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

Quiet Openness

August 5 (O.S., July 23), 2018: 10th Sunday after Pentecost; “Pochaiv” (1675) Icon of the Mother of God; Hieromartyr Apollinaris, bishop of Ravenna (75); Martyrs Trophimus, Theophilus, and 13 others in Lycia (305).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 4:9-16/Philippians 2:5-11
Gospel: Matthew 17:14-23/Luke 10:38-42; 11:27-28

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The second epistle this morning tell us to make our own the attitude or mindset of Christ. Like Jesus, we are to empty ourselves and become servants to others.

This call to self-emptying or kenosis is not a call to call to passively accept bullying. Much less is it a command suffer abuse in silence. Certainly, there will be times when we will suffer for Christ. There will be times when we experience injustice or mistreatment at the hands of others. But this isn’t what St Paul is talking when he tells us to empty ourselves.

What he is saying is this. We must be willing and able to work for the salvation of others. And yes, at times, this will mean setting aside for a time even our own otherwise legitimate concerns and needs.

Love, in other words, requires sacrifice and if the willingness to sacrifice is absent than our love is immature.

Christians’ willingness to sacrifice for the good of others–even strangers–is why, looking at the first epistle, the world calls us “fools.” We commit a grave error when we assume being a “fool for Christ” means being illiterate or hostile to secular learning or to the good things we see in the culture.

We are fools because we place all that we have, all that we are, at the service of the salvation of our neighbor.

We are fools for Christ’s sake, that is, for the sake of the world’s salvation.

We are fools for Christ’s sake because our lives are dedicated to using all the material, cultural and intellectual riches at our disposal to draw others to Christ.

This means that whether we are young or old, male or female, in whatever profession or job we do, we are committed to helping others come to know and follow Christ as members of the Orthodox Church.

If I fail in this, I fail not because of an absence of grace but of my own faith.

Jesus tells us this in the first Gospel. “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

But just as we need to understand what self-emptying does–and more importantly, doesn’t–mean so we also need to be clear about what it means to have faith to move mountains.

The unbelievers, the enemies of the faith, are a great to help to us on this point. St Nikolai Velimirovich, the great Serbian saint of the last century, tells us this in his prayer-poem “Bless My Enemies O Lord.”

The saint encourages me to call my enemies my “cruel friends” because they reveal the sins I would avoid confessing. They scold me, “whenever I have flattered myself.//They have spat upon me, whenever I have filled myself with arrogance.”

He concludes by saying “One hates his enemies only when he fails to realize that they are not enemies, but cruel friends.//It is truly difficult for me to say who has done me more good and who has done me more evil in the world: friends or enemies.”

What good has the unbeliever done for us? Just this, he has mercilessly reminded us that faith is not magic. Our unbelieving friends by their criticism help us understand that faith only moves mountains when God would have mountains move.

The faith that we must have, the faith that allows us to love sacrificially and to place wisely all that we have at the service of the Gospel, is the faith we see in the two Marys in the second Gospel: Mary the sister of Martha and Mary the Mother of God.

Martha is consumed by worry because she is busy serving Jesus. Ironically, she is anxious because, in her service, she has lost sight of Him. Mary, on the other hand, keeps her eyes and her heart fixed on Jesus.

The lesson here is clear.

If I’m not careful, I can become so focused on serving others that I lose sight of Jesus Christ. And when I lose sight of Him, I lose sight of you. We are united to each other and to each person we met not by the bonds of our own affections–which are after all fleeting–but by Jesus Christ.

Put another way, I am united in love to you because Christ is united in love to both of us. Lose sight of Christ and His love and my love for you will eventually grow cold and even bitter.

So what are we to do? For this, we look to the other Mary, Mary the Mother of God.

The Pangia’s presence in today’s Gospel reading is hidden; her name isn’t even spoken. And yet it is the Mother of God who draw together in herself all that it means to a follower of Christ.

The Virgin is the icon of Christian discipleship not primarily because she gives birth to the Son of God–miraculous and grace-filled though this is–but because, as her Son says of her, she hears the Word of God and keeps it!

While not without her own trials–after all, a sword pierces her heart (Luke 2:35)–Mary is unswerving in her loving obedience to the path God has called her to walk.

Mary faithful because she ponders in her heart “all … things” (see Luke 2:19). She is a woman of intense, and personal, prayer. She brings all of her life to God in prayer. She draws close to the God Who in Jesus Christ drew close to her.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today God calls us to be men and women of intense prayer. Not only the formal prayer found in books but the quiet prayer of the heart.

In Jesus Christ, God invites us to live a life of mature, sacrificial love. Such love is only possible when, like the two Marys, we focus on one thing that is needed. And that one thing? Our quiet, prayerful openness to God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory