Internet Orthodoxy

Homily 586 – 41 APE
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
March 17, 2024
Epistle – (112) – Romans 13:11-14:4
Gospel – (17) Matthew 6:14-21

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

All the Gospel lessons appointed for us are important, but in this day of Internet Orthodoxy, the Epistle reading is particularly significant for us.  One phrase in particular jumped out at me.

Not sure if it jumped out for you or not.  St. Paul writes to the Romans, “Accept the one who is weak in faith, but not to enter into arguments over disputable matters.”

Now, St. Paul in this passage was, strangely enough, not talking about fasting.  St. John Chrysostom comments on this passage that there were those that took the Jewish law to the extreme, and expanded on the kosher dietary laws.  So, they didn’t eat pork, but in addition, ate no meat at all.

Plus, in Archbishop Dimitri’s commentary on Romans, he believes that there were others who abstained from meat entirely, so that they would insure that they never ate meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  Then, there were those who ate everything, believing that the Law was of no value anymore.

So, this was not about fasting to St. Paul.  However, the Church, in its wisdom, has provided this passage on this Sunday, as we begin the Great Fast, so there is something here that applies to the fast.

St. Paul’s direction never specified which of the three approaches to eating meat was correct, or superior, or even minimalist.  St. Paul accepted all three approaches.

He does say it took a very strong faith to ignore the kosher laws, and the prohibition on meat offered to idols, and that eating only vegetables was for the weaker in faith.  Meaning, abstaining from meat in all forms was a safer path.

Critically, St. Paul commanded that each approach be accepted by all.  Accept the one who is weak in faith.  Do not look down – that is, feel superior, to those who practice differently than you.

The overall theme of this portion of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans is not about fasting, or even the piety or practice of Christianity.  Archbishop Dimitri says, “We should keep in mind that the Apostle’s aim is the peaceful coexistence of living together, for the Gospel’s sake, of the divergent peoples who made up the membership of the Church at Rome., in accordance with the decree of the apostolic council of Jerusalem (in Acts 15).”

Now some things St. Paul mentions are not to be part of Christian life.  Of that there is no question – sexual immorality, drunken parties, and he even throws in strife and jealousy for good measure.  But things like individual piety and individual ascetical practices – what we eat, how we fast, our prayer rules, things of that nature – St. Paul tells us to be tolerant.  St. John Chrysostom points out that St. Paul may have feared that “out of a wish to be right about a trifle, they should overthrow the whole.”

A bit later in Romans, just after the passage this morning, St. Paul gives us the reason he values this unity so much.  In verse 12, he tells us that each of us shall give account of himself to God.  “Therefore,” he writes, “let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolves this, not to put a stumbling block or cause to fall in our brother’s way.”

In Chapter 15, verse 1, he ways “We then who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.  Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.  For even Christ did not please Himself.”

“Bear with” doesn’t mean tolerate.  Or even “to put up with.”  It means to carry together.  βαστάζειν (bas-TA-zein) is the Greek word.  To bear, to carry, to support, to lift.

So, we might look again at the weight training analogy – we are expected to be spotters for our brothers and sisters.  We help lift the weight that they cannot lift, or struggle to lift, on their own.

“Now may the God of patience and comfort,” St. Paul writes, “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.”

It is unity.  It is peace.  That all of us share and be of one mind and one voice.  Division and arguments should be unknown to us.  And the fact that they aren’t unknown at all gives us, or should give us, pause to consider how we, me, individually, are failing.

So, practically, what does this mean?  Can we still ask about fasting to one another?  Can we still ask about the spiritual disciplines?

I would say yes, to an extent.  We need to ask about our practices privately, to those we look up to as examples in the Christian life.  The priest is such a person.  Your sponsor – your godparent – is such a person.  Your friend is such a person.

Perhaps not so much in public.  Like on the internet, for example.  The person you ask should know you personally, face to face, in real life as the kids say.  Don’t ask or even answer an avatar or screen name!  Our faith, and our practice is one of personal connection, not abstraction.  We shouldn’t ask someone off the street for advice on Christian ascetical practices anymore than we would ask someone off the street for advice on treating cancer or migraines or a broken ankle.

The Gospel lesson adds to this.  Our Lord tells us that other people shouldn’t be able to tell that we are fasting!  This practice of fasting, we do for ourselves, not for others.  Not for display, not for praise or rewards.  Any reward we receive is the only reward we will receive!

The promise that Christ offers is that our rewards from God will be visible.  We won’t say or do anything to indicate we are fasting, or praying, or whatever our discipline is.  But it will be visible to those around us, because it will usher in peace.  It will usher in joy.  It will usher in contentment.

Mostly, it will bring us humility.  And humility is visible.  We try and try to hide it.  But humility is visible.

That is when we are storing up our treasures in heaven.  That is when we are crucifying the ego.  That is when we are acquiring the Holy Spirit.  And according to St. Seraphim of Sarov, thousands around us will notice and be saved.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.