Freedom is to Do the Will of God

Sunday, July 14 (O.S., July 1), 2019: 4th Sunday after Pentecost; Holy and Wonderworking Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, Martyrs at Rome (284); St. Angelina, despotina of Serbia (XVI); Martyr Potitus at Naples (II). St. Peter the Patrician, monk of Constantinople (854).

Epistle: Romans 6:18-23

Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Holy Apostle tells us that once we were held under bondage to sin but now we under bondage to Christ. Though he is speaking “in human terms” his assertion that “having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” is still an affront to our sense of freedom.

For most of us, freedom means freedom of choice. But the naked ability to choose between options is not real freedom. Think about it for a moment. To be here this morning requires giving up being somewhere else.

As important as freedom of choice is to our moral life and our life in Christ–and let’s not make any mistake, freedom in this sense is essential–it is inherently self-limiting. When deciding between options we quickly discover that every “yes” contains within itself a “no.” This is why even the best of our choices restrict our freedom.

Returning to St Paul, we can grasp easily enough why sin undermines our freedom of choice. We all know what it means to be trapped by anger or resentment or worry. Try as I might in these moments, I can’t do what I want because my negative feelings don’t just bind me, they tear me apart.

This is what the fathers mean when they talk about the “passions.” Sin cripples me by fostering in me evil habits. I am enslaved to habits of thought and action that cause me to turn my back on God and neighbor. The fact that these habits arise from my own desires only compounds the tragedy of sin.

I am enslaved to my passions and it is from the passions that Christ comes to free not only me but all of us by His death and resurrection. We can summarize the whole of the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church as one as being progressively freed from the passions.

But this still leaves us with the Apostle’s provocative statement that we are now “slaves of righteousness.”

Freedom is not simply a matter of choice. If I seek freedom here I will in short order discover, as I said a moment ago, that I have enslaved myself to my own desires.

Seen in this light, we can understand why freedom is not doing what I want but, as Paul suggests, doing what I ought. That is to say, doing the will of God.

To those who associate freedom with freedom of choice, obedience to God seems an unbearable imposition. To those who value above all the human ability to choose, obedience to God is an offense and assault against human nature.

But again, let’s think a moment about what it means to do the willing of God.

Far from limiting your freedom, love opens a world of ever-increasing possibilities. Commit yourself to love your neighbor as yourself, make this the choice that guides all your choices and you never want for new opportunities.

Not only that. As you love this person you learn at the same time how to love more fully not only this person but all other persons.

Likewise, forgiveness liberates you from resentment, faith from a life of distrust and even as hope liberates you from anxiety for the future.

To see how this happens, we need only look at the Gospel.

It was unheard of for a centurion, a Roman officer, to approach a Jew for help. No Roman would humble himself to become a supplicant to a Jew. And yet, the centurion does exactly this because he loves his servant.

The centurion’s love is not only of benefit to the servant; it is to his benefit as well. Likewise for all of us, love for our neighbor blossoms into the love of God. The real, if limited, love of one man for another opens up to the unending love of God.

We can look as well at Ss. Cosmas and Damian whose memory we celebrate today.

Skilled as they were in the technical demands of being physicians, their faith in Jesus Christ able them to heal the soul as well as the body. As physicians of the body, they were able only to delay death; as physicians of the soul, they offered their patients eternal life.

When I understand freedom not as doing what I want but what I ought, I transcend the inherent limits of the former and enter into the unending possibilities of the latter.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To be truly free means to do the will of God; nothing more and certainly nothing less.

May we live our lives from this day forth as free men and women in Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Freedom in Christ

Sunday, June 24 (O.S., June 11) 2018: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost;Holy Apostles Bartholomew and Barnabas (1st c.).

Epistle: Romans 6:18-23/Acts 11:19-26, 29-30
Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13/Luke 10:16-21

Glory to Jesus Christ!

With his usual understatement, the Apostle Paul contrasts the two forms of slavery to which we may be subjected. I am either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness.

Paul’s language here, though stark, is not meant to be taken literally. He is speaking, as he says, “in human terms” to help us understand from what we have been saved.

More importantly, he wants us to understand that for which we have been saved: to share in the life of God. Or, as he says, to receive “holiness, … everlasting life” which taken together are “the gift of God, eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

We tend to associate holiness with moral rectitude. A holy person is a virtuous person. While holiness and virtue are related, we often misunderstand the relationship between them.

A saint is not holy because he is virtuous. Rather, he is virtuous because he is holy.

In the Scriptures, God is called holy not because He is virtuous as we understand the term but because He is sovereign. God is not, as we hear again and again, the god of this place, or these people. He is rather the God of god, the God of All. As such, His ways are not our ways, His thoughts are not our thoughts.

Holiness is another way of saying that God is wholly and absolutely free. Or maybe more accurately, nothing and no one compels God.

It is this freedom that God gives us in Jesus Christ. This why the baptismal service begins with prayers of exorcism. Not because we believe the candidate is possessed by a demon but to give the devil formal notice that this person is no longer his but now belongs to Christ and His Church.

Only once this notice is given, is the candidate is baptized. That is to say, through the faith of the Church and the words of the priest, the candidate is adopted by God and comes to share in that deep and expansive freedom we call holiness.

So, having been made holy in baptism, what now?

Now, as Paul says, we are to be obedient to God; we are now “slaves of righteousness.”

In the World, and let’s be frank sometime even in the Church, “obedience” is a harsh word. Obedience in Christ however is not a matter of humiliation. It is not a means of degrading others or asserting control over them.

Rather to be obedient to Christ means to join our will to His. To want, in other words, what God wants for us.

Look at the first Gospel reading. The centurion is a man of obedience. He knows how to command because is “a man under authority” to others. Obedience comes if not easily to him, then freely.

Just as he joins his will to that of his superiors, so too he joins his will to the will of Jesus. He has no need for outward shows of grace. It is enough for him that Jesus wills that the servant be made well.

The centurion’s obedience and faith are absolute.

True obedience, true holiness, is to want what God wants. As for true freedom, it is to do what God would have us do. Or, to put it simply, obedience, holiness and freedom are all facets of love.

If I love you I want for you what God wants for you. Love begins in my willing to make my own God’s will for the person.

As love matures, I move from sharing in God’s desire to action. It is this that is true and lasting freedom. And so we see in the second set of readings, the willingness the disciples to preach the Gospel, heal the sick, cast out demons, and to care for the poor from out of their own funds.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To be truly free means to love others as God loves them. To be free means that we not only want for others what God wants for them but that, like God, we are willing to sacrifice to help this come to past.

And of this because we have “first been loved by God.”

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

Respecting Human Freedom

Tuesday, April 03, (O.S., March 21), 2018: Great Tuesday;  Venerable James the Confessor and Bishop of Catania (8th-9th C); Venerable Seraphim Vyritsky († 1949); New Hieromartyr Priest Vladimir († 1931); Holy Hierarch Cyrill, Bishop of Catania (1st-2nd C); Holy Hierarch Thomas, Patriarch of Constantinople († 610); Venerable Serapion, Bishop of Tmuissa; Venerable Serapion of Neitria

Matins: Matthew 22:15-23:39
Sixth Hour: Ezekiel 1:21-2:1
Vespers: Exodus 2:5-10
Vespers: Job 1:13-22
Presanctified Liturgy: Matthew 24:36-26:2

Once again, the Church’s hymnography reminds me that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-26):

Realizing the hour of reckoning, O my soul, and fear the cutting down of the fig tree (Matthew 21:18-22), work diligently with the talent that has been given you O wretched one (Matthew 25:14-30). Watch and pray that we may not remain outside the bridal chamber of Christ Matthew 25:1-13).

It isn’t enough to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior, “for the demons do as such and tremble” (James 2:19). Salvation requires that I be a “profitable” servant, that I “hear the word of God and keep it,” and that I “do the works” God has given me to do.

This emphasis on tangible works is the necessary corrective to the tendency to confuse my thoughts and feelings about God and neighbor with the love “that seeks not its own reward” (1 Corinthians 13:5) and the “faith that moves mountains” (Matthew 21:21).

As we’ve seen throughout the Great Fast, so much of what Jesus says about salvation presupposes that we understand what it means to make a profit. For the fathers of the Church, while the meaning of Scripture is never limited to the literal (i.e., historical) meaning, this meaning can’t be ignored or violated.  We must understand the ordinary meaning of profit if we wish to understand Jesus’ word to us that we be “profitable servants.”

Profit is not, as in Marxism, the surplus value created by labor and stolen by owners. Besides being wrong economically, this view of profit would paint Jesus as an unjust business owner who exploits His workers. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In fact, profit is only earned by the free collaboration of multiple parties. Yes, the worker invests his labor. But his investment is only possible because of the initial and ongoing investment of capital and expertise by the business owner.

These investments, however, are not profitable unless the worker and business owner together create a product or service of value to the consumer. Only then will the consumer exchange her money for what capital and labor together have created.

To be a “profitable” servant for Jesus presuppose the investment and ongoing presence of His grace in me (and indeed, everyone) and my willing collaboration with Him. Or, as St Paul says, we must be “co-labors” with God (1 Corinthians 3:9).

My obedience to divine grace, however, is not sufficient.

A “profitable” servant must also be of service to others. I must create value in the lives of neighbors. Just as in the marketplace, this means respecting their freedom. A profitable servant can’t compel others to accept his or her service. What is freely given, must be freely received (see, Matthew 10:5-8). This, in turn, requires that I offer my service to you freely (that is without coercion) that you freely received (or not) the offered service I would do for you.

The cooperation of divine and human freedom is at the heart of Holy Week. How these work together is the great mystery of salvation (Ephesians 5:32). But God respects and waits on human freedom. God waits for our response to His invitation  (Revelation 3:20).

The moral message of this week is similar. Just as God respects my freedom, I must likewise respect yours. Anything less is unworthy of divine grace.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Our Two Freedoms

Monday, April 02 (O.S., March 20), 2018: Great Monday; Venerable Fathers slain at the Monastery of Saint Sabbas: John, Sergius, Patrick and others († 796); New Hieromartyr Deacon Basil († 1938); Martyr Photina (Svetlana), the Samaritan Woman, her sons, and those with her († c. 66); Holy Virgin Martyrs Alexandra, Claudia, Euphrasia, Matrona, Juliania, Euthymia and Theodosia († 310); St. Nicetas the Confessor the Archbishop of Apollonias in Bithynia (9th C); Hieromartyr Euphrosynus of Blue Jay Lake, Novgorod († 1612); New Martyr Miron of Crete; St. Cuthbert, Wonderworker of Britain († 687).

Matins: Matthew 21:18-43

At Matins for today we hear the following hymn:

Today let us add lamentation to lamentation!
Let our tears flow with those of Jacob, who weeps for
his celebrated and sober-minded son;
for though bodily Joseph was indeed a slave,
he preserved the freedom of his soul and was lord over
all Egypt.

Hearing this I might be tempted to think any number of things that are, at best, morally confused. At worse, I might end up of saying something that is truly evil.

The confusion is this: Because inner freedom–what the text refers to as the ‘freedom of soul’–is what matters, I might wrongly think that political or soul freedom is unimportant. “After all,” I might think (or worse, say), “even though Joseph was a slave, he ‘preserved the freedom of his soul’ and even became ‘lord over all Egypt.’”

As St Paul points out to the Church of Rome, I can’t do evil that “good may come” (3:8). The fact that, as the Apostle says a bit later, that God is able to bring good out of evil (Romans 8:28), doesn’t mean evil isn’t evil.

At the very least, evil is something I should avoid. If I can–or better, as much as I can–I should oppose evil. I should oppose evil not only in my own heart but in the world around me.

I must be faithful to the example of Jesus. When after suffering temptation in the desert, how does He begin His own ministry? Going to the synagogue he reads from the prophecy of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord (Isaiah 61:1, 2)

Jesus begins His own ministry by opposing–and so ending–the hold that moral evil and physical suffering have on us (Luke 4:16-21).

While moral freedom is more important than political freedom, the two freedoms are not opposed. While I can have the moral freedom without political freedom, I can’t have the latter without the former.

Ideally, though, a society should have both. And, in any case, Christians are called to work for both moral and political freedom. What we can never do, is sacrifice one for the sake of the other.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory