Sunday, September 21, 2008

To Burn and to Shine is Perfection

Representation of baptism in early Christian art.Image via Wikipedia

Sunday, September 21, 2008: Today's commemorated feasts and saints... 14th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST—Tone 5. Sunday After the Elevation of the Cross. Leavetaking of the Elevation of the Cross. Apostle Quadratus of the Seventy (ca. 130). Uncovering of the Relics of St. Dimitry, Metropolitan of Rostov (1752). Ven. Daniel, Abbot of Shuzhgorsk (Novgorod—16th c.). Ven. Joseph of Zaonikiev Monastery (Vologdá—1612). Hieromartyr Hypatius, Bishop of Ephesus, and his Presbyter, Andrew (ca. 730-735). St. Isaac (Isacius) and Meletius, Bishops of Cyprus. Martyr Eusebius of Phœnicia. Martyr Priscus of Phrygia. Twenty-six Monk Martyrs of Zographou (Mt. Athos—1285). Ven. Cosmas the Bulgarian of Zographou (Mt. Athos—1323). Ss. John and George, Confessors (Georgia, 20th c.—Sept. 8th O.S.).

When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels. And He said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power."

(Mark 8:34-9:1)

Speaking of us who have been "baptized into Christ" and have "put on Christ forevermore," the Apostle Paul says that we "are the body of Christ, and members individually." (1 Corinthians 12.27, NKJV) He goes on to say something that never fails to stop me with amazement. The Apostle doesn't tell me what I am supposed to do; he doesn't list my obligations as a Christian. Instead he tells me, tells all of us that, well, let me simply quote St Paul:

And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way. (vv. 28-30)

Rather than telling us what I am supposed to do (and by implication, what I have failed to do) St Paul reminds us of who we are and of the gifts God has given all of us. In another place, he tells us that these gifts are given to each and every Christian not only for their own personal good but for the good of the whole Church, and through the Church for the salvation of the world. As he says, the gifts that you have been given are given to you personally in order that you are able to succeed in your call to "prepare God's people for works of service," and "so that the body of Christ," the Church, "may be built up." (Eph 4.11, NIV)

In the theology of the Orthodox Church, it is in Holy Baptism that we receive our own personal gifts. In Chrismation, as the late Fr Alexander Schmemann reminds us, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit as a confirmation that we are called personally to a life of good works. This call, finally, is nurtured in us by our reception of Holy Communion, our daily prayers, our fasting and above all through our acting on the talents we have been given.

While there are a number of ways in which we can come to understand what is our own personal work is within the Body of Christ, in November we will have an opportunity as a parish to take time out of our busy schedules and reflect together on our own callings and how each of us might be a wise and generous steward of the talents we have been given. I am referring to the "Called & Gifted" Workshop that we are hosting Friday and Saturday, November 21-22. Having participated in this workshop last year in Toledo, I know from experience how helpful these few hours will be for you if you take the time to participate.

One of the reasons the parish council and I are excited about this workshop is that it is a very practical, low key, solution to what is probably one of the greatest challenges facing the Orthodox Church. The Fr Nicholas Afanasiev in his book The Church of the Holy Spirit expresses this challenge this way:

There can be . . . in the Church, . . . no members who do not minister in it. … People cannot measure the quantity of grace which God gives without measure, but each of us knows that this measure is not always the same. The grace shines brightly in the saints, but in others it gleams little by little while never dying out. While the gifts of the Spirit are different, grace remains one and the same. But the appropriate measure of grace can be different even with the same gifts. … Wherever ministry is, there is the Spirit and wherever there is no ministry, there is no Spirit and no life. (pp. 16-17)

Not only are all of us called by God to fulfill certain task in His Name, God blesses us in baptism, chrismation and the Eucharist with the gifts (charismata) we need to fulfill the work to which He has called us. Without wishing to take away from the excellent work done by the parish council, St Ann's Society, the Church school teachers and choir, we should not think that these ministry, essential though they are to the life and health of the parish, are the only ministries to which people have been called.

There is not an Orthodox Christian parish in America (to take but one example) that was founded by the clergy. All of our parishes were founded by lay people and, especially in the case of our older parishes, lay people from the "Old Country" (which ever one that might be) or by their children or grandchildren. Again and again, it is the laity of the Orthodox Church, that have borne witness to the fact that God has blessed His Church with great gifts for (as Paul says) the building up in love and truth of the Body of Christ.

And not only that, again and again it is the laity who have testified to the generosity of God by their own willingness to respond generously, even sacrificial, to God's call by the use of the gifts God has given them.

In spite of the frustrations and even failures, we see all around us the evidence that Christ has poured out on His Church, on us, through His Holy Spirit, a great "diversity . . . of . . . gifts" that "God himself gives 'to each … for the common good.'" Again, as Fr Nicholas writes (pp. 20-21) it is "By virtue of this fact, there can be no" inactive Christians, no Christians without a calling and a ministry in the Church for the life of the world. Why? Because there can be such thing as an "inactive gift of the Spirit because the Spirit is an active principle by his very nature." Fr Nicholas then turns to his brother clergy, he turns to me, and says that "To deprive [the laity] of their dignity as [ministers of the Gospel and coworkers with Christ for the salvation of the world] is equivalent to depriving them of the gifts of the Spirit, of which God has made them drink on the day of their baptism." (1 Cor. 12. 13)

There is no one here this morning that has not been blessed by God with talents that, in ways both great and small, are given to him or her for the salvation of the world.

And there is no one here who if he or she responds, in even a small measure, to that call will not glorify God in their own lives.

And there is no one here who, in glorifying God, will fail to shine with divine light and burn with zeal for Christ and His Church.

To be a wise steward of the talents given us by Christ is no great burden. It requires only that we become ever more who we are already in Christ.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, become who Christ has called you to be, become who you are already. Use the talents you have been given and, in so doing give glory to God and reveal to the world, and yourself, your dignity as children of God, coworkers with Christ, and that you are already citizens of the Kingdom of God which is to come.

If I may, let me end by paraphrasing one of my own favorite saints from the medieval West, Bernard of Clairvaux. In a homily on the Nativity of St John the Baptist, Bernard tells his listeners "Merely to shine" with the divine light "is futile; merely to burn" with zeal for God and His people "is not enough; to burn and to shine [this is] perfection." May we all of us personally and as a parish, shine with the divine light and burn with zeal for God and His people and so manifest ourselves as having been made perfect in Christ by His grace and our own efforts!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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