What is the Cost of My Sins?

Many feel they don’t need to go to confession to ask God for forgiveness and to receive from the Lord the remission of their sins.

Some claim to confess their sins to God daily in their hearts and say they know they receive His forgiveness.

Is it cheap grace?  Does anyone really need to receive forgiveness through the Church?

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

The forgiveness of sins comes through the death of Christ, the Son of God, on the cross.  Christ showed in His lifetime that he had the power to heal the sick which in turn proved His claim to have power to forgive sins.  And, Christ bestowed through the Holy Spirit the power to forgive sins on His disciples and the Church.   If everyone could simply pronounce forgiveness upon themselves in their hearts, why did Christ bestow such power on the Church?

We may imagine God easily forgives sins from the safety and quietness of heaven.  Poof!  and the sins are gone.

The New Testament however presents it that the forgiveness of sins happens through the death of Christ on the cross.  No cheap grace.  A priceless death occurs to forgive our sins.

All of our sins, not just the sins of really evil people, is paid for by the death of Christ.

We might imagine our sins are not that bad – not as bad as others (as the Pharisee said of the Publican and we think of say the evil men of ISIS).  Many of us think the sins of others are really bad – whether sexual or involving other morality – but we tend to think our sins aren’t that bad.  Yet the price paid for our sins is also the death of God on the cross.

We experience the forgiveness of our sins by being united to Christ in baptism and in the Eucharist and through the Body of Christ in confession.   Confession is another gift given to us by Christ to maintain our unity with all other believers through asking the Church, His Body, for the forgiveness of our sins.

Christ Among the Sick and the Sinners

“Christ, who turned away from scribes and Pharisees, Christ, who approached prostitutes, publicans and sinners, can hardly be the Teacher of those who are afraid to soil their pristine garments, who are completely devoted to the letter, who only live by the rules, and who govern their whole life according to the rules. Such people consider themselves in good spiritual health because they observe everything that is prescribed by spiritual hygiene. But Christ told us, it is not the healthy who are in need of a physician, but the sick.” (Michael Plekon in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly:Vol. 49, Nov. 3, 2005, pp 328-329)

The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner (August 29)

The Beheading of St. John the Forerunner is commemorated on August 29 in the Orthodox calendar.

St. John is mentioned in all four Gospels and is the prophesied herald of the coming of the Messiah.   Scripture scholar Jaroslav Pelikan notes that St. John is a significant person in the Scriptures:

“John the Baptizer and Forerunner was, together with Mary the Theotokos, the principal sign of the continuity and the transition from the covenant with Israel to the new covenant.” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Acts, p 156)

The Hymn for the Feast Day:

The memory of the righteous is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner. You were shown in truth to be the most honorable of the prophets, for you were deemed worthy to baptize in the streams of the Jordan Him whom they foretold.  Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy, you proclaimed to those in hell God who appeared in the flesh, who takes away the sin of the world, and grants us great mercy.

In Orthodox tradition, not only does St. John herald the coming of the Messiah in the world, in that he also preceded Christ in death to enter Hades, the place of the dead, he was the first to announce to the dead the coming of the Messiah.

The Love and the Mercy of God

“In Egypt, in whose ancient Christian past there had once been many grand monasteries, there once lived a monk who befriended an uneducated and simple peasant farmer. One day this peasant said to the monk, ‘I too respect God who created this world! Every evening I pour out a bowl of goat’s milk and leave it out under a palm tree. In the evening God comes and drinks up my milk! He’s very fond of it! There’s never once been a time when even a drop of milk is left in the bowl.’ Hearing these words, the monk could not help smiling. He kindly and logically explained to his friend that God doesn’t need a bowl of goat’s milk.

But the peasant so stubbornly insisted that he was right that the monk then suggested that the next night they secretly watch to see what happened after the bowl of milk was left under the palm tree. No sooner said than done. When the night fell, the monk and the peasant hid themselves some distance from the tree, and soon in the moonlight they saw how a little fox crept up to the bowl and lapped up all the milk till the bowl was empty. ‘Indeed!’ the peasant sighed disappointedly. ‘Now I can see it wasn’t God!’ The monk tried to comfort the peasant and explained that God is a spirit, that God is something completely beyond our poor ability to comprehend in our world, and that people comprehend His presence in their own unique way. But the peasant merely stood hanging his head sadly. Then he wept and went back home to his hovel.

FoxThe monk also went back to his cell, but when he got there he was amazed to see an angel blocking his path. Utterly terrified, the monk fell to his knees, but the angel said to him: ‘That simple fellow had neither education nor wisdom nor book-learning enough to be able to comprehend God otherwise. Then you with your wisdom and book learning took away what little he had! You will say that doubtless you reasoned correctly. But there’s one thing that you don’t know, oh learned man: God, seeing the sincerity and true heart of this good peasant, every night sent the little fox to that palm tree to comfort him and accept his sacrifice.’” (Archimandrite Tikhon(Shevkunov), Everyday Saints and Other Stories, p 209)

Book of the Bee

As I’ve mentioned before, the honeybee is admired by the Fathers of the Church, and used as an example and metaphor for having a good spiritual life.  We have in our Orthodox tradition prayers for bees and for their hives.

St. Gregory of Sinai (d. 1346AD) uses the bee as a model for moderation in wisely developing a virtuous life.   Unlike a body builder who might do countless reps of a single exercise to develop bulging muscles, St. Gregory teaches that we must more daintily approach the virtues, like a bee, taking a small amount from each and many virtues “what is most profitable.”   Developing virtues requires wisdom – developing them in a right quantity, extracting from each what we as an individual are capable of benefiting from, and this will not be same for each individual since each person is differently gifted by God.

“Like a bee one should extract from each of the virtues what is most profitable.  In this way, by taking a small amount from all of them, one builds up from the practice of the virtues a great honeycomb overflowing with the soul-delighting honey of wisdom.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 83500)

As the honeycomb is built by the entire colony of bees receiving the nectar of a great many bees from a diversity of flowers, so too all the virtues are needed to develop the spiritual life.  One must be like a bee collecting nectar from many flowers, partaking of the different virtues to gain from each.

One can see how popular the bee was in the metaphorical thinking of the fathers in how they refer to the bee.  The Book of the Bee is a Syriac Christian Text written by the bishop, Solomon of Akhlat,  in the 13th Century.   It is a summary of basic Syriac Christian beliefs using excerpts from the books of the Bible, Christian theology and Syriac history.  The book serves as a catechism, which Solomon dedicated to the bee.  He explains:

We have called this book the ‘Book of the Bee,’ because we have gathered of the blossoms of the two Testaments and of the flowers of the holy Books, and have placed them therein for thy benefit. As the common bee with gauzy wings flies about, and flutters over and lights upon flowers of various colours, and upon blossoms of divers odours, selecting and gathering from all of them the materials which are useful for the construction of her handiwork; and having first of all collected the materials from the flowers, carries them upon her thighs,

and bringing them to her dwelling, lays a foundation for her building with a base of wax; then gathering in her mouth some of the heavenly dew which is upon the blossoms of spring, brings it and blows it into these cells; and weaves the comb and honey for the use of men and her own nourishment:

in like manner have we, the infirm, hewn the stones of corporeal words from the rocks of the Scriptures which are in the Old Testament, and have laid them down as a foundation for the edifice of the spiritual law. And as the bee carries the waxen substance upon her thighs because of its insipidity and tastelessness, and brings the honey in her mouth because of its sweetness and value; so also have we laid down the corporeal law by way of substratum and foundation, and the spiritual law for a roof and ceiling to the edifice of the spiritual tower. And as the expert gardener and orchard-keeper goes round among the gardens, and seeking out the finest sorts of fruits takes from them slips and shoots, and plants them in his own field; so also have we gone into the garden of the divine Books, and have culled therefrom branches and shoots, and have planted them in the ground of this book for thy consolation and benefit.

To approach each book of the Bible as if it were a flower full of sweet nectar, and to enjoy the blessing from God, is such wonderful imagery of what Scripture reading should be to us.  It is work, but sweet and nurturing.

And interestingly, the bee does not leave the flower untouched, for it pollinates it.  This is the synergy between the Word of God and the reader of the Word.  We interact with the Word enabling it to bear fruit.  Our hearts are the fecund soil which bear fruit to God.

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it. “For you shall go out in joy, and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  (Isaiah 55:10-12)

Peacemaking In a Troubled World

The Lord Jesus said: “I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

In the Orthodox Church liturgies, prayers for peace abound in the litanies.  Additional the celebrant and congregants wish each other peace throughout the services.  When the Gospel is proclaimed, peace is wished upon all those listening.

Yet, we know that peace in the world is elusive, even though Christ our Lord commands us to love even our enemies.  We pray for and hope for and pursue peace with all, and yet we cannot determine how others will act towards us or towards each other.  St. Gregory the Great, (d. 604AD) reflects on the difficulty of wishing to pursue peace in a world in which many are not interested in peace at all, nor are they influenced by or concerned about God.   Are Christians only to be Good Samaritans and come in and help those who are suffering, or do Christians have any mandate to resist or prevent evil from occurring, even by the use of force?

St. Gregory writes:

“Therefore, those who are peaceful should be advised that if they desire human peace too greatly, they might fail to reprove the evil conduct of others. And by condoning that behavior, they will sever themselves from the peace of the Creator – for by avoiding external quarrels, they will be punished for breaking their internal alliance [with God]. For what is transitory peace if not a footprint of eternal peace? Therefore, what could be more demented than to love a footprint, pressed in dust, but not love the one who made the impression?

Thus David, when he would bind himself to the internal footprints of peace, testifies that he did not hold any concord with evil persons, saying: ‘Did I not hate them who hated you, God, and waste away because of your enemies?’ For to hate God’s enemies with a perfect hatred is to love what they were made to be but to reprove what they do; in other words, to reprove the actions of the wicked but to remain of assistance to them. Therefore, we must well consider what a great sin it is if we silence our criticism of the wicked and hold peace with them. […] The peaceful are to be advised that they not fear to disturb the temporal peace by offering words of correction. Again, they should be advised that they keep inwardly with undiminished love that peace that will be disturbed externally by their reproving words. David declares that he has observed both prudently when he says: ‘ With those who hate peace, I was a peacemaker; when I spoke to them, they fought against me without a cause.’ Notice that when he spoke, he became embattled, and yet, despite this opposition, he was peaceful. He did not cease to correct those who were incensed against him, nor did he cease to love those whom he reproved.

Likewise, Paul said: ‘If it is possible, as much as it is in you, have peace with all people.’ For just as he was about to exhort his disciples to have peace with everyone, he began by saying: ‘If it is possible,’ then added: ‘as much as it is in you.’ For indeed, it was difficult for them who were to correct evil acts to have peace with everyone. But when temporal peace is disturbed in the hearts of evil men because of our correction, it is necessary that peace should remain in our own hearts. For it is rightly said: ‘As much as it is in you.’ (The Book of Pastoral Rule, pp 151-153)

Peace is to rule in our hearts, even if we have to confront evildoers and those who disturb the peace.  We should defend what is good and right without losing the peace that comes from Christ.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

I Shall See the Goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living!

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living! Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the LORD! (Psalm 27:13-14)

As of this week, I have now completed three out of the four scheduled three-week rounds of chemotherapy.   Thanks be to God!  It has been a long and arduous sojourn.  I have had many doubts that I would be able to complete the treatment.  And yet, today, with only one more three-week round left, I do believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.  I really felt I was on a long slog through the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death.  Today, I feel like I can begin to see the end of this wandering through the wilderness.

I think about the Prophet Moses towards the end of his 40 year wandering through the desert on the sojourn to the Promised Land.  Yet he was told he would not actually enter that Land, but would die after seeing it from afar.

And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.” (Deuteronomy 34:1-4)

Moses heart must have been mixed with joy and grief.  Gladness at being able to finally see the end of the sojourn, but grief knowing he himself would not enter that Land.   My heart has been heavy the past 9 weeks as I really couldn’t see the end of this chemotherapy.   The path seemed too daunting and I often wondered whether the cancer could be as bad as the effects of the chemo.

The last three week leg of my journey begins in two weeks.  This week’s chemo will now have its way with me, but because I can glimpse the end of the journey, I know I can survive this and even triumph over it.

There is one verse from Psalm 118:17 which is recited at Matins every morning which has sustained me through the darkest times of my life.

I shall not die, but live,
And declare the works of the LORD. 

Like Moses, I know I have not reached the joyous goal of the journey.  I have been granted a blessed vision that the sojourn will end.  And then will start a new sojourn of vigilant watchfulness to see if the chemo conquered the cancer.

Moses may not have lived to enter the Promised Land, but he did live to see Christ.

Let Us Praise the Virgin Mary

“I salute you, O Mary, Theotokos: through you the prophets speak out and the shepherds sing God’s praises…., the angels dance and the archangels sing tremendous hymns…, the Magi prostrate themselves in adoration…,the dignity of the twelve apostles has been exalted….,John exulted while still in his mother’s womb, and the lamp adored the everlasting light…,grace ineffable came forth…,the true light came into our world, our Lord Jesus Christ…,light shone on those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death….Because of you the Gospels proclaim, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ (Lk 19:38); through you, the churches of those who possess the orthodox faith have been founded in the cities, in the villages, in the isles….

the Conqueror of death and Destroyer of hell has come forth…He has come, the Maker of the first creation, and he had repaired the first man’s falsehood, he, who governs the heavenly kingdom…Through you, the beauty of the Resurrection flowered, and its brilliance shone out…,the tremendous baptism of holiness in the Jordan has shone out…John and the river Jordan are made holy, and the devil is cast out….Through you, every faithful soul achieves salvation.”

(St Cyril in Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gambero, pp 244-245)

The Importance of Studying Scriptures

Reading, studying and meditating on the Scriptures are all a normal part of the life of any Christian.   The Scriptures do not merely teach us about God, but bring us into a relationship with the Holy Trinity.  More than inform us, they form our hearts, souls and minds so that we can love God and fulfill His commandments.

“For many Christians the commandments found in the Bible are nothing more than a list of do’s and don’ts. At their best, they tell us the minimal expectations God has for his creation. But in Jewish tradition the commandment embodied much more than this. It was a gift of God given to his people so that they could openly display their love and devotion to him. Fulfilling a commandment is like offering flowers to a new-found love; though the lover is following a social convention the deed springs from a far deeper font.” (Gary A. Anderson, The Genesis of Perfection, p 150)

We are seeking a relationship with the God who has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ our Lord.  The Scriptures bear witness to Christ.

“Because the scriptures clearly reveal the will of God and provide unfailing guidance toward salvation, according to St. Symeon, they are to be studied with utmost diligence and to be obeyed with absolute care not only by scholars, but by all Christians: We need great soberness, great zeal, much searching of the divine Scriptures. The Savior has (said), ‘Search the Scriptures’ (Jn. 5:39). Search them and hold fast to what they say with great exactitude and faith, in order that you may know God’s will clearly from the divine Scriptures and be able infallibly to distinguish good from evil (Heb. 5:14)….Nothing is so conducive for saving us as the following of the divine precepts of the Savior.[…]

His reliance on and use of scripture to critique the prevailing view and practice of the ongoing religious tradition as viewed and lived by clerics, monks, theologians, state officials, and lay people alike. To put it in another way, St. Symeon’s bold and prophetic call for radical renewal within the Church, a highly controversial position that in part led to his condemnation and lengthy exile by ecclesiastical authorities, had to do with nothing less than his view that the truth of the apostolic gospel had been swallowed up in an ocean of religious formalism unable to bear the words of a prophetic and evangelical voice.” (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Encouraged by the Scriptures: Essays on Scripture, Interpretation and Life, pp 38-39)


Am I My Possessions?

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 19:16-26

At that time someone came to Jesus and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”

And the Lord said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

He said to him, “Which ones?”

And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?”

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved?”

But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.

St. Nikolai Velimirović (d. 1956AD) comments on the Gospel lesson, seeing the rich young man as a prisoner of his own wealth, unable to distinguish himself from his possessions.  His worth as an individual, and how he measured others as well, was in terms of what he possessed.  Or, as the case was, possessed him.

Though the young man approaches Christ with respect, St. Nikolai pardons him for not recognizing Jesus as Christ and Lord.  The young man sees Jesus as just another teacher of Israel.

“ ‘Good Master.’  Thus the young man addressed the Lord.

From him, this was enough. He who has spent his whole life in prison with only a candle to give him light – is it a great sin in him, when he first sees the sun to call it a candle?

What good thing shall I do?’

This question was obviously in the context of his riches, as is usually the case with the rich, who cannot see a distinction between themselves and their possession, nor think of themselves without thinking of their possessions. What could I do – what good work – with my wealth, that I may have eternal life?”  (HOMILIES,  pp 117-118)

What the rich man cannot imagine is salvation apart from his wealth.  This is the thought on which Jesus challenges  him.   Eternal life is not dependent on how wealthy you or how blessed you are in this world.   Eternal life is not open only to the fortunate elite who are blessed with abundance in this world.  Even the poor – including those poor in spirit! – can be blessed by God and receive the Kingdom of Heaven.

Those who pursue wealth in this world and imagine that will be a sign of their eternal blessings as well, might find themselves disappointed in the Kingdom of God.  Poverty is no barrier to eternal life, and wealth is no guarantee of eternal blessings.