The Greatest is Love

If there is no love, other blessings profit us nothing. Love is the mark of the Lord’s disciples, it stamps the servants of God, by it we recognize his apostles. Christ said: “This is how all will know you for my disciples.” By what? Tell me. Was it by raising the dead or by cleansing lepers or by driving out demons? No. Christ passed over all these signs and wonders when he said: “This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another.

For the power to perform those other wonders is a gift which comes only through a grace from on high. This gift of love must also be achieved through man’s own earnestness and zeal. A man’s nobility does not usually stamp the gifts which are given from above in the same way as it marks the achievements which come from a man’s own efforts. Therefore, Christ said that his disciples are recognized not by miracles but by love. For when love is present, the one who possesses it lacks no portion of wisdom but has the fullness of complete and perfect virtue. In the same way, when love is not there, man is bereft of every blessing. This is why Paul exalts love and lifts it on high in what he writes. Still, for all he may say about love, he never fully explains its true worth.

(St. John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pp. 52-53)

Rowing Against the Wind

In Matthew 14:22-34, we learn an important lesson about being Christ’s disciples.

Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.”

And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

Did Jesus promise His followers a life free from trials and tribulations?  No .  Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

In today’s Gospel, we see the disciples rowing against the howling wind.  But the fact that they are going against the wind doesn’t mean they are headed in the wrong direction or that they are moving away from Christ.  In this Gospel lesson, that raging wind is necessary for their encounter with Christ and for their understanding to grow.

We sense their and our powerlessness in the world – they are too far from the shore for help.  The wind might capsize their boat and sink their mission.   Not only are they being blasted by the wind but their faith is being buffeted by the winds of disbelief.  There is more than one storm raging on that lake.

I remember once when I was in Costa Rica we were trying to get out to a boat that was in the bay.  We had to climb into very small motor boat which had landed on the beach to get to our ship.  A storm happened upon us at that very second.  The wind was blowing the waves roiling.  And this little motor boat was rickety and the crew was a couple of 20 year olds with limited English.  As I climbed into the boat with my kids, I really did think we were going to be capsized and drown.  A few people refused to get on board.  The two young crew men pleaded with them, “We don’t want to drown either” but some abandoned ship and stayed ashore.  The little boat was full of leaks and we had to bail water out of it for the entire trip to our ship, while being tossed by the storm .  It was an apostolic moment in my life.

It might be piously inspiring if in the Gospel we were to see the disciples calmly praying through the storm.  Not so in the Gospel.  They are struggling against the storm and they are panicked and terrified.   Jesus comes to them in the storm, walking on the raging sea.  He doesn’t prevent the storm from happening.  We find Him in the storm and there we are to be strengthened and comforted, calmed and guided in and through the storm.  The values of the Kingdom of Heaven are so unworldly.

The Storms of life are many – violence, stress, financial, family, death, grief, personal struggles, temptations, passions, diseases .  Christ still can be encountered in the storm.  The storms are no less violent, but we can find God if we are looking and we can hold on to God just as Peter grasped the hand of Christ.

In the Orthodox Funeral service we sing:  “Beholding the sea of life surging with the storms of temptations.  And taking refuge in your calm haven I cry to you: Raise up my life from corruption O greatly merciful one.”

We are reminded that there are so many storms we have to face in life.

Just this year Dayton has survived several storms of life – the KKK rally and counter protest, the Memorial Day tornadoes and the mass shooting.

Jesus calls to us from the midst of the storm:  “Take courage! Don’t be afraid!  It is I”   Can we hear Him despite the raging wind of the storm?  Or are we of so little faith that all we hear is the roaring storm and can only imagine human solutions to worldly disasters?

We are Christ’s presence in this stormy world.  In that storm we are to be present offering our hand to those who are drowning.   God is not hidden in heaven, God is present in the midst of the storm.  Besides, as the Scriptures show raging winds are not only threatening but can be useful:

At creation:  “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit/wind of God was moving over the face of the waters.”   (Genesis 1:2)

In the great flood:  But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;   (Genesis 8:1)

In Exodus 15:10  after Israel crosses the Red Sea, Moses describes God’s intervention to save Israel from the Egyptian army in these terms:  You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters.

In Ezekiel 37:9, Ezekiel is given a vision of the resurrection and is told by God:  “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  When the wind blew the dead came back to life.

In the book of Jonah, it is the wind which prevents Jonah from running away from the Lord, from going the wrong way:  But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. (1:4)

In the Gospel we see Jesus showing His power over nature as He walks on the storm tossed waters.  We see Peter, a disciple, being given power to imitate our Lord in the midst of the storm.  And we see how we as disciples are dependent on Christ even when empowered by Him.

Peter asked permission to walk on the water.  Christ responds not with an invitation but with a command: “Come!”  Jesus orders Peter to walk on the water!  As Peter walks on the water he and the other disciples are amazed and edified as they learn to what extent they can share in the powers of God’s Son on earth.  As soon as Peter loses sight of the fact that this miracle, that he is walking on water, is being done to edify him and the other disciples, he is sunk.  No miracle, no power of God is given to us to elevate us above anyone else.  All are given to edify us and everyone else.  Nothing is between you and Christ alone.  Everything is done in love for the benefit of all.  Sinking in the storm sea brought Peter back to his senses and he turns again to Christ.

All miracles are done to the glory of God and for the upbuilding of one another.  All miracles are done in order to increase faith and for the edification of all.  Even Peter’s failure was a lesson for all in discipleship.   Let all you do be done in love.

The Work of the Church

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:14-22 :

And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick.

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Who is in this crowd upon whom Jesus has compassion/mercy?  Some who are sick, lost souls, some seeking God, the walking wounded, those who have lost their faith, the downcast and the outcasts.   But also, there were curiosity seekers, non-believers, some who are hostile to Christ – His enemies.  Throughout the Gospel His enemies follow Him everywhere, listening to His words, gathering evidence against Him – but they are in the mix and often very near Christ for they engage Him in conversation.

Christ ministers to all of them.  His grace, love, mercy, compassion is not limited to His disciples, but extends to all whom He sees.  Jesus teaches us by His own example to love and commands us to love one another in the same that that He loves us.  He is moved by compassion when He looks on us.   We have to be aware of how Christ loves us and to see the world through the eyes of Christ.

How are we to judge others?  With compassion.  Any who come to Christ, who seek Christ for any reason are to be welcomed by us and blessed by us.  This is how the Lord Jesus loves us.  He expects us to love as He loves us.  Is it hard? Yes.  Is it impossible?  Hardly.

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When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.” But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” And they said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” He said, “Bring them here to Me.” Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass.

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And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.

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Jesus does not simply make their hunger go away by divine magic.  Rather, Christ feeds them.  He blesses the only food they had, and feeds 5000 men besides women and children from this food.  The food doesn’t miraculously appear on each plate, but rather the disciples distribute it.  The disciples have to work to make sure the people are fed.  Christ receives from His disciples the food which some people had worked to make possible – bread and fish.  He takes this human made food and blesses it.  There is synergy between the disciples and Christ, working together for the good of all the people.  This is the Church.

Christ entrusts some problems to us His disciples and asks us to deal with the problems.  He doesn’t miraculously make the problems go away.   He says to us: I am not taking hunger away, but I empower you to do the work necessary for these people to feel cared for and to be fed.   The disciples themselves had to provide the food and distribute it.

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We obey Christ not by having problems go away but by dealing with them.  The Gospel lesson began with Jesus seeing the crowd and feeling compassion for them.  The Gospel lesson ends with Jesus feeding them.  It is the work of the Church.

Bearing the Failings of the Weak

25210883198_a8c8ee7cb4_mIn Romans 15:1-7, St Paul offers his understanding of how Christians should deal with disagreements within the Christian community.  He offers this same teaching several times in his letters to the churches.  The framework is that we are to love one another, but he is trying to apply it practically to a situation where different opinions arise on an issue.   He wants to help the local community learn how to be of one mind even as there are disagreements about various practices.   St Paul is not here writing about doctrinal issues but about pious practices within a community.   St Paul acknowledges that some people are more tolerant of divergent practices than others.  Some people are zealous, some have a strict interpretation of what is allowed, while others think pious practices are of no real significance.  His solution is that when parishioners are uncomfortable with what others are doing, love requires that those who are strong in the faith have to lovingly be patient with those who are weak in the faith.  The strong in faith are not those who have the greatest scruples, but rather those who are not bothered by various practices and who don’t worry if not everyone measures up to a standard.  St Paul sees those who are weak in faith are much more subject to being scrupulous about every detail of the rules.  But he does not comment that strong vs weak means better vs worse or right vs wrong.  He recognizes only that there are divergent opinions about divergent practices and he hopes people can recognize that what is really important is that we learn to live in love for one another as Jesus commanded.  St Paul writes:

We then who are strong (who have power/strength, dynamis) ought to bear with the scruples/weaknesses/failings of the weak (adynamis, those without power/strength), and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.

The strong have to bear not just those who lack strength but have to bear with their failings.  The strong have to pick up the slack, even if they aren’t personally bothered by some behaviors, they have a responsibility not to offend those who have many scruples or who have a hard time keeping the faith to the full.

St Paul says the strong have to bear with the weak.   Bear – this is the same word as Christ uses in telling us to take up/bear the cross to follow Him.  It is the same word used to describe Christ bearing his own cross in John 19:17.  We can remember also that Christ bore our sins on the cross as well as bearing the cross itself!

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The strong bearing with the weak is the opposite of social Darwinism – which advocates the survival of the fittest.   For St Paul, following Christ means the strong have to help the weak and wait for them and care for them, not forget about them, or leave them in their problems.  Christian love is not about competing with others to get ahead, but is about community where one works with and for everyone else.

In Galatians 6:2 St Paul says to bear one another’s burdens to fulfill the law of Christ.   We are to bring the weak to God, not leave them to their own devices or to sleep in the beds they have made for themselves.  We are to help the weak with their struggles, this is the Law of Christ.  This is the Gospel.

Throughout the Liturgy we sing “Lord have mercy!”  This is the petition of all of us, but especially of the strong for the weak.  The petitions are not time for us to sit down and take a time out during the Liturgy but exactly the times in the Liturgy when we take up the burden of others.  We come to church to do the communal work of God (the Liturgy), which means lifting up the weak and needy in your prayers.

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Here is a story from the desert fathers about how one saintly monk attempted to bear with the burden of a weak brother:

When the abbot of the monastery was going to start the Divine Liturgy he discovered that the priestly stole was missing.  The abbot said there would be no Liturgy until the stole is returned.  Nothing happened.  So the abbot ordered that every room in the monastery was to be searched.  One young monk immediately went to an old monk who had the reputation of being a saint, and he confessed to the old man that he had taken the stole.    The older monk told the young monk not to fear but to hide the stole in his cell.  So of course the stole is found in the old monk’s cell.  Despite his reputation as a saint, the other monks are furious at the old man and denounce him as a fraud and a thief.  They severely beat him.  The old man begs for mercy and promises to repent, but the other monks do not want a thief in their monastery and expel him from the monastery.   The monks then assemble in the church for Liturgy, but God sends an angel to the church and prevents the abbot from approaching the altar.  The abbot tells the brothers that they need to bring the old man back and be compassionate toward him.  They bring the old monk back and the angel allows the Liturgy to proceed.

The old man bore with the weakness not only of the young monk but with all the other monks.

St Paul concludes the lesson of Romans 15:1-7 with these words: Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.

We are to receive each other as Christ received us.  We are to welcome one another as Christ welcomed us.  We are to treat others as Christ treats us.  This is the rule of community which St Paul believes fulfills the law of Christ.

Christ does not require us to be in his good favor before allowing us in His presence.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us.  He came to seek and save sinners.  We are here because Christ sought us out as sinners and we have accepted Christ’s invitation to live according to His commandments.

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A final good example of how this principle worked in St Paul’s favor.  From Acts 9:10-17 –

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Ananias had heard about Saul and how Saul totally opposed Christianity.  He wanted nothing to do with Saul and certainly did not want to help him.  If Saul was suffering, he deserved it.  Christ tells Ananias to show Saul what Christian love is.  And the rest is history.

Not Seeing And Believing

In Matthew 9:27-31, we encounter Jesus and two unusual followers:

When Jesus departed from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out and saying, “Son of David, have mercy on us!”

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I call them unusual followers because these two men are both blind and yet are able to follow Jesus.   Apparently it is not hard even for these two humans who can’t see Jesus to find Jesus and to follow Him!  Why is it that we who have eyesight find it difficult to find Him let alone follow Him?  The Gospel really is for us who can’t see Jesus – Jesus calls blessed those who haven’t seen and yet believe.

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.  (John 20:28-31)

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The Gospels were written for those of us who cannot see Jesus.  We have opportunity to believe in Him through the experiences of others who did see Him.

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.  (1 Peter 1:8-9)

The New Testament and the Church both exist to give new people opportunity to hear about Jesus, believe in Him, to receive eternal life from Him, and to obtain salvation through Him.  But we are not required to see Him, and as becomes obvious in the Scriptures many who saw Him gained no advantage from that experience for only in the resurrection, in the proclamation of the Good News and in the Eucharist did they come to believe in Him.  The two blind men of the Matthew 9 follow Christ without being able to see Him.  They believe in Him without being able to see Him.   They pray to Him even though they can’t see Him.  Jesus shows to everyone that you don’t have to see Him to believe in Him.

And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him. And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” Then He touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith let it be to you.” And their eyes were opened.

Jesus asks the two blind men if they believe He can give them sight – even though they can’t see Him or see what He does.  Jesus responds by really saying, “well, let’s see if you believe it or not.”  The issue isn’t whether Jesus can give them sight or not but if they believe he can or not.   Jesus puts the onus on them – let it be according to what you really believe.  Only because they have faith in Jesus are their eyes opened and they see Jesus.

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And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, “See that no one knows it.” But when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country.

What is it that Jesus wants them to keep secret?  That Jesus healed them?  That they could now see would become obvious to anyone who knew them.  Was Jesus telling them not to boast about their own faith – as if they had the power to heal themselves?  Or not to boast about having been favored by God for healing as if they were more righteous than those not healed?   In any case they do go forward to tell everyone about Jesus, not about themselves.  Now that they can see who Jesus is, they don’t talk to Him, but rather they tell others about Him.

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Those two people who followed Jesus when they were blind, no longer follow after Him once they can see, for after being given sight, they go out to proclaim what they know about Jesus Christ the Son of God.   Because they now can see they do not have to live where they can physically see Jesus, for now they know who He is.

And Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”  (Mark 8:29)

Martha said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”   (John 11:27)

Even if we cannot see Jesus today, we can find Him, follow Him, and pray to Him for mercy.   We can do all the same things that those described in the Gospel did and we too can proclaim the Good News about Christ to everyone we know.

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Cleanse the Eyes of Your Heart

“And as St. Augustine reminds us in the following reflections, sand is thrown in the eyes of the heart not only by a multiplicity of images, not only by association of ideas, but also by the refusal to serve one’s neighbor in practical ways. To be too busy filling the coffers prevents one from emptying one’s heart so as to make it attentive to the ‘interior Master’. For ‘where your treasure is,’ says Jesus, ‘there will your heart be also.

To purify yourself, have faith. You would like to see God. That desire is good, it is noble, and I challenge you to make trial of it. You would like to see him? ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ (Matthew 5.8). Think first of all about purifying your heart…You believe that God is evident to the eyes like a light…But if your eyes were clogged with sand, would you not have to wash them out before you could see the light?

Your heart is defiled also. And avarice spreads its murkiness there…Do you not realize that by hoarding in this way you are covering your heart with mud? How then will you see him whom you desire? 

You say to me, ‘Show me your God.’…

I answer you, ‘Take a look at your heart. Everything you see in it that might sadden God, remove. God wants to come to you. Listen to Christ your Lord: “My Father and I will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14.23). That is God’s promise. If I were to tell you I was coming to stay with you, you would clean your house. Now it is God who wants to come into your heart. Do you not hasten to purify it? How could he dwell with avarice? God has commanded you to clothe the naked. But avarice induces you to strip the one who is clothed…I am looking at your heart. What do you have in it? Have you filled your coffers but thrown away your conscience?…Purify your heart.’ (Augustine of Hippo)”

(quoted in Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 166-167)

Neither a Cross Nor Consolation

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.”

But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the Paralytic — “rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.  (Matthew 9:1-8)

A most interesting Gospel lesson.  This is another miracle in which Jesus is able to see the faith of the people who bring a paralyzed man to Him.  He is not just looking at their behavior, but really into their hearts.  Faith is something that is visible to those who have the eyes to see.  Our behavior should allow people to see our faith, to reveal what is in our hearts and souls.  The opposite of this is Judas who greets Jesus with the kiss of peace in order to conceal the treachery in his heart.

Note also, it is not the paralyzed man’s faith that Jesus notices, but the faith of those who brought the paralyzed man to Christ.  Here we see the nature of intercessory prayer – when we ask God for help for others, our faith becomes visible through our love.  God takes notice.

And yet in the Gospel text, this crowds asks nothing from Christ they are completely silent.  They lay the paralytic before Christ hoping that He sees the need and knows what to do.  They are not asking for a particular outcome but trusting that Christ will give love to the paralytic.  Their motivation is not mentioned, no details are given about whether the man is worthy of Christ’s attention.

One can imagine that these people with faith are bringing their friend to Christ in love hoping Christ can help.  A good story of faith and love.  But the Gospel doesn’t tell us this, so one can also easily imagine these people are bringing someone to Christ who neglected Torah,  destroyed his life through sin, ended up paralyzed because of his own bad behavior and then complained bitterly about his fate.  They are bringing the paralyzed man to Jesus the Prophet for Jesus to pronounce judgment on the man to get him to shut about his bitterness and to force him to face his predicament is the result of his own sinfulness.  The faith Jesus sees in them is their belief in their own righteousness as keepers of Torah.   Jesus astounds them by forgiving the man and then healing  him.  That would better explain the reaction of the scribes in thinking Jesus blasphemes and the reaction of the crowd – fear.  Why were they suddenly terrified at the healing when they are the very ones who brought the man to Jesus?  Possibly because they suddenly saw themselves – not the paralytic – as condemned for their behavior.  But then marveling at the amazing love of God as they begin to hear the Gospel instead of Torah.

This interpretation sees this lesson as being like John 8:1-11, the woman caught in adultery who the crowd wants to stone but they bring to Christ for Him to pronounce judgment on her, but instead He says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  One by one the shamed people drop their stones and walk away until Christ is left alone with the adulteress.  The woman sees their is no one left to judge her, and Christ says to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

Christ forgives the sin of the paralytic and tells  him to take heart.  The paralytic has not asked for forgiveness nor has he offered repentance.   Jesus, however,  offers comfort, encouragement and hope to the man.  Christ offers what He knows the man needs.  As one of the prayers in our tradition says:

I know not what to ask of You: I ask for neither a cross nor consolation for You alone know what my true needs are.

This crowd brings the paralyzed man to Jesus to see what Jesus will do, not to ask for what they want or hope.  Their prayer is complete trust in God’s will.  Lord do you see what we see in this suffering man?   What is Your will Lord?

It is a holy way to pray for God.  We intercede for others by offering up their names and needs in our daily prayer but then trusting God to respond as God wills even if God’s response astounds us, terrifies us or disappoints us.

Your will be done.

Many people wonder how to pray and for what they should pray.  This Gospel lesson teaches us one aspect of prayer – just present the names of those you care about to God.  Let God decide what they need.  You don’t have to ask for anything, just care about others and offer them up to God in prayer.  Prayer isn’t necessarily about you knowing everything you need to say and knowing how to say it perfectly.  It is you placing before God those you care about, asking God to consider them.  In as much as God is love, let God decide what to do with those for whom we pray.  Don’t tell God what to do, ask God to note those you are concerned about.  In this way we can pray for everyone whether we think they deserve mercy or judgment – place them all in God’s hands and then let God do God’s own will!

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus does not ask the man to repent, He does not expose the man’s sins or denounce his misdeeds.  Instead, Christ simply forgives the man without asking anything in return.  No moral injunction is given  to the man  and no moral change is demanded from the man.  Jesus does not call the healed man to become a disciple.  Rather Jesus sends him home.  The man obeys and goes home, he doesn’t even thank Jesus or ask to become his follower.  Christ gives expecting nothing in return.

Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  (Luke 6:30-36)

Christ’s miracles in the NT are often done for the poor, for sinners, for outcasts – we should look for such opportunities among all types of people to minister to them – freely give to them, expecting nothing in return.

Who can we bring to Christ – either to the Church or in our prayers?  Those in need of spiritual, physical, moral or emotional healing.

The crowds will not be praising God because we get a new convert, a new member for the parish.  They will praise God when they see lives which are changed or different, when they see something different in us.

The entire Gospel lesson calls to mind the Psalm we regularly sing as an antiphon at most  Liturgies:

Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. … The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.   (Psalm 103:1-14)

Romans 12:9-21

In Romans 12:9-21, St Paul lists a variety of attitudes, feelings and behaviors which he believes are genuinely Christian, and thus to be put into practice by all who follow Christ.  The list is simple and straightforward, so no commentary is needed.  We only need to put them into practice in our hearts, minds and lives to demonstrate our own desire to be disciples of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Let love be genuine;

hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good;

love one another with brotherly affection;

outdo one another in showing honor.

Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.

Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another;

do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.

If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The Lord Requires Effort More Than Accomplishment

“If, according to the maxim of heavenly truth, we have to render an account of every idle word uttered (cf. Matt 12:36),

 or if, like the timid investor or the greedy hoarder, every servant who was entrusted with a large sum of spiritual grace and then hid it in the earth will incur no little blame on the master’s return  since it was to have been distributed among the moneylenders, and so be multiplied by the increase of interest payments (cf. Matt. 25:14-30); then, very rightly have we grounds for fear lest a return be demanded for our gift of speech, we, to whom has been allowed a modicum of ability, yet having a pressing necessity to lend out to the minds of the people, the eloquence of God entrusted to us; especially since the Lord requires of us the effort rather than the accomplishment.

(St Ambrose of Milan, Early Christian Spirituality, p. 82)

Faith and Hope: Catching a Glimpse of Eternal Life

5692625598_867a6e36a9_nI remember a cartoon I saw once in which a mother tells her son, “I want you to mow the lawn and clean the garage today.”  The son moans mightily and  responds with great complaint saying, “Man, I can’t wait until I’m an adult, then I won’t have to do anything I don’t want to do!”

Most adults recognize the weakness of that logic.   We Americans just celebrated this past week our Independence day, and as much as we value those hallmarks – independence and freedom – we know that freedom brings with it responsibility – responsibility for self-restraint, self-control, self-denial, self-respect and respect for others.  As Christians we know our responsibility includes love for one another, which means we intentionally try to do what is good for others, not just what is good for our self.  For us love for one another and freedom are not opposed to each other but work in harmony to help us see ourselves as part of a greater whole – whether part of family, or neighborhood, or city or state or nation.  Our life in Christ always means working out our salvation in relationship to the church, to our neighbors, to our family, to strangers, and even to enemies and to the world itself.

The goal of this love is to help build up in us a concern for others.  In Matthew 6:22-33, our Lord Jesus Christ tells us numerous times not to be anxious.  He concludes his anti-anxiety lesson with these words:

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.

48100270406_92e9cbb9f7_ndo not be anxious about your life –    Jesus taught us liberation from anxiety, concern and worry – that was His idea of freedom and independence.  Freedom from concern not because God grants us our every wish, but rather He taught us that by being united to God in prayer, we learn how to be content in every situation.  We learn to be thankful always and in all circumstances.     Worry doesn’t take away tomorrow’s problems, it only takes the joy out of today.  Faith in God on the other hand helps us to look to God and for God in every circumstance.

For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:38-39)

If we are united to God, we will not be shaken by the events happening in our lives.    As St Paul says in Philippians 4:6-7,

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

We are told not to be anxious, but rather to pray.  Yet, we are also warned that problems will arise, but that in Christ, if we stand firmly with Christ, we will have reason to hope even in the face of problems because in Christ we are already united to God.  In Christ we are united to God even through times of sorrow or suffering, as we heard St Paul say in today’s Epistle:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.   (Romans 5:1-10)

38756696372_b663c7b6ab_nIn the midst of all that troubles us, bothers us, weighs us down, confuses us, or causes us to suffer, there is hope – that is what our faith in Jesus Christ is and produces.  The world doesn’t have the last/final say, there is yet a judgment of this world, and this world as we know it as well as our own lives will become visible to us from a new perspective in which this world and our lives will seem small and unimportant in the grand scale of things.  Our hope is Jesus Christ, our belief is that Christ is the real context of our life.  We may suffer in this life, yet in faith we are never separated from Christ even in times of distress or sorrow or sickness.  We endeavor to keep ourselves in Christ so that we can always be united to God, to that bigger picture of which this world is only a tiny part.  It is this bigger perspective – the eternity of the Kingdom – that gives us hope in our current moment

Many of the original twelve disciples of Christ made a living by catching fish – they  sought out fish in the sea, trying to discover where the fish were so they could catch them.    Jesus promised to make them into fishers of men rather than fishers of fish.  In other words, He promised to redirect their life and work to seek out people and to work for God not just for themselves.  Jesus wants us also to produce a harvest for Him – to seek out people and bring them into the church.   The words of Jesus, “follow me”, are spoken to you.  Jesus invites you to follow Him and you do that by seeking out other people to join you in your Christian life.

We however often persist in following our own dreams and our own way forgetting the concerns of Christ and the Gospel.  We build our dreams, but then sometimes a tornado comes along and teaches us how fragile and temporary life is.  Some of the tornadoes are meteorological events, other tornadoes are simply people in our lives.  Sometimes in these events we are forced to look at the fact that we have been devoting our lives to build things that are temporary rather than eternal or permanent.

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Jesus says, “Come, follow me” and I will give you something permanent – eternal life.  Not a house that can be broken into or blown away by a tornado, but a room in the heavenly mansion.   Not a catch of fish, but an entire kingdom.

And Peter said, “Lo, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”  (Luke 18:28-30)