Tag Archives: Obedience

Freedom in Christ

Sunday, June 24 (O.S., June 11) 2018: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost;Holy Apostles Bartholomew and Barnabas (1st c.).

Epistle: Romans 6:18-23/Acts 11:19-26, 29-30

Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13/Luke 10:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

With his usually understatement, the Apostle Paul contrasts the two forms of slavery to which we may be subjected. I am either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness.

Paul’s language here, though stark, is not meant to be taken literally. He is speaking, as he says, “in human terms” to help us understand from what we have been saved.

More importantly, he wants us to understand that for which we have been saved: to share in the life of God. Or, as he says, to receive “holiness, … everlasting life” which taken together are “the gift of God, eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We tend to associate holiness with moral rectitude. A holy person is a virtuous person. While holiness and virtue are related, we often misunderstand the relationship between them.

A saint is not holy because he is virtuous. Rather, he is virtuous because he is holy.

In the Scriptures, God is called holy not because He is virtuous as we understand the term but because He is sovereign. God is not, as we hear again and again, the god of this place, or these people. He is rather the God of god, the God of All. As such, His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts.

Holiness is another way of saying that God is wholly and absolutely free. Or maybe more accurately, nothing and no one compels God.

It is this freedom that God gives us in Jesus Christ. This why the baptismal service begins with prayers of exorcism. Not because we believe the candidate is possessed by a demon but to give the devil formal notice that this person is no longer his but now belongs to Christ and His Church.

Only once this notice is given, is the candidate is baptized. That is to say, through the faith of the Church and the words of the priest, the candidate is adopted by God and comes to share in that deep and expansive freedom we call holiness.

So, having been made holy in baptism, what now?

Now, as Paul says, we are to be obedient to God; we are now “slaves of righteousness.”

In the World, and let’s be frank sometime even in the Church, “obedience” is a harsh word. Obedience in Christ however is not a matter of humiliation. It is not a means of degrading others or asserting control over them.

Rather to be obedient to Christ means to join our will to His. To want, in other words, what God wants for us.

Look at the first Gospel reading. The centurion is a man of obedience. He knows how to command because is “a man under authority” to others. Obedience comes if not easily to him, then freely.

Just as he joins his will to that of his superiors, so too he joins his will to the will of Jesus. He has no need for outward shows of grace. It is enough for him that Jesus wills that the servant be made well.

The centurion’s obedience and faith are absolute.

True obedience, true holiness, is to want what God wants. As for true freedom, it is to do what God would have us do. Or, to put it simply, obedience, holiness and freedom are all facets of love.

If I love you I want for you what God wants for you. Love begins in my willing to make my own God’s will for the person.

As love matures, I move from sharing in God’s desire to action. It is this that is true and lasting freedom. And so we see in the second set of readings, the willingness the disciples to preach the Gospel, heal the sick, cast out demons, and to care for the poor from out of their own funds.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To be truly free means to love others as God loves them. To be free means that we not only want for others what God wants for them but that, like God, we are willing to sacrifice to help this come to past.

And of this because we have “first been loved by God.”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Obedience to the Priest

Earlier this week, I was asked once again asked whether or not the laity are to be obedient to their parish priest. And, once again, I told the person no, the laity doesn’t owe their parish priest obedience. Priests who expect obedience, much less those who require it, are dangerously misguided and frankly should be avoided.

At least as it pertains to the overall life of the parish, I do think the priest should be afforded deference. What I mean by this is that–absence evidence to the contrary–the parish should follow the pastor’s lead.

My reasoning here is purely practical. Given two or more equally valid options, the priest is one most likely to have a better overview of the life of the parish. And if things go wrong, it is likely the priest’s phone that will ring. While negative outcomes affect the whole community, as a practical matter it is the priest who likely has to deal with the fallout.

The personal life of the laity, however, this is a different matter altogether.

While the priest can credibly claim to have a better grasp of the whole parish, he can make no such claim to the daily life of his parishioner. Added to this is that most of the clergy have no specialized training in spiritual formation, pastoral counseling or psychotherapy.

This lack of expert knowledge doesn’t mean that the priest’s advice is untrustworthy; it isn’t at least not usually. But it does mean that the priest doesn’t necessarily bring any special insight to bear on the person’s life.

Like our friends or co-workers, the priest can–and often is–a good sounding board for our problems. And most priests are willing and able to help us think through our concerns. Older, more experienced priests especially often have gained a fair amount of hard-earned wisdom that we should respect.

None of this, however, requires that we be obedient to our parish priest.

Unfortunately, there are priests who either out of pride or (more likely) immaturity expect and may even demand obedience. Even when they aren’t directly challenged, they will be offended when th the laity don’t follow their advice.

These clergy are often short-tempered. Frankly, they can be mean when they don’t get the respect they think they are due (but which they haven’t earned). Like I said above, these are clergy that we should avoid if we at all can.

The standard I use for my own life–and which I give to the people who come to speak to me–is simple. Imagine for a moment I wasn’t your priest and you weren’t my parishioner. Would you actually listen to me?

“Because I’m the priest and I said so” is something I should avoid saying at all costs. Saying this, or even thinking this, poisons my relationship with my parishioner. Such appeals to power degrade both the priest and his parishioner.

So, to go back to the original question, no, the laity doesn’t owe obedience to the priest.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Peace in the Midst of Conflict

Thursday, February 23 (O.S., March 8) 2018: Thursday of the Third Week of Lent; Hieromartyr Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna († 167); New Hieromartyrs Priests Alexis, Nicholas, Michael and Martyr Sergius († 1938); Venerable John, Antiochus, Antoninus, Moses, Zebinas, Polychronius, another Moses, and Damian, Ascetics of the Syrian Deserts (5th C); Venerable Alexander the founder of the Monastery of the “Unsleeping Ones” († c. 430); Venerable Gorgonia, sister of St Gregory the Theologian; Venerable Polycarp of Briansk († 1620-1621); Venerable Moses of White Lake; Venerable Damian of Esphigmenou on Mt Athos; New Venerable Martyr Damian the New of Philotheou, who suffered at Larissa (1568).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 11:10-12:2
Vespers: Genesis 7:11-8:3
Vespers: Proverbs 10:1-22

St Ignatius of Antioch wrote that just as a ship needs a rudder to arrive safely in port, Christians need the conflicts and controversies of the present time to find God. To be honest, I don’t like to hear this. It isn’t that I think the saint is wrong; he isn’t. I just want him to be wrong.

The readings though for today–as well as several passages in the New Testament (Matthew 24:19, Luke 21:23, 1 Corinthians 3:15 and 11:19 come quickly to mind)–all attest to the truth of the saint’s word. Yes, as we read in Isaiah, God will redeem His People. Along the way to be redeemed, His People will make war against their oppressors.

God’s newly redeemed will know victory but not the absence of conflict. Instead “they shall swoop down upon the shoulder of the Philistines in the west, … plunder the people of the east…. put forth their hand against Edom and Moab” and subjugate by force “the Ammonites.”

The road they take from slavery to liberation will be swept by “scorching wind.” Droughts will dry up rivers so God’s People can “cross dryshod.”

They will be saved by they will also mourn. Family and friends will be left behind since only a “remnant” will escape. And like the Hebrew Children, the path to redemption will be through the desert.

For all the hardships along the way, God’s People are thankful. They aren’t blind to the suffering around them. Much less do they deny their own suffering.  For all this they are still able to say as one People: “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”

I’m a fool to think redemption means that I am exempt from the consequences of sin. It’s bordering on blasphemy to think I won’t suffer because God loves me.

Look at how God saves Noah and his family. He places them in a ship tossed by storms. Everywhere they look they see death and devastation. They not only face the terrors of being on the open seas, they must labor unceasingly to care for the animals on the ark.

God doesn’t Noah or us from hardship. What he does is transform it; He uses it to for our spiritual and practical benefit.

This last point is the one Solomon makes not only in today’s reading but throughout Proverbs. Again and again, he places side by side examples of wisdom and folly, of diligence and laziness, and of righteousness and wickedness.

God doesn’t blot out the latter of these pairs in favor of the former. Instead, He contrasts the two paths to make clear our choices.

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you today, to go after other gods which you have not known (Deuteronomy 11:26-28, NKJV)

While the details of each choice can at times be complex or vague, the actual choice is stark. Will I be obedient to God or will follow my own will?

Obedience doesn’t guarantee the absence of conflict. All of today’s readings–to say nothing of centuries of Christian history–make this clear. What obedience does bring is peace in the midst of the unavoidable conflict we will encounter on the way to the Kingdom of God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Homily: To Obey is Better than Sacrifice

Sunday, May 7, 2017: Sunday of the Paralytic; Commemoration of the Precious Cross that appeared in the sky over Jerusalem in 351 A.D., Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Akakios the Centurion of Byzantium, Pachomios the New Martyr of Patmos, Repose of St. Nilus, abbot of Sora

Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three.” writes St Paul, “but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NKJV). It’s important to emphasize that the Apostle says this immediately after warning us of all the deficiencies inherent in our current relationship with Christ:

…whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away (vv. 8-10).

Though real, these lapses are not in and of themselves sinful. Rather they reflect that, in this life, we are in our spiritual infancy; we understand and think as children who have yet to “put away childish things” (v. 11). This isn’t to say that we live in spiritual ignorance; like a child, we are young but not stupid. But, for now, Paul says, “we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known” (v. 12).

The Christian lives in expectation of the revelation of Jesus Christ which is to come. This should foster in me not only a joyful expectancy but also a loving attention to the gentle prompting of divine grace. While the fullness of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is still to come, this life is not devoid of His Presence. Like He did at His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor God makes Himself known to each of us to the degree we are able to receive the revelation.

And it is here, in my capacity to receive God, that I find the meaning of Jesus’ last words to the Paralytic:”See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.”

Sometimes in our anxiety to avoid suggesting that by our works we somehow merit salvation, we downplay any suggestion that we are, again as St Paul says, “co-workers” or “co-laborers” with God in our own salvation (1 Corinthians 3:9). And yet, it is precisely by His grace and with our co-operation that we are saved. To be saved is not to be the merely passive recipient of divine grace or the object of a divine fiction that images we are other than as we. To be saved means to say with the Virgin Mary, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NKJV).

Or sometimes because our anxiety to avoid any suggestion of moralizing, we try and sever any connection between human behavior and our condemnation. And yet, the Scriptures are more than clear. Some actions are so immoral that they bring about out condemnation. The Apostle John refers to these as “sins unto death” (1 John 1:5, KJV). St Paul refers to them as “the works of the flesh.” It is these–”adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like”–that we must avoid, or if we fall into them repent of in confession, if we wish to “inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21, NKJV).

Returning to the Gospel, Jesus tells the Paralytic, and us, two things.

First, avoid the sins of the flesh; avoid those sins that kill faith, hope and love. It’s worth noting, if just in passing, that every age has works of the flesh that it tends to minimize or even glorify. Our own age tends to downplay the deadly seriousness of sexual sins even as earlier ages had their own lists of sins that they would not acknowledge as sins. No age is morally superior to another in any absolute sense. Rather each ages and culture people have their own, preferred, ways of turning their back on love.

Second, it isn’t enough to avoid sin, we must cultivate virtue. We must cultivate those three things that last: faith, hope, and above all love. In one of his homilies on John’s Gospel, St Gregory Dialogos asks his hearers whether or not they, personally, belong to Jesus Christ as members of “his flock.” He goes on to ask them, and us,

…whether you know him, whether the light of his truth shines in your minds. I assure you that it is not by faith that you will come to know him, but by love; not by mere conviction, but by action. John the evangelist is my authority for this statement. He tells us that anyone who claims to know God without keeping his commandments is a liar.

The saint reminds us that as important as are faith and hope they aren’t in and of themselves enough. To St Gregory’s appeal to the Apostle John, we add our appeal to the Apostle James:

You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe—and tremble! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? (2:19-20, NKJV)

A living faith in the revelation we have received, a living hope that is yet to come, requires that I love God and love my neighbor.

To love God means to keep His commandments the second of which is to love you. And to love you means to want what God wants for you. And what God wants for you, is for you to return His love for you. This isn’t an emotional response but obedience. We love God as He loves us by keeping His commandments and being faithful to His will for our lives.

And second, He wants you to love others as He loves you. This can’t be done except that you are faithful to your own, personal, vocation. It is in and through our fidelity to our vocation that we not only grow in the love of God but also the love of our neighbor. This is they way we grow in the love of God. And unless we aid each other in this process of vocation discernment and fidelity, we can’t truthfully claim to be obedient to God or to love our neighbor.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us begin the great work being of faithful to our own vocations and an aid to others as they live theirs!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Let Us Meet Jesus in Silence

March 25, 2016: The Annunciation of the Most-Holy Theotokos

Epistle: Hebrews 2:11-18
Gospel: Luke 1:24-38

We call Christ our Lord, God, and Savior and are right to do so because He is. And because of Who is, we come before Him in “fear and trembling.”

But just as rightly, we must come to Jesus not simply as God but as our brother. As we hear in the epistle, “he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin.” Immediately after this we hear something extraordinary. The Second Person of the most Holy Trinity, He Who is God from all eternity “is not ashamed” to call us His brothers. This being so, how can we be hesitant to call Him our Brother? Because it is as our brother that Jesus proclaims the Father: “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.”

Jesus Christ, standing in our midst not simply as God but as our brother announces the Father’s great mercy for us.

We shouldn’t think that His humanity is merely instrumental, only a means to an end. What do we read in Hebrews? “Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” It is precisely by becoming human, by taking on our humanity and becoming our brother that Jesus is able to pour out God’s mercy on us and to lift from us the burden of sin.

We must balance Jesus ‘s transcendence with His imminence. Yes, as God  Jesus is greater than anything I can imagine Him to be; but as my creator and my brother He is closer to me than I am to myself as St Augustine says (Confessions, III, 6, 11). The irony, or maybe better, the paradox of the Christian faith is this: We only truly know God’s transcendence in and through the incarnation of the Son. It is in becoming like us in all things but sin (see Hebrews 4:15), that Jesus is able to communicate to us the supra-essential glory of God.

Turning to the Gospel and today’s feast, the Archangel Gabriel‘s announces to the Virgin Mary the great mystery of our faith. While our first parents were promised a redeemer (see Genesis 3:15),  the fulfillment of the promise is far beyond what they could have imagined. God becomes as we are, to paraphrase St Irenaeus, so that we could become as He is. Today is announced not simply the coming of the Redeemer, but God’s invitation to us to share in the life of the Holy Trinity. Today by God’s grace and the Virgin’s consent, we have become “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4, NKJV) because He has taken on ours.

Let me offer at this point a caution.

As magnificent as is the Gospel, we can’t allow its beauty to blind us to the intimacy  we have with Jesus. Yes, we must worship Christ as “King and Lord” as we hear in the baptismal service. But to do know Him in this way, we must first know Him as our brother, as the Man Who all those yers ago walked among us and with us.

Too easily I can find myself swept away by the depth and breadth of Holy Tradition. The Church’s theology is rich and profound; the Liturgy of the Church is of unparalleled beauty, can soften even the hardest heart as it transport us from earth to heaven.

Still, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Jesus is not only our Lord but also our brother. And of the two of these, it is the latter —if I may dare to say such a thing—that matters most.

To know Jesus in His divinity as well as His humanity, to know Him as Lord and brother, we must imitate the obedience of the Theotokos. “As the human race was subject to death through the act of a virgin, so it was saved by a virgin.” Through Mary’s obedience “the wisdom of the serpent” is “conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and the chains were broken by which we were in bondage to death” (St Irenaeus,Against Heresies 5:20, in ACCS, NT vol III: Luke, pp. 19-20).

How do we practice such obedience?

Again, we must look to the Mother of God who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, NKJV). We must, in other words, learn to keep silence. St John Climacus says that “silence is the mother of prayer” and that “The friend of silence draws near to God and, by secretly conversing with Him, is enlightened by God” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent 11, trans. L.Moore, p.92).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we celebrate today the Feast of the Annunciation, let us commit ourselves “from this moment on” to set aside time to sit silently with our brother Jesus! And let us, through silence, come to know and love Him Who knows and loves us!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

St Porphyrios on Obedience

For Christians as well as those outside the Church, probably no topic is as misunderstood as obedience. And yet, obedience is foundational not only to our relationship with Christ but for the whole of the Church’s life. Obedience to Holy Tradition, to our bishop and our conscience all serve to keep us united to God and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Again, for many people—Christian or not–obedience is morally problematic. In most cases this reflects not ill-will but a lack of understanding. In the Scriptures the command to be obedience is not a command that we give a mechanical submission to an authority (divine or human). Obedience isn’t passive submission of the vanquished to the victor, it isn’t “‘giving in’ or ‘surrender’ but freely chosen, voluntary mutual cooperation–or synergy” (here).

Elder Porphyrios

In Wounded by Love: The Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios. Elder Porphyrios (+1991), a Greek monk and priest “tells the story of his life and, in simple, deeply reflected and profoundly wise words, he expounds the Christian Faith today.” Writing on obedience he recalls that as a young monk

My whole life was a paradise: prayer, worship, handicraft, and obedience. But my obedience was the outcome of love not coercion. This blessed obedience benefitted me greatly. It changed me. I became sharp-witted, quick and stronger in body and soul. … Obedience shows love for Christ. And Christ especially loves the obedient (Wounded by Love, p. 25).

At a minimum, obedience requires the absence of coercion. There can be nothing abusive or forced if obedience is going to be true to what it means to be human. Obedience properly so called is always an appeal to human freedom and an affirmation of human dignity.

For the fathers of the Church, freedom is “one of the manifestations of God in human nature. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, ‘Man became Godlike and blessed, being honoured with freedom (αὐτεξουσίῳ)’ (Sermon on the Dead). For this reason, the Church in her pastoral practice and spiritual guidance takes so much care of the inner world of a person and his freedom of choice. Subjection of human will to any external authority through manipulation or violence is seen as a violation of the order established by God.”

We can’t, however, make “freedom of choice … an absolute or ultimate value.” As it comes to us from the hand of God, our freedom is “at the service of human well-being.” This means that when a person exercises his freedom he “should not harm either himself or those around him.” Unfortunately, “due to the power of sin inherent in the fallen human nature, no human effort is sufficient to achieve genuine goodness” (see The Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights, II.1).

Elder Porphyrios is helpful here.

I can’t give you an example of what real obedience is. It’s not that we have a discussion about the virtue of obedience and then I say ‘go and do a somersault,’ and you obey. That’s not obedience. You need to be entirely carefree and not thinking at all about the matter of obedience, and then suddenly you are asked to do something and you are ready to do it joyfully (Wounded by Love, p. 19).

Freedom, love and joy; these are characteristic of Christian obedience. But these are also all inter-personal; they are social and not merely individual. Being obedient means learning to make choices that foster freedom, love and joy not simply in my life but yours as well. It isn’t so much a matter of my being obedient to you (or the other way around) but our being obedient together to God Who is the source of all good things. Obedience, in other words, is mutual; what we do together and not what I do alone.

To be obedient means to live as a member of a community in which we work together for the flourishing, sanctification and salvation of each other. It is the end of mere individualism and the beginning of life patterned after the Holy Trinity.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory