Why do we come to church?

Second Sunday of Great Lent        Gospel:  Mark 2:1-12

And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was    reported that he was at home. And many were    gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are  forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts,   “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you  question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the  paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” -he said to the paralytic-“I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out  before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”  

 Sermon Notes for 2/28/2010: 

1)     The story reminds me also of the healing of the blind man in John 9.  There is a concern about about sin and its relationship to sickness and healing, but the healing does lead to the glory of God.  Additionally there is totally disbelief on part of the religious authorities who challenge Jesus’ ability to heal even though they witness the fact.

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  (John 9:1-3)

 The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”   (John 9:30-33)

2)    The illness leads to the glory of God and the destruction of sins.

For ourselves – how can we turn our own illnesses, sorrows and sufferings so that they too come to be to the glory of God and the destruction of sins?   We can do it by bringing them to God, seeking restoration to and reconciliation with God as well as forgiveness and healing through our own repentance.

3)    We can ask ourselves as we sit in church today, why have we come to Christ today?     Why do we come to church at all?  Why are we here?

In the Gospel lesson, there is a huge group of people crowding around Christ.  Why are they there?  To be taught, to be forgiven, to be healed?  Apparently not.   This one group of 4 men carrying their paralyzed friend have come with a specific purpose in mind.  They could have stayed at home and heard from their friends what Jesus said.  But they want to be in the presence of Christ – they want Christ to notice their friend and do something for him.  They come to Christ so that their friend might be healed.  MIRACULOUSLY  he receives the forgiveness of his sins.

The religious leaders were not looking for the forgiveness of their sins – not for themselves, nor for the people they were leading.  They are astounded and angry when Christ pronounces the forgiveness of sins.  So why were they there?  Very reminiscent of Ezekiel 34:1-16:

The word of the LORD came to me: Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? … You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.   …  For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. …  I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the crippled, and I will strengthen the weak…”  

Do we come to feed ourselves and to be fed like the religious leaders of old?  Do we come bearing the burden of the sorrows and sicknesses of others, of the people we love,  to bring them to Christ,  so that they might be healed and forgiven?   Do we come so that we might be healed, strengthened and forgiven by God so that we can in turn take the Light of Christ to the world, to be the shepherds God wanted His people to be to the world?

Why come to the Physician and Healer of Souls and go away unforgiven, and unhealed?   Come to Christ to be healed and forgiven.  Come to Christ and received His miraculous gifts so that you can bear witness to the world about the love of God.

The High Priesthood of Jesus Christ

The Epistle for the Second Sunday of Great Lent:   Hebrews 4:14-5:6 :

Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  For every priest taken from among men is  appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins.  He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also beset by weakness.  Because of this he is required as for the    people, so also for himself, to offer for sins.  And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was.  So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: “You are My Son, today I have begotten You.”  As He also says in another place: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

Biblical scholar James Dunn in his book  THE PARTING OF THE WAYS (pp 117-119) writes:

“The genius of Hebrews’ schema is the author’s success in combining these two disparate views of reality.  He identifies the old age of Jewish eschatology with the Platonic view of this world of shadow and copy.  Whereas the new age of Jewish eschatology identified with Plato’s real, heavenly world.  Christ’s death marks the point at which the transition from old covenant to new took place, but also the transition from shadow to real, from earth to heaven.  … With Christ’s death and exaltation the old age, old covenant is past, the age expressed in Jewish cult; the new age, that is the reality for which it only prepared, has come.  The tabernacle/tent was only a shadow of the heavenly temple, of heaven, God’s dwelling place (Heb 8:5 – Ex 25:40); the Aaronic priesthood was only a shadow and preparation for the priesthood of Christ, a unique and unrepeatable priesthood, the order of Melchizedek ( Heb 7:3); the priestly sacrifices of the old covenant were only a foreshadowing of Christ’s death.  Where only the High Priest could enter into the Holy of Holies in the old age of Judaism (on the Day of Atonement), now Christ the High Priest has entered the heavenly Temple with the blood of his own sacrifice, and opened the way into the very presence of God for all believers…    In short, the reality of access to God, of conscience cleansed from sin, of Christ’s continuing priestly role, has made the Jewish cult wholly redundant. … Who remains satisfied with the shadow when the substance is present?  The message surely was clear enough: there is no further need of tabernacle or Temple, no need of sacrifice or priesthood; to go back to that … was to go back to the shadow, the inferior copy.  In particular, for the author of Hebrews, there is now only one who can properly be called ‘priest’ – Jesus himself.  His priesthood is a unique kind: he qualified for it by virtue of his resurrection…”  

See also Christ is the Holy Wisdom of God

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:11-12 (b)

See:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:11-12 (a) 

4:11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”


“cursed from the ground … When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”         When Adam was expelled from Paradise he lost the abundance of the fruit of the Garden of Delight and was forced to return to the earth to till the ground in order to receive the fruit of it.  Cain’s punishment is even more severe for now the ground is cursing him and will resist his agricultural effort and he will be forced to become nomadic.  As a result of sin humans have lost wholeness and wholesomeness with separation and alienation causing humans to be at enmity with the very soil from which they were originally created (Genesis 2).   Humans as holistic beings – at peace with the Divine and in harmony with nature – have been undone causing humans to experience a divide between the spiritual and the physical that was not originally part of God’s creation or plan.  The story also picks up on another theme found in the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise – alienation and exile.  Sin causes humans to lose any sense of “home” and causes them to be exiles everywhere on the earth, endlessly searching and restlessly searching for what they have lost.  This will become a main biblical theme in the Book of Exodus with the Jews in search of a homeland.  The theme of exile is an integral part of Jewish spirituality, which Orthodoxy picks up during Great Lent when we sing Psalm 137:  “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”  How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?”   (Ps 137:1-4)     Christianity embraces the theme of exile further expanding it to include all of humanity in search of a homeland.  (They)… “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.  For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:13-16). Additionally in Christian imagery the entire earth is a foreign land and even Jerusalem itself becomes a mere shadow of the true Jerusalem which is a heavenly reality.  Christians see all of humanity as being restless in this world as they search for God’s homeland which is beyond this world.   “For Christians are distinguished from the rest of men neither by country nor by language nor by customs. For nowhere do they dwell in cities of their own; they do not use any strange form of speech or practice a singular mode of life…but while they dwell in both Greek and barbarian cities, each as his lot was cast, and follow the customs of the land in dress and food and other matters of living, they show forth the remarkable and admittedly strange order of their own citizenship. They live in fatherlands of their own but as aliens. They share all things as citizens and suffer all things as strangers. Every foreign land is their fatherland and every fatherland a foreign land” (Epistle to Diognetus, ca 150 AD).   St. John Chrysostom has a related thought:  “For the person who says ‘I am a Christian’ has revealed both their country and family history and occupation.  Let me explain how.  The Christian does not have a city on earth, but the Jerusalem in heaven.  ‘For the heavenly Jerusalem, which is our mother,’ scripture says, ‘is free’ (Gal 4:26).  The Christian doesn’t have an earthly occupation, but arrives at the heavenly way of life.  ‘Our citizenship,’ scripture says, ‘is in heaven’ (Phil 3:20).  The Christian has as relatives and fellow citizens all the saints.  ‘We are fellow citizens of the saints,’ scripture says, ‘and God’s own’ (Eph 2:19)”  (TCOTS, p 72).

Next:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:13-15 (a)

Great Lent: Season for Repentance

“For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”   (Romans 5:15-17)

“…whereas Adam’s sin allowed death to usurp the reign of man over the world, the work of Jesus Christ has restored ‘those who receive the abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness to their proper role as truly human beings.  Thus the contrasts between Adam and Christ in (Rom 5) vv. 15-17 show that the task of the last Adam was not merely to begin something new, but to deal with the problem of the old; not merely to give life, but to deal with death. …  the realization that God’s anointed had died on a cross, not as the result of a horrible accident but as the paradoxical and unexpected revelation of the righteous of God …  (Christ’s) role was that of obedience, not merely in place of disobedience but in order to undo that disobedience.”  (N.T. Wright, THE CLIMAX OF THE COVENANT,  p 38)

GREAT LENT is an entire season of the year in which we contemplate our separateness and alienation from God. REPENTANCE is the very way back to God, it is our sojourn to recover what we lost through our own sins.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: 

“Therefore, the whole of the Church is at the same time the gift of forgiveness, the joy of the ‘world to come,’ and also and inescapably a constant repentance.  The feast is impossible without the fast, and the fast is precisely repentance and return, the saving experience of sadness and exile.  The Church is the gift of the Kingdom—yet it is this very gift that makes obvious our absence from the Kingdom, our alienation from God.  It is repentance that takes us again and again into the joy of the Paschal banquet, but it is the joy which reveals to us our sinfulness and puts us under judgment.  The sacrament of penance is not, therefore, a sacred and juridical ‘power’ given by God to men.  It is the power of baptism as it lives in the Church.  From baptism it receives its sacramental character.  In Christ all sins are forgiven once and for all, for He is Himself the forgiveness of sins, and there is no need for any ‘new’ absolution.  But there is indeed the need for us who constantly leave Christ and excommunicate ourselves from His life, to return to Him, to receive again and again the gift which in Him has been given once and for all.  And the absolution is the sign that this return has taken place and has been fulfilled. … the sacrament of penance is not a repetition of baptism, but our return to the ‘newness of life’ which God gave to us once and for all.”  (FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD, p 79)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:11-12 (a)

See:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:9-10 (b)

4:11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength; you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”

“cursed from the ground…”   Humans who were made from the ground in Genesis 2 have a very close connection to the earth (Adam – the first man is taken from the earth – Hebrew: adamah).  Cain’s murdering his brother has even cut his connection with the earth from which he was made.  The effects of the Fall on humanity are worsening, and the alienation between humanity and the rest of creation is widening.   In Genesis 1 God blesses the human, but now for the first time the human is cursed – cursed by the ground from which he came. 

At one point, Chrysostom argued that Cain’s sin is even worse than Adam’s. 

“…understand how much greater this sin was than the transgression of the first formed human being.  In that case, remember, he said, ‘Cursed shall be the soil as you till it,’ and it was on the earth he poured out the curse, to show his care for the human being, whereas in this case, where the crime was deadly, the outrage lawless and the deed unpardonable, he receives the curse in person: ’You shall be cursed from the earth,’ the text says, remember.  You see, since Cain perpetrated practically the same evil as the serpent, which like an instrument served the devil’s purposes, and as the serpent introduced mortality by means of deceit, in like manner Cain deceived his brother, led him out into open country, raised his hand in armed assault against him and committed murder.  Hence, as he said to the serpent, ‘Cursed are you beyond all the wild animals of the earth,’ so to Cain, too, when he committed the same evil as the serpent.  In other words, just as the devil was moved by hatred and envy, being unable to bear the ineffable kindnesses done the human being right from the outset, and under the impulse of hatred rushed headlong into the deception that introduced death, so too Cain saw the Lord kindly disposed to his brother, and under the impulse of hatred rushed headlong into murder.”  (HOMILIES ON GENESIS 18-45, TFOTC Vol 82, pp 27-28

In calling Cain’s sin equivalent to the serpent’s deception, Chrysostom is also revealing that he does not embrace a strict  “original sin” theology which would condemn all humans as a result of what Adam did.  To some extent Chrysostom is saying each of us has to answer for our own sins, not for the sins of our ancestors.  He also is saying that each sin will be judged by God based on the evil which is done by that person.  In this sense Adam must answer for Adam’s sin just like each of us will be judged for our own sins, not for the sin of Adam even though we do receive a mortal nature as a result of the original sin.  St. Basil the Great said, “Do not go beyond yourself to seek for evil, and imagine that there is an original nature of wickedness.  Each of us, let us acknowledge it, is the first author of his own vice.”   The Greek Fathers did not hold to the notion of original sin that became so prevalent in Western Christian thinking.

“…a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.”  Though today humans think of the earth as their home, in Genesis there is always a degree to which humans must recognize that there is no true homeland on earth, as the human homeland is Paradise from which we have been exiled.  We are all sojourners on this earth.   Cain serves as a prototype for all humans whose sins will forever cause them to feel like and to be homeless wanderers.   Cain is forced to become a nomad – this is an interesting detail as generally it is assumed by anthropologists that humans moved in the opposite direction from being nomadic to becoming sedentary.  In the Genesis account it Abel as shepherd would have had the more nomadic life when compared to Cain the farmer.  Now Cain’s life is nomadic because it is cursed.  Nomads are not all rejected by God, since Abel’s offering was more acceptable to God than the sedentary Cain’s farm produce.   It does seem that God had more regard for the pastoral way of life than for that of the farmer.  Indeed David the shepherd who becomes God’s favored king, and Jesus the Good Shepherd carry this theme throughout the Bible.  

“fugitive and wanderer…”    St. Makarios of Egypt (4th-5th Century AD) offered a figurative interpretation of Cain’s punishment.  He writes that Cain is the image of every one of us who sins.  “For the race of Adam, having broken the commandment and become guilty of sin, is shaken by restless thoughts, full of fear, cowardice and turmoil.  Every soul not reborn in God is tossed hither and thither by the desires and multifarious pleasures of the enemy, and whirled about like corn in a sieve.”   St. Markarios obviously thought believers were much more stable and didn’t suffer such inner turmoil. 

Next:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:11-12 (b)

My Brother, For Whom Christ Died

Though it is true that Christ died for my sins, He did not die for me alone, but for the entire world.  He brought all of humanity into a right relationship with God, simultaneously making each of our fellow Christians our brothers and sisters.  Christ died for our brothers and sisters, and we are to live for them, and love them as if they each are Christ.  Archbishop Anthony Bloom in BEGINNING TO PRAY writes about the true nature of Christian love: 

John 13:34

So often when we say ‘I love you’ we say it with a huge ‘I’ and a small ‘you’.  We use love as a conjunction instead of it being a verb implying action.  It’s no good just gazing out into open space hoping to see the Lord; instead we have to look closely at our neighbour, someone whom God has willed into existence, someone whom God has died for.  Everyone we meet has a right to exist, because he has value in himself, and we are not used to this.  To recognize the other’s right to be himself might mean recognizing his right to kill me.  But if we set a limit to his right to exist, it’s no right at all.  Love is difficult.  Christ was crucified because he taught a kind of love which is a terror for me, a love which demands total surrender: it spells death. … If we turn to God and come face to face with him, we must be prepared to pay the cost.  If we are not prepared to pay the cost, we must walk through life being a beggar, hoping someone else will pay.  But if we turn to God we discover that life is deep, vast and immensely worth living.”

Christ in dying for even the least of His brothers and sisters – your and my brothers and sisters! – reverses the work of the murderer Cain who challenged God saying, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9)   Christ proves himself to be both brother and keeper of humankind.   Christ does not kill His enemy let alone His brother, but rather dies for His brother and His enemy.  To imitate Christ means to make life-giving choices and to honor the sanctity of all human life.  This is the depth of brotherly love.

See additional comments on the concept of “brother” at https://frted.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/god-questions-his-creation-genesis-49-10-a/

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:9-10 (b)

See:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:9-10 (a)

4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

“your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground…”

   If Cain believed he could hide his sin from God, the story has his crime being exposed by his brother’s blood crying from the ground.  If God had decided to stay out of the picture and give free reign to human and thus Cain’s free will, Abel’s blood demands justice, and God will not ignore the cry of Abel’s blood.   If God respects human free will, the murdered man’s blood demands action from God, and God for the sake of the blood and the ground chooses not to ignore what Cain had done. 

In the book of Revelations we have this imagery:  “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?”    (Revelations 6:9-10)      While Abel’s blood cries from the earth to God, in the New Testament, the blood of the crucified Christ which is shed for the life of the world speaks of forgiveness for humanity.  “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel”  (Hebrews 12:24).  An interesting phrase that blood has a voice – a prefiguring of Christ’s own blood saving us?  

“The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.”    The ground was cursed as a result of Adam’s sin, but now it is defiled and made unclean by Abel’s blood being shed upon it. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23).  The earth which God fashioned into a living being now receives back the body and blood of one of God’s creations.  The consequence of Adam’s sin and curse is now fulfilled for the first time and the human surely dies and returns to the dust from which he was fashioned, despite the serpent’s promise that this wouldn’t happen (Genesis 3:4).  There is no discussion of the soul or of life after death.  The earth has simply swallowed Abel’s blood (“the ground… has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood…”).  Biblical physiology has the life of the person being in the blood. 

Next:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:11-12 (a)

Matins Texts of The Expulsion of Adam & Eve (1)

In this series of blogs I will be quoting and commenting on hymns from the Sunday before Great Lent begins which commemorates the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.   The first blog in the series was entitled The Expulsion of Adam & Eve from Paradise (Hymns).  The blog immediately preceding this one is Vesper Texts of The Expulsion of Adam & Eve (4)

In CANTICLE ONE of the Canon for the Sunday commemorating the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise we encounter the familiar theme that Adam’s sinning did not just open his eyes to his nakedness but actually stripped him of the  glorious garments with which God had originally clothed him.

Come today, my wretched soul; weep over your deeds,

remembering how once you were stripped naked in Eden

and cast out from delight and unending joy.

The Canon is Adam’s lamentation as he sits outside the gates of Paradise sorrowfully considering what he has lost through sin.  The Canon however will change voice and person, sometimes it is Adam speaking and sometimes the narrator is talking to Adam, but in a play on images, it is also clear in the text that the speaker is also each of us.  Adam speaks for us all as the prototypical first human being.  Adam’s story is our story, and the story of the Fall is not ancient history but is the ongoing story of each of us to this day.

We each have fallen from grace and soiled the divine image of God which was impressed upon each of us when we were brought into being.  We each need to repent of our misdeeds – Adam’s regret will not bring about our salvation.  Adam can’t repent for each of us, but we can learn from his repentance about how we each need to approach God and weep for what our sins have done to others and to ourselves.

In the wealth of Your goodness, Creator and Lord,

You planted in Eden the sweetness of Paradise,

and bade me take my delight

in fair and pleasant fruits that never pass away.

An interesting image in the Canon:  the pleasant fruits of God’s planted Garden in Eden themselves never pass away.  Does this imply that immortality extended to all creation not just to human souls, or to all living things including the fruit of the garden?  Or is the text speaking metaphorically and spiritually about the fruits of the garden – they were not empirical realities but spiritual ones?  The sense of God creating one original good world (Paradise) for the humans to live in and then casting them out into the evil fallen world is more of a non-Jewish (Babylonian) one than a biblical one.  Israel was convinced the world we live in was made by the good Creator and is good itself.  But Genesis does not directly address any issue of immortality – not of humans let alone of the rest of the created order.   St. John Chrysostom does say however that the threat of death from God to Adam should he eat of the fruit of the Forbidden Tree makes no sense if Adam was going to die anyway.  So perhaps in a roundabout way the text suggests humans were meant to be immortal beings.

Woe to you, my wretched soul!

You received authority from God

to take your pleasure in the joys of Eden,

but He commanded you not to eat the fruit of knowledge.

Why have you transgressed the law of God?

The voice and perspective of the canon hymns can be either Adam’s or anyone of us and it can be both.  We inhabit not a perfect paradise, but a fallen world which is the source of much grief for humanity.  Yet God loves the world and sees it as redeemable and savable.  The world is not totally depraved.   The first canticle concludes by moving away from Adam to looking at one of his descendents, Mary, the Theotokos.

You are a daughter of Adam by descent, Virgin Theotokos,

but by grace the Mother of Christ our God.

I am an exile from Eden:

Call me back again.

There is hope for humanity for humans are capable of working synergistically with God for the salvation of the world as well as their own souls.

Next: Matins Texts of the Expulsion of Adam & Eve (2)

God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:9-10 (a)

See:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:8 (d)

4:9 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the LORD said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.

“Where is Abel your brother?”   The Patristic Authors tended to see this question, like the one posed to Adam (“Where are you?”), as God in His mercy inviting Cain to confess his sin.  Cain like his father will not confess or repent.    In his commentary on the story, Chrysostom moralizes that like God  we should never condemn a fellow Christian before asking questions and seeing evidence that proves their guilt. 

In the Divine Liturgy, before singing the Trisagion (“Holy God!  Holy Mighty!…”), the priest’s prayer says that God is one “who does not despise the sinner, but instead has appointed repentance unto salvation…”  God gives His people opportunity to confess their sins and to repent.   Cain will not avail himself this opportunity, but instead denies his brotherhood with Abel.  Similarly, Peter denies the Lord Jesus when Christ is on trial before Pilate, swearing, “I don’t know the man.”   

“brother”  –  a new concept in the Genesis story introduced with the births of Cain and Abel is that of brotherhood.  What are the responsibilities of a brother?  The brothers are not portrayed as doing all that much together and have different occupational interests.   God’s dialogue with Cain suggests brotherhood in fact means one is responsible for one’s brother.   Cain’s question denies his brotherhood with Abel.  The notion of brotherhood among all disciples is a key element in early Christian thinking.  Cain does not kill an enemy, he murders his only brother.  One need only think about Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) to see that for Jesus being a neighbor means to show mercy to another (10:36-37).  One would think that at a minimum that is required of being a brother to someone.

“…am I my brother’s keeper?”    Abel was the keeper of sheep.  Cain was not listed as keeper of anything.  Is Cain challenging God – “How should I know where he is? YOU are his keeper.  After all he is YOUR favorite, why don’t YOU know where he is?  Have You lost him?”

“…am I my brother’s keeper?”    Cain slyly (skillfully?) parries with God, question for question.  Does Cain hope God doesn’t know what actually happened and that he can avoid detection by deflecting the  question with a question?    Is Cain inventing a new human behavior – playing dumb?   Unlike his father Adam who blamed both Eve and God for his sin (Genesis 3:12), the polemical Cain cannot think who to blame.  God does not answer Cain, but flays him with a new question revealing that God is quite aware what has transpired.  God knows Abel is dead and he demands Cain to explain whether he (Cain) understands what he has done.   Is it possible that Cain didn’t really know what happened to his brother?   Cain had physically killed his brother, but perhaps he had no clue what happened to the breath/soul of his brother.  The idea of heaven or the place of the dead is not part of the narrative yet.   Maybe Cain felt ignorance of the true state of his brother gave him some excuse.  “I didn’t really know what would happen to my brother’s soul after death, so I can’t be responsible for what has occurred.”    Many a sinner tries a similar excuse – I didn’t intend for these  results to happen, I was only trying to….”  We do not want our sins to count if we never really intended them to do all the harm they do.   But the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), whether or not we intend death to occur.

 “your brother’s blood …”   The Ancients believed life was in the blood of a being.  This idea might be a contrast to life being  associated with breath (Genesis 2:7) or the notion of the soul/psyche/living being the center of life (also in 2:7).  Biblical imagery is richly varied and thus has a greater depth than the rather narrow thinking of pure literalism which wants only one possible meaning for any text.  But since in the ancient perspective “life is in the blood”, blood is basically synonymous with the soul.  It is Abel’s soul which cries out to God.  Hebrews 12:25 mentions Abel’s blood which speaks.  It is perhaps the first indication in Genesis of a life beyond/after death, and that the dead continue to exist and that at least the righteous dead can speak to God. In Genesis 3:19 when God sentenced the sinful Adam, He pronounced the words, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” – words oft repeated at Christian burial.   And while we may be dust, obviously that is not all we are, or the only thing we are.  For humans have both blood with life in it, and a soul.  And the blood of Abel cries from the ground showing that a human is more than dust even if he or she returns to dust at death.  The text does not assign any place to the dead Abel except for the ground which had absorbed his blood.  Eventually Judaism forms a notion of Sheol, the place of the dead which originally was conceived of as being somewhere beneath the surface of the earth.  Burial sends the dead on their journey to Sheol.  In early Jewish thinking,  Sheol had a purely shadowy existence and were not capable of doing anything, even praying to God (“For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in Sheol who can give thee praise?”   Psalm 6:5) because in Jewish anthropology a human needs his or her body to do anything and the dead were somehow separated from their bodies (“for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going”   Ecclesiastes 9:10).   Later Jewish thinking imagined the day when the dead would be reunited to their bodies in the resurrection – only then could they enter heaven.  The concept of Sheol changes over time, as belief in the resurrection of the dead grew in ancient Israel, from a shadowy emptiness to a place where the righteous dead can hope in God’s promised resurrection and eternal life. Late Judaism envisioned even God filling Sheol in the redeemed world.   “Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?  If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!” (Psalm 139:7-8)   For Christians God’s presence in Sheol is fulfilled in Jesus who through His death enters into Sheol and rescues all the dead beginning with Adam and Eve, an event memorialized in the icon of Holy Saturday.

Next:  God Questions His Creation: Genesis 4:9-10 (b)

Cultural Cognition: Why Talk Show Hosts Always Have an Audience

While in my car today I heard a story on NPR, “Belief in Climate Change Hinges on Worldview,” which piqued my interest.  Though the story began looking at the polarization of sides in the current climate debates, it turned its attention to The Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School which studies how people’s cultural identities shape their views on issues of fact.  One might say it is looking at the issue of why people hear what they want to hear in issues of dispute.  The project’s claimed goal is to study how in a democracy this human tendency to conform beliefs to one’s cultural identity can be dealt with so that public debate and discussion on polarizing issues is possible.   Even scientific facts presented to people often do not change their opinions because they adhere to the ideas of the groups they identify with.  “People tend to conform their factual beliefs to ones that are consistent with their cultural outlook, their world view.”   This should be a serious challenge to those “new atheists” who think that they can reshape humanity simply by offering scientific fact and logical arguments.  People will be people and will continue to believe what they want to believe – this is not something true only of religious people, it is a fact about humanity itself, atheists included. 

This also goes a long way in explaining why we have the political gridlock we have in government today.  “It doesn’t matter whether you show them negative or positive information, they reject the information that is contrary to what they would like to believe, and they glom onto the positive information.” People are not so much looking for the facts to shape their opinions as they are to hearing ideas (whether factual or farcical) which reinforce the opinions their cultural identity group already holds.   Sadly this means left and right winged talk show hosts will always have an eager audience needing someone to feed them what they want to hear.  And with the recent Supreme Court decision, political negative advertisers can rejoice that their targeted audiences will gleefully allow themselves to be fed any dirt they dish.

Those interested in trying to understand the issues or the sides around an issue are most liked only going to get buried by the bewildering blizzard of beliefs that the disputing sides hurl at each other.   Politicians of course learn (and are rewarded for!) how to keep repeating the (dis-)information their adherents want to hear.  It is the closing of the public’s mind based in cultural cognition.   [It probably also explains why some juries come to the verdicts they do dispite the evidence so obvious to others].

Scientists themselves need to learn from what the social sciences have come to realize about how people relate to and react to scientific data. 

“Like fans at a sporting contest, people deal with evidence selectively to promote their emotional interest in their group. On issues ranging from climate change to gun control, from synthetic biology to counter-terrorism, they take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd.”

People do not react to data and facts only logically like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock or  Lt. Commander Data.  People receive information in a cultural context and often relate to who is presenting the facts more than the facts which are presented.   In an editorial in Nature entitled “Fixing the Communications Failure” scientists are asked to consider these findings in cultural cognition.

“It would not be a gross simplification to say that science needs better marketing. Unlike commercial advertising, however, the goal of these techniques is not to induce public acceptance of any particular conclusion, but rather to create an environment for the public’s open-minded, unbiased consideration of the best available scientific information.

As straightforward as these recommendations might seem, however, science communicators routinely flout them. The prevailing approach is still simply to flood the public with as much sound data as possible on the assumption that the truth is bound, eventually, to drown out its competitors. If, however, the truth carries implications that threaten people’s cultural values, then holding their heads underwater is likely to harden their resistance and increase their willingness to support alternative arguments, no matter how lacking in evidence. This reaction is substantially reinforced when, as often happens, the message is put across by public communicators who are unmistakably associated with particular cultural outlooks or styles — the more so if such advocates indulge in partisan rhetoric, ridiculing opponents as corrupt or devoid of reason. This approach encourages citizens to experience scientific debates as contests between warring cultural factions — and to pick sides accordingly.”