Self-Emptying Peace

August 19 (O.S., August 6) 2018: 12th Sunday after Pentecost. The Holy Transfiguration of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.

Epistle: 2 Peter 1:10-19
Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

On the feast of the Transfiguration, we sing that the disciples saw the divine glory “as far as they could see it.” As He does from the first moments of the Incarnation, the Son of God empties Himself, He limits Himself, to our ability to receive Him. In other words, that the only limiting factor on divine grace is human freedom. Put in its starkest terms, the only constraint on God’s grace and mercy is, well, me.

imageSt John Chrysostom makes a similar point, reminding us that “the blessings and gifts of God are irrevocable.” At the same time and because God respects human freedom, my “recalcitrance” can “frustrate even the intention of God.”

God doesn’t change. But from a human point of view, my lack of repentance can “overthrow” the mercy of God (“Homily on St Matthew,” 61.4, ACCS NT, vol Ib, p.88).

Thankfully, not only does He respects human freedom but He conforms the revelation of His love to our ability to receive it.

And all this He does this, as the kontakion suggests, for our benefit.

This means that God in Jesus Christ makes Himself small so that in Christ, we can grow great. How do we grow in greatness? Through our proclamation of the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15).

Preaching the Gospel needn’t mean standing on a street corner telling people about Jesus. It may not mean, in other words, telling people about Jesus. But it does mean working to bring the world around us into an ever greater conformity to the Gospel.

Doing so, however, excludes absolutely any coercion on my part. I can’t manipulate or browbeat others into believing the Gospel.

Much less can I use physical force. I can’t even use social pressure, I can’t shun those who don’t believe.

So how can I peaceably proceed?

We heard last week that in His incarnation the Son “empties Himself.” It is just this self-emptying we see when Jesus reveals His glory to Peter, James, and John. Our Lord doesn’t overwhelm His disciples.

He is able to do, or rather, not do this for two reasons.

First, He knows His disciples, their strengths, and limitations. There is nothing abstract in how Jesus relates to Peter, James, and John.

Second, Jesus is free in Himself. He isn’t moved by concern for His reputation. Much less does He suffer from those internal compulsions that are common to us as fallen men and women.

Of the two qualities, it is the second of these–Jesus’ freedom–that is decisive. Not only is His humanity is wholly united to His divinity but the former is the vehicle (if I may speak so) for the latter.

Far from obscuring His divinity, Jesus’ humanity is the means by which His divinity is revealed. If it seems otherwise, it is because of my own sinfulness. To borrow from the troparion for the feast, in my fallen state I can’t bear the glory of His divinity as it shines through His humanity.

And so, I close my eyes to the beauty that is before me.

All this means that to grow great, to become more fully who God has created me to be, something in me needs to change. Paradoxically, I must change to become who I am.

And if I don’t? If I refuse to change? Again paradoxically, by staying the same I increasingly become who I’m not.

The change I need to make is this. I must empty myself of all those things in my life I cling to and depend upon rather than God. This is the meaning of repentance. I lay aside everything in my life that is not God.

If we stop here, the Gospel sounds monstrous. And, let’s admit it, many Christian present the Gospel is just these terms, as wholly negative. They deform the Gospel presenting as they do as a series of renunciations without any commensurate gains.

But this simply isn’t true.

As we lay aside everything in our lives that isn’t God, as we empty ourselves after the example of Jesus, we discover a deeper, more enduring attachment to those things that we a moment ago surrendered.

On the other side of the self-emptying to which Christ calls us, we discover that is He, His love, that unites us to each other and to the whole creation.

Whether person or project, the tie that binds us is not our own affections. What unites us to each other, to the work that fills our days, and to the whole human family is not our own passing thoughts and feelings but God’s grace and love for us.  

Like the Transfiguration, conforming the world to the Gospel is not first and foremost a matter of changing others but changing ourselves.

To borrow from the late Fr Alexander Schmemann, I must learn to see the light of Christ’s love as it shines throughout the whole of creation. It is only illumined by this Light that I am able to bring the world into ever greater conformity to Christ without resorting to the myriad great and small acts of violence that undermines the Gospel we are called to proclaim,

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God in Jesus Christ conceals His glory, He limits Himself so that we can reveal Him as “the Radiance of the Father!”

He makes Himself small so that we can become great.

And proclaiming the Gospel? Conforming the world to Christ? These are one and the same. Two ways of saying the same thing we hear today in the Gospel.

“Lord! It is good for us to be here!”

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Rights & Forgiveness

Sunday, August 12 (O.S., July 30), 2018: 11th Sunday after Pentecost. Apostles Silas and Silvanus of the Seventy and those with them: Crescens, Epenetus, and Andronicus (1stc.). Hieromartyr Polychronius, bishop of Babylon (251), and Martyrs Parmenius, Helimenas (Elimas), and Chrysotelus presbyters, Luke and Mocius deacons, and Abdon, Sennen, Maximus, and Olympius. Hieromartyr Valentine, bishop of Interamna (Terni) in Italy (273). Martyr John the Soldier at Constantinople (4th c.).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12
Gospel: Matthew. 18:23-35

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

unforgiving20servant2

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Over the years I have heard more than one Orthodox Christian tell me that “human rights” is foreign to Holy Tradition. Discussions of rights, so the argument goes, is a “Western” innovation. At best it is an import, at worse a heresy that undermines the Gospel.

“Christians,” as one bishop told me, “don’t have rights. We have responsibilities!”

Evidently, St Paul didn’t get the memo. In today’s epistle, the Apostle explicitly appeals to his rights as an apostle. And these rights aren’t unique to Paul. All the apostles have the right “to take along a believing wife” and “to refrain from working” so that they can devote themselves to the preaching of the Gospel. He concludes by asking the Corinthians: “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?”

That Paul and Barnabas give up these rights doesn’t mean these rights don’t exist. If anything, it serves to highlight their importance and acceptance in the life of the early Church.

We need to distinguish between what Paul is talking about and the various contemporary theories of human rights. The latter, it must be said, sometimes is used merely as a justification for sinful behavior.

But the Scriptures establish an objective standard of justice in our relationships with each other. Far from abolishing or dismissing the demands of justice, the Gospel fulfills them. “Do not think,” Jesus tells His disciples, “that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17; see also Romans 3:31).

Like Paul and Barnabas, we are free to lay aside our rights. But if we do so, we must do it freely and for the right reason.

The Apostle is instructive here.

Following his example, no one can demand from us that we lay aside or surrender that which is ours by right. And when we do lay them aside, we do so not to be “nice” but for the salvation of others.

Put another way, no one can coerce you into giving up your rights. Nor should they penalize or punishment you for demanding that which is yours by right.

Not only must we rule out any external coercion, we need to be on guard against any internal compulsion. The demands of just not only places limits on our relationship with each other, it also sets out the moral limits of my relationship with myself.

If I lay aside my rights, I must do so not only free from external coercion and internal compulsion but only in the service of the salvation of others. I must not lightly give up my rights. This point is frequently misunderstood–or worse, dismissed–by many of us.

Jesus tells us that “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). Morally, no one can compel us to do what we can only do freely.

How, though, do we reconcile this with today’s Gospel? Doesn’t Jesus tell me that I can’t inherit the Kingdom of God unless from my heart I forgive those who have harmed me?

To understand what Jesus is telling us we need to remember that forgiveness frees us from the resentment that often accompanies the injustice committed against us. It is only through forgiveness that we find the moral freedom that we see in St Paul.

Compare Paul to the wicked servant. Even though he has benefited from the generous mercy of his master, the servant is unwilling to extend even a small measure of forgiveness to his fellow servant.

St John Chrysostom points out that while “the blessings and gifts of God are irrevocable” by my “recalcitrance” I can “frustrate even the intention of God.” But it isn’t God Who changes. My desire for vengeance only “appears to overthrow” the mercy of God.

The great tragedy is that through his lack of forgiveness the wicked servant inflicts a greater evil on himself than he does on his fellow servant. He loses or rather rejects, the friendship of his master. In doing this, this he loses as well as the respect and affection of his fellow servants.

Like the wicked servant, there are those who think human rights “ free” them from the Gospel.

Like the wicked servant, their adherence to the demand of justice and their own rights is really a conceit; a way of avoiding the demands of the Gospel.

Like the wicked servant, I all too easily cling to my rights not from a sense of my own dignity or the demands of justice but because of the hardness of my own heart.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Like the wicked servant, it is my own inhumanity to others, my own lack of mercy, my own lack of a gentle spirit and a forgiving heart that separates me from God and so my neighbor. The tortures the parable promise are really self-inflicted.

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

Working Together

July 29 (O.S., July 16) 2018: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Councils. Hieromartyr Athenogenes, bishop of Heracleopolis, and his ten disciples (311). Martyrs Paul and two sisters, Chionia and Alevtina, (308). Martyr Antiochus, physician (4th c.). Virgin-martyr Julia (440).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 3:9-17/Hebrews 13:7-16
Gospel: Matthew 14: 22 – 34/John 17:1-13

Ss Cyril & Methodius Mission, Madison WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Because we are co-workers with Christ, we are also co-workers in Christ with each other.

Just as the gifts (charismata) we receive in Holy Baptism are the concrete ways in which we are connected to God and come to share in His life, so too with our working together. Our communion with Christ is embodied and lived out on our willingness to share a common life and work.

Or, as an ancient Christian maxim has it: unus Christianus, nullus Christianus. One Christian is no Christian.

The importance of our co-laboring with each other in Christian is why for the fathers of the Church, schism–division in the Church–is as bad and even worse than heresy. While heretics “violate the faith by thinking falsely about God,” St Augustine says, that “schismatics break away from fraternal love by their wicked separations although they believe as we do.” (De fide et symbolo, 21).

To refuse to work together with the whole Church is to pursue my own salvation while neglecting your salvation.

Co-working with Christ means, as we’ve already discussed, that I commit myself willingly to helping you pursue faithfully and generously your own vocation. This isn’t my obligation because I am a priest but because I am a Christian. Ordination–like all vocations–builds on and confirms the dignity we receive in Baptism.

Does this mean that the clergy have no unique or particular obligations? God forbid we should think this!

Today we celebrate the fathers of the first six ecumenical councils. Briefly, these councils were called to heal divisions in the Church. The councils, in other words, we called to defend not just the common faith of the Church but also the bonds of charity of our co-working in Christ with each other.

From this, we get a sense of the obligation of the clergy in the Church. The clergy’s task is to defend and strengthen the bonds of charity that unite us to Christ and each other. There is nothing sentimental about the love that binds us to each other. Christian charity is concrete. It is the practical and tangible manifestation of divine grace in our life together.

This means that my job as the priest is to help you discern and live your personal vocations. This must be done in harmony with the Tradition of the Church. But a purely formal adherence to the moral or dogmatic Tradition of the Church is not sufficient for salvation any more than not committing adultery makes for a happy marriage.

Helping you live your vocation means helping you help others live their own. The clergy, in other words, are set aside in the life of the Church to help us learn to work together, to be co-workers with Christ and each other.

There shouldn’t be anything that resembles coercion in our co-working. What we do together we must do freely, that is personally. This means that we must shun any hint of emotional or social–much less, physical–violence in our life together.

As a practical matter, this means that there will be times when not much will get done because we lack agreement among ourselves. But these disagreements are different or at least should be different, then what we see in the world.

Our disagreements are not a matter of who is “right” and who is “wrong,” who is the “good” Christian and who the “bad” Christian. Statements like this are more often than not, subtle (or not so subtle) ways of refusing to work together.

No for us, our disagreements are the opening moment of discerning God’s will for us. The question is not who is right and who is wrong, who is moral and who immoral, but what does God want from us here and now in the concrete circumstances of our life together?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are called by Jesus not only to be co-workers with Him but with each other. This is why we can gather together this morning to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and receive the Precious Body and Blood of Christ.

And it is our working together with each other in Christ, that is at the heart of what it means to be saved.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Working Together

July 22 (O.S., July 9) 2018: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. Hieromartyr Pancratius, Bishop of Taormina in Sicily (1st c.). Hieromartyr Cyril, bishop of Gortyna (250-252). Martyrs Patermuthius, Coprius, and Alexander (361). St. Theodore, bishop of Edessa (848).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Gospel: Matthew 14:14-22

\

St Paul demands from us a humanly impossible standard.

We are, he says, to “all speak the same thing,” that “there be no divisions among” us, and that we “be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

Reading on in the epistle, it is clear that the Church in Corinth fell shorts of this. The Church was so corrupted by dissension that their witness was to a “Christ divided” and a “Paul crucified”!

So deep–and presumably bitter–were the divisions that Paul actually thanks God for not baptizing people.

As he often does, Paul holds himself up as an example of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.”

While we should always be cautious in reducing conflict to a single cause, in referring to his own ministry St Paul gives us at least one, possible, explanation for the difficulties plaguing the Church in Corinth. Paul is faithful to the task to which God has called him. He isn’t called to baptize but to preach the Gospel. Not only is he called to preach, he is called to preach in a particular way.

St Paul doesn’t preach the “profane and idle babblings and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge” by those who “strayed concerning the faith” (1 Timothy 6:20, 21, NKJV). No Paul preaches nothing “except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  The Gospel he preaches is “a stumbling block” to the Jews and “foolishness” the Greeks foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:23). But, as he reminds us this morning, “to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

St Paul is not counseling folly for folly’s sake. He isn’t anti-intellectual. He is, however, aware of the limits of human reason especially in response to God’s grace. “If human wisdom is at war with the Cross and fights against the Gospel,” St John Chrysostom says, “it is not right to boast about it. Rather, we should recoil in shame” (“Homilies of the Epistles of St Paul to the Corinthians,” 3.7 in ACCS, NT vol VIII, 1-2 Corinthians, p. 12).

The war between human reason and grace consists of my tendency to prefer my own thoughts and desires to the will of God. “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” Chrysostom says, “because it makes those who have it unwilling to learn more” (“Homilies of the Epistles,” 5.2, p. 17). It is my pride, not science or philosophy, that causes me to wage war against God. It isn’t what I know that causes me to turn from God but my misuses of what I have learned.

And having abandoned the God Who created me in His image for a god I create in my own, it follows naturally that I seek to refashion my neighbor in my own image and after my own likeness. It is this tendency to put God and my neighbor in a box that is the causes division in not only the Church but also the family and the nation.

Paul’s counsel to us is not that we abandon reason but pride. He isn’t telling us to be illiterate but humble. It is this reasonable humility that is absent among the Corinthians. They choose sides, one for Apollos, one for Cephas, another for Christ. While they are divided in the names to which they rally, they are united in their disregard for each other. Each one agrees on nothing except that his neighbor is his enemy.

Compare this to Jesus in the Gospel.

There is nothing forced or self-seeking in our Lord’s actions. Moved by his great love for each of us, He heals the sick.

And when it is time for the hungry to eat, Jesus doesn’t glorify Himself. Rather he invites the disciples to share in the miracle He is to perform. As God, He has no need for the disciples’ assistance. But He wants to show a “more excellent way” (see, 1 Corinthians 12:31). He wants to reveal to the disciples–and so to each of us–that we are His co-workers (see, 1 Corinthians 3:9).

This is what the Corinthians don’t know about themselves. That each one of them is a co-worker with Christ and so with each other.

This co-laboring, this working together, is not simply a practical standard. It is the defining quality of the Church because it is the central quality of God. Just as the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity work together, we who are in Christ must work together.

This doesn’t mean trying to fit each other into little boxes. Working together doesn’t mean I tell you what to do or you tell me what today. Rather, we are to help each other pursue the work God has called each of us to accomplish in this life.

When this happens, when each of us pursues our personal vocation and supports each other in doing so, there is abundance. And when we don’t? There is division.

God calls us to be His co-workers. He does this in the gifts He pours out on us in Holy Baptism.

But these gifts, given to us for God’s glory and our own salvation, also bind us to each other. This means that I can’t pursue my vocation without supporting you in yours. And this is true not simply for me but for you and for each of us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Unity in the Church is found in the gifts God has given each of us personally in Holy Baptism. These gifts bind us to Him and to each other in love. So let us exercise our gifts and, in so doing, love God and one each other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory