The Courage to Be Human

John 5:1-15
After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath. The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?”But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.

This Gospel speaks about obeying God rather than looking for mere miracles/magic in one’s life, and not making rules and rubrics more important than God Himself.

But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’  (Jeremiah 7:23)

The Paralytic heard the voice of God when Christ spoke to him and he obeyed the voice of God.  Notice in the Gospel lesson Jesus doesn’t say anything about healing the paralytic.  Jesus issues a command and the paralytic walks in the way that God commanded him – literally!  He was made well – it was well with him – because the paralytic obeyed God’s voice.  Hebrews 3:7-11 describes exactly what it is like when God’s people do not hearken to His voice:

Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the test and saw my works for forty years. Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their hearts; they have not known my ways.’ As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall never enter my rest.'”

The Paralytic did not harden his heart but rather he heard God’s voice and obeyed for immediately he got up and picked up his bed.  He chose to obey this voice which apparently he recognized immediately as God’s – and as the events unfold it becomes obvious that prior to this, this man did not listen to God’s voice.

At the very end of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the healed paralytic, “Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”   This seems to imply that the paralytic had gotten himself into the condition in which he was in and had suffered for 38 years.  Somewhere in his life, he had made choices that had long term consequences.  He had been ignoring God’s voice for a very long time, but at this moment he changes his life.

But there is a message of hope – even if you are in the condition you are in because of your choices, it is possible to change, to make other choices, to get things right in your life.  To learn from the past and to take path in life, even if late in life.

Jesus asks us as he asked the paralytic 2000 years ago, do you want to be made well?  Are you willing to make the spiritual changes in your life to start on a new path – to start life over again?  Are you willing to listen to the voice of God and walk in His ways?

Are you willing to change, or make the changes necessary for a new life?

And we can ask ourselves:

Do I want to give up my grudges, when I have not yet gotten vengeance on those who hurt me?  Do I want to give up my righteous anger, when I have not vindicated?  When I have not yet been validated by others recognizing the righteousness of my case?

Do I want to give up the pains, sorrows and excuses for my behavior?  Or do I want to hold on to them because they help me justify my behavior?

Do I want to give up my lusts and desires?  Or perhaps like St. Augustine I want to say, “Deliver me, O Lord, from my sexual lusts, but not just yet for I still enjoy them”?

We are human beings, we do have free will, free choice and personal responsibility.  In any given situation we can rise above our biologically determined desires  and say no to our self.  We can choose a behavior, a morality, we can refuse to do something we feel driven to do – whether by hormones or emotions.

About 20 years ago a radio talk show psychologist said:  “You know the final excuse that really gets my hackles to full quivering attention?  It’s when callers protest that they are ‘only human.’  ONLY human?  As if one’s humanness were a blueprint for instinctive, reflexive reactions to situations, like the rest of the animal kingdom.  I see being ‘human’ as the unique opportunity to use our mind and will to act in ways that elevate us above the animal kingdom.”  (Dr Laura Schlessinger, HOW COULD YOU DO THAT?, p 9)

The attitude of that psychologist fits well into Orthodox spirituality which sees us humans as being specially gifted by God precisely to rise up above our animal nature.  It doesn’t deny that we have animal desires, instincts, genetics.  It just says but God has blessed us with hearts and minds that can choose to rise above the limits of our animal nature.

We are indeed dealt some things in life – our genes or even our epi-genetic make-up,  the time and place of our birth, the family we are raised in.  We have no control over these things and they do influence our lives.

However, our situations in life are not completely determined by external conditions, they also result from our character, courage, morality, values, life-style and choices.

It is possible for us to change many things about ourselves and the choices we make.

St. Symeon the New Theologian writes:    “Baptism does not take away our free will or freedom of choice, but gives us the freedom no longer to be tyrannized by the devil unless we choose to be.  After baptism it is in our power either to persist willingly in the practice of the commandments of Christ, into whom we were baptized, and to advance in the path of His ordinances, or to deviate from this straight way and to fall again into the hands of our enemy, the devil…. We are created good by God – for God creates nothing evil – and we remain unchanging in our nature and essence as created.  But we do what we choose and want, whether good or bad, of our own free will.”

Jesus calls us to grow and to change:

A Call to repentance

Call to forgiveness

Call to the truth

Call to love.

 

Each of these are telling us to change, to become what we are not yet.  Each is a call to be courageous enough to be human – rise above your instincts, your desires, your DNA and become what God created every human to be – God like.

We, like the paralytic, need to hear God’s voice, recognize it as God’s, and to walk in His ways.

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St Ephrem of Syria On Paradise

A person who has acquired

good health in himself

and is aware in his mind

of what sickness is,

has gained something beneficial,

and he knows something profitable;

but the person who lies

in sickness;

and knows in his mind

what good health is like,

is vexed by his sickness

and tormented in his mind.

Had Adam conquered,

he would have acquired

glory upon his limbs,

and discernment of what suffering is,

so that he might be radiant in his limbs

and grow in discernment.

But the serpent reversed all this

and made him taste

abasement in reality,

and glory in recollection only,

so that he might feel shame at what he had found

and weep at what he had lost.

The tree was to him

like a gate;

its fruit was the veil

covering that hidden Tabernacle.

Adam snached the fruit,

casting aside the commandment.

When he beheld that Glory

within,

shining forth with its rays,

he fled outside;

he ran off and took refuge

amongst the modest fig trees.

In the midst of Paradise God had planted

the Tree of Knowledge

to separate off, above and below,

Sanctuary from Holy of Holies.

Adam made bold to touch,

and he was smitten like Uzziah:

the king became leprous;

Adam was stripped.

Being struck like Uzziah

he hastened to leave:

both kings fled and hid,

in shame at their bodies.

Even though all the trees

of Paradise

are clothed each in its own glory,

yet each veils itself at the Glory:

the Seraphs with their wings,

the trees with their branches,

all cover their faces so as not to behold

their Lord.

They all blushed at Adam

who was suddenly found naked;

the serpent had stolen his garments,

for which it was deprived of its feet.

God did not permit

Adam to enter

that innermost Tabernacle:

this was withheld,

so that he might first prove pleasing

in his service of that outer Tabernacle.

Like a priest

with fragrant incense,

Adam’s keeping of the commandment

was to be his censer;

then he might enter before the Hidden One

into that hidden Tabernacle.

The symbol of Paradise

was depicted by Moses

who made the two sanctuaries,

the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies;

into the outer one,

entrance was permitted

but into the inner,

only once a year.

So too with Paradise,

God closed off the inner part

but He opened up the outer,

wherein Adam might graze.

(Ephrem the Syrian, Treasure-house of Mysteries, pp. 48-50)

Christianity is Materialist!

“My faith, finally, is that if I am canceled by the power death has in our world, then God’s greater power can overcome it.”  (John Garvey, Death and the Rest of Our Life, p. 78)

On my first visit to Armenia in 1990, I visited the home of Anahid and Kevork Oynoyan. They had lost their twelve-year-old son, Armen, in the catastrophic earthquake of December 1988, and Kevork was profoundly depressed as a result. . . .  He got up and brought back a copy of the New Testament and a book that had been distributed by the Hare Krishna sect describing the transmigration and reincarnation of the soul. He asked if I would explain the difference between reincarnation and the Christian belief in the resurrection. He said that in his atheism classes years before he had been taught that Christianity is spiritualist.  If that was so, weren’t reincarnation and resurrection essentially the same?

I suggested that we read 1 Corinthians 15, where St. Paul defends the belief in the resurrection of the body and the soul.  In silence, visibly and deeply absorbed, Kevork read that chapter not once but several times.  Then joyfully shouted, “So Christianity is materialist!”  The darkness had lifted, because in St. Paul’s teaching Kevork had discovered what he had hoped would be there but had not found in the book on reincarnation: the assurance that he would see his son again, recognize him, and be able to love him in an embrace of the resurrected flesh.  In the person of Jesus Christ, God’s love is manifested as life. Jesus’ resurrection proclaims the triumphant power of love and life over death.

 (Vigen Guroian, Life’s Living Toward Dying, pp. 27-28)

 

Unseasonably Springing

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We have had a cold spring in our area.  Winter has held on to the temperatures and brought us snow flurries, while the song birds are heralding spring in trees which are budding while flowers have appeared in fields and flower beds.

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So when the day seemed even remotely springlike, I took my camera and walked the paths at Cox Arboretum.   The weather may not be springing, but I tried to put a little spring in my walk.

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I did see my first caterpillar, ant and  (my favorite) bee of the season – welcome signs of spring.

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In the Orthodox Church we frequently pray for “seasonable weather” which perhaps in our modern minds shaped by media weather reports translates into average or normal weather, though in our hearts we want it to be at least fair weather, preferable good or nice.

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But there is an old Arab saying which has it that “All sun makes a desert.”  We need the rain, clouds and cool weather to make our gardens grow.

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“Unseasonably.”  This to me is a strange word in the vocabulary of media meteorologists.  In the middle of winter they might say on the coldest night of the year that it is “unseasonably cold.”  They seem to mean it is below average in temperature, but in what other season except for winter would we have those bone chilling temperatures?

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We seem to have had an unseasonably cold spring this year, though I don’t know if the weather data would affirm that or whether we have been well within what is normal for this time of the year.

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A little ditty, I remember from my youth:  “Whether the weather be fine, or whether the weather be not, it’s not a matter of weather or not.  Whatever the weather, we’ll weather the weather, whether we like it or not.”   Searching on the Internet, I see that limerick has many avatars, none of them exactly as I remember it.

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You can find all of my photos from my walk at  2018-4-26 Cox Arboretum.   Despite the weather, the birds keep singing every morning.

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Obedience as Discipleship

In the writings of the desert fathers, there is an interesting interplay that occurs regarding a literal understanding of instructions and a literal understanding of the scriptures.  The Scriptures reveal Christ and so often are not understood literally or historically but rather are read as signs or prophecies or prototypes of Christ.  The Scriptures are to help us remain faithfully united to Christ – and thus their historical or literal truthfulness is not the really important issue.   The issue is how they reveal Christ to us and help us follow Christ.  In the early Church it is often the heretics who hold to a completely literal interpretation of every text and who fail to understand the true scope of the Scriptures.  On the other hand, one sees a literalism that is related to obedience in which the disciple tries to fulfill the wish of the teacher to the letter of the law.  So we read:

On another occasion the blessed Arsenius said to Abba Alexander: “Come and eat with me when you have cut your palm-fronds, but if some guests come, eat with them.” So Abba Alexander worked away evenly and moderately; when the time came, he still had palm-fronds. Wishing to fulfill the elder’s instruction, he stayed to complete the palms. When Abba Arsenius saw that he was late, he ate, thinking that [Abba Alexander] had guests, but Abba Alexander went [to him] when he had finished the palm-fronds in the evening and the elder said to him: “You had guests?” and he said: “No.” “So why did you come?” [the elder] said to him. “Because you said to me: ‘When you have cut your palm-fronds, come then,’” he said, “and, observing your instruction, I did not come because I only completed [the task] just now.” The elder was amazed at his scrupulosity and he said to him: “Break your fast earlier so you can perform your synaxis and partake of your water, otherwise your body will soon sicken.” (Give Me a Word: Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 44-45)

Many in the early church read the sin of Eve and Adam as being one of prideful disobedience.  The corrective as they saw it was for Christians to be disciples – to follow the discipline of their teachers and not follow their own self-willfulness.  Thus we find in the desert fathers many stories of monks diligently and scrupulously obeying their elder’s instructions, even to the point of absurdity.  Of course, the point is not to do the absurd, but to emphasize the need to be a disciplined follower of Christ.

Christianity is a Hope

“Christianity, claims Michel Quenot, is not a moral structure but a hope. It is a witness to the fact that ‘Christ, by his death, has conquered death,’ and that all are now able to participate in his eternal Life. This is possible to the extent that one is willing to welcome the Word of God into the very depths of one’s being, to open one’s heart to that which the eyes of flesh can no longer see and to fulfill one’s true nature as created in the image of God. The Church Fathers teach us that man is called to become a mediator for all that became separated through sin and which Christ reunited in his person: the heart and the mind, the soul and the body, matter and spirit, heaven and earth.”

(Maxime Egger in The Resurrection and the Icon by Michel Quenot, p x)

Finding Christ in the Mystery

Attend

Notice! Jesus stands just before you,

waiting in the tabernacle shaped

for you–shaped precisely for you!

He burns with great desire

to enter into your heart.

 

Ignore the yammering demon

telling you “not so!” Laugh in his pinched face

and turn without fear to receive

the Jesus of quiet calm and utmost love.

Partake of His Mysteries often,

often as you can, for in Them you find

your sole, entire remedy, assuming–

of course–you would be cured. Jesus has not

impressed this hunger in your heart for nothing.

This gentle Guest of our souls

knows our every ache and misery.

He enters, desiring to find a tent, a bower

prepared for His arrival within us,

and that is all, all He asks of us.

(Scott Cairns, Love’s Immensity, pp. 138-139)

The Empty Tomb(s)

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When we think about the Myrrhbearing Women going to the tomb of Christ on that first Day of the Lord, we should not romanticize about the tomb of Christ.  These Holy Women Disciples of the Lord are not on their way to see if Jesus has risen – the resurrection is far from their minds because it formed no part of their experience of life.  They are on their way to pour funeral oils on a decomposing corpse.  Tombs for them were a bottomless pit into which the dead were placed never to be seen or heard from again.  Tombs were nothing but the entrance way into Hades, Sheol, that place of the dead.

Their Scriptures had taught them that death, the grave and Sheol all have an insatiable appetite – consuming every human being and always hungry to swallow more (See Numbers 16:30-33; Job 7:9; Psalm 89:48; Proverbs 27:20, 30:15-16; Isaiah 5:14; Habakkuk 2:5).  Hades was a prison from which there was no escape. It was a gulag from which no one returned alive.  The tombs were the all consuming mouth which was the entrance to the belly of Sheol.  It was a mouth always open, always ready to devour more people.  Sheol is never full, nor even half full for it is an endless abyss into which humanity falls.

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And it was into this gaping mouth that the body of the Lord was placed.  One more victim swallowed up by death’s insatiable appetite.

The tombs were a symbol of God’s creation gone awry.  They reminded everyone that there were forces at work in the world over which they had no control.   The tombs reminded everyone that wealth and beauty are fleeting – they last only a short while, and you can’t take it with you.  The women going to the tomb of Christ knew how fragile life is for they already had many friends and family members in the tombs, in the bottomless pit of the belly of Sheol.

Jesus himself had said:  “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”   (Matthew 23:27)

27115684791_feab1caf2b_nYou could decorate the tombs and make them look quite beautiful, but they still contained rotting flesh and the bones which are all that remain of the dead.

So we remember the Holy Myrrhbearing Women, those saints of our church who were the first to hear of the resurrection, but who on that first day of the week 2000 years ago were in fact looking for Jesus, but thinking He was nothing but a corpse.

And we can think about our life in the Church today.  We too can make beautiful church buildings which are nothing more than the white washed tombs which Jesus criticized.  I remember years ago going to the main cathedral of a European city on Easter Sunday and though Easter mass was going on, the building was eerily vacant as few people were attending – the empty tomb had taken on a new meaning.

We have to make our churches full of God’s grace by becoming a living temple (1 Peter 2:5) because we each are alive in Christ.  Then people will not come to the church looking for the corpse of Christ, but to receive His resurrected Body.  There may be people out there like the Myrrhbearing women who are searching for something, but don’t even realize what they could find in the Church.  If we are the tomb of Christ – we need to become that tomb from which life will flow from us, and  in which all who die and are buried with Christ in baptism will also be raised with Him to eternal life.  We have to be true witnesses to Christ and live for the Kingdom of God, not for this world, live as if we actually believed in the life of the world to come.

The Myrrhbearing Women going to the tomb of Christ tell us to consider what we are as church – the empty tomb of the dead? a museum of antiquities?   A way to the past?     OR, the place where we hear the angels sing, “Christ is risen!”  The place where we encounter the Risen Lord, the place where we enter into eternal life.  God lives not in buildings, but in our hearts and in our midst.  If there is life in our churches, then we should be flocking to them ourselves to be nurtured and nourished in the way of life everlasting.  We should be there for prayer, worship, fellowship, bible study, peace making, charity and to do the ministry Christ needs us to do.  We should be living the Beatitudes, a light to the world.

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And those same women also remind us that not only our church buildings, but our hearts within us can also be either the empty tomb, void of life, or the place where the Risen Christ abides, reigning in our hearts and through us giving life to the world.  Our souls, our hearts and minds are also to be beautiful temples for the Lord – the place where the Holy Spirit can dwell on earth to bring forth the fruit of paradise.

The Myrrhbearing Women tell us to look for Christ – we should know Him in our hearts and in our parish congregations.  He should be present with us, so that anyone else can see Him in us.

The Resurrection in Our Life

“How the facts of Christ’s life perplex us! Never are they exactly what we are expecting. And yet they go even further and are more positive than we were expecting. Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, but Jesus is He whom no sepulchre can contain or restrain.

The women bring aromatic spices to the tomb; now it is a God already risen whom they plan to anoint. A woman breaks a jar of perfume on the Lord’s living body, in order to give Him glory; now Jesus says that it is with a view to His burial that she performed this act. The cross seems to destroy hope, but the resurrection destroys despair.

The divine acts, which ruin our plans, go beyond either hope or despair. Thus it is with each of Jesus’ interventions in our personal life. Every one of them makes something explode, but also makes flight possible. Jesus won’t fit into any of our plans. His presence, His word, break every bound.

(A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus, a Dialogue with the Savior, pp. 19-20)

Holy Myrrhbearing Women

As the true friends of the Creator were saying this,

Mary, who was following, said,

“Initiates of the Lord and his truly fervent lovers, do not think like this;

but be patient, do not lose heart.

For what has happened was a dispensation,

so that women, as those who were the first to fall,

might be the first to see the risen One.

He wishes to grant to us who mourn the grace of his ‘Rejoice!’,

he who grants resurrection to the fallen.”

On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 170)

Frequently, the Patristic writers see the Gospel events as an “undoing” of the Fall of Eve and Adam.  In the poem above, St. Romanos the Melodist, explains  that the Women Disciples of the Lord learn about the resurrection before the chosen Apostles so that woman would be given the opportunity to “reverse the curse”.  Eve fell before Adam, but now the women get to share the Good News with the men.  All sin is forgiven in the resurrection as humans are put on the path to the Kingdom of God and allowed to enter into Paradise again.