Tag Archives: Discipleship

Why Ss. Cyril & Methodius is On Campus

My parish (Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church) is on the campus of the University of Wisconsin -Madison. We are where we are, primarily to reach out to UW students, faculty, and staff both those who are Orthodox and those who aren’t.

It would be easier for us as a parish to be in one of the suburbs and come on to campus on a regular basis. Rental property around the UW is roughly 30%-50% more expensive than the rest of the city. As a practical matter, this means we are only able to rent a small space. Purchasing land or a building for our own church building will likely be something the priest who (eventually) follows me.

Nevertheless, it is worth being on campus. It is important that the Church have a witness not only at UW-Madison but as the young man in the video says, on all college campuses.

Many Orthodox Christians worry about the culture and what is happening on campus. They worry that their children or grandchildren will fall away from Christ and the Church. Sincere as they are in their concern though they are, Orthodox Christians simply aren’t approaching campus ministry for what it is: a mission field.

Please take a few minutes to watch the OCF video. When you have, consider supporting the OCF with your prayers but also your time, talent, and treasure. Whether you’re concerned about the culture or the 60% of Orthodox Christians who will leave the Church by the time they’re 25 years old please support the OCF. Better yet, support a mission parish within walking distance of campus so that students have access to Christ and His Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Not Good Enough But Really Good

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

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:9-19

Gospel: Luke 18:18-27

Glory to Jesus Christ!

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

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

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

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

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

What then should we do instead?

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

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

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

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What God Calls Us To Do

At National Review David French writes that

It was foolish for anyone to believe that a less Christian America would be a less religious America. As Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, God “put eternity in man’s heart.” Traditional Christianity and Judaism aren’t just being removed from American life; they’re being replaced. The more passive person often fills his heart with the saccharine sweetness of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. The angry activist often stokes the burning fires of intersectionality. And when commitment collides with confusion, commitment tends to win.

Working with college students for the last almost 30 years (where has the time gone?!), I can attest to the shift and collision French describes.

He is likewise correct in his conclusion that

America’s traditional Christian and Jewish communities need to understand this reality. Intersectionality steamrolls right over the lukewarm, leaving them converted or cowed. The answer, of course, isn’t to steamroll back — after all, our faith is supposed to be full of grace — but rather to respond with calm conviction. Christianity has survived ancient heresies. It can prevail against modern fads. But don’t for one moment underestimate the depth of the zeal that drives our latest religious divide.

Political and cultural activism have their place. To simply withdraw from the cultural and political debates is not only irresponsible–Christian are called to be “salt and light” and “yeast in the loaf” after all–it is naive. I see almost daily how the faith of Orthodox Christians students is being slowly replaced by MTD.

The response to the concerns French outlines though isn’t political or cultural so much as it evangelical. We must make sure that our young people have heard the Gospel, know that they are loved by God and have a sense of their own, personal vocations.

Of course to do this for the next generation, we need to do this for the current generation. It isn’t enough for individual Orthodox Christians to do the work of evangelists. We need evangelized communities of Orthodox Christians who are committed disciples of Jesus Christ.

Nothing less will be sufficient for the challenges we face today.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday of Orthodoxy: Witnesses to God’s Love

Sunday, February 25 (OS February 12): First Sunday of Great Lent: Triumph of Orthodoxy; Venerable Mary of Egypt; St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.); St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome (604); St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The troparion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy reminds us that Christ willingly ascended the Cross for our salvation. Jesus dies, the hymn says, to free us from “bondage to the enemy” and, in so doing has “filled all things with joy.”

We should be careful here.

We often hear in the popular American religious culture, that Jesus dies to satisfy God’s anger. Or we might hear that on the Cross Jesus balance the scales between the offense of sin and requirement of divine justice.

Assumed here is the idea that the Incarnation is motivated by human sinfulness. God becomes Incarnate, suffer and dies, because of our failings.

For the Orthodox Church, however, the Incarnation isn’t motivated by human sinfulness. For fathers like St Irenaeus and St Maximos the Confessor, the Incarnation isn’t an afterthought. It isn’t some kind of moral course correction.

No for the fathers of the Church, the Incarnation is the point of Creation. God creates in order to Himself become Man. God creates us, in other words, to become as we and so that, in turn, we can become by grace what He is.

“This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became Son of Man:” St Irenaeus writes, “so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption might become Sons of God” ( Against Heresies, III.19.1).

St Maximus, likewise, sees the Incarnation as the purpose of creation. He says that out of His great love for us, the Word of God for us “hides himself mysteriously” in the essence of His creature. It is as if every single thing that God creates is a letter of the alphabet which, when they are all taken together, reveal God in “His fullness” (Ambigua, PG 9 1, 1 28 5-8).

All of this is simply to repeat what we will hear in the Gospel on Pascha:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made (John 1:1-3, NKJV).

And what then of the Cross? Why does Jesus suffer and die?

We get a partial answer in the Lamentation Services that we sing on Holy Friday evening when Jesus asks us for which of His miracles have we Crucified Him?

The sobering fact is that Jesus dies on the Cross not to calm God’s anger. No, he dies because in our sinfulness we kill Him. He dies because we–I really–reject Him. I lay the burden on my sin on His shoulders.

Our Lord isn’t betrayed by Peter or abandoned by the disciples. He isn’t crucified by the Jews or the Romans. All these things I do with each and every sin I commit.

And yet, this isn’t the whole of the story. In the Tradition of the Church, while human sinfulness is taken seriously, it is never the explanation.

St. John Chrysostom says “I call him king because I see him crucified: it belongs to the king to die for his subjects.” Jesus goes to the Cross willingly because He refuses to impose Himself on us. In His great love for us, Jesus willingly accepts an unjust death.

And how could He not? To do otherwise would violate the freedom of His creature. THis respect for human freedom matters because the love that isn’t free offered isn’t really love.

All that God does, He does freely–that is to say, in love. This is the life He wishes to share with us, this is the life to which He calls us. And it is this life, and this life alone, that is the source of joy.

For God to avoid the Cross would be to undermine human freedom and so make our love a fraud and to rob us of joy.  It is with all this in mind that we turn to the Gospel.

The Gospel reading today from St John is an interesting one. It isn’t a “theological” Gospel in the sense that the Prologue is. There is no lofty theology in the scant few verses the Church puts before us.

Today’s Gospel is an evangelical Gospel.

Jesus says to Philip “Follow Me” and he does. And what happens next? Philip goes and finds Nathaniel and tells his friend “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Philip offers no argument in response to Nathaniel’s disbelief. He doesn’t try to change Nathaniel’s mind with clever arguments. He makes no appeals to philosophy or the Scripture. All he says is “Come and see.”

Much as some would have us think, the hallmark of our lives as Orthodox Christians isn’t our theological sophistication. It isn’t our sublime liturgy or beautiful music.

It rather that we are disciples and evangelists. We follow Jesus Christ and shape our lives around His teaching and–above all–His Person.

And having experienced the great love God Who accepts the Cross rather than violate the freedom of the creature we say to others “Come and see.”

“Come and see” the fulfillment your heart’s desires!

“Come and see” Divine Love in human form!

“Come and see” what it means to be love without limit by Him Who knows all about you!

And how could we do otherwise? What more does love desire expect to share its joy with others?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today as we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and the Restoration of the Holy Icons, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the whole of the Tradition of the Church has only one goal: To introduce men and women to the God Who loves them without compromise.

If are faithful in this, we will transform the world around us beginning first and foremost with ourselves.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What Matters Happens Outside the Classroom

While they focus on economics in their op-ed piece, James Piereson and Naomi Schaefer Riley make a good point for those interested in college ministry. What matters, they write, is not so much what happens in the classroom. Rather, the thing that most effects students’ attitudes are the time spent pursuing “extracurricular activitivies.”

While not denying that there are “organizations and constituencies on the contemporary campus” who stand “to gain from protest and unrest”alliances among these individuals and groups “are rarely formed in the classroom or in the traditional research disciplines.”

Instead, the

…growing radicalism on campus seems to originate instead in the broad category of student life that takes place outside the classroom. A 2014 study, for instance, found that students who spent a greater number of hours on extracurricular activities on campus (as opposed to classroom studies) were more likely to see their politics move toward one extreme or the other, in most cases toward the far left.

For campus ministers, this means that the best way to help students deepen their faith is to encourage them to spend time with each other outside the classroom.

While social activities are important they can’t be the point for campus ministries. If we are to help students deepen their commitment to Christ and the Church, we need to be willing to spend time with them talking with them (note, with them not to them) about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

This means not simply covering a lightly Christian version of what happens in secular groups. What need to do instead is focus on what is distinctive about being a Christian. We can’t deny the points of agreement between the Gospel and the surrounding culture.

However, we can’t at the expense of helping students see what is unique in the Christian tradition and so the ways in which the culture and the Church diverge from each other. One the best ways to do this is to help students understand their own personal vocations. We must ask again and again, who is Christ calling you to become?

And we need not only to ask this. We need to help students discern their vocation. And then, building on this, we need to help them discern how to be the person Christ has called them to be.

Before any of this can happen we need to spend time with students individually and in groups. As part of this time we also need to help students understand that they have a vocation and that it is fidelity to this vocation that will make the education and professional they seek personally meaningful and so of lasting value.

In Christ,

+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: Apostles of Joy!

Sunday, June 12, 2016: 7th SUNDAY OF PASCHA; Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. Afterfeast of Ascension. Ven. Onuphrius the Great (4th c.) and Ven. Peter of Mt. Athos (734). Finding of the Relics (1649) and the second glorification (1909) of Rt. Blv. Anna of Kashin. Ven. Arsenius, Abbot of Konevits (1447). Ven. Onuphry, Abbot of Mal’sk (Pskov—1492). Ven. Bassian and Jonah of Pertomsk (Solovétsky Monastery—1561). Ven. Onuphry and Auxenty of Vologdá (15th-16th c.). Ven. Stephen of Komel’, Abbot of Ozérsk Monastery (Vologdá—1542). Ven. John, Andrew, Heraclemon, and Theophilus, Hermits, of Egypt (4th c.).

Epistle: Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Gospel: John 17:1-13

We commemorate today the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. Called by Emperor Constantine, the Council was called primarily to resolve the Arian controversy. Arius was a priest from Alexandria, Egypt. The Synaxarion for today says that Arius “blasphemed against the Son and Word of God, saying that He is not true God, consubstantial with the Father, but is rather a work and creation, alien to the essence and glory of the Father, and that there was a time when He was not. This frightful blasphemy shook the faithful of Alexandria” and indeed, the whole world.

This all matters, St. Athanasius the Great argued, because any other position not only would be contrary to the Scriptures but ultimately undermine our salvation. Or, as St Gregory of Nazianzus writes, “that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved” (“To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius,” Epistle 101).

Turning from the feast to the Gospel, we see that the Council’s debate has another level of importance.

Jesus prays His disciplines be kept free of the divisiveness that afflicts the world. As He says in another place, in the world people “lord it over” (see Mark 10:42) each other; power over others is, in the world, a sign of greatness. But when power over others is the goal everyone is ultimately my enemy.

But what does Jesus say in response to this striving for power and control?

“Yet it shall not be so among you, but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45, NKJV). We who are disciples of Christ, find our joy in serving others after the example of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.

Because He is not only Man but also God, Jesus offers this service freely, without any internal or external compulsion. He is able to give Himself freely to the Father’s will because being Himself co-eternal and consubstantial with the Father—He is equal to Him in all things. When Arius denies the divinity of the Son, he undermines the freedom of Jesus and so the purity and complete, all-encompassing nature of His love.

But the love of Jesus is also, yes, a human love as well as a divine love. The former means that we can imitate His love; the latter means that our love can become like His; not simply human but divine. The joy we find in serving others is possible because—in Christ—we become more than we are; we too can be free as the Son is free.

It is important to remember that become more than what we are, doesn’t mean we become other than who we are. Our personal identities and vocations don’t fade away, they are not dissolved into the divine nature. It is rather that we come to share in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4) and becoming by grace more than we are by nature. And it in this, becoming more than what we are, that we also become more fully who we are, more full ourselves.

And yet, the Church still from time to time is drawn into conflict as it was in the years leading up to the First Ecumenical Council.

The holy Apostle Paul warns of this when he says that “after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock.” Arius and the other heretics and schismatics that have emerged through the history of the Church are the savage wolves Paul warns us about. In attacking or denying the divinity of Christ (Arianism) or His humanity (Monophysitism)  or in distorting our understanding of the Holy Trinity (Sabellianism), these individuals would undermine the Gospel, seek to assert themselves over the Church and rob Christians of our joy.

But Paul doesn’t simply warn us that enemies of the Gospel will emerge in the Church; he tells us to be watchful. We can’t simply passively suffer these attacks. No mindful of Christ’s promise that even “the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the Church, we stand up and oppose those who would corrupt the Gospel, oppress the Church and destroy joy.

It must be admitted that—as dangerous as Arius and the other heretics and schismatics are—we face another, equally dangerous threat.

There have always been those among us who, though “having a form of godliness” would deny “its power’ (see 2 Timothy 3:5, NKJV). These individuals “preach Christ … from envy and strife … [and] from selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing to add affliction” to those who are faithful disciples of Christ (Philippians 1:15, 16, NKJV).

Who are these envious preachers? These selfish prophets of strife and affliction?

They are those who would seek to exclude others from the Kingdom of God or would use the Gospel to satisfy their own self-aggrandizing desires. They are, to borrow a phrase from one of my professors, the “joy suckers.” St Paul’s these people murmurs, those who “complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer” (1 Corinthians 10:10, NJKV) They are not destroyed because the seek to right wrongs in the Church openly.

Joy suckers aren’t formal heretics or schismatics but  murmurs, “grumblers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts; and they mouth great swelling words, flattering people to gain advantage” (Jude 16, NKJV).  St Paul says of those who “complain, as some of them also complained” will themselves be “destroyed by the destroyer” (see, 1 Corinthians 10:10, NJKV) They are not destroyed because they openly and honestly  seek to right wrongs in the Church. No, they are destroyed because they destroyers who sow division and condemn others. Worst of all, they do this secretly, with whispers and innuendo. They are spiritual poisoners who are, in their own way, as death-dealing to the life of the Church as Arius. “Gossips and busybodies” (1 Timothy 5:13, NKJV), who “sow strife” and by their whispers destroy “the best of friends” (Proverbs 16:28, NKJV).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! In a week, we will stand together and, once again, receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit! Once again, like the Fishermen, God will give us the Holy Spirit, make us wise so that we can capture the whole world in our net!

In a week, in churches throughout the world, separated as we are by distance, we will stand together spiritually and, once again, receive the Gift of the Holy Spirit!

Once again, like the Fishermen, God will give us the Holy Spirit, make us wise so that we can capture the whole world in our net!

Having received so great a gift not once, not yearly, but daily, hourly, even minute by minute, let us lay aside anything is our hearts that would rob others—or us—of joy!

Let us run to the Feast, receive the Spirit and go, boldly, into the world as disciples of Christ, witnesses to the Resurrection, and Spirit-bearer prophets to a world torn by divisions and scarred by sin!

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us be who we are: Apostles of Joy!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Do Not Be Faithless, but Believing!

Sunday, May 8, 2016: Thomas Sunday; John the Apostle, Evangelist, & Theologian, Arsenios the Great, Emelia, mother of St. Basil the Great

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20/1 John 1:1-7
Gospel: John 20:19-31/John 19:25-27; 21:24-25

Christ is Risen!

The Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian offers us, as he says, a first-hand account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He tells us about things he as seen with his own eyes and touched with his own hands, “that eternal life which was with the Father” (1 John 1:2, NKJV). And he does this so that, through his testimony, we may have fellowship not only with him but also with “the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:4, NKJV).

But when we turn to the Gospel though the situation is more complex.

The Gospel as well refers to what is known, first-hand, by the Apostles (including, by the way, John). When Jesus appears for a second time to the Apostles He tells Thomas “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). Thomas refused to believe without evidence. When he is told that the Lord Jesus had appeared to his brother Thomas responds by telling them: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). For Thomas, faith requires not testimony but empirical validation. Thomas wants to see and to touch Jesus. The testimony of his brother Apostles, the testimony of the Church if you will, isn’t sufficient for him.

And so, because of His great mercy and love for Thomas, Jesus appears and offers His hands and His side for inspection. “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” As we hear in the hymnography of the Church, Jesus doesn’t “reject him for his faithlessness” but rather makes Thomas’s “faith … certain” by once again to the Apostles “through closed doors” (Vespers sticheron, Thomas Sunday). Or in the delightful and charming words of last night’s Aposticha: “Oh, most glorious wonder! Doubt bore certain faith.”

We might, however, want to pause for a moment and reflect on the events between the first and second appearance of our Lord to the Apostles.

Thomas, like maybe some of us, doesn’t believe the eyewitness testimony of the Church. Maybe he doesn’t believe because of “glorious wonder” of the Resurrection. Maybe his lack of faith reflects not their hardness of heart but the kind of blindness that comes from staring into the sun. Maybe his lack of faith reflected the magnitude of the mystery.

Again the Aposticha hints at this:
How art thou incarnate?
How art thou crucified,
For Thou hast not known sin!
Make us understand like Thomas,
that we may call out to Thee:
“My Lord and my God, glory to Thee!”

Sometimes faith is a struggle because we are so unaccustomed to joy. In this life, peace is often foreign to our experience and forgiveness rare. Sometimes, like Thomas, I doubt because of the brightness of the Divine Light.

At other times, though, let’s simply admit this, we can doubt not because the mystery is so great but because the witness of Christians is so poor. The Apostle John tells his readers that their faith, their salvation, their lives as disciples of Christ, completes his joy. “John the Apostle” who at the Last Supper “leaned on the Savior’s breast,” the one who “understood the depths of theology,” (Aposticha, Thomas Sunday) comes into the fullness of joy when others become believers, fellow disciples of Jesus Christ and ministers of the Gospel. The “bosom friend and beloved” of God incarnate who “hast boldness before Him, never ceases to pray for our souls!” (Aposticha, John the Theologian)

Everything that is done in the Church is done, or rather should be done, so “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that believing you may have life in His name.” This is why, as we read in Acts of the Apostle “believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (5:15, NKJV).

By this standard, how well are we doing? NMaybe not as well as we might want to think.

In the last several years more than 200,000 Orthodox Christians have left the Church. For every one adult who joins the Church, 2.5 adults who were raised in the Church have left. While some who have left have gone to other Christian communities, something like a fourth of those who have left no longer have any religious affiliation at all. As for those who have joined the Church as adults, one in four have left (Pew US Religious Landscape Surveys, 2014).

While some no doubt left because of hardness of heart, most I suspect left because they have not (for one reason or another) found the abundant life (see, John 10:10), the complete joy (see, 1 John 1:4) and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding (see Philippians 4:7) that they have a right to expect—and find—in the Church.

This isn’t to blame anyone. My witness has often been poor. It is, however, to take serious the example laid out for us in the readings this morning.

We are called by Christ to “make disciples of all nations” (see Matthew 28:19) and to do so generously, sacrificially and joyfully. When that doesn’t happen—and the survey data suggests that it isn’t—people are kept out of the Kingdom of God and the Church withers away.

But it doesn’t need to be this way!

Our situation today is no worse, and in some ways quite a bit better, than what the Apostles faced on the first Pascha. God in Jesus Christ doesn’t turn away from me because of my lack of faithfulness. Rather, as He did with Thomas, He comes to me and renews in me “an upright spirit by the greatness of [His] mercy” (Troparion, Thomas Sunday) so that I can live as His disciple and be His witness!

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us reach out to Christ not just “with an eager hand” (Kontakion, Thomas Sunday) like Thomas but also with an open and willing heart like John so that each of us can live as “the true friend of the Trinity” (Litya, for John the Theologian).

And, as the friends of God, let us “proclaim the truths of the teachings of the wisdom of God” (Doxastikon for the Apostle John), in faith proclaim the Resurrection of Christ, and in love and joy invite all to join us as disciples of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, to Him be glory and honor forever!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Sacraments of God’s Mercy

Sunday, April 17, 2016: Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, Symeon the Holy Martyr & Bishop of Persia, Makarios, Bishop of Corinth, Agapetos of Rome

Epistle: Hebrews 9:11-14
Gospel: Mark 10:32-45

The epistle this morning ends with a call to make ourselves worthy of the mercy of God. We are told that Jesus has “purify[ied] your conscience from dead works” so that we are not only willing but able “to serve the living God.” The transformation of our conscience is contrasted with “the purification of the flesh.” While it’s tempting to denigrate or minimize the latter in favor of the former, I would be wrong to do so. Both in salvation history and in my own personal spiritual life, the process of salvation begins with the outward man and only slowly moves inward to the heart.

But I need to be careful.

The relationship between the salvation of the body and the salvation of the soul are not opposed to each other. Nor is their relationship with each other is linear. While subjectively, we begin with fostering bodily virtues, in fact given the intimate—and essential—connection of body and soul, physical and spiritual virtues grow up together or not at all.

Body and soul feel foreign to each other because of the disruptive consequences of Adam’s sin. The body wars against the soul, and the soul against the body (see Romans 7:23; Galatians 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11), because of sin. This lack of harmony between the material and spiritual aspects of human life is contrary to the original unity of human life as created by God. So by His death and resurrection poured out in sacraments, Christ first restores us to our original unity—not only in ourselves but also socially in the life of the Church—and then transfigures us.

This means that we no longer are trapped in dead work. We are freed from that freedom and life diminishing spiral that is our own sinfulness. Instead, we are able to serve the living God; we are able to that life in which we go “from glory to glory” growing ever more like our God and so become ever more who God has created us to be.

All this is to say that Christ makes it possible for us to love.

Turning to the Gospel we see both the terrible cost that was paid for our salvation—”the Son of man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him”—and the inability of the disciples to grasp the meaning of the gift that they, and we, are given. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. …Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” As Jesus’ response makes clear, not only James and John but all the disciples want to be “great men” who “lord it over” others. They want to be powerful and not merciful. This is why Jesus tells them “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be the slave of all.”

But again, I need to be careful.

Far from being merely a matter of being nice (much less merely compliant), being the servant and the slave of all means imitating Jesus Who came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” Just as Jesus is faithful to the Father’s will, so too with me; I need to be obedient to God’s will for me.

And like Jesus, it is God’s will for me—and for each of us—to be sacraments of the Father’s mercy.

To be a sacrament of God’s mercy means first to renounce and resist the myriad ways in which I pursue power and control over the lives of others. We have no better example of this than the saint we commemorate today, St Mary of Egypt. Having repented of a life in which she sought to humiliate others, she instead wholeheartedly pursued Christ. The fruit of this was that she was able, at the end of her life, to be a source of mercy for Fr Zosimas. After burying the saint

…Zosimas returned to the monastery glorifying and blessing Christ our Lord. And on reaching the monastery he told all the brothers about everything, and all marvelled on hearing of God’s miracles. And with fear and love they kept the memory of the saint.

Like Mary of Egypt, we are called instead to help others find Christ and, in Christ, find themselves. It is our commitment to help others discern and fulfill God’s will for their lives is what keeps our mercy from becoming mere sentimentality. This means that I pray for you not because doing changes you but because it changes me. As I pray for you—at least if my prayer issincere—I come to see you as God sees you.

This means that I come to see you—as hopefully I come to see myself—in light of the wisdom found in Scripture, the fathers and the teaching of the Church. This might sound fearsome, or even judgmental—and certainly this can and has been deformed in these ways—but if undertaken in the humility that is commanded in the Gospel, it allows us to sees each other as we are seen by Jesus.

Look again at the Gospel. James—who will be a martyr for Christ (Acts 12:1-2)—and John—the disciple whom Jesus loved (John 19:26)—seem more than willing to exploit their relationship with Jesus. They do this not only for their own advantage but do so in a way that is detrimental to their brother disciples.

And yet, Jesus doesn’t shame them. Jesus doesn’t humiliate them or respond with angry words. Instead, He calmly and directly asks them if they have soberly considered the consequences of their request. Only then, when they have affirmed their willingness “to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized” does He correct them.

Too often we equate mercy with correction. But think about the Gospel. Following the example of Jesus, the merciful person is the one who invites me to a take a moment of sober self-reflection. Amendment of life, to say nothing of faith, only comes as the fruit of this graced experience of self-knowledge and self-acceptance.

To be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful doesn’t mean I spend my time pointing out the moral or theological errors of others. This isn’t the example of Jesus in the Gospel. This isn’t the life-giving fruit of Christian discipleship but the poison of the Gentiles who would exercise authority over others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we come now to the last Sunday of the Great Fast and look forward to Holy Week and Pascha, let us examine ourselves and root out anything within us alien or hostile to our vocation to be sacraments of God’s mercy for others. In doing this we not only become a blessing to others, we also secure our own salvation.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: We Follow An Innocent Man

Sunday April 4, 2016: Sunday of the Holy Cross; Nicetas, Abbot of the Monastery of Medicium, Joseph the Hymnographer, Theodosia and Irene the Martyrs Fast Day

Epistle: Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:1-6
Gospel: Mark 8:34-38; 9:1

Jesus understands us. He is, as we hear in the epistle this morning, not only our “high priest” but able “to sympathize with our weakness.” He is able to understand us because though He “has been tempted as we are” he is “without sin.” That last phrase, that Jesus is “without sin” might throw me off. How can Jesus really sympathize with me if, unlike me, He never sinned? After al, isn’t there’s something in my experience—personal sin—that’s lacking in His?

This is I think an understandable objection. But I need to keep in mind how sin operates. It never draws me closer to someone; it pushes me away. Sin closes me in on myself and it causes me to look at you not as my neighbor but my enemy.

As my sinfulness deepens, as it becomes more and more a habit, I become less able to see things from any other perspective than sin’s. Note carefully, I didn’t say I become less able to see things from my perspective. What I see is what sin wants me to see.

That’s the thing about sin.

Over time, it takes over my life; it takes on a life of its own. Sin doesn’t just separate me from God and neighbor; it makes me a stranger to myself. There’s some wisdom, I think, to talking about sin, as the American psychiatrist Gerald May does, as an addiction.

And like any addiction, sin becomes the goal of life. Not the worship of God, not the love of my neighbor. Not even my own self-interest. Sin becomes everything to me.

This is why Jesus is able to sympathize with us in our weakness. Not because He was tempted, but because He never sinned. Never falling into sin means He never suffered that estrangement from God, neighbor and self that afflicts me. Because He is without sin, Jesus is free to see me. The Sinless One knows me better than I know myself. How? Because there is no sin in Him. The absence of sin in Jesus means He isn’t absent from me.

Put more simply, because Jesus doesn’t sin He is able to love.

And this is why, to return to the epistle, we are able confidently “draw near to the throne of grace” and find “mercy and … grace to help in time of need.” To say Jesus is “without sin” means that there is in His humanity no obstacle to love, no impediment to forgiveness, no deficiency of mercy and grace.

This life, the life in which all obstacles to love and forgiveness, mercy and grace, are done away with, is the life that He calls each of us to share. This is the life He invites us to make our own when, in the Gospel this morning, He says “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

The Cross illumines the tragic nature of human sinfulness. Our veneration of the Cross this morning is nothing more or less than our confession that by His death Christ triumphed over the powers of sin and death.

Read the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion and the personal character of sin is clear in every line. Our moral weakness is there for all to see; the disciples in the garden, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial. One after another demonstrate their lack of love for their friend. One after another, the disciples abandon an Innocent Man.

What is also on display, even if it is somewhat harder to see, is the way sin has infected society, subverting even the most noble elements of culture. Take for example, the soldiers who arrest Jesus. At first, they were simply doing their duty. There is in the Gospel account not only no hint of animosity toward Jesus. In fact, there seems to be even some awareness that Jesus is more than He appears (see John 18:6). Soon though these dutiful men, knowingly, torment an Innocent Man.

Likewise, with the Jewish authorities.

We get hints that not all among the leaders of the Jewish people are convinced that the charges against Jesus are true (see John 7:51). And yet, like the soldiers, these men will eventually give themselves over to sin and, knowingly, betray an Innocent Man.

Even Pilate, the one man in all of this who could have set Jesus free is swept away by sin. Though he finds no fault in Jesus, he nevertheless scourges Him in a vain hope that doing so will placate the angry voices among the Jews.

But, in the end, Pilate wants to keep his place in Roman society and so he, knowingly, condemns an Innocent Man.

Divine revelation and human law, both were used to justify rejecting the Christ. The riches of religious and civil society are both used to crucify Christ. Sin isn’t just a personal matter. Infecting as it does the human heart, it comes to infect society as well.

It is all of this that Jesus puts to death when He accepts “death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And all of this Jesus asks us to reject when He tells us to pick up our cross and follow Him.

To be a disciple of Christ, it isn’t enough for me to withdraw into the safe space of the Church. Necessary as it is, it isn’t enough simply to tend my own garden. Remember, it is in the nature of sin that it walls me off from my neighbor; it encapsulates me in a dissonant and deformed world of its own making blinding me to love. I am a fool if I imagine that sin can’t use my love for the sacraments and commitment to the ascetical life to seduce me, to make me turn my back on an Innocent Man.

To pick up my cross and follow Jesus means more than being working out my salvation in “fear and trembling” (see Philippians 2:12); I must work for your salvation as well. “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” It is not only the generation that lived at the time of Jesus that is corrupt. All people, at all times, need to hear the Gospel. And all cultures and all societies, need to be brought into harmony with Gospel.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us pick up our cross, work out our own salvation and the salvation of the world as we follow an Innocent Man.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory