From Obedience Comes Friendship

Sunday, July 5 (OS June 22), 2020: 4th Sunday after Pentecost. Hieromartyr Eusebius, Bp. of Samosata (380). Martyrs Zeno and his servant Zenas of Philadelphia (304). Martyrs Galacteon, Juliana, and Saturninus of Constantinople. {St. Alban, protomartyr of Britain (c. 305)}

Epistle: Romans 6:18-23

Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Seen from the outside, the Gospel appears as an unbearable imposition on my freedom. An unending list of do’s and don’ts. To use St Paul’s phrase, humanly speaking, that is in my spiritual or emotional immaturity, the Gospel feels to me likes “slavery.”

And yet with time and experience, I begin to realize that far from limiting my freedom it is the Gospel–and specifically my obedience to the Gospel–that makes my freedom not just possible but a treasure to be jealously guarded.

Humanly speaking, St Paul says, the options before me are stark. I can live as a slave “of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” or as a slave to “righteousness for holiness.” It is the latter, the way of holiness, that is the way of true and lasting freedom. To see this we need only reflect for a moment of what it means to follow the way of uncleanness.

We should first of all admit that there is something undeniably attractive to following this path because it is the way of my own will. Choosing what I want to do based on my desire at the moment seems not just desirable but intoxicating.

But my desires are constantly shifting, pulling me this way and that as different options present themselves to me. And so soon I discover that this is a life of increasing fragmentation.

Think about the sin of vainglory, of pursuing the praise and good opinion of others.

Yes, at first, this might result in my trying to be a better person. Soon though I discover that winning–much less keeping–the good opinion of others is a trap. Even my closest friends will at times disagree with me; even the most generous friend will now and then have no time for me or as much time for me as I want.

As the opinion of others becomes more important to me, I’ll begin to seek out anyone who can affirm me, spend time with me. I do this because I am trying to find the sense of self-worth that can only come from within as the fruit of my relationship with Jesus Christ.

And so the Apostle says the fruit of this way of life is a life of “lawlessness leading to more lawlessness” as I surrender control of my life not to others but to my own desire for their approval.

Living like this doesn’t make any of us happy. How can it? What is more insubstantial, what is more flicked than desire?

Yesterday we celebrated Independence Day. In the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson says that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This last right, the right to pursue happiness, is not (as we are sometimes told) the right to follow every passing whim. It is rather a life that fosters human flourishing, of becoming evermore the persons God has created us to be.

For Jefferson, for St Paul and the Christian tradition as a whole, happiness is found not in doing what I want but doing as I ought. It is in this sense that we can talk about the United States as a Christian nation. Not Christian as the Church is Christian but rather Christian in the sense that in our founding we drew inspiration from the Christian ideal of living not as we want but as we should.

Hearing this needn’t upset us.

This is neither a diminishment of the Gospel nor an unwarranted glorification of America. Rather it is simply seeing for a nation what Jesus sees in the centurion: An epiphany of the Church’s faith outside the Church.

The centurion’s faith was praiseworthy because it freed him from the vain pursuit of the good opinions of others. Because he was free in this way he was able to love his servant.

It was for his servant’s sake that the centurion was willing and able to humble himself before Jesus. Through faith, through obedience to God, master and servant became much more. They became friends.

We are now as a nation suffering all manner of dissension. We are internally divided and are fast becoming not neighbors or even fellow citizens, but enemies. We are suffering this because–on both the Left and the Right–we have abandoned “the pursuit of happiness,” in favor of the pursuit of fickle desire and, above all, power over others as a way to bolster our own frail sense of self-worth.

In a fallen world, we are not friends unless we choose to be so. This choice is not a matter of simply agreeing with each other. Much less is it the fruit of superficial attraction.

It is faith in Jesus Christ and obedience to the will of God that makes yesterday’s enemies into today’s friends. And this happens not because you have changed but I have.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! “From this day forth from this very hour and this very minute,” as St Herman of Alaska said, “let us love love God above all and seek to accomplish His Holy Will.” Let us from this moment commit ourselves more fully to Christ and so make friends of our enemies and show the world how the divisions that afflict us can be healed.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Freedom is to Do the Will of God

Sunday, July 14 (O.S., July 1), 2019: 4th Sunday after Pentecost; Holy and Wonderworking Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian, Martyrs at Rome (284); St. Angelina, despotina of Serbia (XVI); Martyr Potitus at Naples (II). St. Peter the Patrician, monk of Constantinople (854).

Epistle: Romans 6:18-23

Gospel: Matthew 8:5-13

Glory to Jesus Christ!

The Holy Apostle tells us that once we were held under bondage to sin but now we under bondage to Christ. Though he is speaking “in human terms” his assertion that “having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” is still an affront to our sense of freedom.

For most of us, freedom means freedom of choice. But the naked ability to choose between options is not real freedom. Think about it for a moment. To be here this morning requires giving up being somewhere else.

As important as freedom of choice is to our moral life and our life in Christ–and let’s not make any mistake, freedom in this sense is essential–it is inherently self-limiting. When deciding between options we quickly discover that every “yes” contains within itself a “no.” This is why even the best of our choices restrict our freedom.

Returning to St Paul, we can grasp easily enough why sin undermines our freedom of choice. We all know what it means to be trapped by anger or resentment or worry. Try as I might in these moments, I can’t do what I want because my negative feelings don’t just bind me, they tear me apart.

This is what the fathers mean when they talk about the “passions.” Sin cripples me by fostering in me evil habits. I am enslaved to habits of thought and action that cause me to turn my back on God and neighbor. The fact that these habits arise from my own desires only compounds the tragedy of sin.

I am enslaved to my passions and it is from the passions that Christ comes to free not only me but all of us by His death and resurrection. We can summarize the whole of the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church as one as being progressively freed from the passions.

But this still leaves us with the Apostle’s provocative statement that we are now “slaves of righteousness.”

Freedom is not simply a matter of choice. If I seek freedom here I will in short order discover, as I said a moment ago, that I have enslaved myself to my own desires.

Seen in this light, we can understand why freedom is not doing what I want but, as Paul suggests, doing what I ought. That is to say, doing the will of God.

To those who associate freedom with freedom of choice, obedience to God seems an unbearable imposition. To those who value above all the human ability to choose, obedience to God is an offense and assault against human nature.

But again, let’s think a moment about what it means to do the willing of God.

Far from limiting your freedom, love opens a world of ever-increasing possibilities. Commit yourself to love your neighbor as yourself, make this the choice that guides all your choices and you never want for new opportunities.

Not only that. As you love this person you learn at the same time how to love more fully not only this person but all other persons.

Likewise, forgiveness liberates you from resentment, faith from a life of distrust and even as hope liberates you from anxiety for the future.

To see how this happens, we need only look at the Gospel.

It was unheard of for a centurion, a Roman officer, to approach a Jew for help. No Roman would humble himself to become a supplicant to a Jew. And yet, the centurion does exactly this because he loves his servant.

The centurion’s love is not only of benefit to the servant; it is to his benefit as well. Likewise for all of us, love for our neighbor blossoms into the love of God. The real, if limited, love of one man for another opens up to the unending love of God.

We can look as well at Ss. Cosmas and Damian whose memory we celebrate today.

Skilled as they were in the technical demands of being physicians, their faith in Jesus Christ able them to heal the soul as well as the body. As physicians of the body, they were able only to delay death; as physicians of the soul, they offered their patients eternal life.

When I understand freedom not as doing what I want but what I ought, I transcend the inherent limits of the former and enter into the unending possibilities of the latter.

My brothers and sisters in Christ! To be truly free means to do the will of God; nothing more and certainly nothing less.

May we live our lives from this day forth as free men and women in Christ.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory