Tag Archives: : 5th Sunday of Pascha

Homily: Christians Are Exiles

Sunday, May 14, 2017: Sunday of the Samaritan Woman; Isidore the Martyr of Chios, Holy Hieromartyr Therapontus, Holy New Martyrs Mark and John, Serapion the Holy Martyr, Leontius, Patriarch of Jerusalem

Epistle: Acts 11:19-30
Gospel: John 4:5-42

Christ is Risen!

Human beings are different from each other it two, broad ways.

The first is that we are created “male and female” in the words of Genesis (1:27).Though this distinction is under attack by some–even by some in the Church–it remains the most basic human difference. Before we are anything else, we are either male or female and this is a created distinction inherent to being human.

All the other differences in the human family–nationality, language, social status–are secondary. And these other differences are–again, broadly–God’s merciful response to human sinfulness. To see this we need to go once again to Genesis and the story of the Tower of Babel.

To summarize, after the Flood during Noah’s time, God makes a covenant with humanity:“I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done” (Genesis 8:21, NKJV). As time goes on though, humanity begins, once again, to doubt God. Eventually, we simply no longer trust God to keep His word to us and so when we come to “the land of Shinar” we decided to “build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:3,4)

We exercise our creativity and technical genius in rebellion against God. Key to our ability to rebel is that we had “one language and one speech.” Seeing our rebellion, God destroys the Tower and confuses our speech and scatters humanity over the whole face of the earth so that, while we are one in our humanity, we become different peoples (see Genesis 11:5-9).

Again though, the differences in language, culture and nation aren’t a punishment but an act of mercy as God seeks to slowly redirect our rebellious spirit.

Today’s Gospel highlights for us the different differences in the human family. Not only male and female but between of culture, language and nation. To the surprise of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus doesn’t respect these differences. Or rather, it is more accurate to say, He doesn’t respect the way in which these differences are used as an excuse to divide humanity.

Just as from the covenant with Noah to the Tower of Babel, humanity lost sight of God’s promise, from Babel to the Well, we have lost sight of the fact that human diversity is given as a cure for sin. What God meant as a mercy, we have turned not just into an occasion of sin but a justification for sin.

Just as in the time of Jesus, the fact of human difference is an excuse for hatred, or at least indifference, to our neighbor, How easily we, I, can find a reason to ignore, minimize, degrade, or even reject, my neighbor’s humanity. How easy it is for me to deny that we share a common humanity not only with each other but with Jesus Christ.

And yet, it is that common humanity that the Son assumes in His incarnation. He becomes as we are, in the patristic formulation, so that we can become as He is. Notice please, the use of the first person plural pronoun. God becomes man not so I can become God but so that we, together, can become “sharers in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

In being freed from slavery to the powers of sin and death, we are freed as well from the tyranny of loneliness and isolation that is its hallmark. We shouldn’t imagine that these experiences are somehow unique to modern phenomena; they aren’t. Likewise, with hatred and prejudice. There was never a time when we didn’t use our differences as a reason to turn our back on our neighbor or to deny someone else’s humanity.

To see this, look no further than the Gospel. There we see that the fear and division between the Jews and the Samaritans, while different in content, is as real as any racial, or economic, or social, or cultural division we see today.

And yet, as He did after the Flood and  the Tower and at the Well, God is merciful and works to heal the divisions between us by reconciling us to Himself. This work of reconciling humanity to God, and so in turn with itself, is the fundamental work of the Church.This is why, though “man meant it for evil, God meant it for good” (see Genesis 50:20), even the persecution and scattering of the Apostles worked for humanity’s salvation.

Just as He did for the sons of Israel in the time of the Patriarch Joseph, God used the persecution of the Church to bring salvation to the Greeks. Before they were scattered, the Apostles only spoke to the Jews. But afterwards, as an almost natural result of their new situation, the Apostles found that they had Gentile listeners.

So what about us? How has God called us to share in the work of reconciling humanity to Himself and so to itself?

Let me suggest that to answer this question, we need to look to those parts of our life when we find ourselves on the margins. The ancient Irish monastic had an interesting take on this. As an ascetical and evangelical discipline they would voluntarily accept exile from their native land and people. For the sake of their own salvation and to spread the Gospel, these monks would become strangers in a foreign land (see Exodus 2:22).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! This willing exile, though undertaken for many reasons, is how the Orthodox Church came to North America. We are, all of us, spiritually, and more often than not biologically, the sons and daughters of exiles. Many of us, in fact, willingly left our native lands and came to this place and time.

And so, as the spiritual sons and daughters of exiles, we too need to go to the margins, to the edges, of our own lives. We do this not to bring Christ where He isn’t but (to borrow from the Fr Alexander Schmemann), to find Him there waiting for us!

Both the Gospel and Acts of the Apostles are clear. The Church grows and humanity is saved, because (like Jesus) Christians are willing to go where God the Father will lead them. And where the Father leads us, spiritually (and sometimes literally) is always to the margins of our own lives. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ always means to be an exile.

Let us become, willingly and joyfully, who we are!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Faith Without Works Is Dead

Sunday, May 29, 2016: 5th Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Samaritan Woman; Theodosia the Virgin-Martyr of Tyre, St. Theodosia, Virgin-Martyr of Constantinople, Andrew the New Martyr of Argentes, John of Smyrna the New Martyr.

Epistle: Apostles 11:19-30

Gospel: John 4:5-42

We hear in Acts how they opponents of the Gospel in trying to destroy the Church actually aided in spreading the Good News beyond Judaism to the wider pagan world. It’s worth reflecting for a moment on the fact that the openness of the Church to the Gentiles was not, humanly speaking, something initiated by the Apostle. It was rather the consequence of persecution. The Apostles were in effect put in the position that brought about the conversion of pagans. What man “meant for evil; … God meant for good” (Genesis 50:20, NKJV). In this case, God used the sinful intentions of one group to bring about the liberation from bondage to sin and death (see Romans 6:16) of another. Painful though it was, the persecution of the Church was providential. As Tertullian wrote, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apologeticus, 50).

All of this suggests something that we already know at least theoretically. God in His great love for us can, and does, bring good out of evil. By His grace “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NKJV).

And yet, in the moment, it can be incredibly hard to remember all of this. As much as I want to abandon myself to the divine providence, to trust in God and His great love and mercy for me, the suffering of the present moment seems to defeat me. I might not curse God but I often do wonder why His plan seems to require my pain.

Reflecting on the events in Acts that we just heard, St John Chrysostom tells us “Look! Not even in tribulation did they succumb to lamentations and tears, as we do, but dedicated themselves to a great and good work and preached the Word even more undaunted.” He goes on to say, “trusting in the grace of God, they applied themselves to the work of teaching” the Gentiles about the mysteries of God and His great love for all mankind (“Homilies on Acts,” 25 in ACCS NT vol V: Acts, 147).

The difference between our age and the apostolic age or our age and Chrysostom’s age is that we, unlike our ancestors, tend to equate faith with internal emotional or intellectual experiences. We think faith is about thinking certain thoughts or having certain feelings. But as Chrysostom’s words make clear, for those first Christians, faith was something that was done; it was an action not just a thought or a feeling.

Our over-emphasis on the psychological dimension of the faith comes at the good works that we are called to do. It is this emphasis on internal, psychological experience that makes us especially prone to doubt and despair.

How often have we heard someone say, how often have we experienced, doubt melting away at Liturgy? Or think about what happens when we are caring for someone. In those moments of active love and sacrifice, even the strongest doubts are revealed to be a tissue of lies.

My trust in God and His providential care for me wavers not when I suffer but when I fail to act and instead allow myself to be swept away by my own, internal monologue. My own thoughts and feelings—my running internal monologue—are the enemies of faith. And the cure? It’s what the holy apostle James tells us in his epistle: “faith without works is dead” (see James 2:14-26). We must do good works, we must keep the commandments.

Understanding the close connection between work and faith can help us make sense of  what seem to the surprising conversion of the woman at the well.

Here’s this woman going about her business doing one of the myriad tasks that make up her day. Off she goes, like she has every other day, to fetch water from the well. And what happens when she gets there? She meets Jesus and with just a simple request—”Give me a drink”—the woman’s whole world is transformed. Jesus does steps in and disrupts the Samaritan woman’s expectations not only for her day but also about the relationship between her people and the Jews. “‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.”

In that one moment, everything looks different. And in that one moment, she realizes that she can be different as well.

As often happens in the Gospel, the change comes rapidly. What began as a less than friendly challenge to this Jew becomes a curiosity about this Man Who is claiming to be “greater than our father Jacob.”

Jesus then goes on to demonstrate the sincerity of His offer to give the woman “living water.” And He proves to her that, yes, in fact, He is greater than Jacob. How does He do this?

He reveals the woman to herself. Yes, she knows that she has had five husbands and that the one she is with now is not her husband. And no doubt everyone in the village knew this about her. Unlike neighbors, and likely even herself, Jesus doesn’t respond to the woman situation by condemning her; with Him she feels no need to be ashamed. He knows all this about her, and she knows He knows all this about her, and yet still He offers her “living water.”

What is this living water and why does it matter so?

St Cyril of Alexandria says that in making this offer, Jesus is offering “the quickening gift of the Spirit” that can restore the woman to her “pristine beauty.” Jesus has offered to make this woman, disfigured by her own sins and the sins of others, “beautiful” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2.4 in ACCS NT vol IVa: John 1-10, 150).

Jesus is offering to renew her by restoring her to a beauty she never knew was her!

And she says “Yes!”

Not only does she say yes, she leaves behind her old life—the water jar—so that she is free to invite others, those who have shamed and rejected her, to themselves be renewed and made beautiful.

To do this, she has to lay aside what she assumes is the work she is meant to do.It’s only then that she can do the great and good work of following Jesus and inviting others to do so with her.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, there are many reasons why we all become weak in our faith. Let me suggest that one reason is because we fail to do the work God asks of us. Maybe we fail because we’re tired. Maybe because we’re discouraged.

Or maybe, and this I think is the single most common reason, we fail because we don’t know what it is that God has called us to do. As we come now to the final weeks before Holy Pentecost, let us beseech God for ourselves, each other, and the whole Church, that He will reveal to us—as He did the Apostles and the Samaritan woman—the work He has called us to do.

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory