Tag Archives: dsicipleship

The Blessings of Liberty: the Challenge of Success

Sunday, June 18, 2017: 2nd Sunday of Matthew; Leontius, Hypatius, & Theodulus the Martyrs of Syria, Leontios the Myrrh-Streamer of Argos

Epistle: Romans 2:10-16
Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23

For some Orthodox Christians, today–the second Sunday after Pentecost–is a day set aside in the liturgical calendar to commemorate the saints of their local Church. Having last week commemorated all the saints, especially those known only to God, today we commemorate all the saints, again known and unknown, of America, Russia, Mount Athos, Palestine, Romania, & the Iberian Peninsula.

We do this as a reminder that just as “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NKJV), God freely bestows “glory and honor and peace” on all those who “do by nature what the law requires” as we just heard.

This obedience to the divine will. St Paul points out, is possible because God has written the demands of the law on our hearts. If I still myself, if I cultivate a sense of external and internal quiet, in the secret of my heart, I can hear the Word of God.

Another way to say this is that to grow in holiness, to become a saint, I must listen to my conscience. Again as St Paul reminds us, though we are all sinners, God has not abandoned any of us.

Rather, and now we turn to the Gospel, God calls each of us. Even as He called Peter and Andrew, James and John, He calls each and every single human being to follow Him as His disciple and apostle.

And He doesn’t simply call us as individuals–though we each of us must respond personally or else love isn’t love–but as a people, as a nation.

For Americans, this might at first seem to be a problem. We are after all not a nation established by blood or soil. We are rather a people united by an ideal, a conviction, as we read in the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This is not the time or place to examine the particulars of what these unalienable rights. Nor is it the time to examine the many ways in which we have as a nation we have failed to live up to the ideals that Jefferson outlines.

For now, let me simply point out that in many ways America has been a blessing for the Church. For the first time since the Edict of Toleration, the Church is not only free politically to live her life as she sees fit, she has the economic and social resources to do so.

In America, not only are we not persecuted, we are also not established. We are not a department of State and we are not a despised minority. Moreover, we are well-educated and, frankly, wealthy personally if not always institutionally.

We are wholly and truly free. This means that there are, if I may say it this way, no external constraints on our growth in holiness either personally or as a community.

All though isn’t necessarily well with us.

It seems sometimes that the sheer breadth of our freedoms and the extent of our wealth undermines our pursuit of holiness. We are free and wealthy beyond what any of the fathers could have imagined. And yet, how do we respond, how do I respond, to the “blessings of liberty” that God has given the Church in America?

As we reflect on the saints who God raised up in other lands, we need to ask ourselves, I need to ask myself, what return are we–am I–making on what God has freely given?

Orthodox Christians have remained faithful in obscurity, poverty, and persecution. We have found a modus vivendi, a way of life, conducive to holiness in many different cultures, economic circumstances and under even the cruelest and most repressive political regimes.

Now, though, we face the challenge of success! There are times, in what I hope are my lesser moments, when I worry that America will do what the Romans, the Ottomans, and the Communists, could never do. In these moments I worry that a Church that raised saints under persecution will collapse under liberty.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has called each us to follow Him as His disciples and apostles. And He has called us to do so here, in America, in a land of unparalleled wealth and freedom.

Let us exploit with gratitude the liberty we have been given!

Let us follow Christ as His disciples and apostles “doers of the law.”

Let us with our time, talent and treasure teach and preach the gospel of the kingdom God so that through us God can heal “every disease and every infirmity among the people” of this place.

To do this we need only respond affirmatively to God call.

To do this we need only say “Yes!” to the God Who has this day said “Yes!” to us and called us to be His disciples and apostles in America.

To do this, to say yes, we need only to prayer as we can, read the Scriptures as God’s word to us and do good when the possibility presents itself.

Above all though, we need to come to God in Holy Communion and Holy Confession. It is here, in these two sacraments above all else, that we are transformed and so are able to make a worthy returning to God for the blessings of liberty He has granted the Church in America.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Distraction, Detachment, and Discipleship

Sunday, April 23, 2017: New Sunday or Anti-Pascha Sunday of Thomas the Apostle, Called “The Twin” Great-martyr George the Trophy-bearer.

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

To follow the Person of Jesus Christ, to shape our lives around His teaching and the example of the saints and martyrs who have gone before us in faith (Hebrews 12:1), this is the essence of our life in Christ. While our particular vocations are different, as Orthodox Christians we share a common call to be His disciples and to preach the Gospel to all the world (Mark 15:16). Each of us follows a unique path in life but we have a common goal.

Because we have the same destination–the Kingdom of God–our personal vocations also share common features. Chief among these is the need to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope, and love. These are the fruit of divine grace poured out in the sacraments of the Church, the life of prayer and ascetical struggle. Apart from these, whatever else might be the value of what we do, what we do isn’t Christian.

Just as there are common sources for our unique vocations, there are common dangers. In the Gospel this morning we hear about the Apostle Thomas and his unwillingness–at Vespers last night we hear it referred to “the delicacy of the beautiful unbelief of Thomas”–to believe that Christ is Risen. In a word, Thomas doubt.

Doubt is an interesting thing.

We tend to think that the solution to doubt is more information or a better, clearer explanation. If however you have ever struggled with doubt, or indeed any distraction in the spiritual life, you know that this solution is no solution.

The cause of doubt is not a poverty of information but of attention. Doubt, like fear, anxiety, despair and any number of other temptations in the spiritual life, is the fruit of distraction. Doubt arise when I shift my attention from Jesus to my own thoughts.

At the beginning of this morning’s Gospel, it isn’t so much that Thomas doesn’t believe that Jesus is Risen from the dead as it is he attached to his own thoughts. He is willing to believe in the Resurrection, if and only if, it is revealed to him on his own terms. “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.”

In effect, Thomas will accept the Resurrection if it comes to him, not the free gift of God but as the fruit of his own effort. Thomas can’t believe because he is attached to his own thoughts.

This then is the heart of doubt and all the other distractions of the spiritual life: My attachment to my own will.

While this attachment might, at first, seem sweet, very quickly my thoughts come to torment me. My thoughts enslave me. I make myself a slave to myself. I am as bound by my own thoughts, as Peter was by his chains before the angel of the Lord freed him from prison.

I cannot live as a disciple of Christ if I am attached to my own will, my own thoughts about the spiritual life. It is my plans, my vision, that obscure Christ and so become the source of doubt and the other distractions.

What I need to learn to do–and this takes not only divine grace and real effort on my part but time–is to become detached from my own thoughts. Notice please, I didn’t say I need to NOT have my own thoughts, plans, or feelings. It is “proper and right” to have these. Where I go wrong is in my attachment to them, to caring more about my own thoughts and feelings than I do Christ.

Like I said, finding the balance between prayerful and obedient attention to Christ and respecting the integrity of not only my own thoughts and feelings but those of other people, is the work of a lifetime.

Too often Christians neglect this work and instead give themselves over to one form or another of fundamentalism. Or, to look at the other deformation, they neglect faith altogether and given themselves over to a life of self-aggrandizement.

The irony here is that whichever deformation they choose, in the end, what is chosen is the person’s own will. Both paths elevate the preferences of the individual above the love of God or neighbor.

So, to follow Christ, the be His disciple, I must like Thomas, take my eyes off myself and instead look to Jesus Christ as “My Lord and my God!”

I won’t lie to you. There will be times when doing this is hard, harder than anything you have ever done.

But there will also be times when shifting your focus to Jesus, will not only come easily but joyfully. Over time, what was once hard becomes, if not exactly easier, than to be a moment of liberation.

And with that renewed inner freedom comes not only a more mature, sober way of life in Christ but also an ability to, like Peter, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory