From Obedience Comes Friendship

Sunday, July 5 (OS June 22), 2020: 4th Sunday after Pentecost. Hieromartyr Eusebius, Bp. of Samosata (380). Martyrs Zeno and his servant Zenas of Philadelphia (304). Martyrs Galacteon, Juliana, and Saturninus of Constantinople. {St. Alban, protomartyr of Britain (c. 305)}

Epistle: Romans 6:18-23

Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Seen from the outside, the Gospel appears as an unbearable imposition on my freedom. An unending list of do’s and don’ts. To use St Paul’s phrase, humanly speaking, that is in my spiritual or emotional immaturity, the Gospel feels to me likes “slavery.”

And yet with time and experience, I begin to realize that far from limiting my freedom it is the Gospel–and specifically my obedience to the Gospel–that makes my freedom not just possible but a treasure to be jealously guarded.

Humanly speaking, St Paul says, the options before me are stark. I can live as a slave “of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” or as a slave to “righteousness for holiness.” It is the latter, the way of holiness, that is the way of true and lasting freedom. To see this we need only reflect for a moment of what it means to follow the way of uncleanness.

We should first of all admit that there is something undeniably attractive to following this path because it is the way of my own will. Choosing what I want to do based on my desire at the moment seems not just desirable but intoxicating.

But my desires are constantly shifting, pulling me this way and that as different options present themselves to me. And so soon I discover that this is a life of increasing fragmentation.

Think about the sin of vainglory, of pursuing the praise and good opinion of others.

Yes, at first, this might result in my trying to be a better person. Soon though I discover that winning–much less keeping–the good opinion of others is a trap. Even my closest friends will at times disagree with me; even the most generous friend will now and then have no time for me or as much time for me as I want.

As the opinion of others becomes more important to me, I’ll begin to seek out anyone who can affirm me, spend time with me. I do this because I am trying to find the sense of self-worth that can only come from within as the fruit of my relationship with Jesus Christ.

And so the Apostle says the fruit of this way of life is a life of “lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” as I surrender control of my life not to others but to my own desire for their approval.

Living like this doesn’t make any of us happy. How can it? What is more insubstantial, what is more flicked than desire?

Yesterday we celebrated Independence Day. In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson says that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This last right, the right to pursue happiness, is not (as we are sometimes told) the right to follow every passing whim. It is rather a life that fosters human flourishing, of becoming evermore the persons God has created us to be.

For Jefferson, for St Paul and the Christian tradition as a whole, happiness is found not in doing what I want but doing as I ought. It is in this sense that we can talk about the United States as a Christian nation. Not Christian as the Church is Christian but rather Christian in the sense that in our founding we drew inspiration from the Christian ideal of living not as we want but as we should.

Hearing this needn’t upset us.

This is neither a diminishment of the Gospel nor an unwarranted glorification of America. Rather it is simply seeing for a nation what Jesus sees in the centurion: An epiphany of the Church’s faith outside the Church.

The centurion’s faith was praiseworthy because it freed him from the vain pursuit of the good opinions of others. Because he was free in this way he was able to love his servant.

It was for his servant’s sake that the centurion was willing and able to humble himself before Jesus. Through faith, through obedience to God, master and servant became much more. They became friends.

We are now as a nation suffering all manner of dissension. We are internally divided and are fast becoming not neighbors or even fellow citizens, but enemies. We are suffering this because–on both the Left and the Right–we have abandoned “the pursuit of happiness,” in favor of the pursuit of fickle desire and, above all, power over others as a way to bolster our own frail sense of self-worth.

In a fallen world, we are not friends unless we choose to be so. This choice is not a matter of simply agreeing with each other. Much less is it the fruit of superficial attraction.

It is faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to the will of God that makes yesterday’s enemies into today’s friends. And this happens not because you have changed but I have.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! “From this day forth from this very hour and this very minute,” as St Herman of Alaska said, “let us love love God above all and seek to accomplish His Holy Will.” Let us from this moment commit ourselves more fully to Christ and so make friends of our enemies and show the world how the divisions that afflict us can be healed.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Without Wisdom There Is No Love

Thursday, March 1 (O.S., February 16), 2018: 2nd Thursday of the Great Lent; Martyrs Pamphilus presbyter, Valens deacon, Paul, Seleucus, Porphyrius, Julian, Theodulus, Elias, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Samuel, and Daniel, at Caesarea in Palestine (307-309). St. Macarius, metropolitan of Moscow, the apostle to the Altai (1926). New Hieromartyrs Priests Elias Chetverukhin (1934) of Moscow and Peter Lagov (1931). New Hieromartyr Paul priest (1938). St. Marutha, bishop of Sophene and Martyropolis, and others with him in Mesopotamia (422). New Monk-martyr Romanus of Carpenision, who suffered at Constantinople (1694) (Greek). St. Mary the New of Byzia in Thrace (9th c.). St. Basil Gryaznov of Pavlovo-Posadsky (1869).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 6:1-12
Vespers: Genesis 5:1-24
Vespers: Proverbs 6:3-20

An ancestor of Christ (Matthew 1:8), King Uzziah began his reign as a young man of 16. Thanks to the prophet Zechariah, the young king “did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 15:3; 2 Chronicles 26:4-5).

As an old man, his pride gets the better of him. and he tried to usurp the prerogatives of the priests and offer incense to the Lord. Afflicted with leprosy, the king spends the last 11 years of his life in “a separate house” and his kingdom ruled by his son Jotham (2 Kings 15:5, 27; 2 Chronicles 26:3).

The immediate context of Isaiah’s encounter with God is one that makes clear the devastation that follows when even God-given authority is devoid of wisdom. Uzziah is a king, not a priest. His authority is divinely circumscribed. There are things he cannot do, places he cannot go. These limits aren’t arbitrary but reflect God’s will for His People.

God calls Isaiah to make clear to people that, like their late king, they have sinned. Uzziah sought to imitate the rules of the Gentiles who held but civil and religious authority as living deities. The Jewish people had allowed this and so God makes their hearts “fat, and their ears heavy.”

God will leave them in their sins “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without men and the land is utterly desolate, and the LORD removes men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.” He does this not out of malice but because it is the way His People will understand the corrupting influence of sin on the heart and the community.

We see also see this corrupting power in Genesis. From Adam to Enoch, as sin takes an ever firmer hold on us, we die at ever younger ages until most of us live only “threescore years and ten” and those who live longer do so in “labour and sorrow” until we are “cut off, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10, KJV).

What then are we to do?

Solomon tells me I need to appraise soberly my situation. I too easily give others responsibility for my life. Like the Jews at the time of Uzziah, I take direction not from God but from other, fallen human beings.

So first I must cultivate detachment from others. I must struggle against vainglory, the tendency to seek the approval of others rather than God.

This a lifelong labor. And so Solomon tells me “Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber.” Like the ant, I must labor to cultivate the life of virtue. I must be obedient to God rather than seek the approval of powerful men, “of chief, officer or ruler.”

While never denying the command to love others, Solomon is aware of how easily I can fall into sin when I seek my neighbor’s good opinion of me. Seeking the approval of others will make me a “worthless person, a wicked man.” In time I will become duplicitous and manipulative; a man of “crooked speech” and sly “winks.” I will scrap my feet to avoid work and prayer, and I will be always ready to point an accusing finger at others.

Eventually, my neighbor’s good opinion of me becomes so important that “with perverted heart” I will “devises evil” for others and seek to sow “discord” between my neighbors. Tragically, I will not stop until “calamity” comes upon me and I am ”broken beyond healing.”

As we’ve seen with material wealth, without wisdom I am as prone to corruption by my friend’s love for me as a ruler is by political power. Without wisdom, wealth, love and authority–all good in themselves–become occasion for my fall.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory