Jesus Gave You One Job

Sunday, August 25 (OS 12), 2019: 10th Sunday after Pentecost; Afterfeast of the Transfiguration; Martyrs Anicetus and Photius (Photinus) of Nicomedia (305); Hieromartyr Alexander, bishop of Comana (3rd c.); Martyrs Pamphilus and Capito. 

Ss Cyril &Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: 1 Corinthians 4:9-16
Gospel: Matthew 17:14-23

We need to understand carefully what St Paul does and doesn’t mean when he describes himself as the least among men. We shouldn’t take this to mean that the Apostle felt himself to be useless or having nothing to say. This is not “apostolic” self-loathing or negative self-image.

It rather much like what we say when we realize that someone really and truly loves us. We look at the person and wonder, how can they love us? They know us and yet, they love us. How we wonder is this even possible?.

Looking at Christ, Paul realizes that God’s love for Him is wholly a gift. He speaks about himself the way he does because he is overwhelmed by the magnitude and gracious nature of God’s love for him.

And yet Paul’s humility doesn’t prevent him from preaching the Gospel. It doesn’t keep him from reminding the Corinthians that they too are loved by God.

And neither does it keep him from speaking a hard work of correction when needed.

This leads us to another question. Why odes St Paul call himself a fool and the Corinthians wise? Here the Apostle engages in a bit of irony. 

The Corinthians have misunderstood what it means to be forgiven and to find freedom in Christ. For them, freedom is license. For St Paul freedom is something altogether different.

To be free in Christ means to accept the awesome and humbling invitation to preach the Gospel “in season and out” as he tells St Timothy (2 Timothy 4:2). 

It is his wholehearted commitment to preach the Gospel that makes the Apostle able to bear up under hunger and thirst.

Because he knows he is loved by God he can endure being homeless and naked.

Because he knows he is loved by he can be dishonored, persecuted and defamed but never wavers in his preaching of the Gospel.

At the same time, there is in his heart no hint of the suggestion that he deserves to suffer. Neither is there anything to suggest that his sufferings are anything other than evil. 

But for all that he suffers, Paul remains faithful because, again, he knows God’s love for him.

Though they received the Gospel from St Paul. the Corinthians struggle to accept this same love. Do they know they have been forgiven? Yes, absolutely! Their debt to God is paid in full. But the understanding of forgiveness is shallow, transactional really.

But loved? This is something they can’t wrap their minds around and so can’t seem to accept. And because they are unsure of God’s love for them they remain attached to the standards of this world. 

This is why Paul tells them that he and the other apostles “are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are distinguished, but we are dishonored!”

But the Corinthians are not wise and strong and distinguished by God’s accounting but by the world’s.

In the view of the world, my value is determined by what I do, by my position in society, by my wealth and the power I command. Sadly, this rather than God’s love for them is still the standard for many of the Corinthians.

To see the harm done by the world’s standards to our life in Christ, we need only look to today’s Gospel.

The disciples fail to cast out the demon because of the weakness of their faith. They travel with Jesus. They listen to His teachings. They eat with Him. Their every waking moment is an experience of communion with Jesus.

And yet for all this, they don’t understand the gift they’ve been given. 

Like the Gentiles, like the Corinthians, like too many Orthodox Christians today, they still love power. They still think that being a disciple is a matter of authority rather than service. They fail to cast out the demon because they are still seeking the first place in the Kingdom of God (see, Matthew 20:23 and Mark 10:40).

Gently but firmly, Jesus corrects them. He tells them they failed because they lack even faith the size of a mustard seed.

And what is this faith? That the Creator of the universe loves each and everything single human being. There is no one we meet who isn’t loved by God.

The struggle we face is not convincing someone of the truth of our theology–true though it is. Neither is it making clear to others the beauty of our worship, the depth of our spirituality. All these things are easy enough to do relative to the one thing that we must do first.

And what is that thing?

To help people come to know and accept that they are loved by God.

Though they received the Gospel from St Paul, the Corinthians did not believe they were loved.

Though they lived and traveled, eat and prayed and were taught by Jesus, the disciples only slowly came to believe and accept His great love for them.

Before all else, we need to introduce people not just to the God Who loves them but God’s love for them. In this task, we need to be patient with others and with ourselves. 

It just takes time for others to believe they are loved.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We need to be faithful in the work to which we have been called. We need to resist the temptation to substitute theology or history, liturgy or ascetical struggle for a clear and convincing proclamation and demonstration of God’s love.

While God’s love is one and the same for each of us, the form it will take, the words we will use, will be different for each person. For some, love will require a word of consolation; for other, moral challenge. 

And yes, some will come to know God’s love through theology or history. Through liturgy or asceticism.

But whatever the medium, we can’t lose sight of the goal. Helping the person in front of us know God’s love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The Gift that Makes All Gifts Possible

Sunday, August 4 (O.S., July 22), 2019: Seventh Sunday of Pascha; Holy Myrrh-bearer and Equal-to-the-Apostles Mary Magdalene (I); Translation of the relics (404) of Hieromartyr Phocas, bp. of Sinope (117); Virgin-martyr Marcella of Chios (c. 1500); Ven. Cornelius of Pereyaslav (1693).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 15:1-7
Gospel: Matthew 9:27-35

Glory to Jesus Christ!

During the lifetime of Jesus, the Law contained almost twice as many discrete commands as there were days in the year. This means that for the Pharisees in today’s Gospel there were some 600 laws that had to be kept.

In addition to the number of requirements, the actual implementation depended on a complex moral calculus that sought to determine the relative moral importance of the different commandments based on the circumstances.

The laudable goal of all this was to secure the person’s relationship with God; the practical effect was to corrupt charity. However well-intentioned, the one thing we thing God wants for and from us –love–was lost.

It is easy, too easy to tell the truth, to look back at the Pharisees and fail to see ourselves, to see myself, in them. While the particulars are different in every age and in the life of every person, in our fallen state, human beings are always tempted to forgo charity for some kind of transactional calculus.

We all of us have a list of things we think we must do and avoid to earn and keep the love of God. And to this list for ourselves, we add a list for others.

While I might sincerely think my list for you comes God, the speed with which I am disappointed in you or get angry at you for not keeping it argues otherwise. While I appeal to God for the list’s authority, the reality is it reflects my own ideas of how you ought to live.

None of this is to say that we can’t know the will of God–we can–or that God doesn’t require things from us–He does. It is rather to say that I all too easily confuse my will, my desires, for His.

And all this I do because I don’t know, don’t really believe, that God’s love for me can’t be lost because it isn’t earned. God’s love is a free gift.

The irony here is all the things I do for God, I can only do because God loves before I do them. All the good things a person does, are possible because of God’s prior love.

And this is true not only for the good a person does but even for the sins committed. All that we do, for good or ill, in obedience or rebellion, we do because God first loved us.

The absence of charity we see around us and in our own hearts is what lead the Pharisees to accuse Jesus of casting out demons with the aid of the demons themselves. The lack of charity we see in human affairs is the poisoned fruit of a heart that doesn’t know it is loved by God. I become short-tempered and disappointed with others, I withhold my love or respond with condemnation, not because of what they’ve done but I think God only loves me when I meet His expectations for me.

This not only corrupts my relationship with God and neighbor, it paralyzes me. It makes me incapable of accepting with thanksgiving the good things in my life or of correcting the things that are sinful. Seeing myself as unloved or only conditionally loved by God moves me to a crippling frenzy as I try and earn what can’t be earned God’s love. Why can’t it be earned? Because it has already been freely given.

St Paul was keenly aware of all of this. He knew what it was to try and earn the love of God. He also knoew to his grief how trying to do so, so corrupts charity that murder seems God-pleasing.

And so he tells us “bear with the failings of the weak.”

We are not to call evil, good. Rather we are to remember that the weakness we see in others afflicts us as well,

Everyone we meet has a secret list of things they think they must do and avoid if they are to be worthy of love. Whether Christian or not, whether male or female, young or old, rich or poor, everyone strives futilely to earn the love God has already given and which can never be lost because “God is faithful” (1 Corinthians 1:9).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! This is the evangelical vocation of the Church. We are each of us called to tell people that they are loved by God.

This doesn’t mean we remain silent in the face of sin and moral evil; we must not fail to speak out against that which is wrong. But sin against which we speak and which we must always condemn is sin precisely because it hardens the human heart against the love of God.

And it is this love that is Gift that makes all gifts possible.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

It’s About God’s Love

Sunday, July 21 (O.S., July 8), 2019: 5th Sunday after Pentecost; Great Martyr Procopius of Caesarea in Palestine.

Epistle: Romans 10:1-10

Gospel: Matthew 8:28-9:1

One of the greatest temptations we face is forgetting that we are human. Or, maybe more accurately, I am tempted to forget that my neighbor is human. This most frequently takes the form of imagining that I am somehow exempt from the faults I see in others. At a minimum, the sins and failures I see in others are a possibility for me as well.

The fact though that I recognize them in others strongly suggests that these are rather more than a possibility for me. If I recognize them in you, it is because they are my shortcomings as well.

Accepting this about myself, helps me understand St Paul’s words in today’s epistle.

The Apostle’s “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel,” he writes “is that they may be saved.” There is an obstacle to the salvation of his kin. Though “they have a zeal for God” it is “not according to knowledge.”

St Augustine says they live by “self-confidence” rather than “grace.” As he goes on to say that

…they were ignorant of the righteousness of God, not that righteousness whereby God is righteous but the one which comes to man from God (Grace and Free Will, 12.24).

Like Israel, I am enslaved to sin and controlled by my passions not because I am ignorant of God but because of a poverty of self-knowledge. I remain unrepentant not because I don’t know the glory and majesty of God. What I don’t understand is that all I have, all that I do, all that I am is first and foremost God’s gift to me.

This is precisely the situation of the demons in today’s Gospel. They recognize the Jesus is the Christ “and tremble” (see James 2:19) but don’t understand that they live because of His great love for them. This makes the presence of Christ and the announcement of grace for them–as the demons themselves say–a torment.

There is though a difference between the demons and the human heart.

The demons ask to be sent into the swine while the herdsmen ask Jesus to “depart.” The fathers of the Church are divided in how they understand this request from the herdsmen.

While “many believe” they make their request “out of pride,” St Jerome this they do so because

They judge themselves unworthy of the Lord’s presence, just as Peter after the catch of fish fell before the Savior’s knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Commentary on Matthew, 1.8.34)

Jerome seems to me to be correct. For all that it can at times seem otherwise, human beings are not demons. Even at our worst, we are no more than poor imitations.

More importantly, God becomes Man, not an angel; Jesus shares in our nature, not the angels’ and this makes all the difference. While everything that exists, exists by the grace of God it is only human beings who were created to share in the divine nature.

The angels worship God as outside themselves as it were. We, however, worship God Who not only “dwells among us” (See John 1:14; Revelation 21:3) by His incarnation but in us (Ephesians 3:17) by baptism and, above all, the Eucharist.

Just as we say that Christ is “the end of the law” because He is “the cause of it” (St Ireneaus, Against Heresies, 4.12.3), as the Creator, Christ is the fulfillment of each human heart. This means that however tenacious the hold of unbelief on society and the human heart, we should never underestimate the presence and power of Christ in both.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We can never forget that the most basic truth about everyone they meet is that they are loved by God. It is out of this great love that God joins Himself in Christ to the whole human family personally. God dwells with all even if not all dwell with Him.

Our task as Orthodox Christians is to first accept God’s love in Jesus Christ of us and then to help others see that they too are loved by Him. Everything else we do, good as it is in itself, serves these two goals.

It is only the love of Jesus Christ for all that make lasting sense of human life,

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday, July 21 (O.S., July 8), 2019: 5th Sunday after Pentecost; Great Martyr Procopius of Caesarea in Palestine.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Romans 10:1-10
Gospel: Matthew 8:28-9:1

Glory to Jesus Christ!

One of the great temptations we face is forgetting that we are human. Or, maybe more accurately, I am tempted to forget that my neighbor is human.

This most frequently takes the form of imagining that I am somehow exempt from the faults I see in others. But the fact that I recognize them in others strongly suggests that these are rather more than possible for me. If I recognize them in you, it is because they are my shortcomings as well.

Accepting this about myself, helps me understand St Paul when he says his “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved.” He recognizes an obstacle to the salvation of his kin because he sees a similar temptation in himself. Just as the former Saul, “they have a zeal for God” but “not according to knowledge.”

St Augustine says zeal without knowledge is symptomatic of living by “self-confidence” rather than “grace.” As he goes on to say that

…they were ignorant of the righteousness of God, not that righteousness whereby God is righteous but the one which comes to man from God (Grace and Free Will, 12.24).

Like Israel, I am enslaved to sin and controlled by my passions not because I am ignorant of God but because of a poverty of self-knowledge. I remain unrepentant not because I don’t know the glory and majesty of God. What I don’t understand is that all I have, all that I do, all that I am is first and foremost God’s gift to me.

This is precisely the situation of the demons in today’s Gospel. They recognize Jesus as the Christ “and tremble” (see James 2:19) but don’t understand, or rather won’t accept, that they live because of His great love for them. This makes the presence of Christ and the announcement of grace–as the demons themselves say–a torment.

There is though a difference between the demons and the human heart. To see this, we need to read a bit more of the Gospel.

The demons ask to be sent into the swine while the herdsmen ask Jesus to “depart.” The fathers of the Church are divided in how they understand this request from the herdsmen.

While “many believe” they make their request “out of pride,” St Jerome this they do so because

They judge themselves unworthy of the Lord’s presence, just as Peter after the catch of fish fell before the Savior’s knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Commentary on Matthew, 1.8.34)

Jerome, I think, is correct. For all that it can at times seem otherwise, human beings are not demons. Even at our worst, we are no more than poor imitations. 

More importantly, God becomes Man, not an angel; Jesus shares in our nature, not the angels’ and this makes all the difference. While everything that exists, exists by the grace of God it is only human beings who were created to share in the divine nature.

The angels worship God as “outside” themselves as it were. We, however, worship God Who not only “dwells among us” (See John 1:14; Revelation 21:3) by His incarnation but in us (Ephesians 3:17) by baptism and, above all, the Eucharist.

Just as we say that Christ is “the end of the law” because He is “the cause of it” (St Ireneaus, Against Heresies, 4.12.3), Christ as the Creator of All is the fulfillment of each human heart. This means that however tenacious the hold of unbelief on society and the human heart, we should never underestimate the presence and power of Christ in both.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The most basic truth about everyone they meet is that they are loved by God. It is out of this great love that God in Christ joins Himself to the whole human family personally. God dwells with all even if not all dwell with Him.

Our task as Orthodox Christians is to first accept God’s love in Jesus Christ of us and then to help others see that they too are loved by Him. Everything else we do, good as it is in itself, serves these two goals.

It is only the love of Jesus Christ for all that make lasting sense of human life,

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory