If we extend our discourse to the boundless multitude of fishes – those in ponds, those in the springs, those in the rivers, those in the navigable sea, and those in the unnavigable –
or if we consider the untold numbers of flocks of birds – those in the air, those on land, those in the water as well as on the land (for there are a great number of aquatic birds among them), wild ones, tame ones, wild ones that have been domesticated,
those that always remain wild, edible ones, inedible ones – and if we investigate the beauty, the feathers, and the musical sound of each; if we but closely examine the differences in their singing, their food, their way of life, and if we recount their habits, their haunts, all the benefits and services they provide to us, their sizes, great and small,
their young and the rearing of them, and the great and inexpressible diversity among them, and if we also do the same with the fishes; and if from there we also go on to plants, which grow everywhere on the earth, and if for each of them we look at its fruit and its usefulness and its fragrance and its appearance,
its structure, its leaves, its color, its shape, its size, great or small, its benefits, its methods of cultivation, its kind of bark, trunk, branch, those growing in meadows and those in enclosed gardens; then if we go on to the various herbs and investigate the manifold places where they grow and the ways to find them,
to care for them, and to cultivate them, as well as their usefulness to us for healing; and if we also move on to the ore-bearing mountains, of which there are many; and if we search through all the other created things, which are even more numerous –
then, what words or what amount of time would be enough for us to come to a precise understanding of them? And all that, O man, is for your sake: arts for your sake, and ways of living and cities and villages and sleep for your sake,
and death for your sake, and life for your sake, and growth, and so many works of nature and such a good world for your sake now – and for your sake it will be better still. Concerning the fact that it will be better and that it will be better for your sake,
listen to what the apostle Paul says: Because the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption, that is, from being corruptible. And how it will enjoy such an honor he shows by adding: into the liberty of the glory of the children of God (Rom. 8:21).
Is it possible to be excessively virtuous? The question might seem ridiculous and yet one can find in the Church Fathers comments saying even in practicing virtue moderation is a virtue.
Humorously, the question reminds me of a Dilbert cartoon in which Dogbert asks Dilbert, “Do you think I have too much false humility?” Which of course begs the question, can a person have too much false humility? If it weren’t for false humility, Dogbert would have no humility at all.
St Gregory of Sinai did think there was a danger in exceeding the limits of virtue. Virtues are lived out on a continuum or scale and one needs to know where the precise midpoint for that virtue is, for that is where the wise person will be. He comments:
The cardinal virtues are four:
There are eight other moral qualities, that either go beyond or fall short of these virtues. These we regard as vices, and so we call them; but non-spiritual people regard them as virtues and that is what they call them.
Exceeding or falling short of courage are audacity and cowardice,
of sound understanding are cunning and ignorance;
of self-restraint are licentiousness and obtuseness;
of justice are excess and injustice, or taking less than one’s due.
In between, and superior to, what goes beyond or what falls short of them, lie not only the cardinal and natural virtues, but also the practical virtues. These are consolidated by resolution combined with probity of character; the others by perversion and self-conceit. That the virtues lie along the midpoint or axis of rectitude is testified to by the proverb, ‘You will attain every well- founded axis’ (Prov. 2:9. LXX). (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 41411-41423)
It is a vice in St. Gregory’s teaching not only to fall short of a virtue but also to exceed what is the midpoint of the range of behaviors associated with the virtue. An excessive amount of courage becomes the vice of audacity, an excessive amount of understanding becomes cunningness, an excessive amount of self-restraint becomes the vice of obtuseness, and even justice can be taken to an excess which becomes injustice. Balance in the spiritual life is needed, moderation in all things is a good spiritual rule. As. St. Gregory also says one can even read Psalms to an excess:
In my opinion, those who do not psalmodize much act rightly, for it means that they esteem moderation – and according to the sages moderation is best in all things [emphases not in the original text]. In this way they do not expend all the energy of their soul in ascetic labor, thus making the intellect negligent and slack where prayer is concerned. On the contrary, by devoting but little time to psalmodizing, they can give most of their time to prayer. On the other hand, when the intellect is exhausted by continuous noetic invocation and intense concentration, it can be given some rest by releasing it from the straitness of silent prayer and allowing it to relax in the amplitude of psalmody. This is an excellent rule, taught by the wisest men. (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 42480-42487)
Ilias the Presbyter also writing in THE PHILOKALIA confirms the same teaching:
Neither one who falls short of virtue because of negligence nor one who out of presumption oversteps it will reach the harbor of dispassion. Indeed, no one will enjoy the blessings of righteousness who tries to attain them by means of either deficiency or excess.” (Kindle Loc. 25349-51)
August 29 is the date one which we Orthodox commemorate the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner. [A trivia note: It also is the date of King Herod’s birthday, but in any case the day is stained by by the King’s notorious decision to murder the Forerunner of the Lord as part of the king’s own birthday celebration.] St. John is granted eternal memory in the Scriptures and festal Tradition of the Church while Herod is remembered only for murdering a great man. One sign of the significance of St. John the Baptist in the early church is that he is mentioned in all four gospels.
The hymn for this feast notes that St. John joyously suffered for the truth:
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 honor of the St. John, as we commemorate his death, here is a poem from Scott Cairns.
If we received good things from the Lord’s hand, shall we not bear the bad? [Job 2.10].
Remind yourself of the good things from the past. Balance out the bad with the good. No person’s life is altogether blessed. Continual prosperity belongs to God alone. So if you are upset by these present circumstances, comfort yourself by remembering the past.
Now you weep, but you laughed in the past. Now you are poor, but you were rich in the past. You used to drink the limpid streams of life; be patient now as you drink these muddy waters. The waters of a river are not always pure. As you know, our life is a river, ever flowing and filled with waves one after the other. One has already flowed by, another is still passing, another has just emerged from its sources, another is about to do so, and all of us hasten to the common sea of death.
If we received good things from the Lord’s hand, shall we not bear the bad? [Job 2.10].
Are we compelling the Judge to supply us forever with the same things? Are we teaching the Master how he should arrange our life? He holds the authority over his own decisions. He directs our affairs in whatever way he wishes. He is wise, and he measures out to the his servants only what will profit them. Do not engage in futile investigations of the Master’s judgement; only love the ways in which he has dispensed his wisdom. With pleasure receive whatever he gives to you. In painful situations show that you are worthy of that joy that used to be yours.
The Lord Jesus spoke this parable: Hear another parable: There was a certain landowner who planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a winepress in it and built a tower. And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country. Now when vintage-time drew near, he sent his servants to the vinedressers, that they might receive its fruit. And the vinedressers took his servants, beat one, killed one, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first, and they did likewise to them. Then last of all he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’
But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.’ So they took him and cast him out of the vineyard and killed him. Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vinedressers?” They said to Him, “He will destroy those wicked men miserably, and lease his vineyard to other vinedressers who will render to him the fruits in their seasons.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone which the builders rejected Has become the chief cornerstone. This was the LORD’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? (Matthew 21:33-42)
This is yet another of the parables found in Matthew’s Gospel in which a king/ master/ landowner attempts to settle accounts with his workers. In all of them the ‘master’ of the parable is looking to get what is his due. The master is not portrayed as being unfair, overbearing or wrathful, but wants to receive what is rightfully his. In the above parable, we see the landowner enters into an agreement with some workers who are leasing the land to gain some profit for the labor. However, when the landowner attempts to get what is rightfully his, the workers abuse and kill the landowner’s servants. Amazingly the landowner shows no sign of wrath for this rebellion. First, he sends more servants who are also abused or murdered, then he sends his own son imagining that the workers who don’t respect his servants will respect his won. Instead the workers murder the son as well under the total delusion that the inheritance will be theirs once the son is dead. But note in the parable it is not Jesus who says the landowner will come in wrath to destroy the rebellious workers. That is the statement of those listening to Jesus, and the Gospel lesson suggests it is the answer of those who oppose Jesus. Jesus suggests to them that if you really think God is wrathful and will destroy those who disobey Him or kill His prophets, then why aren’t you following your own vision of God and repenting? Instead Christ’s opponents are plotting to kill Him, even though they believe God is vengeful and wrathful towards those who disobey Him and maltreat His servants. Jesus is challenging them – are you willing to deny that I am serving God? It is a question they are loathsome to answer because they know the masses believe Jesus’ miracles and teachings are a sure sign that He is from God (Matthew 21:46).
We see a similar image of God being portrayed as patient and merciful in several other of the parables in Matthews Gospel:
In Matt 13:24-30, The parable of the man who sowed good seed in his fields but then an enemy came at night and sowed weeds in his fields. Despite the stunning evil done to him, the man does not want his servants to uproot the weeds immediately, lest in so-doing they damage the good plants. The weeds will be destroyed later, but nothing more is said about the enemy who did the evil.
In Matt 18:21-35, the parable of the unforgiving servant. The master at the beginning seeks only what is rightfully his, but is unimaginably forgiving and merciful, canceling a ginormous debt. He is no wrathful judge. He only shows anger when the forgiven servant refuses himself to forgive.
In Matt 20:1-16, the parable of the laborers and the vineyard – the master generously pays even those hired at the 11th hour the same as those hired from the first hour. The master never show any sign of wrath, but those hired first are very angry and [perhaps ‘rightfully’] resent the master’s generosity to the late comers.
The parable in Matt 22:1-14, the King’s wedding banquet, starts off in a similar way to the above parables. The king’s servants are abused and killed though they are out inviting people to a wedding banquet! The people’s reaction is totally outrageous, yet the king sends more servants to invite the guests, but only when the second round of servants are murdered and abused does the King become angry at how his servants are treated and he destroys the rebels, but then brings in all kinds of ‘undesirables’ to join his feast.
Even in Matt 25:31-46, the parable of the last judgment, the Son of man does not display unwarranted wrath toward those who are deemed fit for hell. He actually speaks with them and answers their question, and states that though hell wasn’t intended for them, since they refused to show mercy and compassion toward Him, they would now received their just reward. As they gave (or failed to give!), so they got what was their due. Judgment is not based on their sins but only on their failure to be merciful.
Still overall, the parables if they are portraying God to us do not give us the image of sinners in the hands of an angry God. They do not portray a God of wrath who treats His subjects as He wishes because He has power over them. God is plenty merciful and patient, giving everyone plenty of opportunities to show themselves merciful, forgiving, generous, grateful and willing to do His will.
In the writings of the Church Fathers, we encounter a clear idea that the difference between Christians and unbelievers is we Christians are to focus on God in our daily lives and demonstrate our love for God. We keep God before us at all times and aim to please God. When we take our eyes off God to look at the world or what others are doing, then we behave like unbelievers.
The 4th Century (?) monastic and patristic author now called Pseudo-Macarius (‘Pseudo’ because for a long time the writings were credited to St Macarius of Egypt, but it is clear in the writings that the author is from Syria, not Egypt. So now most people believe they are attributed to the wrong person) uses clear imagery about what he thinks non-believers are like. He said those who do not focus on God and who are not concerned with pleasing God are like flour put on a big sieve and shaken and tossed all about. He says when we don’t have God as a focus we become easily shaken by whatever is happening in the world. Just think about all the people who are forever checking their cell phones, computers, and cable news to hear the latest political scandal sound bite from their political enemies. They can’t wait to hear what trash is being dug up, and get totally upset by what they hear. And since they get riled up by every bit of news, they are exactly being shaken and tossed about by the news and the world. Pseudo-Macarius says that is how Satan works. He constantly wants to rile us up and get us distracted and upset by what is going on so that we never pay attention to God.
We believers see the same world as everyone else – including the non-believers. The difference should be that we Christians are permeated by the peace of Christ and by the love of the Holy Spirit. We should live as if we have already passed from death to life (John 5:24) and so aren’t distracted by every little bit of news. We should not be tossed about like flour in a sieve, unable to focus on God because we allow ourselves to be distracted by everything around us.
St. Paul says as much in his epistle to the Corinthians:
Brothers and sisters, Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love. (1 Corinthians 16:13)
We are to be vigilant, with our eyes on God. That will allow us to stand firm in the faith and not be tossed about by every distraction. Then we have to be courageous and strong to do God’s will, rather than allow ourselves to be moved by every distraction which captures our attention or upsets us. “Play the man” is what Paul tells us all. Man up. And he combines that thought with the words, “let all you do be done with love.” We don’t always associate courage with love. It takes courage to hold to one’s moral values, when the world opposes those values. It takes courage and strength to love God and to love neighbor despite all we hear on the news. It takes courage and strength to stand against what the world (and our own mind!) says and to do what Christ tells us – love your enemies. It takes courage and strength in today’s world to do what Christ tells us at the Last Judgment – feed the hungry, welcome the homeless and shelter them, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison.
One can learn to play the piano by oneself, but one cannot deny the obvious value of a knowledgeable teacher if one really wishes to excel. Books don’t talk back to us – a teacher very often will, and this makes all the difference. In some respects, the teacher is like a coach, spurring the athlete to run more efficiently. “Wake up!” “Pay attention!” Though the coach cannot do the running for the runner, the runner achieves his best when the coach does his job. So it is with us – if we are open and unthreatened enough to listen and hear.
…Certainly there will always be those who teach us skills and provide us with facts, but here we are speaking of a relationship in which someone can point out something about ourselves that we are blind to, who is experienced enough in life to see where we are going and to provide firm, effective guidance in the wilderness. Sometimes what they tell us will pierce us to the heart. We think of the arrogant monk who never listened or took to heart anything his abba taught him. One day, in the midst of a crisis of faith, he went to the abba and said, “Abba, give me a word.” The abba replied, “No.” The brother, shocked, retorted, “Why not?” The abba looked at him calmly. “‘No’ is not good enough?” And the brother repented.
Jesus Himself had a relationship with His disciples – He taught them, he modeled behavior to them. But He never wrote any kind of manual for them to cover every contingency they might encounter. At the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t drop a book from heaven answering all questions or giving rules for every occasion. Jesus told His disciples to go into all the world and live the Gospel and proclaim the Gospel through their own lives. He never told them to write a book and hand out directions to people.
Jesus taught us to love which requires us to enter into every situation and every relationship with a heart united to His. Some mistakenly think Christianity is just some information that is to be handed on from one generation to the next, unsullied by those receiving it. But that isn’t what Jesus taught – for ultimately the faith is lived in the heart and is founded on the blood of the martyrs. It is messy. It is not law but wisdom and love. The Gospel has to be lived in new situations and requires us to constantly and continually interacted with, like salt on food. The faith is not meant to be kept pure and pristine in a salt shaker.
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.
There was a certain brother who lived a life of very strict seclusion, and the devils wishing to lead him astray appeared to him when he was sleeping at night in the form of angels. They woke him up to sing the Psalms and pray and they would show him a light. So, he went to an elder and said unto him, “Father, the devils come to me with a light to wake me up to sing and pray.” The elder said unto him, “Don’t listen to them, my son, for they are devils – if they come to wake you up, say to them, “When I wish to rise up I will do so, but I will not listen to you.” And when they came to wake him he said to them what the old man had told him, and they immediately said to him, “That wicked old man is a liar, and he has led you astray. For a certain brother came to him and wished to borrow some money promising to pay it back, and although he had the money to lend, he lied and said, “I have none”, and he gave him nothing. Learn from this that you can’t trust his word. Then the brother rose up early in the morning and went to the elder and related unto him everything which he had heard. The old man said to him, “This is what happened. I did have some money, and a brother came and asked to borrow money from me. I would not give him any because I saw that if I did so we would both lose our souls. So I made up my mind that I would treat with contempt one of the commandments, rather than the Ten. Thus, we came to enmity with each other. However, don’t believe the devils who wish only to lead you astray.” When he had been greatly confirmed by the old man, that monk departed to his cell.
The above story from the desert fathers shows just how complex the spiritual life can be. Even a monk who strictly keeps the ascetical life can be bothered by demonic thoughts. This monk, though having committed himself to living alone, knows enough to talk to an elder when the demons are bothering him. He does not rely on his own mind to solve his problem, but humbles himself and turns to his brother for help. The elder gives him sound advice, but then the demons tell the monk that the elder himself has been involved in scandal and failed to be honest and do the right thing (as according to the Proverbs quotes at the beginning of this post). The demons endeavor to plant mistrust between the brother monks by pointing out that the elder has faults and is not himself perfect. Still, the story shows it is better to trust a fellow Christian with known faults than ever to listen to demons or demonic thoughts. The elder admits the truth of the accusation against him but also has an explanation for why he chose to do what he did. He admits he had to choose between evils, and had to ignore what he believes to be a godly commandment. He felt to give the money would produce even worse spiritual results than to withhold the money. Nevertheless, his decision ended badly as he and the other part parted in enmity. Even when we do what we believe to be the best thing in a difficult situation, there can be some negative consequences.
Still, he tells his younger brother in Christ, no matter how you judge me for what I did, never listen to demons. The monk agrees with that wisdom. We are to rely on one another for wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that our brothers and sisters in Christ will be without fault in some matters. And because someone may have done something wrong in one thing, doesn’t mean they are wrong about everything else. We always have to practice discernment as Christians. But discernment also requires us to make difficult judgments – we might not know the whole story, we have to consider the motives of those who tell us the faults of others, we might have to choose between the lesser of evils, we might have to make a choice even without having all the information we need to know. Remaining faithful to Christ and His teachings are what we always need to do, but sometimes life is complex and we have to discern as best we can what we need to do to fulfill the Gospel.
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”
Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the LORD… (Isaiah 57:19)
“For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 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 2:14-22)
Willard Swartley (COVENANT OF PEACE: THE MISSING PEACE IN NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY AND ETHICS) contends that some modern biblical scholars and ethicists do not treat “peace” as prominent a theme as it deserves based on how frequently the word “peace” occurs in the New Testament. These scholars fail to see how “peace” is a lens through which we need to read the New Testament. In this the last post in this series we will look at a few things which Swartley notes from the epistles of St. Paul the Apostle. As mentioned in the previous posts, the word “peace” occurs 44 times in the greater Pauline corpus, while ‘God of peace’ occurs seven times in his writings. Paul never uses ‘God of wrath’ or ‘God of judgment’ as titles for God. Says Swartley: “Paul, more than any other writer in the NT canon, makes peace, peacemaking, and peace-building central to his theological reflections and moral admonition” (p 190). Just in the above quote from Ephesians 2:14-22, Paul uses the word peace 4 times and also uses the word reconciliation – this is Paul’s understanding of who Jesus is and what salvation He brings to the world. In Christ God is reconciling the world to Himself, as well as reconciling and bringing to peace both Jews and Gentiles. Additionally, Paul in using Isaiah 57:19 in his theology clearly ties the Messiah to the promise of peace which God made through the prophets.
In Ephesians 2:14-17 Paul draws on Isaiah, just as Jesus and the Gospel writers also did. Paul sums up Jesus’ life and work by joining two Isaiah texts, 52:7 and 57:19. Christ proclaims peace is from the rich Isaiah declaration, ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace’ … This oracle continues by describing further this messenger as the one ‘who announces, who says, to Zion, “Your God reigns.”’ It concludes with the universal vision: ‘all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God’ (52:10b). (p 200)
As noted in Ephesians 2:14-22, for St. Paul not only does Christ proclaim peace, He is our peace. It is in Christ that we are reconciled with God – made one with God, ending our enmity with God due to our sin, making us at peace with God – and also ending the division between Jews and Gentiles, making us all into one people again. We are all united to one another in Christ and made into the people of God who turn out to be a living temple for God. Salvation is thus for St. Paul not just something individualistic – something that happens between “me” and God – it is social and relational in its full dimension, establishing a proper relationship between each human and God, but also between every human with each other as well as with all humans and the rest of creation itself. God’s peace brings an end in each of us to personal desire which is opposed to the good of all because God’s peace also means loving everyone as well as all of God’s creation. The denial of self that Christ taught is so that we can love everyone else and live at peace with them. In this we imitate Christ who is our peace.
Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-13)
If we live in Christ, we live in Christ’s peace, because He is our peace. St. Paul describes what this means for us –
Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)
As with the idea of shalom in the Old Covenant, we the people have to live this peace.
…in Philippians 2:1-12 … (v.12) exhorting recipients of Christ’s salvation-work to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling.’ God’s gift of salvation-peace is thus matched by the human responsibility to ‘work it out,’ to do those things that manifest the new life of peace with God and peace with one another. (p 211)
We are to work out our peace with God, with neighbor, with enemy and with all of the created order. Thus being in Christ changes everything for us. No longer are we to live for the self, but rather we live in love for all and everyone which and whom God loves. St. Paul’s ideas of salvation are thus opposed to ideas that “I” am to be concerned about my salvation as opposed to everyone else’s. The Church isn’t set up for me to work for my salvation with no regard for anyone else. I am to work out my salvation in love for others and for creation itself. I am saved with others and with all creation. The “us vs them” thinking which sometimes almost seems to be a defining mark of various Christians denominations is thus not the life in Christ which St. Paul imagines. All dividing walls come down in Christ, which makes is possible for all to be reconciled in Christ. I am to live in peace with everyone and everything, not become disinterested, neglectful or indifferent toward others. Nor is it correct for me to see myself working out my salvation as disconnecting me from the rest of humanity. “I” work out my salvation with the rest of humanity. The freedom Christ brings us is not freedom from others, but the freedom to work out my salvation with all others. “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.” (Galatians 5:13; see also 1 Peter 2:16). The Church opted in its history for a “catholic” vision rather than a sectarian one – for the life of the world (John 6:51) as Fr. Schmemann so famously proclaimed . As Swartley points out:
The aim of atonement is redemptive solidarity, not penal substitution. (p 193)
Christ dies for our sins not mostly to fulfill some legal demand by a wrathful God that someone has to suffer for our sins, but in order to end the walls of enmity that pitted us one against the other and against God Himself.
Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)
Not only are we reconciled to God in Jesus Christ, but we are to be actively reconciling the world to God. This is the very vision, mission and purpose of the Church.
God’s act in Christ reconciles humans to God (not God to humans by pacifying divine wrath) and that reconciled-to-God humans are then enlisted into the ministry of reconciliation. . . . Christ, who knew no sin, but became sin for us in dying on the cross, ‘so that we might become the righteousness of God’ (cf 1 Pet 2:24). (pp 203-204)
Salvation in Christ does not pit us against others – “we” are saved but “you” are not. Rather, in Christ, we work to be reconciled with all others in the world, so that we might bring all to Christ. Those tendencies in Christianity which cause us to want to run away from the world and not be tainted by the world, fall short of St. Paul the Apostle to the Nations vision of what it means that Jesus is Messiah and Savior of the world. Christ Himself proclaimed that His Body given as food is not just communion for the faithful few but is given as life for the world.
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)
We are to go into all the world, for the life of the world and to make disciples of all nations (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:19). We are not called to withdraw into the salt shaker, but to be the salt of the world. We are not blessed to hide our light under a bushel, but rather to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16)
In Christian terms, a prayer for world peace is a prayer that Christ will prevail – not only in the world but especially in our hearts and minds. We pray constantly in Orthodoxy “in peace”, for the peace of the whole world, for the peace from above, that we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance. This peace we pray for is Christ. If the words of our prayers are not to be emptied of all meaning, then WE have to live in peace with each other, with God, with neighbor, and even with our enemies. Peace is not something God will impose upon us, but rather something we must choose and we must will, for the kingdom of God is within us.
Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)
Swartley argues that peace – shalom – is a central theme of the Covenant that God made with Israel. That peace/shalom comes from God for His people, but the people have to uphold their part of the covenant by living the peace that God commands.
… shalom is a gift of God, but the people must actualize that reality by living in accord with the righteous and just statutes that God gives and prescribes in the covenant (Ps 119; Exodus 20; Deut 18:16-18). (p 30)
Thus the New Testament use of peace is not introducing something to people of God which didn’t exist in the first covenant, but rather expands upon it and fulfills it. Swartley offers many examples of the New Testament building upon and expanding the theme of peace found in the Old Testament. The New Testament often focuses on a peace theme that may not be mentioned directly in an Old Testament text but which the New Testament writers draw out of the text. So, for example, Genesis 14:18 reads:
And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.
Hebrews 7:1-2 making use of this Genesis text in reference to Christ makes a clear connection between Melchizadek and peace:
For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God… is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace.
Heb 7:1-3 is plainly Christological in its use of eirene. As commonly recognized, it is a midrash on Gen 14:18-20. (p 254)
In another instance Swartley looks at Acts 10:36 –
You know the message, [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is the Lord of all.
Swartley points out:
The key phrase in [Acts] 10:36, ‘preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all’ … Its significance is … First it is a quotation from Isaiah 52:7 (LXX)… This is one of the Isainic texts announcing that God’s good news of peace will be heralded to and embraced by those at ‘the ends of the earth.’ (Isa 52:10; cf Acts 1:8). (p 161-162)
What the New Testament does is link God’s good news promised through the prophets with Jesus the Messiah. Jesus heralds the coming of God’s peace. The notion of peace/shalom is part of the covenant with Israel, but the New Testament fully connects this peace to Jesus Christ and expands upon the ideas presented in the first covenant.
Jesus as the Messiah shows Himself to be the King of Peace. Unlike earthly kings he does not rely on weapons of war to establish His Kingdom. He does not rely on threats of violence, on revenge, on self preservation or self defense.
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:23)
He shows Himself to be the Son of God precisely by acting in humility, willing to suffer for and because of humanity. Commenting on Mark 15:39, Swartley notes:
For this is the treasure of the Gospel: the One who did not retaliate against the evil plots of the leaders, but willingly offered himself as suffering servant, in accord with God’s purpose… is the true Son of God. (p 115)
Swartley says this same idea of the suffering Messiah – the One willing to suffer but not afflict suffering on His enemies shows Himself to be from the God of Love. Even in the Book of Revelation, Swartley claims the same theme is evident.
The theology is similar to that of John’s Gospel, in which death and exaltation are viewed as one: in being ‘lifted up’ Jesus fulfills his commission to glorify God. The drama of Revelation is of the same moral fabric: through the Lamb’s suffering and the suffering of the believers God’s victory over evil is won. (p 334)
The paradoxical image of victory through suffering love forms the heart and soul of Revelation’s Christology. Suffering love marks the authentic followers of the Lamb. (p 343)
The up-side-down Kingdom of Heaven is inaugurated by a King whose weapon against evil is humility, suffering and the cross. Indeed as we sing in Orthodoxy, “the cross is the weapon of peace.” The incarnate Son of God chooses to suffer as his weapon and warfare. He teaches his followers to deny themselves and to take up the cross to follow Him. We are to stand our ground against evil, but not with weapons which can kill, but by laying down our lives because we completely trust God and see ourselves as belonging to His Kingdom more than to this world and its way of war.
As Swartely nicely states it:
Rather than thinking first and foremost about peace with security, the exposition leads one to think about peace through repentance. (p 2)
The Gospel is a challenge to how we want to deal with evil through self preservation and self protection rather than through self denial. Many an Orthodox saint thought self-preservation did not prevent evil but rather was the cause of much evil – making us think that killing and harming others is a good.
Finally, Swartley points out that in the Tradition we have received from the people of the First Covenant, that the use of war and military weapons to achieve one’s goals is introduced to humanity by those angels who themselves rebelled against God and God’s Kingdom:
It is striking that the various conceptualizations of evil in and behind biblical thought link war and military weapons to evil itself: in the ‘Watchers Myth’ (Azazel) gives to humans the knowledge of weapons for war (1 Enoch 8:1) (p 107, n 35)
“And Azaz’el taught the people the art of making swords and knives and shields and breastplates . . .” (1 Enoch 8:1)
Death entered into the human condition as a result of sin. “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned—” (Romans 5:12). It was humans who then used this sin caused death to inflict further death on other humans. but it is Christ who uses death – His own – to defeat death and bring peace with God to all humans.
But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. (Romans 5:8-10)
Instead of death stopping us from sinning, we humans used death to stop other people from living. In so doing we made ourselves enemies God who is the Giver of life. Christ undoes all of this by using death – His own – to conquer death, to give life to all, and to reconcile all of us to God. No longer are we at war with God, but in Christ we are at peace with God.
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2)