Love Casts Out Doubt

Sunday, May 5 (O.S., April 22), 2019: Antipascha; Sunday of St. Thomas; St. Theodore the Sykeote, Bishop of Anastasiopolis (613).; Apostles Nathaniel, Luke, and Clement. Martyrs Leonidas of Alexandria (202); St. Vitalis of the monastery of Abba Serid at Gaza (609-620).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 5:12-20
Gospel: John 20:19-31

Christ is Risen!

One of the best signs of the truthfulness of the Gospels is the willingness of the sacred authors to recount the moral failures of not just the apostles but all the disciples.

Peter denies Jesus and Judas betrays Him.

When the myrrh-bearing hear from the angel that Jesus is risen and are told to “tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you” (Mark 16:7, NJKV), they instead run away in fear, saying “nothing to anyone” (v. 8).

Likewise in today’s Gospel, we see Peter and the disciples hiding behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews.” We need at this point to pause for a moment and consider more of the context–the timeline really–of what is happening.

Jesus appears to the disciples on Pascha, “on the evening of that day, the first day of the week.” Earlier that day, He had appeared “to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons” (Mark 16:9). At first, she doesn’t recognize Jesus mistaking Him for the gardener. But when He says her name–”Mary!”–she immediately recognizes Him and hurries off to tell the disciples that the Lord is risen (see John 20:15-18).

Unfortunately, and this brings us to today’s Gospel, “they did not believe” Mary (Mark 16:11), her words “seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

Betrayers. Doubters, Cowards, Women. In the ancient world, none of these would have been considered credible witnesses because none could be honorable men. And yet, these are the witnesses that the Church offers us. Far from undermining the credibility of the Gospel, the weakness of the disciples highlights its power.

Turning now to the reading from the Acts of the Holy Apostle, and even though “many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles,” even though “the people held them in high honor” they were afraid to publicly follow the disciples. Like the disciples on Pascha, the people were afraid of the Jewish authorities.

Nevertheless, “believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” The reason is because the disciples were eventually able to move beyond the crippling fear and they experienced on Pascha and so counteract the fear felt among the citizens of Jerusalem.

St John Chrysostom explains it this way (Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles, 12): “Earth was becoming like heaven,” because of how the first Christians lived. It was their “boldness of speech,” the “wonders” they performed that cause the residence of Jerusalem to look on the followers of Jesus as they were angels.”

As for the disciples themselves, “They were unconcerned about ridicule, threats, perils.” Instead, “They were compassionate and beneficent. Some of them they helped with money, and some with words, and some with healing of their bodies and of their souls; they accomplished every kind of healing.”

How did the grace of God bring about this transformation in the disciples? How did fearful doubters become bold apostles?

Love.

Of all those first entrusted with the proclamation of the Gospel, only one responded with obedience. It was only Mary Magdalene who did as she was told to do.

The reason, as St Mark highlights for us, is because of all the disciples of Jesus, only she knew evil and the power of the devil not simply as an external threat but an inner struggle. It was out of her that Jesus “had cast seven demons.” As Jesus tells us in another place, those “love much” who have been “forgiven much.” As for the one “to whom little is forgiven,” that is who repents only of minor sins leaving unmourned the more serious ones, “the same loves little.” (see Luke 7:47).

It was in her great love for Jesus that Mary found the courage to proclaim boldly the Gospel. This is important because, contrary to what we sometimes imagine, doubt is not a sin of the intellect but the will.

I doubt because I don’t love and I don’t love because I am afraid. I don’t trust God because I have not united myself to Him; I resist His will for my life, preferring my will to His. In its most extreme form, I prefer to fail of my terms to succeed on His.

But “perfect love drives out fear” and the “one who fears is not made perfect in love” (see 1 John 4:18). The apostles doubt, I doubt, because their love, my love, remains imperfect.

St John tells us that anyone who hates his neighbor is “a murder” (1 John 3:15) and that anyone who says he loves God but who hates his neighbor “is a liar: (1 John 4:20) and lives “in darkness” (1 John 2:11).

Jesus tells us what it means to love God perfectly when He says we are to love God with all that is in us and that we are to love our neighbor as our very self (see Matthew 22:35-40; Mark 12:28-34).

The love of God is not an idea; much less is it a feeling. Rather, to love God is to unite our will to His. If I love God I will keep His commandments (see John 14:15). Love, in other words, is a matter of obedience.

And just as to love God is to be obedient to God, to love my neighbor means to want what God wants for him. I love you with a perfect love if I want for you all that God would give you.

To be sure, the will of God for me and for you is wider, deeper and broader than what we know. Nevertheless, we know what God doesn’t want. The Ten Commandments offer us a negative expression of God’s will for humanity.

And we know from the Scriptures and the fathers that God’s will for us is–in a positive sense–rooted in our participation in his very nature (2 Peter 1:4).

We come to share in the divine life through our participation in the sacraments of the Church. To share in God’s life means we must be baptized, confess our sins, receive Holy Communion. To these, we add daily prayer and the reading of Scripture and the keeping of the fasts as we are able.

Is there more to perfect love? Yes! But if we do at least these things, God will slowly reveal the fullness of His will for us.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The fearful, doubting disciples of Pascha we meet today will soon become bold witnesses for Christ through love! In these next few weeks, as we make the journey from Pascha to Pentecost, we are preparing ourselves for a new outpouring of divine love into our hearts. We have this period of rest, in anticipation of the renewal of our witness to the world.

So get ready! There is more to come!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Entering Into Freedom

Sunday, February 24 (O.S., February 11), 2019: Sunday of Prodigal Son; Hieromartyr Blaise, bishop of Sebaste (316). St. Theodora, wife of Emperor Theophilus the Iconoclast (867).

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 4:6-15
Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church, Madison

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Even when we are able to free ourselves from a purely negative view of repentance as turning from sin and come to embrace the more positive view of turning toward God, we still are prone to underestimate the depth of what it means to repent. At its core, repentance is an epiphany of human dignity and our entrance into a life of freedom.

Even in its first moments, repentance is an affirmation that sin doesn’t have the last word about what it means to be human. We are none of us our sin; we are none of us determined by those moments of shame we all experience over the things we do and we fail to do.

But just as we are not our sins, neither are we are good deeds. If sin brings with it feelings of shame, my good deeds can become occasions of pride and foster in me an indifference–and even open contempt–for my neighbor. We need to look no further than the elder brother in today’s Gospel.

This young man is in many ways a good son. As he says to his father, “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.”

Tragically, it is his very moral goodness that becomes the cause of his contempt for his brother’s repentance and so his father’s forgiveness: “yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!”

When we look more closely at repentance we discover that human dignity is not dependent on what we do or fail to do. None of our qualities–whether they are good or bad–determine our dignity.

So what does?

Here we need to move from a consideration of human dignity to human freedom. Like the prodigal son, who we are, our dignity and our identity, flow from our Father’s embrace.

…the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.

Through repentance, we become increasingly detached from confusing our dignity and our identity with discrete actions or qualities. Just as I am more than my sins or my good deeds, neither am I my sex, my education, my wealth or position in society or the Church. While all of these are important, none of them exhaust human dignity. We are all of us more than the aggregate of our qualities.

Detached from the things of this life, we come to realize that our true worth is found first in God’s love for us and then subsequently our love for Him.

And because God is Infinite, neither His love for us nor our love for Him is ever exhausted. To love God is to go “from Glory to Glory” in St Paul’s phrase (see 2 Corinthians 3:18).

This phrase is a special favorite of St Gregory of Nyssa. For the saint, heaven is a life of infinite progression as we grow ever more in love with God. Because God is Infinite because He is superabundant love, we can never have an exhaustive love or knowledge of God; there is always, if I can speak this way, more of God to love, more of Him to know.

And so repentance is the gateway to a life of true beatitude, the true and lasting which is found in God’s love of us and our love of Him.

We should pause here for a moment and consider, what is true for us as Orthodox Christians, is also true for every human being. Whether Orthodox or even Christian, whether an unrepentant sinner or a repentant saint, everyone we meet is loved by God and so–like us–someone somewhere along the path to glory.

Or as St Maximus the Confessor says, if we love God, we can’t but love our neighbor as ourselves even if we “are grieved” by his lack of repentance.

You have not yet acquired perfect love if your regard for people is still swayed by their characters – for example, if, for some particular reason, you love one person and hate another, or if for the same reason you sometimes love and sometimes hate the same person (First Century of Love, #70).

Repentance reveals to us our true dignity as creatures who called to freely, that is to say, personally love the God Who has first loved us and Whose love makes our love possible.

And having come to see this in ourselves, repentance makes it possible for us to see this in others.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The true and lasting dignity of the human person is found in our ability to respond freely to God’s love. All that we do in the life of the Church–and especially in the Great Fast that is about to begin–has no other goal than to help us discover this freedom not only in ourselves but in all who we meet.

When we enter the “doors of repentance” we enter into the realm of God’s never-ending and superabundant love for us and all we meet. As we prepare to enter the season of the Great Fast, let us make ready to lay aside all things and so we can embrace the God Who today and everyday embraces us in love.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

God’s Love Revealed in Us

November 11 (October 29), 2018: 24th Sunday after Pentecost. Virgin-martyr Anastasia the Roman (256). Ven. Abramius the Recluse (360) and his niece St. Mary, of Mesopotamia (397). Martyrs Claudius, Asterius, Neon, and Theonilla, of Aegae in Cilicia (285). Ven. Anna (known as Euphemianus) of Constantinople (826). Ven. Abramius, archimandrite of Rostov (1073). Ven. Abramius, recluse of the Kyiv.

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Mission,  Madison, WI

Epistle: Ephesians 2:14-22
Gospel: Luke 8:26-39

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Based on how they treated the demoniac, the Gadarenes are not unkind people. Rather than drive him out of their land–or worse, kill him–they made an effort to keep him from harming himself or other people.

The “chains and shackles” they used to restrain him, however, were insufficient. Freed from his restraints, the man is “driven by the demon into the wilderness.” It is here, away from the constraints of civilization that he finds Jesus and the disciples.

The fundamental kindness of Gadarenes is important because it testifies to what St Justin Martyr will teach toward the end of the second century. Just as God prepares the Jewish People through the revelation of the Law, He prepares the Gentiles through philosophy and a love of virtue.

But just as the Law was only a preparation, so too the love of virtue. Both prepare the human heart to receive Christ but neither is, in itself, sufficient. One must still personally and freely welcome Christ.

When we look at the Old Testament as a preparation for the Gospel one of the things we notice is the materiality of God’s grace.

In the beginning, as the late Fr Alexander Schmemann points out, divine grace takes the form of food and drink: “every herb that yields seed which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree whose fruit yields seed; to you it shall be for food” (Genesis 1:29, NKJV). And even though we rebel against God and are expelled from the Garden, God continues to share His grace with us through the good things of the earth.

Slowly through the centuries, God teaches us the goodness of creation. By steps, we learn that the creation is part and parcel of divine grace. Creation in each of its parts, a physical manifestation of God’s mercy and love. The goodness of creation anticipates the Incarnation of the Son.

What do we learn from creation?

We learn of the goodness of marriage and family life; the joy of seeing our children’s children grow to maturity (see Psalm 126:6, Proverbs 17:6).

We learn the joy of wine–new and old; of festivals and feasts.

And we experience the blessing of wealth, of social prominence and political power. And yes, we even learn the goodness of military might and victory of our enemies when they are also the enemies of God.

But together with this, we learn the limits of creation. Good though all these things are, their goodness is circumscribed. These smaller good things point beyond themselves to the singular Good of Jesus Christ.

Make no mistake though. God prepares us to receive Christ by teaching us the real goodness of creation. Before humanity able to receive Christ, however, we had to learn the joys and sorrows of marriage and family life. We needed to learn the possibilities, limits, and temptations of wealth and power before our hearts are open to receive our Savior.

All that God gives the Jewish People, He gives, as St Paul tells us, to break “down the middle wall of separation” between humanity and God and to create from humanity the Church, the “dwelling place of God in the Spirit” in creation.

And just as God slowly teaches this to the Jewish People through the Law, He teaches these same lessons to the Gentiles through philosophy and their love of virtue.

So why, if God has done all this, do the Gadarenes not receive Christ but instead ask Him to leave? Why of they afraid of He Who is the fulfillment of all the good things in their lives?

The answer is hidden in the heart’s secret place. We can’t say with any certitude why the Gadarenes behaved as they did. What we can do though is suggest a possible answer.

Sometimes in the spiritual life, we become so impressed, so enamored, with the grandeur of God’s revelation that we miss the smaller moments of His grace. This shouldn’t surprise us. It is something that frequently happens to each of us.

We are often so overwhelmed by events in the world around us–say in the political realm–or by all that we need to do in our professional or personal lives, that we miss the small moments.

Let me suggest this. Jesus comes to us in the small moments; He speaks to us not in a loud voice but “a gentle whisper” that we, that I, often fail to hear.

Given all this, it isn’t a surprise that the Gadarenes fail to receive Christ. So focused are they on the large things of life, they miss the small occasions of divine grace and mercy that make up their lives and indeed each human life. Even the life of one possessed by the demons.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! The smallest act of grace in your life is, well, you. Before God reveals His love to you in the grand sweep of your life or even the myriad events that make up that life, He reveals His love for you in a way that is so intimate that you easily overlook it.

You see God’s first word of love to you is you.

The most basic revelation of God’s love for you is you. God’s love for you was first revealed to you when He knitted you together in your mother’s womb (Jeremiah 1:5, Psalm 139:13-18).

The Gadarenes turn away from Christ because they don’t know this about themselves.

And just as with the Gadarenes, we still today turn away from Christ because we haven’t yet come to know that our lives, in all its details, are the first revelation of God’s love for us.

Like the Gadarenes, we turn away from Jesus not because of this or that element of His teaching or witness. No, people turn away from Jesus because they don’t yet know who they are. In not knowing that their life a sign of God’s love for them, they don’t know who they are.

Who are they? Who are we? For all our shortcomings and failures, we are the revelation of God’s personal and superabundant love in Jesus Christ for the whole human family.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Free to Love

September, 9 (O.S., August 27): 15th Sunday after Pentecost; Ven. Poemen the Great (450). St. Hosius (Osia) the Confessor, bishop of Cordova (4th c.). St. Liberius, pope of Rome (366). Ven. Poemen of Palestine (602). Martyr Anthusa. Hieromartyrs Pimen, Kuksha, of the Kyiv
Caves (1114).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Ukrainian Orthodox Mission, Madison, WI

Glory to Jesus Christ!

St Paul tells us that the God Who created the Universe has come to dwell in our hearts. This is what it means to be Orthodox Christians; we are the people in whom God dwells.

All of this reveals as well, the dignity of each and every single human being. To be human means to be a potential dwelling place for God.

Human dignity and the nobility of the Christian vocation are both revealed and accomplished through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. In the waters of Baptism, we discover what it means to be truly human. We are most fully ourselves when we are incorporated into the Church and so become each of us personally and all of us together, the dwelling place of God.

Because God has come to dwell in our hearts, we don’t need to look around us to find Him. He is not somewhere “outside” us. He is rather in our hearts and all we need to do to find God is to turn inward.

The problem is that when I turn inward and I look in my own heart, it isn’t just God that I find.

St. Macarius the Great says that while the human “heart itself is but a little vessel” it contains “dragons and … lions; … venomous beasts and all the treasures of wickedness.” He goes on to say that there are in my heart as well “rough and uneven ways” and dangerous “chasms.”

More importantly, however, is that in our hearts we find as well “God, … the angels, the life and the kingdom, there light and the apostles, there the heavenly cities, there the treasures” of grace. There is in each human heart all that is good and life-giving as well as all that is evil and death-dealing. There are in each of us “all things.”

We all know this about ourselves. Or at least, we know part of this.

We all know that our hearts contain ugly things and this is why we hesitate to turn inward.

I don’t want to see the ugliness in my own heart. And so to avoid seeing what I don’t want to see, I create an image of myself.

I build this self-image, idol really, from what others say about me and the bits and piece of everyday experience.

The problem is, this isn’t me. It is an idol of my own creation.

So what is the alternative? What are we, as Orthodox Christians to do?

We must look into our own hearts.

This turning inward to find God is hard. It requires a fair measure of courage because it means seeing the evil and shame I would prefer to forget. But if I can keep from turning away, I remain faithful in my inward turn, I will find God and experience His love for me.

On Holy Saturday while His body laid in the tomb, Jesus descends into Hell and takes it captive as we hear in the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom. We must never forget that Jesus reigns not only in Heaven but also in Hell.

In coming to dwell in our hearts, Jesus makes His throne in that hell we create in ourselves.

If we turn inward and look at those things that most shame us, that cause us the most pain, if we turn and look at our darkest secret and our most serious sins, we will find Jesus there waiting for us with His arms open to embrace us with love.

In the Gospel, Jesus says that it is just this love that sums up the whole of the law. As Jesus loves us, sacrificially and without reservation, we are called to love not only our brothers and sisters in Christ but all who we meet and even ourselves.

This love that God has called us to demonstrate begins in our love for God. To love others as Jesus loves me, I must give myself over to Him without reservation.

This is the great mystery of the Christian life.

To give myself over to God in love means that I must be willing to accept His love for me. When I refuse to acknowledge my own sinfulness when I turn a blind eye to the darkness in my own heart, I am in that moment turning away from God’s love for me, I am fleeing my King’s Throne.

And when I do this, what then? With what am I left with that false idol I created of myself.

And remember, like you, I built this idol.

And not only do I know it’s false, I also know that the more tenaciously I cling to it and the more this is the face I present to the world, the more I become a stranger to love.

As for the second of the commandments–that we love our neighbor as ourselves–this sums up the evangelical witness of the Church. Our calling is to smash idols not with violence but by seeing through them by our willingness to love people as they truly are.

Secure in God’s love for us, we are able to look fearless at the sin and darkness in not only own hearts but in our neighbor. And seeing this, we don’t turn away but reach out with the same love God has for us.

In doing so, we realize that our love for them isn’t ours alone but also God’s.

Though we add nothing to God’s love, nevertheless when we join ourselves to God we are able to lift, if only a little, the burden of shame that binds not only our neighbor but also ourselves.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Is there anyone you hate so much that you would see them enslaved by the same self-hatred that afflicts you? Longing as you do to be freed from the crippling burden of shame, would you deny such freedom to others?

Longing as you do, to love and to be loved, would you deny this to others?

Longing as you do to drop the mask you wear daily, would you deny this to others?

God has given us in baptism three great gifts. The first is to know that we are loved by the Creator of the Universe, that He has come to dwell in our hearts.

The second gift is like the first. To return that love to the God Who loves us.

Third but by no means least, the courage to love others as God loves us.

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