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

Join Zeal to Knowledge, Faith to Works, Piety to Technique

Sunday, July 1 (O.S., June 18), 2018: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost; Martyrs Leontius, Hypatius and Theodulus, at Tripoli in Syria (73); St. Leontius, canonarch of the Kyiv Caves (14th c.).

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

What might St Paul mean when he criticizes the Jews for having “zeal without knowledge”?

The first thing to keep in mind is that when in his letter to the Romans the Apostle criticizes–or for that matter, praises–the Jews he does so to make a similar point about the Gentile converts to Christ. St Augustine puts it this way: “Paul begins to speak of his hope for the Jews, lest the Gentiles in their turn become condescending toward them.”

The bishop of Hippo goes on to say that if the Jews were proud “because the gloried in their works,” the Gentiles became proud because of their mistaken belief of “having been preferred over the Jews” (On Romans, 66).

Zeal without knowledge isn’t, in other words, an intellectual deficit but a lack of charity born of pride. It is “faith without love” (see 1 Corinthians 13:2).

The sign that my faith lacks love, that I have zeal without knowledge, is that I lack patience, that I am unkind or even cruel. Zeal without knowledge is revealed in the person who is envious, who acts immorally, is proud, ambitious or self-seeking (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-8). The person whose zeal lacks knowledge does all these things and “teaches others to do so” (Matthew 5:19) by his actions if not always by his words.

This is why Paul reminds the Romans that they must not only confess with their “mouth the Lord Jesus” but believe in their “heart that God has raised Him from the dead.” While words are easy, heartfelt belief requires repentance and a radical transformation in how I treat others. For those of us who are in Christ, there is no escaping the practical demands of charity.

Here then is the temptation we face. Or at least which I face.

I am tempted not only to separate my faith from charity but to separate my charity from the skills which God has given me as part of my natural talents and which he has helped me develop through grace as my life unfolds.

Given the practical demands of charity that are essential to life in Christ, how do I guard against the trap of “zeal without knowledge”?

I must cultivate through practice the abilities God has given me.

St Gregory of Nyssa writes

When people are feeble, although many may wish the sufferer freedom from his pain, it is only those who have the technical skill that can make their choice effectual and cure the patient. This means, in effect, that [practical] wisdom must always be closely allied to [moral] goodness (Oratio Catechetica, 19).

Piety, in other words, is no substitute for technique. It isn’t enough for me to have good intentions. I must, as the Apostle James reminds us, be able to translate my compassion for others–like my faith in God–into action.

We see this ability to match deeds to intention in the Gospel. Jesus doesn’t simply want to liberate the men from the demons. No, he actually does something to free them. Jesus joins good intention to effective action, piety to technique, faith to works, zeal to knowledge.

It’s worth noting that while the residences of the nearby city were impressed by Jesus’ actions, they wanted nothing to do with Him. There is something similar that can happen in our spiritual lives or the life of the parish.

Like the residence of the city I may not welcome zeal combined with knowledge, right faith joined to good works, or piety to technique. Sometimes, I prefer pleasing thoughts about Christianity to actually being a Christian to paraphrase St Ignatius of Antioch.

What I mean here is this.

It is, unfortunately, an all too common occurrence that when we come to church, we leave our talents and our professional training at the door. I confuse “laying aside the cares of this life” with coming before God as if I was someone else, someone who didn’t have the skills or competencies that I have.

To do this, to neglect the abilities that God has given us, to imagine that they are of no value in our spiritual life or, what is worse, that they are somehow obstacles to our life in Christ and not bridges for us and others to Christ is to harbor a misunderstanding of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. That this misunderstanding is common makes it no less wrong.

Your natural talents, your spiritual gifts, your professional, technical or artistic knowledge and training, all of these are given to you by God. And they are given to you not only for your salvation and the salvation of the world but also for God’s glory. And in the Scriptures, the “Glory of God” is the most Real of all real things.

The besetting sin, if I may speak boldly, of Orthodoxy in America, is that too often, we tell the laity to leave their professional and technical competencies at the door to the Church. We–and by “we” I mean primarily (though not exclusively) the clergy–encourage people to pretend to be someone other than who they really are. We do this when we do not welcome, bless, and make use of their abilities for the salvation of the world.

And frankly, we do (o rather don’t do) this out of pride. Welcoming others and valuing their gifts this requires that the clergy not only guide the laity but be guided by the laity.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! When you come to the Divine Liturgy, don’t leave your abilities at the door! Bring them in, offer them to Christ in the sacrifice of the altar and receive them back purified and transformed in Holy Communion!

And then, be bold in the exercise of your abilities not only in the workplace but in the Church.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory