The Salvation of the World

“we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25)

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

St. Paul uses several different images of the Church – the Body of Christ.  In them it is always clear that to be a Christian is to be integrated into something greater than oneself – a body, a temple.  We cannot be a Christian without being part of this greater whole, which is the Church.  As the early Christians noted, “one Christian is no Christian.”

When we think of Christianity purely in individualistic terms, we lose sight of what it is to be a Christian.  We end up with a wrong idea about what salvation is.  Many “Christians” today think salvation is to “die and go to heaven.”  Yet numerous New Testament scholars point out that idea is not really found in the Gospel proclamation.  Salvation is about liberation from death and is about the redemption of the world.  Just as the New Testament envisions Christianity always being a Body of members, so too it understands salvation to be for the entire world, not just for a few individuals.  The incarnation of the Son of God brings salvation to the world and to humanity for it heals human nature.

Orthodox Theologian Christos Yannaras notes the negative effects of an individualistic understanding of Christianity:

“In our days, a mistaken religious upbringing has led many people to consider the Church as a means or instrument to ensure individual salvation for each of us – and when they talk of ‘salvation’ they mean an unlimited kind of survival after death in some ‘other’ world.  But in reality the Church entrusts to everyone the enormous honor to be responsible for the salvation of the whole world, of this world whose flesh is our flesh and whose life is our life.  And salvation for the Church is the liberation of life from corruption and death, the transformation of survival into existential fullness, the sharing of the created in the mode of life of the uncreated.”  (ELEMENTS OF FAITH, p 48)

The salvation of the world includes individuals, but is always about the entire creation – it is about uniting together that which sin divided, separated, alienated.

“So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” (Ephesians 219-22)

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Arise, O Lord, Confront Them and Us?

 Psalm 17

Hide me under the shadow of Your wings,
From the wicked who oppress me,
From my deadly enemies who surround me.
. . .
As a lion is eager to tear his prey,
And like a young lion lurking in secret places.
Arise, O LORD,
Confront him, cast him down;
Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword,
With Your hand from men, O LORD,
From men of the world who have their portion in this life,

The Psalms are filled with appeals to God asking for protection from enemies, for overthrowing adversaries and requesting justice in dealing with oppressors.  While they have a “literal” meaning, and sometimes the inscriptions at the beginning of each Psalm tell us a little bit about the circumstances in which they were written, the Psalms don’t always tell us how we are to pray them, use them or understand them.

When we read Patristic commentary on the Psalms, we find that the Fathers made a wide variety of uses of the texts, interpreting them in various ways, depending on their purpose of their writing.  The Psalms could be read as prophecy about Christ, as well as expressing the mind of Christ and His understanding of the world.  The Fathers found in the Psalms defense for dogma and doctrine.  They found in Christ the meaning of the Psalms  and the revelation of God and pure theology.

Various Psalms made it into the fixed portions of the Church’s liturgies, Vespers and Matins.  The Psalms were seen as expressing the spiritual warfare which all Christians found themselves in – during every epoch and in each geographical place on the planet.

The Fathers often saw in the more warmonger Psalms a call to greater spiritual struggle against Satan and all his demonic hosts.

In the earliest days of Christianity and in other times when Christians found themselves being oppressed, the Psalms appealing to God for justice against oppressive forces were comforting.  They offered the hope that one day, perhaps only in the Kingdom, evildoers would be overthrown, the workers of iniquity would get their comeuppance while the poor, oppressed and downtrodden would find themselves being lifted up by God and given the blessings of which they had been denied on earth.

Martyrs Andronicus, Probus, Tarachus

Two Psalms which made it into Matins focus on the troubles a Christian might face in the world.  If we look at some verses from two such Psalms –

Psalm 3

Lord, how they have increased who trouble me!
Many are they who rise up against me.
Many are they who say of me,
“There is no help for him in God.”

But You, O LORD, are a shield for me,
My glory and the One who lifts up my head.
I cried to the LORD with my voice,
And He heard me from His holy hill.

I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people
Who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O LORD;
Save me, O my God!
For You have struck all my enemies on the cheekbone;
You have broken the teeth of the ungodly.
Salvation belongs to the LORD.

Psalm 63

Your right hand upholds me.
But those who seek my life, to destroy it,
Shall go into the lower parts of the earth.
They shall fall by the sword;
They shall be a portion for jackals.

There is an interpretive question which can be raised.  While these Psalms quoted above might be an appeal for justice as well as mercy for one who is being oppressed, or perhaps for an entire people who are being cruelly coerced, what happens to the meaning of these Psalms if one is in the ruling class, in the majority, with those who are in power?  What happens when the troublemakers and wicked are in the minority?  They can be a plague, even if they the few.  Sinners and malcontents, people who hold minority viewpoints or who adhere to other religious beliefs might all be a nuisance at best but totally undesirable in a society.

So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets.  (Matthew 7:12)

The early Christians, being persecuted because of their faith in Christ would certainly have prayed these Psalms in a particular why, asking God to help them against their more powerful oppressors and enemies.  They are a prayer asking for justice and deliverance.  The Psalms are being prayed because of a belief in God’s mercy, compassion and loving kindness.

However, when the Christians ceased to be in the minority, among the oppressed, but now were in positions of power and able to determine the fates of not only themselves but of others, these same Psalms can be turned away from a cry for mercy and help into a demand for punishment, domination, brutality and persecution of others – not just the criminals, but anyone deemed undesirable.  These same Psalms which are appealing for God’s mercy against evil oppressors can be turned into justification for pogroms, ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and forcing people into exile.

If we pray for mercy and justice for ourselves, we need to work for mercy and justice for all.  We are to interpret the Psalms through Christ’s Gospel commandments:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:43-48)

The Various Forms of Our Love for God

“Love of God takes various forms.

The man who wrestles with wrong thoughts loves God according to his measure. He who struggles against sin, and asks God to give him strength not to sin, but yet falls into sin again because of his infirmity, and sorrows and repents – he possesses grace in the depths of his soul and mind, but his passions are not yet overcome.

St. John the Forerunner

But the man who has conquered his passions now knows no conflict: all his concern is to watch himself in all things lest he fall into sin. Grace, great and perceptible, is his. But he who feels grace in both soul and body is a perfect man, and if he preserves this grace, his body is sanctified and his bones will make holy relics.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, pp. 438-439)

Welcoming the Day and Its Blessings

“This day is blessed by God, it is God’s own and now let us go into it.

You walk in this day as God’s own messenger; whoever you meet, you meet in God’s own way. You are there to be the presence of Christ, the presence of the Spirit, the presence of the Gospel – this is your function on this particular day.

God has never said that when you walk into a situation in His own Name, He will be crucified and you will be the risen one. You must be prepared to walk into situations, one after the other, in God’s name, to walk as the Son of God has done: in humiliation and humility, in truth and ready to be persecuted and so forth.

Usually what we expect when we fulfill God’s commandments is to see a marvelous result at once – we read of that at times in the lives of the saints. When, for instance, someone hits us on one cheek, we turn the other one, although we don’t expect to be hit at all, but we expect to hear the other person say ‘What, such humility’ – you get your reward and he gets the salvation of his soul. It does not work that way. You must pay the cost and very often you get hit hard. What matters is that you are prepared for that.

As to the day, if you accept that this day was blessed of God, chose by God with His own hand, then every person you meet is a gift of God, every circumstance you will meet is a gift of God, whether it is bitter or sweet, whether you like or dislike it. It is God’s own gift to you and if you take it that way, then you can face any situation. But then you must face it with the readiness that anything may happen, whether you enjoy it or not, and if you walk in the name of the Lord through a day which has come fresh and new out of His own Hands and has been blessed for you to live with it, then you can make prayer and life really like the two sides of one coin.

You act and pray in one breath, as it were, because all the situations that follow one another require God’s blessing.”  (Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray, pp. 46-47)

If You Wish to Be Perfect

Within the Gospel lesson, Matthew 19:16-26 , Jesus challenges a man who thinks he is pretty close to being perfect in keeping all of God’s commandments with these words:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 

Jesus tells the man that perfection cannot be found in the Commandments, in keeping Torah.  For that which leads to perfection is not commanded by the Torah or God at all.  Perfection lies in love, loving as God loves, in loving one’s neighbor while abandoning personal wealth and property, in following Christ.

St. Dorotheos of Gaza comments:

“The commandments were given to all Christians and it is understood that every Christian observes them; this is, as it were, the tribute appointed to be paid to the King. Anyone who says, ‘I will not pay tribute,’ will he escape punishment? There are, however, in the world great and illustrious men who not only pay the appointed tribute, but also offer gifts and they are thought worthy of great honor, great benefits and esteem.

So also the Holy Fathers not only kept the commandments but also offered gifts to God. These gifts are virginity and poverty.  These are not commanded but freely given. Nowhere is it written, you shall not take a wife or ‘Sell your property!’ He did not choose to do so when the lawyer approached him saying, ‘Good Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He replied, ‘You know the Commandments. Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not bear false witness against your neighbor, etc. When the answer came, ‘All these things I have kept from my youth,’ he added, ‘If you want to be perfect, sell your property and give the money to the poor,’ etc. See, he did not say ‘sell your property as a commandment, but as a counsel. This is clear from the condition imposed, ‘if you wish to be perfect.’ (Discourses & Sayings, p. 84).

Knowledge and Keeping God’s Commandments

In the Gospel lesson of Matthew 19:16-26, a man asks Jesus, Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”  Jesus tells him, “… if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.

Of course there are 613 commandments in the Torah, so the man seeks further clarification, so he asks Jesus:

“Which ones?”

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 your mother,’ and, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’“

Jesus names five of the Ten Commandments and then adds another commandment from the Torah that he must love his neighbor as if the neighbor is his own self (Leviticus 19:18).  Jesus neither limits God’s commandments to the Ten, nor does he treat this other commandment as any different or less than the Ten.

St. John of Kronstadt comments on keeping the Commandments:

“One definite commandment was given to Adam and Eve, in order that by fulfilling this one commandment – which was, moreover, a very easy one – men might acquire the habit of fulfilling the will of God, the fulfillment of which constitutes the whole well-being of creatures, and might be strengthened in the love of God.

If we turn our attention to the contrary – to the non-fulfillment of the will of the Creator and the fulfillment of our own will, in opposition to the Creator’s – we observe that little by little a man changes for the worse and perverts his own right nature, created after the image and likeness of God, and becomes God’s enemy. So important is the fulfillment of God’s commandments, and so destructive is their non-fulfillment! By giving to the first men His definite commandment not to eat the fruits of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the Lord God revealed Himself as the Guide of the newly-created reasonable creatures, of His children by adoption. Whose fault was it that this guidance was rejected, and that man preferred to be governed by his own will? Even until now, notwithstanding all the progress in sciences and arts, notwithstanding all the treasures of human wisdom, neither the man of ancient nor of modern times can educate himself, because he rejected even from the beginning the guidance of God; for, say, who but God should be our guide? And both at present and in the past only those men successfully completed their mental and moral education who trusted in God and lived in accordance with His commandments, or who now live in accordance with the Gospel and the teaching of the Church, submitting themselves to her guidance. This is useful for all modern teachers to remember.

“Science” – Library of Congress

We have many sciences, but the result obtained is small; our youths have much in their heads, whilst in their hearts they have little – very little and often, alas! Even nothing. Life, then does not correspond with education and science. But ‘though I understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.‘ (1 Corinthians XII. 2, 3.).”   (My Life in Christ, pp. 150-151)

Tradition = Scripture, Rightly Understood

“So, for Irenaeus, both the true apostolic tradition maintained by the churches, and the apostolic writings themselves, derive from the same apostles, and have one and the same content, the Gospel, which is itself, as we have seen, ‘according to the Scripture.’  ‘Tradition‘ for the early Church is, as Florovsky puts it, ‘Scripture, rightly understood.’ Irenaeus’ appeal to tradition is thus fundamentally different to that of his opponents. While they appealed to tradition precisely for that which was not in Scripture, or for principals which would legitimize their interpretation of Scripture, Irenaeus, in his appeal to tradition, was not appealing to anything else that was not also in Scripture. Thus Irenaeus can appeal to tradition, to establish his case, and at the same time maintain that Scripture itself, using its own hypothesis and canon.”  (John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology: The Way to Nicea, p. 45)

Our Demons are Our Own Wills

Abraham, Abba Agathon’s abba, asked Abba Poemen: “Why are the demons doing battle with me so?” and Abba Poemen said to him: “Are the demons doing battle with you? The demons do not battle with us as long as we are following our own wills, for our wills have become demons; it is they that oppress us so that we fulfill them. Do you want to see with whom the demons do battle? It is with Moses and those like him” (Give me a Word,p. 238).

Reflection on the Christian Family

While in the Orthodox Tradition, the family is often considered to be “the little church” in which we live and practice our Orthodox Faith, the family as a social unit has not gotten the attention in our spiritual tradition that one can find for monks and nuns.

Be that as it may, most of us spend at least part of our lives in families and there we do have to consider how to be Christian.  In the modern age we see some attempts to write about the family from an Orthodox perspective, including trying to emphasize married saints of the Church.  This literature though gives witness to the dearth of writings on family in the mostly monastic spirituality of Orthodoxy.  Even in the New Testament, depending on what English translation you read, the word “family” only occurs 5-20 times, and even there gives almost no instruction on what Christian family might look like.

In addition to temptations from the evil one, Starets Macarius  [19th Century, Russian] gives several other important causes for family problems. To one correspondent he writes: ‘It is this growing indifference to His Word, and our consequent refusal to examine our hearts-where we could find both the peace He bequeathed us and the insight into our lack of love of Him and of our neighbor-which brings in its wake this punishment, this disruption of the home.’  He also says that this is due to our failure to see Christ in others. He reminds us that when we mistreat others, we are in a real sense mistreating Christ. So he tells us, ‘Remember that you are pupils of Christ-of Christ who teaches us to love not only our friends but even our enemies, and to …  forgive all who trespass against us. “But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses’”Matt. 6:15). What a frightful prospect!’

Along these same lines, he tells a correspondent that while it is good that she has a long prayer rule and often reads the Church Fathers, ‘remember that love of the neighbor is the first work you must strive for. And you do not even have to leave your house to find that neighbor: your husband is that neighbor; your mother is that neighbor; and so are your children.’ To another spiritual child, he says that the ‘poison’ in the family cannot be cast out of their home ‘unless you promptly cease condemning each other. You clearly think you are always in the right; she, of course thinks she is. You heap on her a multitude of grave or petty accusations. She does the same to you. Where will this all end?’  Then he points out that the chief things the husband accuses his wife are actually the same faults he has. The Elder concludes:

All this financial trouble between you comes of your having completely forgotten that yours is a Christian home, or should be. A home is a Christian one when all the members of the household bear each other’s burdens, and when each condemns only himself. You have forgotten this, both of you. And so every word of hers pieces you, like an arrow dipped in poison. And your words, likewise, pierce her.

Ponder the truth of Christian marriage: man and wife are one flesh! Does it not follow that they must share all their possessions? And yet you two haggle over this property! And why? Because of words!

Unless you promptly strive for and achieve a loving peace between you, it is hopeless to try to bring tidiness and fairness into your business dealings with one another. Humble yourself, not her. Love her, not yourself.”

 (David and Mary Ford, Marriage as a Path to Holiness, p. xlvi-xlvii).

Better Sleep Than Slander

“Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  (Philippians 2:3-4)

Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all men who were on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

In Orthodoxy, humility is a highly valued virtue.  It is opposed to judgmentalism which is born in the sin of pride.  Judgmentalism leads to self-vaunting self-righteousness – considering oneself better than others.  Humility is what allows us to see our own sins and not to judge our sisters and brothers.   It doesn’t mean being blind – we are not taught to be blind to what is really going on – we are to see clearly even the sins of others.  It is what we do with what we see and how we react to what we see which shows us whether we live in love.  

The wisdom to love rather than judge is found in many spiritual traditions, here is a story from the Islamic tradition:

Sa’di of Shiraz tells this story about himself:
When I was a child I was a pious boy, fervent in prayer and devotion. One night I was keeping vigil with my father, the Holy Koran on my lap.

Everyone else in the room began to slumber and soon was sound asleep, so I said to my father, “None of these sleepers opens his eyes or raises his head to say his prayers. You would think that they were all dead.”

My father replied, “My beloved son, I would rather you too were asleep like them than slandering.” (Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p. 107).

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:9-14)