The Parish as Christian Community

“And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…”  (Ephesians 4:11-12)

Christ chose 12 men to form a special community – his first disciples.  His Gospel commandments frequently deal with how His followers were to live with and for one another.  For us to continue to be His Body, which is one image St. Paul uses to describe Christian life and community, we have to learn how to live with one another.  St. Makarios of Egypt writes:

“Simplicity before others, guilelessness, mutual love, joy and humility of every kind, must be laid down as the foundation of the community. Otherwise, disparaging others or grumbling about them, we make our labor profitless. He who persists ceaselessly in prayer must not disparage the man incapable of doing this, nor must the man who devotes himself to serving the needs of the community complain about those who are dedicated to prayer. For if both the prayers and the service are offered in a spirit of simplicity and love for others, the superabundance of those dedicated to prayer will make up for the insufficiency of those who serve, and vice versa.

In this way the equality that St. Paul commends is maintained (cf. 2 Cor. 8:14): he who has  much does not have to excess and he who has little has no lack (cf. Exod. 16:18). God’s will is done on earth as in heaven when, in the way indicated, we do not disparage one another, and when not only are we without jealousy but we are united one to another in simplicity and in mutual love, peace and joy, and regard our brother’s progress as our own and his failure as our loss.” (The Philokalia, Vol. 3, p 295)

Jesus Seeks us in Our Daily Labor

The 5th Sunday after Pascha continues the pattern of alternating the Post-Paschal Gospel lessons between having men and then women being the focus.  The 2nd Sunday focuses on the Apostle Thomas, the fourth on the paralytic man and the 6th on the blind man; while the 3rd focuses on the Myrrhbearing Women, and the 5th on the Samaritan woman.

Men and women both respond to Christ, becoming His disciples through a variety of encounters with Him both before and after His resurrection.  One does not have to be part of the chosen circle of apostles to come to believe in Him. Even having doubts about Christ do not disqualify one from eventually being chosen to follow Him.  In part, the Gospel lesson of the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-42) includes these words:

The Lord came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as he was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”

Encounters with Christ do not just occur in “religious” settings such as when we are in prayer.  Even those looking for Him are sometimes surprised by an encounter with Him.  We come to realize He speaks to us in our daily lives, even in our fears and disbelief, in our sorrows,  in our despair, in our sin, in our suffering, in our separation from others.

“In order to meet her at Jacob’s well, Jesus chooses the hour when He knows that the Samaritan woman come to draw her water each day. It is in our daily needs – in our daily  labor – that Jesus wants to meet us.” (A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus: A Dialogue with the Savior, p 64)

He Stole His Way into Paradise

There were two criminals crucified with Jesus.  One of those men, a thief, found his way to Paradise in the very last moments of his life.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”  (Luke 23:39-43)

The one criminal executed with Jesus departed this earth as a traveling companion of Christ, on a journey to Paradise.

“The thief, whose hands were defiled with blood,

You accepted as a fellow-traveler.

With him number us also, O Lord,

For You are good and love humanity.”

This wise thief had not committed himself to obeying God by keeping Torah nor had he sought in his lifetime to become a disciple of Christ.  But in the moment of his death he forsook looking for his own advantage in this world, and placed his life in God’s hands.  He didn’t seek a Messiah who would overthrow Israel’s enemies.  He rather acknowledged the vainness of his own life, lifestyle and pursuits and accepted the reality of God.

“The thief on the cross uttered a small cry,

But he found great faith.

In a moment he was saved and became the first to enter Paradise

When its gates were opened.

O Lord, who accepted his repentance, glory to You!”

It would not be unfair to say after wasting his entire life in crime, he in the end stole his way into Paradise!

 

The reality is Christ opened the gates for the thief to enter Paradise.  Christ’s gift of eternal life and salvation was gracefully and freely given to one who had no hope of entering God’s kingdom.

“Through a tree Adam lost his home in paradise, but through the tree of the cross the thief came there to dwell.  by tasting of the fruit, the first broke the Creator’s commandment, but He who was crucified with You confessed You, the hidden God.  Remember us also, O Savior, in Your Kingdom!”

 

Mid-Feast of Pentecost: A Historical Note

As the name implies, the Mid-Feast of Pentecost occurs on a Wednesday half way between Pascha and Pentecost.   The Gospel Lesson is John 7:14-30 which begins with the words:

About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach.

This Feast is a reminder to us that we are still celebrating Pascha, the Resurrection of Christ, and are already preparing for the Feast of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In our minds already Pascha may be so yesterday – an afterglow in the rear view mirror of our memories.  However, in our life in the Church it is central to our daily being as Christians: it should not be so readily or easily consigned to the past.   Our salvation, our experience of God, our opportunity for eternal life is found in the events of Pascha and Pentecost and their being a part of our spiritual memory – something we live today in expectation of that day which will never end.

Archbishop Job Getcha gives us a little historical background information about the Mid-Feast of Pentecost:

“The origin of this feast is Constantinopolitan. The first indication is found in a homily of Peter Chrysologos, Bishop of Ravenna during the second quarter of the fifth century. Severus of Antioch witnesses to the existence of this feast in Antioch in the sixth century. The first properly Constantinopolitan reference to this feast also goes back to the sixth century, in the homily of Leontius of Constantinople. In his day, the gospel passage of Jn. 9.1-14 was read, but this passage was, before the tenth century, replaced with Jn. 7.14-30, the passage we use today, because of the words, ‘About the middle of the feast.’ The gospel text obviously refers to the Feast of Tabernacles, which the Church transferred to the fifty-day paschal period.

We could suppose the solemnization of the middle of the fifty-day paschal  period did not come before the development of the feasts on the fiftieth and fortieth days after Pascha. The theme of wisdom which is developed in the Old-Testament readings and the hymnography of this feast may be connected with the tradition on this day, at least during this period, of convening regional synods of bishops, in conformity with the prescriptions of Canon 5 of Nicea.” (The Typikon Decoded, p 253)

Enveloped in God’s Love

“Everywhere and in every endeavor remember the Lord your God and His holy love for us. Everything that you may see in heaven and on earth and in your house awakens you to the remembrance of the Lord your God and His holy love. We are enveloped in God’s love.

Every creature of God bears witness to His love for us. When you see God’s creation and make use of it, say to yourself thus: This is the work of the hands of the Lord my God, and it was created for my sake. These luminaries of the heavens, the sun, the moon, and the stars, are the creations of the Lord my God, and they illumine all the world and me.

This earth on which I live, which bears fruit for me and my cattle, and all that may be upon it, is the creation of the Lord my God. This water which waters me and my cattle is a blessing of my Lord. This cattle which serves me is the creation of my Lord and was given by Him to serve me.

This house in which I live is God’s blessing and was given me by Him for my repose. This food which I taste is God’s gift to me for the strengthening and consolation of my weak flesh. This garment with which I am clothed the Lord my God gave me for the sake of covering my naked body.” (St.Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, p 9)

God’s Miracle: Loving Us to Death

“To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”   (St. Paul writing to the Ephesians 3:8-10)

The plan of God for the salvation of the world, was also a mystery, hidden from everyone – even the angelic powers didn’t know God’s plan – and yet glimpses of it were revealed through the prophets to God’s people.  Finally, in Jesus Christ the full plan was revealed – the incarnation of God.  St Gregory Palamas writes:

“When the prophet and psalmist was enumerating the different aspects of creation and observing God’s wisdom in them all, he was filled with amazement and cried out while writing, ‘O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom have you made them all’ (Ps. 104:24). Now that I am attempting, if I can, to tell you about the manifestation in the flesh of the Word who made all things, what fitting word of praise will I find? If all things that exist inspire wonder, and their coming out of non-being into being is something divine and greatly to be hymned, how much more amazing, divine and demanding of our praises is it for a being to become god, and not just god, but the God who truly is?

Especially as it was our nature which was neither able nor willing to preserve the image in which it was made, and had therefore been rightly banished to the lower parts of the earth.  That our nature should become like God, and that through it we should receive the gift of returning to what is better, is a mystery so great and divine, so ineffable and beyond understanding, that it remained absolutely unrecognized by holy angels and men, and even by prophets, although they had spiritual vision, and was hidden throughout the ages.” (The Homilies, p 100)

For Palamas, the miracle and the mystery of God is that God made us in His own image, but we scorned that gift.  We didn’t even have to earn that status, God gave it to us and we willfully tarnished it.  Despite this high-handed rejection of God, God still willed that our nature should become like God!  This is so beyond comprehension – pure grace, undeserved.   Even the angels in heaven, according to St. Gregory didn’t know what God had in mind and where God was headed with His continued loved toward humans.

The incarnation has a further and tremendous mystery hidden in it that is revealed in Christ:  the Cross.  Christ dies on the cross.  Christ dies for our sins.  The death of God in the flesh is the revelation of God’s love for us.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).  God appears on earth as a man, and dies on the cross in order that we might share in God’s divine and eternal life.  God loves us to death, even death on the cross!

Be Godlike: Be a Helper

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”

The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the   Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.'” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.  Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.  (John 5:1-15)

Let us consider just one phrase from the Gospel lesson:

The Paralytic tells Jesus,  “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool…” 

Some of you know that throughout Great Lent we sang hymns which describe God as being to us “a helper and a protector.”   The words come from our Scriptures.  God is our helper in life.  We are not alone in the world or when we are in crisis, God the Lord of the universe is also helper to each of us.

The Gospel of the Paralytic brings to mind, what if God is not there to help us?  The Paralytic was lying amid invalids for 38 years the Gospel says, and the paralytic laments that in all this time, there was no one to help him.

In Genesis 2, we know that God created the 2nd human being for a purpose – to be a helper to the first human being.  Adam too had no one to help him, but God decided to fix that situation by creating a 2nd human being to help the first.

Some unfortunately conclude from the creation of the 2nd human being, who also is a woman, that God intended all women to be subservient to men, but the narrative only addresses an issue of being left alone and being a helper.  The next human being is to help those who exist before them.  Each human being comes into existence to be a helper, not just women.  For God in Scripture as we already noted is said to be a helper to us.  We each are created to be God like which implies we too are to help one another. Being a help is not subservient, but being god-like.   No human being should ever truly be left with no one to help them – if we each were being fully human.

After creating the 1st human, God says in Genesis 2:  “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Now I am by nature a true introvert and very shy.  So whenever I read that verse in which God says, “It is not good for man to be alone”…..  I always think, I don’t know God, maybe you should have let that experiment run a little bit longer.  It may be that being alone wasn’t good, but I know where the story is going, and what happens with the creation of the 2nd human being and subsequent human beings does not bring about even more goodness!

 But the aloneness of the first man is the first thing that God ever determines is not good.  In Genesis 1, after everything God created the Scriptures repeats the refrain, And God saw that it was good.”  All this goodness abounding, but then God sees that being alone for a human is not good, and that humans need helpers for one another.  God sees what is not good for humans as well as what is good for us.

So besides God being our helper, God creates for each of us helpers other beings to be just like God.  Our fellow human beings are created so that we each might help one another.  God saw the goodness in this.

God commands us:  “Be fruitful and multiply –  God wishes to have a world full of helpers, of His people whom He loves, all willing to serve and help Him as well as each other.

Our Scriptures totally envision a universe full of helpers.   The Old Testament Scriptures do not envision God living alone in the vastness of any empty heaven.     That idea of a God all alone unto himself is a particular image of a pure and perfect oneness, a monad lost in mental monologues completely detached from His creation comes from the imagination of philosophers.   It is not the God of Scriptures.  For the God of Genesis too digs into the mud of the earth to create humans, as well as trees and everything else.  Our God is not OCD when it comes to messiness!

The Scriptures envision a heaven, God’s Kingdom, full of all kinds of beings – angels, bodiless powers, invisible and spiritual beings, even gods.  All are to be God’s helpers.  The kingdom of Heaven is bustling with the activity and life of a multitude of beings.  God is not alone, dwelling in solitude thinking soliloquies.  God is not an introvert.  Christianity – never envisioned this monad God living within His own oneness and singularity.    Rather in Christianity God is always imaged as a Trinity of Persons.  Perfect relationship, three divine Persons loving not only one another but creating an entire universe with whom to share their divine life and love.

We Christians understand that God created us to be relational beings, sharing in God’s life and love but also sharing life and love with one another.  To be human is to be a helper to others, including to God.

If we think about the Gospel of the Paralytic, we can ask:

Is the paralytic truly alone?  Is there truly no one to help him at all?

How long can a human live without food or water?  Maybe a month.

How long was the man laying with invalids?  38 years.

So someone was giving him food and water.  He has basic bodily functions and needs.  To be there for 38 years means someone was caring for him.  Maybe no one met his expectation of helping him to be healed, but the Gospel surely suggests that there is someone, or maybe several someones who have helped him survive for 38 years. These are all invisible care givers in the narrative.

Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us we are to be helpers to one another.  We are to help each other so that we can live in this world until that day that we meet Christ Jesus our Lord.

And then we have to help each other continue to live. It is not enough just to be opposed to abortion, for example.  We need also to care enough to help people to continue life, to continue living, even if in difficult circumstances.  We have to be the invisible people of the Gospel lesson who helped the Paralytic to live 38 years despite his problems, challenges, illness, differences.  He is not alone.  It is not true that there is no one to help him.  There is us and we are to be helpers to every such person in our lives.

Of course there is a problem in the Gospel lesson:  the paralytic is in basic competition with the rest of the invalids trying to get into those healing waters first when a miracle might occur.   All the others humans at this pool, including all the other helpers have become competition to this one man.  He sees none of them as his helpers, as his fellow human beings.  They are only competitors whom he has dehumanized.

Again, we can think about God’s words in Genesis 2, “It is not good for man to be alone…”        Really?  Wouldn’t this one paralytic be better off if there were no others around him?  No one to compete with him?

And the answer is no, for it is only this great crowd of people which draws Christ to that location, to that one person.  And now God truly becomes the helper to this one human being, not by lifting him up, but by telling him to raise himself up.  Christ does not say to this person, “let me help you up”.  No, rather he shows the person that he is capable of doing things, and so shows him that he is totally capable of helping others.   God turns this man into someone capable of helping others, Christ turns this one person from a pathetic paralytic into a full human being.  Christ totally recreates this one person into a true human being.

And what do you think, did he become a helper to others – to one other at the pool?

The man who complained with such great self-pity, “there is no one to help me”, do you think he simply walked away from that pool and all those suffering people?  Or do you think he became a Christ to even one someone else and ministered to them?

As hear the Gospel proclaimed, we are to think not just about past history, but about who am I in this Gospel lesson?  Am I the paralytic before the encounter with Christ, full of self-pity and always wanting someone else to help me?  Or am I the healed person capable of coming back and helping others?  Am I the invisible helper who works quietly and silently behind the scenes for 38 years, helping even one someone else to survive?

In the Liturgy of St. Basil we pray to God saying:

For You, O Lord, are the Helper of the helpless, the Hope of the hopeless, the Savior of the bestormed, the Haven of the voyager, the Physician of the sick. Be all things to all people, O Lord Who knows each of us, and our request, our home and our need.

Indeed, we pray that God will be a helper and a protector to us.  And then we hear Christ say, “love one another as I have loved you.”  We are to become and be that helper to each other.

Christ the Physician

On the Fourth Sunday after Pascha we read the Gospel lesson of John 5:1-15, the paralytic.  

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.

Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the   Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.'” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.  Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.

The healings which Christ performed vary greatly in how they are accomplished.  Sometimes Christ merely says a word and the person, who may be at some great distance from Christ is healed.  At other times, as in the Gospel lesson of the paralytic, Christ uses physical material to heal a person.

3rd Century Syrian Drawing of the healing of the paralytic.

“What kinds of skills and methods does the healer bring to the therapeutic encounter? By his explicit and deliberate use of physical means in many of his healing miracles (e.g., John 9), Christ blessed matter as a medium through which the healing grace of God can operate in addition to non-physical means of healing. This is only reasonable and consistent with the reality of the incarnational axiom of Gregory of Nazianzus, ‘For that which He has not assumed, He has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved.’ By fully assuming our human condition, including its physicality, Christ blessed the material aspect of his creation making of it a means of salvation and healing.

St. Panteimon the Unmercenary Healer

Every healing mystery (sacrament) of the Church utilizes a physical element whether it is the water of baptism, the oil of anointing for the sick, the touch of a priest’s stole (Greek – epitrachelion) during  absolution in confession, or most importantly, touching the very Body and Blood of the Lord himself in the elements of consecrated bread and wine during the Eucharist. It is in this context that healing modalities commonly used in the therapeutic encounter must be examined.” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p 175)

How to Be a Disciple of Christ

The desert fathers set out to live their lives according to the Gospel commands of Christ and to form Christian communities governed not by the rules of society but by love for Christ.  Several of them wrote simplified lists of what they thought it would take to be Christians living in community and obeying the commands of Christ.  One such list comes from the Monk Moses.

“Do no harm to anyone, do not think anything bad in your heart towards anyone, do not scorn the man who does evil, do not put confidence in him who does wrong to his neighbor, do not rejoice with him who injures his neighbor.

This is what dying to one’s neighbor means. Do not rail against anyone, but rather say, ‘God knows each one.’ Do not agree with him who slanders, do not rejoice at his slander and do not hate him who slanders his neighbor.

This is what it means not to judge. Do not have hostile feelings towards anyone and do not let dislike dominate your heart; do not hate him who hates his neighbor.

This is what peace is: Encourage yourself with this thought, ‘Affliction lasts but a short time, while peace is forever, by the grace of God the Word. Amen.’” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward, pp 142-143)