Be Perfect!

12th Sunday after Pentecost; Martyrs Adrian and Natalia and 33 companions of Nicomedia (4th c.).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Gospel: Matthew 19:16-26

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Especially in the Old Testament, the understanding of wealth and poverty is different than what we hear today both in secular culture and even from Christians. It’s important to keep this in mind to rightly understand the events in today’s Gospel.

While the modern concern, for example, with “income inequality,” is not absent in the Scriptures, the fact that some are rich and others poor is not taken as inherently unjust. Rather a person’s economic condition is seen as reflecting the will of God for that person.

This doesn’t mean–in either case–that my economic condition determines my moral standing in the presence of God. While God makes some rich and others poor, all are bound by the same obligation to keep the commandments as Jesus reminds the rich young man.

Additionally, to say with the Old Testament that wealth is a blessing doesn’t mean that it isn’t without its own moral obligations and dangers. With wealth comes the responsibility to use wealthy wisely.

Those who have more have a heavier obligation to care for others; not one’s own parents and children but the poor as well. As we hear in today’s Gospel, fidelity to these specific obligations–to act justly, to love mercy “and to walk humbly” with God (see Michah 6:8)-is the start of perfection.

Listen again to the conversation between Jesus and the rich young man. In response to the man’s question “what must I do to be saved?” Jesus says simply and directly that he must keep the commandments.

It is only when the young man wishes “to justify himself” that Jesus invites him to live by a higher standard. While his salvation is not in question, he is still lacking. He can be perfect if only he is willing to do what perfection requires.

And what must he do? What does perfection require? The man must sell all that he has, give the profit to the poor and to follow Jesus as His disciple.

In saying this, Jesus is not calling into question the moral goodness of wealth. But what He is doing is highlighting an Old Testament concern about wealth

Too easily, wealthy can be used to buy illusory independence from God and neighbor. “Those who trust in their riches will fall,” we read in Proverbs (11:28, NIV) “but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf.” Likewise, “Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14:31).

The question for my life then becomes this: What is it in my life that keeps me separated from God and neighbor?

For the rich young man in the Gospel, it was his many possessions but what it is for me? The specific command of our Lord to the young man is helpful here.

Jesus doesn’t condemn wealth as such but He does challenge the man to put his wealth at the service of others. “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

And so the question for me becomes, what am I holding on to that can be put at the service of others? What am I holding on to that keeps me from drawing closer to Jesus Christ by keeping me separated from you? What are the areas of my life where I think God is absent and where my will rather than His will is sovereign?

The other thing about wealth is that it is often used to buy the appearance of respectability. Put slightly differently, what in my life do I use to earn the favor of others rather than the favor of God?

Or how do I use you to bolster my own self-image rather put the gifts God has given me at the service of your flourishing and sanctification?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! All of us can be like the rich young man. We can all hold on to things that we use to justify our separation from God, our indifference to those in need and our pursuit of worldly success at the expense of the Kingdom of God.

The solution to this is not to pretend that our wealth isn’t wealth. It is rather to make a conscience and consistent effort to put our wealth–material, intellectual, or social–at the service of the Kingdom of God.

Today, Jesus calls each of us to perfection. He calls each of us to take that which keeps us from Him and put it the service of God and of our neighbor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Be Brave! Be Strong! Be Loving! Be a Saint!

September 1 (OS August 19), 2019: 11th Sunday after Pentecost; Afterfeast of the Dormition of the Theotokos; Commemoration of the Holy Martyr Andrew the General and the 2,593 martyred with Him.

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12

Gospel: Matthew 18:23-35

Glory to Jesus Christ!

For all that he criticizes them, St Paul sees the Church at Corinth as the “seal” of his ministry. For all that they fall short of the Gospel, the Corinthians are the tangible proof that the transformation of Saul of Tartus into the Apostle Paul is real.

And not only this.

The murder of Christians has become the father of the Church at Corinth and it is as a father that Paul reminds them of their obligations. He has the same “the privileges granted to the other apostles.

Like Peter and the rest, Paul and Barnabas are exempt from “manual labor” and instead have the right to earn their livelihood in recompense for his preaching as the Lord appointed” (St Augustine, The Work of Monks, 2).

Immediately after sketching out his rights, Paul says that he and Barnabas “we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ.”

As we’ve seen, central to being a disciple of Christ is the willingness to embrace a life of “voluntary self-restraint” in imitation of the kenosis, the self-emptying, of the Son in His Incarnation for the salvation of the world.

For his part, “Paul does not exercise his rights because they might be an obstacle to the gospel.” In addition, by freely setting aside what is owned him, he is all the freer “to argue that he was not one of the false apostles” (Ambrosiaster, Commentary of Paul’s Epistles).

There is something admirable about not exercising our rights. There is also something admirable about accepting without complaint injustice and even abuse. For these, we have the example not only of Jesus but the Apostles and martyrs whose blood is “the seed of the Church” as Tertullian says (Apologeticus, 50).

And yet, Jesus doesn’t call us to a life of passivity. We are instead called to pick up our cross and follow Him (see Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23).

Nor can we be passive because and fulfill our calling to “preach the Gospel to all creation” and to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things” that Jesus has taught us (Matthew 28:19-20).

While sometimes we must remain silent, there are times when the same voluntary self-restraint, the same self-emptying, that requires me to bear with injustice and suffering, moves me to speak and even speak forcefully. There are times when obedience to Christ requires from me to act and even act forcefully.

To see this we need only look at the parable in today’s Gospel.

The King has compassion for the servant who owes him an unimaginable amount of money. The debt is so large that it couldn’t be paid off in several lifetimes. Nevertheless, rather than assert his right to repayment the King forgives the debt.

But this isn’t the end of the story.

Because the wicked servant fails to forgive a smaller debt from his fellow servant, the king doesn’t just re-instate the debit. He doesn’t even just send the man to prison or sell his family into slavery. No, he turns the unforgiving man over to torture “until he should pay all” he owes.

The king’s reasoning becomes clear in the details of the parable.

The wicked servant doesn’t just ask for the repayment of what he’s owed. He violently attacks his fellow servant; “he laid hands on him and took him by the throat” (Matthew 18:28, KJV)

Moreover, the size of the debt tells us that the wicked servant isn’t an ordinary servant. He is a close and trusted servant of the king. How else could he secure such a large loan?

The conflict between the two servants is not one between equals. The wicked servant is a wealthier and a more prominent member of the king’s household.

Given this, by his lack of forgiveness, the servant reveals himself to be an enemy not only of his fellow servants but of the king as well. He is a violent, unforgiving man who exploits his equals in their need and the trust of the king.

It is for these reasons that his fellow servants complain to the king and that the king responds as he does.

There are times in our Christian lives when, like the servants in the parable, we must speak because our silence will leave someone outside the Kingdom of God. There are times when we must act because failing to act means that someone else will suffer harm by our failure to intervene.

In these cases, my failure to speak or to act makes me culpable for the evil I see. By my omission, I sin and sin grievously.

To be sure, too many Christians use the obligation to speak or act as an excuse for their anger. They are concerned not with mercy or justice but of doing harm under the guise of the Gospel. These individuals have the “form of godliness but denying its power” because they lack charity; they preach but don’t believe, they confess but they don’t repent. And so St Paul tells us “from such people turn away” because they will lead us astray and if possible even corrupt the Church from within (2 Timothy 3:5, NKJV).

Even a cursory examination of Church history will reveal any number of such bad Christians. These are they who, as Apostle Paul says, “preach Christ … from envy and strife, and … from selfish ambition” instead of “from goodwill” and “love” (Philippians 1:15-16, NKJV).

Our faith as Orthodox Christians, our lives as disciples and apostles of Jesus Christ, will sometimes require that we speak even as, other times, we will be called to remain silent. This time we patiently endure, while at another time we act and act boldly.

The difference between the two is simple enough.

While I am free to endure the evil inflicted on me, I am never free to remain quiet and passive when evil inflicted on you! The former requires courage and can even make me a saint; the latter reveals me to be a coward in need of repentance.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Jesus calls us today to be brave! To speak on behalf of those without a voice and to act on those without the ability to resist wickedness.

Be brave, be strong! Love requires both and without love what are we?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Jesus Gave You One Job

Sunday, August 25 (OS 12), 2019: 10th Sunday after Pentecost; Afterfeast of the Transfiguration; Martyrs Anicetus and Photius (Photinus) of Nicomedia (305); Hieromartyr Alexander, bishop of Comana (3rd c.); Martyrs Pamphilus and Capito. 

Ss Cyril &Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 4:9-16
Gospel: Matthew 17:14-23

We need to understand carefully what St Paul does and doesn’t mean when he describes himself as the least among men. We shouldn’t take this to mean that the Apostle felt himself to be useless or having nothing to say. This is not “apostolic” self-loathing or negative self-image.

It rather much like what we say when we realize that someone really and truly loves us. We look at the person and wonder, how can they love us? They know us and yet, they love us. How we wonder is this even possible?.

Looking at Christ, Paul realizes that God’s love for Him is wholly a gift. He speaks about himself the way he does because he is overwhelmed by the magnitude and gracious nature of God’s love for him.

And yet Paul’s humility doesn’t prevent him from preaching the Gospel. It doesn’t keep him from reminding the Corinthians that they too are loved by God.

And neither does it keep him from speaking a hard work of correction when needed.

This leads us to another question. Why odes St Paul call himself a fool and the Corinthians wise? Here the Apostle engages in a bit of irony. 

The Corinthians have misunderstood what it means to be forgiven and to find freedom in Christ. For them, freedom is license. For St Paul freedom is something altogether different.

To be free in Christ means to accept the awesome and humbling invitation to preach the Gospel “in season and out” as he tells St Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2). 

It is his wholehearted commitment to preach the Gospel that makes the Apostle able to bear up under hunger and thirst.

Because he knows he is loved by God he can endure being homeless and naked.

Because he knows he is loved by he can be dishonored, persecuted and defamed but never wavers in his preaching of the Gospel.

At the same time, there is in his heart no hint of the suggestion that he deserves to suffer. Neither is there anything to suggest that his sufferings are anything other than evil. 

But for all that he suffers, Paul remains faithful because, again, he knows God’s love for him.

Though they received the Gospel from St Paul. the Corinthians struggle to accept this same love. Do they know they have been forgiven? Yes, absolutely! Their debt to God is paid in full. But the understanding of forgiveness is shallow, transactional really.

But loved? This is something they can’t wrap their minds around and so can’t seem to accept. And because they are unsure of God’s love for them they remain attached to the standards of this world. 

This is why Paul tells them that he and the other apostles “are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!”

But the Corinthians are not wise and strong and distinguished by God’s accounting but by the world’s.

In the view of the world, my value is determined by what I do, by my position in society, by my wealth and the power I command. Sadly, this rather than God’s love for them is still the standard for many of the Corinthians.

To see the harm done by the world’s standards to our life in Christ, we need only look to today’s Gospel.

The disciples fail to cast out the demon because of the weakness of their faith. They travel with Jesus. They listen to His teachings. They eat with Him. Their every waking moment is an experience of communion with Jesus.

And yet for all this, they don’t understand the gift they’ve been given. 

Like the Gentiles, like the Corinthians, like too many Orthodox Christians today, they still love power. They still think that being a disciple is a matter of authority rather than service. They fail to cast out the demon because they are still seeking the first place in the Kingdom of God (see, Matthew 20:23 and Mark 10:40).

Gently but firmly, Jesus corrects them. He tells them they failed because they lack even faith the size of a mustard seed.

And what is this faith? That the Creator of the universe loves each and everything single human being. There is no one we meet who isn’t loved by God.

The struggle we face is not convincing someone of the truth of our theology–true though it is. Neither is it making clear to others the beauty of our worship, the depth of our spirituality. All these things are easy enough to do relative to the one thing that we must do first.

And what is that thing?

To help people come to know and accept that they are loved by God.

Though they received the Gospel from St Paul, the Corinthians did not believe they were loved.

Though they lived and traveled, eat and prayed and were taught by Jesus, the disciples only slowly came to believe and accept His great love for them.

Before all else, we need to introduce people not just to the God Who loves them but God’s love for them. In this task, we need to be patient with others and with ourselves. 

It just takes time for others to believe they are loved.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We need to be faithful in the work to which we have been called. We need to resist the temptation to substitute theology or history, liturgy or ascetical struggle for a clear and convincing proclamation and demonstration of God’s love.

While God’s love is one and the same for each of us, the form it will take, the words we will use, will be different for each person. For some, love will require a word of consolation; for other, moral challenge. 

And yes, some will come to know God’s love through theology or history. Through liturgy or asceticism.

But whatever the medium, we can’t lose sight of the goal. Helping the person in front of us know God’s love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Co-Workers With Christ & Each Other

Sunday, August 18 (OS, August 5), 2019: 9th Sunday After Pentecost; Forefeast of the Transfiguration of our Lord; Martyr Eusignius of Antioch (362); Hieromartyrs Fabian (250) and Antherus (Antheros) (257), popes of Rome; Martyrs Cantidius, Cantidian and Sibelius (Sobel), of Egypt.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 3:9-17
Gospel: Matthew 14: 22-34

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Though he does not use the word here, St Paul is calling the Corinthians to imitate the kenosis, the self-emptying, of God. Writing to the Church at Philippi the Apostle says that in the Incarnation the Son of God “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8. RSV).

christ walking on waterFrom start to finish, God’s work in Jesus Christ is one, global act of divine “voluntary self-restraint.”

God does this so that there is room for human freedom. God limits Himself so that you and I can “live and move” (see Acts 17:28) and discover who He has called us to be.

God constrains Himself so that we can express ourselves. He limits Himself so that we can flourish. He becomes sin (2 Corinthians 5;21) so that we can share in His divine nature, and so become holy and virtuous, and united to Him and each other in kindness and love (see 2 Peter 1:4-7).

All this is summed up when St Paul calls us “God’s fellow workers.”

Secure in his understanding that the whole Church is called to partner with God for the salvation of the world, St Paul is able to embrace with joy and thanksgiving the diversity of gifts in the Church. This is a theme to which he will return multiple times in his epistles (for example, Romans 12:6–8; 1 Corinthians 12:8–10; 28–30; Ephesians 4:11).

This is why for all his struggles and disappointments, St Paul is a man without resentment. When he sees that others build on the foundation he laid his preaching in Corinth he is not threatened or insecure.

Nor do the different structures built on the foundation of Christ cause him any anxiety. Some build with gold, silver, or precious stones, while others with wood, hay, or straw. St John Chrysostom says that by this St Paul means to tell us that in the Body of Christ

…the faith is not in one case less, in another more excellent, but the same in all those who truly believe. But in life there is room for some to be more diligent, others more slothful; some stricter, and others more ordinary; that some should have done well in greater things, others in less; that the errors of some should have been more grievous, of others less notable.

He concludes by saying the judgment is “not according to the result, but according to the labor” (Homilies on the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, 9.5).

If I am honest with myself, I realize that I have very little control over the results of my actions. The outcome of my work more often than not depends on factors not just outside my control but outside my awareness.

Look at St Peter.

Once again his impetus character causes him to overreach. If success were the standard, Simeon would never have become Peter.

And yet, it is Peter who answers Jesus while the others remain paralyzed by fear. While the other disciples “were troubled, saying ‘It is a ghost!’” Peter risks all saying “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”

Much as St Thomas’ doubt becomes the occasion of our faith, Peter’s fear but comes the occasion of our peace.

St John Chrysostom says that while “the sea caused his dizziness,” Peter’s “fear was caused by the wind” even though the “sea was the greater threat” and “the wind the less[er].” Though he struggled “with the sea” he suffered “from the violence of the wind.”

And so, Chrysostom concludes, “Such is human nature that we so often feel exposed to the lesser danger but experience it as the greater” (The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 50.2). One of the greatest obstacles to the life Jesus would have for me is my tendency (like St Peter) to be afraid of the wind when the sea is the threat. 

That is to say, I worry and fret about outcomes or the actions of others, even those these are not under my control.  Much less are they standard against which God will judge me.

When I give in to this fear resentment takes hold of my heart. Yes, outcomes matter; God preserves and protect us from the those who mean well, from the believer who has piety without technique. 

But when success matters more than fidelity, when success matters more than obedience, I have replaced the will of God with my own.  When I should I do when I realize I am a slave to my own will?

I must with St Peter cry out “Lord, save me!” and with St Paul see my brothers and sisters in Christ for who they are–for who you are–my “fellow workers” in the proclamation of the Gospel.

Having led the disciples “by degrees” to understand more fully the Gospel as Chrysostom says, Jesus accepts their repentance and confirms their faith. How does He do this? 

He crosses over with His disciples “to the land of Gennesaret” and heals the sick. That is to say, He continues the work His Father has given Him.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God asks of us today, what He asked of His Son. Like Jesus, we must be faithful to our vocations, to the work that God has called each of us personally to do. But I can’t be faithful to my vocation unless I support you in yours. 

We are all co-workers in Christ, each with our own tasks given to us by God not only for His glory but our own; not only for our salvation but for the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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