Behaving as a Christian

“This is Paul’s use of the command to ‘be what you are’. Those who are in Christ must behave accordingly. How should they behave towards fellow-Christians? They must remember that they are one body in Christ (Rom. 12:3-8). What kind of behavior is appropriate for Christians? They must ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom.13:14). Should they observe holy days and abstain from certain kinds of food? They should do what they believe to be right, provided what they do brings honor to the Lord who died and rose again (Rom. 14:5-9): for it is because  he had been made Lord that Christians now do everything – living or dying – to him. How should they behave towards those with whom they disagree? They must welcome one another, since they have all been welcomed by God himself (Rom 14:1-3). They must be careful not to injure one another by their behavior, since that would bring destruction on those for whom Christ died (Rom. 14:13-21). On the contrary, the strong should bear the infirmities of those who are weak; they should not please themselves, for Christ did not please himself – indeed, he accepted reproach (Rom. 15:1-3). They must therefore welcome one another, as Christ welcomed them – Christ who, indeed, became a servant for their sakes (Rom. 15:7-12). (Morna D.Hooker, From Adam to Christ: Essays on Paul, pg.58)

The Conversion of St. Paul

“When God summoned Moses to liberate Israel from Egypt, his goal was to establish a covenant people based on the gift of Mosaic law. When Christ commissioned Paul on the Damascus road, he charged him to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, calling them to join the one body of Christ, the Church. Divine revelation neither occurs in a vacuum nor is primarily addressed to individuals. God’s word establishes and nurtures community. It is through community that God seeks to fulfill his purposes in history.”  (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos in The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology edited by Mary B. Cunningham and Elizabeth Theokritoff, pgs. 24-25)

Greetings to all on the Feast of the Glorious and Triumphant

Leaders of the Apostles Peter and Paul!   

The Church as the Body of Jesus

“And he fell to the ground in a great trance, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’” (Acts 9:4-5)

“Without anywhere actually invoking the Pauline title of the church as the body of Christ (Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:27; Eph.1:23; 4:12; Col. 1:24; 2:19) the book of Acts here describes the risen and ascended Christ as answering the question of Saul, the persecutor of the church, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ with the identification underlying that Pauline title, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting’ (9:5), marking Saul as a successor of those who had tormented Jesus Christ in his passion and marking the church as the successor of Christ in his passion. As Origen explains these words, ‘Every one who betrays the disciples of Jesus is reckoned as betraying Jesus Himself’; and Bede explains: ‘He does not say, “Why are you persecuting my members?” but “Why are you persecuting me?” because he has been suffering from the wicked ones in his body, which is the church.’ Saul – together with the long line of his descendents – may have supposed that he was attacking the miserable adherents of a wretched fringe movement (→14:22); but here the ultimate target of the rage and the violence (→28:31) identified himself as none less than ‘Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’” (Jaroslav Pelikan, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts, pg. 123)

Reading Scripture, Interacting with God

Reading Scripture with an assumption that the only truth is historical truth or scientific truth, limits the revelation which God may be offering through a text.  It leads some to assume that if every word of the Bible is not historically or scientifically true than it is not true at all.  God however has often chosen to speak through narrative, poetry, parable, vision, symbol, typology and allegory.   God revelation brings us to an understanding of divinity, which means it takes us beyond the limits of human understanding.

Famed novelist Umberto Eco has made the point that “reading scriptures” is not like studying a “crystal”. This is because reading scriptures engages the reader with the living Word of God. The scripture text is not static but rather its purpose, meaning and power come alive in the reader’s interaction with the Word.

“For Eco, a text not only calls for the cooperation of its reader in the construction of meaning, but also summons the reader to make a series of interpretive choices…Unfortunately, the ‘truth’ to which Scripture refers was in previous times reduced to determinations regarding the accuracy of these texts measured in terms of historical detail…This is unfortunate since it masked the capacity of Scripture to refer to ‘the way things really are’ in terms other than historical detail. However, this misconstrual of how Scripture is true means only that we must ask anew, in what sense does Scripture refer to the truth? How do we parse its capacity to refer its readers to the way reality really is, to the way God sees what is?…For Eco, texts such as those in Scripture are characterized by the invitation for readers ‘to make the work’ together with the author; they are rendered meaningful in personal and communal performance.” (Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, pgs. 114-118)

Eco makes the point that the Scriptures were given to God’s people, to be read and understood within the context of God’s people.  We come to understand the text by entering into and engaging the community to whom each author of the Bible spoke – we interact with not only the author but the community to whom he/she was directed to speak.  The meaning of the text is not going to be found by isolating the text from the community but by immersing oneself in the community.

Some take Scripture out of the context of the community, and then even take verses out of the context of the biblical text.  They treat each word as if it is a drop of water which they can purify through exacting scientific methods.  The tradition of Orthodoxy does appreciate each droplet which makes up Scripture, but tries to experience the Bible by having the reader immerse himself or herself in the flowing river of tradition.  As in baptism we immerse ourselves in the waters rather than sprinkle ourselves with a drop or two.

Orthodoxy in America

“The Church is in the world, in order to convert and redirect all the realms of natural, personal and social life. Her task is to make people aware of their true destiny and to make history constantly eschatological by illuminating, renewing and transforming the culture of people. This mission obligates every local Church to take root in the nation in which she enacts her life of faith.” (Alkiviadas C. Calivas, Essays in Theology and Liturgy Volume Two: Challenges and Opportunities – The Church in Her Mission to the World, pg.60)

26 June 2011, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, is recognized by the Orthodox Church in America and the Antiochian Archdiocese as the Sunday of All Saints of North America.   Most of the canonized Orthodox Saints in America were involved in mission work – helping to establish Orthodoxy in America so that it could be a viable witness to following Christ in the Orthodox way.  Today, we Orthodox enjoy the benefits of the missionary work and accomplishment of our saintly fore-bearers.  It is our turn to take up the cross of Christ and help root this life-giving tree in America.  We are to bear witness to all Americans about Christ, and we are to create a church which welcomes visitors and converts into our communities.  We are to become the saints who are fishers of men.

Saintliness and Sinlessness

We sometimes imagine – and this really is purely imagination – that the saints were perfect, sinless, infallible, faultless and mistake free.  But to disabuse ourselves of such imaginary saints, we need only think about the real lives of saints as presented in the Scriptures.  God truly loved and favored Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David and St. Paul, but their lives include serious misdeeds and sins.  Sanctity consists not of sinlessness but of a willingness to repent, not of a mistake free existence but of a willingness to serve God.

“A Christianity reduced to morality, to norms, is impossible to practice because not one of Christ’s commandments is fulfilled without love for Christ. ‘If you love Me, you will keep My commandments (John 14:15). There is a kind of moral person with a passion for cleanliness, who runs to confession because for him any little spot is unbearable, just as it is unbearable for any well-dressed man of the world. But this is not repentance; it is closer to a feeling of human decency. But one can’t say about a saint, ‘He was a thoroughly decent person.’ A saint is thirsty not for ‘decency,’ not for cleanliness, and not for absence of sin, but for unity with God. He does not live interested in himself (the introspection of a clean fellow), but in God.”    (Alexander Schmemann, The Journals of Alexander Schmemann, pgs.300-301)

Christ Fulfills Isaiah 58 through Signs and Wonders

This is the conclusion to the blog which began with Hearing Isaiah 58 in the Gospel.  We are considering ways in which the Gospel tradition fulfills Isaiah 58, or how Isaiah 58 is echoed in the Gospel tradition.

[5] This is not the fast that I have chosen, even a day for a person to humble himself; not even if you bend your neck like a ring, and spread under you sackcloth and ashes – not even so shall you call it an accepted fast.   [6] I have not chosen such a fast, says the Lord; rather loose every bond of injustice, undo the knots of contracts made by force; let the oppressed go free, and tear up every unjust note. [7]   Break your bread with the one who is hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; if you see one naked, clothe him, and you shall not neglect any of the relatives of your seed. [8] Then your light shall break forth early in the morning, and your healings shall rise quickly; your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of God shall cover you. [9] Then you shall cry out, and God will listen to you; while you are still speaking, he will say, here I am. If you remove from you a bond and a stretching of the hand and a murmuring word, [10] and give to one who is hungry bread from your soul and satisfy the soul that has been humbled, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your darkness shall be like the noonday.

Jesus did not simply claim to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, He did signs and wonders to prove He was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah.   God promised healings would occur in Israel when they did the right kind of fasting and indeed Jesus heals the sick.  God promises to listen to the prayers and appeals of Israel if they fast correctly, and it is clear at numerous points in the Gospels that God the Father is with Jesus, fulfills His requests and speaks to Him.  Isaiah says light will come to Israel if they fast as God approves of fasting, and Jesus is presented in Scripture as the Light of the world.

And John, calling to him two of his disciples, sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And when the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you, saying, ‘Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?'” In that hour he cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight.  And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”   ( Luke 7:19-23)

Christ is doing what God associates with the kind of fasting of which He approves. And so He is empowered to heal the sick.  Because Jesus fasts as God commands, we can understand Jesus’ own words about why His disciples do not fast – they do not fast in the way the Jews of the Old Testament fasted.   They are not to follow these ritualistic rules of self denial, but rather are to rejoice in the Lord who empowers them to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah.  They are to do the type of fasting which results in salvation; fasting liberates all who are oppressed by Satan.  Fasting from the corrupt practices of the world, liberates God’s people from the oppression of Satan and from slavery to sin and death.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.  (Matthew 9:14-15)

Christ the Word of God in His teaching perfectly embraces and embodies the Word which Isaiah received from God.  Christ teaches a form of fasting which is exactly in line with Isaiah’s vision of the fast which is pleasing to God.

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.   (Matthew 6:16-18)

Godly fasting is done in the heart where one repents and comes to love those who are oppressed and in need.   Zacchaeus the repentant tax collector fulfills the expectation of Isaiah 58 for he stops oppressing the poor through fraud and threat and instead stretches out his hand to help them.  Zacchaeus repents of unjust contracts and those made by force that oppress people and financially crush them.  He repents at getting ahead and getting wealthy at the expense of those who cannot defend themselves from him.

And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.   Luke 19:8-9)

Zacchaeus practices the self denying fasting which God proclaimed in Isaiah 58.  In the Slavic Orthodox tradition, Zacchaeus’ story is the prelude to beginning Great Lent.

There are some echoes that I hear that may be a bit more obscure.  For example, I think the miracles which Jesus does on the Sabbath which liberates one of God’s chosen people from the oppression of sin and disease is the kind of fast that God advocates in Isaiah.  So too were the acts which fed the hungry disciples on the Sabbath day (see Matthew 12; Luke 6, Luke 13-14; John 5, John 9).  While the reaction of the Jewish leadership is to take offense at Jesus breaking the Sabbath laws of the Torah, God is clear in Isaiah 58 that the fast He has in mind releases people from injustice and bondage and slavery of all kinds.  The ritualized fast which results in acts of self deprecation – ashes, sackcloth, tears, kowtowing and prostrations – none of these has God’s approval.  God’s fast liberates His people from all forms of oppression including poverty, hunger and homelessness.

Throughout the Gospels are scattered stories which show Jesus fulfilling the conditions and terms which God said through Isaiah would be pleasing to Him.   Jesus in his merciful teachings and miracles reveals the justice of God and the true nature of fasting which liberates others from oppression.  Fasting is thus related to our business dealings, our politics, how we treat our neighbors, and how we treat the poor.

Hearing Isaiah 58 in the Gospel

Since we are in the time of the Apostle’s Fast, it is appropriate to consider biblical ideas regarding fasting.  I was reading chapter 58 of the Prophet Isaiah in the New English Translation of the Septuagint which reminded me more of the Gospel than I had ever thought of before.  There are numerous scholars today who write about how the New Testament doesn’t merely quote the Old Testament, but more often the New Testament “echoes” ideas and concepts which are found in the Old Testament without explicitly quoting a reference.

While the authors of the New Testament may have had quotes from the Jewish Scriptures echoing in their minds as they wrote, it is more likely for me that as I read the Old Testament, I have the New Testament echoing in my mind as I’m more familiar with the New Testament than the Old.  Below is the passage from Isaiah which I was reading, 58:5-12 (NETS) followed by some the New Testament passages which I heard echoing Isaiah’s words.

[5] This is not the fast that I have chosen, even a day for a person to humble himself; not even if you bend your neck like a ring, and spread under you sackcloth and ashes – not even so shall you call it an accepted fast.   [6] I have not chosen such a fast, says the Lord; rather loose every bond of injustice, undo the knots of contracts made by force; let the oppressed go free, and tear up every unjust note. [7]   Break your bread with the one who is hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; if you see one naked, clothe him, and you shall not neglect any of the relatives of your seed. [8] Then your light shall break forth early in the morning, and your healings shall rise quickly; your righteousness shall go before you, and the glory of God shall cover you. [9] Then you shall cry out, and God will listen to you; while you are still speaking, he will say, here I am. If you remove from you a bond and a stretching of the hand and a murmuring word, [10] and give to one who is hungry bread from your soul and satisfy the soul that has been humbled, then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your darkness shall be like the noonday.

The parallel between Isaiah 58:6-7 and the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-15) and the parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) seem obvious to me with references to loosing the bonds of injustice, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked and caring for one’s needy relatives.  Here is Jesus teaching about the Last Judgment in which I hear the voice of the Prophet Isaiah:

Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee?  And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’   (Matthew 25:34-40)

Matthew is considered by many to be the most Jewish of all the Gospel writers and he is often concerned with presenting Jesus as not violating Torah.  Matthew however does accept Jesus’ interpretation of the Torah which is influenced by Isaiah’s Word from God.  Fasting frees us from selfishness and self-centeredness.  Godly fasting leads us to help our fellow human beings to become freed from all manners of oppression and slavery and suffering.  Thus Christ echoes what Isaiah proclaimed – or Isaiah prophetically foresaw what Christ would proclaim.  Christ accomplished in His ministry and signs exactly what God in Isaiah claims is the kind of fasting He approves of: losing bonds of injustice and liberating the oppressed.  What was perhaps unexpected is that Christ frees suffering people from bondage to sickness, sin, suffering and Satan.

In Luke 4:16-21 we have Christ reading from the Prophet Isaiah in the synagogue with another message of Christ bringing liberation to the oppressed through the proclamation of the Gospel.  Christ claims to fulfill the scriptural prophecy.

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The theme of Christ liberating the oppressed is Christ fulfilling the kind of fasting God revealed through His spokesman Isaiah.

Next: Christ Fulfills Isaiah 58 through Signs and Wonders

Truth is Truth: the Affect Heuristic and Temptation

“All truth is Christian truth” is a phrase often attributed to St. Justin the Philosopher (d. ca. 165AD).  It is an axiom which has influenced many Christian thinkers through history.  It is based in a belief that truth is truth – there isn’t one truth for Christians and a different one for scientists and yet another for Buddhists.  Truth is from the one God.  We are in search of truth.  Jesus claimed to be the truth.  All truth thus has the same source and reveals to us the underlying unity of the universe which is our Creator.  Whatever the science is that explains how it is possible for life to exist on earth, is the same science that allows God to become incarnate.  The universe is one, just as God is one, and truth is one.

Such thinking has also allowed many Christians to be at peace with the truths about the universe that science has uncovered, including the origins of the universe and its evolution through billions of years of history.

While I believe the Bible is true, I don’t look to Genesis to give me a scientific explanation of the origins of the universe.  But sometimes I am amazed how the truth presented in an ancient religious document like Genesis resonates with modern scientific ideas.

Jason Daley in the 8 July 2011 issue of DISCOVER magazine writes an article about how humans assess risk entitled, “What You Don’t Know Can Kill You.”   It is a fascinating article but here I want to focus on one quote and compare it with something presented in the Book of Genesis.   Daley wrote about the findings of psychologist Paul Slovic and how we make decisions which involve a choice with some type of risk:

“But of all the mental rules of thumb and biases banging around in our brain, the most influential in assessing risk is the ‘affect’ heuristic (note: a heuristic is a mental shortcut or bias which our brains use in making choices which allows us to make instant decisions).  Slovic calls affect ‘a faint whisper of emotion’ that creeps into our decisions.  Simply put, positive feelings associated with a choice tend to make us think it has more benefits.  Negative correlations make us think an action is riskier.  One study by Slovic showed that when people decide to start smoking despite years of exposure to antismoking campaigns, they hardly ever think about the risks.  Instead, it’s all about the short-term ‘hedonic’ pleasure.  The good outweighs the bad, which they never fully expect to experience.”

Speaking about risks and warnings, long before there were anti-smoking campaigns, we can think about the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden, contemplating the forbidden fruit:

 “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”  (Genesis 3:6)

The mental mechanics of decision making and weighing risks has not changed in humans in the past couple of thousand years.  Health campaigns and even dire warnings from God do not stop humans from giving in to the “affect heuristic”, aka as temptation.   We may have much more information than the ancients, but our brains work the same.  Despite highly informational warnings, we take risks because we convince ourselves the pleasures outweigh the negative consequences.  The story of Eve is the story of us all.   We don’t read Genesis to discover ancient history and or modern science.  We read it because it offers us insight into what it means to be human, and why the world is the way it is.  Despite the Enlightenment’s optimism that all humans need is to be better educated, information and education don’t always outweigh our desire for pleasure and self-satisfaction.  What science calls the “affect heuristic” is called temptation to sin in Christianity.   Same concept in different contexts.  And on issues such as smoking, despite huge differences in assumptions, much of science, Buddhism and Christianity agree:  it is bad for you and you need to learn to say no to your desire.  Truth is truth.

Brainy Optimism and Realism about the Future

To the Future

Studies show that humans have a tendency toward optimism as they look to the future.  And it doesn’t take any studies for us to realize people’s memory of the past is often murky.   Tali Sharot in the 6 June 2011 issue of TIME magazine, The Optimism Bias, explores some of these ideas from the basis of human evolution.  Sharot  asks:

Where did these mistakes in memory come from?

Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.

So in this thinking, memory lapses may actually be part of an evolutionary survival tool.  We don’t simply record the past, we re– member it, adding and deleting elements in a reconstructive process that also serves to help us survive and want to survive.  We re-create the past to allow us to have hope for the future.

 To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind.  . . . It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behavior may influence future generations.  . . .  While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.

Death is a frightening stumbling block to thinking about the future.  Yet even in Genesis where death is a bad consequence of human choices and behavior, the text does not despair about humanity.  The text is always pushing toward the future, toward a better time and place which becomes part of the woof and weave of the scriptural fabric.  There is exile from a better past, but a hope of a better future.  Death is not an obstacle to what God is doing and what He hopes humans will do.   God continues to work with His people and the people continue to try to figure out what direction God is leading them.  By the time of Christianity, there is total hope in the defeat of death, and the promise of a blessed life with God.  The mistakes and sins of the past will not prevent the better future from materializing.

While humans seem to have developed an unrealistic optimism about the future, some suffer from depression.  Mild depression, which can be debilitating to anyone person, can serve a purpose within the human community: it can help us be more realistic about the future.

While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is.

This may explain why some people with mild forms of depression are often viewed as being pessimistic by others (those unduly influenced by an unrealistic optimism!), while these people often see themselves as not being negatively pessimistic, but rather as being realists.  They are clairvoyant in a way that the unrealistic optimist does not like.

A final point that caught my attention in the article:  when subjects in a study were primed with words that would make them think they would do poorly on a test, “the brain…did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error. A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice — wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time.”  Those in the study who were primed with positive reinforcement had activity in the parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that are associated with reflection and correction.  The brain “remembered” the mistake and attempted to use that information to help deal with the future.  The brain thus generates its own optimism – it is possible to learn from mistakes.