because it is spontaneous. It is pure because it is shown not in word nor tongue, but in deed and truth (1 John 3.18) It is just because it repays what it has received. Whoever loves like this, loves as he is loved, and no longer pursues his own desires but Christ’s, even as Jesus did not pursue not his own welfare, but ours — or rather pursued ourselves (#9).

As important as self-discipline and habit are in the spiritual life, we can’t forget that the fruit of inner stillness is freedom or what Bernard calls deeds of love that are spontaneous, pure, just, true because they are obedient to the will of God for the person we love.

Practically this means that when I love someone, I don’t simply have warm feelings about them. Sometimes the person I love will even cause me pain. But if I love you, I want what is best for you. And what is best for you is not what I want or even what you want. What is best for you is God and what He wants for you. Ultimately what God wants for each of us is to draw us ever closer to Himself. He wants to share His life with us and through us with the world.

Ultimately what God wants for each of us is to draw us ever closer to Himself. He wants to share His life with us and through us with the world.

This leads us to the highest degree of love: to love ourselves because we have first been loved by God. “How blessed is he who reaches the fourth degree of love, in which one loves oneself only for God’s sake!”

At this stage, love is like an experience of deep contemplation. We lose ourselves as if “we were emptied and lost and swallowed up in God.” This love isn’t mere “human love; it is heavenly.” This is the goal of inner stillness. And this is why we say the Jesus Prayer, to purify ourselves of every and anything that stands in the way of being emptied, lost and swallowed up by God.

In the theological tradition of the Church, this is what we mean when we talk about theosis or deification. To become “partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) means to love as God loves.

O chaste and holy love! O sweet and gracious affection! O pure and cleansed purpose, thoroughly washed and purged from any selfishness, and sweetened by contact with God’s will! To reach this state is to become godlike. As a drop of water poured into wine loses itself, and takes the color and savor of wine; or as a bar of iron, heated red—hot, becomes like fire itself, forgetting its own nature; or as the air, radiant with sun—beams, seems not so much to be lit as to be light itself; so for those who are holy all human affections melt away by some incredible mutation into the will of God (#10).

This last stage is never complete. This isn’t because of human sinfulness or the limitations of human nature (though both play a role). It is rather because the love of God knows no limits. God love is eternal and beyond anything we can imagine. At this stage, we come to realize that we don’t really hope “to possess” God’s love. Rather we hope “to be,” Bernard says, “possessed by it.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Next: Let Us Begin!

Vessels Overflowing With Divine Love

Sunday, October 4, 2015: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost & Second Sunday of Luke

Hieromartyr Hierotheos, bishop of Athens; Hieromartyr Peter of Capitolia in Syria; Martyrs Domnina and her daughters of Syria; Gurios, first archbishop of Kazan and Barsanouphios, bishop of Tver; and Martyrs Stephen (Stiljanovich) and Elizabeth of Serbia

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 9:6-11

Gospel: Luke 6:31-36

“But I say to you,” says the Lord, “love your enemies…do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you” (Matt 5:44).

St Maximus the Confessor writes that Christ commands us to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us so He can free us “from hatred, irritation, anger and rancor.” We are commanded to love Maximus says, so that love can free us from sin can make us worthy of “the supreme gift of perfect love.” We “cannot attain such love” unless we “imitate God and love all men equally” (First Century on Charity, 61).

Love then is both the cause and effect of our salvation.

At least in the material realm, cause and effect are generally clear. In the spiritual life, however, cause and effect travel together. As St Maximus tells us, love is both the goal of the spiritual life, and it’s only rule. We are called to love so that we can love; love is simultaneously the road we travel and the destination of our travels.

This means that we need to be attentive to our own experience. I need to ask myself, are my thoughts, words and deeds truly loving? In asking that question I need to pay special attention to the word “truly.” I need to have a standard to test my experience so that I don’t relay myself and my own limited understanding of whether or not what I’m doing is really and truly loving. Good intentions certainly matter but they aren’t enough. I must instead evaluate my experience in light of Holy Tradition; experience, like good intentions, is an insufficient standard for my life in Chirst.

Today we remember the hieromartyr Hierotheos the first bishop of Athens. Hierotheos received the Gospel from Apostle Paul when the latter preached at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34). But it’s the disciple of St Hierotheos, St Dionysius the Areopagite, who we turn to this morning to understand the place of love in the spiritual life.

St Dionysius says that creation is arranged hierarchically with some closer, others further, from God. And yet he says where ever we are in that hierarchy we are there as a vessel overflowing with divine love. The presence and the operation of God’s love is the very definition of who we are. This is why, and without prejudice to other biblical metaphors such as justification, the Church understands salvation as deification. This mean that we participate in the life of God; in St Peter’s words we have become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). Put another way, we become by grace what Christ is by nature.

Following from this, we talk about salvation as a therapeutic process. Not therapeutic in the medical or psychological sense . While healing through these means is also a gift from God. they are based on the cause and effect relationship appropriate to the material realm. No spiritual therapy transcends the processes of material causality.

As I said a moment ago, the overflowing presence of divine love is the very definition of who we each of us is personally. Sin is anything that would seek to constrain that love. It is important to keep in mind here I didn’t say reject that love or abolish that love but constrain it. God’s love can’t be undone but I can try to contain that love, to keep it from overflowing the vessel of my own heart. Hatred, irritation, anger, rancor and above all fear are the symptoms that I am doing just that—that I’m trying to keep God’s love to myself.

Seen in this light, Christ’s words in the Gospel—and the explanation of them offered by St Maximus—reveal an anthropological depth that we might have at first overlook.

To love our enemies, to do good to those who harm us and to lend without expectation of return, is simply to become who we are, the vessels of God’s overflowing love. To become who I am requires from me nothing else but that I remove the dams that I have placed around the love God continually pours into my heart.

The Apostle Paul’s  words also now take on a new depth of meaning.

To sow sparingly, that is to try (however futilely) to constrain the love of God, means that I cripple myself. I don’t become, I can’t become, the person God has created me to be if I try to make God’s love as my exclusive possession.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, God the Father has called us in His Son to be generous, cheerful, and even profligate in our love for Him and our neighbor. This can’t be forced—we are each of us only the size vessel that we are—but it is something that we can develop. What I mean by  this is that when we love we grow in our ability to love. And through love, we can become more fully ourselves. You see as we give ourselves away in love, our hearts becomes more expansive, they become larger vessels for God’s love. And a the vessel grows, God fills it more and more to overflowing.

So here’ s the choice.

Will I embrace life as a vessel and channel of God’s superabundant love? To do so means that I must accept myself and the life God gives me. Do I do this or do I instead embrace the lie that God’s love is for me and me alone?

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us become the cheerful givers of God’s love. It is only in this way that we are healed of every sin, freed from every compulsion and are “enriched in every way” because it is only, in by way of love, that we become the friends of God and apostles of His great and overflowing love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love Without Limits

Sunday, September 6, 2015: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost & Fourteenth Sunday of Matthew

Commemoration of Archangel Michael’s miracle in Colossae; Archippos of Hierapolis; Martyrs Eudoxios, Zeno, Romulus and Makarios at Melitene in Armenia

EPISTLE: 2 Corinthians 1:21-2:4
GOSPEL: Matthew 22:2-14

The Apostle Paul was a good man. He was a faithful servant of Christ and loving pastor of souls. He was, however, not always a particularly pleasant man. The epistle for today makes this last point very clearly.

The Apostle is willing to hurt the feelings of his brothers and sisters in Christ. He does this not out of malice but because “he saw it as the necessary prelude to the joy which would come from their obedience” to Christ (Ambrosiaster, “Commentary on Paul’s Epistle”). Reflecting on the often painful art of the physician St Basil the Great says that in a situation like that which Paul is confronting at Corinth we need to remember the goal of his intervention and so “consider him a benefactor” who causes pain which is “according to God” will (“The Long Rule,” 52) for us and our salvation.

Paul’s behavior flies in the face of what has become for many the expectation of pastors. I want the priest to be likable, a “nice guy,” somebody who likes me and is like me. Within limits this is fair. St John Chrysostom says that after saying that he is “gladdened by their sorrow” the Apostle takes care not to alienate his spiritual children with words that “may have seemed arrogant and harsh.” So “to soften the impact” he tells the Corinthians he knows “if he were happy they would be happy and that if he were sad, they would be sad too.” This is why he delays his visit, not out of “hate or aversion but … exceeding love” (“Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians,” 4.2). Like Paul the spiritual father’s goal isn’t to be liked but neither is it to be disliked. In fact, one of the most dangerous things a spiritual father can do is to try to elicit from his spiritual children a particular feeling (good or ill) for him.

What Paul instead offers is love. He brings to Corinth the abundant love that suffers with those who are suffering and rejoices with those who are rejoicing (Romans 12:15). This is the love that Paul has in his heart not only for the Church but the Jewish people and the whole human family. He doesn’t simply invoke God’s blessing on others but “feel[s] compassion for their pain and sufferings” and for all they “fall into” (St John Chrysostom, “Homilies on Romans,” 2.2). Paul is not a mere “spiritual” technician but a real father in Christ. Even if doing so causes him, and them, pain he loves his spiritual children enough to call them to repentance.

We need to be careful here in how we understand things. Abundant, suffering love for others can—and does—take different forms. Long suffering tolerance of another’s weakness is one form but so too is the firmness—dare I say the intolerance—with which Paul responds to the problems in the Church. Living as we do in a culture that seems at times obsessed with celebrity and personality, we might overlook the fact that what Paul does is not a simply reflection of his personality. Much less does it reflect a character flaw.

No what Paul does, he does because he is moved by the Spirit of God to do so.

14th C icon of MT 22:1-14

Look at this morning’s Gospel. A king holds a great feast to celebrate his son’s wedding. When the honored guest fail to attend, he invites the common folk and the poor. But first he sends his troops to destroy those who those who not only reject his hospitality but murder his servants. Hospitality, or more directly the offer of divine grace, reflects God’s great love for us but I reject His grace at my own peril. We see this second point in the final verses of the Gospel.

The poor man who is not wearing a wedding garment didn’t reject the king’s hospitality but neither does he fully accept it. He was happy to join the celebration but—whether through negligence of indifference—he failed to wear the festive garments that the king provided. This is the situation of the Church in Corinth. They accept some, most even, of the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ but not all of it. They say in effect to God, “We will love you this much but no more.” In response to God’s total and unrestrained self-offering in Christ, they hold back something of themselves. Like Ananias and Sapphira, the Christians in Corinth “agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord” (Acts 5: 9). Like the beggar in the Gospel, the Corinthians wish to enjoy the good things of the feast but only to a point. They greet divine hospitality with an unhospitable heart. Simply put, they would lie to God by placing limits on His grace and in so doing deceive themselves and by their actions preach “another Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:4)

And of course, none of this is just about the beggar or the Church at Corinth. This is also about me. Like Ananias and Sapphira I’m tempted to abuse God’s grace. I’m tempted to use His offer of forgiveness as a justification for my own unwillingness to love sacrificially. Yes I look to God for forgiveness but forgiveness on my terms not His. I’m willing to accept His sacrifice for me but unwilling in return to sacrifice myself for Him.

Simply put, I am all too willing to use God’s forgiveness as a justification for my own sinfulness, His forbearance for my lack of repentance.

The Apostle Paul was not like this, he was not like me. He loved his spiritual children even when love demanded from him that he cause them pain and risk losing their love. Again Paul loves his spiritual children enough to call them to repentance even if doing so causes him, and them, pain. In so doing, he is faithful to the teaching and example of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Above all though, Apostle Paul sets the standard for all of us, clergy and laity alike. We are every bit as much his spiritual children as were the Corinthians and as such he call us to be friends of God and of each other. Such friendship requires that we love God, each other and all we meet without reservation even when doing so causes us pain or loss.

May we all be so faithful to love without limits.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Love: Watchful, Faithful, Courageous, Strong

Sunday, August 30, 2015: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost & Thirteenth Sunday of Matthew

Leave-taking of the commemoration of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist; Alexander, Paul the New, and John, Patriarchs of Constantinople; Venerable Phantinos of Calabria; repose of Venerable Alexander of Svir; translation of the relics of Alexander Nevsky, prince of Novgorod; Cyril and Makarios, patriarchs of Serbia.

EPISTLE: 1 Corinthians 16:13-24
GOSPEL: Matthew 21:33-42

Commenting on the parable in this morning’s Gospel St John Chrysostom says that the owner of the vineyard “did the work the tenants should have done” leaving them “little … to do.” He goes on to say that “nothing was left undone but all was accomplished.” They only thing required of the tenants was that they “take care of what was there and preserve what was given to them” (“The Gospel of Matthew,” Homily 68.1 quoted in ACCS NT vol Ib, 139) so that they could give to the owner what they owed him.

Unfortunately the tenants don’t respond with grateful diligence. While they cultivated the vineyard they do so out of greed; what they did, they did only for themselves. So when the owner sends other servants “to get his fruit” they “beat one, killed another, and stoned” a third. All this they did to avoid given the owner what was his due.

In all this says Chrysostom, the tenants display not only “their laziness” but their anger. Instead of asking forgiveness for breaking their word, they “were indignant; and though “deserving punishment, they themselves inflicted punishment.” Not only did they not “put aside their evil ways,” John says, “their disregard” for their own sinfulness filled them “with madness” and caused them to murder the owner’s son in the vain hope of inheriting the vineyard (pp. 140-141). And so what they got instead of a joyful harvest was “a miserable death.”

All of this happens because “they failed to learn self-control” and “did not put aside their evil ways” (pp. 140-141).

If I’m not careful I can find myself in much the same situation of the tenants. No, I probably won’t murder someone. But it is easy for me to neglect the gift of salvation, to fail bear the fruit of obedience “demonstrated through … works” as St John says. This is why St Paul tells the Christians at Corinth to be watchful, faithful, courageous and strong and to do all things in love.

Love is not a sentiment, it isn’t a feeling. The cliché of my youth was that love isn’t a feeling but a decision. In part yes, but this begs the question. What is it that I must decide? How must I live in order to be faithful to love?

To love someone is to want what God wants for them. In other words, love is first a matter of obedience to God. Just as it isn’t enough to have warm feelings for some, it isn’t enough to want good things for them. I love you precisely when I want for you what God wants for you.

Think about St John the Baptist whose beheading we commemorated yesterday. What does the Baptist say about himself and his relationship to Jesus? “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30, NKJV). How tempting it must have been for John to engage in sinful self-promotion. Not that John would have promoted himself above his cousin but how easy it would have been to place himself on the same level of Jesus. Or if not that, he could have just basked in reflected glory. John could have sought to be known as the friend of Jesus, His cousin and maybe even confident. But doesn’t do any of this. Instead he points people to Christ and so to Eternal Life.

If I’m not careful I can use my status as Christian or as a priest, to promote myself subtly at the expense of others. Avoiding this requires not only the self-control that comes from watchfulness but also a person fidelity to Christ and the Gospel. This is more than just a willingness to affirm the Creed. Above all it means to be obedient to the demands of my vocation. True love, love worthy of the name, requires not only self-control but a commitment—in season and out (see 2 Timothy 4:2)—to the work to which God has called me.

This vocational fidelity, though, is often hard work. Yes it is also joyful—I love being a priest—but it can be difficult to a priest. And so love requires not only self-control and fidelity but courage. This is something of an underrated virtue today not only in the surrounding culture but even among Christians. There are many reasons for this. Chief among them is that we confuse courage with bravado. Courage as both a natural and a Christian virtue is the willingness to do what is morally good, to do the morally right thing, even when it is painful. The father who goes to a job he doesn’t like, a mother who cooks dinner when she’s not feeling well, the student who studies even when it’s a beautiful day out and friends are calling. All of these are the fruit of courage. In each case the persons does what is right even when doing so is painful or unpleasant.

And so strength. Not physical strength, though sometimes that can be required, but moral strength in the sense of moral health. At the Trisagon at Liturgy the deacon turns to the congregation and says in Greek “Thinamis!” that is “Fervently!” or “With Strength!” Or more simply, “Powerfully!”

God has given each of us the power, the ability to love and to give ourselves over to Him and to each other without reservation. Just as we undervalue courage, I think we undervalue strength that comes from His grace. How easy love would be if it only required self-control, fidelity and courage. Love also requires the strength that comes from divine grace that gives us the ability not simply to sacrifice but to produce a harvest of good works. My brothers and sisters in Christ, what makes the tenants so pathetic is that they failed to use the grace they were given. After the owner Himself, they could have been masters of the Vineyard. Instead they choose greed and laziness. It shouldn’t be this way among us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Building a Civilization of Love

Sunday, August 2, 2015: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost & Ninth Sunday of Matthew

Relics Translation of Proto-martyr Stephen the Archdeacon; Venerable Photeini the wonderworker of Carpasia in Cyprus; Blessed Basil the fool-for-Christ, wonderworker of Moscow

EPISTLE: 1 Corinthians 3:9-17

GOSPEL: Matthew 14:22-34

We sometimes overlook the value of human labor. Often what most Christians do Monday through Friday is a distraction from what really matters, working for the Church—or more typically “our” parish (though as Fr Alexander Schmemann pointed out once, we would often condemn a man for doing for himself what he does for the parish; but this is a problem for another time).

A superficial reading of St Paul certainly lends itself to minimizing the importance of how most of us spend most of our time. And to be fair, for many people work can be, at least a times, boring or worse. And yet, while we need to acknowledge that it is often otherwise, our ability to work is a blessing from God and reveals our likeness to Him. The centrality of work to our humanity is why the Apostle can use human creativity and productivity as an illustration of his own evangelical ministry. Like work, evangelism is a creative and cooperative process.

And, like work, evangelism is about bring the creation—materially and socially—into an ever greater conformity with the Gospel. If I limit myself to simply explaining the Gospel, I fail as an evangelist. Why? Because human beings are not simply intellectual creatures. We are also social and material being and so the evangelical work of the Church needs to extend to those areas as well.

This is why as well as great preachers like St John Chrysostom, the assembly of saints include men and women who excelled in all kinds of human endeavors. Apostles, prophets, teachers, miracle workers, unmercenary healers, helpers, and counselors of all sorts (see 1 Corinthians 12:28) doesn’t even begin to exhaust all the different gifts God has given His Church, given us, to redeem the world of persons, events and things.

Putting this broader evangelical vision isn’t easy.

Like the disciples in this morning’s Gospel, I sometime feel “beaten by the waves” and that the wind is against me. This doesn’t just happen because faith is weak, though in my case it is, but because in a fallen world life is hard. Living in a fallen world we should expect conflict and opposition even when we merely tell people about Christ and the Church. Merely to speak about the Gospel is enough to make some people angry.

If we go further and proclaim the Gospel not only in words but in deeds that seek to shape the world around us according to the image of Christ we face an even stiffer resistance and a deeper angry.

The public proclamation of the Gospel in this second, fuller, sense means challenging the City of Man. It isn’t necessarily to say to a person or a community that they are morally bad. It is rather to invite them and to challenge them to live a deeper, more sacrificial form of love. We aren’t so much saying “You’re wrong!”—though there are times we must—as we are saying “You can be better!”

And it is that, the call to be better that is often the provocation. Even if it were possible to go our entire lives without criticizing or correcting others, even if we could somehow only say things that are positive and affirming, we would still be beaten by the waves of our neighbor’s anger and feel the wind of public opinion against us.

You see even though I am a sinner, I love God. That’s not the problem. The problem is I also love my own will as much, or even more, than I love God.

This is the tragedy and the sorrow of sin. Not that I love myself too much because I love God too little. I love God as if He were a choice, forgetting that it is the love of God that makes all my choices possible. And here misunderstanding is common.

It isn’t that we love God but that He loves us; it is God’s love for us that makes our love for others and ourselves possible.

In a fallen world love presents us with a curious temptation. Or rather, following St Paul, just as it did with the Law, Sin seizes the opportunity of love (see Romans 7:8) to turn me away from God and His love for me. Being “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin” doesn’t mean that I don’t love. It is instead the case that while “I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (see Romans 7:14; 19-20). I don’t so much need to learn to love as much as I need to learn to love wisely.

The heart of the evangelical work of the Church to call people to love more wisely, to help those who love a little come to love deeply and sacrificially. And it is this call—not to be good but to be better—that so offends.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, this is our task. Not simply to proclaim love but to build a parish, a Church and a civilization of love. May God grant us the grace and strength to do this even when we feel overwhelmed by the challenges of life, the opposition of the world and our own sinfulness.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory