Hidden in Christ

Sunday, February 23 (OS February 10), 2020: Meat-fare Sunday, Commemoration of the Awesome Judgement; Hieromartyr Charalampos, Bishop of Magnesia and Martyrs Porphyrius and Baptus, (202); St. Anna, wife of Yaroslav I (1050); Ven. Prochorus of the Near Kyivan Caves (1107); Martyrs Ennatha, Valentina and Paula of Palestine (308); St. Scholastica, sister of St. Benedict (543).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

Glory to Jesus Christ!

This past week the daily Epistle and Gospel readings have focused on two themes.

The epistles have emphasized the primacy of charity–of love–in the Christian life. As for the Gospel readings, these have recounted the events of Holy Week. Taken together, the epistles remind us of Jesus Christ’s great love for each of us. They remind us as well that it is the same sacrificial love to which we are called.

Let me make this stronger.

Love that is not sacrificial is not really love. However if we stop here we risk misunderstanding the life to which we are called. To know what it means to love sacrificially we need to turn to today’s readings.

St Paul reminds those troublesome Corinthians, that while fasting and the ascetical life are important, they are not the point of the Christian. The goal, as we’ve heard all week in the readings, is to love others. And, by love, Paul means to do that which is best for our neighbor.

Often in my own spiritual life I get undone because I assume–wrongly as Jesus tells me in the parable–that to love others means I must do great things. After all, if my love for you must be sacrificial, don’t I need to do something big? This isn’t what Jesus asks of us today.

Rather our Lord asks us to do small acts of kindness that St John Chrysostom says are within the reach of all of us. Indeed, one needn’t even be Christian to know that you ought to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirst, clothe the naked or visit those who are sick or imprisoned. All of these are the actions of any morally decent human being.

So where is sacrifice? It is this: rather than doing great things to win the praise of others, or even to bolster our own sense of self-worth, we are called to live a life “hidden in Christ” as St Paul tells the Colossians (3:3). The humility of our love should be such that it is easily overlooked not only by the world but, as the response of both the sheep and goats suggest, by us as well.

Put slightly differently, we are called to engage in quiet acts of simple charity for no other reason than because it is the right thing to do. This means that need to be indifferent, detached, from not only your opinion of my actions but of my own as well.

And doing the morally good thing because it is good changes me. Too frequently get things backwards. I don’t do good things because I am a good person. I become a good person by doing good. It is the habit of small acts of charity that purifies my heart. If I wait for my heart to be pure, my intentions to be right, then I’ll never act.

The sheep in the parable simply loved others without any thought of reward. The goats, however, did good but did so to earn a reward; their good deeds, their charity, was transaction. They did something to get something.

Sheep love others, goats love only themselves.

While the good we do is easily overlooked, we shouldn’t underestimate its effects in the aggregate. It was through small, easily overlooked acts of charity, that the early Church overcame the Roman Empire. The Church conquered the Empire not by force of arms by making it the Church.

Everything the Church has accomplished, it has accomplished by the habit of daily acts of personal charity. The Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Soviet Union, all of these persecuted Christ and the Gospel. And all of these fell not through military might but by Christians who lived faithful lives hidden in Christ. It is the Cross, not the sword, which overcomes the world.

The Church has triumphed in this life when Christians have embraced a life hidden in Christ. We will triumph as a parish, to say nothing of finding our own, personal salvation, by likewise living a life hidden in Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To do this we need only take our eyes off ourselves and fix them on Jesus Christ. Look to Jesus and allow Him to direct you in the ways you should go.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

God Searches for You!

Sunday February 16 (O.S., 3), 2020: Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Afterfeast of the Meeting of the Lord. Holy and Righteous Symeon the God-receiver and Anna the Prophetess. Prophet Azarias (X B.C.). Martyrs Papius, Diodorus, Claudianus (250). Martyrs Adrian and Eubulus (308-309). Martyr Blaise of Caesaria (III).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Glory to Jesus Christ!

One of the things that never ceases to surprise me is not simply the number of people who don’t know that they are loved by God but those who will argue that God can’t possibly love them.

For some, God’s love is something to be earned. Seeing themselves as failures, they think God’s love is reserved for successful people. God loves, their thinking goes, the sleek and the strong, the competent and well liked. Being none of these (at least in their own minds), they conclude that God doesn’t, and can’t, love them.

Others see themselves as unlovable because of their moral failures or even minor shortcomings. It is their sin that closes the door to God’s love for them. And that door, now closed, can never be reopened.

To those who have never experienced God’s love for them, life is lonely and plagued with anxiety and the fear that, eventually, others will come to see them as they see themselves. As fundamentally unloved and, what is worse, unlovable.

In response to this we have the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The context of the parable is important. Immediately before He tells the story of this rather sad and broken family, the Pharisees and scribes had been criticizing Jesus for “receiv[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them.” It is in response to these complaints that Jesus tells the story of the Prodigal Son (see, Luke 15:2, 3).

Rabbi Abraham Herschel in God in Search of Man says that we perish not “for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”

The source of wonder is this. God loves us, each and ever single one of us.

And, following from this, it isn’t me who goes looking for God but God Who in Jesus Christ comes looking for me. And not just me. God comes looking for you and everyone.

This is what the son discovers “when he came to himself” and returned to his father.

When he does, the son is surprised to find that his father is there waiting for him. The father has left his house and gone in search of his son. The father went in search of his son, before the son goes in search of his father.

And not only does father just go in search of his son. He goes eager to find him and ready to restore him. The father wants nothing more than to return the son to his place in the household.

In this the father reflects what God has done for each of us in Jesus Christ.

In Christ and through the sacraments, God goes out to meet us. Unlike the father in the parable, however, God doesn’t simply restore us to our former place. Instead He calls us, He calls each of us, His children in this life and promises us a greater intimacy and dignity in the life to come.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure (1 John 3:2-3).

Let me pause here for a moment and return to the first verses of the parable.

At least in the beginning, the family that Jesus holds up as a type of the Kingdom of God is anything but admirable.

The youngest son is so greedy, he wishes his father dead. Failing that, he lays claim on his inheritance as if his father were already dead.

And what can we say about the father? At best, he is overly indulgent. It would, however, be more accurate to call him weak. He knows his son and so knows that in giving in to the boy’s demands he is colluding with his riotous living.

Then there is the eldest son. What can we say about him except he is so committed to duty, so willing to be obedient, that he has no charity for his younger brother or ability to share in his father’s joy.

What changes the family is this: the father’s willingness to go in search of his son.

As with parable, so to with us and with the Church. What transforms us is not primarily our repentance but God the Father going in search of us. We are changed because, wonder of wonders, God desires to draw us to Himself even while we, even while I, flee from Him.

No matter how I seek to justify it, no matter how resigned I am to it, when I deny that God loves me, I’m fleeing from God. Like Adam after the Fall, I hide from God.

But try as I might, I can’t hide from God! And neither can you!

God always comes for you!

God is always eager to love you!

God is always drawing you closer to Himself!

It is this–God searching for us–that transforms us personally and as a community.

It is this–God searching for us–that makes it possible for us to be who He has created us to be rather than who the world, our own sin or neurosis, tells us we are.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today God comes in search of you! Go and meet the God Who out of His great love, comes to find you!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Atheist In All But Name

Sunday, January 26 (O.S., January 13), 2020: 32nd Sunday after Pentecost Sunday after the Theophany; Martyrs Hermylus and Stratonicus (315); Martyr Peter of Anium (309-310; St. James bp. of Nisibis (336); St. Hilary, bp. of Poitiers (368)

Epistle: Ephesians 4:7-13
Gospel: Matthew 4:12-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Apostle Paul reminds us that God has not simply blessed us but done so in abundance, “to the measure of Christ’s gift” as he says. St John Chrysostom says that to theophany06the gift of salvation given in Baptism, “having God as our Father, our all partaking of the same Spirit–these are common to all,” says we each of us also given the gifts needed “for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” as we await the coming our Lord Jesus Christ in glory.

Everyone here today, in other words, has not only been called but equipped, for the work of building up the Kingdom of God on earth in anticipation of the coming of that same Kingdom in glory. We have each of us been called and made able to work not just for our own personal salvation but for the salvation of the world. This means that we have each of us been called, set aside and been given grace to live sacrificially so that others can come to know Christ and to know themselves in Christ.

Unfortunately, too frequently we adopt the secularism that Fr Alexander Schmemann identified as the besetting failure of Orthodox Christians in America. We are often quite sincere in our affirmation, Schmemann says, of “the need for religion.” We even “give it a place of honor and cover it with many privileges.” But while we look to religion (including the Gospel) to “supply life with ethical standards, with help and comfort, we often fail to expect the Gospel to “transform life” to radically change us, our lives and those we love.

As a practical matter, this means that as an Orthodox Christian I can believe “in God and in the immortality of the soul” even pray daily “and find great help in prayer.” But between my morning and evening prayers everything that I do, is done without any awareness of “the fundamental” truths of the Gospel, “of Creation, Fall, and Redemption.”

Taking Fr Schmemman’s criticism to heart means that whether I am an Orthodox Christian or not, whether I am a priest or layperson, whether I pray daily or not, I live as if I were an atheist.

This is why Chrysostom tells us to “pay attention” to what St Paul says. We have not been given spiritual gifts “according to our own merit.” And, if we had, “then no one would have received” what at all God has given in abundance.

St Paul goes on to list some (though by no means all) the gifts that have been given. “He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers” but again, all for the purpose of “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.”

When I live as if I were an atheist, I make a mockery of the Gospel and show myself to be a fool.

Actually, I reveal that I am worse than a fool. I leave unclaimed the reward that comes from faith in Jesus Christ. In refusing to love sacrificially, I don’t only love a little, I refuse to love at all.

And when I refuse to love? What then? Simply put, I enslave myself to my own desires.

Either I worship God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit or I worship the idol of my own plans and projects. The latter means living always dependent on constantly shifting circumstances and the whims of others. And it is precisely from this state that, as we hear in the Gospel, Jesus comes to free us.

We are “the people who sat in darkness” who have been invited to see “a great light.”

We are those “who sat in the region and shadow of death” upon whom Christ the divine “light has dawned.”

“To repent,” says Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), “ is not to look not downward at my own shortcomings but upward at God’s love; not backward with self-reproach, but forward with trustfulness. It is to see, not what I have failed to be, but what by the grace of God I can yet become.” The fruit of repentance is to see myself, to see you and all creation as God sees us.

It is from this vision that we get the desire, the strength and the ability to no longer live “as if” God didn’t exist. It is from this vision that we become able to sacrifice not just fearlessly but also prudently.

The latter is often sadly lacking. Practical atheism is not simply living as if there was no God. It is also living as if, the moral and material limits God places on creation were optional for us.

Swept away by the romance of the Gospel, I fail to ask what God wants from me. And so I fail to ask what is the next step along the way. It is the absence of the vision of God, of seeing as God sees, that causes me to worship my own plans and projects.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today God invites us, invites me and you, to lay aside the life of practical atheism, of living as if God did not exist. And, its place, He offers us a share in His life and His vision.

He offers us the gift of Himself and the ability to live and love as He does. It is this that is true freedom, it is this what love means and what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Doubt: It Ain’t What I Think

Sunday, January 19 (OS January 6), 2020: The Holy Theophany. The Baptism of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Epistle: Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Something interesting happens in the conversation between John and his younger cousin. John is hesitant to baptize Jesus. “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” Can you not hear an older cousin or sibling say just these words to his junior?

But rather than arguing with him, Jesus responds gently. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

By His answer to John, Jesus transforms a moment of doubt into an occasion of faith. And not only this. John’s willingness, weak as it is, to do what Jesus asks becomes a revelation of the mystery of the Holy Trinity. As we hear in the troparion for today, “When You were baptized in the Jordan, O Lord, worship of the Trinity was revealed.”

Through the gentle touch of grace, doubt becomes faith and an experience of the overwhelming and all-encompassing love of God.

Living as we do in an age when we confuse faith in God with what we believe about God, it is easy to also confuse doubt with a lack of intellectual understanding or certitude. And yet, doubt is different.

In the Reform Orthodox Jewish prayer book, there is a lovely prayer. “I thank You O Lord for doubt, for by doubt You reveal to me the limits of my faith.” To doubt is not only an experience of the limits of my faith but, as we see in the Gospel, an invitation to grow in faith.

I think it is more helpful to think doubt not as the lack of certitude (intellectual or emotional) but as a distraction. I doubt not because I don’t understand God or because I don’t love God but because at the moment I take my eyes off of God.

The fact is, God is always more than my understanding of Him. And however much I love Him, because He is Infinite there is always more of Him to love if I can speak that way. Doubt is symptomatic of my shifting my attention from God but on the things of this world.

For St John the Baptist, the cause of his distraction was his fixation on his own limited understanding of righteousness and his own role in the coming of the Messiah. St Paul warns St Titus of doing something similar telling him that “ the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy.”

Paul goes on to say that we are saved through Holy Baptism–that is, “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior”–and for this reason, have become “heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

What we have received, we have received from above, from the Hand of God. And what we are to become, is beyond our ability to conceive because it too comes to us from above.

Given this, it isn’t surprising that at times I lose my way because I have lost my focus on Jesus Christ and the Kingdom. As I struggle to be faithful, to live in hope, and to accept in thanksgiving the gift that I and you and all of us who are in Christ have been given, it is little wonder that now and then we fall short and are distracted.

We are distracted precisely because the gift is more than we can imagine. The gift is beyond what we can receive. And so, inevitably, I run up against the limits of my faith, hope and love of the God Who, as St Gregory Palamas says, “is not only beyond our knowing but our unknowing as well.”

Whether in ourselves or others, we should judge doubt gently.

The reason why is that one of the great tricks of the Enemy is to confuse us. He whispers in our ear that questions and struggles are signs of our sinfulness. They might be. And at times, to speak only for myself, they are.

But even when they are, God uses our doubts as occasions for repentance, for growth in holiness and for a deepening of our love for Him and an awareness of His love for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! When we doubt, when we encounter the doubts of others, let us at that moment fix our eyes every more firmly on Jesus Christ.

Let us, by all means, confess with John that we do not understand. And if we do, we will hear that same gentle word of encouragement that John hears today from Jesus. “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

It is in saying this, that God in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit transforms our doubt into a deeper faith by revealing not things about Himself but revealing more fully Himself.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Persecution of Christian in America

Sunday January 12 (OS: December 30) 2020: Sunday Nativity Afterfeast (30th Sunday) Holy Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King, James the Brother of the Lord. Sunday after Nativity

Epistle: Galatians 1.11-19

Gospel: Matthew 2.13-23

Christ is born!

As both today’s readings make clear, the Church has been subject to persecution from the beginning. While there have been times of relative peace, there has never been a time–even in a formally “Christian” culture or nation–where the Church, the City of God, was free from the hostile intentions of the World, of the City of Man.

This makes a certain rough sense.

As Herod and his son Archelaus knew, the Church is a fatal threat to “the rulers of the Gentiles,” to those who desire nothing more than “lord it over” others. The powerful of this World are all too eager to “exercise authority over” those who they should instead serve (Matthew 20:25, NKJV). It was precisely this contrast between the two cities that led to the growth of the Church.

Christians, for example, preached a new and unique doctrine of chastity. Powerful men in the ancient world were free to take sexual pleasure where, how, and from whom they wished among those of lesser status. Adultery was a crime for women but acceptable for men. Masters could abuse their male as well as female slaves and teachers their students.

In contrast, the Christian doctrine of chastity not only highlighted the dignity of women, slaves, and children, it offered them a life free from acts of intimate abuse. Those men who embraced the Gospel understood that following Christ required that they refrain from the casual violation of others that their peers readily and habitually practiced.

By the integrity of his life, the Christian man was an unbearable reproach to the selfishness of those around him. He and he alone refused to degrade others as he himself had once been degraded. With the Christian, the cycle ended.

In addition to this, the Church offered Roman society another, equally radical, different standard for the exercise of political authority. While it is sometimes said that the first Christians were pacifists or practiced non-violence, this is inaccurate. At best it is an anachronism. While Christians were willing to suffer violence, they were not pacifists.

Beginning with Cornelius the Roman centurion who, along with his family, is baptized St Peter baptize there is a long history of Christians who served with distinction in the Roman military (see Acts 10). What was unique about these Christian warriors was their refusal–often at the cost of their own lives–to harm the innocent.

Yes, they served the Empire but not at the expense of the Gospel. In this, as with the Christian doctrine of chastity, they stood in stark contrast to their comrades-in-arms. Christian soldiers were eager to defend the innocent but refused to lift their sword against them.

And there are more examples.

Christians adopted unwanted infants left to die in the wilderness. They did this even when food was scarce and each new mouth increased the likelihood of hunger or even death for themselves or their children.

And when the plague struck, the wealthy together with all those who could afford to do so, fled the city for the relative safety of the countryside. Christians however not only stayed but cared for the sick. Willingly Christians risked their own lives to ease the suffering of those who in normal circumstances despised them.

In all of these ways and others too numerous to mention, Christians were a threat to the willingness of the powerful to abuse and neglect others when circumstances allowed or fancy desired.

Today and especially in America, Christians imagine ourselves persecuted. While there are times when we are met with prejudice, it is frequently the case that we have brought this on ourselves. Rarely, are we the object of derision because of our fidelity to the Gospel or the witness of the early Church.

More often than not, we find ourselves complaining not because of persecution or prejudice but because we want to be exempt from the natural consequences of the political process of give and take, of public disagreement and debate, and the many trade offs that come with making policy and enforcing law.

Whether we are on the left or the right, American Christians often seem eager to off-load our obligations to the government. This is why we are so quick to criticize as immoral those who disagree with us politically. We are asking the State to do for us, what we should instead be doing for Christ. This being so, how can a believer help but think a person sinful for disagreeing?

While the State has a role to play, it belongs to those of us who are in Christ to lead by example in areas such as philanthropy and morality. But when we look around, outside of a handful of seminaries, there are precious few Orthodox schools and no Orthodox hospitals–to take only two examples. We have, I’m afraid, failed to lead.

I said a moment ago that many Christians in America–and including Orthodox Christians–complain that we are persecuted. Looking at the history of the early Church it’s hard for me to agree with this. As I said, it seems more a matter that we are simply experiencing the natural costs and consequences of participating in American political life.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, Christians in America are not persecuted; if only we were. If only we were accounted worthy to suffer because we lived as the first Christians did.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory