Jesus Proclaimed

Jesus Christ whether as the historical person or the one proclaimed through the centuries by the Church is the same, yesterday, today, forever (Hebrews 13:8).  The Gospel is not about Jesus, Jesus is the Gospel.

Who Jesus really was, what Jesus really thought of himself, and who really were included among Jesus’ closest associates – such titillating questions have in recent years occupied the front covers of national news magazines and prompted television documentaries. This is fascinating since the church looks to the Gospels as authoritative witnesses to the one gospel, who is Jesus Christ, and not to the Jesus reconstructed by even our best historians.

(Joel B. Green, Seized by Truth, p. 109)

Environmental Theology

Previous:  Creation: God’s Gift to Us

Some years ago Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew declared September 1  as a day of prayer for the protection of the natural environment.  This declaration was also endorsed by the other Orthodox Primates as well as by the Pope of Rome.  In honor of this day, here is a meditation on Environmental Theology or, if you prefer, ecological spirituality.

First, Chrysostom argues that the image of God is reflected in humanity’s control and authority over the natural world.  As Chrysostom expresses it, “God created the human being as having control over everything on earth…nothing on earth is greater than the human being, under whose authority everything falls.” This authority and control is a gift of love, given to humanity to be exercised responsibly. Indeed, the exercises of a responsible dominion, Chrysostom believes, rebukes the fallen human tendency toward irresponsibility, laziness and self-indulgence. Responsible care for the environment is to be a “stabilizing influence” in our lives, forcing us to look beyond ourselves toward the well-being of our broader world with all its varied inhabitants. To exploit or ignore that environment is to deface God’s own image in us.

Second, God has exhibited, as Chrysostom puts it, an amazing “prodigality” or extravagance in God’s creation of the world. Certain characteristics of the natural order – the seasons and their rhythms, for example – have been created to facilitate humanity’s life and understanding of God’s love and care. Other aspects of nature – reptiles and wild beasts come to mind – illustrate the abundance of God’s creation, an extravagant prodigality designed to “overwhelm” us and teach us “that all these things were produced by a certain wisdom and ineffable love out of regard for the human being that was destined to come into being.

Even if we struggle to identify all of nature’s utility and benefit, we are called to preserve it in its entirety.”

(essay by Christopher A. Hall, from Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, pp. 36-37)

Creation: God’s Gift to Us

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,

Cormorant Fisherman

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,

Aloe

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).

(St. John Chrysostom, On the Providence of God, p. 67-68)

Next:  Environmental Theology

From, Through and to God

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?”

For from him

and through him

and to him

are all things.

To him be glory for ever.

Amen.

(Romans 11:33-36)

All That Is Within Me, Bless His Name

For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.
(Psalms 139:13-16)

Fetus at 6 months

On the contrary, the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those parts of the body which we think less honorable we invest with the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior part…   (1 Corinthians 12:22-24)

Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name!  (Psalms 103:1)

St Cyril of Jerusalem writes:

Look within yourself. From your own nature you can learn something of your Maker.

There is nothing to be ashamed of in your body. If you are in control of its members, they are not in the slightest evil. Adam and Eve in paradise were naked at first and their bodies did not appear shameful or disgusting. Our limbs do not cause sin, but the wrong use of them does. The Creator of our bodies knew what he was doing.

Who makes the secret parts of the mother’s womb able to bear children? Who gives life to the lifeless fruit of conception? Who shapes the sinews and bones, who covers all with flesh and skin? When the baby comes to the light, who gives the milk that it can suck? How does the newborn infant grow to become a child, then an adolescent, then an adult, and then in the end an old person?

Who imposes on the heart the regularity of its beat? Who protects so skilfully our eyes with their eyelashes? Who makes our whole bodies able to be kept alive by our breathing?

Look at your Maker. Admire your wise Creator. The greatness and the beauty of his creatures will help you to contemplate him.

(Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, p. 60)

God’s Son: Listen to Him

. . . lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces, and were filled with awe.”   (Matthew 17:5-6)

St John of Damascus writes:

From all that has been said, may you always bear in your hearts the loveliness of this vision; may you always hear within you the Father’s voice: “This is” – not a slave, not an elder, not an angel – but “my beloved Son; listen to him!” Let us, therefore, really listen to him, as he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart.” “You shall not kill” – but you also shall not be angry with your brother without reason. “Be reconciled with your brother first, and then go and offer your gift.” “You shall not commit adultery” – but you also shall not let yourself be excited by someone else’s beauty. “You shall not swear falsely” – but you shall not even swear at all: “Let your speech be ‘Yes, yes!’ and ‘No, no!’ What lies beyond that is an invention of the Evil One.”

You shall not bear false witness.” “You shall not commit fraud” – but “give, too, to the one who asks of you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow,” and do no prevent someone from taking what is yours. “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who curse you, act uprightly towards those who hate you, and pray for those who threaten and persecute you.” “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” Forgive, and you will be forgiven, so that you may become sons of your Father, perfect and merciful as is your Father in heaven, “who makes his sun rise on the wicked and the good, and makes rain fall on the just and the unjust.

(Light on the Mountain, pp. 229-230)

On Mount Tabor, O Lord, You have shown today the glory of Your divine form unto Your chosen disciples, Peter, James and John. For they looked upon Your garments that gleamed as the light and at Your face that shone more than the sun; and unable to endure the vision of Your brightness which none can bear, they fell to the earth, completely powerless to lift up their gaze. For they heard a voice that testified from above: ‘This is My beloved Son, Who has come into the world to save mankind.”    (Vespers Hymn for the Transfiguration)

Creation and God

“If we perceive the spiritual principles of visible things we learn that the world has a Maker. But we do not ask what is the nature of that Maker, because we recognize that this is beyond our scope. Visible creation clearly enables us to grasp that there is a Maker, but it does not enable us to grasp His nature.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 17646-50)

Natural theology has its limits according to the Fathers of the Church.  Creation tells us there is a Creator, but creation cannot reveal to us the nature of the God who created us.  Our ability to read creation like a book of theology requires us to have more experience and knowledge than creation alone can give us.  God the Holy Trinity reveals Himself and His nature to us, a revelation found in the Holy Scriptures as well as in the sacramental life of the Church and also in the spiritual lives of the saints.  Even the Scriptures alone do not give us the full experience of God’s revelation and grace.  St. Basil  the Great notes about the book of Genesis:

In saying, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” the sacred writer passed over many things in silence—e.g., water, air, fire, and their effects—which, all forming in reality the true complement of the world, were without doubt made at the same time as the universe. By this silence, the text plainly wishes to train the activity of our intelligence, giving it a weak point for starting, to impel it to the discovery of the truth.”    (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc.  Loc. 3593-96)

Scripture does not tell us everything there is to know about creation – it is silent about many things, but for St. Basil, this silence is exactly telling us there is much more to know.  The fact that Scripture does not give us every detail about creation tells us we need to search and discover the truth which is in creation and which leads us beyond creation to the Creator.  The Scriptures speak to us about the Creator, but they are not a scientific text book.  Humans have pursued a study of God’s creation and uncovered a great many facts and truths about the material cosmos.  What we commonly call science is really the result of human study into the truths of the natural world, the things about which the Scriptures are silent.  God reveals to us the natural order and allows us to discover the truth about nature, as when in the beginning God allowed Adam to name all of the animals of creation and God waited to see what the human would name the animals (Genesis 2:19-20).  God rejoices in our scientific curiosity and our search into the nature of the universe.  In allowing the human to name the animals God was giving us opportunity to understand the nature of each part of creation.

Of course some have decided the empirical world is the only reality we can know, but the godly realize just as there is more to know about nature than the Scriptures reveal, so too there is more to be known about creation than science can reveal.  St. Gregory Nazianzus comments:

“For we should not neglect the heavens, earth, and air, and all such things, because some have wrongly seized upon them and honored God’s works instead of God; instead, we should reap whatever advantage we can from them for our life and enjoyment, while we avoid their dangers, not raising creation as foolish people do in revolt against the Creator, but from the works of nature apprehending the Worker and, as the divine apostle says, “taking every thought captive to obey Christ” [2 Cor 10:5.)”    (A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 4004-8)

As St Gregory notes, just because some people might use scientific investigation to proclaim the empirical creation as the only thing that exists and so deny the Creator, that is no reason for us to completely reject science itself.  Those denying the Creator’s existence are wrong about God but that doesn’t mean that science is therefore wrong about all of its claims.   Science does know things about the physical creation not found in Scriptures, and we in the modern world live with the many advantages of science, technology, medicine and industry.

Scripture was not written to be science, but do reveal the truth to us.

“The creation stories are ancient and should be understood on that level. Rather than merge the two creation stories—the scientific and the biblical—we should respect that they each speak a different language. The fact that Paul considered Adam to be the progenitor of the human race does not mean that we need to find some way to maintain his view within an evolutionary scheme. Rather, we should gladly acknowledge his ancient view of cosmic and human origins and see in that very scenario the face of a God who seems far less reluctant to accommodate to ancient points of view than we are sometimes comfortable with.”   (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3131-35)

God chose His own time and place to make His revelations known, and the people to whom He made those revelations recorded them with all the limits of their time and place.  As Peter Enns points out, God was willing to accommodate Himself and His revelation to the point of view of the ancient world.  God did not leave the ancients in the dark saying “no use to reveal myself until the people have a better understanding of creation through modern science.”  God was comfortable with revealing Himself to a people whose “ancient” way of thinking caused them to  understand the revelation and the creation in their own pre-modern terms.  God did not wait until the modern times to make Himself known.  It is we moderns who have trouble with pre-modern understanding, not God.    Enns continues:

“In my view, reading the Adam story as it was intended to be understood by those who shaped the Bible—primarily as a story of Israel within the larger stage of universal world history—is the most fruitful approach. The Adam story is not an obligatory nod on the part of ancient Israelites to account for how humanity came to be. The primary question Israel was asking was not, ‘Where do people come from?’ (a scientific curiosity), but ‘Where do we come from?’ (a matter of national identity).”   (The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3179-82)

Israel needed to discover its own identity to know its relationship to the rest of history, of the world, of the entire universe.  Scripture gave them that identity which helped them understand themselves in the bigger picture of humanity as well as the entire cosmos.  In understanding themselves, they could then understand creation, the empirical world.  It is in this learning process that they came to know their Creator and the importance of the created world in realizing their place in it.

“Creation is the accuser of the ungodly. For through its inherent spiritual principles creation proclaims its Maker; and through the natural laws intrinsic to each individual species it instructs us in virtue. The spiritual principles may be recognized in the unremitting continuance of each individual species, the laws in the consistency of its natural activity. If we do not ponder on these things, we remain ignorant of the cause of created being and we cling to all the passions which are contrary to nature.”  (St. Maximos the Confessor, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 17632-39)

The created order, the empirical world contextualize our place in the cosmos.  Our task is to learn from both nature and the Scriptures about our role in God’s creation.  The scientific study of the empirical world also helps us realize our relationship to the rest of creation including our moral responsibilities since we are creatures with free will whose choices have consequences for the rest of creation.

O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

(Psalms 104:24)

 

Jesus in Context

Most Orthodox calendars list daily Scripture readings in which we have perhaps a Gospel lesson for the day.  And while we certainly benefit from the daily reading of Scriptures and from considering a short Gospel lesson, we can also gain additional insight by reading any one Gospel lesson in its context – considering how it fits in to the other lessons before and after it.  So, for example if we take the Gospel lesson of Matthew 9:1-8 (Christ forgiving a paralytic his sins and then healing the paralytic) which we read on a summer Sunday and look at that lesson in the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel we may note other details.  Consider  Matthew 8:14-9:13 as a larger context for the miracle of healing the paralytic:

And when Jesus entered Peter’s house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and served him. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

Jesus heals not only Peter’s mother-in-law, but also all those who were ill or demon possessed.  There is no sense in this event that Jesus made discipleship a pre-condition for being healed, nor do we even see Him requiring people to make some ascetical effort to obey God, or even a demand that they repent before He will heal them.  The story is one of God’s grace towards sinners and the sick, not about people attempting to be righteous or being rewarded for their efforts.   Christ does not seem in this case to determine if they are worthy of the miracle nor if they have a proper faith or even if they practice any faith.   Jesus heals all who are brought to Him.

Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”

Jesus, unlike modern televangelists or healers, is not trying to attract attention and a crowd.  When Jesus sees the crowd gathering, he says it is time to move on.  He is not there to set the stage for a bigger ministry nor to collect accolades or donations. He completely misses the PR opportunity.  He receives no glory from adoring followers.

What Christ does is give freely God’s abundant mercy and then He moves on.  If people want to become part of His successful ministry, they themselves have to give up everything to follow Him.  No wonder Jesus appeared in such a backward time and such a strange land with no mass communication.  Jesus was seeking neither fame or fortune – he was seeking nothing that today’s mass media gives and which those who want stardom can’t resist.  Jesus built nothing like those who create media empires today.  He chose His time and place for a reason.

And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord; we are perishing.” And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O men of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

The disciples have seen all that Jesus did – healing all the sick, casting out demons, and they have witnessed the crowds being attracted to Jesus.  But now, when they experience their own personal miracle in the storm at sea, the best they can do is wonder about what kind of man Jesus is.  They wonder why the winds and sea obey Jesus, but besides being dumbfounded, they show little insight into understanding who Jesus is.  They apparently think there might be something special about Jesus, but they are not sure what!

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.

While the disciples are uncertain what to make of Jesus’ special powers, the demons have no doubt about who He is – the Son of God!  The demons show their powerlessness in the face of Christ.  They have to ask permission to leave.     The crowd this time reacts strongly to Christ – they expel him from their land.  The crowd of city dwellers perform their own exorcism of they land by begging Jesus to leave the neighborhood.  Jesus answers their prayer.

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the Paralytic — “rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.

Jesus, now back on the Jewish side of the lake, performs another miracle, but some of the Jewish leaders are offended by Jesus’ words, thinking Jesus is a fraud or worse, they are accusing Jesus of leading people away from God.  On the other hand,  the crowd reaction is fear as they are astounded by what Jesus can do – and they are afraid of Him!  The proximity to divinity is terrifying, but really in this passage we are considering it is only the demons who obey Christ and declare Him to be God’s Son.

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Jesus continues on His sojourn, now sitting to eat with a bunch of sinners rather than with those who were known to practice the faith.   These practitioners of the faith cannot understand why Jesus has table fellowship with people who are obvious sinners.   Jesus responds with the astonishing message that these sinners are exactly the people He is seeking out – hardly the kind of Messiah the righteous are working so hard for.

Seeing Jesus in context, we realize what it is for Him to be the Christ and the Son of God and the Lord.  He heals all, not just believers.  He eats with and has fellowship with sinners not just with the spiritual ascetics.  He flees from the crowds who would want to be empowered by Him make Him their earthly ruler.  He lives according to a Kingdom not of this world.  He does God’s will and brings God to all without wanting the prestige and power humans want to attribute to Him.   No wonder the disciples were so confused about who He is.

Jesus taught: “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'”

We are Made into Icons of Christ

With unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are all being transformed into the same image [Greek: icon], from glory to glory, and this is from the Lord, the Spirit.  . . . Even if our Good News is veiled, it is veiled in those who perish, as the god of this world has blinded the minds of those who do not believe, so that the light of the Good News of the glory of Christ who is the image [Greek: icon] of God should not dawn on them.” (2 Corinthians 3:18, 4:3-4, EOB)

This transformation of all believers into the likeness of Christ (cf. “the same image” [2 Corinthians 3:18] and “Christ who is the image of God [4:4] – the key word eikon is used in both places) should be understood as a further clarification of the senses in which Paul can claim that the Corinthians are a letter from Christ that can be known and read by everyone. Because they are being changed into the likeness of Christ, they manifest the life of Jesus in their mortal flesh (cf. 2 Cor. 4:11). Consequently, the deepest paradox of the passage emerges: Paul’s reading of the sacred text (Exodus 34) reveals that revelation occurs not primarily in the sacred text but in the transformed community of readers.  

(Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, p. 144)

As St. Paul states it Jesus Christ is the image (icon) of God the Father and we believers are being transformed into that same image!  We believers are becoming Christ.  We are the Church (1 Corinthians 12:27), the Church is the Body of Christ (Colossians 1:18), and so we together are becoming Christ.  We are being transformed by the Holy Spirit into Christ – not individually, but collectively as part of the Church which is Christ’s body.  In as much as we become the image of God, in as much as we become Christ, we become the Word of God to the world.  To read and understand Scripture, we need to be able to see Christ manifested in the world – we need to see the Church.  The Church is to be light to the world thus fulfilling Christ’s own teaching.  We are to be the fullness of Christ in the world.  As Richard Hayes notes above for people to understand a passage such as Exodus 34 they need to see Christ, visible to them in His Body, the Church.

Being “In” Christ

In the present life those who are blessed are perfect in relation to God in respect of their will, but not yet with respect to the activity of their mind. One may find perfect love in them, but by no means pure contemplation of God. If, however, that which is in the future is present with them while they yet live in the body, they already experience the prize, yet not continually or perfectly, since this life does not permit it. For this cause Paul says, “we rejoice in hope” (Rom. 12:13), and “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7), and “we know in part” (1 Cor. 13:9). Even though he had seen Christ (1 Cor. 9:1, 15:8), yet he did not enjoy this vision at all times.

For “always” looks to the future only, and this he himself showed when he spoke of Christ’s presence, saying, “and so shall we always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). Thus, anyone who is in Christ and has received eternal life has it through his will, and through love he will arrive at the ineffable joy. He has the pure vision of the mind in store for the future while faith leads him on to love. This the blessed Peter shows, saying, “though you do not see Him you believe in Him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy” (1 Pet. 1:8). (St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 226-227)