Being the Loving Neighbor

What is the responsibility of Orthodox Christians for people of other faiths?

 Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, who because of where he lives has to deal not only with non-Orthodox Christians, but non-Christians and even anti-Christians offers us some idea.   

“If for no other reason, Christians and those of other religions should engage in dialogue and work together for the common good in a ‘fellowship of love.’ He says, for example, that ‘A faithful Christian has ‘to become a neighbor’ to each and every man, regardless of race, religion, language, guilt, especially in time of crisis.'”  (Andrew M. Sharp, Orthodox Christians and Islam in the Postmodern Age, p. 72)

Archbishop Anastasios’ comments call to mind the Gospel lesson of Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan:

And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “’You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side.

But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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Overcoming Our Sins

Archimandrite Hierotheos Vlachos muses:

Christians often say: “if my fellow men behaved to me differently, if I had better children, if my spouse did not do this or the other, if…,if…, I could probably live a Christian life”. We have the impression that the cessation of external problems would make us better. However many times I say that external problems will never cease. Now we have troubles with our studies and later we are full of anxiety about our career or marriage. Bringing up our children will raise new problems. Afterwards we will be concerned about the future of our children or even finally of our grandchildren…I leave all other problems caused by work and social dealings. Problems will never end. We must overcome them. (The Illness and the Cure of the Soul in the Orthodox Tradition, p. 71)

What Was Christ’s Love Like?

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-9)

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)

St. Maria of Paris writes:

What was Christ’s love like?  Did it withhold anything? Did it observe or measure its own spiritual gifts? What did it regret? Where was it ever stingy? Christ’s humanity was spit upon, struck, crucified. Christ’s divinity was incarnate fully and to the end in his spit-upon, battered, humiliated and crucified humanity. The Cross — an instrument of shameful death — has become for the world a symbol of self-denying love. And at no time nor place — neither from Bethlehem to Golgotha, neither in sermons nor parables, nor in the miracles he performed — did Christ ever give any occasion to think that he did not sacrifice himself wholly and entirely for the salvation of the world, that there was in him something held back, some “holy of holies” which he did not want to offer or should not have offered.

He offered his own “holy of holies,” his own divinity, for the sins of the world, and this is precisely wherein lies his divine and perfect love in all its fullness. (Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, pp. 179-180)

Our Heart of Flesh

And I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them; and they shall be my people, and I will be their God.  (Ezekiel 11:19)

For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.   (Isaiah 57:15)

Archimandrite Zacharias instructs us:

Unless we endeavour to live within our heart, we remain blind to our untamed passions. The inclinations of our heart and mind remain beyond our control. We sin whether we want to or not. Sin can never attract the blessing of God, so unless we keep our hearts alive and alert, we will eventually become strangers to Him. The Scriptures say that ‘the heart is deep.’ God honours this ‘deep heart’ of man. All heaven hearkens to a deep heart athirst for God and ready to receive Him. But if our heart is indifferent to God, we are worth little more than dust and ashes. We must attend to our heart and cultivate it, for the hidden man of the heart is very precious in the sight of God. May God give us such a heart, a deep heart that is capable of divine and spiritual sensation!  

St. Seraphim of Sarov

We learn to enter into our ‘deep heart’ through personal prayer in our rooms and attendance at church services. And if we take courage and enter therein, we shall behold the great miracle of the union of our life with God’s Life, for this takes place in the heart of man. Indeed, the aim of our entire ascetic struggle – our fasts, vigils and prayers – is to reveal the heart, to unearth it.   (Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony, p. 241-242)

Anger is Another Kind of Drunkenness

Brethren, there is another sort of evil satiety and drunkenness which does not result from indulging in food and drink, but from anger and hatred towards our neighbor, remembrance of wrongs, and the evils that spring from these. On this subject Moses says in his song, “Their wine is the wrath of dragons and the incurable wrath of asps” (Deut. 32:33). So the prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who are drunken, but not with wine” (Isa. 29:9)

This is the drunkenness of hatred which more than anything else causes God to turn away, and the devil attempts to bring it about in those who pray and fast. He prompts them to remember wrongs, directs their thoughts towards harboring malice, and sharpens their tongues for slander.

He prepares them to be like that man who wishes for evil whom David describes with the words, “He deviseth mischief continually, his tongue is like a sharp razor” (Ps. 51:2 Lxx), and from whom he prays God to deliver him, saying, “Deliver me, O Lord, from the evil man: preserve me from the violent man; they have sharpened their tongues like a serpent; adders’ poison is under their lips” (Ps. 140:1, 3). (St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 49 & 50)

Images of the Church: The Crowd Around Jesus

In the Scriptures and in Tradition there are many images of the Church –  Body of Christ, a living temple, a holy nation, a local community, a flock, , vine and branches, a revelation, a bride, a gathering of the saints, a hospital for sick sinners, a household, a family, the Kingdom of God.       In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 8:41-56 – synagogue ruler Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood) , the church – the assembly of those who are following Christ is envisioned as a large crowd of people.   And not a passive crowd at that but a jostling, pushing and shoving throng.   This one is perhaps my favorite image of the Church.

The Athonite Monk Archimandrite Amilianos offers a vision of the local church which is a family gathering big enough to include everyone in the world (see The Church is God’s House for Prayer).  His vision of the Church goes way beyond any legalistic “member in good standing” way of viewing Christianity.  His vision certainly incorporates the Eucharistic offering: “Again we offer to You this reasonable worship: for the whole world…”   This certainly encompasses everyone in a crowd of people, not just the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), but “all mankind” – the entirety of the human race.

Who is in this crowd, following Jesus?               His apostles, his disciples, the sick, miracle seekers, the curious, Pharisees, synagogue attendees and synagogue leaders, men and women, those who love Christ and those who hate Him, friends and enemies, those seeking the Kingdom of God and those seeking to entrap Christ in this world.   People whose names we know (Peter, James and John for example) and the unknown.  Rich people, rulers and beggars as well.  Let’s consider the Gospel Lesson:

 And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue.

The rulers of the synagogues were frequently in the Gospel among those who opposed Jesus because He didn’t keep their rules about the Sabbath.  They are sometimes his most vocal critics, and yet they are in the crowd following Christ where He goes.  Not everyone in the church community has to agree with what I think or with what most of us think.  The Church community is big enough even to consist of people who disagree with most of us or find most of us disagreeable.

And he fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

Those looking for miracles.  Desperate for help from any source. Those who loved their children.  Those who are distraught and despairing and running out of hope.  Those who socially outranked Jesus and His followers.  Those who represent groups we criticize – for the synagogue leaders like the Pharisees are among those Jesus criticizes most frequently.

But as He went, the multitudes thronged Him. Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped.

The socially unacceptable.  The outcast. The forsaken.  Social diseased.  The despised.  Strangers.  Foreigners.  Immigrants.   Those whose lives do not matter.  But also those with means and money – this women had spent her fortune on doctors.  Those with hope and some kind of faith even if the faith is only for some self-serving end.

And Jesus said, “Who touched Me?” When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, “Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” But Jesus said, “Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me.”

The disciples are there too.  Those who think they understand Jesus but don’t.  Those who don’t understand Jesus but who follow Him anyway.  The crowd – the great unwashed masses.  The constantly needy.  The dependent.

Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately. And He said to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”    

There are also in the crowd the timid, introverts, those who wish they could disappear.  The shy and retiring.  But also those who like to be the center of attention, the extroverts and expressives.  Those commanding attention, and those who are willing to be commanded.

 While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying to him, “Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher.”

Those who serve others.  Those who have more important things to do in life – those on a mission.  The doubters.  Those who don’t really believe in Him.  Those who want to remain respectable.  Those who are there merely because it is their job to be there. These are the aids and spokespeople for those with power and prestige.

But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, “Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.” When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl. Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, “Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.” And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead.

Unbelievers.  The incredulous.  The scientists.  The realist.  The skeptical.  The Jaded. Scorners. Those who see believers as naïve and ready to be deceived.  The Pessimist.  The Cynic.  The sarcastic.  The know-it-all.  The presumptious.

 But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, “Little girl, arise.” Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened.

Parents and children.  Families and neighbors.  Brothers and sisters.

And today, we the Church are asked to be the same, followers of Christ, one and all, no matter what the reason or attraction, we assemble to be around Christ to   have Christ in our midst.  We need to be something to all the people of the world, not just a motley crowd, but visibly to be the Body of Christ – to make the One present whom the world is seeking.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Corinthians 9:19)

No one person can do that, but together as the Body of Christ, the parish community can become all things to all people.   We have friends, neighbors, family who might be looking for something from Christ, we are to be those who make Christ present to them.  We are to encourage them to look for Christ and to follow Him.  There may be women seeking help from God, or people with sick children, or the needy or the lost.

 

There may be people that some of us don’t want to minister to and don’t want in our midst, but others in the Church community will be able to be Christ to them.  That is the real image of the Church.

We, the Church – all of us together – are responsible for making Christ present, for giving the crowd, the world an opportunity to be with Christ.

Spiritual Pleasures

“We are aware of a difference between the pleasure we experience in our bodies and that we experience in our hearts. Physical pleasures, when we lack them, arouse in us an all consuming desire for them. As soon as we possess and devour them, though, our satisfaction turns into distaste. Pleasures of the spirit, on the other hand, seem distasteful when we do not possess them, but once they begin to be ours, our desire awakens. The more hungrily we seek them when we have begun to enjoy them, the more do we enjoy them even as we hunger for them.

With our bodies it is the desire that gives us pleasure, not the gratification of our desires with the spirit, as the desire is nothing, the fulfillment is all the more pleasing. Physical desire leads to satiety, and satiety leads to distaste for what we desired; spiritual desire produces satiety, and satiety leads to new desire.

The pleasure of the spirit increases our inner longing even while it satisfies us, since the more we savor it the more we perceive that there is something more to long for.”  (St. Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, p 15)

The Tree at the Heart of Creation

And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  (Genesis 2:8-9)

According to Genesis 2, God planted the Tree of Life in the very center of the Garden of Delight.   As wonderful as this Tree seems, it is not the Tree that plays the first and great role in the history of humanity.    That Tree is the more infamous Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  However, in Christian history, many poems and hymns were written connecting the Tree of Life to the Cross of Christ.  Christ is nailed to the Tree that gives life to the world.  And so we Orthodox sing:  “Through the Cross joy has come into all the world.”  So we honor the Cross the instrument which brought salvation to the world and to each and everyone of us.

One of the daily Matins hymns offers an interesting picture of the cross:

When you freely willed to die on the cross, O Savior, you planted the cross at the heart of the entire creation, and to save us you allowed them to fix you to that tree with nails, so that the sun and the moon were stunned into darkness. 

The thief gazed in disbelief at all that was happening, but his faith won him the blessing of paradise when he cried out to you:  Remember me, Lord, when you come in the glory of your Kingdom.   (Friday, Tone 3)

The reference to the cross planted “at the heart of creation” certainly makes me think about the Tree of Life which also had this central location in God’s planted Garden of Eden.   The cross is at the heart of creation for the God who is love also makes love central to created world which the Holy Trinity brought into existence.

Yet the humans whom God created, do not embrace this love.  They see the Tree of Life, the Cross, at the center of the Garden and are not willing to deny themselves in order to lovingly obey God.  Instead, they turn away from the Tree of Life (which they were not forbidden to eat), the Tree that gives eternal life, and they instead selfishly eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Not willing to die for God, they think they can live without God.   It was a terribly grave deception.

Adam and Eve were not willing to choose the Tree of Life – the Cross.  They were not willing to sacrifice all to remain fully united to God.  They foolishly, selfishly and mortally choose to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  They could not see how the Cross could bring joy into all the world, they could not see how choosing the cross could lead to life.

Christ, however, showed the way.  The new Adam did not forsake the Cross, but saw it as the way to eternal life for all humans.  In love and obedience, Jesus Christ saw that the life of the world came through that cross, which could only be embraced by love.

For Adam and Eve, knowledge looked like life but turned out to be death. Christ, knowing the way to Life, walked the path to the Tree of Life and thereby gained salvation for all people.

May the cross be graven on our hearts.

(See also The Cross is the Mirror of My Soul)

The Church is God’s House for Prayer

“Because we know and believe that God is our Father, we view the church, especially when we celebrate the Liturgy, as our true home.We come in and go out freely, we are happy to be here, we make the sign of the cross, we light our candles, we speak with our friends, and it is easy to see that the Orthodox feel that the church is their home. And the church is our home. Our family is the gathering (synaxis) of the church. Our family is not simply our children and relatives, however many we have. It is rather all of us, all humanity, including all those who have turned aside to the left or to the right, or who have perhaps not yet even thought about God, or dared to admit that their heart is filled with cries and groans, and that, with these, they hope to open heaven, or that God will answer them, but they are hesitant and are ashamed.

The Liturgy is our family, our gathering, our house. And what a spacious house it is! Together with us are those who are absent, along with sinners, and the wicked, and the dead, indeed, even those who are in hell, but who may yet remember something about God. And who knows how many of these will find relief, be drawn out of Hades, and even dragged up from the depths of hell, thanks to the prayers of the Church, her memorial services, and divine liturgies. This is our home. We believers have such a large house!” (Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Church at Prayer, p. 68)

Now is the Time for Salvation

Repentance is powerful upon the earth; only in Hades is it powerless. Let us seek the Lord now while we have time. Let us do what is good so that we will be delivered from the future endless punishment of Gehenna, and will be made worthy of the Kingdom of the Heavens. By the grace and love toward man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the might, unto the ages of ages. Amen. (St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 130)