Sunday, July 2, 2017: 4th Sunday of Matthew; Deposition of the Precious Robe of the Theotokos in Blachernae, St. Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Juvenal the Protomartyr of America & Alaska, John Maximovitch, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos of the Orphan
Epistle: Hebrews 9:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13
For the fathers of the Church, the Temple sanctuary is an image, a type, of the Theotokos. Like the mercy seat, she too has been overshadowed by grace though not by an angel but by the Holy Spirit. There is for the fathers a clear continuity between the events of the Old Testament and of the New. It is this sense of the organic connection between the two covenants and so between the two Israels, that allows them to see Christ foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament.
When we shift to the relationship between the Gentiles and the Gospel, however, the continuity isn’t as clear. Yes, as St Justin Martyr tells us, God prepares all people to receive the Gospel. But, unlike the Jews, God doesn’t explicitly reveal Himself to the Gentiles. His presence is, as Justin points out, seminal. God the Word is seminally present and it belongs to the Church to discern what is, and so what isn’t, of God in any given culture.
In this morning’s Gospel, for example, Jesus commends the humble faith of the centurion. St Matthew tells us that Jesus “marveled” at the man saying that He hadn’t found faith like the centurions “even in Israel.”
But what about the rest of the man’s life? Jesus says nothing (one way or the other) that the man is both a Roman officer and slave owner. We need to be careful here that we not make arguments from silence. And while the tradition of the Church offers us some guidance, even here there can be room to disagree and debate.
When in the earliest years of the Church, the apostles looked at pagan culture there was surprisingly little ruled out as being absolutely incompatible with the Gospel. For example, in Acts we read that the new, Gentile Christians, must “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (see Acts 15:29, NKJV). As for the rest of pagan culture, even if it fell short of the Gospel, it wasn’t necessarily seen as incompatible with being a disciple of Christ.
So, this all very interesting but what does it have to do with us, with our lives as Orthodox Christians? As with earlier Christians we need to be discerning about what in our culture is, and isn’t, compatible with the Gospel. What, in other words, in our common cultural inheritance as Americans might serve as a preparation for the Gospel?
Seeing how the culture opens the human heart to Christ has a long and venerable history in the evangelical and pastoral practice of the Church. Just as the ancient Greeks and Romans love of virtue prepared them to receive Christ, we need to ask what in our culture can serve as a bridge to Christ? With this we must also ask what in the culture around us is a barrier to Christ?
What we can’t do–and what sadly some Orthodox Christians try and do–is “baptize” the culture.We can’t uncritically accept everything in American culture as compatible with the Gospel. Christians are called to be “in the world” while at the same time not being “of the world.” This means that there are times when we will stand apart from, and even in opposition to, what the surrounding culture considers good and even “Christian.”
That said, we need to keep in mind that it is equally false to say there is no disagreement between American culture and the Gospel as it is to say that there is no agreement. To say that the culture has nothing in common with the Gospel is risk falling into despair. Even if He is hidden, God is always (as St Justin reminds us) in someway present in the culture. It is our task to discern and nurture that presence.
What complicates all this is that the points of convergence and divergence between Holy Tradition and the surrounding culture (any culture by the way, not just American culture) are often the same.
For example, Americans value freedom not just our own but other peoples. We are often ready to make great personal and national sacrifices in defense of human dignity and rights at home and abroad. Laudable as this is, the American vision of freedom often borders on license. Many Americans seem to have forgotten, or never knew, that real freedom isn’t ability to do what we want but what ought. This, defective, view of freedom both flows from and fosters a serious misunderstanding of human dignity and human rights. We see this misunderstanding all around us in those laws that degrade rather than uphold the image of God in us.
Together with this sometimes the very nobility of our goals make us indifferent to the path we take to accomplish them. We are a people of good intentions who sometimes assume that this is enough. It isn’t.
When I focus simply on my good intentions I leave myself vulnerable to seeing those who disagree with me as the enemy or as morally bad people. The simply fact is, we are all of us called by God to good works. But often we are called to do different good works. Or, if we are called by Him to pursue the same good goals, we might do so in different ways because of our different gifts, life experiences or starting points.
In any case, this is a sermon not a lecture in political theology. Please forgive me for offering more theoretical, observations than is my habit. But these more abstract considerations are sometime necessary. And, as in the current case, there are times when they are all that the clergy can offer the laity.
The reason for this that while the clergy have our own role in the work of discerning what in the culture is compatible with the Gospel, it is not–fundamentally–our vocation. It belongs primarily to the laity to discern what in the culture can serve the Gospel and how it can do so More importantly, it is your vocation as baptized Orthodox Christians, to shape the culture according to the Gospel.
You do this first in your own hearts, then in your own homes and families. You do this in the workplace and in schools. You do this with the votes you cast and as members of the different communities in which you take part. You do this in whatever part of society you find yourself.
My brothers and sisters in Christ! It the vocation, great responsibility, right and privilege of the laity to introduce not just individuals to Christ but to bring American culture into an ever greater harmony with the Gospel.
So go! Do what God has called you to do by being faithful to who God has called you to be!