Grateful Faith

September 30 (O.S., September 17): 8th Sunday after Pentecost. Sunday after the Exaltation. Afterfeast of the Exaltation of the Cross. Martyrs Sophia and her three daughters: Faith (Vira), Hope (Nadia), and Love (Lyubov), at Rome (137). Martyr Theodota at Nicaea (230) and Agathoklea. 156 Martyrs of Palestine, including bishops Peleus and Nilus, the presbyter Zeno and others (310).

Epistle: Galatians 2:16-20
Gospel: Mark 8:34-9:1

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission, Madison WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

We are, the Apostle Paul tells us, not saved “by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” To be more accurate, we are saved by the personal faith of Jesus Christ, by His faithful obedience to His Father. Or as Paul says in another place: “not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” Philippians 3:9, KJV).

Our faith then is in Him Who is always faithful, Our faith, my faith and yours, derives from the faith of Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t mean that our faith need not be personal. Too often, Orthodox Christians imagine that conformity to the Tradition of the Church is sufficient for salvation. But it simply isn’t enough to be carried along by Holy Tradition like a stick in a stream.

Faith to be faith must be personal or it isn’t faith. Think about the words we say before receiving Holy Communion. “I believe O Lord and confess, that you are truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the first.”

More importantly, for faith to be personal it can’t be limited to only one aspect of the work of Christ. Think about it for a moment. A meaningful relationship, a relationship that is truly personal, is one in which we embrace and accept the whole of the other person.

Who has ever, to take only one example, built a happy marriage by focusing on one aspect of their spouse’s personality to the exclusion of the rest? We love the whole person or we don’t love at all.

This means that to have faith in Jesus Christ means to love Him not only as Redeemer but also Creator. St Irenaeus the Great says that when God the Father created the heavens and the earth, He did so with His right and left hands, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

To have faith in Jesus Christ as both Redeemer and Creator means to see creation as coming from the hand of a loving God. As Orthodox Christians, we believe that Creation, both as a whole and in all its parts, is a revelation of His love. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead” (Romans 1:20, NKJV).

Not only does God reveal Himself to us in Creation, in creating us He endows our lives with meaning. While it is still incumbent on me to live a life worth living, I create such a life from the natural talents and spiritual gifts God gives me.

My talents were given me at the moment of my creation in my mother’s womb; my spiritual gifts are given to me in Holy Baptism and are sustained and deepened through the other sacraments and the life of prayer.

To have faith in Jesus Christ, then, means to have confidence that my own life is meaningful and that God has called me to mix my freedom with His grace to live a life that is profitable. Such a life is, as we have seen, one that serves your salvation and so that my own as well.

More broadly, and this is harder, to have faith in Jesus Christ not only as Redeemer but Creator, means to accept the circumstances of my life as His gift given to me for His glory, my salvation, and the salvation of the world. To have faith in Jesus as Redeemer and Creator means to accept each moment of life as a sacrament of His grace to be received with the same thanksgiving with which I receive Him in Holy Communion.

I should pause here and make an important distinction. To receive each moment in thankfulness as a sacrament of God’s grace, doesn’t mean to remain passive in the face of evil.

It means rather that I must understand that when I see evil around me or in me, God is calling me to fight–or at least resist–sin and the harm it does. it is only when we are confident that each moment of life is filled to overflowing with God’s grace, mercy, and love, that we are able to stand against the myriad manifestation of sin in human affairs.

Make no mistake. Only the grateful and faithful Christian heart can hope to resist successfully the blandishments of sin.

This is what it means, to turn to today’s Gospel, to pick up our cross and follow Jesus as His disciples.

And again, make no mistake, to carry the cross in faith and gratitude requires from us a real death to self.

How much easier it is to think of life as something wholly of my own creation.

How much easier it is to think the meaning of my life, the terms of success or failure, of virtue or vice, are wholly my own to determine, keep or ignore.

How much easier it is to think that my life is simply mine.

But my brothers and sisters in Christ! Like Jesus, our lives are not our own! He lived to do the Father’s will and so save humanity from the powers of sin and death.

And you? Your life, like Jesus’ life, like mine life, is God’s gifts to you to be received with thanksgiving and lived in faith. We do this not only for our own sake but in fidelity to the example of Christ, for the salvation of the world.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Being Responsible

April 29 (O.S., April 16), 2018: Fourth Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Paralyzed Man. Righteous Tabitha (1st c.); Translation of the relics of Martyr Abramius of Bulgaria (1230). Virgin-martyrs Agape, Irene, and Chionia in Illyria (304). Martyrs Leonidas, Chariessa, Nice, Galina, Callista (Calisa), Nunechia, Basilissa, Theodora, and Irene of Corinth (258).

Epistle: Acts 9:32-42
Gospel: John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen!

Before Jesus heals the paralytic He asks the man a question. “Do you want to be made well?”

On one level, this would seem to be an unnecessary question. The man is at the pool of Bethesda in the hope of being made whole. There is, however, a deeper meaning to Jesus’ question.

God respects our freedom; He doesn’t impose Himself on us. While “God created us without us,” says St Augustine, “He did not will to save us without us.”

This means Hell isn’t so much a punishment for sin but a sign of God’s great respect for our freedom. Out of His great love for me, God allows me to turn my back on Him even if this results in my condemnation.

Divine love is as different as can be from mere human sentimentality that seeks to alleviate suffering by violating the freedom of the person. For God, the human person is not an object of His love but a subject.

This means that God waits patiently for our free response to Him. He Who is our Friend desires that we should freely choose to be His friend (see John 15:15). And so Jesus asks the paralytic: “Do you want to be made well?”

Just as the question reveals to us something about God–that He respects our freedom–the man’s answer reveals something about our predicament as fallen human beings. “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

Hearing the same Gospel readings year after year can cause us to miss important points in the text. In this case, we might overlook the fact that the man’s paralysis is not absolute. He can move, if slowly and no doubt painfully.

Rather than taking his limitations into account–say by staying closer to the pool or asking for assistance–the man blames others for his inability to get to the pool. However understandable, the man doesn’t want to accept responsibility for his life.

When Jesus asks the man if he wants to be made whole, He is asking the man if he wants to be responsible for his own life. And his willingness to be responsible for himself is in important.

A paralytic, after all, can live by begging. But an able-bodied man? He must work for a living. Being made whole means that he will now have to take care of himself. No more blaming others for what his situation.

The hymnography of the Church draws a parallel between our spiritual state and the man’s paralysis. Like the paralytic, I have reasons for not accepting responsibility for my decisions. And, just like the paralytic, my reasons are, to me at least, reasonable.

They are however only excuses.

In ways subtle and not so subtle, I want to want to hold other people responsible for my situation. Like Adam, I want to blame someone else for my sins. First, I’ll blame you; ultimately, I’ll blame God (see Genesis 3:12).

At some point, becoming an adult–to say nothing of becoming a saint–requires that I stop blaming others for my decision and accept responsibility for my own life. This, psychologically, is the essence of repentance.

Spiritually, repentance means more than just accepting responsibility for my life. The repentant heart is one that sees the whole of life as a gift to be received with gratitude from the hand of an All-loving God.

In the first flush of grace, this is easy.

But as we see toward the end of today’s Gospel, obedience to God will eventually put me in conflict with others. Obedience to God means conflict with those who prefer their own will to the will of God. “And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews, therefore, said to him who was cured, It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.’”

Even if I (mostly) avoid such conflict, being responsible for my own life means accepting the fact that my life unfolds in unexpected ways. Accepting with gratitude this life with all its successes and failures, its joys and disappointments, is the beginning of wisdom.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us be wise!

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory

Homily: Spiritual Reading & Gratitude

Sunday, December 31 (December 18, OS): 30th Sunday after Pentecost: Sunday before Nativity, of the Holy Fathers; Martyr Sebastian at Rome and his companions (287); St. Modestus, archbishop of Jerusalem (4th c.). Ven. Florus, Bishop of Amisus (7th c.); Ven. Michael the Confessor at Constantinople (845).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Mission, Madison, WI

Epistle: Hebrew 11:9-10, 17-23, 32-40
Gospel: Matthew 1:1-25

By divine grace, the broken men and women we hear about in today’s Gospel are all fit together as part of what St Augustine calls the divine catechesis. From Adam onward, Augustine says, God was slowly leading and purifying humanity until in the person of the Theotokos we are able to say “Yes” to Him and undo the disobedience of our First Parents.

As He has done from the beginning, God continues to for broken people together. Where once this was done to prepare humanity to receive His Son, now we are fit together as members of the Church. Once the Father fit broken people together to receive Christ. Today, He not only fits them together to become members Christ but to become alter Christus, or “another Christ.”

Having been joined to Christ’s Body the Church through Baptism, Chrismation, and Holy Communion, we are called by the Father to share in the Son’s work of reconciling humanity to God and so overcoming the power of sin and death in their lives and our own.

The practical question before us is this: How do we, personally, fulfill our great calling?

We have the sacraments, the worship of the Church and the ascetical disciplines of prayer, fasting, almsgiving and manual labor. These are–or at least should be–a part of every Christian’s life. But I want to focus this morning not on these but on another discipline much loved by the fathers of the Church. Spiritual reading.

When Augustine first meets St Ambrose, he is quite impressed that the bishop of Milan is sitting at his desk reading the Scriptures. The practice in the ancient world was not to read the Bible but to listen to it being read. But Ambrose doesn’t listen to Scripture, he reads it. Astonishing as this is to Augustine, he is even more impressed that Ambrose is reading silently. He is concentrating s intensely on the task at hand that he is reading without moving his lips!

The regular, even daily, reading of Scripture is the foundation of all spiritual reading. It’s also something that is often neglected. St John Chrysostom tells his listeners “to persevere continually in reading the divine Scriptures” because “it is not possible, not possible for anyone to be saved without continually taking advantage of spiritual reading” of the Bible.

He goes on to say that

Reading the Scriptures is a great means of security against sinning. The ignorance of Scripture is a great cliff and a deep abyss; to know nothing of the divine laws is a great betrayal of salvation. This has given birth to heresies, this has introduced a corrupt way of life, this has put down the things above. For it is impossible, impossible for anyone to depart without benefit if he reads continually with attention (On Wealth and Poverty, Saint Vladimir Press, pg. 58-60).

Together with the Scriptures, we can also read the Church Fathers. Their works are the biblical commentaries of the Orthodox Church. In their words, we discover not only the meaning of Scripture but also how it can apply to our lives.

With Scripture and the fathers, we can also add philosophy as well as the findings of the sciences. Again, this is something that the fathers recommend to us. Reflecting on the place of “pagan,” that is “secular” learning, St Basil the Great says “Just as it is the chief mission of the tree to bear its fruit in its season, though at the same time it puts forth for ornament the leaves which quiver on its boughs, even so, the real fruit of the soul is truth, yet it is not without advantage for it to embrace the pagan wisdom, as also leaves offer shelter to the fruit, and an appearance not untimely” (“Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature,” III).

Basil expands this to include not only philosophy and the sciences but also the great myths and poetry of the ancient world. In these, we find examples of both the virtues that lead to salvation and the vices that keep us from the Kingdom of Heaven. He goes so far as to say that when reading pagan literature we should we should “receive gladly those passages in which they praise virtue or condemn vice” (“Address,” IV).

Key to profitable spiritual reading, as St Basil suggests, is gratitude. I need to read with a grateful heart. To the grateful heart examples of vice are as profitable as virtue. The latter gives me examples to emulate, the former to avoid.

As I read with gratitude, my tendency to prefer my own judgment to the judgment of God will wane. This, in turn, will make it possible for me to recognize myself, my failures and successes, my vices and virtues, in what I read.

And slowly I begin to see how, like the ancestors of Christ, God has fit my brokenness into His plan of salvation not only for me but all humanity.

And, if I am inclined to do so, this growth in self-knowledge and understanding allows me to grow in a gracious and appreciative knowledge and understand others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ!  Spiritual reading helps us cultivate the habit of gratitude to God for even the smallest hint of His grace. Yes, like all humanity we are broken. Through spiritual reading, however, we learn to be open to the traces of grace not only in the things we read but in our lives and the lives of those we meet daily.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory