Spiritual Gifts and Christian Unity

Sunday, August 11 (OS July 29), 2019: 8th Sunday after Pentecost; Martyr Callinicus of Gangra in Asia Minor (250); Virgin-martyr Seraphima (Serapia) of Antioch (2nd c.); Martyr Theodota and her three sons, in Bithynia (304); Martyr Michael (9th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 11:31-12:6
Gospel: Matthew 14:14-22

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul’s words in today’s epistle always stop me cold. “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius.”

Think about that for a moment. The Apostle to the Gentile says he thanks God that his preaching of the Gospel didn’t lead to more people from death to life. He thanks God that by his hands, not more unbelievers were joined to the Body of Christ. He thanks God that those outside the Kingdom did not enter into the KIngdom through his ministry.

None of this is to suggest that Paul didn’t want these things to happen; he did. But looking at the situation on Corinth he realizes that something is terribly wrong there.

It isn’t just that the Church at Corinth has fallen back into the same divisions that afflict the world; they have embraced them. Worse, where worldly dissension is rooted in differences in ethnicity, language, religion, social class, or sex, the Corinthians’ separation from each other is justified by an appeal to apostolic authority.

So badly divided are the Corinthians that the things of God are now the cause of schism.

To be sure, all this is not the fault of the apostolic witness or the sacraments. It is rather the fault of hearts grown cold where once they were on fire for Christ and the Gospel.

And, lest we think ourselves better, the divisions of Corinth are still with us today. It isn’t just that we see Christians divided into Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical Christians. Bad as this worse still are the divisions we see among Orthodox Christians not just worldwide but in America.

And not just in American but even here in Madison, the temptation to sectarian divisions even if not formally proclaimed is here to be seen.

While we must not minimize the importance of “the faith delivered once and for all to the saints,” too often creedal fidelity is a mere pretext, a self-serving justification for Christians to remain divided from each other.

At its base, what we have forgotten is that not only does baptism unite us to Christ but, in Christ, to each other.

And this unity is not an abstraction; our unity is not merely formal or theoretical. In our baptism, we have each of us received spiritual gifts (charismata). These gifts are concrete–God calling “some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers”–and the means by which the Christian is lived out corporately and personally..

The gifts God gives, He gives “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13, NKJV).

All of these gifts, God gives us not simply to proclaim the Gospel and to build the Church but as the concrete means by which we are united to Him and, in Him, to each other.

We are divided into Orthodox and Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical because we have lost sight of the meaning of the gifts we have received in baptism. Having lost the living sense of our gifts–and in most cases, even that there are gifts given–our lives in Christ have become consumed by abstract concerns about doctrine or morality, about liturgy or church growth, personal virtue or social witness.

But the gifts you received in baptism are the ways in which God has joined you to Himself. The gifts you have been given layout for you the path God has called you to walk as His disciple and witness.

Maybe He has called you to be an evangelist. Maybe He has called you to be an icon of hospitality for strangers or of mercy for the wounded. He may have set you aside to interceded in prayer or to oversee the material left of the Church in philanthropy or administration.

Whatever the gifts you have been given, their practice is how God has called you to serve Him in this life as His disciple and witness.

And, to return to the problem of the divisions among Christians, this can only be overcome through a life of generous fidelity to our personal vocations.

Until I am personal faithful, I will not understand that far from being a zero-sum game your vocation doesn’t that harm me but adds to me. To see this we need only call to mind the multiplication of bread and fish in today’s Gospel.

This is what grace does, it creates abundance where once there was poverty.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we suffer division not primarily because of theological differences–though these exist and matter–but because we have lost the living sense of what it means to be united to Christ–and so each other–through the unique gifts God gives to each of us in holy baptism.

We find our unity not primarily in what is external but in the grace of God in our hearts and in the myriad gifts, He has given to each of us.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Gift that Makes All Gifts Possible

Sunday, August 4 (O.S., July 22), 2019: Seventh Sunday of Pascha; Holy Myrrh-bearer and Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene (I); Translation of the relics (404) of Hieromartyr Phocas, bp. of Sinope (117); Virgin-martyr Marcella of Chios (c. 1500); Ven. Cornelius of Pereyaslav (1693).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 15:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 9:27-35

Glory to Jesus Christ!

During the lifetime of Jesus, the Law contained almost twice as many discrete commands as there were days in the year. This means that for the Pharisees in today’s Gospel there were some 600 laws that had to be kept.

In addition to the number of requirements, the actual implementation depended on a complex moral calculus that sought to determine the relative moral importance of the different commandments based on the circumstances.

The laudable goal of all this was to secure the person’s relationship with God; the practical effect was to corrupt charity. However well-intentioned, the one thing we thing God wants for and from us –love–was lost.

It is easy, too easy to tell the truth, to look back at the Pharisees and fail to see ourselves, to see myself, in them. While the particulars are different in every age and in the life of every person, in our fallen state, human beings are always tempted to forgo charity for some kind of transactional calculus.

We all of us have a list of things we think we must do and avoid to earn and keep the love of God. And to this list for ourselves, we add a list for others.

While I might sincerely think my list for you comes God, the speed with which I am disappointed in you or get angry at you for not keeping it argues otherwise. While I appeal to God for the list’s authority, the reality is it reflects my own ideas of how you ought to live.

None of this is to say that we can’t know the will of God–we can–or that God doesn’t require things from us–He does. It is rather to say that I all too easily confuse my will, my desires, for His.

And all this I do because I don’t know, don’t really believe, that God’s love for me can’t be lost because it isn’t earned. God’s love is a free gift.

The irony here is all the things I do for God, I can only do because God loves before I do them. All the good things a person does, are possible because of God’s prior love.

And this is true not only for the good a person does but even for the sins committed. All that we do, for good or ill, in obedience or rebellion, we do because God first loved us.

The absence of charity we see around us and in our own hearts is what lead the Pharisees to accuse Jesus of casting out demons with the aid of the demons themselves. The lack of charity we see in human affairs is the poisoned fruit of a heart that doesn’t know it is loved by God. I become short-tempered and disappointed with others, I withhold my love or respond with condemnation, not because of what they’ve done but I think God only loves me when I meet His expectations for me.

This not only corrupts my relationship with God and neighbor, it paralyzes me. It makes me incapable of accepting with thanksgiving the good things in my life or of correcting the things that are sinful. Seeing myself as unloved or only conditionally loved by God moves me to a crippling frenzy as I try and earn what can’t be earned God’s love. Why can’t it be earned? Because it has already been freely given.

St Paul was keenly aware of all of this. He knew what it was to try and earn the love of God. He also knoew to his grief how trying to do so, so corrupts charity that murder seems God-pleasing.

And so he tells us “bear with the failings of the weak.”

We are not to call evil, good. Rather we are to remember that the weakness we see in others afflicts us as well,

Everyone we meet has a secret list of things they think they must do and avoid if they are to be worthy of love. Whether Christian or not, whether male or female, young or old, rich or poor, everyone strives futilely to earn the love God has already given and which can never be lost because “God is faithful” (1 Corinthians 1:9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! This is the evangelical vocation of the Church. We are each of us called to tell people that they are loved by God.

This doesn’t mean we remain silent in the face of sin and moral evil; we must not fail to speak out against that which is wrong. But sin against which we speak and which we must always condemn is sin precisely because it hardens the human heart against the love of God.

And it is this love that is Gift that makes all gifts possible.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Remember

Sunday, July 28 (OS July 14), 2019: 6th Sunday after Pentecost; Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Six Councils; Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Great Prince Volodymyr, enlightener of the Kyiv Rus (1015); Martyrs Cyricus and his mother Julitta (305); Martyr Abudimus (4th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrew 13:7-16/ Galatians 1:1-11
Gospel: Jn. 17:1-13/ Jn. 10:1-9

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We cannot hear enough what we heard this morning; “remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct.”

On one level St Paul is telling us to reflect not simply on his teaching but his life and the lives of all the apostles. If the teaching of the apostles–contained above all in the Scriptures–is the touchstone of the Christian faith, it is the integrity of the apostles’ lives that demonstrates the truth of the Gospel.

The first thing I learn from the saints is that to grow in Christ, I must return again and again to the text of Sacred Scripture. To borrow from St Jerome, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”

We fulfill St Paul command to “remember,” through our faithful, daily, reading of Scripture. But while we begin and end in the Scriptures, we don’t limit ourselves to the text; to so limit ourselves is to betray the Scriptures themselves.

For the Scriptures, creation itself is a type of revelation. Since “the creation of the world, Paul says, God’s “invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20, NKJV). This is why St Paul chastizes the Gentiles for their lack of faith. Even though they didn’t have access to Scripture, they could have known God through reason. God is there to be seen in Creation.

King Solomon tells us God has “arranged all things by measure and number and weight” (Wisdom 11:20, NRSV). Reflecting on the empirical character of creation, St Augustine confesses he doesn’t know “why mice and frogs were created.” Nevertheless, he does know “that all things are beautiful in their kind, even if, because of our sins, they seem otherwise to us.”

He then goes on to say

When you see in all these beings their measure, their proportion and their order, look for the Creator in them, since you will find none other than the One in whom is supreme measure, supreme proportion and supreme order, that is, God, … In this way, in the smallness of an ant you may find more reason to praise God than in crossing a river astride a tall beast of burden (On Genesis: Against the Manichaens, 1.16.26).

Scripture reminds us that God draws us to Himself not only on words printed on a page but through the diversity and beauty of the material world. And to the fount of faith, we must add Creation itself. And not only as a whole but in all its pieces.

We must not, however, confuse how we come to know God with Who teach us about Him. In both Scripture and Creation, we are instructed, as Paul says of himself, not by “man” but by Jesus Christ through the power and operation of the Holy Spirit.

It is Christ Who speaks in Scripture, the holiness of the saints and Creation. Though different in form, they are in harmony with each other. This is because the have the same Source.

And because they also share One Source there is a harmony, a synergy between what revelation reveals and what reason grasps.

This harmony is found not in the human mind, it is not something we impose on the world around us. No, the order of the material world, the partnership of reason and revelation, of Scripture and Creation, and the witness of holiness down through the ages is found in God Himself.

What Jesus says about how “the Scriptures are fulfilled” by His death and resurrection apply as well to Creation. For St Ireneaus, far from being motivated by the Fall, the Incarnation of the Son and the subsequent establishment of the Church are the very reasons for Creation.

God creates, the saint says, so that His Son can be Incarnate and the Son becomes man so that humanity can come to share in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) as members of His Body the Church (see Romans 12:5;1 Corinthians 12:12–27; Ephesians 3:6; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 24).

All this means that far from being limited to an artificial sphere of human life called “religion” or “spirituality,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the key to how we understand not only salvation but all of human life and creation itself.

This may seem an extravagant claim. And in a sense it is. Jesus Christ is a challenge to the fantasy that I can live a neatly ordered life merely according to my own desires.

In my confusion, I cling to my own projects as if these were the source of my worth rather than God’s love for me.

And how easily I fall into thinking that my salvation, my happiness, my peace, and joy depend on the success of my plans rather than God’s great love and mercy for me.

In the face of these, to human willfulness and much as our best good intentions, the Scriptures tell us “remember.”

Remember the martyrs and saints, who found glory in their obedience to Christ.

Remember our teachers and friends who introduced us to Christ and the Gospel.

Remember all that God has done for us day in and day out.

Above all, remember God Who has come to dwell in our hearts in baptism and Who makes us His tabernacles through Holy Communion.

Remember all these things. Remember Jesus.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Listen to Jesus

Saturday, July 20, 2019: Thomas the Righteous of Malea; Kyriake the Great Martyr; Akakios of Sinai; Willibald, Bishop of Eichstatt.

The Wedding of Eric Bowser and Savannah Albrecht
Assumption Greek Orthodox Church, Madison WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:20‑33
Gospel: John 2:1-11

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Eric and Savannah,

The prayers of the Church are clear. Marriage plays an essential role in the great sweep of salvation history. As part of the work of redemption, in every generation, God has called men and women to marry. Today, you join that great assembly of married couples like Abraham and Sarah, like Isaac and Rebecca, like Joachim and Anna, like Joseph and the Virgin Mary, who by their love and fidelity to God and each other prepared the way for the coming of Jesus.

But this isn’t all.

From the first moment of creation, through the trials of Israel, and through the life, death, resurrection of Jesus and down through the generations until today, God has done all these things so that today you could stand here together as husband and wife.

All this, and more, God has done out of His great love for you.

Thinking about all this can be overwhelming. This why some couples simply drift through marriage. To avoid this, how then should you live what St Paul calls this “great mystery” of marriage?

For this, as in all things, we need to look to the first and greatest disciple of Jesus, His Mother the Most Blessed and Ever-Virgin Mary.

St John tells us that when they ran out of wine at the Wedding in Cana, Mary intercedes with her Son. She does this not for the pleasure of the guests but for the sake of the wedding couple. She speaks to her Son to spare them the embarrassment of being thought to be inconsiderate hosts.

While Jesus’ response might seem harsh–“O woman, what have you to do with me?”–in saying this He reveals the depth of His Mother’s faith and her commitment to care for not just one couple but all married couples.

Mary doesn’t argue with her Son. She certainly doesn’t contradict Him or chastise Him. Instead, she does what mothers do. Mary does what is necessary.

She tells the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” She tells the servants–and so each of us–to listen to Jesus.

As you start your life together as husband and wife, listen to Jesus.

When the inevitable disagreements arise, listen to Jesus. Listen because your disagreements aren’t a question who is right–and let me tell you now, you’re both wrong–but an invitation to discern God’s will for you.

When trials come, listen to Jesus.

When successes come, listen to Jesus.

When your children are born and you struggle to raise them in the Lord, listen to Jesus.

Throughout all your life together, listen to Jesus. Pray both in private and as a couple opening your hearts so that you can hear the voice of Jesus.

Above all, listen to Jesus because, as much as you love each other, He loves you more. No one loves you more than Jesus.

The love your friends have for you, the love your parents have for you, and the love you have for each other, all of this love is His gift to you. Our love for you, as sincere, deep and unwavering as it is, is only a reflection of Jesus’ love for you.

So listen to Jesus.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

It’s About God’s Love

Sunday, July 21 (O.S., July 8), 2019: 5th Sunday after Pentecost; Great Martyr Procopius of Caesarea in Palestine.

Epistle: Romans 10:1-10

Gospel: Matthew 8:28-9:1

One of the greatest temptations we face is forgetting that we are human. Or, maybe more accurately, I am tempted to forget that my neighbor is human. This most frequently takes the form of imagining that I am somehow exempt from the faults I see in others. At a minimum, the sins and failures I see in others are a possibility for me as well.

The fact though that I recognize them in others strongly suggests that these are rather more than a possibility for me. If I recognize them in you, it is because they are my shortcomings as well.

Accepting this about myself, helps me understand St Paul’s words in today’s epistle.

The Apostle’s “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel,” he writes “is that they may be saved.” There is an obstacle to the salvation of his kin. Though “they have a zeal for God” it is “not according to knowledge.”

St Augustine says they live by “self-confidence” rather than “grace.” As he goes on to say that

…they were ignorant of the righteousness of God, not that righteousness whereby God is righteous but the one which comes to man from God (Grace and Free Will, 12.24).

Like Israel, I am enslaved to sin and controlled by my passions not because I am ignorant of God but because of a poverty of self-knowledge. I remain unrepentant not because I don’t know the glory and majesty of God. What I don’t understand is that all I have, all that I do, all that I am is first and foremost God’s gift to me.

This is precisely the situation of the demons in today’s Gospel. They recognize the Jesus is the Christ “and tremble” (see James 2:19) but don’t understand that they live because of His great love for them. This makes the presence of Christ and the announcement of grace for them–as the demons themselves say–a torment.

There is though a difference between the demons and the human heart.

The demons ask to be sent into the swine while the herdsmen ask Jesus to “depart.” The fathers of the Church are divided in how they understand this request from the herdsmen.

While “many believe” they make their request “out of pride,” St Jerome this they do so because

They judge themselves unworthy of the Lord’s presence, just as Peter after the catch of fish fell before the Savior’s knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Commentary on Matthew, 1.8.34)

Jerome seems to me to be correct. For all that it can at times seem otherwise, human beings are not demons. Even at our worst, we are no more than poor imitations.

More importantly, God becomes Man, not an angel; Jesus shares in our nature, not the angels’ and this makes all the difference. While everything that exists, exists by the grace of God it is only human beings who were created to share in the divine nature.

The angels worship God as outside themselves as it were. We, however, worship God Who not only “dwells among us” (See John 1:14; Revelation 21:3) by His incarnation but in us (Ephesians 3:17) by baptism and, above all, the Eucharist.

Just as we say that Christ is “the end of the law” because He is “the cause of it” (St Ireneaus, Against Heresies, 4.12.3), as the Creator, Christ is the fulfillment of each human heart. This means that however tenacious the hold of unbelief on society and the human heart, we should never underestimate the presence and power of Christ in both.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We can never forget that the most basic truth about everyone they meet is that they are loved by God. It is out of this great love that God joins Himself in Christ to the whole human family personally. God dwells with all even if not all dwell with Him.

Our task as Orthodox Christians is to first accept God’s love in Jesus Christ of us and then to help others see that they too are loved by Him. Everything else we do, good as it is in itself, serves these two goals.

It is only the love of Jesus Christ for all that make lasting sense of human life,

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, July 21 (O.S., July 8), 2019: 5th Sunday after Pentecost; Great Martyr Procopius of Caesarea in Palestine.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Church
Madison, WI

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

Glory to Jesus Christ!

One of the great temptations we face is forgetting that we are human. Or, maybe more accurately, I am tempted to forget that my neighbor is human.

This most frequently takes the form of imagining that I am somehow exempt from the faults I see in others. But the fact that I recognize them in others strongly suggests that these are rather more than possible for me. If I recognize them in you, it is because they are my shortcomings as well.

Accepting this about myself, helps me understand St Paul when he says his “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” He recognizes an obstacle to the salvation of his kin because he sees a similar temptation in himself. Just as the former Saul, “they have a zeal for God” but “not according to knowledge.”

St Augustine says zeal without knowledge is symptomatic of living by “self-confidence” rather than “grace.” As he goes on to say that

…they were ignorant of the righteousness of God, not that righteousness whereby God is righteous but the one which comes to man from God (Grace and Free Will, 12.24).

Like Israel, I am enslaved to sin and controlled by my passions not because I am ignorant of God but because of a poverty of self-knowledge. I remain unrepentant not because I don’t know the glory and majesty of God. What I don’t understand is that all I have, all that I do, all that I am is first and foremost God’s gift to me.

This is precisely the situation of the demons in today’s Gospel. They recognize Jesus as the Christ “and tremble” (see James 2:19) but don’t understand, or rather won’t accept, that they live because of His great love for them. This makes the presence of Christ and the announcement of grace–as the demons themselves say–a torment.

There is though a difference between the demons and the human heart. To see this, we need to read a bit more of the Gospel.

The demons ask to be sent into the swine while the herdsmen ask Jesus to “depart.” The fathers of the Church are divided in how they understand this request from the herdsmen.

While “many believe” they make their request “out of pride,” St Jerome this they do so because

They judge themselves unworthy of the Lord’s presence, just as Peter after the catch of fish fell before the Savior’s knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Commentary on Matthew, 1.8.34)

Jerome, I think, is correct. For all that it can at times seem otherwise, human beings are not demons. Even at our worst, we are no more than poor imitations. 

More importantly, God becomes Man, not an angel; Jesus shares in our nature, not the angels’ and this makes all the difference. While everything that exists, exists by the grace of God it is only human beings who were created to share in the divine nature.

The angels worship God as “outside” themselves as it were. We, however, worship God Who not only “dwells among us” (See John 1:14; Revelation 21:3) by His incarnation but in us (Ephesians 3:17) by baptism and, above all, the Eucharist.

Just as we say that Christ is “the end of the law” because He is “the cause of it” (St Ireneaus, Against Heresies, 4.12.3), Christ as the Creator of All is the fulfillment of each human heart. This means that however tenacious the hold of unbelief on society and the human heart, we should never underestimate the presence and power of Christ in both.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The most basic truth about everyone they meet is that they are loved by God. It is out of this great love that God in Christ joins Himself to the whole human family personally. God dwells with all even if not all dwell with Him.

Our task as Orthodox Christians is to first accept God’s love in Jesus Christ of us and then to help others see that they too are loved by Him. Everything else we do, good as it is in itself, serves these two goals.

It is only the love of Jesus Christ for all that make lasting sense of human life,

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory