The Holiness of Peter

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:22-34 offers us a unique look at the Apostles as a community, and one Apostle’s, St. Peter‘s, relationship both to Christ and the other disciples.

Then Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear.  But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.” And  Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” And when they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret.

Christ sent the Apostles together on a boat.  His disciples share a common life, common experience, common dangers.  They experience life as a community – together they survive the storms of life, and together they also experience Christ the incarnate God.

On encountering Christ, in the midst of the battering storm, the disciples are made afraid both by the storm and by meeting the Lord in the midst of the storm.  St. Peter, emboldened by seeing the Lord on the waters, asks permission to leave the fellowship of the disciples in the boat and to come to Jesus alone.  His experience of Jesus alone cannot prevent him from sinking in the waters.   In the boat with the other disciples, the fellowship kept him afloat.

It is an important lesson for believers.  It is a false dichotomy to think one has to choose between the Church and Christ.   Christ is with the disciples in the boat even when walking on the waters.    The fellowship of the disciples, the Church, serves a purpose for the faithful.  We encounter Christ as a fellowship and we support and help one another within the Church.  The boat and the fellowship both serve a purpose for disciples as they face the surging storms of life, and neither prevents us from encountering Christ.

Of course there are times when the fellowship of believers fails.  The Apostles deserted Christ at the cross.  Members of the Church sometimes turn the community away from Christ to try to make the Church be something other than the Body of Christ.  The Apostles were so afraid of the public after the crucifixion of Christ that they went into hiding rather than seeking the risen Lord.  But if the Church keeps Christ as Lord, and the members including the leadership recognize the lordship of Christ rather than making themselves lords over others, the Church serves its purpose to help us find Christ in the midst of the storms of temptation.

 Sergius Bulgakov reflects on St Peter, the only Apostle granted to walk with Jesus on water (even if momentarily), and also who also openly denied Christ.  Peter rightly confesses Jesus as God, but then is called ‘Satan’ by Jesus for denying God’s plan of salvation for the world.  What does this tell us about holiness itself? What does it tell us about the man, Peter?

“The forgiveness of sins does not mean they are forgotten. It even pre-supposes the contrary: their special remembrance in the full awareness of God’s mercy. There is no reason to think that the apostle Peter could forget, in this age or the future one, his renunciation of the Lord. According to tradition, he remembered this renunciation all his life, and its memory is preserved forever in the holy Gospel. But this does not nullify the great saintliness of the first apostle, to whom the Lord said on the same day, ‘Thou art Peter,’ and then, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan’ (Matt. 16:18,23). Peter is by no means an exception among all the saints, whose saintliness supposedly signifies freedom from all sin. On the contrary, this is what the prayer of the Church says about all human saintliness: ‘there is no man who is alive and does not sin. Thou alone art without sin,’ for ‘every man [is] a liar, as it is written, That thou might be justified in thy sayings, and might overcome when thou art judged’ (Rom. 3:4). Every human being has had need of forgiveness and redemption by the Blood of the Lamb. In other words, the saintliness glorified by the Church signifies not sinlessness but righteousness as the sum total of pluses and minuses, experienced as a synthesis of bliss and suffering. This confirms that, for human beings, there is neither absolute heaven nor absolute hell.” (The Bride of the Lamb, p 480)

Peter isn’t granted permission to walk on water because he is sinless or perfect.  We don’t abide in the fellowship of the saints because we are perfect and sinless.  We all are part of the fellowship of the Church because we recognize we are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy which we are given through our union with Christ and in His Church.

We are God’s Temple

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 :

We are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become manifest; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.

St. Isaac of Ninevah (7th Century) comments:

“I give praise to Your holy Nature, Lord, for You have made my nature a sanctuary for Your hiddenness and a tabernacle for Your Mysteries, a place where You can dwell, and a holy temple for Your divinity, (namely for) Him who holds the scepter of Your Kingdom, who governs all You have brought into being, the glorious Tabernacle of Your eternal Being, the source of renewal for the ranks of fire which minister to You, the Way to knowledge of You, the Door to vision of You, the summation of Your power and great wisdom – Jesus Christ the Only-Begotten from Your bosom and remnant gathered in from Your creation, both visible and spiritual.” (The Second Part: Chapters IV-XLI, p 8)

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me… (Galatians 2:20)

A Man Born Blind, Jonah, Job and A Believer

And his disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  (John 9:2)

The question the disciples ask the Lord Jesus in John 9 has taken on new and personal meaning with me.   When some hear that I have been diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer, they often ask two questions:

Were you a smoker?

Is there a history of lung cancer in your family?

The questions are logical – people trying to make sense of the lung cancer diagnosis.  Obviously if you were a smoker (you sinned), the lung cancer is the consequence of your behavior.   Or if your family has a history of lung cancer, then it is your ancestors who passed the gene along to you (parent’s ‘sin’).   What the logic does of course is put the person at ease, for if there is a clear cause and effect of sin to disease, my interlocutor can feel safe that the world is reasonable and logical.  People get lung cancer because they smoked/sinned or the inherited the sin from their parents.

Such logic helps people get through the day and helps them avoid thinking about their own mortality, but we all know the world is a bit more unpredictable than our reason allows.  The Holy Prophet Job  got his story in our Scriptures.  Retributive justice is not always at work, or the only force at work, or may not even remotely be the cause of the effect.

My history is I was not a tobacco smoker, and there is no known history of lung cancer.  There is no doubt some cause for the lung cancer, but as the doctors have told me, we will never know what caused my lung cancer to begin.

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Believers in the ancient world did not have an explanatory category of “natural causes.”  For me in the scientific world, I can see there are natural disasters whose causes can be explained by natural forces.  The right collection of natural forces will produce a tornado or an earthquake or an epidemic.  I don’t have to think that every event is caused by an angry God.   The ancients, lacking a “natural disaster” category tended to interpret all things as acts of God.  What was not ever certain was exactly what caused God to act in a particularly destructive way.  Many theories were proposed: sin, icons, lack of icons, unwillingness of people to change, people too willing to change.  The Prophet Jonah, one can recall, was distraught that God didn’t destroy the city of Nineveh.  He proclaimed the city would be destroyed, hoped it would happen, and then was disappointed that God didn’t do it.  Jonah laments what he knows about God: “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”   (Jonah 4:2)  Sadly many people today share Jonah’s lament and don’t want God to be merciful, abounding in love and ready to relent from punishing.  They prefer the God of retribution not the God who is revealed by Jonah or by Jesus.

I believe in a merciful and loving God.  I’m not blind to the suffering of the world. I’m experiencing it myself.  As a believer, I have to wrestle with the real world, and faith in the God of love.  I accept a modern scientific world that some events can be explained by natural causes.  I don’t always know where God’s hand is in these events.  I know God created this world.  God continues to love His creation, despite the many problems created by natural causes.  God could have created a different world, but He apparently finds this world a good world in which to love us.  Mortality is part of this world, God loves us anyway.  Our Christian faith is that God enters into the human condition and dies in order to save us.  God does not avoid death.  God does not ask us to suffer something He Himself is not willing to suffer.

This week I began my second round of chemotherapy.  Yesterday I received two different chemos aimed at destroying the lung cancer cells.  I’ve experienced many of the serious side effects of the chemo.  I reported that in a previous blog: Walking Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.  My first week after treatment was a whole lot rougher that what I’m currently experiencing, though I recognize that symptoms come and go throughout the chemo process. And while things are better this week compared to the first round, better is neither good nor normal.   Psalm 107 comes to mind again.

Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he sent forth his word, and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men! And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!  (Psalm 107:17-22)

This week, though I experience that loathing of any food, I am thankful to the Lord for His steadfast love and His wonderful works.  Christ is present even in the suffering of the world.

And to the question the disciples asked at the beginning of John 9 and at the beginning of this blog,

Jesus answered: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.”  (John 9:3).

The story of Job is lived many times in the history of the world.

Christ: Uniting Heaven to Earth

“O Jesus, glorious name,

hidden bridge which carries one over

from death to life,

I have come to a stop with you;

I finish with the letter yodh.

Be a bridge for my words

to cross over to your truth.

Make your love a bridge for your servant.

By means of you I shall cross over to your Father.

I will cross over and say, ‘Blessed is the One

who has made his might tender in his offspring.’

(St. Ephraem the Syrian in Faith Adoring the Mystery by Sidney H. Griffith, p 24)

Sharing Warmth from the Heart

I use this blog to share with others quotes or thoughts that have influenced my own thinking or that have inspired me in one way or another.  The quote below was on a calendar I was given as a Christmas present.  I’m not familiar with the author, and I am not quoting this for who said it, rather I just liked the thought he expressed.

Let my soul smile through my heart

and my heart smile through my eyes,

that I may scatter rich smiles in sad hearts.

Paramahansa Yogananda (d. 1952)

 

Book: In the Shadow of the Forty Foot Wall

A crowd funding site has been set up to take advance orders of the book, In the Shadow of the Forty Foot Wall, written by  Chaplain Patrick Tutella.  The book will be released in March 2016 in time for Great Lent.   Patrick Tutella is an Orthodox Christian who has been involved in prison ministry for 40 years. 

“Those behind the 40 foot wall represent some of the most marginalized of society today, and this little book of Chaplain Patrick Tutella so beautifully helps us see Christ’s image in these forgotten and often despised people.”    (Rev. Father Luke Veronis, Director, Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, Brookline, MA)

You can visit the website at  http://igg.me/at/fortyfootwall, where you can learn how you can help fund this project in support of Orthodox prison ministry.

I encourage you to visit the site and view the video .   Your support of this publishing effort is greatly appreciated.

 

 

 

Creation: Genesis and Science

American Christianity seems to assume that the main question, perhaps the only question of significance, about the Genesis 2 account of creation is whether it is historically and factually true.  Yet in Orthodoxy, the importance of Genesis 2 is really found in Christ not in archeology or history.  Our whole basis of understanding Genesis 2, of sin and of salvation, are found in Jesus Christ.  From the moment of the Annunciation to the Theotokos to Holy Pascha, we find the meaning of Genesis 2.  We understand that Genesis 2 was written about Christ, so that we could understand the Messiah and God’s plan of salvation.

“This story in Genesis, then, was not intended to give us an accurate account of the origins of two people, Adam and Eve; rather; it was meant to give us a parable about two people representing humanity, giving us lessons about our relationship to each other and our relationship with God the Creator.[…]How does the fact that two different Genesis stories regarding the creation are included in the canonically recognized Genesis text affect considerations of science? Because there are two stories with different and conflicting information that are both accepted by the Church as canonical texts, we are lead to believe that it is not the facts regarding the creation that are important, but rather other information. This suggests, in fact, that the stories are not themselves meant to be absolutely accurate or to reflect scientific fact, but rather to convey certain lessons and points of importance to humanity.[…]

St. Basil the Great uses Scripture and Church Tradition to explain the theological issues, but when scientific facts are required, he utilizes the scientific conclusions of his day as his sources. This is important; St. Basil did not try to use Genesis to convey scientific truths, but rather used the Genesis text to convey spiritual and theological truths.[…]God is not a mere artist who shaped pre-existing matter and energy into the universe as we know it; God is the Creator Who fashioned everything from nothing. God created the universe from a void, from a vacuum, from nothing. Further, we learn that God created all things to be good – there is no distinction between spiritual and material. Material things such as earth, plants, animals, our physical selves are all good because they are created by God. When God looked at His creation of the earth with animals He noted it was ‘good’. However, when God created Man, His creation became ‘very good’. This means that God’s creation became ‘very good’ with humanity.” (Gayle E. Woloschak, Beauty and Unity in Creation, pp 88-92)

The Eucharist: Nurturing Relationships

“The Eucharistic meal dynamically realizes and foreshadows the reversal of the stipulations of the natural need to receive nourishment: the bread and the wine in the Eucharist are shared in, not consumed individualistically, and the eating and drinking serve relation, not nature; life, not survival. Sharing in the bread and wine of the Eucharist refers to the transformation not of mortals or of conduct but of mode of existence. That is why the Eucharist is the sign that reveals the Church’s identity, the event that realizes and manifests the Church.” (Christos Yannaras, Against Religion: The Alienation of the Ecclesial Event, p 44)

Holy Communion is the common meal of the Christian community.  Communion cannot be separated from the community, nor is the community separate from the communicant.   We receive communion to inspire us to love one another and to abide in the community of love.

A Healthy Heart and Soul

“My eyes are spent with weeping;
my stomach churns;
my bile is poured out on the ground
because of the destruction of my people…”

(Lamentations 2:11)

I think we all have experienced gut wrenching sickness – we are emotionally devastated by news and events and feel sick to our stomachs.  We lose our inner peace and equilibrium and emotion turns into visceral response.  We become physically ill.   St.Theophan the Recluse advises us:

“Do not overlook the fact that health does not depend on food alone, but above all on inner peace. Life in God, cutting us off from worldly turmoil, brings peace to the heart and, through this, keep the body also in good health. Activities are not the main thing in life. The most important this is to have the heart directed and attuned to God.”  (The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, p 235)

 

Directing our hearts toward God, becoming attuned to God in our hearts is the preparation for dealing with events that completely upset us.  The bottom drops out beneath us, but focusing on God helps us cope with the loss of control, the dizzying changes and the nausea of life spinning out of control.   We need to develop this relationship to God while in calm waters in order to hold on to God in the stormiest of seas.

Of Rainbows and Pharaohs

“The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look on it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  (Genesis 9:16)

The view from my hotel window said it all.  There was a beautiful rainbow in the sky over Atlanta.  In the photo immediately above you can even detect it was a double rainbow – the 2nd is about 1/3 of the way from the right side of the photo.  The rainbow reminds us that God, according to Genesis 9:16, is looking at the same thing that we are at the same time.  For us Orthodox, it certainly means that outside the liturgy, in nature, we can focus our attention on something and realize God is gazing at the same thing we are at that moment.  We can meet God’s gaze in space and time.    Not that God is not paying attention to creation the rest of time, but in the rainbow we have a unique experience of looking at something that also catches the Creator’s attention and God remembers all of humanity and all creation in that experience.

Perhaps a good sign for the Orthodox Church in America which is holding its All American Council in Atlanta.  Certainly the infamous “days of trouble” (as they have been frequently dubbed) – scandal and failed episcopal leadership – are part of our past history.   And the OCA navigated those turbulent waters without the intervention of government (friendly or hostile) and without the intervention of a mother church in a foreign land.  The OCA, not a child anymore, has accomplished what an autocephalous church must do – deal with internal problems, apply appropriate discipline and fix the problems.  Other Orthodox jurisdictions may wag their heads as they look at the troubles the OCA has experienced and see us as weakened and on the verge of collapse, but we have gained by our experience.  We have been forced to deal with our problems and to overcome them.  We exposed our problems rather than denying them.  We have survived, which also lays a good foundation for our wrestling with the future.

I am reminded completely of the story form Exodus 14 of the Israelites escaping Egypt with Pharoah’s army in hot pursuit.  Trapped by the Red Sea, the people furious with Moses for getting them trapped between the sea and the Egyptians, Moses, confident that God will save them, cries out to his fellow Israelites:

 “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still.”

God will save us, He will do it all!  But, NO, that is not what God does.  For in the very next line, God puts salvation on the shoulders of Moses:

The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward. Lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go on dry ground through the sea. And I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they shall go in after them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, his chariots, and his horsemen.

What is God going to be doing in this desperate situation?

He is going to be goading the Egyptians to attack!

That’s what He offers.   He asks Moses, “Why are you crying to me to save you?”  “You lead the people into the sea.”

Holy Moses!

I find this one of the best stories in the Old Testament.  Poor Moses sees the stage is set for God to miraculously save them, only to be told by God, “Why are you crying to me?  I appointed you as their leader, so lead them!”

The OCA has gone through a similar experience.  We had to rely on our divinely appointed leadership to get us through and out of the trap we had  gotten ourselves into.  Those were the times of trouble, and leadership has emerged, as has the OCA from the trap it was in.  A resurrection like the Israelites experienced in the Exodus.  We had to do it not by fleeing one land into another, but by affirming that in this land, we are the autocephalous Church and we have to deal with our problems, no matter how much we have been the cause of them.

The adoption of the revised Statutes as this AAC, the implementation of strict rules of best practices in financial matters – transparency and accountability – and in dealing with clergy misconduct and sexual misconduct in the church, all are signs that the OCA has come through these rough waters in a more healthy fashion and much matured.  We have been battered, but we better understand what God’s love demands from us in North America in the 21st Century.

For me personally, there is also some relief and comfort in the sense that I can trust my Metropolitan and my bishop.  No longer do I feel the need to play the diocese against the central church, or to have to choose which is the lesser of two evils.  Those were feelings that were even cultivated by a former chancellor and seemed so necessary to survive as a priest.  I no longer feel hypocritical about asking many years for our episcopal leadership.  The raging wars are now in the culture, but in many ways these are outside the Church itself.

“Glory to You, building your church, haven of peace in a tortured world.” (from the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things”)

For a long time it seemed to me the Church was as tortuous as the world itself.  But what I have found at this year’s AAC is that I am at peace in my Church, the OCA.  Thanks be to God.  May God grant many years to Metropolitan Tikhon and Bishop Paul.