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

Peace in the Midst of Conflict

Thursday, February 23 (O.S., March 8) 2018: Thursday of the Third Week of Lent; Hieromartyr Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna († 167); New Hieromartyrs Priests Alexis, Nicholas, Michael and Martyr Sergius († 1938); Venerable John, Antiochus, Antoninus, Moses, Zebinas, Polychronius, another Moses, and Damian, Ascetics of the Syrian Deserts (5th C); Venerable Alexander the founder of the Monastery of the “Unsleeping Ones” († c. 430); Venerable Gorgonia, sister of St Gregory the Theologian; Venerable Polycarp of Briansk († 1620-1621); Venerable Moses of White Lake; Venerable Damian of Esphigmenou on Mt Athos; New Venerable Martyr Damian the New of Philotheou, who suffered at Larissa (1568).

Sixth Hour: Isaiah 11:10-12:2
Vespers: Genesis 7:11-8:3
Vespers: Proverbs 10:1-22

St Ignatius of Antioch wrote that just as a ship needs a rudder to arrive safely in port, Christians need the conflicts and controversies of the present time to find God. To be honest, I don’t like to hear this. It isn’t that I think the saint is wrong; he isn’t. I just want him to be wrong.

The readings though for today–as well as several passages in the New Testament (Matthew 24:19, Luke 21:23, 1 Corinthians 3:15 and 11:19 come quickly to mind)–all attest to the truth of the saint’s word. Yes, as we read in Isaiah, God will redeem His People. Along the way to be redeemed, His People will make war against their oppressors.

God’s newly redeemed will know victory but not the absence of conflict. Instead “they shall swoop down upon the shoulder of the Philistines in the west, … plunder the people of the east…. put forth their hand against Edom and Moab” and subjugate by force “the Ammonites.”

The road they take from slavery to liberation will be swept by “scorching wind.” Droughts will dry up rivers so God’s People can “cross dryshod.”

They will be saved by they will also mourn. Family and friends will be left behind since only a “remnant” will escape. And like the Hebrew Children, the path to redemption will be through the desert.

For all the hardships along the way, God’s People are thankful. They aren’t blind to the suffering around them. Much less do they deny their own suffering.  For all this they are still able to say as one People: “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”

I’m a fool to think redemption means that I am exempt from the consequences of sin. It’s bordering on blasphemy to think I won’t suffer because God loves me.

Look at how God saves Noah and his family. He places them in a ship tossed by storms. Everywhere they look they see death and devastation. They not only face the terrors of being on the open seas, they must labor unceasingly to care for the animals on the ark.

God doesn’t Noah or us from hardship. What he does is transform it; He uses it to for our spiritual and practical benefit.

This last point is the one Solomon makes not only in today’s reading but throughout Proverbs. Again and again, he places side by side examples of wisdom and folly, of diligence and laziness, and of righteousness and wickedness.

God doesn’t blot out the latter of these pairs in favor of the former. Instead, He contrasts the two paths to make clear our choices.

Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you today; and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way which I command you today, to go after other gods which you have not known (Deuteronomy 11:26-28, NKJV)

While the details of each choice can at times be complex or vague, the actual choice is stark. Will I be obedient to God or will follow my own will?

Obedience doesn’t guarantee the absence of conflict. All of today’s readings–to say nothing of centuries of Christian history–make this clear. What obedience does bring is peace in the midst of the unavoidable conflict we will encounter on the way to the Kingdom of God.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory