Tag Archives: Matthew 17:14-23

Jesus Gave You One Job

Sunday, August 25 (OS 12), 2019: 10th Sunday after Pentecost; Afterfeast of the Transfiguration; Martyrs Anicetus and Photius (Photinus) of Nicomedia (305); Hieromartyr Alexander, bishop of Comana (3rd c.); Martyrs Pamphilus and Capito. 

Ss Cyril &Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 4:9-16
Gospel: Matthew 17:14-23

We need to understand carefully what St Paul does and doesn’t mean when he describes himself as the least among men. We shouldn’t take this to mean that the Apostle felt himself to be useless or having nothing to say. This is not “apostolic” self-loathing or negative self-image.

It rather much like what we say when we realize that someone really and truly loves us. We look at the person and wonder, how can they love us? They know us and yet, they love us. How we wonder is this even possible?.

Looking at Christ, Paul realizes that God’s love for Him is wholly a gift. He speaks about himself the way he does because he is overwhelmed by the magnitude and gracious nature of God’s love for him.

And yet Paul’s humility doesn’t prevent him from preaching the Gospel. It doesn’t keep him from reminding the Corinthians that they too are loved by God.

And neither does it keep him from speaking a hard work of correction when needed.

This leads us to another question. Why odes St Paul call himself a fool and the Corinthians wise? Here the Apostle engages in a bit of irony. 

The Corinthians have misunderstood what it means to be forgiven and to find freedom in Christ. For them, freedom is license. For St Paul freedom is something altogether different.

To be free in Christ means to accept the awesome and humbling invitation to preach the Gospel “in season and out” as he tells St Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2). 

It is his wholehearted commitment to preach the Gospel that makes the Apostle able to bear up under hunger and thirst.

Because he knows he is loved by God he can endure being homeless and naked.

Because he knows he is loved by he can be dishonored, persecuted and defamed but never wavers in his preaching of the Gospel.

At the same time, there is in his heart no hint of the suggestion that he deserves to suffer. Neither is there anything to suggest that his sufferings are anything other than evil. 

But for all that he suffers, Paul remains faithful because, again, he knows God’s love for him.

Though they received the Gospel from St Paul. the Corinthians struggle to accept this same love. Do they know they have been forgiven? Yes, absolutely! Their debt to God is paid in full. But the understanding of forgiveness is shallow, transactional really.

But loved? This is something they can’t wrap their minds around and so can’t seem to accept. And because they are unsure of God’s love for them they remain attached to the standards of this world. 

This is why Paul tells them that he and the other apostles “are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!”

But the Corinthians are not wise and strong and distinguished by God’s accounting but by the world’s.

In the view of the world, my value is determined by what I do, by my position in society, by my wealth and the power I command. Sadly, this rather than God’s love for them is still the standard for many of the Corinthians.

To see the harm done by the world’s standards to our life in Christ, we need only look to today’s Gospel.

The disciples fail to cast out the demon because of the weakness of their faith. They travel with Jesus. They listen to His teachings. They eat with Him. Their every waking moment is an experience of communion with Jesus.

And yet for all this, they don’t understand the gift they’ve been given. 

Like the Gentiles, like the Corinthians, like too many Orthodox Christians today, they still love power. They still think that being a disciple is a matter of authority rather than service. They fail to cast out the demon because they are still seeking the first place in the Kingdom of God (see, Matthew 20:23 and Mark 10:40).

Gently but firmly, Jesus corrects them. He tells them they failed because they lack even faith the size of a mustard seed.

And what is this faith? That the Creator of the universe loves each and everything single human being. There is no one we meet who isn’t loved by God.

The struggle we face is not convincing someone of the truth of our theology–true though it is. Neither is it making clear to others the beauty of our worship, the depth of our spirituality. All these things are easy enough to do relative to the one thing that we must do first.

And what is that thing?

To help people come to know and accept that they are loved by God.

Though they received the Gospel from St Paul, the Corinthians did not believe they were loved.

Though they lived and traveled, eat and prayed and were taught by Jesus, the disciples only slowly came to believe and accept His great love for them.

Before all else, we need to introduce people not just to the God Who loves them but God’s love for them. In this task, we need to be patient with others and with ourselves. 

It just takes time for others to believe they are loved.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We need to be faithful in the work to which we have been called. We need to resist the temptation to substitute theology or history, liturgy or ascetical struggle for a clear and convincing proclamation and demonstration of God’s love.

While God’s love is one and the same for each of us, the form it will take, the words we will use, will be different for each person. For some, love will require a word of consolation; for other, moral challenge. 

And yes, some will come to know God’s love through theology or history. Through liturgy or asceticism.

But whatever the medium, we can’t lose sight of the goal. Helping the person in front of us know God’s love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Quiet Openness

August 5 (O.S., July 23), 2018: 10th Sunday after Pentecost; “Pochaiv” (1675) Icon of the Mother of God; Hieromartyr Apollinaris, bishop of Ravenna (75); Martyrs Trophimus, Theophilus, and 13 others in Lycia (305).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 4:9-16/Philippians 2:5-11
Gospel: Matthew 17:14-23/Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The second epistle this morning tell us to make our own the attitude or mindset of Christ. Like Jesus, we are to empty ourselves and become servants to others.

This call to self-emptying or kenosis is not a call to call to passively accept bullying. Much less is it a command suffer abuse in silence. Certainly, there will be times when we will suffer for Christ. There will be times when we experience injustice or mistreatment at the hands of others. But this isn’t what St Paul is talking when he tells us to empty ourselves.

What he is saying is this. We must be willing and able to work for the salvation of others. And yes, at times, this will mean setting aside for a time even our own otherwise legitimate concerns and needs.

Love, in other words, requires sacrifice and if the willingness to sacrifice is absent than our love is immature.

Christians’ willingness to sacrifice for the good of others–even strangers–is why, looking at the first epistle, the world calls us “fools.” We commit a grave error when we assume being a “fool for Christ” means being illiterate or hostile to secular learning or to the good things we see in the culture.

We are fools because we place all that we have, all that we are, at the service of the salvation of our neighbor.

We are fools for Christ’s sake, that is, for the sake of the world’s salvation.

We are fools for Christ’s sake because our lives are dedicated to using all the material, cultural and intellectual riches at our disposal to draw others to Christ.

This means that whether we are young or old, male or female, in whatever profession or job we do, we are committed to helping others come to know and follow Christ as members of the Orthodox Church.

If I fail in this, I fail not because of an absence of grace but of my own faith.

Jesus tells us this in the first Gospel. “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

But just as we need to understand what self-emptying does–and more importantly, doesn’t–mean so we also need to be clear about what it means to have faith to move mountains.

The unbelievers, the enemies of the faith, are a great to help to us on this point. St Nikolai Velimirovich, the great Serbian saint of the last century, tells us this in his prayer-poem “Bless My Enemies O Lord.”

The saint encourages me to call my enemies my “cruel friends” because they reveal the sins I would avoid confessing. They scold me, “whenever I have flattered myself.//They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.”

He concludes by saying “One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.//It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.”

What good has the unbeliever done for us? Just this, he has mercilessly reminded us that faith is not magic. Our unbelieving friends by their criticism help us understand that faith only moves mountains when God would have mountains move.

The faith that we must have, the faith that allows us to love sacrificially and to place wisely all that we have at the service of the Gospel, is the faith we see in the two Marys in the second Gospel: Mary the sister of Martha and Mary the Mother of God.

Martha is consumed by worry because she is busy serving Jesus. Ironically, she is anxious because, in her service, she has lost sight of Him. Mary, on the other hand, keeps her eyes and her heart fixed on Jesus.

The lesson here is clear.

If I’m not careful, I can become so focused on serving others that I lose sight of Jesus Christ. And when I lose sight of Him, I lose sight of you. We are united to each other and to each person we met not by the bonds of our own affections–which are after all fleeting–but by Jesus Christ.

Put another way, I am united in love to you because Christ is united in love to both of us. Lose sight of Christ and His love and my love for you will eventually grow cold and even bitter.

So what are we to do? For this, we look to the other Mary, Mary the Mother of God.

The Pangia’s presence in today’s Gospel reading is hidden; her name isn’t even spoken. And yet it is the Mother of God who draw together in herself all that it means to a follower of Christ.

The Virgin is the icon of Christian discipleship not primarily because she gives birth to the Son of God–miraculous and grace-filled though this is–but because, as her Son says of her, she hears the Word of God and keeps it!

While not without her own trials–after all, a sword pierces her heart (Luke 2:35)–Mary is unswerving in her loving obedience to the path God has called her to walk.

Mary faithful because she ponders in her heart “all … things” (see Luke 2:19). She is a woman of intense, and personal, prayer. She brings all of her life to God in prayer. She draws close to the God Who in Jesus Christ drew close to her.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today God calls us to be men and women of intense prayer. Not only the formal prayer found in books but the quiet prayer of the heart.

In Jesus Christ, God invites us to live a life of mature, sacrificial love. Such love is only possible when, like the two Marys, we focus on one thing that is needed. And that one thing? Our quiet, prayerful openness to God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: The Silhouette of Virtue (revised)

Sunday, August 13, 2017: 10th Sunday of Matthew; Apodosis of the Transfiguration, Maximus the Confessor, Our Righteous Fathers Sergius, Stephanus, Castor and Palamonus, Dorotheus, Abba of Gaza, Tikhon of Zadonsk

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 4:9-16
Gospel: Matthew 17:14-23

Glory to Jesus!

What does it mean to be a fool for Christ’s sake?
Some Orthodox Christians think that this means that the Church doesn’t value human reason or education. Wrongly the imagine that the Church doesn’t value science or other forms of secular knowledge.

This would have surprised St Basil the Great, who compares the place of secular learning in the life of the Christian to leaves on a fruit tree.

Just as it is the chief mission of the tree to bear its fruit in its season, though at the same time it puts forth for ornament the leaves which quiver on its boughs, even so, the real fruit of the soul is truth, yet it is not without advantage for it to embrace the pagan wisdom, as also leaves offer shelter to the fruit, and an appearance not untimely.

Looking at the examples of Moses and Daniel, St Basil says these men were fools not because they were uneducated. No, their folly was that were obedient to the One God rather than to any earthly prince. As for their “severe” training in “the learning of the Egyptians” and “the sacred teachings” Chaldeans, these they placed wholly and unreservedly at the service of God (Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature, III).

Though the circumstances of our lives are different from theirs, we share one vocation with Moses and Daniel. Like them, we are called to serve God in all we do.

And like the Apostle Paul we have been set aside as disciples of Jesus Christ and it is our great honor to “bless” those who revile us, to remain faithful to Christ even when we are persecuted and to forgive and reconcile to Christ even those who slander us and reject us “as the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things.”

All of this is folly in the eyes of the world.

What we need to struggle against is the temptation to respond harshly to those who reject us. A harsh response serves no one and it harms our witness. When I give in to anger and resentment, I’m not being a fool for Christ’s sake. I’m simply a fool.

But I can hear the counter-argument. What about Jesus in the Gospel you ask? Doesn’t He at times response harshly to people? Doesn’t He respond harshly to His disciples in today’s Gospel?

St John Chrysostom says that Jesus speaks as He does to the disciples because they are afraid that they have “lost the grace with which they had been entrusted” to cast out demons. More importantly, Jesus speaks to the disciples as He does to prepare them for the events of Holy Week. They know, Chrysostom says, that Jesus is going to die “having heard it continually.” What they don’t know is the “kind of death” He’ll suffer. Much less do they know about who Christ’s Resurrection on Pascha will being the “innumerable blessings” (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 58.1 in ACCS vol Ib: Matthew 14-28, p. 62).

But Jesus does speak a harsh word to the boy’s father and the Jewish people. Even here, though, the point is not to alienate others but to draw them closer to the Kingdom of God. And so immediately after speaking harshly to them, He heals the boy. The harshness of His words is tempered by a tangible demonstration of God’s love and mercy.

What should we take from this?

First, we need to keep in mind that witnessing to Christ will sometimes bring us into conflict with others. Sometimes even someone we love. To paraphrase the Apostle James, friendship with God will bring us into conflict with the world (see James 4:4). While I ought not to go out of my way to find conflict, shouldn’t be afraid of it when it comes my way.

Second, when conflict does come I have to balance my hard word with a tangible demonstration of affection for the person. But, how do I do this?

When I disagree with someone, I need to actively search for what St Basil calls “the silhouette of virtue”(X). I need to look for a least faint glimmer of goodness in the person.

Yes, it’s easier to think there isn’t anything good or true or beautiful in those who hurt me or to imagine our disagreement is because of your bad will. But to say this isn’t simply to offend against the person’s dignity and moral worth, it is also to deny God.

When I refuse to see at least “the silhouette of virtue” in others I deny they’re created in the image of God. And isn’t this refusal to see other people as icons of God what it means to live a life apart from Christ?

My brothers and sisters in Christ, just as God sees what is good, true and beautiful in us, we must do the same with others. To be a true fool for Christ is to see “the silhouette of virtue,” the intimation of God, where the world sees only evil, lies, and ugliness

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: The Paternity of God

Sunday, August 9, 2015: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost & Tenth Sunday of Matthew, After-feast of the Transfiguration of Christ

Apostle Matthias; translation of the relics of Venerable Herman of Alaska, wonderworker of America

EPISTLE: 1 Corinthians 4:9-16

GOSPEL: Matthew 17:14-23

Paternitas (New Testament Trinity) Novgorod School, end of the 14th century

Though often misunderstood, paternity is a central, actually essential, concept to the right understanding of the Christian tradition.

Strictly speaking the only Father is God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Other fathers—biological or spiritual—are fathers only by analogy. Human fathers are only fathers to the degree that they reflect faithfully the paternity of God.

For classical Christian orthodoxy, to call God Father isn’t to make a statement about sex but relationship. God the Father is (as we hear in the service of the Church), the Unoriginate Source. This doesn’t mean that God exists in isolation from either of the other two Person of the Holy Trinity. The Son is the Son because He is begotten by the Father. Likewise the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit because He is breathed forth from the Father. And none of this implies moral or social or ontological necessity; there isn’t something or someone “behind” God compelling Him to generate the Son or breathe forth the Spirit.

Something similar happens with creation.

There is nothing external to God requiring Him to create. What He does, He does simply from love. God loves us not because of who we are but because of Who He is and it is His love that makes us who we are.

Paternity then in the tradition is not about power or authority as the world understands them. To be a father is to love in such a way that the beloved becomes more fully who he or she is. How does this happen? How do I, like Paul, love people in such a way that they become more themselves? There an interesting notion in Hasidic spirituality that can help here.

Tzimtzum or self-contraction is the idea that God creates not by imposing the His will on what isn’t God. Rather God creates by drawing back, making Himself “smaller.” In other words, God creates by making room for whatever isn’t God. God makes room for us; He allows us the space and freedom we need to find Him and so find ourselves.

The Christian counterpart to this is kenosis, the self-emptying of the Son that culminates in the Cross (Philippians 2). The Apostle Paul is faithful to this self-emptying example of Christ. And it is because he is faithful that—like other apostles—he is like a man “sentenced to death; … a spectacle to the world, to angels and men.” The Apostle’s fidelity to not only the teaching of Christ but to the example of His Person means that Paul is a fool, and a man held in disrepute by the powerful of this world.

Paul’s fidelity is also the source of his great moral and spiritual strength. It is why he can bear all things not only for the sake of Christ but for the salvation of the Corinthians. His willing self-emptying, his tzimtzum, is what that makes Paul more than simply a guide or a teacher. His kenosis makes him a spiritual father for the Corinthians, the Gentile world and each of us.

Turning to the Gospel reading, it is absence of this self-emptying faith that makes the disciples powerless over the demons. As of yet they haven’t come to accept for themselves what Christ has accepted for Himself. “The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and He will rise on the third day.”

Just as God the Father doesn’t impose His will on His Son, He doesn’t impose Himself on us. Instead God woos us. God creates us in love and then, to speak in human terms, He falls in love with us over and over and over again. In the Song of Solomon the bride says of her beloved that “he comes leaping over mountains, bounding over the hills” (Song 2:8). Commenting on this St Gregory of Nyssa says Christ has “made every rebellious power subject to Himself, both the inferiors powers [i.e, ‘hills’] and those that are greater [i.e., ‘mountains’]” all “are trampled and destroyed by the same power and authority” of God’s love for us (“Homilies on the Song of Songs,” 5 in ACCS, OT vol IX, p. 138).

Origen says that if we want to see Christ leap, “we must first hear His voice” (“Commentary on the Song of Songs,” 3.11, in ACCS, OT vol IX, p. 138). To hear the voice of God means to give ourselves over to stillness and prayer. It is in this way that we can come to love the God Who loves us. It is through stillness and prayer that I respond to the God Who calls me by name (Isaiah 43:1) and who has loved me from my mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5). Especially at first, I might be hesitant to open myself up in this way to God. This is understandable. But I need to remember that God doesn’t impose Himself on us. At creation, in the incarnation and above all on the Cross, God empties Himself, He makes Himself small so that there is room for us to grow, to develop, to blossom and to become the persons who from all eternity He created us to be.

Spiritually as well as biologically, a man can’t become a father without a woman who is willing to become a mother. Spiritual fatherhood is only possible under the guidance and example of the Most Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. She is the Mother of the Church and the Mother of priests. It is to her that bishops and priests as well as biological fathers must look to fulfill their obligations. It is only in being faithful to the example of Mary ‘s maternity that they can be faithful to God’s paternity.

Whatever the failures or successes of our earthly fathers—biological or spiritual—we have a Father in Heaven Who waits patiently and in love to receive us, ever eager to reveal His love and affection for us, to forgive us our sin and to heal us from all that binds us. To borrow from St Herman of Alaska whose memory we celebrate today, “let us make a vow to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this very moment, we shall strive above all else to love God and to fulfill His Holy Will!”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory