Daily Reflection for September 22, 2020

DAILY REFLECTION  •  SEPTEMBER 22  •  Hieromartyr Phocas, Bishop of Sinope


When a man clearly senses God’s mercy toward him, he is startled, as from a dull and senseless dream, and becomes ashamed of his long blindness to God’s unceasing compassion. In the time of Emperor Justinian, the chief imperial tax collector in Africa was a certain Peter, a very wealthy but very hard and merciless man. The beggars grumbled among themselves, that not one of them had ever received alms from Peter. Then, one of them bet that he would succeed in getting alms from Peter. He persistently begged alms of the miser until Peter, in a rage, hit him with a loaf of bread, since he had nothing else close at hand. Joyfully the beggar took the bread and fled. Immediately after this Peter became seriously ill and had this vision: He was being interrogated by demons in the other world. There was a scale, and on one side of it, the demons heaped Peter’s sins, making that side extremely heavy. On the other side-which was empty-angels stood, sorrowing that they had not even one good deed in Peter’s life to help balance the scale. One of them said: “We have nothing to place on the scale except one loaf of bread, with which he struck a beggar the day before yesterday.” The angels placed this one loaf of bread on the empty side of the scale, and that loaf of bread outweighed the other side of the scale, laden with all of Peter’s sins. When the vision was over Peter said to himself: “Indeed, this was not an apparition but the living truth, for I saw all my sins from my youth. And when I can be helped so much by one loaf of bread that I threw at a beggar, how much help would I receive from many deeds of almsgiving, performed from the heart and with humility?” And from that time, Peter became the most compassionate man in his town. He distributed all of his possessions to the poor, and when he had finished distributing his possessions, he sold himself into slavery for thirty gold pieces and distributed even his own price as a slave to the poor as alms in the name of Christ. He was, thereafter, called Peter the Merciful. (St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Prologue from Ochrid)

Fr. John’s Reflection

And I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why do I still suffer persecution? Then the offense of the cross has ceased. I could wish that those who trouble you would even cut themselves off! For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, beware lest you be consumed by one another!
            I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
(Galatians 5:11-21)

After all the different ways that St. Paul talks about being justified by faith rather than works, in today’s lectionary selection he illustrates that there is no contradiction or conflict between faith and works, but rather that true faith is manifested in liberty. That liberty is also the opportunity for good works OR “the flesh,” which is Paul’s way of saying the evil things of this world. He says that if we insist on “fulfilling the law,” it is done in one word: love your neighbor as yourself. He then warns us not to bite and devour one another! Yet, after preaching that salvation depends completely on faith, he goes on to expound very clearly on works that do not save, but rather condemn those who choose to practice them. There seems to be an implication that “good works” cannot save us in and of themselves, but are clearly manifest when we seek God. “Evil works,” however, can and will condemn us without repentance.

The “liberty” of which he speaks is to “walk in the Spirit,” not bound by laws and rules, but fulfilling them as the Spirit leads us in a righteous way of life. If we walk in the Spirit, we cannot walk in the flesh. It’s either/or. Then he reminds us of what are the acts of “walking in the flesh”: adultery, fornication, etc. Read the list again. It is a compilation of everything idolized in our culture today. We like to think that we are unique, that the turmoil we face today has “never been this bad.” But it’s always been this bad. As Christians, we must constantly strive to find that path which leads us to “walk in the Spirit” and not in the flesh. It is difficult, but God helps us make that journey. We cannot make excuses for ourselves or our loved ones (my favorite was the parent a long time ago, who, when confronting me about not marrying their son who was fornicating and saw nothing wrong with it, said, “At least it’s a girl, Father.”). The Galatians are reminded that not only did Paul warn them beforehand, in times past, and now, “that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” We have also been warned. “Practice” implies not a “slip,” or a sin in the moment of a passion, but a willful embrace of the darkness of the works of the flesh. We live in a world that has completely surrendered to that darkness. When we embrace and excuse (even exalt?) the works of the flesh, we should not be surprised that we will not inherit the kingdom of heaven.