A Sign of Contradiction

May 12 (O.S., April 29) 2019: Third Sunday of Pascha; Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women; Sts. Myrrh-Bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Nine Martyrs at Cyzicus: Theognes, Rufus, Antipater, Theostichus, Artemas, Magnus, Theodotus, Thaumasius, and Philemon (3rd c.); St. Memnon the Wonderworker of Corfu (2nd c.).

Ss Cyril & Methodius Orthodox Church
Madison, WI

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43–16:8

Christ is Risen!

As we’ve seen before, the authors of the New Testament are not afraid to air the Church’s dirty laundry. The weaknesses and moral failings of the Apostles and disciples are there to be seen by all. This is certainly the case in the conflict we hear about today.

In the early days of the Church, there was disagreement about whether or not the two groups of widows–those who spoke Hebrew and those who spoke Greek–were being treated the same. Whether it was actually the case or merely a perception, the Greek-speaking Christians complained that their widows were being “were neglected in the daily distribution” of food.

If only in passing, it’s worth noting that though they spoke different languages, not only were both groups Christians, they were both ethnically Jewish. In any case, St Luke is silent as to the exact nature of the complaint; it is enough for him to note that there was a division in the Church.

This division was sufficiently serious that it distracted the Apostles from their primary mission of preaching the Gospel. Instead, they had to involve themselves in making peace between arguing factions in the Church.

Events like this frequently cause those outside the Church to say “See! You Christians are no better than anyone else!” Fair enough. The Church is as subject to the kinds of petty–and not so petty–divisions that we see in the world.

And why wouldn’t this be so?

After all, what is the Church but that part of the world that is struggling against the very same sins that afflict all humanity? Put another way, the difference between the Church and the world is that the former struggles against the sins that the latter embraces.

This similarity sometimes causes us to act unwisely and make common cause with the world. While there are times when we can work together with those outside the Church, we need to do so prudently. And we must never lose sight of the fact that the Church is fundamentally a sign of contradiction to the world that the world can never embrace without thereby ceasing to be the world (compare, Luke 2:34 and Acts 28:22).

Take, for example, what happens today in the Gospel.

Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. For all the glory of the Roman Empire, it was a brutal and cruel regime that ruled not only by instilling fear but by humiliating its enemies. In times of social unrest, one could walk along the fabled Roman roads and see mile after mile of crucified criminals and rebellious slaves.

As enemies of the State they were also denied one of the universal marks of respect in the ancient world. The crucified were not buried but disposed of like garbage. There were as humiliated in death as in their dying.

By their quiet acts of piety for their dead friend, Joseph, Nicodemus and the Myrrh-bearing women stood in opposition to the Empire.

We shouldn’t think that the cruelty of the Roman Empire was a peculiarity of the times. While not always so dramatic in form, the world–and those who embrace the intentions and purposes of the world–are equally cruel.

Though sympathetic to the real virtues of the Roman Empire, St Augustine in The CIty of God is clear that the City of God and the City of Man are locked in competition for not only the human heart but also material resources and social authority.

To bring home to his readers the willingness of the City of Man–that is, the world–to act unjustly and even cruelly in its competition with the City of God, the Church, he quotes an exchange between Alexander the Great and an unnamed pirate.

In their conversation, the pirate tells Alexander, the difference between an emperor and a pirate is simply this. The size of their navies. That difference aside, they are in all other respects the same since both are willing to act savagely in pursuit of their goals.

And so back to Acts.

What is surprising is not that there is conflict in the Church. And while it might sadden us to see it, we ought not to be surprised or discouraged when now or then we glimpse pettiness our even cruelty in our Church leader, in our brothers or sisters in Christ, or in ourselves. Again, the Church is simply the world in the process of being redeemed. To not see serious sin in the members of the Church is like not seeing serious disease in a hospital. Both are built to heal, the latter the body, the former the soul.

No, the surprise in Acts is not the conflict, not the willingness of Christians to ape the empire. The surprise is not division but reconciliation. The surprise is not that Christians are afflicted with the same passions that lead to war in the world but that we struggle against them  (see James 4).

My brothers and sisters in Christ! We can never lose sight of the dignity of our great calling in Jesus Christ to be a sign of contradiction to the world. To borrow from St Leo the Great:

…recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.

By our fidelity to our calling, we not only contradict the powers of this world, but we also offer those enslaved to these powers the possibility of true and lasting freedom in Christ Jesus.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Conflict With the World

Sunday, April 22 (O.S., April 9), 2018: Third Sunday of Pascha, Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women, Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus; Martyr Eupsychius (362). Martyrs Desan bishop, Mariabus presbyter, Abdiesus, and 270 other martyrs in Persia (362). Hieromartyr Bademus (Vadym), archimandrite of Persia (376).

Epistle: Acts 6:1-7
Gospel: Mark 15:43-47; 16:1-8

Christ is Risen!

Given our history, it isn’t surprising that sometimes Orthodox Christians forget that there is a certain, necessary and inescapable tension and even conflict between the Church and the World. If at times, the City of God (the Church) and the City of Man (the World) can work collaboratively, this doesn’t mean that fundamentally the two cities aren’t in competition with each other.

We compete with the World for the human heart, for material resources, and space in the public square. Though we might sometimes shy away from thinking of the City of Man as in competition with the Church, if we are faithful to Christ we will inevitably find ourselves at odds with those around us. Or as the Apostle James bluntly puts it “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

Today’s commemoration of the Myrrh-bearing Women and the Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus is an example of the tension between the City of God and the City of Man.

Jesus was put to death by crucifixion because the Roman Empire saw Him as a threat to their power and so the civil order. The Jewish authorities make exactly this charge against Jesus to force Pilate’s hand “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (John 19:12).

This means that to be a friend of Jesus was to be–at least potentially–an enemy of Caesar and against all that the Empire represented. This is the political and cultural context within which Joseph of Arimathea “taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” Joseph isn’t simply risking the bad opinion of the other members of “the council,” of the Sanhedrin, of the ruling authority of the Jews.

As potentially harmful as this would be, by his actions Joseph also risks being labeled an opponent of Caesar. In asking for the body of Jesus, Joseph makes himself vulnerable to the charge of insurrection. This means that, like Jesus, Joseph could end his life on a cross.

Courageous though Joseph, and for that matter Nicodemus are, they are not the liturgical focus for the third Sunday after Pascha. That honor belongs to the Myrrh-bearing women “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome.”

Early on that first Pascha morning these women first “bought spices” and then went to Jesus’ tomb “so that they might go and anoint” His body. What Joseph and Nicodemus do privately in the presence of Pilate, these women do publicly. Before they go to the tomb, the women, known disciples of Jesus, go to the marketplace to buy what they need for his burial.

By their actions, the Myrrh-bearing women make clear their friendship with Jesus. By their actions, the Myrrh-bearing women make themselves the object of gossip. And in a small community, gossip can be deadly.

Like Joseph, doing this places the women at odds with Rome and the Sanhedrin. Doing this in the marketplace, however, places them at odds with their families and their friends, their neighbors and the whole community.

None of this, I should emphasize, was chosen by the women. They intend to do what too many Christians today seem dead set on doing.

They didn’t intend to give offense. They didn’t intend to set themselves at odds with the Jewish community and the Roman Empire.

All they wanted to do was mourn the loss of someone they loved.

Love for Jesus moves the Myrrh-bearing Women, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to challenge both civil and religious authority. They don’t engage in revolution but they do remind both Jewish and Roman authorities that they too must be obedient to God. Real though their power is, neither Rome nor the Sanhedrin has the final word. This final word, as we soon see in the Gospel, belongs to Jesus.

Coming to the Tomb, the women find it empty.

Well, not exactly empty.

…entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.”

So overwhelming is the message that the women flee “from the tomb.” Initially, at least, “they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Soon though the same love that gave them the courage to proclaim their love for Jesus in the marketplace, will turn Mary Magdalene into the “Apostle to the Apostles.” Her joy at the Resurrection will overwhelm her grief, her love will banish her fear, and she will tell the disciples that “Christ is Risen!”

My brothers and sisters in Christ! Whenever we can, however we can, we should live peacefully with others. We should be eager to cooperate with other Christians as well as those of good will in whatever projects that alleviate suffering, foster a more just society or lead to a more peaceful world.

But what we can never forget is that there will be times when our love for Jesus Christ, our faith in Him as Lord and God and our witness to His Resurrection, will put us at odds with even those who are–in every other way–like a second self to us. Unpleasant, or worse, that these moments might be, they are not only for our salvation but for the salvation of the world and for those who, in the moment, make themselves opponents of the Gospel.

Christ is Risen!

+Fr Gregory