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

Be of Good Cheer Little Flock

Sunday, January 5 (OS December 22) 2020: 29th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, of the Holy Fathers; Forefeast of the Nativity of Christ; Holy Ten Martyrs of Crete (III): Theodulus, Saturninus, Euporus, Gelasius, Eunician, Zoticus, Pompeius, Agathopus, Basilides, and Evaristus (250); St. Niphon, bp. of Cyprus (IV); St. Paul, Bishop of Neo-Caesaria (IV); St. Nahum of Ochrid, enlightener of the Bulgarians (910); Nativity fast, wine and oil allowed

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Geneology of Christ according to St. LukeSometimes we think of Christmas as the end of the story. This is, in a certain sense, reasonable. The last almost 40 days have after all been a preparation to celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ.

In another sense though, Christmas is only the beginning. It is the opening movement in a series of events that will see the Child grow into a Man, preach the Gospel, “heal the brokenhearted, … proclaim liberty to the captives, … recovery of sight to the blind, … set at liberty those who are oppressed” and “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4 18, 19, NKJV).

And as the fathers are keenly aware and quick to point out, Christmas Day announces the eventual death of Christ on the Cross, His three days in the tomb, and His resurrection from the dead.

In a similar way, the events of Christmas Day lead to all the good things that today we take, if not for granted, then as natural. Think of all the great accomplishments of Western culture; not only art, philosophy, and literature, but science, politics and economic development. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that in spite of all our failures and enduring sinfulness, these are all the fruit of Christmas.

One can see this not simply in the great Christian cathedrals or lives and writings of the fathers and the saints. We can see this not only in art or liturgy but around us today here in Madison.

A great university, a vibrant (if frequently contentious) tradition of political involvement and philanthropic concern. All of these are at the fruit of the Christmas, the result of generations of men and women who united themselves to Christ in baptism, nourished themselves in Holy Communion and followed Him as His disciples and evangelists.

There is nothing good around us today, that doesn’t owe its existence in large part to the Gospel.

To be sure, this debt is often overlooked or when it isn’t actively denied. But for all that, the roots of not just Western culture or America but Madison are firmly planted in the Gospel.

As I mentioned a week or so ago, we live in politically and culturally contentious times. Whether this is more or less than at other times is an interesting question but rather beside the point. Whatever times we live are always marked by conflict, by the knee jerk willingness of partisans on each side to think the other side is if not actively evil, then benighted or simply foolish.

In this, our time is no different than the time into which Jesus was born. That time, like our time,  was disfigured by violence and contempt for others.

It is into that world, which is our world still today, that Jesus comes and preaches repentance, the forgiveness of sins and the reconciliation of humanity with God and so with itself.

And like those times, our own times can seem overwhelming. Like the disciples in the early hours of Pascha, we are tempted to hide if not from “fear of the Jews” (see John 20:19) then, well, pick the person or group you fear most and so love least.

But now, as then, Jesus comes to stand in our midst, granting us His peace, breathing upon us the Holy Spirit and sending us out to proclaim the Gospel (John 20:21-23). Because you see, whether it is Christmas or Pascha, the Annunciation or Pentecost, the Gift, and the Call, are the same.

We are given not a word about Christ or even a share in His life. We are given at Christmas and every day, Christ Himself. And having received Him, He tells us what He told the disciples. “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Look around you.

Everything you see is the fruit of not just of Christmas but of that “little flock.” All around us we see the fruit of those in the Old Testament who lived in hope for His coming,p and those in the New Testament and throughout the history of the Church down to this day and in this place who in faith followed Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We are that little flock not because we are few but because the Church always seems small in the face of human sinfulness. To us today, Jesus says as He did to Israel, never despair, never give up hope.

And He says to us today, as He did His disciples, do not be afraid, rather be “of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Not Good Enough But Really Good

Sunday, December 15 (O.S., December 2), 2019: 26th Sunday after Pentecost. Prophet Habakkuk (VI c. B.C.). Martyr Myrope of Chios (251). Sts. John, Heraclemon, Andrew, and Theophilus of Egypt (IV). St. Jesse, Bishop of Tsilkani in Georgia (VI). St. Athanasius, “the Resurrected”, of the Near Kyivan Caves (1176). Ven. Athanasius, recluse, of the Far Kyivan Caves (XIII). St. Stephen-Urosh IV, king (1371).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 5:9-19

Gospel: Luke 18:18-27

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Though he doesn’t use the word, in the opening verses of today’s Epistle the Apostle Paul calls us to be discerning. We are, he says, to seek out “the fruit of the Spirit,” Specifically, “goodness, righteousness, and truth” not only because these are good in themselves but because they help us know and so do what “is acceptable to the Lord.”

Doing the will of God requires first that we hold ourselves apart from sin, from “the unfruitful works of darkness.” If we do, we will become in St John Chrysostom’s phrase “a lamp” that naturally “exposes what takes place in darkness.”

We need, I think, to pause here and consider carefully the larger context within which the Apostle is making his argument.

Paul’s primary concern is to encourage us to engage in the evangelical work of the Church. Like the Apostle Andrew, whose feast was Friday, we are called to call others to Christ. Contrary to what we frequently see both outside the Church and (what is worse) within the Church, this can’t be done in a mechanical fashion.

What I mean is I can’t simply memorize a script or a series of bullet points to be repeated when the opportunity presents itself. When I do this, the other person becomes merely an excuse for me to exercise my own ego.

What then should we do instead?

St Jerome tells us “No one is prepared to admonish sinners except one who does not deserve to be called a hypocrite.” In saying this, he is simply repeating what Paul has just told us. To succeed in calling others to Christ, I must first cultivate in my own life the fruits of the Spirit by repenting from sin.

But here’s the thing about the evangelical work of the Church. Whatever the response of the other person, calling others to Christ will naturally bring to light my own shortcomings, my own sinfulness.

This is why after admonishing the Ephesians to be the light that exposes the darkness of sin, St Paul says to them

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.”

He says this not to those outside the Church but to those within. The hardest part of fulfilling the evangelical work of the Church, is this: Whatever else may or may not happen, telling others about Jesus Christ will always expose my sinfulness.

Very quickly the evangelist learns that he is the one who must awaken from the sleep of sin.

This is why the work can’t be mechanical. I can’t hide behind the Gospel. If I do, my witness will ring hollow. Or, and this much is worse, the other person will imitate my hypocrisy, my own lack of repentance, confusing this with life in Christ.

This is why, turning to the Gospel, Jesus tells the ruler to sell all he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and come follow Him. This is not a condemnation of wealth or the wealthy. It is instead a warning to all of us.

We all have our idols. We all have things in our life that stand in the place of God.

For the rich man, it was obedience to the commandments. Knowing himself to be a good man, he gave himself permission to not be a better man. He didn’t want to be really good but only good enough. There was nothing sacrificial in his good deeds. His wealth afforded him the luxury of looking good so that he didn’t have actually to be good.

St Ignatius of Antioch warns us to avoid just this state when tells the Romans he doesn’t “want merely to be called a Christian, but actually to be one.” The ruler wanted to be called good without actually becoming good because true and lasting goodness requires sacrifice.

This is why when Jesus tells him to sell all he has, to give to the poor, and because His disciple the man is distressed. He doesn’t want to make the sacrifice that goodness requires. His adherence to the moral law, much like some adhere to the teachings of the Church, is merely mechanical.

Watching all this and hearing Jesus say “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” the crowds and above all the disciples are themselves distressed.

St Cyril of Alexandria observes that the disciples “possessed nothing except what was trifling and of slight value.” But whether we have much or little, he says, “the pain of abandoning is the same.”

Whether Christ calls us to give up wealth or prestige, whether we are called to give up family or friends, we are ALL called to sacrifice. Whatever we had before Christ, indeed whatever we had even a moment ago, we are all called to a sacrificial life of “obedience and good will.” Though we come from “different circumstances,” St Cyril say, we are to practice “equal readiness and willingly” to follow Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Though our sacrifices our different, our calling is the same; To witness to Christ. And just as we have a shared vocation, we have a shared joy.

That joy is this: That in becoming light, in illumining the darkness, we become able to see the true beauty of creation and, what is more important, the real and lasting dignity in Christ to which all humanity is called.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Salvation is Found in the Church

December 1 (OS November 18), 2019: 24th Sunday after Pentecost. Tone 7. Martyr Platon of Ancyra (266); Martyr Romanus the deacon of Caesarea (303). St. Barulas the Youth of Antioch (303). Hieromartyr Zacchaeus the deacon and Alphaeus the reader, of Ceasarea in Palestine (303).

SS Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 2:14-22

Gospel: Luke 12:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Apostle Paul tells us that salvation is not simply a matter of our personal faith. Much less is salvation the fruit of our virtues, that is to say, being a morally good person.

To be sure personal faith and morality are both important and have their own role to play in the Christian life. But salvation is first and foremost being incorporated into the Body of Christ, that is the Church, through Baptism. This is why St Paul tells us that we “are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

The household of God, as he goes on to say, is a visible community “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets” with “Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

In the Tradition of the Orthodox Church, salvation is the restoration of communion between God and humanity. The chasm between humanity and God caused by sin is overcome in the Incarnation. In taking on our humanity, the Son re-establishes in His own Person communion between God and the human family.

Again as St Paul tells us Jesus Christ is “Himself is our peace.” He “has broken down the middle wall of separation” that kept us from God and, in so doing, “create[d] in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, … reconciling us] … to God in one body through the cross.”

This is why we believe as Orthodox Christians that salvation is found in being a member of the Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and it is where we “who were afar off” from God discover and make our own what in Philippians (4:7) Paul calls “the peace of God.”

But what then are we to make of personal faith and the life of virtue?

It is a mistake for me to think that having been incorporated into the Church by baptism, nothing more is required of me. Nothing could be further from the truth. The parable Jesus tells me this morning is warning to about the dangers of such self-satisfaction.

The rich man’s great material wealth leads him to believe that he has all that he needs for a happy life. “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.’”

What he fails to understand, says St Ambrose of Milan, is that the “things that are of the world remain in the world and whatever riches we gather are bequeathed to our heirs.” And, as he goes on to say, what “we cannon take away with us” when we die are not really ours.

The only thing that I can take with me in death, the saint says, is virtue. “Virtue alone is the companion of the dead, mercy alone follows us.”

Having been united to Christ in baptism we are now “one Body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5). It is this message of unity, of the human family reconciled both to God and with itself, that we preach.

It is not enough to be reconciled with God alone because sin ruptures not only my relationship with Him but you as well.

This means that our membership in the Church is only the starting point. It is, to be sure, essential. But as Orthodox Christians, we do not believe that salvation is a strictly private affair. Sin separates me not only from God but from you as well and so I must be reconciled to both you and God. It isn’t one or the other but both together and one only with the other.

The life of the Church is often contentious. The reason is that we are called not to like each other, though thank God we do, but to love each other. And not only to love each other but to forgive each other.

Our Lord’s expectation is that there will be times when Christians will hurt each other; we will give offense, we will disagree.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To say, as we do, that salvation is found in the Church is to say that salvation begins the Church. The life of the Church is not the goal of life in Christ but only the starting point.

So let us begin!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory