Don’t Murder Love

Sunday, March 10 (O.S.: February 25), 2019: Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam from the Paradise (Forgiveness or Cheesefare Sunday).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 13:11-14; 14:1-4
Gospel: Matthew 6:14-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Slapping me on the shoulder, my friend Rabbi Joe once told me, “I like you, Fr Gregory! You think like a Jew! You forgive everything but forget nothing!”

I’m not exactly sure what Rabbi meant but I’ll defer to his judgment as to what it means to be Jewish. What I can say is that forgiveness is central to both Judaism and Christianity.

For Orthodox Christianity, forgiveness is the evidence of the truth of the Gospel that

Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death,

And upon those in the tombs Bestowing life!

Jesus tells us not only to forgive our enemies and love those who persecute us (see Matthew 5:44) but that we are to do so “seven times seventy time” (see Matthew 18:22).

And when He appears to His disciples after the Resurrection He grants them the power to “bind and loosen” (Matthew 18:18) the sins of others: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23).

In all this, we should lose sight of the fact that we are able to forgive because we have been forgiven by God.

For most of us, most of the time, the sins we forgive, like the sins for which we need forgiveness, are usually petty. We are all of us primarily perpetrators and victims not of great injustices but minor annoyances. We are slowly “nibbled to death by ducks” rather than quickly killed by the sword.

This is why in her wisdom, the Church asks us to begin the season of the Great Fast by participating in the Rite of Mutual Forgiveness. We have all of us sinned against each of us even if only in mostly minor ways.

There is a caution that is important here.

The formality of the rite–”Forgive me a sinner!” “God forgives!”–is appropriate when the offense is minor and so easily forgiven and forgotten.

But if the offense is serious, if we were the victim or perpetrator of some great injustice, the formality of the rite is inappropriate. Simply saying “Forgive me a sinner!” would work against forgiveness and undermine reconciliation.

In the case of a serious offense, the formality of the words would not unreasonably be seen as a way of minimizing the harm and of forgetting the past without working to build–or rather, re-build, trust.

In the case of a serious offense, the formality of the Rite of Forgiveness erodes whatever trust is left between us. It says to the one I have harmed that I don’t take seriously the offense I’ve given and so I don’t take seriously the harm he has suffered.

As I said, the Rite of Forgiveness isn’t meant to undo “deadly sins” (see 1 John 5:17) but the myriad minor infractions we all of us commit and suffer daily. The latter can be easily forgiven, while the former requires not only that I go to Holy Confession but that I seek to make right personally and practically the wrong that I’ve done.

But today, today we approach each other with a generous, forgiving and repentant heart for the small offenses we have given and received.

But this doesn’t undermine what I said a moment ago. Our mutual forgiveness is evidence of the truth of the Resurrection, that the power of sin and death have been overcome (see Romans 8:2).

For all that any single offense is minor, in the aggregate, they are as deadly as any single serious sin.

The sad truth is that just as love between a husband and wife, to take only one example, can be killed by one instance of adultery, it can be ground down and destroyed by daily indifference. And like in marriage, infidelity in the spiritual life need not be dramatic to be deadly.

Thinking back almost 30 years later to my friend the late Rabbi Joe, I think what he meant to say was that, a good Jew (and so a good Christian), must always be ready to forgive but never at the expense of denying the harm we do to each other.

Without forgiveness, the harm we do by even the smallest offense is multiplied, eroding trust and affection until love is murdered. Not only is this is something we can never forget, it is something we need to remember.

Let me speaks now simply for myself.

I need to remember this.

I need to remember this not to justify holding grudges but as a reminder of my need to forgive.

I need to remember that even small offenses, over time, will kill love.

Above all, I need to actively seek and extend forgiveness not just for serious sins but also the myriad small and petty offenses of daily life.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Forgive me a sinner!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Forgiveness is Our Witness

November 18 (O.S., November 5), 2018: 25th Sunday after Pentecost. Martyrs Galacteon and his wife Episteme at Emesa (253). Apostles Patrobus, Hermas, Linus, Gaius, and Philologus of the Seventy (1st c.). St. Gregory, archbishop of Alexandria (9th c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 4:1-6
Gospel: Luke 8:41-56

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We don’t this morning need to look outside the Church to find those who hold Jesus in contempt. We need only to listen to the Gospel. It isn’t the Jewish authorities (e.g., John 8:41,  Matthew 9:34, Luke 11:15) or the Romans (Matthew 27:27-31, John 19:15) who ridicule Jesus.

No, today we see that it is His disciples and His closest friends, Peter, James, and John who treat Jesus with contempt.

For the fathers of the Church, one sign of the truthfulness of the Gospels is that while they agree in substance they often disagree in the details. St John Chrysostom says that while we should “strict[ly] heed … the things … written,” in Scripture, apart from the “good tidings” of “ God on earth, man in Heaven,” the biblical text is nothing but “words … without substance” (Homily on Matthew, 1.2-3).

St Augustine argues that if the Gospels were forgeries if the message they proclaim was false, then the authors would have seen to it to agree in all the details. Instead “each Evangelist believed it … his duty to recount what he had to in that order in which it pleased God to suggest it to his memory.”

he goes on to say that the difference in order and emphasis “detracts in nothing from the truth and authority of the Gospel.”  Why? Because “the Holy Spirit, … permitted one to compile his narrative in this way, and another in that” in order that the reader, noticing the differences, might “with pious diligence … and with divine aid” seek the meaning underlying the text (The Harmony of the Gospel II:12.28).

So, with Chrysostom and Augustine in mind, what are we to make of the apostles ridiculing Jesus?

First, I think it testifies to the truthfulness of the Gospels. Just as forgers would harmonize the details, anyone who wanted to boost the prestige of the Church would not highlight the failures of the apostles. But St Luke is concerned not with the protecting the reputation of the apostles but demonstrating the authority of Jesus over the powers of sin and death.

Second, I think in recounting the apostles’ bad behavior, St Luke reminds us that from the very beginning, the life of the Church was marked by a certain, internal conflict. And how could it be otherwise? Then, as now, the Church is a communion of sinners working out our salvation together “in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

This helps make sense of why St Paul tells the Ephesians to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Read St Paul enough and it becomes clear that the life of the New Testament Church was often marked by conflict. The Apostle is forever reminding the first Christians to forgive each other (e.g., Ephesians 4:32, Colossians 3:12, 13); to value charity more than miracles (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) and, this morning, to guard the unity of the Church.

As conflict-ridden as this suggests the Church was, what is extraordinary, Tertullian says, is that the Gentiles looking at the early Christians a community of men and women noteworthy for their mutual charity; see “how they love one another.” The pagans lived in an honor-based culture where even the smallest offense often resulted in violence and death. It wasn’t this way for Christians. Christian forgave each other. And while the pagans because of their love of honor were “animated by mutual hatred,” Christians because of their mutual love were “ready even to die for one another” (The Apology, 39.7).

Like the world around us, the life of the Church has always been marred by conflict. But where those in the world respond to strife with hatred and even violence, Christians forgive one another.

The hallmark of the Church is not the absence of conflict but our eagerness to forgive each other even as Jesus forgives us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Just as the truthfulness of Scripture is not found in a forced agreement among the Gospel, the credibility of the Church is not found in a forced and false peace that denies our moments of disagreement.

The integrity of our witness is found in our willingness, eagerness even, to respond with mutual forgiveness to the inevitable moments of misunderstanding, hurt feelings and yes sharp conflict. It is this, our willingness to forgive one another and nothing else, that reveals the power of the Gospel and our commitment to Jesus Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Rights & Forgiveness

Sunday, August 12 (O.S., July 30), 2018: 11th Sunday after Pentecost. Apostles Silas and Silvanus of the Seventy and those with them: Crescens, Epenetus, and Andronicus (1stc.). Hieromartyr Polychronius, bishop of Babylon (251), and Martyrs Parmenius, Helimenas (Elimas), and Chrysotelus presbyters, Luke and Mocius deacons, and Abdon, Sennen, Maximus, and Olympius. Hieromartyr Valentine, bishop of Interamna (Terni) in Italy (273). Martyr John the Soldier at Constantinople (4th c.).

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9:2-12
Gospel: Matthew. 18:23-35

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission
Madison, WI

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Glory to Jesus Christ!

Over the years I have heard more than one Orthodox Christian tell me that “human rights” is foreign to Holy Tradition. Discussions of rights, so the argument goes, is a “Western” innovation. At best it is an import, at worse a heresy that undermines the Gospel.

“Christians,” as one bishop told me, “don’t have rights. We have responsibilities!”

Evidently, St Paul didn’t get the memo. In today’s epistle, the Apostle explicitly appeals to his rights as an apostle. And these rights aren’t unique to Paul. All the apostles have the right “to take along a believing wife” and “to refrain from working” so that they can devote themselves to the preaching of the Gospel. He concludes by asking the Corinthians: “If we have sown spiritual things for you, is it a great thing if we reap your material things?”

That Paul and Barnabas give up these rights doesn’t mean these rights don’t exist. If anything, it serves to highlight their importance and acceptance in the life of the early Church.

We need to distinguish between what Paul is talking about and the various contemporary theories of human rights. The latter, it must be said, sometimes is used merely as a justification for sinful behavior.

But the Scriptures establish an objective standard of justice in our relationships with each other. Far from abolishing or dismissing the demands of justice, the Gospel fulfills them. “Do not think,” Jesus tells His disciples, “that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17; see also Romans 3:31).

Like Paul and Barnabas, we are free to lay aside our rights. But if we do so, we must do it freely and for the right reason.

The Apostle is instructive here.

Following his example, no one can demand from us that we lay aside or surrender that which is ours by right. And when we do lay them aside, we do so not to be “nice” but for the salvation of others.

Put another way, no one can coerce you into giving up your rights. Nor should they penalize or punishment you for demanding that which is yours by right.

Not only must we rule out any external coercion, we need to be on guard against any internal compulsion. The demands of just not only places limits on our relationship with each other, it also sets out the moral limits of my relationship with myself.

If I lay aside my rights, I must do so not only free from external coercion and internal compulsion but only in the service of the salvation of others. I must not lightly give up my rights. This point is frequently misunderstood–or worse, dismissed–by many of us.

Jesus tells us that “if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed” (John 8:36). Morally, no one can compel us to do what we can only do freely.

How, though, do we reconcile this with today’s Gospel? Doesn’t Jesus tell me that I can’t inherit the Kingdom of God unless from my heart I forgive those who have harmed me?

To understand what Jesus is telling us we need to remember that forgiveness frees us from the resentment that often accompanies the injustice committed against us. It is only through forgiveness that we find the moral freedom that we see in St Paul.

Compare Paul to the wicked servant. Even though he has benefited from the generous mercy of his master, the servant is unwilling to extend even a small measure of forgiveness to his fellow servant.

St John Chrysostom points out that while “the blessings and gifts of God are irrevocable” by my “recalcitrance” I can “frustrate even the intention of God.” But it isn’t God Who changes. My desire for vengeance only “appears to overthrow” the mercy of God.

The great tragedy is that through his lack of forgiveness the wicked servant inflicts a greater evil on himself than he does on his fellow servant. He loses or rather rejects, the friendship of his master. In doing this, this he loses as well as the respect and affection of his fellow servants.

Like the wicked servant, there are those who think human rights “ free” them from the Gospel.

Like the wicked servant, their adherence to the demand of justice and their own rights is really a conceit; a way of avoiding the demands of the Gospel.

Like the wicked servant, I all too easily cling to my rights not from a sense of my own dignity or the demands of justice but because of the hardness of my own heart.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Like the wicked servant, it is my own inhumanity to others, my own lack of mercy, my own lack of a gentle spirit and a forgiving heart that separates me from God and so my neighbor. The tortures the parable promise are really self-inflicted.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

What is Freedom For?

Wednesday, April 04 (O.S., March 22), 2018: Great Wednesday; Hieromartyr Basil of Ancyra († 363); Martyr Drosis the Daughter of the Emperor Trajan (104-117); Venerable Isaac the Founder of the Dalmatian Monastery at Constantinople († 383); Martyrs Callinica and Basilissa of Rome; Venerable Martyr Euthymius of Constantinople; Hieromartyr Euthymius of Prodromou on Mt Athos († 1814).

Matins: John 12.17-50
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 2.3-3.3
Vespers: Exodus 2.11-22
Vespers: Job 2.1-10
Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts: Matthew 26.6-16

The choice before me is laid out in stark terms.

Like the Harlot, I can come “in tears” and cry out to God “In Your compassion and love for mankind, deliver me from the filth of my evil deeds!”

Alternatively, I can imitate “deceitful Judas” and allow my greed to draw me away “from intimate companionship with Christ.”

When, as Orthodox Christians, we emphasize the importance of human freedom (and all the rights and privileges that we have come to expect as Americans) our concern is in defending is the ability of the soul to imitate either the Harlot or Judas. Human freedom is not for us an end in itself. It is rather for something.

Immediately, freedom is for repentance. I must be free to examine myself, to know myself not simply in terms set by the culture but by Holy Tradition. Our freedom in the first instance is in the service of accurate self-knowledge.

As I grow to know myself, I am confronted with a choice.

Recognizing my vices as well as my virtues, what will I do? Will I struggle against my sins through the cultivation of virtue? Or will I, again like Judas, give myself over to despair?

A despairing soul will only infrequently commit suicide like Judas (Matthew 27:5). More often despair hides under the guise of another sin. Again, Judas is instructive.

The fallen apostle is mentioned nine times in today’s Matin service. In order, he is called “deceitful” and “burning with love of money” He is a man who “drunkenly runs” to betray his Friend (Kathisma 15).

He is called “envious,” “ignorant and evil.” A “miserable man,” a “traitor” blinded by “greedy avarice” into becoming a “traitor.” (Ode 9).

Judas is “scheming” and “enslaved to the Enemy” by his “terrible … slothfulness.” Twice we hear of “the wretchedness of Judas” (Praises).

Despair cloaks itself in all these seemingly lesser sins.

This, however, raises a question. If freedom is for repentance, what is repentance for? Again Judas is instructive.

Judas stands in bold contrast to the Harlot. While she spreads “out her hair” to dry the feet of Jesus that she has washed with her tears (Matthew 26:6–13; Mark 14:3–9; Luke 7:36–50; John 12:1–8), Judas spreads “out his hands to lawless men.” What the Harlot does, she does “in order to receive forgiveness,” she is repentant. And Judas? He only puts out his hand “to receive some silver” (Matthew 26:14-16, Luke 22:1-6).

As freedom is for repentance, repentance is for forgiveness. And not just forgiveness in a formal, juridical sense. But, as we hear in the service, the forgiveness that “raised Lazarus from the tomb after four days” (Aposticha).

All of this is expressed in the Hymn of Kassiane that we sing toward the end of Matins:

..accept the fountain of my tears,
O You, Who gathered the waters of the sea into clouds!
Bow down Your ear to the sighing of my heart,
O You, Who bowed the heavens in Your ineffable condescension!
Once Eve heard Your footsteps in Paradise in the cool of the day,
and in fear she ran and hid herself.
But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet
and wipe them with the hair of my head.
Who can measure the multitude of my sins,
or the depth of Your judgments, O Savior of my soul?
Do not despise Your servant in Your immeasurable mercy!”

God stands ready to accept our repentance. He stands ready to receive us who run to Him and extend to us His “immeasurable mercy.”

So, then, what is freedom for? It is so that we can receive the mercy of God and then offer that mercy to others.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Hope is Written into Reality

Friday, March 02 (O.S., February 17), 2018: Friday of the Second Week of Lent; Great Martyr Theodore the Recruit († c. 306); Finding of the relics of Martyr Menas Callicelados (“the beautiful-sounding”) of Alexandria († 867-889); Saint Mariamne, sister of the Apostle Philip (1st C); Holy Hierarch Auxibius, Bishop of Soli in Cyprus († 102); Hieromartyr Hermogenes, Patriarch of Moscow and Wonderworker of All Russia († 1612); Venerable Theodore the Silent of the Kiev Caves (13th C); Venerable Theodosius and Romanus of Bulgaria New Martyr Theodore (18th C).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 7:1-14
Vespers: Genesis 5:32-6:8
Vespers: Proverbs 6:20-7:1

Reflecting on human fecundity, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas says that each birth is a tangible sign of hope. In each infant, humanity has the opportunity to start again. This renewed hope, he says, reminds us that the essence of time is forgiveness.

Hope and forgiveness are written into the very nature of reality. This means is why in each moment of our life we have the chance to begin again through repentance.

We can’t, however, lose sight of the fact that hope and forgiveness are necessary because we are fallen creatures living in a fallen world. Often the great promise with which we begin isn’t realized.

In the reading from Isaiah, we meet Ahaz, the grandson of Uzziah. The renewal of the Jewish promised by a new king is threatened early on by war. “Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it.”

Though their enemies fail the people of Jerusalem are still paralyzed with fear. The heart of the people “shook as the trees … shake before the wind.” In the face of the enemy, they have lost hope!

And so God sends Isaiah and, not insignificantly his son Shearjashub, to encourage Ahaz and all Jerusalem. The prophet preaches hope, the prophet’s son is a reminder of hope.

After telling the king that his enemies will fail the Lord does something extraordinary. He tells Ahaz to ask for yet another sign of hope. “Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”

Ahaz refuses to do so not wanting to put “the Lord to the test.” Repenting of his fear, and calling Jerusalem to do so as well, Ahaz instead utters a prophecy of hope: “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

Like Jerusalem midst of war, in the midst of our ascetical struggles, we are reminded that hope and forgiveness aren’t merely human phenomenon and are more than metaphysical principles. They are embodied in the Person of Jesus Christ!

It is Jesus Who fulfills our hope through the forgiveness of our sins. He heals the corruption that by the time of Noah had begun to reach the heavens themselves. Seduced by a fallen angel, by the time of Noah humanity seems intent on seducing the angels in return.

The paralyzing fear of sin stands in stark contrast to the freedom that comes from obedience to God. Solomon reminds me that true freedom is found not in my willfulness but in my willingness to keep my “father’s commandments” and fidelity to my “mother’s teaching.”

Far from being an external standard to which I must conform, the will of God “is a lamp” that illumines my life and reveals to me the goodness and beauty of life. Paradoxical though it seems, obedience to God gives me the freedom to respond all of life with hope. Yes, I fail and fall into sin. But sin never has the last word, hope remains; through repentance, forgiveness is always possible.

Sin can’t undo what God has done; He has written hope into the very fabric of reality.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory