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

The Boldness of Humility

Sunday, May 19 (OS May 6), 2019: 4th Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Paralytic; Righteous Job the Long-suffering (c. 2000-1500 B.C.); Martyrs Barbarus the Soldier, Bacchus, Callimachus, and Dionysius in Morea (362); Martyr Barbarus the former robber in Epirus (IX). Righteous Tabitha of Joppa (I). (moveable feast on the 4th Sunday after Pascha).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 9:32-43
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

Following the biblical witness, the fathers of the Church saw bodily infirmity–blindness, deafness, or in the case of today’s readings paralysis–as symbolic of humanity’s fallen condition. The Venerable Bede writes that “anyone who embraces the unstable joys of the present is as through flattened upon his bed, devoid of energy” trapped as they are by the “sluggishness” of “worldly pleasures” (Commentary of Acts of the Apostles, 9.33).

It’s important to say that neither Bede nor any of the fathers were denying the goodness of Creation or the delights that are to be found in this life. Marriage, to take only one example, is a sacrament of the Church and according to St Paul a revelation of the love Christ has for the Church (see Ephesian 5:32).

No, the problem is not the goodness of Creation but the human hearts indifference to God. As in any relationship, indifference today becomes hostility tomorrow.

It is this hostility born of indifference that leads some among the Jews to condemn the paralytic for violating the law by carrying his pallet on the Sabbath. They do this, St Augustine says, because to condemn the healing would have been to invite the rebuke they heard from Jesus at another time. “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” (Luke 14:5, NJKV)

Instead of criticizing Jesus–and so have their hypocrisy exposed–“they addressed the man, … as if to say: Even if the healing could not be delayed why command the work?” Even so, the question exposes their hypocrisy. Augustine says that to ask this is to invite a response that testifies to the divinity of Christ: “Why should I not receive a command if I also received a cure from Him?” (Tractates on the Gospel of John 17:10)

For the person, indifferent and even hostile to the presence of God brings with it a heavy cost. Unaware of God’s presence in their lives means as well that they live unaware of His great love for them and for the dignity to which they are called in Jesus Christ.

The full implications of what has happened will take the rest of the paralytic’s life to understand. But while his understand is immature, his experience of God’s love for him makes him bold!

When confronted the man doesn’t conceal the miracle. He doesn’t hesitate to proclaim that he had been cured “of his illness.” And when falsely condemned he did not ask “for pardon. Instead, he boldly confessed the cure. This is how he acted” and this is how we are called to act as well (St John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Gospel of John, 37.2).

Both sin and love make us bold. But where the boldness of sin is fool hearted and rash, love’s boldness is courageous.

Look at St Peter.

At this point in Acts, he has already been arrested twice and beaten once. Stephen has been martyred, Saul is arresting and handing Christians over to the authorities, and “a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1).

And yet, Chrysostom says, Peter walks about “like a general … inspecting the ranks.” Because of his great love for Jesus, Peter always

…goes about first. When an apostle had to be chosen, he was first; when the Jews had to be told that these were not drunk, he was first; when the lame man had to be healed, he was first; when the crowd had to be addressed, he was before the rest; when the rulers had to be addressed, he was the man; when Ananias had to be addressed, when healings were worked by the shadow, still it was he.

When “the situation is calm” the disciples “act in common.” But when “there was danger” Peter acts alone. In all of this he “did not seek a greater honor. When there was need to work miracles, he leaps forward, and here again he is the man to labor and toil” (Homilies on Acts of the Apostle, 21).

And when it is time for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles, Peter once again takes the lead in following the path Paul has blazed.

In the Christian economy, evangelical boldness the fruit of humility. Peter like Jesus, “Who conquered persecutors [here] below and reigns over angels [in heaven] above spoke … in a humble voice,” (St Ephrem the Syrian, Homily on Our Lord, 26.1) because the word he speaks is not his but God’s word to him for the life of the world (see, John 7:16, 12:49, 14:10).

To remain silent about the Gospel is not humility. We have all of us been given a word to speak; we are all of us in baptism called to be witnesses of the Resurrection and evangelists of the Gospel.

But a problem remains. If remaining silent when we are called to speak is not humility, how then are we to speak? In this as in all things, Jesus shows us the way.

Before He heal the paralytics Jesus asks the man “Do you want to be healed?” Jesus invites the man to cooperate with grace.

Jesus question reflects the humility of the Father Who never imposes Himself on us but woos us. In doing this He also makes clear “the cruelty of those … who were well” but who never lifted “their hand to help” the man but instead treated him “like an enemy” when he asked for help (Amphilochius of Iconium, Oration, 9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Every day, we meet those who ask for our help in coming to know Jesus Christ; every day we meet those who even if they do so poorly ask us about the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ.

Humility, to say nothing of love, demands we speak.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Faith & Reason, Charity & Prudence

Sunday, April 7 (OS March 25), 2019: 4th Sunday of Lent; Sunday of St John of the Ladder of Divine Ascent; the Feast of the Holy Annunciation of the Theotokos; Martyr Victoria

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrews 2:11-18/6:1-20
Gospel: Luke 1:24-34/Mark 9:17-31

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The hymnography for the Feast of the Annunciation includes a conversation between the Mother of God and the Archangel Gabriel.

In response to Gabriel’s announcement that she is to give birth to the Son of God, the Virgin Mary asks the angel as to how this is even possible: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

Though she doesn’t understand how God’s will for her is to be accomplished, in humility she accepts the divine will calling herself “the handmaiden of the Lord.”

The humility of her response, however, is not passive. Nor does it reflect a simplification of the complexity of God’s will for her life. Though she responds in a common-sense manner to the angel’s message—“How can this be, since I do not know a man?—the hymnography makes it clear that she is not naïve.

Immediately after raising the biological question, the hymnography tells us Mary turns to philosophy: “How shall I become the Mother of my Maker?’” How, in other words, will the creature conceive and contain in her womb the Creator?

Mary’s questions however are not merely speculative. She is motivated by a concern for the whole human family. She is aware that the last time an angel appeared to a virgin–the Serpent to Eve in the Garden–things ended badly for us.

As we reflect on the Virgin’s hesitancy we come to see that it reflects not a lack of faith on her part. Rather, she is moved by an abundance of charity. No matter how great the honor offered her, she doesn’t want to act impulsively; the reward is great but is great as well.

We can apply to Mary the Solomon’s description of the wise man:

The simple believes every word, but the prudent considers well his steps. A wise man fears and departs from evil, but a fool rages and is self-confident (Proverbs 14:15-16, NKJV).

Mary is no fool! She is wise and carefully thinks through the implications of her actions.

She reflects on the Angel’s greeting not only in light of Scripture but also science and philosophy. The Handmaiden of the Lord is obedient and charitable but also respectful of reason and what reason knows.

So what does all this mean for us?

In the Mother of God we see the harmony–the synergy–of faith and reason, of charity and prudence.

Faith without reason is mere fantasy even as reason without faith is idle speculation.

Likewise, charity needs prudence since without the ability to give practical expression to our concern for others we are left with mere sentimentality. As for prudence, without love it is cowardice.

When I violate the partnership between faith and reason or charity and prudence and I set the stage for violence. Violence not only in society but in the Church, the family and in our personal lives.

Sentimentality gives rise to violence because it demands recognition. For the one gripped by the passion of sentimentality, it isn’t enough that he feels happy or sad; others must join him in his feelings. And, if they don’t or won’t, they must be made to comply.

All this is so because once we break the inherent connection between faith and reason, between charity and prudence, we set ourselves adrift. We strip ourselves of everything except our current emotion or most recent thought or most pressing desire. We become slaves to our own thoughts, feelings, and desires.

In other words, faith without reason, charity without prudence, is precisely that from which God comes to save us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We see in the Mother of God an icon of the faithful, loving and rational disciple of Christ. In her faith and reason, charity and prudence are not only in harmony with each other but also at the service of the Gospel.

She is as well the icon of the Christian professional, the Christian scholar, the Christian scientist.

We see in her what it means to give ourselves wholly to Christ not only for our own sake but for the salvation of the world. And so we see in her both our vocation as disciples and apostles of Christ but also as citizens of a Republic.

May God through the prayers of the Holy Theotokos grant us a life faithful reason, rational faith, charitable prudence and prudent charity.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory