Tag Archives: John 17:1-13

Asking for What We Don’t Want

Sunday, October 27 (OS., October 14), 2019: 19th Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787); Martyrs Nazarius, Gervase, Protase, and Celsus of Milan (1st c.); Hieromartyr Silvanus of Gaza (311); Ven. Parasceva (Petka) of Epibatima, Thrace, whose relics are in Iasi, Romania (11th c.). St. Mykola Sviatosha, prince of Chernihiv and wonderworker of the Kyiv Caves (1143).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9/Hebrews 13:7-16
Gospel: Luke 8:5-15/John 17:1-13

St Augustine in his Letter to Proba observes that when we pray, we ask for what we don’t want. He means by this that when I ask God for mercy or forgiveness, or as we hear in the second Gospel this morning, joy, what I’m asking for is what I understand by mercy, forgiveness, or joy. 

In asking, then, I ask for my will to be done not God’s. I ask for something I don’t want because I ask for something I don’t understand. 

St Paul alludes to this when he tells the Corinthians that the mysteries of heaven are “not lawful for a man to utter.” This isn’t because God forbids us to speak of His “grace and love for mankind” (see Titus 3:4). It is rather that no matter how eloquent the speakers, human words fall far short of reality.

So much of the frustration I experience in the spiritual life comes from my tendency to confuse my understanding of God with God Himself. Again, I ask for what I don’t want because I don’t understand that for which I ask. And when God gives me that for which I ask rather than that I imagined I wanted, I’m disappointed and am tempted to become embittered ask Him for answering my prayer!

The reading for Hebrews is helpful here. We are told to remember those “who have spoken the word of God” to us. We remember and reflect on the lives of the martyrs, the fathers, and the saints because like us they asked for what they didn’t want.

But unlike us, unlike me, they received with joy and thanksgiving that which they were given but didn’t want because it outstripped their understanding.

The lesson of those who have gone before us is this: YesI ask for that which I don’t want because I don’t understand that for which I ask. But if I ask with humility, if I ask aware of my own limitations, my own lack of understanding of God’s will, I can receive with joy what God would give me.

I must, in other words, learn to stand before God with open hands and an open heart. This is what it means to be, as we heard in the first Gospel, to be that “good ground” that “yielded a crop a hundredfold.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Everything we do as Orthodox Christians has only one goal. To help us hear the word of God with a noble and good heart” so that we can “keep it and bear fruit with patience.”

Today God stands ready to give us what we don’t want. But what we don’t want is immeasurably better than that for which we ask.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

You Say “Dogma” Like It’s A Bad Thing

May 20 (O.S., May 7), 2018: Seventh Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council; Afterfeast of the Ascension; Commemoration of the Apparition of the Sign of the Precious Cross over Jerusalem in 351 A.D.; Martyr Acacius the Centurion (303).

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

Dogma has a rather bad reputation.

Not wholly without reason, we associate being “dogmatic” with rigid and merely formulaic thinking. A “dogmatic” thinker doesn’t think at all. Instead, he parrots what he’s been told.

The first thing I should point out is that there is more than a little justice to this criticism of dogma. There are many individuals, including many Orthodox Christians, who seem to resist ever having a new thought. For these people–did I mention some of these are Orthodox Christians?–the old answers are sufficient not so much because they are true (even if they are) but because they are old.

Clinging to the old answers, the old ways, simply because they are old has the advantage of being easy. And there is, to be sure, comfort in knowing what we believe and how we are to live.

But excluding anything that might challenge my beliefs and practices isn’t a good thing. I do this because I’ve fallen into the trap of holding on to the old answers, the old ways, and the received views because they are old rather than because they are true.

It is as dangerous to accept tradition simply because it is old as it is to reject it for the same reason.

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church, “dogma” is not a matter of what is old but what is true. As the word itself suggests in Greek (dogmatika) means clear or right thinking. The “dogmatic” person, in other words, is the one who thinks clearly and rightly.

This has two, important, applications.

We must think dogmatically about the Gospel not because we are slaves to external authority but because the Gospel is true.  It is when we fail to think dogmatically about the Gospel that we become slaves to our emotions or to passing social fads.

Most of all though, our thinking about the Gospel must be dogmatic because our thinking about the Gospel must be guided by the truths.

It is all too easy, as St Paul warns about in today’s reading from Acts, for me to be swept away by glib preachers. In every generation, there are in Church “fierce wolves” who speak “perverse things in an attempt “to draw away the disciples” from Christ. For all that they offer an appealing face to their listeners, these are cruel individuals who in their pursuit of power and control over others will be unsparing in their lies and half-truths.

We need to think clearly lest, when these false witnesses appear in our lives, we are seduced by their charm or confused by their lies.

Such clear thinking, and this the second point, is not simply a matter of theology. Yes, we need to know the Scriptures–is there any Orthodox Christian who doubts this? And yes, we need to know the Creed and the basics of the faith.

But our clear thinking, our dogma if you will, must embrace not only the truths of the faith but also of creation, of human life and society and of our own identity in Christ. Divorced from these, our theological thinking will sooner or later (and usually sooner than later) devolve into heresy. When this happens, our community in Christ becomes a cult that apes the Church and in which the things of God are distorted and put at the service of binding us to the fierce wolf’s cruel control.

In Holy Tradition, the truths of the Gospel are not opposed to those of philosophy. Likewise, sacraments and science are not enemies but rather, in Christ, divinely bestowed gifts give to us for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

Faith and reason, in other words, are not opposed but–to paraphrase St Maximus the Confessor–the two wings by which the soul ascends to God.

To be sure not all Orthodox Christians have the same intellectual gifts. Nor do we all share the same interests.

But whatever might be our personal differences in our abilities and interest, theology and philosophy, sacraments and science, faith and reason, are all God’s gifts. To think dogmatically, that is to think clearly, is to understand that each element in the pair compliments and deepens our appreciation and understanding of its partner.

All this is possible because Jesus Christ is not simply a good man but God become Man. In Christ, the Eternal Word of God speaks in human words. He Who together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, creates the universe, drawing it from us “nothingness into being,” creates and shapes the creation with human hands and according to the insights of a human intellect.

All this He does without loss of His divinity.

As truly God, He creates even as truly Man He shapes the creation. He Who as the Word of God from All-Eternity is beyond what our minds can grasp, as truly Man speaks words we can comprehend though never exhaust.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! In the Incarnation, human life, human thought, human labor, and human society are come to share in Divine Life, Divine Thought, Divine Labor and the Divine Society of the Most Holy Trinity.

To think dogmatically is to see the revelation of God not only in the pages of Scripture but in the Book of Nature.

To think dogmatically is to overcome the chasm sin would place between faith and reason, science and sacrament, created and Uncreated.

To think dogmatically is not to cling to the old answers because they are old but rejoice in them because they are true.

To think dogmatically is to see that in each moment “all things are made new in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

To think dogmatically, means to think clearly, because we think with “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:6), “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), and so conform ourselves to His example (see Romans 8:29) for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

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