The Apostolic Church

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“You are My witnesses,” says the Lord, “And My servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe Me, and understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, nor shall there be after Me. I, even I, am the Lord, and besides Me there is no savior. (Isaiah 43:10-11) 

On June 30 each year the Orthodox Church honors the memory of the Twelve Apostles (which includes Matthias not Judas), the original witnesses to Christ’s life, teachings and resurrection. It is they who formed the Church, giving it direction and shaping its structure. 

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The Church, then, is the world, as the latter was intended to be. And the world is the Church, as the former is called to become. The danger of overemphasizing the Church as the world transfigured, or as some new creation (Revelation 21:1) is that we may be led to see only the divine, other-worldly aspect of the Church. Yet the world is entirely present in the Church. In fact, the Church needs to remember to be down to Earth. Christians are called to be faithful stewards and trustworthy caretakers of the mysterious dimensions of the earth (cf. 1 Cor  4:1-2). For it is precisely by remaining faithful to the earth that the Church also becomes new heaven (Revelation 21:1).   (John Chryssavgis, BEYOND THE SHATTERED IMAGE, p 21) 

[Chryssavgis’ comments remind us that the Church founded by the Apostles has its ministry and fulfills its purpose on earth, within history. His comments remind me of a sometimes criticism of the Church or the faithful that they can be so heavenly minded to be of no earthly worth!]

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Chryssavgis says in another place about the Church:  

If theology is a communal experience, purporting ‘to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden in God‘ (Eph 3:9), then the church guarantees the normative continuity from the apostolic era, through the Patristic age, and on to our times. The church is most authentically itself, however, when it prays as a worshipping community.   (John Chryssavgis, THE WAY OF THE FATHERS, p 61) 

To be ‘apostolic’ means to be witnesses which is the word ‘martyr.’ The Church is to be “Apostolic” as we recite in the Nicene Creed, but we also must remember St Paul’s description of what being an apostle means: 

To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. And we labor, working with our own hands. Being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we endure; being defamed, we entreat. We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now. I do not write these things to shame you, but as my beloved children I warn you. (1 Corinthians 4:11-14)

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The icons we see of the Apostles portray them as living the heavenly life, glorious and holy, but that can cause us to forget what the Apostles had to go through in their lives on earth.  St Paul’s words remind us of the true nature of the apostolic way, a way many of us would prefer to avoid.  St Paul does tell us to imitate him!

Remembering Peter and Paul 

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… I will be a father to you, 

and you shall be sons and daughters to me, 

says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Corinthians 6:18)   

Each year on June 29 we commemorate the glorious leaders of the Apostles, Sts Peter and Paul who had to learn to be disciples first before they became leaders within the Christian movement. 

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St Symeon the new Theologian says somewhere that God did not create masters and servants, but fathers and sons, and that true sons in their turn become fathers. So before we become fathers and give birth to others, we must first become sons. That is to say, we must go through a time of learning, we must learn humility in submitting ourselves to a spiritual father and be ready at times to bear a little shame, humbling ourselves to receive his instruction. And without realizing it, every time we meet with our spiritual father, we will receive something. And over some years—it depends on the intensity with which we live those years—all those pieces will come together and create a beautiful mosaic. That is to say, they will enable us to have a vision by which we may live.   (Archimandrite Zacharias, REMEMBER THY FIRST LOVE, pp 401-402) 

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St Symeon’s comments are a good reminder for how the Church is to organize – not with a leader who is a master over all the parishioners who then are servants, but rather in a more familial way with all of us being God’s children who have a spiritual father rather than a despotic master. The relationship to leadership is to be one of love, not purely obedience or servitude and the leader’s place is not lording it over others, but loving them as a father loves his children. In the Church only one is Lord – Jesus Christ. Everyone else in the Church, including the clergy, are disciples of His. Leadership in the Church is to be pastoral like a good shepherd or fatherly like a good parent rather than forcible like a master who demands subservience from his servants. Children are to obey their parents in love and within a loving relationship, whereas a servant obeys out of fear, force and lack of choice. 

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For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. (1 Corinthians 4:15-16) 

Spiritual Warfare Against the Tyranny of the Flesh 

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If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. (Romans 7:16-20) 

5692052863_15cd6c4339_wSt Paul vividly describes in the passage above his own spiritual struggles “against the flesh,” noting that he often knows what the right thing to do is, but he still doesn’t always do it. He sometimes recognizes something he wants to do is sin, and yet he still does it. All of this from a man who sometimes writes as if once you are baptized your struggles with sin should be over. 

Christ Himself describes this warfare in graphic terms that have sometimes misled extremists to mutilate themselves, a practice which the Church rejected as a literalist misunderstanding of the words of Jesus: “And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell…” (Mark 9:43-47) Christ is speaking in hyperbole to show how serious he takes those inner spiritual struggles with temptation and sin which plague all humans. Note that all of these actions he commends are directed only against the self – never against others, sinners, unbelievers, etc. The spiritual warfare is working to establish the Kingdom of God within ourselves, it is never a war against others to impose biblical values on them. 

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St John of Kronstadt comments on the struggle—the spiritual warfare—which every Christian faces in life. He notes that if we don’t conquer the passions, they will tyrannize us, taking away our freedom and making us slaves to sin and death: 

The Kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force‘ (St Matthew 11:12). If we do not daily strive to conquer the passions, which fight against us, and to gain the Kingdom of God in our heart, then the passions will tyrannically, forcibly take possession of us, will invade our soul like robbers; our attachments to earthly things will increase in proportion as our faith in heavenly blessings and love for them grows weaker and weaker; our love for God and our neighbor—will also grow weaker and weaker; we shall enjoy rest of conscience and peace of heart more and more seldom. We must struggle in the matter of the salvation of the soul, which is more precious than anything in the world; we must count everything earthly as dross, or as a phantom, a vision, and everything heavenly, above all, the Lord Himself—as truth itself, eternal, most blessed, and unchangeable.   (MY LIFE IN CHRIST, p 254) 

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The life of a Christian is spiritual warfare which lasts our entire life. It is why we need practice to prepare for this warfare, which is what true asceticism is. Denying the self, forgiving others, fasting, loving enemies, humbling oneself, considering others ahead of one’s self, asking forgiveness, charitably giving to others, confessing one’s sins, always being thankful to God in every circumstance – all of these are ways to overcome the passions which attempt to rule our lives. 

Being as Perfect as God 

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But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

Many of my favorite parts of the Gospel are the narratives of Jesus showing compassion on a needy people. God’s love for us means God cares about us even in our mundane struggles, not to mention our deepest human needs. Yet, the Gospel is also clear that the coming of Christ into the world is connected with God’s judgment. Origen (martyred in 254AD) noted, 1800 years ago, this same tension in the Gospel between salvation and judgment:

Jesus, by his coming, brings about both: judging the world and saving it, but the one by means of the other. For he came into the world to judge it in order to save it (for he does not save it in order to judge it), and like a doctor, comes to the sick in order to heal them. (Origen, SPIRIT AND FIRE, p 340)

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John’s Gospel, which some categorize as the Gospel of love, has these words:

And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. (John 3:19)

Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39)

Everything has its place including both compassion and judgment, but as Origen notes Christ came to judge the world in order to save it, rather than coming to save it in order to judge it.  Even in judgment Christ is love, mercy and compassionate.

And while we live in relationship to this mysterious balance between God’s love and judgement, we also are to live imitating Christ and thus practicing mercy and compassion towards those around us, doing unto others as we would have them do to us.

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We should not judge others. If we see ourselves as we are, we will find it simply impossible to. Self-understanding yields mercy, empathy, tolerance, love of the other. St Seraphim of Sarov, who lived at the turn of the 19th century, observed, ‘We condemn others only because we shun knowing ourselves.’ Our deepening realization of our own sin coupled with our increasing experience of God’s mercy will fill us with compassion for others. We will begin to realize that no one is beyond redemption. We will rejoice in people’s small and great acts of kindness. We will cheer their successes. We will experience empathetic sorrow at their struggles and failings. We will not pretend to know or fully understand the intricacies of the internal and external factors in their hearts. We will fervently wish for them nothing but God’s abundant grace, blessing, and love. We will pray that they increasingly come to a conscious knowledge of that love. (Peter Bouteneff, HOW TO BE A SINNER, p 52)

By orienting our own lives and perspectives towards Christ and aligning ourselves with God’s will, we become towards others what we wish God would be towards us.

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“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)

Christ is Relying on Us to Be His Saints and Witnesses

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And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately left their nets and followed Him.  (Matthew 4:18-20)

St Mark the Ascetic points out that sometimes our misfortunes, failures and disappointments open our hearts and minds to God’s Word. He uses as examples three of Christ’s disciples:

If Peter had not failed to catch anything during the night’s fishing (cf. Luke 5:5), he would not have caught anything during the day. And if Paul had not suffered physical blindness (cf. Acts 9:8), he would not have been given spiritual sight. And if Stephen had not been slandered as a blasphemer, he would not have seen the heavens opened and have looked on God (cf. Acts 6:15; 7:56).   (THE PHILOKALIA Vol 1, pp 142-143)

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St Mark is of course commenting on the call of the first disciples as reported in Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 5. It was after a night of fishing and catching nothing, according to Luke 5, that Christ issued His call to Peter converting him from a fisherman into a fisher of men. St Mark’s point is that even failures and disappointments can have a positive effect on our spiritual lives. God does not invite us to be His disciples because we are constantly successful or because we never falter. In fact Scriptures show God as having a tendency to choose those who might be overlooked by the world’s craving for strong champions. As the Lord said to Samuel when He sent Samuel to find the man to become the next king of Israel: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). And as God reminds Israel why God chose Israel to be His people: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it is because the LORD loves you, and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). We all can take heart that God really can use any of us to accomplish His will, even if we see ourselves as lacking power, gifts, resources, faith or success.

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St Nikolai Velimirovic, commenting on the call of the first disciples, reminds us that in coming to faith, we are not going to encounter Jesus first, but rather we will encounter His followers and it is they that will influence whether or not we come to faith in Christ. We come to know Christ through His Church, specifically through Her holy members. The saints are thus essential in our coming to faith in Christ – they are essential to our salvation. However, it is not only the officially canonized saints who have this role to play, for all of us are called to be witnesses to Christ and our salvation. People will come to a knowledge of Christ and to faith through us, and what they observe in our daily lives. That is why it is so important for each of us to be united to Christ so that we can bear the fruit that others can see and thus come to faith in Christ themselves. St Nikolai writes:

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Imagine for a moment that you know nothing of the Lord Jesus Christ; that you have never heard of Him; that you have never read His Gospel. And imagine at the same time that you are in a land whose only inhabitants are His apostles, saints and martyrs, men and women pleasing to him; all those who have followed Christ and lived according to His law and example. You would find yourself, then, among the disciples of a teacher unknown to you; among the soldiers of a commander unknown to you; and you would see the fruit of a tree unknown to you. Knowing nothing of Christ, you would come to know Him through His people. Through His disciples, you would come to know the best Teacher under the sun; through His soldiers and followers, you would come to know the most powerful and victorious Commander that had ever walked the earth; through His fruit, you would come to know the sweetest and most prolific tree, the Tree of Life, whose sweetness surpasses that of all other trees in the created world.  (HOMILIES Vol 1, p 284)

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Christ relies on us to be His witnesses in order to bring other people to faith in Him. They will know the goodness, love and mercy of the Lord through us and how we behave – a daunting thought for us to be sure.

Helping Others by Eyeing Yourself 

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Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

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Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Yelchaninov comments:

If we may not judge, how shall we help our erring brother? By turning our attention to the beam in our own eye; only then, after we have struggled to remove it, shall we understand how deep-seated are the causes of sin, how hard it is to fight, through what means it can be cured, how great the pity and sympathy deserved by the sinner; and these feelings of yours and your experience of the struggle with sin, will help to remove the moat from your brother’s eye—through sympathy, example, love. Judgment will fall away of itself.   (A TREASURY OF RUSSIAN SPIRITUALITY, p 480)

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The Cosmic Importance of a Baby’s Birth 

Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: “Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people… (Luke 1:67-68)

Each June 24 we in the Orthodox Church celebrate the Nativity of John the Forerunner, the last of the Old Testament prophets.

There are a few passages in the Scriptures which suggest that an event of such magnitude has happened as to change the created world. Yet, if one looks at that passage and what happened, one would be hard pressed to point out any visible or obvious changes in the world. The above passage from Luke’s Gospel is one such moment. At the birth of John the Forerunner, his father, Zacharias proclaims that God has visited and redeemed His people as if a world-shattering event had occurred which would be obvious to everyone. Yet, all that had happened was a baby was born in an obscure part of backwoods Israel. The Roman Empire continued to oppress the Jews. Hellenistic paganism remained a threat to Judaism. Only a couple dozen of people even knew the birth took place. If God had visited His people and redeemed them, their enemies and oppressors were completely unaware of that change, as was most of Israel. A Jewish baby was born and for all intents and purposes everything else stayed exactly as it was – the desert remained a wilderness, Israel was still occupied by Rome, people were still often faithless and paganism continued unabated.

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Another such event is the Virgin Mary getting pregnant and singing the Magnificat in which she proclaims that God “has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away” (Luke 1:51-53). Her lyrics make it sound as if everyone in the world just experienced a cosmic tsunami shifting every worldly paradigm. The only thing that had happened at that point is that Mary found herself pregnant –everything else in the world remained exactly as it was. The poor were still poor and oppressed, Herod and Ceasar still held the reigns of power, the rich were continuing to get richer, the those of low degree continued to sink beneath the oppressive weight of the rich. And Mary had to worry what her righteous husband would say about her being pregnant with a baby that was not his.

32849932714_7f651faa91_wBoth Zacharias and Mary sing wonderful hymns which would take on more meaning some thirty years after they sang their tunes.  Their significance would become more recognized a hundred years after they happened as the importance of the Gospel became understood. But at the moment they sang their hymns, they had little to show for their claims. They faithfully understood God was at work in their lives, in Israel and in the world, yet nothing around them changed except 2 more little mouths to feed had come into the world. And both of those babies would grow up to be executed as young men at the hands of the existing powers that be.

All of this is part of the mystery of God who is both immanent and transcendent. God touches moments in history, enters into the lives of individuals, and yet a huge part of what God is doing remains outside of our experience and beyond what we can know. God acts in His own way and time bringing about salvation, the restoration of the entire cosmos, yet doing it within the created order’s limits posed by time and space.

Zacharias is aware that God is doing something incredibly important in the world, yet it is happening in and through another tiny human baby and thus affecting only an incredibly minute portion of the world. Mary is holding and hugging God! And yet she is still poor, threatened and in need of protection and help. The world had changed forever, yet only a few people were even aware of the birth of this child, let alone that God had entered into creation.

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St Paul still writes:

And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. (Romans 13:11-13)

For St Paul redemption has not yet fully occurred but is coming nearer. The incarnation of God in Christ, Jesus’ death and resurrection changed everything, and yet most of this change was yet to come and in this world still remains beyond the experience of even believers.

Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves therein. (Psalm 69:34)

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The Nativity of John the Forerunner brings the mystery of God’s immanence and transcendence into focus. We do experience God in our lives, in our hearts, in the sacraments, in love and mercy we give to others or which others give to us. Yet, many things in the world go on as before seemingly untouched by God’s presence in the world. St Peter reminds us of this mystery when he writes: “First of all you must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation” (2 Peter 3: 3-4). Even if we are believers and not scoffers, we still may have wondered where are these changes that come at the hand of God? Or maybe we really are awed like Jacob who when he awoke from his phantom-like dream looked at the same old world around him and exclaimed in fear: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Genesis 28:17) Jacob acknowledges: “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16).  The Almighty God is present in the place where Jacob is and yet he wasn’t even aware of His presence.  How often we have the same experience-not knowing God is present-yet without also experiencing Jacob’s amazement and fear!

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It does seem as if nothing changes, or maybe that nothing changes for the better. And yet, God continues to act in the world, touching people’s lives, working to reunite all created things to the Creator’s self. God works in history, which means we can only experience God in the present, in the small things of our lives, in a moment of time, or in the life of a baby. God is found in the details of history, yet we think of God in cosmic and eternal terms so sometimes miss the things God is doing to touch and change our lives. God is forever working to help us experience the spiritual, the divine, heaven, eternity in our daily lives, even in the mundane. The world in fact is not hopelessly and permanently cut off from God; it is not devoid of grace, it is not totally depraved as some believe.

14272179892_9901f134e6_wWe might think of Christ’s disciples watching Him ascend to heaven and the angels saying to them: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). They were standing in awe watching a divine event, but the message from heaven tells them to pay attention to earth rather than to spend time gazing into heaven.

As Elijah discovered, God is not always found in massive events of great power which transform history.

And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13)

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Lord, Don’t You Care that We are Perishing? 

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Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him. And suddenly a great tempest arose on the sea, so that the boat was covered with the waves. But He was asleep. Then His disciples came to Him and awoke Him, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” But He said to them, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm. So the men marveled, saying, “Who can this be, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?”  (Matthew 8:23-27)

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Metropolitan Anthony Bloom discusses the Gospel narrative by contrasting the storms of life which surround us all as versus the ones that get inside our minds and hearts:

And then you will see that you can pray in every single situation in the world, that there is no situation which can prevent you from praying. What can prevent you from praying is that you allow yourself to be in the storm, or you allow the storm to come inside you instead of raging around you.

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You may remember the story in the Gospel of the storm on the Sea of Galilee: Christ asleep in the boat and the storm raging around. At first the apostles work hard and hopefully in order to survive. Then at a certain moment they lose heart, and the storm that was outside comes inside—the storm is within them too. Anguish, death no longer simply circle round, they come inside. And then they turn to Christ and do what we very often do with God: we look at God in time of stress and tragedy, and we are indignant that He is so peaceful. The story in the gospel underlines it by saying that Christ was sleeping with his head on a pillow—the final insult.

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They are dying and he is comfortable. This is exactly what we feel about God so often. How dare He be blissful, how dare He be so comfortable when I am in trouble? And the disciples do exactly what we do so very often. Instead of coming to God and saying ‘You are peace, you are the Lord, say a word and my servant will be healed, say a word and things will come right’, they shake him out of His sleep and say ‘Don’t you care that we are perishing?‘ In other words, ‘If you can do nothing, at least don’t sleep. If you can do nothing better, then at least die in anguish with us.’ Christ reacts, He gets up and says ‘Men of little faith!‘ and brushing them aside, he turns towards the storm and, projecting His inner stillness, His harmony and peace on the storm He says, ‘Be still, be quiet‘ and everything is quiet again.   (BEGINNING TO PRAY, pp 89-90)

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Metropolitan Anthony says it so well – we cry aloud to God in our times of trouble, and God remains blissful and silent. And we wish that if God is going to do nothing to change or improve the situation we are in, if God is not going to save us from the crisis, then the least God can do is be with us as we sink beneath the waves of the tumultuous storm into the depths of the abyss, rather than leaving us alone or abandon us to our fate. Perhaps we have even felt like the followers of Baal in 1 Kings 18 who cried aloud to their god but Baal remained silent. The Prophet “Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27). We may have felt at times like those worshippers of Baal –our God remains silent despite our critical problems or our desperate prayers. The disciples felt such abandonment as Christ peacefully slept while they were terrified by the raging storm. To live in the peace of Christ, no matter how the storm rages around us or in us, is our spiritual goal.

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It is also right to note that when Christ calms the storm raging around the disciples, He simultaneously calms their troubled hearts as well. We can be comforted if God intervenes in the storms raging around us or in us! As we proclaim in the Akathist, “Glory to God for All Things”:

The dark storm clouds of life bring no terror to those in whose hearts Your fire burns brightly. Outside is the darkness of the whirlwind, the terror and howling of the storm, but in the heart, in the presence of Christ, there is light and peace, silence.

Orthodox scholar Nonna Verna Harrison notes that in each human thing Christ, the incarnate God, did He blessed it, including sleep. His peaceful sleep in a world of trouble reminds us that all of life’s troubles are of limited duration and meaning. In Christ, we have the ability to unite ourselves to eternity, overcoming all the tribulations of the world (John 16:33). Harrison notes:

In Christ, God becomes present in the most ordinary of human activities… when Jesus is tired he blesses fatigue, when he sleeps he blesses sleep too, and when he weeps he blesses tears.   (FESTAL ORATIONS, pp 34-35)

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Even when we sleep or weep, Christ is with us.

Abraham, Not Adam, Is the Father of Us All 

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God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, her name shall not be called Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her, and give you a child by her; and I will bless him, and he shall become nations, and kings of nations shall come from him.”  (Genesis 17:15-17)

God’s promise to Abraham is that his son born of Sarah would be the source of kings and nations. This must have seemed extraordinary to Abraham who really was a desert nomad without a permanent home and certainly without a kingdom. But its fulfillment would lead to St Paul identifying Abraham as the father of us all—not just the father of many nations and kings, but of all people on earth—or at least the father of all those who believe in Christ (Romans 4:11).

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Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (as it is written, “I have made you a father of many nations” ) in the presence of Him whom he believed – God, who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did; who, contrary to hope, in hope believed, so that he became the father of many nations, according to what was spoken, “So shall your descendants be.” (Romans 4:16-18)

4628396347_c170748789_wFor St Paul faith is a far more important category than is ancestry or genetics. Those who are children of God are not so because they are descendants of Adam or Israel, but because they share in Abraham’s faith. So, believers don’t need to worry themselves about their connection to Adam, but only need to be children of Abraham by sharing in his faith in God and faithfulness to God. We are to be people of faith not just descendants of the first human or of Israel according to the flesh (Romans 9:6-7; Galatians 4:21-31); so for believers Abraham is our ancestral father rather than Adam. All the concerns about the literal meaning of Genesis 2 and 3, are really not that significant in Paul’s thinking as it is far more important to be a child of Abraham, a believer rather than to be a child of the flesh. So Paul writes:

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. . . . Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Corinthians 15:22…45)

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From Adam we inherit mortality, but that is not what defines us as human beings. It is from Christ, the last Adam, that we truly receive our humanity.

This thinking should indeed call into question all ideas of the effects of original sin on all humans. Abraham’s patrimony is far more important to us than is any relationship we have with Adam who proved himself not faithful to God. Christians need to free themselves from the ideas of original sin developed from the thinking of St Augustine. What really defines us as humans is our spiritual relationship to Abraham and to Christ.

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St John Chrysostom writes an encomium of Abraham, pointing out that nothing in his life prepared him for such faithfulness to God. For, when Abraham lived, the Law had not yet been given to Israel, there were no Scriptures or prophets yet. His parents would have raised him in pagan thinking. Despite all of this, Abraham found his way to faith in God and then lived faithfully to God even though all around him there was no encouragement or support to do so. Therefore, we who grow up in a ‘post-Christian’ world, really can’t blame society or history if we are not faithful to God. We have the example of Abraham to inspire us to remain faithful and to live the life of a believer. Chrysostom challenges us:

What priests did Abraham have available to him? Tell me. What teachers? What instruction? What advice? What counsel? Since at that time there was neither Scriptures, nor law, nor prophets, nor anything else of that sort, he sailed an unnavigable sea, he traveled an untrodden path. Moreover, he came from a pagan family and a pagan father.

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And yet, he was not hindered by any of these things, but he shone with virtue to such an extent that a long time afterwards, after the prophets, after the law, after such great instruction given to men by Christ, by signs and wonders, anticipating these things by his actions, he showed forth genuine and ardent love, disdain for riches, and solicitude for the household of his offspring. He trampled down all vanity and broke away from a luxurious and corrupt way of life, living more strictly than the monks who now betake themselves to mountain tops. The righteous one had no dwelling, but the shade of the leaves was roof and shelter for him. Since he was a foreigner, he was not indifferent toward hospitality, but he performed this work as a foreigner in a foreign land, continually welcoming and serving those who passed by at midday. He performed the whole work himself and made his wife a partner in his good undertaking. . . .

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[Chrysostom identifies Sarah as “a partner in his good undertaking.” She shares in his part in God’s plan for our salvation; she shares in his faith and faithfulness.  She thus in our mother-the mother of all those who believe like her husband.  She shared in his ministry to the angels who visited them. She supports her husband and helps him in his belief and so is no less important than her husband in our faith.]

Neither did the misfortunes cause him to stumble, nor did the good times puff him up, but in different circumstances he kept his state of mind the same. What then? When he was promised a son, were there not numberless obstacles that arose in his thoughts? But having lulled them to sleep and done away with their uproar, he shone with faith.   (ON THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD, pp 102, 104-105)

4587897480_1b6a9b84a3_wWe can imitate Abraham and follow him in being faithful to God despite all that might be happening in the world around us, in our lives, or in all the ideas blathered about on the internet or by media opinionators. The path to the Kingdom is as open to us as it was to Abraham thousands of years ago. No matter how the world changes, the way to God’s Kingdom is still accessible to us as it was to Abraham and all of the saints of the Old Testament and the Church since the time of Christ. Evil and sin cannot block us on our sojourn to God’s Kingdom.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)

A Tree is Known by Its Fruits

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You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. (Matthew 7:16-18) 

St Nikolai Velimirovic comments: 

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Imagine that a certain fruit is set before you, the like of which you have never seen or tasted in your life; a fruit lovely to the eyes, of magnificent flavor and fascinating smell. You would ask what sort of tree bears such fruit and, if that tree had not been known to you before, you would look on it as the best tree in the world, and would praise it to the skies. 

Seeing, then, good disciples, you will reckon that the teacher is good. Seeing good soldiers, you will reckon that their commander is good. And seeing good fruit, you will reckon that the tree is good. 

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Every tree is known by its fruit‘ (Luke 6:44). A good tree does not produce bad fruit, nor a bad tree good fruit. ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?‘ (Matthew 7:16). No: thorns are not picked from grapevines or thistles from fig trees. A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. This is so obvious to everyone that there is no need to prove it. The Lord Jesus made use of such obvious examples from nature, to teach men obvious spiritual and moral truths, for nature generally serves as the best picture of the spiritual life of man.  (HOMILIES Vol 1, p 284)

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