Tag Archives: vocation of the laity

Join Zeal to Knowledge, Faith to Works, Piety to Technique

Sunday, July 1 (O.S., June 18), 2018: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost; Martyrs Leontius, Hypatius and Theodulus, at Tripoli in Syria (73); St. Leontius, canonarch of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).

Epistle: Romans 10:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 8:28–9:1

What might St Paul mean when he criticizes the Jews for having “zeal without knowledge”?

The first thing to keep in mind is that when in his letter to the Romans the Apostle criticizes–or for that matter, praises–the Jews he does so to make a similar point about the Gentile converts to Christ. St Augustine puts it this way: “Paul begins to speak of his hope for the Jews, lest the Gentiles in their turn become condescending toward them.”

The bishop of Hippo goes on to say that if the Jews were proud “because the gloried in their works,” the Gentiles became proud because of their mistaken belief of “having been preferred over the Jews” (On Romans, 66).

Zeal without knowledge isn’t, in other words, an intellectual deficit but a lack of charity born of pride. It is “faith without love” (see 1 Corinthians 13:2).

The sign that my faith lacks love, that I have zeal without knowledge, is that I lack patience, that I am unkind or even cruel. Zeal without knowledge is revealed in the person who is envious, who acts immorally, is proud, ambitious or self-seeking (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-8). The person whose zeal lacks knowledge does all these things and “teaches others to do so” (Matthew 5:19) by his actions if not always by his words.

This is why Paul reminds the Romans that they must not only confess with their “mouth the Lord Jesus” but believe in their “heart that God has raised Him from the dead.” While words are easy, heartfelt belief requires repentance and a radical transformation in how I treat others. For those of us who are in Christ, there is no escaping the practical demands of charity.

Here then is the temptation we face. Or at least which I face.

I am tempted not only to separate my faith from charity but to separate my charity from the skills which God has given me as part of my natural talents and which he has helped me develop through grace as my life unfolds.

Given the practical demands of charity that are essential to life in Christ, how do I guard against the trap of “zeal without knowledge”?

I must cultivate through practice the abilities God has given me.

St Gregory of Nyssa writes

When people are feeble, although many may wish the sufferer freedom from his pain, it is only those who have the technical skill that can make their choice effectual and cure the patient. This means, in effect, that [practical] wisdom must always be closely allied to [moral] goodness (Oratio Catechetica, 19).

Piety, in other words, is no substitute for technique. It isn’t enough for me to have good intentions. I must, as the Apostle James reminds us, be able to translate my compassion for others–like my faith in God–into action.

We see this ability to match deeds to intention in the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t simply want to liberate the men from the demons. No, he actually does something to free them. Jesus joins good intention to effective action, piety to technique, faith to works, zeal to knowledge.

It’s worth noting that while the residences of the nearby city were impressed by Jesus’ actions, they wanted nothing to do with Him. There is something similar that can happen in our spiritual lives or the life of the parish.

Like the residence of the city I may not welcome zeal combined with knowledge, right faith joined to good works, or piety to technique. Sometimes, I prefer pleasing thoughts about Christianity to actually being a Christian to paraphrase St Ignatius of Antioch.

What I mean here is this.

It is, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence that when we come to church, we leave our talents and our professional training at the door. I confuse “laying aside the cares of this life” with coming before God as if I was someone else, someone who didn’t have the skills or competencies that I have.

To do this, to neglect the abilities that God has given us, to imagine that they are of no value in our spiritual life or, what is worse, that they are somehow obstacles to our life in Christ and not bridges for us and others to Christ is to harbor a misunderstanding of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. That this misunderstanding is common makes it no less wrong.

Your natural talents, your spiritual gifts, your professional, technical or artistic knowledge and training, all of these are given to you by God. And they are given to you not only for your salvation and the salvation of the world but also for God’s glory. And in the Scriptures, the “Glory of God” is the most Real of all real things.

The besetting sin, if I may speak boldly, of Orthodoxy in America, is that too often, we tell the laity to leave their professional and technical competencies at the door to the Church. We–and by “we” I mean primarily (though not exclusively) the clergy–encourage people to pretend to be someone other than who they really are. We do this when we do not welcome, bless, and make use of their abilities for the salvation of the world.

And frankly, we do (o rather don’t do) this out of pride. Welcoming others and valuing their gifts this requires that the clergy not only guide the laity but be guided by the laity.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! When you come to the Divine Liturgy, don’t leave your abilities at the door! Bring them in, offer them to Christ in the sacrifice of the altar and receive them back purified and transformed in Holy Communion!

And then, be bold in the exercise of your abilities not only in the workplace but in the Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Vocation of the Laity

Sunday, July 2, 2017: 4th Sunday of Matthew; Deposition of the Precious Robe of the Theotokos in Blachernae, St. Juvenal, Patriarch of Jerusalem, Juvenal the Protomartyr of America & Alaska, John Maximovitch, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco, Synaxis of the Most Holy Theotokos of the Orphan

Epistle: Hebrews 9:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13

For the fathers of the Church, the Temple sanctuary is an image, a type, of the Theotokos. Like the mercy seat, she too has been overshadowed by grace though not by an angel but by the Holy Spirit. There is for the fathers a clear continuity between the events of the Old Testament and of the New. It is this sense of the organic connection between the two covenants and so between the two Israels, that allows them to see Christ foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament.

When we shift to the relationship between the Gentiles and the Gospel, however, the continuity isn’t as clear. Yes, as St Justin Martyr tells us, God prepares all people to receive the Gospel. But, unlike the Jews, God doesn’t explicitly reveal Himself to the Gentiles. His presence is, as Justin points out, seminal. God the Word is seminally present and it belongs to the Church to discern what is, and so what isn’t, of God in any given culture.

In this morning’s Gospel, for example, Jesus commends the humble faith of the centurion. St Matthew tells us that Jesus “marveled” at the man saying that He hadn’t found faith like the centurions “even in Israel.”

But what about the rest of the man’s life? Jesus says nothing (one way or the other) that the man is both a Roman officer and slave owner. We need to be careful here that we not make arguments from silence. And while the tradition of the Church offers us some guidance, even here there can be room to disagree and debate.

When in the earliest years of the Church, the apostles looked at pagan culture there was surprisingly little ruled out as being absolutely incompatible with the Gospel. For example, in Acts we read that the new, Gentile Christians, must “abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (see Acts 15:29, NKJV). As for the rest of pagan culture, even if it fell short of the Gospel, it wasn’t necessarily seen as incompatible with being a disciple of Christ.

So, this all very interesting but what does it have to do with us, with our lives as Orthodox Christians? As with earlier Christians we need to be discerning about what in our culture is, and isn’t, compatible with the Gospel. What, in other words, in our common cultural inheritance as Americans might serve as a preparation for the Gospel?

Seeing how the culture opens the human heart to Christ has a long and venerable history in the evangelical and pastoral practice of the Church. Just as the ancient Greeks and Romans love of virtue prepared them to receive Christ, we need to ask what in our culture can serve as a bridge to Christ? With this we must also ask what in the culture around us is a barrier to Christ?

What we can’t do–and what sadly some Orthodox Christians try and do–is “baptize” the culture.We can’t uncritically accept everything in American culture as compatible with the Gospel. Christians are called to be “in the world” while at the same time not being “of the world.” This means that there are times when we will stand apart from, and even in opposition to, what the surrounding culture considers good and even “Christian.”

That said, we need to keep in mind that it is equally false to say there is no disagreement between American culture and the Gospel as it is to say that there is no agreement. To say that the culture has nothing in common with the Gospel is risk falling into despair. Even if He is hidden, God is always (as St Justin reminds us) in someway present in the culture. It is our task to discern and nurture that presence.

What complicates all this is that the points of convergence and divergence between Holy Tradition and the surrounding culture (any culture by the way, not just American culture) are often the same.

For example, Americans value freedom not just our own but other peoples. We are often ready to make great personal and national sacrifices in defense of human dignity and rights at home and abroad. Laudable as this is, the American vision of freedom often borders on license. Many Americans seem to have forgotten, or never knew, that real freedom isn’t ability to do what we want but what ought. This, defective, view of freedom both flows from and fosters a serious misunderstanding of human dignity and human rights. We see this misunderstanding all around us in those laws that degrade rather than uphold the image of God in us.

Together with this sometimes the very nobility of our goals make us indifferent to the path we take to accomplish them. We are a people of good intentions who sometimes assume that this is enough. It isn’t.

When I focus simply on my good intentions I leave myself vulnerable to seeing those who disagree with me as the enemy or as morally bad people. The simply fact is, we are all of us called by God to good works. But often we are called to do different good works. Or, if we are called by Him to pursue the same good goals, we might do so in different ways because of our different gifts, life experiences or starting points.

In any case, this is a sermon not a lecture in political theology. Please forgive me for offering more theoretical, observations than is my habit. But these more abstract considerations are sometime necessary. And, as in the current case, there are times when they are all that the clergy can offer the laity.

The reason for this that while the clergy have our own role in the work of discerning what in the culture is compatible with the Gospel, it is not–fundamentally–our vocation. It belongs primarily to the laity to discern what in the culture can serve the Gospel and how it can do so More importantly, it is your vocation as baptized Orthodox Christians, to shape the culture according to the Gospel.

You do this first in your own hearts, then in your own homes and families. You do this in the workplace and in schools. You do this with the votes you cast and as members of the different communities in which you take part. You do this in whatever part of society you find yourself.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! It the vocation, great responsibility, right and privilege of the laity to introduce not just individuals to Christ but to bring American culture into an ever greater harmony with the Gospel.

So go! Do what God has called you to do by being faithful to who God has called you to be!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory