• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Doing God’s Work in a Fallen World

This season of Trinitytide of the Church is considered ‘Ordinary Time’ in the liturgical calendar. Having progressed through the seasons of learning of the persons of God, culminating in the Holy Trinity, the Church uses this time to review principles of the Kingdom of God; principles which will define the ‘ordinary’ life of the Christian.

In the Epistle St Paul notes, “I reckon (I always knew St. Paul had a little Texan in him) I reckon these present sufferings cannot be compared to the glory which shall be revealed in us”

Why is suffering a principle? Because the Kingdom of God has come to a fallen world where a foreign kingdom usurped, and because Christ is manifested in us. But the apostle assures us that the suffering is far outweighed by the glory of Christ revealed in us.

Jesus taught, “If the world hated me, they will hate you,” to the degree in which you are like me.

The epistle reminds us that all creation was subjected to corruption because the crown of creation became corrupt – look at what we are still doing to creation – but creation, over which man was given dominion, awaits the revelation of the Sons of God. All of creation groans in anticipation of the restoration of Man, when it too shall be restored.

How does this restoration occur? How is the Kingdom of God made present? It begins in the salvific process of our theosis, wherein we partake of the divine nature and become like God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. It culminates when the King and Judge returns in glory.

The Gospel lesson continues to expound on Kingdom principles.

Fallen man is narcissistic: “It’s all about me.” In this fallen state the only way we seem to relate to the outside world, or to what is going on with others, is in the context of, “How will that affect me?” “What does it do to me, or for me?” This self-absorption is the Sin of Pride, which was the primal cause of the Fall of mankind and is the Chief of all Sins.

The cure for this disease is Jesus, who emptied Himself to become man and live contrary to the world and the narcissistic delusion of man. Thus confronted, a man will either hate and persecute the God Who is so completely Other than himself, or his pride will be broken, and he will begin to be transformed, becoming like God. Jesus is that ‘scandalon;’ the stumbling block to many, or the rock upon which they must be broken and remade.

So we must read the Gospel today through the lens of the Kingdom Principles. The core principle of Kingdom life is Jesus’ summation of the Law, which we repeat in each liturgy. “Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

By His design, our love of God and our relationship with Him is integrally connected to our relationship with others. So our interaction with others should be a reflection of our relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Today’s Gospel teaches a Kingdom principle of how this interaction works.

Simply put, we are to become like God. We emulate His nature to others, but without usurping that which belongs to God alone. Be merciful as your Father in Heaven is merciful. The Scripture also enjoins that we be perfect as our Father is perfect, which it follows with these admonitions; ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged; condemn not, that ye be not condemned; Forgive and ye shall be forgiven.’

All are kingdom principles, yet we often have trouble applying them as God intended.

‘Judge not,’ is not the same as the injunction of the narcissistic society of fallen men; ‘Tolerate all, live and let live, as long as it doesn’t bother me, don’t deny any selfish person the right to be selfish at the expense of others,’ and especially, ‘If you disagree with my perfect views, you must be judging me!’

As Orthodox Christians, we believe that God has established absolutes. There exist absolutes of right and wrong. Therefore, this principle, ‘judge not,’ does not mean we may turn a blind eye to sin, else the Epistle would not remind us of the suffering we can expect in this world, because we would be no different than the world, and we would all get along just fine – ‘I reckon.’ J

Remember the spiritual principle of antinomy: two seeming opposites held in tension and the Truth is in the balance between them. The mystery of God’s mercy and God’s justice held in tension is such an antinomy.

These three actions, judge, condemn and forgive, reflect our relationship to others with direct repercussions to our relationship with God.

We should be quite familiar with the formula the Lord’s Prayer teaches; forgive and you shall be forgiven. Therefore, forgive not and you shall not be forgiven by God. We have no control over whether others forgive us. Our concern is that we learn to forgive regardless the response of others, for God forgives us as we forgive others.

So too, judge and you shall be judged, condemn and be condemned. Again, we have no control over whether others judge and condemn us. Our concern must regard being judged by God, and condemned by God, without Whose mercy we cannot attain eternal life.

Jesus throws in this parable; ‘If the blind lead the blind, they both fall in the ditch.’ If we are like the rest of the world, we all are doomed. So rather, Jesus says, ‘If the servant would be perfect, then he must become as the master.’

So we learn this simple key to the Kingdom principle; be like God. Be merciful as the Father is merciful. Justice and judgment are in God’s realm and not ours.

When we recognize wrong, sin, or evil in a person, we discern. But we must strive not to pass to the next phase of juridical condemnation of that person, without the benefit of the mercy of the Father. In other words, be discerning but ‘judge not.’ Nor do we condemn. When we regard the other person according to the justice we would demand, or proclaim that those sinners are damned, we condemn ourselves by our presumption, passing judgment reserved for God alone.

The Lord God says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Romans 9:15

Psalm 103 tells us that God “has not dealt with us according to our sins.” Else, who could stand in the Day of Judgment?

Therefore, we come to that famous commentary of Jesus on this matter:

“How is it you readily see the tiny mote in another’s eye, yet cannot see the log that is in your own eye?” Or say, “Let me get that little mote out of your eye” (we narcissistic types are so helpful) when I can’t see around the log in my own eye.” “Hypocrite,” Jesus names us, “Take the log out of your own eye first!”

So the problem with judging, condemning, and not forgiving is our own hypocrisy!

We want, expect, and perhaps demand God’s mercy for our own sinfulness, and yet we refuse to afford that same mercy to others.

St. Paul urges, “Let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus.” When we do so, emptying ourselves in humility as Christ did, we then begin to realize that the only thing which makes us any different from the person we condemn is the undeserved mercy of God. Holy Church has rightly taught us to ask for mercy constantly. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Humility gives clarity of vision to see that only His mercy makes us any different from every other sinner in the world, regardless of the sin or our perception of that sin. “There, but by the grace, by the mercy of God, go I.” If we truly see others in this light of mercy, we can descry the evil, and yet honestly pray for the person.

“The man who cries out against evil men, but does not pray for them, will never know the grace of God,” St. Silouan the Athonite taught.

Or, to quote St. John of Kronstadt from his book, ‘My life in Christ;’ “Never confuse the person formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

Learning to pray for those who seem to us to be beyond hope cultivates the heart of God the Father in us; the heart of the Father who is always waiting on the road for the Prodigal to come over the rise.

We have been taught and are responsible for what we know of God. We know what we must do to be saved. We do not know whom He will save in His mercy.

Adopting this stance, we put on the mind of Christ. Then we can rightly discern wrong without mercilessly condemning the wrong doer, whereby we would have set ourselves up by the sin of Pride in God’s place; becoming judge and jury. Only then do we realize that the condemned one is Me, and I him. And the mercy I give is the mercy I will receive.

There is another lesson in this Gospel; give and it shall be given unto you. The measure in which you give is the measure in which you shall receive. How we give to others is also tied to this equation of ‘our relationship to God as measured by our relation to others.’ Giving includes mercy, as well as other gifts such as time, patience, alms and love.

Jesus gives this wonderful description of how giving should take place and assures that givers shall receive in the same manner – “In good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over.”

You know how you can get a bag of chips and open it to realize it is only half full, the rest is air? This is the opposite. The image Jesus uses is like the good merchant filling a bag of wheat for the hungry. He makes sure it is not the fluff, but all grain. He presses it down, shakes the bag so it settles and continues to fill it until it is running over. Such is the manner the Lord gives to us in mercy and all His gifts, as we give to our neighbor. And He has already taught us whom our neighbor is.

Simply, if we follow these principles, and exercise mercy, becoming as our Father, He shall give mercy unto us freely, more than we can fathom.

“As His majesty is, so is His mercy.” Sirach 2:18

Allow me to take this in another direction.

In the light of this Gospel, calling us to be merciful as is our Father, let us consider briefly the dark period we have been sliding into for some time in this country and in the world.

The modern Christian era is past, as previous eras of Christian dominance have come and gone. We are in the growing period of a post Christian and anti-Christian cultural age. No matter how you may vote, no political regime is the answer. The pockets of conservative values still found in small areas around this country and a few spots in the world should not delude us into thinking that a Christian society will re-emerge, at least not in our lifetimes. Rather, we see the establishment as the new normal, a culture of moral relativism and decadence bent on the disfigurement and regression of God’s creation. It is nothing new in one sense, though depravity seems to be reaching lows we have not conceived before. There have been periods of such regression which ebbed and flowed throughout history. We just have the technology now to make it more pervasive than ever. Lord have mercy upon us.

Around the globe, the American empire not spared, evil is being spread and atrocities are being committed that shock and dismay us all. The sacramental nature of mankind is marred with all manner of sexual perversion. Innocents are targeted by terrorism. Genocides are occurring. Our brothers and sisters in the Church are being persecuted and martyred in other countries. We may join them sooner than later. Storms are gathering.

Yet, the Gospel message has not changed. The Truth of Jesus Christ the Incarnate Son of God remains. The narrow path of salvation abides. Courage for today and hope for tomorrow remain.

Our hero Jesus came into the world in an obscure place in the Middle East, born into a people oppressed under foreign military occupation. He was slandered, maligned and plotted against by the religious elite. He was shamefully tortured and executed by the military in the most humiliating and cruel manner.

Jesus Christ rose from the dead and sits at the right hand of God the Father from Whom proceeds the Holy Spirit.

God the Holy Spirit so filled the rag tag group of uneducated followers of Jesus that they turned the world upside down. They braved the world of the Roman Empire, the Greek culture, multiple religions of barbarous lands. They suffered hardships, ridicule, humiliation, persecution, and death to establish the Holy Church and create a culture of God’s light opposing the darkness of the world in which they lived. By what right should we expect everything to be easier?

This has always been the mission. Establish the Kingdom of God, reclaim and redeem creation and the Crown of Creation, stolen by the Enemy. Though cultures rise and fall, the fallen nature of Man and the purpose of the enemy of God remain the same. The sin that destroyed lives in the first century does so today. The Light of God which illuminated the dark world at His Advent is with us today. Throughout the variations of time and culture, the life of the Holy Church, lived out in her Saints, has been the unwavering testimony and evidence of the salvation of God. The answer to the angry accusations of our culture is the very lives which we live by the mercy of God in the Holy Spirit.

So the message of the Gospel for the non-Christian and the Christian is as vital today as when it was first given. What advice does it have for us as we face a hostile and dark world? St. Paul courageously faced such a world and bore the scars and finally the martyrdom to show for it. Among his many directions, the Saint offers this particular note:

“Rejoice in the Lord always: I say it again, Rejoice. (As odd as it sounds, especially listening to the news these days, we alone have a true source of joy)

Let your moderation (your balance) be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. (the kingdom of God is always near to us)

Be anxious for nothing; (do not let the darkness of this world cause us to despair and worry) but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.

Finally, brethren, (though we be in these dark times) whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you. (follow the example we have been given by those who have gone before us)

Nothing is certain in these times. Our plans, our jobs, our retirement, certainly government support, all are unstable. We cannot count on any of these things for the future. Regardless, we seek a Kingdom and a world to come. We are strangers to this world. Paul teaches:

“I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. (Godliness with contentment is great gain)

I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.

I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Philippians 4

This is our hope. This is our courage. We can do all things, endure all things, and overcome all things through Christ our God Who strengthens us.

To spread the Kingdom of God, to overcome the arguments, the hostility and violence of the enemy, to reclaim fallen sinful Man for his true purpose, we must do more than speak rhetoric and return animosity. We must be merciful.

We must live as the Saints, we must live as Christ. “As His majesty is, so is His mercy!”

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

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