Evangelism: Bringing Joy Not Imposing a Yoke

On those mornings when we do Matins in my parish, we read the prescribed daily Epistle and Gospel readings.   This morning, as we are in the Post-Paschal period the Apostolos reading was  Acts 15:5-34.  Portions of the lesson struck me for various reasons as being very apropos to life in the Church today.

 [5] But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up, and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them, and to charge them to keep the law of Moses.”

Pharisees to this day continue to rise up and make such demands that religion be treated as law and the law be exactly followed.  Pharisaism is alive and well in the Church.  Issues like these continue despite the fact that the Apostles once ruled on such thinking, rejecting it.  As wearisome as this is, one has to acknowledge it is biblical, even New Testamental.

[6] The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.

How many hours have been consumed and how many miles traveled by clergy to debate such issues?  Yet, the matter is never resolved, there will always be some new issues for people to get upset over and “point the finger” of accusation against others (Isaiah 58:9).  “Others” never live up to those aspects of religious law we think important.   But think St. Ephrem:  Grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother, or sister.

[7] And after there had been much debate, Peter rose and said to them, “Brethren, you know that in the early days God made choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. [8] And God who knows the heart bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us; [9] and he made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith.

And to this day, some in the church love to make distinctions between people, separating and dividing.  In St. Peter’s day it was Jew and Gentile.  Now, despite the fact that we are each baptized and have received the Holy Spirit, and that all of us in the Church have heard the Gospel and had our hearts cleansed by faith, some continue to want to make similar distinctions between bishops and believing members, between clergy and laity, between men and women.  Yet like Peter’s Gentiles whom he defended as having been blessed by God, all Orthodox – clergy and laity, men and women – have heard the Gospel, received the Holy Spirit and been cleansed through repentance and faith in and through the Sacraments of the one Church.

[10] Now therefore why do you make trial of God by putting a yoke upon the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? [11] But we believe that we shall be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”

Imposing burdens and “a yoke upon the neck of the disciples” is still being done today.  The yoke may change, but some see a need to burden others with rules and regulations which have been and are hard to bear.  St. Peter said not to do this.  His successors don’t always pay attention to that particular teaching of his.

[12] And all the assembly kept silence; and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.

Many new believers come into the Church – it is a miracle that people hear the Gospel and embrace the faith.  It happens all the time.  People who experience the joy of the Gospel and believe, receive the Holy Spirit, and they don’t have to know all of the rules and regulations of past generations.  This was a mystery for those first Torah-bound Christians.  How is it possible that God can act in people who don’t know or follow the Law of God?  And note that the assembly of apostles and elders is silent as they think about the growth God is giving the nascent Church.  They marvel at what God is doing rather than machinate about how to impose rules on those newly being born into Christ.

[13] After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brethren, listen to me. [14] Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name. [15] And with this the words of the prophets agree, as it is written, [16] ‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will set it up, [17] that the rest of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, [18] says the Lord, who has made these things known from of old.’ [19] Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, [20] but should write to them to abstain from the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood. [21] For from early generations Moses has had in every city those who preach him, for he is read every sabbath in the synagogues.”

St. James many scholars believe was even more Torah-bound than St. Peter.  Yet, he recognizes that God works through the Gospel to change the hearts of non-believers.  St. James advised that we not trouble the new converts with all manners of laws, rules and regulations, even if we believe they are from God.

[22] Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, [23] with the following letter: “The brethren, both the apostles and the elders, to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greeting. [24] Since we have heard that some persons from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, [25] it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, [26] men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. [27] We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. [28] For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: [29] that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

So few rules.  Amazing.  Not 613 laws of Torah, not years of Tradition of the elders.  Four simple rules is all that was required of those new converts to Christianity.  And the Apostles believed this was in agreement with the Holy Spirit!  Just these few things and you do well.  What a blessing!

[30] So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. [31] And when they read it, they rejoiced at the exhortation. [32] And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, exhorted the brethren with many words and strengthened them. [33] And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brethren to those who had sent them.

And such a simple demand from the Apostles is met with rejoicing, not with dejection and despondency.   So little is required, so much is given.  And even with so few requirements, these new Christians are embraced as full members of the Body of Christ.

It is wisely said that there is nothing new under the sun.  Pharisees still rise up to this day to trouble the Church.  The Apostolic wisdom is still needed to recognize that though some of us may have accepted and lived by many religious rules, they are not mandatory for every generation.  They can in fact be a yoke and burden that makes discipleship and salvation impossible.  The Apostles did not drive out of the Church those newly believing members whom God had chosen and inspired with the Gospel and the Holy Spirit.  They did not impose upon the new converts any heavy yoke, but they brought joy to the new faithful.

The Apostles rejected the concerns and fears of the Pharisaical members of the Church, and offered the hand of fellowship to those upon whom they as Christ’s chosen leaders chose not to yoke with Pharisaism.  It is the wisdom of the Apostolic Tradition as recorded in our Scriptures.

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God’s Motivation: Love or Evil?

Recently I read some email comments about the power of evil in the world.  The comments implied that it was because of evil on earth that God sent His Son into the world, and that the death of Christ on the cross was also the result of evil.  Thus, the way the story was being presented it was the existence of evil that caused the incarnation.

The corollary of attributing God’s saving action to evil would then be to say, thanks to evil, God became incarnate.  For in this thinking it is evil which motivates God to do something for His creatures.  Yet the witness of John 3:16 is clear that it is God’s love which motivates Him toward the world, not the existence of evil.

For God so loved the world

that He gave His own dear Son

that whoever believes in Him

would have eternal life.

The true motivation of the God who is love is clear in the writings of certain saints of the Church.  St. Isaac of Syria (7th Cent) attributes the entire incarnation and death of Christ to one thing only: God’s love. Whatever happened to Christ is because of God’s love, not because of the power of evil in the world.  St. Isaac, so I’ve read, does not attribute the suffering and death of Christ to sin, original sin, Satan, death or evil. In fact some scholars say you would be hard pressed to find in Isaac’s writings any such “theology of the cross”: No substitutionary death of Christ, no demand for justice, no price being paid to anyone. I’ve read similar claims about St. Ephrem of Syria (4th Cent) as well.

Some could rightfully object that neither St. Ephrem or  St. Isaac encompasses the entire Tradition of the Church. Others would say that the theology of the cross is already nascent if not full blown in St. Paul whether the patristic saints mention it or not.

Be that as it may, St. Isaac’s thought is part of the tradition of the Church, and his theology counterbalances those writings which overly credit evil with causing God to act.  Evil is not the cause of everything, especially not of the incarnation of the Word.  Some would say it can’t be the cause of anything for it doesn’t have substance.

“But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. ‘For God so loved the the world, that He gave His only begotten Son over to death for its sake.’ This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself.” (St. Isaac the Syrian THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES, p 345)

Love, not justice let alone evil, is the basis of the incarnation according to St. Isaac.  God’s love, especially for the Eastern Patristic writers,  is also the cause for Christ descending into Hades upon His death and rescuing all the dead from the power of sin, evil and death.

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev in his CHRIST THE CONQUEROR OF HELL  points out that there was a difference between Eastern and Western Patristic period writers in understanding the  descent of Christ into Hades.  The Western fathers tended to believe that Christ rescued only the righteous from Hades and left the sinners there.  The Eastern fathers thought that would not really be love but only justice.  The Eastern fathers, believing God’s motivation to be love, saw Christ as emptying Hades of everyone.  This is the triumph of God’s love over sin, death and even the limits of justice.  (Interestingly, according to St. Irenaeus,  the heretic Marcion wrote that Christ rescued the sinners from Hades – thus Cain and Lamech raced out of Hades to embrace Christ their savior when He descended into Hades, while the Jewish righteous – such as Noah – relying on Torah chose to stay in Hades thinking a graceful exit from Hades must be a trick, and that the OT righteous decided to stay in Hades until they had opportunity to show God how righteous they had been).

So the Eastern Fathers saw Christ as rescuing us from Hades and death (the both of which are our enemies), whereas the Western fathers tended to see Hades and death as part of God’s justice and so God would hardly be saving us/sinners from his own justice.  Perhaps in this Western version sin helps separate the good from the evil – the good work to overcome their sins while the evil must pay for their sins eternally.   It is all the works-righteousness idea playing (working?) itself out.

Sin and death therefore are either that which separates us from God and which must be overcome by the incarnation,  death and resurrection of Christ (a view common in the Christian East),  OR   sin and death are the very conditions necessary in order for God to be our Savior and thus can be said to cause salvation.  A number of the Eastern Patristic Saints were convinced that love alone was what caused God to act on our behalf – in the incarnation and in the crucifixion.  Evil is not the cause of God’s plan of salvation, rather God’s love destroys evil in all of its manifestations including sin and death.   Evil does not cause God to act.  The God who is love acts according to His own nature to overcome evil.  Love conquers all.