Grace is not an Abstraction

Sunday, July 8 (O.S., June 25), 2018: 6th Sunday after Pentecost; Virgin-martyr Febronia of Nisibis (304).

Epistle: Romans 12:6-14
Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8

Glory to Jesus Christ!

God’s grace in our lives is not abstract. This is what St Paul tells us today and we neglect his teaching to our determinant.

The gifts given to each of us at baptism aren’t simply practical ways to preach the Gospel and bring others to Christ. To be sure, they are these but they are more than this.

Our gifts are the concrete manifestation of God’s grace, of His love and divine life in our lives. This means that our gifts are how we are connected to God and so, as St Paul makes clear, to each other.

When we are ignorant of our gifts or neglect their exercise, conflict and discord arise. This is true in the family, the parish and even the Church. Again, the spiritual gifts that St Paul speaks about are nothing less than the manifestation of divine life in our lives and the concrete bonds of charity that unite us one to another in Christ.

Apart from God’s gifts, I’m not morally or spiritually different than the paralytic was bodily. Like the paralytic’s desire to walk, apart from the gifts received at baptism a life of Christian faith, hope and love remain just beyond my grasp. Faith is mere conformity, hope just optimism and love? Love becomes mere sentimentality.

This situation is made all the worse when, on the social level, we actively stifle the discovery and expression of the gifts received.

One way we do this is that we deny the possibility that God pours out His grace in the form of concrete gifts. Do this and it is only a short hop to denying that each Christian has a personal and unique vocation.

Our vocation is not a predetermined “slot” or “job” or even “office” in the Church. Rather it emerges slowly as we exercise the gifts given in baptism. There are few things more deadly to appreciating the baptismal vocation of each and every baptised Christian than the simplistic confusion of a person’s calling with discrete tasks.

Much of the confusion we see in the Church, to say nothing of our inability to retain young people, is the result of neglecting the intimate connection between baptism, the spiritual gifts, and personal vocation. When these connections are not made, or worse denied, being Christian becomes nothing more than being “a good person.” Or worse, “being nice”!

This moralizing view of the Christian life attracts no one. It is especially uninspiring to the young. If this is all it means to be Christian, why be Christian at all? After all, society is filled with morally good people who are often more “Christian” than Christians.

Ignoring or denying the personal vocation of each Christian has another negative consequence. It is the beginning of a demographic death spiral. It contributes to a situation in which the most thoughtful and idealistic believers–often the young and converts–walk away.

They walk away not from Christ and His Church but from the frankly superficial idol that we offer them instead. Bad as this is for the individual, it is worse for the Church.

As those who are seeking something deeper leave, the spiritual vitality of the parish, the diocese and eventually the Church suffers. We become complacent. At first, we are satisfied with a pat answer. We don’t concern ourselves with a vibrant life of faith, hope and love. In time though we lose our taste for a Christian way of life that is deeper, wider, more comprehensive and that can transform not only our lives but the lives of those around us.

Over time, we lose as well the sense of sin and so the magnificent liberating effect of the forgiveness Jesus extended to the paralytic and wishes to give to us as well. The Christian life becomes flat, uninspiring and, frankly, dull and unattractive. What beauty do we have to offer, after all, but the beauty of a repentant soul made whole by forgiveness?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! This doesn’t have to our lot! On that first Pentecost, the Resurrection of Christ was preached by those who only recently cowered in fear. Those who, only days before, abandoned and denied Jesus, became His apostles and evangelists.

Those who the world persecuted and despised would shortly turn the “whole world upside down” (Acts 17:6). How did this happen?

The world was turned upside down because the disciples took seriously what St Paul tells us today. The disciples knew that they were richly blessed by God with gifts given to them for their salvation, the salvation of the world and the Glory of God!

Secure in this knowledge they transformed the world through the preaching of the Gospel, making of disciples of the nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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

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 usual 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

In Each Moment, Trust in God

Sunday, June 17 (O.S., June 4) 2018: Third Sunday after Pentecost; Synaxis of Halych Saints; Synaxis of Odessa Saints; Saint Metrophanes, First Patriarch of Constantinople (325).

Epistle: Romans 5:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 6:22-33

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Thinking is so much easier than praying.

It’s easier to have good thoughts about God or my neighbor than it is to stand before God in prayer. It is likewise easier to make plans for God than it is to give myself over to God. Hardest of all though, is to learn to trust God not just in the big things–which after all, come only now and then–but in the myriad little things that make up my daily life.

And yet, that daily, hour by hour, minute by minute, trust in God is precisely what Jesus asks from us. He asks us to have the same trust in Him that He has in the Father. And this is hard.

Most Orthodox Christians in America, thank God, don’t worry about food or drink or clothing. This doesn’t mean we don’t have our own worries. Neither wealth nor poverty frees us from concerns that distract us from the Kingdom of God. Whether rich or poor, hungry or full, naked or clothed, we are all subject to worries that cause us to make small compromises.

For most of us here this morning, these compromises in and of themselves, are rarely significant. Most are minor, petty even. But in the aggregate, they tend to blind me to the presence of God in my life.

And yet in each moment, God offers Himself to me and to each of us. At times, He offers Himself to us in the good things He bestows. But there are other times when He offers Himself to us through the good things He withholds or even takes away.

Whether God offers Himself to us in what He gives or what He takes, in each moment God nevertheless offers us Himself. It is up to each of us–you and me–to accept God’s offering of Himself to us. We do this by offering ourselves back to Him. I must entrust the whole of my life to God.

This is what it means, turning briefly to the epistle, to live by faith. It isn’t a matter of denying the bad things that happen to us. We are simply lying to ourselves when we pretend that everything is really alright when it really isn’t.

To live by faith means to be willing to receive the God Who offers Himself to us by entrusting our lives to Him in each moment of our life. To live by faith means to respond to God’s sacrifice in Jesus Christ by freely offering my life back to God in every moment of my day.

Like I said, praying is harder than thinking. But trusting, trusting is harder than prayer. It requires from us real effort. It is tempting when I don’t get what I want, or when I lose what I have, to turn bitter against God. It’s tempting when life is disappointing, to lay the blame on God and to turn my back on Him.

Thinking of my own life, and especially of the things I hope to get but never did, I can’t help but wonder. What did I want then that matters more than who I have in my life today? What sacrifice did God ask of me yesterday, that was so great, so onerous, that I would prefer that you not be in my life today?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! St Paul tells us to “rejoice in suffering.” He says this not because suffering is good–it isn’t–but because our sacrifices make clear to us the true worth of what God gives us in every moment of every day. Himself.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Grace is Promiscuous

Sunday, June 10 (O.S., May 28), 2018: 2nd Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints of Ukraine and North America.All Saints of the Holy Mount; Ven. Nicetas, bishop of Chalcedon (9th c.). St. Eutychius, bishop of Melitene (1st c.). Martyrs Heliconis (244). Hieromartyr Helladius, bishop in the East (6th-7th c.). St. Ignatius, bishop of Rostov (1288).

Epistle: Romans 2:10-16/Hebrews 11:33-12:2
Gospel: Matthew 4:18-23/Matthew 4:25-5:12

imageRead St Paul quickly and you’ll miss what he’s saying.

Yes, we all have sinned; on this, there can be no debate. Based on the evidence of my own life, it is simply a lie for me to suggest otherwise.

I know that I have sinned and that I have fallen short of the glory of God. The Apostle, however, introduces a distinction here that (like I said), I might overlook if I just read him quickly.

Yes, we all have sinned but this isn’t primarily why we fall short of the glory of God.

We fall short because we are creatures. Sin complicates this, it makes rigid an observation that should inspire us to humility in the presence of God, gratitude for His grace, and a desire to give ourselves over in love ever more fully to Him.

Instead what we do, what I do, is look for reasons to condemn my neighbor for his shortcomings while being willing to excuse my own. Basically, “you” fall short of the glory of God because of sin; “I” fall short of the glory of God for perfectly understandable–and so excusable–reasons.

Paul anticipates my self-justification. After pointing out that all have sinned and that all have fallen short of the glory of God, he reminds us of something else we too easily forget or overlook. God has inscribed His law in each human heart.

If sin is ubiquitous, divine grace is promiscuous.

There is no human heart that has not been touched by God’s grace. And as firmly as we are in the grip of sin, we are held more firmly–and more gently–by divine grace. Sin has neither the first word nor the last word in our lives.

Though sin would have us believe otherwise, our lives are acts of divine grace. No matter how terrible the sin, no matter how hard the heart, no matter how unrepentant the sinner, God is there wooing us, inviting us back to our one true homeland.

Sin cannot undo the fact that we belong to God and our sustained by His grace.

Today the Church celebrates an interesting feast. Last week, we celebrated all the saints of the Church–known and especially unknown. Today, we celebrate all the saints–again known and unknown–of a particular place. While the feast is the same throughout the Church, the locality changes.

Like politics, holiness is local. And so today Orthodox Churches throughout the world celebrates the saints of their nation, the saints of their place. Today we profess and proclaim in our liturgical life that God’s grace has touched the hearts of those who have gone before us in this place wherever this place might be.

So what does this mean for us?

It means this: Today we thank God not simply for the saints of North America, or the United States. No today, we thank God for the saints known and unknown, of Wisconsin, Madison, and even the Isthmus.

The challenge this places before us is this: How has God’s grace touched this place–Madison–and these people who live here?

This isn’t an idle question. Much less is it mere sentimentality, of telling ourselves “Let’s all feel good about where we live.” We are not asking the question because we the spiritual equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce or the tourist board.

Rather we ask the question because Jesus has commanded us to imitate Him. Just as He called Peter and Andrew, James and John, and made them “fishers of men” He has also called us to be His disciples, apostles, and evangelists.

And He has called us to do this here. Not in North America, or the United States or Wisconsin, or even Madison but here, on the Isthmus.

This means, to return to St Paul, that Jesus has gone before us and by His grace and love for mankind prepared the hearts of each person we meet here. Again, if sin is ubiquitous, divine grace is promiscuous; God has poured out without measure or consideration His grace into the life of each and every single person.

Our task? Our task is to discern what God has done. And so we ask:

How has God prepared the people of this place to receive the Gospel that they might be saved?

How has God prepared the people of this place to participate in the sanctification of the world?

How has God prepared the people of this place to join us in conforming society evermore closely to the Gospel?

How has God prepared the people of this place to become part of that great cloud of witnesses?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! At the Divine Liturgy we sing the Beatitudes. These outline for us how we are to go about fulfilling the task we’ve been given. We will at another time look at these in more detail.

For now though, let us draw encouragement and comfort from our Lord’s promise that if we are faithful to Him, He will bless and sustain us even when the world turns against us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory