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

Sunday of Orthodoxy: Witnesses to God’s Love

Sunday, February 25 (OS February 12): First Sunday of Great Lent: Triumph of Orthodoxy; Venerable Mary of Egypt; St. Theophanes the Confessor of Sigriane (818). Righteous Phineas, grandson of Aaron (1500 B.C.); St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome (604); St. Symeon the New Theologian (1021).

Epistle: Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40
Gospel: John 1:43-51

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The troparion for the Sunday of Orthodoxy reminds us that Christ willingly ascended the Cross for our salvation. Jesus dies, the hymn says, to free us from “bondage to the enemy” and, in so doing has “filled all things with joy.”

We should be careful here.

We often hear in the popular American religious culture, that Jesus dies to satisfy God’s anger. Or we might hear that on the Cross Jesus balance the scales between the offense of sin and requirement of divine justice.

Assumed here is the idea that the Incarnation is motivated by human sinfulness. God becomes Incarnate, suffer and dies, because of our failings.

For the Orthodox Church, however, the Incarnation isn’t motivated by human sinfulness. For fathers like St Irenaeus and St Maximos the Confessor, the Incarnation isn’t an afterthought. It isn’t some kind of moral course correction.

No for the fathers of the Church, the Incarnation is the point of Creation. God creates in order to Himself become Man. God creates us, in other words, to become as we and so that, in turn, we can become by grace what He is.

“This is the reason why the Word of God was made flesh, and the Son of God became Son of Man:” St Irenaeus writes, “so that we might enter into communion with the Word of God, and by receiving adoption might become Sons of God” ( Against Heresies, III.19.1).

St Maximus, likewise, sees the Incarnation as the purpose of creation. He says that out of His great love for us, the Word of God for us “hides himself mysteriously” in the essence of His creature. It is as if every single thing that God creates is a letter of the alphabet which, when they are all taken together, reveal God in “His fullness” (Ambigua, PG 9 1, 1 28 5-8).

All of this is simply to repeat what we will hear in the Gospel on Pascha:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made (John 1:1-3, NKJV).

And what then of the Cross? Why does Jesus suffer and die?

We get a partial answer in the Lamentation Services that we sing on Holy Friday evening when Jesus asks us for which of His miracles have we Crucified Him?

The sobering fact is that Jesus dies on the Cross not to calm God’s anger. No, he dies because in our sinfulness we kill Him. He dies because we–I really–reject Him. I lay the burden on my sin on His shoulders.

Our Lord isn’t betrayed by Peter or abandoned by the disciples. He isn’t crucified by the Jews or the Romans. All these things I do with each and every sin I commit.

And yet, this isn’t the whole of the story. In the Tradition of the Church, while human sinfulness is taken seriously, it is never the explanation.

St. John Chrysostom says “I call him king because I see him crucified: it belongs to the king to die for his subjects.” Jesus goes to the Cross willingly because He refuses to impose Himself on us. In His great love for us, Jesus willingly accepts an unjust death.

And how could He not? To do otherwise would violate the freedom of His creature. THis respect for human freedom matters because the love that isn’t free offered isn’t really love.

All that God does, He does freely–that is to say, in love. This is the life He wishes to share with us, this is the life to which He calls us. And it is this life, and this life alone, that is the source of joy.

For God to avoid the Cross would be to undermine human freedom and so make our love a fraud and to rob us of joy.  It is with all this in mind that we turn to the Gospel.

The Gospel reading today from St John is an interesting one. It isn’t a “theological” Gospel in the sense that the Prologue is. There is no lofty theology in the scant few verses the Church puts before us.

Today’s Gospel is an evangelical Gospel.

Jesus says to Philip “Follow Me” and he does. And what happens next? Philip goes and finds Nathaniel and tells his friend “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Philip offers no argument in response to Nathaniel’s disbelief. He doesn’t try to change Nathaniel’s mind with clever arguments. He makes no appeals to philosophy or the Scripture. All he says is “Come and see.”

Much as some would have us think, the hallmark of our lives as Orthodox Christians isn’t our theological sophistication. It isn’t our sublime liturgy or beautiful music.

It rather that we are disciples and evangelists. We follow Jesus Christ and shape our lives around His teaching and–above all–His Person.

And having experienced the great love God Who accepts the Cross rather than violate the freedom of the creature we say to others “Come and see.”

“Come and see” the fulfillment your heart’s desires!

“Come and see” Divine Love in human form!

“Come and see” what it means to be love without limit by Him Who knows all about you!

And how could we do otherwise? What more does love desire expect to share its joy with others?

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Today as we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy and the Restoration of the Holy Icons, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the whole of the Tradition of the Church has only one goal: To introduce men and women to the God Who loves them without compromise.

If are faithful in this, we will transform the world around us beginning first and foremost with ourselves.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory