The Church According to St. Paul

“The second reality that Paul engages is the assembly (Greek ekklesia) of the Greco-Roman city (Greek polis). The ekklesia was something like the city council, a group of male elders who met to deliberate about local issues and to ensure that the polis was faithful to its heritage and values. The ekklessia had the additional duty–especially if the polis happened to be a Roman colony and/or home to the imperial cult (e.g., Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus)–of dutifully and creatively expressing its loyalty to Rome and to its lord and savior, the reigning emperor.

Paul uses the term ekklesia for “the church” as a term of both continuity and discontinuity. On the one hand, it designates the assembly of believers who affirm Jesus as Lord and constitute the renewed “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). On the other hand, this assembly exists as an alternative ekklesia and even an alternative polis, since it incorporates not just a few leaders but an entire believing community. It exists as a counterculture to embody the values of its true savior and lord, Jesus the crucified and resurrected Messiah.

The church, therefore, is a visible, even a “political” reality rather than just a group with invisible “spiritual” bonds, whose mission it is to be a living commentary on the gospel it professes, the story of the Lord (Jesus) in whom the church exists and who lives within the assembly. (See especially Phil 2:1-15.)   As such, the church reflects the character of the God revealed in Christ. This countercultural community is not produced by human effort, nor does it occur to perfection overnight; it is a process of divine activity and communal and personal transformation (e.g., Rom 12:1-2; I Thess 3:11-13; 5:23-28). To be holy is to be different, different from those outside the church and different from the way we used to be, changed from what was “then” to what is “now” (Gal 4:8-9; I Cor 6:9-11; Eph 2:1-6; Col 3:1-7).” (Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, pp. 133-134)

Salvation and Slavery

St. Nicholas Cabasilas  writing in the 14th Century turns to the imagery of slavery to explain what it is to become a Christian.   Building upon the images and metaphors of St. Paul’s epistles, St. Nicholas explains both how becoming a Christian is like becoming a slave, and simultaneously how this activity is totally different than the idea of slave and master which was known in the world.

“The blessed Paul makes all things clear in a brief saying, ‘you are not your own, you were bought with a price’ ( 1 Cor 6:19-20).  He who has been purchased does not regard himself but Him who has purchased him, and lives according to His will.

A slave is purchased by a master to accomplish the master’s will.  The slave’s purpose for existence is to serve the will, and even the whims of the master.  Slaves are property, chattel, not human beings.

In the case of men, the slave is bound to the wish of the his master, but only in body; in his mind and reason he is free and can use them as he pleases.   But in the case of him whom Christ has bought it is impossible for him to be  his own.  Since no man has ever bought a complete man, and there is no price for which it is possible to purchase a human soul, so no one has ever set a man free or enslaved him save with respect to his body.

St. Nicholas says slavery is about enslaving the body, for no one can enslave the soul – the person’s inner self and thoughts.  The slave may not be free to express those inner thoughts, but the master can never completely control them.  Christ pays a price for others that includes their souls.   Those for whom Christ pays the price are owned body and soul by Christ, for Christ is not interested only in getting bodily work from someone. Christ in love wishes to share His wealth, His life with those He buys.  And the price Christ pays is not a finite sum of money, but rather He pays with His own blood, He spends His entire being in order to take possession of those who would be His slaves.

The Savior, however, has bought the whole of man.  While men merely spend money to buy a slave, He spent Himself.  For our freedom He surrendered body and soul by causing the one to die and by depriving the other of its own body.

Not only does Christ the Master, pay in His own blood, He dies to give freedom to His slaves – freedom from sin and death.  Christ liberates those held captive by Satan and Death.  He does this by His own sacrificial death.  He gives His entire being to purchase His slaves in order to set them free!

His body suffered pains by being wounded; His soul was troubled, and that not merely when the body was slain, but even before it was wounded, as He said, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death’ (Mt 28:38).  . . .  Because of the fact that it was our will which He was seeking, He did not violence to it nor took it captive, but He bought it.

Christ does not forcibly impose His slavery on us.  He pays the full price for our redemption, in order to allow us the freedom to accept or reject the salvation He offers.   He dies to liberate us from death, but makes it an offering, that we are free to accept or reject.  We have to use our wills to chose to embrace what Christ offers for us and to us.

 . . . He who spent money for a slave did not spend it with the aim of conferring benefits on him who he has bought, but rather that he himself might derive benefit by exploiting his labors.  The slave is, as it were, being spent for the profit of those who have acquired him and through whom he suffers misery, and gathers pleasures for them while he himself is subject to constant sorrows.

Slavery in the world is not done for the benefit of the slaves, but purely for the benefit of the masters.  The slave himself or herself is then spent, exhausted for the good of the master.  The slave benefits nothing and is tasked with always benefiting the master who owns him or her.  Not so with the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the case of the slaves of Christ the opposite is true, for everything has been accomplished for their benefit.  He paid the ransom, not in order to enjoy  anything from those who have been ransomed, but in order that what is His might belong to them, and that the Master and His labors might profit the slaves, and that he who has been purchased might himself wholly possess Him who has purchased him.

Slavery to Christ means possessing Christ!  Christ pays the price of our redemption with His own blood in order that we might possess Him!   After paying for us with His own blood, He then gives us His Kingdom.  He holds nothing back from us but gives us everything, even eternal possession of His Kingdom.

 . . . Among men the law makes the masters lords over their slaves and possessions unless they renounce their domination or release them from servitude.  In this case, however, the slaves possess their own Master and inherit that which is His when they love His yoke and regard themselves as bound by His act of purchase.  This is why Paul commanded, ‘Rejoice in the Lord’ (Phil 4:4), meaning by ‘the Lord’ Him who has purchased them.”  (THE LIFE IN CHRIST, pp 220-222)

Heavenly Delight

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)

Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.”  (Luke 6:21)

“God does not demand or desire that someone should mourn out of sorrow of heart; He wants him to rejoice in love for him with the laughter of the soul. Take away sin and then the sorrowful tears that flow from the eyes will be superfluous. Why look for a bandage when you are not cut? Adam did not weep before the fall, and there will be no tears after the resurrection when sin will be abolished, when pain, sorrow, and lamentations will have taken flight.”  (St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 7.49, 50, from Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, p. 227)

Appearance is Deceiving

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

“Furthermore, we have given ourselves a very serious problem our ancient ancestors did not have. In our own time, in which we jog and diet and generally believe that there must be an intimate connection between virtue, physical beauty, health and a person’s worth, we make outcasts of those among us who do not measure up: the old, the fat, the young but unattractive, the handicapped. That we have discovered that there is no real physical basis for believing in a ‘body-soul dualism’ provides us with a reason to value people in terms of what they look like and what they are able to do physically. Our churches are as guilty of this amazing confusion as any other group. This is a theology of ‘wholeness’ that benefits the strong and ignores the weak. It certainly stands in opposition to the Christian way of life … (Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 65)

St. John the Forerunner

The Prayer of Elder Paisios

“In the abundance of your mercy, O Jesus, You called publicans, sinners and unbelievers.  Like them, despise me not, but as precious myrrh accept this song…”    (Akathist to the Sweetest Lord Jesus)

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:9-13)

A friend sent me the following Prayer of St Paisios  (d. 12 July, 1994).  It is a beautiful prayer for the needs of all the people of God.

Our Lord Jesus Christ:

Do not abandon your servants who live far away from the Church. May your love convict them and bring them back to you.
Lord have mercy on your servants who are suffering from cancer.
On your servants who suffer either from small or serious ailments.
On your servants who suffer from physical infirmities.
On your servants who suffer from spiritual infirmities.

Lord have mercy on our leaders and inspire them to govern with Christian love.
Lord have mercy on children who come from troubled homes.
On troubled families and those who have been divorced.
Lord have mercy on all the orphans of the world, on all those who are suffering pain and injustices since losing their spouses.

Lord have mercy on all those in jail, on all anarchists, on all drug abusers, on all murderers, on all abusers of people, and on all thieves. Enlighten these people and help them to straighten out their lives.
Lord have mercy on all those who have been forced to emigrate.
On all those who travel on the seas, on land, in the air, and protect them.

Lord have mercy on our Church, the bishops, the priests and the faithful of the Church.
Lord have mercy on all the monastic communities, male and female, the elders and eldresses and all the brotherhoods of Mt. Athos.

Lord have mercy on your servants who find themselves in the midst of war.
On your servants who are being pursued in the mountains and on the plains.
On your servants who are being hunted like birds of prey.
Lord have mercy on your servants who were forced to abandon their homes and their jobs and feel afflicted.

Lord have mercy on the poor, the homeless and the exiled.
Lord have mercy on the nations of the world. Keep them in your embrace and envelope them with your holy protection. Keep them safe from every evil and war. Keep our country in your protective embrace day and night. Embrace her with your holy protection defending her from all evil and war.

(BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Lord have mercy on those who have been abandoned and have suffered injustice. Have mercy on families that are going through trying times. Pour your abundant love upon them.
Lord have mercy on your servants who suffer from spiritual and bodily problems of all kinds.
Lord have mercy on those who are despairing. Help them and grant them peace.
Lord have mercy on those that have requested that we pray for them.

Lord grant eternal rest to all those who have passed on to eternal life throughout the ages.

Keeping a Strict Fast

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

As we continue to sojourn through the Apostle’s Fast as we prepare to celebrate the Feast of the Glorious Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, we are reminded that whether or not we strictly keep food fasting rules, we are as Christians obligated to follow Christ’s commandment to love one another as He loves us .

The monastic elders stressed conversion, compassion, and forgiveness, which they saw as far more important than the most extreme ascetic practices.

As one elder declared, “If a man have humility and poverty and judge not another, that is how the fear of the Lord gets into him.”

Another elder taught, “It is better to eat meat and drink wine than by detraction to devour the flesh of your brother.” (Jim Forest, Confession: Doorway to Forgiveness, p. 31)

St. Nicholas Cabasilas: How to Be a Saint

St. Nicholas Cabasilas  writing in the 14th Century in his THE LIFE IN CHRIST, offers a vision for how to live as a Christian that makes discipleship accessible to all.  In his book, he does not see Christ demanding extreme asceticism from all Christians, but he does believe Christ offers holiness to every Christian.  His words might be a good framework for all of us to see how we can move the Church in America from honoring a few past Saints in North America to seeing all of us as being called to be the saints in North America.  First, St. Nicholas reminds us that all of  us have to consider what virtues we need in our particular lives to fully follow Christ in the vocation which we have chosen or to which we were called:

No one would claim that the same virtues are needed by those who govern the state and those who live as private citizens, or by those who have made no further vow to God after the baptismal washing and those who live the monastic life and have taken vows of virginity and poverty and thus own neither property nor their own selves. (p 160)

St. Nicholas recognizes that the president of the country and congressional leaders are in need of specific and special virtues to help them do their jobs properly.  Not everyone is in their positions, those who aren’t are going to need other virtues.  Same is true of those who have chosen to be monks or priests – they need to develop particular virtues to fulfill their roles.  The laity whether married or single and all non-monastics need  to cultivate particular virtues in order to live “in the world” as Christians.  In this sense the laity cannot just imitate monks to faithfully live their life in Christ.  Monastics will not always be the right role model for the non-monastics.  St. Nicholas uses the example that monastics have already given up possessing private property – so they aren’t going to be as focused on the virtue of charity as working people should be.    We, the non-monastics need to think long and hard about what virtues do we need to be faithful to God in the 21st Century world in which we live.  Which virtues do spouses need?  Which virtues do parents need?  Which virtues do we need in each profession or workplace in which we find ourselves?

If we share in His blood we must share in His will.  We cannot be joined to Him in some ways, and yet be separated from Him in others, neither can we love Him in one way and be hostile to Him in another, not be His children on the one hand and worthy of blame on the other.  . . .    It follows, therefore, that he who has chosen to live in Christ should cling to that Heart and that Head, for we obtain life from no other source.  But this is impossible for those who do not will what He wills.   It is necessary to train one’s purpose, as far as it is humanly possible, to conform to Christ’s will and to prepare oneself to desire what He desires and to enjoy it, for it is impossible for contrary desires to continue in one and the same heart.   (p 161)

While receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is essential to our weekly lives as Christians, it is not sufficient for salvation.  We have to share in doing Christ’s will.  We have to know what the will of the Lord is and figure out how to imitate Christ in our daily lives.   This isn’t simply following a bunch of rules and rituals, which might be what monastic obedience requires.  We have to read the Gospels to learn how to imitate Christ in the work-a-day world, in our homes and neighborhoods.  To be Christian is to be Christlike – but we are to be Christ like in our marriages, on our jobs, when interacting with our fellow parishioners or when being neighborly to friends and strangers.  What we need to pay attention to is the particular Gospel lessons that help us live each day in dealing with other people and with the problems we face as home owners, citizens of our country, as employees or employers.

When we thus greatly love Him we become keepers of His commandments and participants in His purpose, for as he says, ‘he who loves Me will keep My commandments’ (Jn 14:15,21).   Besides, when we recognize how great is our own worth, we shall not readily betray it.  We will not endure being slaves to a runaway slave when we have found out that a kingdom is ours.  (p 165)

We have the responsibility as Christ’s disciples to know His commandments and to fulfill them in our lives.  As we know, Christ taught that His commandments are basically that we love God with all our soul, heart and mind and that we love one another as He has loved us.  We sometimes get so focused on minutiae of ritual and rule that we lose sight that all we do is to be done in love for God and neighbor.  When we forget love, we become ritualists.  It is easy to become Pharisees once we become ritualists.

St. Nicholas reminds us of our great worth – we are created to be the children of God!  God is giving us His Kingdom.  We are not slaves, but God’s own family.  God loves us as His children.

But Christ does not regard His servants as though they were slaves, nor does He bestow on them honors fit for slaves; He regards them as friends.  Towards them He observes rules of friendship which He has established from the beginning; He shares His own with them, not merely one or another part of His riches, but He gives the very kingdom, the very crown.  What else is it that blessed Paul has in view when he says that they are ‘heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ’ (Rom 8:17), and that all those who have shared hardships with Christ reign with Him (2 Tim 2:12?  (p 167)

We are called to follow Christ in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  No need to change circumstances, though perhaps at times repentance does call us to make major changes in our lives.  However, we can be full Christians as parents, spouses, neighbors, employees, businessmen, civil servants, soldiers, and friends.

Thus the law of the Spirit is with reason a law of friendship and consequently trains us in gratitude.  There is no toil involved in applying ourselves to this law, neither is it necessary to suffer hardship or to spend money, nor is there dishonor or shame, nor shall we be worse off in any other respect.  It makes it no less possible to exercise our skills and it places no obstacle in the way of any occupation.  The general may remain in command, the farmer may till the soil, the artisan may exercise his craft, and no one will have to desist from his usual employment because of it.  One need not betake oneself to a remote spot, nor eat unaccustomed food, nor even dress differently, nor ruin one’s health nor venture on any reckless act.  It is possible for one who stays at home and loses none of this possession constantly to be engaged in the law of the Spirit.”  (pp 173-174)

Practice Hearing God

For a holy and disciplined spirit will flee from deceit, and will leave foolish thoughts behind…”  (Wisdom of Solomon 1:5)

There is a bit of wisdom that I’ve seen even on a bumper sticker which says: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think“.   One can find similar warnings in Orthodox spiritual literature where one’s constant buzz of thoughts are sometimes compared to a swarm of bees, or worse, a swarm of flies (and we know what attracts flies!).  Or this from Sirach  – “The heart of a fool is like a cart wheel, and his thoughts like a turning axle” (33:5).   Our minds are always busy – always turning, but the spiritual literature says we can learn to discern our own thoughts better by slowly, gently ignoring some of them until we are able to hear another voice – that of God.  Especially if we have allowed God’s Word to enter into our hearts and minds through attending liturgical services, reading scripture and through prayer.   Fr. Meletios Webber writes:

“For those who do not have access to spiritual direction, please allow me to attempt to describe such an exercise in staying present (and avoiding the pitfalls of ego-boosting) in spiritually neutral terms. It goes something like this:

Stop listening to your thoughts–not the thoughts you have, but the thoughts that have you. They have nothing beneficial to offer you, and besides you have heard them all before. Brush them aside, and gently continue to brush them aside. Beyond their clamor and din there is available to you a level of greater awareness–a place of love, joy, peace, and compassion. At first, it is difficult to “hear” it (since it is expressed in silence) but with practice you will start recognize its voice, and a deeper state of presence will be yours.” (“When Taking Cover Is Not Enough”, In Communion, p. 14).

Spiritual directors warn that if we only read those passages of Scripture which we like or agree with, then we aren’t listening to God but are only listening to ourselves.  If we read the Scriptures through our political bent, we shaped the Scriptures into a text that agrees with us.  It is much harder to allow the Scriptures to speak to us and far easier for us to read into them what we want them to say.  So the Lord Jesus teaches:

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

People who have memorized a text and repeat it often, sometimes don’t even notice when the written text has been changed, even when it is right in front of them.  They are not reading the text, but rather saying what their mind has already believed the text to say.   Sometimes they literally can’t even see the change in the text because their brain expects the text to say what it has memorized.   So the person has to slow down their mind, and actually pay attention to the text which is before them.  Sometimes they stumble over the words, sometimes the different words appear and they suddenly realize what they are saying is different than the text before their eyes and they feel the cognitive dissonance as they say one thing but read something different.  Sometimes they have to stop and actually read the printed words carefully and intentionally.  That is the experience that Fr Webber is describing: how it is necessary at times to slow our thinking down and filter some of the thoughts so that we can actually hear that voice from God who speaks to us but who we drown out with all the other things to which we want to pay attention.

We might consider the experience of the Holy Prophet Elijah who didn’t find God in the explosion winds, earthquake or fire, and all the thoughts that resulted from them.  Rather, only when all else had been cleared from his mind did Elijah hear the “still small voice” which was God speaking to him.

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

The Origins of the Apostle’s Fast

Fr. Paul N. Harrilchak notes in his book, The Divine Liturgy of the Great Church (p 211), that the origins of the Apostle’s Fast are rooted in the ancient Christian practice that there was no fasting or penitential kneeling in the Church for the 50 days from Pascha to Pentecost, which for many centuries was treated as one continuous and great Feast in the Church which lasted 7 weeks plus one day.   In the 4th Century according to documents, following this totally fast-free fifty day festal period, plus an additional week of feasting after Pentecost, a one week fast was observed.  That one week fast which began 8 days after Pentecost morphed, under monastic influence in recent centuries, into the Apostle’s Fast which now stretches from the Monday after All Saints Day until the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul on June 29.  Because Pascha and Pentecost are movable feasts, the length of the Apostle’s fast changes each year.

After having celebrated Pentecost, keep a feast for one week, and after that keep a fast for one week [origin of the so-called Apostles’ Fast–Ed.]: for it is right to rejoice over the Gift of God [meaning the Descent of the Holy Spirit–Ed.], and then to keep a fast after the time of relaxation [of Wednesday/Friday fasting during the 50-day Paschal/Pentecost season]. (Apostolic Constitutions, Syria (ca. 380 A.D.).  

Purity of Heart: Not Just Skin Deep

“What is more, because purity is a means to be like God, it is a matter of internal disposition rather than of external ritual observance. It must rule a person’s language precisely because, as the Lord says, speech reveals the person within, the heart (Matt . 5:22; 15:18; Paed. 2.6.49). The language of the Christian is free of impurity (Eph. 4:29; 5:3ff; Paed. 2.6.50). It is wrong to be preoccupied with external propriety if the person within is impure. The Scribes and the Pharisees are whitewashed sepulchres.  They washed the outside of the cup, but left the inside dirty. It is the impurity of the soul that must be cleansed…

St. John the Forerunner

External beauty is very misleading: it does not lead to the love and beauty which are imperishable (Sir. 9:8; Paed. 3.11.83). For Clement, purity is above all a reasonable virtue, which prevents human beings from becoming like beasts and renders them capable of seeing God (Ps. 49:12, 20 [48:13, 21, LXX]; Sir. 33:6; Paed. 1.13.101ff). Many times Clement insists on the fact that only the pure of heart see God (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 2.10.50) The vision of God face to face is the vision of the Truth, and only a small number can attain to it, for only the pure of heart see God. The Savior came down in order to lead us to this purty and definitive vision.”    (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 5.1.7) (Paul M. Blowers, The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, pp. 120-121)

Saints of North America