Tag Archives: Acts 6:1-7

A Sign of Contradiction

May 12 (O.S., April 29) 2019: Third Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women; Sts. Myrrh-Bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Nine Martyrs at Cyzicus: Theognes, Rufus, Antipater, Theostichus, Artemas, Magnus, Theodotus, Thaumasius, and Philemon (3rd c.); St. Memnon the Wonderworker of Corfu (2nd c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43–16:8

Christ is Risen!

As we’ve seen before, the authors of the New Testament are not afraid to air the Church’s dirty laundry. The weaknesses and moral failings of the Apostles and disciples are there to be seen by all. This is certainly the case in the conflict we hear about today.

In the early days of the Church, there was disagreement about whether or not the two groups of widows–those who spoke Hebrew and those who spoke Greek–were being treated the same. Whether it was actually the case or merely a perception, the Greek-speaking Christians complained that their widows were being “were neglected in the daily distribution” of food.

If only in passing, it’s worth noting that though they spoke different languages, not only were both groups Christians, they were both ethnically Jewish. In any case, St Luke is silent as to the exact nature of the complaint; it is enough for him to note that there was a division in the Church.

This division was sufficiently serious that it distracted the Apostles from their primary mission of preaching the Gospel. Instead, they had to involve themselves in making peace between arguing factions in the Church.

Events like this frequently cause those outside the Church to say “See! You Christians are no better than anyone else!” Fair enough. The Church is as subject to the kinds of petty–and not so petty–divisions that we see in the world.

And why wouldn’t this be so?

After all, what is the Church but that part of the world that is struggling against the very same sins that afflict all humanity? Put another way, the difference between the Church and the world is that the former struggles against the sins that the latter embraces.

This similarity sometimes causes us to act unwisely and make common cause with the world. While there are times when we can work together with those outside the Church, we need to do so prudently. And we must never lose sight of the fact that the Church is fundamentally a sign of contradiction to the world that the world can never embrace without thereby ceasing to be the world (compare, Luke 2:34 and Acts 28:22).

Take, for example, what happens today in the Gospel.

Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. For all the glory of the Roman Empire, it was a brutal and cruel regime that ruled not only by instilling fear but by humiliating its enemies. In times of social unrest, one could walk along the fabled Roman roads and see mile after mile of crucified criminals and rebellious slaves.

As enemies of the State they were also denied one of the universal marks of respect in the ancient world. The crucified were not buried but disposed of like garbage. There were as humiliated in death as in their dying.

By their quiet acts of piety for their dead friend, Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrh-bearing women stood in opposition to the Empire.

We shouldn’t think that the cruelty of the Roman Empire was a peculiarity of the times. While not always so dramatic in form, the world–and those who embrace the intentions and purposes of the world–are equally cruel.

Though sympathetic to the real virtues of the Roman Empire, St Augustine in The CIty of God is clear that the City of God and the City of Man are locked in competition for not only the human heart but also material resources and social authority.

To bring home to his readers the willingness of the City of Man–that is, the world–to act unjustly and even cruelly in its competition with the City of God, the Church, he quotes an exchange between Alexander the Great and an unnamed pirate.

In their conversation, the pirate tells Alexander, the difference between an emperor and a pirate is simply this. The size of their navies. That difference aside, they are in all other respects the same since both are willing to act savagely in pursuit of their goals.

And so back to Acts.

What is surprising is not that there is conflict in the Church. And while it might sadden us to see it, we ought not to be surprised or discouraged when now or then we glimpse pettiness our even cruelty in our Church leader, in our brothers or sisters in Christ, or in ourselves. Again, the Church is simply the world in the process of being redeemed. To not see serious sin in the members of the Church is like not seeing serious disease in a hospital. Both are built to heal, the latter the body, the former the soul.

No, the surprise in Acts is not the conflict, not the willingness of Christians to ape the empire. The surprise is not division but reconciliation. The surprise is not that Christians are afflicted with the same passions that lead to war in the world but that we struggle against them  (see James 4).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We can never lose sight of the dignity of our great calling in Jesus Christ to be a sign of contradiction to the world. To borrow from St Leo the Great:

…recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.

By our fidelity to our calling, we not only contradict the powers of this world, but we also offer those enslaved to these powers the possibility of true and lasting freedom in Christ Jesus.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Conflict With the World

Sunday, April 22 (O.S., April 9), 2018: Third Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Martyr Eupsychius (362). Martyrs Desan bishop, Mariabus presbyter, Abdiesus, and 270 other martyrs in Persia (362). Hieromartyr Bademus (Vadym), archimandrite of Persia (376).

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43-47; 16:1-8

Christ is Risen!

Given our history, it isn’t surprising that sometimes Orthodox Christians forget that there is a certain, necessary and inescapable tension and even conflict between the Church and the World. If at times, the City of God (the Church) and the City of Man (the World) can work collaboratively, this doesn’t mean that fundamentally the two cities aren’t in competition with each other.

We compete with the World for the human heart, for material resources, and space in the public square. Though we might sometimes shy away from thinking of the City of Man as in competition with the Church, if we are faithful to Christ we will inevitably find ourselves at odds with those around us. Or as the Apostle James bluntly puts it “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

Today’s commemoration of the Myrrh-bearing Women and the Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus is an example of the tension between the City of God and the City of Man.

Jesus was put to death by crucifixion because the Roman Empire saw Him as a threat to their power and so the civil order. The Jewish authorities make exactly this charge against Jesus to force Pilate’s hand “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (John 19:12).

This means that to be a friend of Jesus was to be–at least potentially–an enemy of Caesar and against all that the Empire represented. This is the political and cultural context within which Joseph of Arimathea “taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” Joseph isn’t simply risking the bad opinion of the other members of “the council,” of the Sanhedrin, of the ruling authority of the Jews.

As potentially harmful as this would be, by his actions Joseph also risks being labeled an opponent of Caesar. In asking for the body of Jesus, Joseph makes himself vulnerable to the charge of insurrection. This means that, like Jesus, Joseph could end his life on a cross.

Courageous though Joseph, and for that matter Nicodemus are, they are not the liturgical focus for the third Sunday after Pascha. That honor belongs to the Myrrh-bearing women “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome.”

Early on that first Pascha morning these women first “bought spices” and then went to Jesus’ tomb “so that they might go and anoint” His body. What Joseph and Nicodemus do privately in the presence of Pilate, these women do publicly. Before they go to the tomb, the women, known disciples of Jesus, go to the marketplace to buy what they need for his burial.

By their actions, the Myrrh-bearing women make clear their friendship with Jesus. By their actions, the Myrrh-bearing women make themselves the object of gossip. And in a small community, gossip can be deadly.

Like Joseph, doing this places the women at odds with Rome and the Sanhedrin. Doing this in the marketplace, however, places them at odds with their families and their friends, their neighbors and the whole community.

None of this, I should emphasize, was chosen by the women. They did not intend to do what too many Christians today seem dead set on doing.

They didn’t intend to give offense. They didn’t intend to set themselves at odds with the Jewish community and the Roman Empire.

All they wanted to do was mourn the loss of someone they loved.

Love for Jesus moves the Myrrh-bearing Women, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to challenge both civil and religious authority. They don’t engage in revolution but they do remind both Jewish and Roman authorities that they too must be obedient to God. Real though their power is, neither Rome nor the Sanhedrin has the final word. This final word, as we soon see in the Gospel, belongs to Jesus.

Coming to the Tomb, the women find it empty.

Well, not exactly empty.

…entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”

So overwhelming is the message that the women flee “from the tomb.” Initially, at least, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Soon though the same love that gave them the courage to proclaim their love for Jesus in the marketplace, will turn Mary Magdalene into the “Apostle to the Apostles.” Her joy at the Resurrection will overwhelm her grief, her love will banish her fear, and she will tell the disciples that “Christ is Risen!”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Whenever we can, however we can, we should live peacefully with others. We should be eager to cooperate with other Christians as well as those of good will in whatever projects that alleviate suffering, foster a more just society or lead to a more peaceful world.

But what we can never forget is that there will be times when our love for Jesus Christ, our faith in Him as Lord and God and our witness to His Resurrection, will put us at odds with even those who are–in every other way–like a second self to us. Unpleasant, or worse, that these moments might be, they are not only for our salvation but for the salvation of the world and for those who, in the moment, make themselves opponents of the Gospel.

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Homily for Sunday April 30, 2017: Vocation

Sunday, April 30, 2017: Third Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Pious Joseph of Arimathea & Righteous Nicodemus

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43-16:8

Christ is Risen!

God has called each of us, each of you, personally to a ministry that you–and only you–can do. This ministry, this life of sacrificial love and service, is for the glory of God and your salvation and your neighbors’.

The broad outline of your vocation is found in the natural talents and spiritual gifts God has given you. To borrow from the Divine Liturgy, when God called you “out of non-existence into being” in your mother’s womb, He gave you a particular constellation of abilities. Maybe you are naturally athletic or mechanically inclined. Or maybe you are natural compassionate or patient. Or maybe you love a good argument or like to talk.

To the talents He gave you at your creation, at your baptism He added spiritual gifts. Unlike our talents, the spiritual gifts we’ve been given manifest themselves in the ways in which God draws others to Himself through us. The are in New Testament several different lists of these gifts (e.g., Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:8-10; 28, Ephesians 4:11, Galatians 5:22-23). Because these gifts reflect the presence of God in our lives, the exact combination of the gifts is effectively infinite. What unites them all, according to the Apostle Peter, is they are given so that in our lives “God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:11, NKJV).

Today we recall two events in the life of the early Church that highlight the importance of glorifying God through our care for the most vulnerable members of the Body of Christ.

Sometimes we might imagine that tensions between different ethnic groups in the Church is unique to our own time. These tensions arise because we tend to focus on the superficial, differences between those raised in the Church and those who joined as adults. In the early days of the Church, no one was raised a Christian from infancy. Everyone was a convert! And yet, we see that dissension (murmuring) that arose between the Hebrew and Greek-speaking Christians about how the Church was, or wasn’t, caring for the widows from each community.

It was to solve this problem while leaving the Apostle free to pursue their own vocation “to prayer and to the ministry of the word,” that the Church establishes the order of deacons. We can talk about the diaconate another time. For now, though, it’s worth noting that in the New Testament understanding, the pursuit of one’s vocation is not “zero-sum.” Fidelity to your vocation doesn’t in anyway harm my pursuit of my vocation.

And how could it otherwise? Since all our vocations come from God Who “is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Corinthians 14:33, NKJV). But this, largely negative view of vocations, doesn’t exhaust what we see in Acts. It isn’t simply that we don’t get in each other’s way.

It isn’t simply that we don’t get in each other’s way. For example, the deacons’ fidelity of the vocation supports the apostles’ fidelity to their vocation. The deacons, in other words, make it possible for the apostles to do as God has called them even as the apostles confirm the deacons in their own vocation to serve at table.

This is the key to understanding what it means to pursue our own, personal vocations. Not only is fidelity to my vocation to my advantage–it is after all the means God has given me to grow in holiness–it is to your advantage as well. One sign that we are living in obedience to God’s will for us, is that we become a source of support and encouragement to others as they live out their own vocation.

Or, if you’d rather, the only way I can become a saint is if I help you become a saint as well!

Turning to the Gospel, we see that vocation fidelity requires not only obedience to God but courage. It was dangerous for Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene and the other Myrrh-Bearing Women to care for the Body of Jesus. Doing so was a direct challenge to the civil and religious authorities. Caring for their deceased friend meant, at a minimum, risking being ostracized. It could easily have meant death.

Courage is necessary to pursue our vocation becomes obedience to God will inevitably bring us into conflict with the powers of this world. As the Apostle Peter tells the Jewish authorities who ordered him to stop preaching that Jesus rose from the dead: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (see Act 5:12-42, NKJV). We cannot obey to God without at times being disobedient to men.

As important as courage is, more important still, however, is a life of personal prayer. Nourished by the sacraments and guided by the liturgical life of the Church, the reading of Holy Scripture and the fathers, I have to pray–and pray daily–to know and do the will of God.

This is what the Apostle Paul means when he tells us “do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2, NKJV). Apart from a life of prayer, there is no transformation and without transformation, I remain conformed to this world and enslaved to the powers of sin and death.

Taken together the discernment and pursuit of our personal vocation is nothing more or less than the path to liberty in Christ. Whatever our vocation, it is always the means by which we come to be “partakers of the divine nature” (see 2 Peter 1:4). As I said a moment ago, God has called each of us, each of you, personally to a ministry that you–and only you–can do. This ministry, this life of sacrificial love and service, is for the glory of God and your salvation. It is through fidelity to your vocation that you will become by grace what Christ is by nature.

Our vocation is not only the source of our freedom in Christ but all the good things that flow naturally from life in Christ.

Through our vocation we grow in “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23, NKJV).

And it is through our vocation we discover what it means, concretely, to love “the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:30-31, NKJV).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, there is no other way to love God and our neighbor, there is no other way to grow in holiness or to bear witness to the Risen Lord Jesus Christ but through fidelity to our personal vocations! We must do what God calls us to do so that we can become who God has called us to be!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Justice & Mercy Have Kissed

Sunday, May 15, 2016: Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women; Pachomius the Great, Achillius the Wonderworker, Archbishop of Larissa, Barbaros the Myrrhbearer of Kerkyra, Andrew the Hermit & Wonderworker

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7

Gospel: Mark 15:43-47; 16:1-8

Christ is Risen!

Sometimes you will hear Orthodox Christians contrast what they call our “therapeutic” understanding of salvation with the “forensic” model in the West. There are two problems with this.

First, it reflects a basic lack of understanding of the broad sweep of how the Church—East and West, Greek and Latin—have understood salvation. To say that our own understanding is exclusively, or even primarily, therapeutic is simply factually wrong. Beginning with the New Testament, the tradition of the Church uses both therapeutic and forensic imagery to explain salvation and our new life in Christ.

Second, and more serious problem, is that people make this contrast because they see justice and mercy as opposed to each other. How often have we heard—or said—we are the Church of mercy, not justice?

Now if by “justice” we mean revenge, then this is true as far as we go. We are not a community that seeks revenge. And we don’t because while vengeance belongs to God alone, God in Jesus Christ makes clear that He doesn’t seek revenge against us for our sins. Instead, He offers us forgiveness and healing.

But, as the readings this morning make clear, justice and mercy presuppose each other and both are essential to our life in Christ. Let me explain.

We read in Acts of the Apostles of a conflict, one rooted in differences of ethnicity, language and culture as it happens, that arose in response to how the Church cared for two groups of widows. While both groups were Jewish converts to Christianity, the Greek-speaking widows complained that they were not being treated as well as were the Hebrew-speaking widows. There “arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (v. 1). That the daily distribution of food is an act of charity, of mercy if you will, it doesn’t prevent the Greek-speaking members of the community (“the Hellenists”) from complaining that they are being treated unjustly. Far from invalidating the demands of justice, mercy presupposes justice.

If I disregard or violate the demands of justice, my actions simply are not merciful. To see this, look at Hellenists’ complaint and, more importantly, from the Apostles’ response. The Apostles don’t say to Hellenists that their complaints are an offense against mercy. There is, in fact, a real injustice being committed and resolving it is necessary for mercy to reign in the Church.

Notice, as well, how the Apostles resolve the situation. Again, while they take the complaint seriously, they are also clear that God has not set them aside to care for the philanthropic life of the Church but to preach. “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables” (v. 2). So what do they do instead? They create a new ministry within the Church to oversee “this business” (v.3).

This is an odd response if the Church is only concerned with mercy. When faced with a real sin against justice, the Apostles don’t call people to repentance or to pray more. No, what they do is add a level to the hierarchy of the Church. Like Moses in Exodus, the Apostles realize that they can’t do what God asked them to do—preach the Gospel and govern the Church—on their own. They need help to govern the Church, they need help to be faithful to their own vocation: “brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (vv. 3-4).

It’s also worth noting, if only in passing, how the Apostles went about ordaining the first deacons. They didn’t impose leaders on the Church. Instead, they consulted the faithful. Fulfilling the demands of justice requires that we actively collaborate with those whose lives our decisions effect. In other words, if mercy requires justice, justice requires that we respect the autonomy of others. We are to relate to each other as co-workers in Christ each with our own proper area of competence and responsibility.

But justice prepares the way for mercy in another way.

It would have been enough, turning now to the Gospel, if the disciples had buried Jesus in “the potter’s field” (see Matthew 27:3-9, NKJV). This is all that justice demanded of them. But notice what happens. The disciples, having been instructed in what justice demands, do more than justice requires. Instead of doing the minimum they freely offer what only mercy can provide—the sacrifice of themselves on behalf of another.

Look at Joseph of Arimathea. John’s Gospel describes him as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38, NKJV)). Fearful though he is, he nevertheless went “to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43, NKJV). He then proceeds to purchase “fine linen” in which to wrap Jesus and places His Body “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). Together with “Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night,” he anoints the Body “a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39). Two fearful men become courageous disciples who, like the Lord Jesus Christ, are willing to stand before Pilate and testify to the Kingdom of God.

Likewise, with the Myrrh-bearing women. “Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. And they said among themselves, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?'” (Mark 16:2-3, NKJV) When in mercy they go to the Tomb they discover that “Christ is Risen from the dead” and that “Death has been trampled down by death!” Justice prepares them to be merciful and mercy reveals to them the glory of the Resurrection.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, far from being opposed, justice and mercy require each other. Without mercy, the pursuit of justice becomes harsh and unyielding; without justice, however, mercy becomes mere sentimentality and leads me to collude with evils great and small.

But justice and mercy are meant to support each other. More than that, they prepare us to receive Christ and to shape our lives according to His commandments (John 14:15). To paraphrase today’s prokeimenon, justice and mercy must kiss. This happens when I take to heart the words of the Prophet Micah “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NIV).

In the words of our father among the saints, Herman of Alaska “”for our good and for our happiness, let us all make a vow: at least from this day, this hour, this very minute, we should strive to love God above all else and do His will!” Let us, in other words, commit ourselves to act justly, to love mercy and work humbly with our God!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregorydr