Hearing God Through the Parables of Jesus

This is the first in a series of three reflections on the Parables of Jesus.

When reading the Parables which Jesus tells throughout his earthly ministry, it is important to have some sense what a parable is and how we should try to understand it.  A parable and a miracle story are different from the point of view that the miracle is based in an historical event, while the parable is a story with a message.  A parable can use a historical event as part of the story, but the parable is not dependent on the story being historical fact.   A miracle on the other hand is truly special because it is an unusual and perhaps unique historical event – something unexpected that goes against what we would consider to be the normal order of events.  In the Gospels, both parables and miracles serve a purpose of being signs of the Kingdom of God; in other words, their significance lies not in the miracle or parable itself, but in pointing out to us something beyond our historical frame of reference.  A miracle and a parable are efforts to reveal to us the Kingdom of God.  If we seek Jesus out only for a miracle or to hear His wisdom, we in fact are limiting His power and mission, and failing to see what He was trying to point out to us or to point us toward.  A miracle and a parable both can somehow help us have a better life in this world, but their purpose is to point out life in the world to come.

A Parable and an allegory are not exactly the same thing, though in history the two have been intertwined and sometimes the words have been used interchangeably.  In an allegory proper, each name or noun stands for something else (King = God, seed = the word of God), and we read the allegory to help us understand some other reality (so we hear a story about a farmer but realize it is telling us something about  a prophet).  On the other hand, in a parable, one has to read the entire parable and look for meaning in the entire story not just in each separate word.  In a parable, a seed = a seed, a king = a king.  The meaning in a parable is found not in replacing each word with another word (like solving a code), but the meaning is revealed in the “big picture” of the entirety of the story.  

A parable invites interpretation.  For though the parable can stand alone as a story and be sensible, its purpose is to get the hearers of the parable to discern what the purpose, meaning or moral of the story is.   So the parable always points to some reality and meaning beyond its details.  In Jesus’ teachings, parables like miracles are signs of the Kingdom of God – they point to the reality, and help reveal it to us.  In Luke 19:11, we are told the parables were told precisely to refute the idea that the Kingdom of God was to appear immediately, the parables are the signs that point to a future reality, which was just beginning to appear.  The parables point to the coming Kingdom because the Kingdom has not yet arrived – they point to the Kingdom already given yet which is to come.  A parable helps point beyond a purely literal reading of the text.   The significance of a parable, as versus an allegorical parable, lies not in decoding what each noun stands for, but in sitting back and contemplating the entire story and trying to see what is the story revealing.

Though the Gospels have Jesus telling parables, Jesus sometimes interprets the parable allegorically (as he does, for example with the sower and the seed in Mark 4).  And since Jesus Himself did it, so too did many early Christian preachers apply allegory to most of the parables of Jesus.  And while this is a possible way to understand the story, we need also return to the fact that the Gospel says these are parables not allegories and so we should also consider the stories as such.

In Matthew 13, after Jesus tells the parable of the sower and the seed, Jesus invites his hearers to contemplate what they had heard:  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”   And even this statement is a parable – for all those who came to listen to Jesus had ears, but Jesus is saying hearing isn’t enough, one has to interpret and understand and comprehend the meaning of the parable.

Sadly, it is possible to understand to whom a parable is directed, and even to understand the purpose of the parable without understanding its meaning and power.  ” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they perceived that he was speaking about them”  (Matthew 21:45).   They could understand that the parable was directed to them and even against them and yet could not hear what the parable was really saying and so be moved toward God.  They did not bother to try to comprehend the parable’s meaning because they had already rejected the parable teller and parables as a means for conveying God’s truth.  The opponents of Jesus were firmly embracing the Law and a very literal interpretation of the Torah, and so their hearts were not opened to revelations of the Kingdom of God.  This is also a warning for us post-Enlightenment Christians and are penchant for reading the Bible only literally, always seeking sound bites, and trying to proof text everything.   When our approach to Scripture is limited in this way, we limit the power, beauty and creativity of God, and we miss the signs of the kingdom which are evident in the big picture of the parables, longer biblical passages and entire books of the Bible.

Next:  Part 2   The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13)

Christians: Merciful or Mercenaries?

If we obey in order to attain heaven, we are nothing but mercenaries; bounty hunters collecting our reward.   If we obey God only to avoid punishment and hell, we are nothing but fearful slaves.  God wants us to be loving children, with whom He can share His life and who are willing to share His love.

Christians have no problem believing about themselves:  “if Christ came to my home, I would honor and welcome him.” And no doubt would do it knowing that the Lord does so much more for us, He is powerful and saving, and to serve Him in the end is to my benefit.

But what if Christ comes to our house, and it was obvious that he was powerless – homeless, hungry, terminally ill, crippled, begging, or suffering from a debilitating disease like MS?

Would I be so eager to minister to Him? Would I be eager to serve and minister to one who was weak, blind, lame, less powerful than I am? Would I gladly give my time and effort to one who is dependent on me and will take more of my time and energy away from me?    

That is what Christ asks us to do – to the least of His brothers and sisters.  If Christ comes to me and is debilitated, will I love him and be awed by him? Will I worship Him as king? If he is not beautiful to look at, but is repulsive, would I embrace Him?  (Isaiah 53)

If there is no obvious chance of reward, would I be so eager to serve Jesus? 

I think about the strange story of Balaam from Numbers 22-24. Balak offers Balaam a huge sum of money to consult with God and then to curse the Israelites. God tells Balaam to go ahead and do what Balak requests, but then along the way God sends His angel to confront Balaam and is angry with Balaam. The angel of the Lord speaks to Balaam through his donkey. The story is strange because God told Balaam to go with Balak but then is angry with Balaam for going and threatens to kill Balaam.

Why is God angry with Balaam for doing what God told Balaam to do?   I think it has to do with Balak’s offer of a huge sum of money to Balaam. Balaam is told by God, go with Balak. Balaam is no doubt thinking, this is great, not only will I do what God wants but I’m going to get rich for doing it! But God confronts Balaam in his thinking – you are to go with Balak, and you are to tell him what I say to you, but you have mixed motives, you want the money. God is warning Balaam, don’t do my will in order to get rich. As it turns out Balaam does obey God. Balaam goes and tells Balak what God has said. This angers Balak because its not what he wants to hear; in the end Balak refuses to pay Balaam a penny.

Balaam does what God wants and speaks exactly what God tells him to speak.  Balaam actually did what Balak wanted him to do, but Balak is not happy with Balaam for speaking God’s word, rather than saying what Balak wanted him to say and was paying him to say.  Balaam gets nothing for his efforts, though he did God’s will.  There is no reward for him. 

So each Christian must ask him or her self:  Am I so willing to obey God even if I get nothing in return? Am I so willing to love Christ even if He comes to me weak, powerless, released from prison, mentally retarded, downtrodden, disease ridden, begging for money or disabled by MS?

Leadership Lessons from the Apostle Paul

I’ve decided to read a little more about the Apostle Paul during this Year of St. Paul

I would encourage everyone to take a look at the information about St. Paul available at http://www.stpaulsirvine.org/html/saintpaul.html.

 From the book PASSIONATE VISIONARY: LEADERSHIP LESSONS FROM THE APOSTLE PAUL by R. S. Ascough and C. Cotton, I gleaned the following:

“…transactional managers – people in authority who have the power and influence to keep the status quo afloat into the future.  In times of change, we want transformational leaders rather than transactional managers.” 

The notion that the world constantly undergoes change is a truth recognized in Orthodoxy which affirms that God alone is changeless.  But Orthodoxy by its nature is conservative and traditionalist.   It resists the whirlwinds of change that sweep human society.  Nevertheless it needs leaders who can cope with the changing demands of the world in which the Church exists.   It is painfully obvious that at many points in its history the leadership of the Orthodox church was almost petrified as the world went through tremendous change and upheaval.  Unlike the early apostles, missionaries and apologists of Christianity, modern Orthodox bishops certainly have been far more transactional managers than transformational leaders.  While this helps preserve the faith in times of upheaval, sometimes, as in the case of the current OCA scandal, the episcopal leadership has been preserved like a mummy – preserving even its problems in perpetuity.  Admittedly the book embraces constant change as both always normative and always good,  but this is a modern American assumption.  Some change can be change for the worse.  But the condition of no change better describes a corpse than the Body of Christ.

“Transformational leaders such as Paul challenge people to change and grow, to look at the world in new ways.  This is rarely a smooth journey, since the status quo tends to have a stronger hold on the imagination and heart than any exciting vision of the future.”

Unfortunately, bishops are by office and by personality conservative and preserving people.  They are not the creative people who can bring about needed change or who can help others appropriately deal with change.  The OCA is undergoing a transformation, and needs to, but the bishops are least suited to lead this task.

“That is why leaders who talk about new ways of seeing, being and doing must adopt an encouraging leadership style if they care about their followers. (The alternative is to manipulate people based on their fears and anxieties.)  … Transformational leaders do not offer inducements or manipulative tokens; rather, they seek to energize and inspire others through passion, vision, personal values and reciprocal commitments.  In short, they seek to transform others.  This sounds a lot like Paul.”

The book says that there are “Four Competencies” of leadership:

  • 1) To understand and practice appreciation of others.
  • 2) To remind others of what is important.
  • 3) To generate and sustain trust.
  • 4) To form an intimate alliance between leaders and led.

We Repent Because We have Been Forgiven

Archbishop Job’s letter to Mark Stokoe on OCANews.org and admission is a good reminder that forgiveness is not granted because it is deserved.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are grace, freely given.
 
St. Paul reminds us of this truth in Romans 5:6-10  –  “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
 
We by our lives and deeds are/were weak, ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God. Christ died for us anyway.  He didn’t wait for our metanoia, change of heart, repentance.  We are not forgiven by God because we deserve it.  God’s love toward us is His action toward us not His reaction to us.
 
Knowing we are forgiven, makes it possible and inviting for us to repent.  The failure to repent, to confess one’s sin and fault, to ask forgiveness, stems from a lack of faith in God’s forgiveness and mercy, as well as from an unwillingness to humble one’s self and be a disciple of the Savior.  A failure to repent stems from a failure to accept God’s forgiveness and a refusal to believe in efficacy of the Savior’s crucifixion. 
 
Archbishop Job’s humbling repentance and seeking forgiveness shows him to be a disciple of the Crucified Lord, and worthy of the office of bishop, a rule of faith as we sing in the tropar for a holy bishop – a model for us to emulate.
 
Our forgiveness is offered to the repentant Archbishop, not because he deserves to receive it, but because He admits to being weak, a sinner, ungodly and an enemy of God, and seeks our forgiveness.  He repents not to manipulate us into doing something, but only to humble himself and set the record straight.  And we who have experienced the free gift of salvation through Christ’s death on the cross, know we are to love a repentant father and brother, because we were loved while we were yet sinners, and as our Lord has loved us (John 13:34, 15:12). 

Civil Forum Looks at Barack Obama and John McCain

For those wanting to take a fresh look at John McCain and Barack Obama, I would suggest you watch the Civil Forum which Rick Warren of Saddleback Church led this past week.   I think some of the questions Rick Warren asked are excellent questions, and a good way to get some sense of what each man would bring to the White House.    You can watch the Civil Forum interviews with the two presidential candidates :

Forum Part 1:

http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/08/16/warren.forum/#cnnSTCVideo

Once you get to the Part 1 of the Forum, you can see the links to all  parts of the Forum.

The Kingdom of God is at hand: Jesus reaches out to Peter

Gospel for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost 2008:            (Matthew 14:22-34)

Then he 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.” [28] 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.

This sermon is a follow up on last Sunday’s sermon, The disciples’ Private Picnic. Last week if you recall Jesus and the disciples were tired and wanted to escape to a deserted place to be by themselves.  The disciples apparently had packed a little picnic with which to surprise Jesus –  5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.  But when they got to their wilderness beach retreat the crowds like the paparazzi had guessed where they were headed and beat them to the beach using a land route.  So when Jesus and the disciples come ashore at what they think is going to be a deserted place, a large crowd is waiting for them.

The crowd who crashes their private picnic is not like Aunt Sue , Uncle Jim and your four cousins.   For it is 5000 men who show up besides the women and children!  This is like the first Woodstock, with people coming not for a concert, but to be hear Jesus teach.  In the time of Jesus 5000 men plus women and children would have been an entire fair sized town.

And you remember the disciples’ problem – they eventually get hungry and want Jesus to send the crowd away so that the crowd can go buy food for themselves.  Meanwhile the disciples are hoping to show Jesus their little surprise – they have brought along a little food, just enough for themselves.

Our Lord Jesus has other ideas and tells the disciples to feed the crowd which makes the disciples incredulous, but that is exactly what happens.  Jesus takes the food the disciples brought and by praying over it, miraculously multiplies the food so that everyone has more than enough to eat.  And as it turns out it is the disciples who have to distribute the food to the thousands of people sitting there waiting to be served.  And so the disciples learn a significant lesson about being leaders in the kingdom of God – their role is to serve the people, to feed and nurture and care for the people of God before they feed themselves.

And they see the sign of the kingdom of God, that it is not by their strength and preparation alone that God’s Kingdom breaks into the world.  They realize they also are there to serve their Master.  And they learn humility, and generosity and charity all in one lesson.

At the end of the day, there are 12 baskets full of food leftover – just enough for each disciple to get to take one basketful home with him. They are overwhelmed with the abundance, as if they were in Paradise. 

Jesus sends the disciples off in their boat, stomachs full and now the boat is full too of all of this blessed food.  All in all the day didn’t turn out so bad.  They were fed, it didn’t cost them anything, the crowd was very pleased, and they had plenty of food left for the next day.   The Kingdom of Heaven is a blessing indeed.

Jesus waves to the disciples as they disembark, and he stays behind to dismiss the crowd.  The crowd is an interesting phenomenon itself.  5000 men besides their families came to this wilderness place, all to hear Jesus.  They gave up their day’s work and routine to follow Christ.  This is not insignificant in a subsistence culture where one has to work every day in order to be fed.  But here they give up pursuing the things of this world in order to hear about the Kingdom of God, and for this they are richly rewarded, for Jesus feeds all of them.  And he does it purely to give them a sign, a hint about what the Kingdom of God is really like.

And we know Jesus wasn’t mainly a miracle worker, but the Messiah.  And we know this because if Jesus was mostly a miracle worker and could so easily feed the masses, he could have opened up a wilderness resort restaurant right on that spot and the masses would have come every day to be fed, not 5000 but 500,000. 

But Jesus’ miracle was a sign of the coming Kingdom, a foretaste of God’s blessings.  And certainly in Jesus’ own teachings He makes it clear that people should not seek Him just to have their bellies filled with food, but should look beyond the miracle and the food, to what secret and hidden power the miracle refers:  The Kingdom of God!

Meanwhile the overfed disciples are having a rough time of it at sea, and that is where we return to them.  The wind is blowing hard against them and they can’t make progress toward their destination.  It is now past 3am and they are still at sea, and no doubt feeling a lot less secure about this  Kingdom of God thing, for what good does it do to have 12 baskets full of food if your boat can’t make it to land, or if the weather threatens to swamp the boat?    Worse yet, it is Jesus who sent them off into this storm and He chose not to come with them.  And then suddenly their worst fears are realized, for not only is the weather against them, but suddenly they see a ghost walking on water, a sign of sure doom, death is stalking them.

And the fact that the Messiah provided food for them becomes much less important as they realize that despite the signs of the Kingdom, disaster can still strike, and they are not protected from every single threat the world has to offer.  They are blessed by God’s Kingdom, but still living in this unpredictable, fallen and hostile world.  And in this world they have to work hard to survive – in this world even receiving from God’s hand a banquet does not magically protect  one from danger, nor does it mean that we no longer have to work or worry in this world. The Kingdom of God is real, but so are the problems which come with living in a fallen world. 

And it turns out it is no ghost stalking them, but it is their Lord and Master walking on the stormy, turbulent sea.   He does not stop them from having to work hard, nor from having to worry about threats to their existence.  But he once again in an unpredictable way gives them another sign of the Kingdom of heaven.  That Kingdom is coming but is not here yet, and Peter wishing to experience the blessedness of that Kingdom is not yet ready to live in it as he is far too threatened by this world.

And in this world of the kingdom of God, Peter is saved even if shaken by the events, and the disciples recognize that Christ is somehow bringing that Kingdom to them, as He enters their boat, they realize the kingdom of God is very different than they might have envisioned it.  And the Kingdom of  Heaven is not cheap or to be taken lightly, for it is a matter of life and death.

Even when we experience the Kingdom of God breaking into our lives, and when we are filled with the blessed food – the Holy Body and Blood of our Savior – we are not spared the stormy troubles of life.  And sometimes Jesus sends us into these storms, and we feel left alone, and sometimes in these storms we are confronted by our worst fears – our demons and ghosts which haunt us.  But the blessings of the Kingdom of God are real, as real as the storms of life.  We are promised salvation by the Savior, but we are not told that we will be spared the storms of life.   And sometimes we walk in faith onto the stormy water, but the storm is more real and threatening than the kingdom of God and we begin to sink and we cry to the Savior for help.

Indeed, at every liturgy, when we say the petitions of the litany and cry, “Lord have mercy!”  We are taking on the role of the Apostle Peter in the midst of the storm and asking God’s mercy not just for us in the ship of salvation but for the entire world.

What Bush Got: Right or What Bush Got? Right

Since blogging is a way to express opinions and have an exchange of ideas, I thought I would mention the cover story for Newsweek 18/25 August 17, 2008 What Bush Got Right by Fareed Zakaria.  Through the years of the Bush administration, I have read a couple of opinion pieces by Zakaria which I thought were insightful in their criticisms of the administration’s foreign policy.  Though President Bush continues to ride very low in American opinion polls, Zakaria offers some thoughts about how his administration has actually changed and in some cases reversed its foreign policy as well as how it decides to handle foreign nations.  This is no panegyric, and it will not please the one-third of Americans who still like President Bush, but it should give some hope to those who have felt discouraged by the administration’s policies’ failures. 

 Zakaria thinks to some extent the low opinion polls on the President reflect the fact that Americans continue to react to the administration based on its past/early performance and mistakes rather than on its current efforts and initiatives.   Zakaria thinks the Bush administration has moved in a good direction and that is now bearing some fruit in Iraq, in China and in other places in the world.   Zakaria makes the point that when Bush came into office there was such a negative feeling toward the Clinton administration that Bush simply tried to reverse Clinton initiatives without making any effort to understand why these policies were being followed.   Ideologically driven leaders often are blinded to the realities around them as they see and interpret the world through their ideological lenses and not allowing other points of view to enter into their deliberations.  (This is something that numerous “former administration officials” have pointed out in a spate of books they have been publishing since leaving office).  Zakaria warns the presidential candidates this year not to make the same mistake.  Change may be needed, but do not blind yourself to the good currently being done, nor to the good changes the current administration has made over the last several years.  Zakaria who has been a Bush critic takes the time to mention some of the things that President Bush has done right.   He explains at the end of the article why, and in so doing offers sage advice to the next man (sorry Hilary) who will be president of the United States:

“So why offer this corrective? Because we cannot go back to 2001. The next president will inherit the world as it is in 2009. He will have to examine the Bush administration’s policies as they stand in January 2009-not as they were in 2001 or 2002 or 2003-and decide how to accept, modify and alter them. There was a U.S. president who came into office convinced that everything his predecessor had done was feckless, stupid, ill-informed and venal. He rejected and tried to reverse everything that he could, almost as an article of faith. Before he had even examined the policies carefully, he knew that they had to be changed. The base of his party was delighted by his clarity and fighting spirit.

That president, of course, was George W. Bush. His decision to blindly repudiate anything associated with Bill Clinton is what got us into this mess in the first place. Let’s hope that the next president, no matter how much he despises Bush, will take a careful look at his administration’s policies, America’s interests, and the world beyond and do the right thing for the country and its future.

Bottom line for the next president: if you don’t like the way President Bush handled foreign policy, don’t repeat his mistake and simply repudiate your predecessor; rather, learn from how he did things and what he did and if possible make better choices.    Or, ideology is only a short step away from idiotology.  If you stand in the shadow cast by your own ideology, remember you are in the dark.  Finally, do not demonize your predecessor, or you will become like him in how you make your mistakes.

Peace at any Price Vs. Peace that is Priceless

Reading the news this morning  ( 16 August 16, 2008) was depressing to me.  The New York Times: No Cold War, But Big Chill Over Georgia.  On the Times Opinion page:  The New Chill.   Both articles see America as turning away from the past 20 years of American Presidents hoping to work with Russia to form a new alliance for world peace.   Military conflict forever seems more imminent than any peace conflict could ever deliver to earth.

I feel a kinship with President Dwight Eisenhower who in his famous anti-military/industrial complex farewell address said:

“Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war — as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years — I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.”

It seems like the nations of the world cannot live at peace.  And though America is not at fault for the Russian invasion of Georgia, I am disappointed how quickly America embraces a fortress mentality and loves leaders who will saber rattle.  These days, Vice President Dick Cheney seems to be the chief architect of the fortress America mentality, and appears to see death threats as the best way for America to approach any other nation on earth.  Maybe he is right, but with all my heart, I hope he is not.    He may be the real pragmatist, but I do not feel better as an American because of his bluster.  Like President Eisenhower, Defense Secretary Dick Gates recently warned against the increased militarization of American foreign policy.  But it often seems we can’t resist the temptation to militarize, maybe because impatient Americans always want a quick fix to problems, and have difficulty forming long term foreign policy goals.  We have, so the experts say the best military in the world, but we act as if the military is the proverbial hammer – the only tool in our toolbox – so every problem looks like a nail which we must hit as hard as we can with our military hammer.  I wish our politicians would, when forced to turn to military threats also express regret for seeing the death of others as the means for our attaining our goals.  Our leaders seem to gloat over the chance to use the military to kill those who stand in the way of American progress.  (“Bring ‘em on,” said our current President in a cocky, swaggering mood).  Every election Americans seem interested most in electing a Commander in Chief, rather than concerned about electing the leader of the free world who would best work for the peace of the world.  Of course some would argue the two are one in the same, and peace cannot be had without a willingness to threaten war.  But really that sounds to me more like Isalm’s Dar al-Harb than like the Messianic Kingdom where swords are made into ploughshares.

It is discouraging for me, partly because of my pacifistic idealism, and partly because as a priest I pray for peace and in peace every single day of my life, and with my fellow Christians every time we assemble at a worship service and each time we proclaim the Gospel in the Orthodox Church.  And I take those prayers and the hopes they express to heart.

I do not believe a nation which wants to consider itself as Christian can have war as the only policy for attaining peace.  

Christ said,  “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,  bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either.  Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.  Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36).

Maybe Christ was too idealistic too.  Maybe that is why I love Him.  He did not advocate killing those who were against His message as the way to evangelize the world.  And yet I also admit He did not leave a detailed plan as to how a Christian people living in the fallen world might deal with the violent evil all around us.  And so we have to struggle along trying to discern what is the right course of action for Christians to take in endeavoring to proclaim, let alone establish, God’s peace on earth.

The Byzantine Christians appealed to the Theotokos for protection from enemy assault and relied on the righteous prayers of the saints as the means to propel their armies to victory over adversaries.  American rely on their military and belief in the righteousness of America to assure victory over enemies.  But maybe we sometimes confuse military victory with peace.   Is it possible that in the world one could establish peace without killing one’s enemies?  Jesus seemed to think so.

Abraham Lincoln is variously quoted as having said,  “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?”    and “The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend.”

“Do good to your friends to keep them, to your enemies to win them,” said Benjamin Franklin.

More recently Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.” 

As for me, I will continue to pray for the peace of the world, and will hold to the ideal that sometime, somewhere that will be done without the use of the military – without having to kill others first – but by people willing to live the Gospel of Christ, which also means willing to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  The truth about this world is it is not Paradise, and so warfare – spiritual for every Christian soul, and military for some remains the price we pay for our sinfulness.

Christ Conquers Hell – Even Those of our own Making

 Where shall I go from your Spirit?
   Or where shall I flee from your presence?
 If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!   (Psalm 139:7-8)

A frequently asked question is “What is hell?”   Some think it a place of physical torture of sinners, others believe it to be a state of being (perhaps self created).  Whatever it may be, Christianity affirms that Christ our God has conquered it, in order to submit it to the will, love and lordship of God. 

As St. John Chrysostom says in his famous Paschal Sermon

The One Who was the Prisoner of Death has utterly destroyed it;
the One Who descended to Hades took it captive. …

So, Death, where is your sting?
So, Hades, where is your victory?

CHRIST IS RISEN, and you are overthrown!
CHRIST IS RISEN, and the demons have fallen!
CHRIST IS RISEN and the angels rejoice!
CHRIST IS RISEN and life takes command!
CHRIST IS RISEN, and not a single corpse remains in the grave!

John Chryssavgis writes in his book , BEYOND THE SHATTERED IMAGE:

“Our joyful optimism lies in the conviction that there is no place devoid of God.

Hell- that is to say, the place where God is not- can only be created as a result of an estrangement between our world and God.  If we hold on to the earth and the fullness thereof (Psalm 91:1), then everything (even death and destruction) is a ferment of divine life, the air itself (no matter how polluted) is vibrant with the Spirit.  Beyond the shattered image, there always lies the reflection of the divine reality that has no end and the re-presentation of the vision of God that knows no darkness.  This faith alone can transform evil and pain, while disclosing a loving purpose beyond suffering and isolation.”   

The very icon of Christ descending into Sheol/Hades is one which depicts Christ filling all things, even that region of outer darkness and death so that there is indeed no place where God is not.  (Ephesians 4:9)  And humanly speaking, this means that where ever we are – even in a state of despair, place of pain, the darkest reaches of our minds and when we feel totally forsaken – no place is beyond the reach and presence of God.  That is a truth to give us hope in times and places when we seem unable to believe. 

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? … For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord”  (Romans 8:35, 38-39).

The Dormition of the Theotokos: Death No Longer Has Dominion

The Icon of the Feast of the Dormition gives us some understanding of this commemoration of the death of the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary.  The Dormition is one of the Twelve Major Feasts of the Orthodox Calendar Year.  In many versions of the Icon we see Christ holding His Mother, or the soul of the Theotokos, in a pose so similar to icons of the Blessed Virgin holding the Christ Child.  The image is one based in the notion that all of us who have been baptized into Christ have died with Him and have been raised with Him from the dead.   The Feast of the Dormition is taking Romans 6 and applying it to the Theotokos, which in turn helps us to understand our own life in Christ.  Death no longer has any dominion over us.   The Dormition Icon portrays this truth:  death has become for us nothing more than a new birth into the life in Christ, into the life where death has no more power.  Mary the birth giver of life, who brought Christ into this world, is also born again into the new life in Christ, and in this she prefigures all believers.   The Dormition Icon shows the result of living the blessed life: Mary, as a model for all Christians, doesn’t simply die, she is translated to life: the life with Her Son in His Kingdom.   The Feast of the Dormition affirms that the Resurrection of Christ is Good News for us all.   As we sing at the Feast: “Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos, who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions. For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!”   Death has been transformed by Christ into a new birth, a passage to eternal life.  And the Virgin Mary’s death becomes for us the very image of Christ destroying death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.