Today, We Are Called to Surrender

Sunday, June 3 (O.S., May 21), 2018: First Sunday after Pentecost; All Saints; Holy Equals-to-the-Apostles Emperor Constantine (337) and Helen, his mother (327). St. Cassian the Greek, monk (1504).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:33-40; 12:1-2
Gospel: Matthew 10:32-33; 37-38; 19:27-30

Glory to Jesus Christ!

There’s something odd about the spiritual life.

Generally, we think about life as a process of acquisition. As we grow older we gain knowledge and skills, friends and possessions. Taking St Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews as our guide to the spiritual life, however, points us in a different direction.

For the Apostle, the spiritual life is not about acquisition but, as he says, “laying aside every weight and sin” which would keep us from running “with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Especially at the beginning to follow Jesus, “the pioneer and perfector of our faith” will often feel like a series of loses.

Jesus Himself alludes to this in His words to the disciples:

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

Hearing this, and with his usual self-effacing subtly, St Peter replies “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?”

If Paul would have me lay aside my sin, Peter reminds me that I must lay aside not only sin but “everything.” That is to say, I can’t love anything or anyone more that Jesus. Even those relationships that are the foundation of human life and have been with us from the beginning–father, mother, son and daughter–must be surrendered.

And in their place, I am called to take up my cross and follow Jesus unreservedly.

As I said, especially in its first moments, the spiritual life often feels like a series of losses.

What is lost, however, is not “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands”–these are returned to us “a hundredfold” and with “eternal life” as well. The command to pick our cross and follow Jesus is not a command to hate our family, to despise the work we do, or to turn against our native land.

It is rather to give all these things their proper weight and value relative to God. What feels like a loss, isn’t really; it is an incalculable gain. Now we have all these things in Christ. And that which is in Christ will last forever.

When I stop demanding from family, or work, or country, or myself for that matter, what only God can provide, I am free to delight in these same things. The real sorrow of being a sinner is that my selfishness keeps me from loving family, work, country and yes, even myself, as they really are and as God would have me love them.

Instead of loving my friend, I am infatuated with my thoughts about my friend. The same thing happens in the other relationships and tasks that make up my daily life. They are idols of my own creation rather than what they really are meant to be for us: Messengers and channels of God’s love.

The problem, to put it directly, isn’t that I love father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, house, work, country or myself but that I fail to love them all. What I must give up to follow Jesus are my selfish illusions about life. I must give up the comforting half-truths I tell myself to avoid accepting responsibility for my actions.

Once we make this initial sacrifice something wonderful and awe-inspiring happens. We find by God’s grace an unimaginable willingness and ability to love. Saying “Yes!” to God allows us to in turn say “Yes!” to all creation.

When I stop seeking my own will and instead seek the will of God, I discover what it is to love because I discover what it is to be loved by the God Who created me.

It is because they experienced God’s love for them that the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us, the saints,

…conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection.

Torture, mocking, scouring, imprisonment all these and worse paled in comparison to the saints’ love of God that followed naturally and in abundance from their experience of God’s love for them.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today we are called by God to surrender everything so that we can receive those things that last: faith, hope, and love (1 Corinthians 13:13)!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we can receive the peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7)!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we can receive the many gifts contained in the One Gift of Holy Spirit which received a short time ago!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4) the source of all good things!

Today we are called to surrender everything so that we become saints!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What Gifts Have You Been Given Today?

Sunday,May 27 (O.S., May 14), 2018: Eighth Sunday of Pascha, Pentecost-Trinity Sunday;
Martyr Isidore of Chios (251). Martyr Maximus, under Decius (250). Ven. Serapion the Sindonite, monk, of Egypt (542). Ven. Nicetas recluse of the Kyiv Caves (1109). St. Leontius, patriarch of Jerusalem (1175).

Epistle: Acts 2:1-11
Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12

What must that first Pentecost have been like for the disciples and apostles?

Just 10 days ago they saw Jesus ascend into heaven. However joyful that was, it means that–once again Jesus has left them. And the pain of that loss is beginning to make itself felt. As their memories and love for Jesus wane, their fear of the Jews takes hold growing ever stronger.

And so they hide. They return to the upper room where they celebrated their last Passover with Jesus.

And they wait for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to them that they will be clothed with power from on high.

And as they wait, they wonder. What have they gotten themselves into? Jesus is gone. And, out there, are the people who crucified their friend.

And didn’t Jesus tell them, that they too will be hated? If they crucified Jesus what would they do to his disciples?

And then, FIRE!

Tongues of fire appear and come to rest on the heads of the disciples!

And suddenly, in an instant, fearful men and women become fearless preachers of the Gospel!

And, wonders of wonders, not only do they proclaim the Resurrection, their words are understood by those who don’t speak Aramaic.

At first, they are accused of being drunkards. But just as faith retreated and fear asserted itself, now skepticism gives way to faith. Thousands believe and are baptized.

And then what?

What must it have been like on the day after Pentecost when the disciples and apostles to woke up and realize–however faintly–the enormity of what they did?

Or rather, what God did through them.

What must it have been like to wake up the day after Pentecost and realize that now you were responsible for preaching a Gospel that will in short under turn the world on its head?

What must it have been like to realize that you were now leaders of thousands of new believers in Jesus Christ?

Make no mistake. The apostles were right to be worried.

These weren’t wealthy or powerful. They were illiterate men and women living on the margins of a society that was itself on the margin of a vast, wealthy and powerful empire that, for all its grandeur, was cruel.

The disciples and apostles weren’t anyone’s idea of leaders. Least of all, their own.

And yet, God choose them to be His witnesses to the world. It fell to these poor, illiterate, marginal men and women to renew the human family grown old and rigid because of sin.

Today these men and women receive the “Gift of the Holy Spirit” even as we did at chrismation. In this One Gift we, like them, received many gifts.

And all gifts contained in the Gift have one purpose: To draw others to Christ. To renew the whole human family by the renewal of each human person heart.

Unlike the disciples on that first Pentecost, the Church is now rich and even powerful.

And yet, like the disciples of that first Pentecost, for all that we have gained materially and culturally, we too are poor.

Or maybe better, we too have been given a task that–apart from the gift of the Holy Spirit–is beyond the abilities of even the most talented among us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The task given to the disciples on that first Pentecost is given to us today. Their vocation, their calling, is ours as well.

And like the disciples on that first Pentecost, God pours out His Spirit on us today and every day making up by His grace what is lacking in us.

And all this He does for one reason, and one reason only: To renew the human family by restoring each human heart to communion with Himself through His Son our Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit!

So let us take up the task we have been given!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

You Say “Dogma” Like It’s A Bad Thing

May 20 (O.S., May 7), 2018: Seventh Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council; Afterfeast of the Ascension; Commemoration of the Apparition of the Sign of the Precious Cross over Jerusalem in 351 A.D.; Martyr Acacius the Centurion (303).

Epistle: Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
Gospel: John 17:1-13

Dogma has a rather bad reputation.

Not wholly without reason, we associate being “dogmatic” with rigid and merely formulaic thinking. A “dogmatic” thinker doesn’t think at all. Instead, he parrots what he’s been told.

The first thing I should point out is that there is more than a little justice to this criticism of dogma. There are many individuals, including many Orthodox Christians, who seem to resist ever having a new thought. For these people–did I mention some of these are Orthodox Christians?–the old answers are sufficient not so much because they are true (even if they are) but because they are old.

Clinging to the old answers, the old ways, simply because they are old has the advantage of being easy. And there is, to be sure, comfort in knowing what we believe and how we are to live.

But excluding anything that might challenge my beliefs and practices isn’t a good thing. I do this because I’ve fallen into the trap of holding on to the old answers, the old ways, and the received views because they are old rather than because they are true.

It is as dangerous to accept tradition simply because it is old as it is to reject it for the same reason.

In the tradition of the Orthodox Church, “dogma” is not a matter of what is old but what is true. As the word itself suggests in Greek (dogmatika) means clear or right thinking. The “dogmatic” person, in other words, is the one who thinks clearly and rightly.

This has two, important, applications.

We must think dogmatically about the Gospel not because we are slaves to external authority but because the Gospel is true.  It is when we fail to think dogmatically about the Gospel that we become slaves to our emotions or to passing social fads.

Most of all though, our thinking about the Gospel must be dogmatic because our thinking about the Gospel must be guided by the truths.

It is all too easy, as St Paul warns about in today’s reading from Acts, for me to be swept away by glib preachers. In every generation, there are in Church “fierce wolves” who speak “perverse things in an attempt “to draw away the disciples” from Christ. For all that they offer an appealing face to their listeners, these are cruel individuals who in their pursuit of power and control over others will be unsparing in their lies and half-truths.

We need to think clearly lest, when these false witnesses appear in our lives, we are seduced by their charm or confused by their lies.

Such clear thinking, and this the second point, is not simply a matter of theology. Yes, we need to know the Scriptures–is there any Orthodox Christian who doubts this? And yes, we need to know the Creed and the basics of the faith.

But our clear thinking, our dogma if you will, must embrace not only the truths of the faith but also of creation, of human life and society and of our own identity in Christ. Divorced from these, our theological thinking will sooner or later (and usually sooner than later) devolve into heresy. When this happens, our community in Christ becomes a cult that apes the Church and in which the things of God are distorted and put at the service of binding us to the fierce wolf’s cruel control.

In Holy Tradition, the truths of the Gospel are not opposed to those of philosophy. Likewise, sacraments and science are not enemies but rather, in Christ, divinely bestowed gifts give to us for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

Faith and reason, in other words, are not opposed but–to paraphrase St Maximus the Confessor–the two wings by which the soul ascends to God.

To be sure not all Orthodox Christians have the same intellectual gifts. Nor do we all share the same interests.

But whatever might be our personal differences in our abilities and interest, theology and philosophy, sacraments and science, faith and reason, are all God’s gifts. To think dogmatically, that is to think clearly, is to understand that each element in the pair compliments and deepens our appreciation and understanding of its partner.

All this is possible because Jesus Christ is not simply a good man but God become Man. In Christ, the Eternal Word of God speaks in human words. He Who together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, creates the universe, drawing it from us “nothingness into being,” creates and shapes the creation with human hands and according to the insights of a human intellect.

All this He does without loss of His divinity.

As truly God, He creates even as truly Man He shapes the creation. He Who as the Word of God from All-Eternity is beyond what our minds can grasp, as truly Man speaks words we can comprehend though never exhaust.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! In the Incarnation, human life, human thought, human labor, and human society are come to share in Divine Life, Divine Thought, Divine Labor and the Divine Society of the Most Holy Trinity.

To think dogmatically is to see the revelation of God not only in the pages of Scripture but in the Book of Nature.

To think dogmatically is to overcome the chasm sin would place between faith and reason, science and sacrament, created and Uncreated.

To think dogmatically is not to cling to the old answers because they are old but rejoice in them because they are true.

To think dogmatically is to see that in each moment “all things are made new in Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

To think dogmatically, means to think clearly, because we think with “the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:6), “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), and so conform ourselves to His example (see Romans 8:29) for our salvation and the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Witnesses to Beauty

Sunday, May 13 (O.S., April 30), 2018: Sixth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Blind Man; Holy Apostle James, the brother of St. John the Theologian (44); St. Donatus, bishop of Euroea (387); Uncovering of the relics of Hieromartyr Basil, bishop of Amasea (322). Martyr Maximus.

Epistle: Acts 16:16-34
Gospel: John 9:1-38

Christ is Risen!

St Paul tells the Church at Ephesus that they are to speak “the truth in love.” He tells them this so that they might not be “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men” and “in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.”

And they are to speak the truth in love so that they

…may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love (see Ephesians 4:14-16, NKJV).

We need to pay close attention to what the Apostle says here.

The command to speak “the truth in love” is not something we do to draw others to Christ. Speaking “the truth in love” is essential for our own salvation, own growth in Christ and spiritual maturity.

Compare this to the idea that, as I’ve heard more than one Orthodox Christian say, “The most loving thing I can do is to tell someone the truth.” Did you catch the difference?

Paul says that for your own salvation and to become more like Christ, let love guide your words. This is different from the rather crass assumption that my words are loving because they are true and I’m telling you something for your own good.

The naked expression of the truth is not loving. Far from it. It is simply a means of gaining power over others by shaming them. Rarely, if ever, are the people who say the most loving thing you can do is to tell someone the truth open to such “love” themselves.

Look at the reading today from Acts.

The slave girl is saying something which is indubitably true. St Paul and his companions “are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And yet, as events unfold, we discover that while what is said is true, it is said not “in love” but because of demonic possession. The girl says something true in the service of extending the power of demons.

Her owners, by the way, are fine with this. They are happy to see this girl enslaved to a demon because it makes them rich. They are willing to grow wealthy by enslaving not only the girl’s body but also her soul.

And in all this, she tells the truth but she does so without love.

Compare the situation of the slave and her owners with what happens at the end of today’s reading.

A “great earthquake” opens all the doors of the prison freeing all the prisoner. Because of this, the jailer is prepared to commit suicide rather than face the consequences of allowing the prisoners to escape.

But what does Paul do?

At the cost of his own freedom, he remains in his cell with Silas and cries out to his jailer: “Do yourself no harm, for we are all here.”

Speaking the “the truth in love” is salvific because it puts the good of my neighbor before my own. To speak “the truth in love” means that I sacrifice myself for you. And it is this sacrifice for others that join us ever closer together in Christ and which fosters our spiritual maturity.

What, though, does it mean–concretely–to speak “the truth in love”? We get a glimpse in today’s Gospel.

While the text says Jesus restored the man’s sight, this isn’t strictly speaking true. The man was, after all, born blind. He didn’t live in darkness because, never having seen light, he had no understanding of its absence.

While he felt the sun on his face, he never saw its light. He felt the wind but never saw trees bend. He felt the rain but never saw clouds.

And then is one amazing moment–and for the first time in his life–the man born blind saw the beauty of creation. And he saw this beauty not gradually but in an instant!

He saw the sun he only felt.

He saw the trees bend in the wind.

He saw the clouds that carried the rain.

All around him and all at once, he saw the beauty of creation. And, in that same instant, he saw the face of Jesus, of God become Man.

To speak “the truth in love” is to heal the blindness of the human heart. It is to reveal to others a beauty that, like the blind man, they could not even imagine.

To reveal this beauty to you, I must first see it you, in creation, in myself and in God. That which is True, and for that matter what is Just and Good, is Beautiful.

And because Truth is one, if I can’t–or won’t–see the beauty in one part of creation, I can’t see the beauty elsewhere. If I can’t see beauty here, I can’t see it there; if I can’t see it in you, I can’t see it in myself and I certainly can’t see it in God.

Or rather, I fail to see the beauty around me and in me because I fail to see it in God Who is the Uncreated Source of all the is Good, True, Just and yes Beautiful.

Why does beauty matter? Because it is in the nature of beauty, of beautiful things, to attract us. To speak “the truth in love” is to make manifest not simply the beauty of the Gospel but of the person to whom we speak.

And. as I said, I can’t do this unless I have grasped something of the beauty of God and creation, of my neighbor and myself.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! God has called us to reveal beauty to the world. We are here, in this small and poor room today, for no other purpose. This is why we concern ourselves with, among other things, not only being the Church but building a church. So that we can through our words and deeds reveal the Beauty of God to the world.

May God bring to completion the good work He has started in us.

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Archbishop Daniel: 10th Anniversary

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Axios! Axios! Axios!

Happy 10th Anniversary Archbishop Daniel!

The Prime Hierarch of the UOC of the USA, Metropolitan Antony, along with the Council of Metropolia, members of the Consistory, clergy, faithful and the student body of St. Sophia Theological Seminary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA express their sincere greetings and assurance of prayers for His Eminence Archbishop Daniel on the 10th Anniversary of his episcopal consecration.

We thank Almighty God for your ministry to the faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

May God grant you many blessed and healthy years in the service of our Holy Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA!