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

Homily: Be Kind

Sunday, November 3 (OS October 21), 2019: 20th Sunday after Pentecost; St. Hilarion the Great of Palestine (371); Martyrs Dasius, Gaius, and Zoticus at Nicomedia (303); Ven. Hilarion of the Kyiv Caves, First Ukrainian Metropolitan of Kyiv (1067).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church

Madison, WI

Epistle: Galatians 1:11-19

Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

Glory to Jesus Christ!

As He often does, this morning Jesus tells us a story. There are in this story two men: an unnamed rich man and a beggar Lazarus.

Of all the figures we meet in the parable of Jesus, Lazarus is the only one who is named. All the rest go on named. They are types of human affairs but devoid of personal identity.

Lazarus is named because suffering, like love, is always personal. Even when suffering strips me of my dignity, the loss is always a personal loss. It is Lazarus in all his personal uniqueness that lies outside the rich man’s gate hungry and sick.

As for the rich man, he uses his wealth to hold himself apart from Lazarus. He uses his wealth to depersonalize Lazarus but, in so doing, the rich man strips himself of his own dignity. His indifference to Lazarus’ humanity comes at the cost of his own.

And so we have the nameless rich man, an impersonal type and Lazarus whose humanity shines through even in the midst of his suffering.

This Gospel is one of St John Chrysostom’s favorites. Again and again, he comes back to it in his homilies as a priest and later as the Archbishop of Constantinople.

Looking at the relationship between Lazarus and the rich man, the latter is condemned not because he failed to bring Lazarus into his home. His condemnation isn’t the result of an unwillingness to share his table with Lazarus.

Rather he is condemned because he fails to show Lazarus the mercy shown him by “the dogs came and licked his sores.” It wasn’t because he failed to host Lazarus at a great feast but because he failed to feed him “with the crumbs” from his table. It wasn’t because he didn’t offer Lazarus wine but that he didn’t give him the same favor he asked for himself. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.”

Chrysostom says the rich man is condemned because he failed to relieve, however fleetingly, Lazarus’ suffering. The rich man was condemned not for failing to make Lazarus rich but for failing to be kind.

It is this kindness that is at the heart of our evangelical witness and mission here on the Isthmus.

St Paul in his epistle the Gospel he preaches comes not from man but from God. This isn’t meant to undermine the importance of the Church. Far from it in fact!

After preaching the Gospel with great success for three years in Arabia, the Apostle goes to Jerusalem. The fact that he received the Gospel from Jesus Christ doesn’t mean Paul can do without the Church.

St John Chrysostom says in traveling to Jerusalem, St Paul reveals the depth and breadth of his humility. He doesn’t enter Jerusalem like Cesaer but quietly. He doesn’t seek out the praise of the Church but a quiet meeting with Peter and later James the brother of our Lord.

He who was called by Christ in humility seeks to be confirmed by Peter.

Here we need to pause and ask ourselves, how does Peter receive Paul? He doesn’t castigate Paul for having persecuted the Church. Instead, he receives him as a brother. Rather than shame for the great harm he has done, Peter extends the hand of friendship.

Both in Paul’s humility and Peter’s reception of Paul, we see what it means to respond with evangelical kindness.

When people come to us, we need to open wide the doors of the Church. Far from responding with polemics or words that shame them for past deeds, evangelical kindness demands we lift from their shoulders the burdens that bind them.

To do this requires the humility of both Peter and Paul.

Like Paul, the Gospel we have received comes not from man but God. And, again like Paul, far from separating us from the Church, from those who have gone before us in the faith, the Gospel binds us ever more tightly together.

Like Peter, we must be always willing to receive freely and without demand anyone who comes to us no matter how imperfect and lacking their repentance. After all if, like Paul, they have been chosen by God how can I turn them away?

Brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us learn from Peter and Paul and the failures of the rich man! Let us practice simple kindness. Let us make kindness our daily rule for how we will respond to those God brings to us.

Let us simply be kind and so win the souls of those burdened by sin.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Preaching the Gospel

Sunday, June 16 (O.S., June 3), 2019: Holy Pentecost-Trinity Sunday; Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Church.

Epistle: Acts 2:1-11

Gospel: John 7:37-52; 8:12

Today, our Lord Jesus Christ sends the Holy Spirit down on the disciples and apostles. Receiving the Spirit, those who were once frightened men and women boldly proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The disciples and apostles don’t proclaim the whole Christian faith in all its particulars. They don’t speak about sacraments and fasting, they didn’t engage others in debates about doctrine and church history. Instead, they proclaim the kerygma that Jesus is the Savior of the world.

While the rest of the teaching of the Church is important–essential in fact–it rests of the foundation of the kerygma. Unless and until a person understands, accepts, and believes that out of His great love for us God sent His only begotten Son into this world as a sacrifice for sin and that by His death and Resurrection Jesus has overthrown the powers of sin and death, the rest of the Gospel is mere moral philosophy. Without belief in the kerygma, what the Church teaches is at best only a set of interesting ideas that have no power to save.

Unlike the disciples on that first Pentecost, not only do we often fail to begin the evangelical work at the beginning–that Jesus loves us–we often speak to peoples whose hearts–unlike the hearts of the “Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven” in Jerusalem–are not ready to hear the Gospel.

At least some of the those in Jerusalem were able to accept the Gospel because their hearts had been prepared by the Law of Moses or the study of philosophy. These were men and women who already believed in God, who cultivated the life of virtue, and who had confidence in the ability of human reason to know the truth.

Today though many of the people–I dare say most–of the people we speak to have hearts that are not ready to hear the Gospel. They have an impoverished view of human reason and they think the moral life is a matter of opinion or preference that has only one standard: that we don’t hurt others.

As for the existence of God, the best we can say is that many–including many Orthodox Christians I’m sad to say–believe in a God Who asks nothing and offers nothing beyond a wanting us to be happy.

Added to all this we must overcome the moralism, bad preaching and erroneous theology that have become associated with the Gospel in our popular religious culture.

Like the disciples and apostles, we have each of us personally received the Holy Spirit not in part but in full. But the way in which we fulfill our evangelical vocation is different than how they did it. Before we can preach the Gospel, we must do the hard work of preparing the hearts of those to whom we would preach.

This work begins in friendship.

Not a calculating friendship that draws close to someone simply to make them Orthodox. We must rather be true friends–to unbelievers and believers alike. We must be committed to seeking what is best for them and we must respect their consciences. Many, most really, of those with whom we are friends will never commit themselves to Christ. Among those who already have, most will likely not become Orthodox.

Whatever they may or may not do, our task is above all else to love them. When and how someone responds to God’s grace is beyond us. This doesn’t mean we are indifferent to the salvation of our friends. It does, however, mean we must remember that while “one sow” it is often another who reaps (John 4:37). We have our role play in the salvation of the world. But frequently it is to prepare the heart so that someone else at some other time, can lead the person to Christ and His Church.

This is why, and this the second thing we must do, we must cultivate a life of prayer. We must pray not only for each other but for our friends and, yes, even our enemies and antagonists. It is much better, to borrow from St Paisios of Mount Athos, to talk to God about our friends than to talk to our friends about God.

To friendship and prayer, we must add respect for the ability of human reason to know the truth and a practical appreciation for the life of virtue. Too many Orthodox Christians I am sorry to say have made their own the world’s conviction that truth is really about power and that what really matters is not virtue but good intentions.

When we deny reason’s ability to know the truth and the necessity of living a morally good life–and please understand, these are two sides of the same coin—we set ourselves adrift in the sea of relativism. This doesn’t free us. Instead, it degrades us.

When “true” means “true for you” and the only moral standard is “don’t hurt others,” we don’t free ourselves from conflict or disagreement–these are always with us–but lose of the desire and the ability to resolve our differences. Absent reason and virtue all we are left with is our desires and so the unchecked pursuit of power.

It was this, the imposition of the strong on the weak, that the Gospel corrected. In Christ, I discover that power, authority, wealth are not for my own self-aggrandizement but of my service to my neighbor.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We have received in fullness they same Spirit as the disciples and apostles on Pentecost. And, like them, we are called to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the particulars of how we fulfill our evangelical vocation are different, the work is the same.

Like the disciples and apostles in Jerusalem, seeing the enormity of the task or the anger of those who disagree with us, we might be afraid. And realizing our fear and seeing the obstacles before us we might be tempted to remain silent and justify our silence by appealing to a false sense of humility.

But when we are overwhelmed by the work to which we are called, we should remember that–like the disciples and apostles–we have received not a portion of the Holy Spirit but the fullness of the Spirit so that, again like the disciples and apostles, we can preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 ) to the world and so lead others to faith, to the forgiveness of their sins, and to becoming themselves shares in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and witness to the Resurrection.

Blessed Feast!

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

Lies We Tell Ourselves #1: “We’re Growing!”

Over the next few days, I’ll post my slides and notes from the talk I gave recently in Grand Rapids for the Alance of Orthodox Christians:  “10 Lies Orthodox Christians Tell Ourselves.” Here’s the first thing we get wrong about ourselves.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

We’ve heard this a lot over the years that Orthodoxy is the fastest growing religion in America.   The numbers tell a different story. We’re shrinking. We aren’t shrinking any faster than the Catholic Church or the Mainline Protestant communities but we are shrinking.

We can add to these numbers the fact that some 60% of those baptized as infants will leave the Church by the time they’re 25. Of the young people who stay, only about 1 in 4 will attend Liturgy on a weekly basis.

And while exact numbers are hard to come by, converts—those who become Orthodox as adults—tend to leave the Church at the same rate as young adults.