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.

Becoming Fire!

October 7 (O.S., September 24), 2018: 19th Sunday after Pentecost. Holy Protomartyr and Equal-to-the-Apostles Thecla of Iconium (1st c.). Ven. Coprius of Palestine (530).

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9
Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The first two chapters of Genesis introduce us to the God Who is both Redeemer and Artist of Creation.

Rather than Aristotle’s impersonal Unmoved Mover or the Enlightenment’s somewhat more personal but nevertheless detached Watchmaker, as portrayed in Genesis God is intimately involved in the shaping and ordering of Creation.

Day after day, God orders the primordial chaos. To those who lived at the time, this ordering of chaos would not have been understood abstractly.

In a world beset with the chaos of disease and famine, war and accidental death, God’s actions at the Creation would have been proof that the God of Moses was worthy of human obedience. This God above all the gods of the time was victorious not only over the passing chaos of daily life but the cosmological chaos that always threatened to overwhelm humanity.

And when God creates His finest creation–humanity–He doesn’t do so like the other gods from a distance or with violence. Rather, He reaches down in love to His creation and forms Man out of the dust, the mud, of the earth.

We can see in this a foreshadowing of the Incarnation. As St Augustine points out (City of God, 24), the One Who gives us physical life by His breath will later breath upon the apostles and disciples granting them the power to forgive sins and so great us life everlasting (see John 20:19-25).

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

What God creates first, is more manikin than Man. It is only when God mixes His Spirit with His this model of a man that the mud of the earth becomes, as we read in Genesis, “a living being” (Genesis 2:7). This means that to be human means to be a creature who shares, participates, in the divine life (compare 2 Peter 1:4).

The Hebrew word translated as “living being” is nephesh. It is a word often used to describe things like a flute or the throat. It has the connotation, in other words, of things that are only themselves when they are empty so they can be filled with breath. It’s only with breath, that the flute makes music or the throat words.

For the human to be nephesh means that, from the beginning, we are only ourselves when we are filled with the Spirit of God. This is the context with which we can understand St Paul’s boast that in human weakness, divine grace is perfected.

The power of the Gospel is only made real in the lives of those who have come to accept and embrace with gratitude their absolute dependence on God. This means as well, that I am most fully myself only to the degree that I depend on God. And it is this dependence on God that makes possible for us to do the mighty works of God.

Look at St Peter in the Gospel.

After a hard night of failure, Jesus comes to him and asks to be rowed out into the lake. Of all the things Simon wanted to do that morning, going back on to the water was likely not one of them.

But out he goes.

And when Jesus is finished preaching? He tells Simon to row out to the deep part of the lake and let down his net.

Not surprisingly, Simon doesn’t want to do this. After all, he not Jesus is the fisherman. And while he was willing to provide Jesus a platform to preach, rowing out on the water and dropping his net means revisiting the scene of his failure.

We need to understand, Simon’s failure wasn’t an abstraction for him. Failing to catch fish the night before, means he goes hungry this morning. And not only Simon.

His wife and children will have no food this morning. And he will have no fish to trade. This means he has failed not only his family but his village as well.

And so for Simon to hear Jesus, this rabbi, this carpenter, and his friend, to say “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch” means to be asked to revisit the scene of his failure as a husband, a father and a member of the community.

To do as Jesus asks is humiliating for Simon. The successful catch comes at the cost of Simon surrendering all his notions of who he is and what it means to be a good husband, father, Jew, and man.

Rather than responding with anger, he confesses his sinfulness. In that moment of miraculous success, Simon realizes how little room he has in his heart for God.

It is precisely at the moment when he realizes his weakness, that Simon the fisherman becomes Peter the Apostle who’s preaching will set the world on fire!

We are called to live the same life as Peter and Paul. If we embrace our dependence on God if we root out all the things in our life that we cling to instead of God, then like Peter and Paul, we can not only set the world around us on fire, we can become ourselves fire!

And what does fire do but shine and burn?

We can become light and warmth for a world grown cold and dark because of sin. And far from being used up or destroyed in the process, we will become more and more the persons who God has created us to be.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Jesus says to each of us today, “I came to send fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!”

Today, Christ calls us to fulfill His desire for the world!

Today, Christ calls us to be His disciples, His witnesses!

Today, Christ calls us to become who we are!

Today, Christ calls us to become fire!

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