The Sins I Cannot See

We usually think of sins as actions intentionally or purposefully done, sometimes even done with malice.  But there are also sins and offenses which people commit with no malice because they are unaware of how their behavior affects others.  In this story from the desert fathers, we see exactly this latter case, two monks who are endlessly irritated by the wrong behavior of a third monk.  The third monk’s behavior is so offensive that the two monks decide the most loving thing is simply to move away from him.  But as often is the case, we have to think about what Christian love demands of us and what constraints it puts on us.

They used to say of Abba Poemen that he was staying at Scete with two of his brothers and the younger one was troubling them. He said to the other brother: “This young fellow is our undoing; get up and let us be gone from here.” Out they went and left him. Realizing that they were a long time gone he saw them in the distance. He started to run after them, crying out. Abba Poemen said “Let us wait for the brother, for he is in adversity.” When he caught up with them [the brother] prostrated himself, saying: “Where are you going and [why are you] leaving me alone?” The elder said to him: “Because you trouble us; that is why we are going away.” He said to them: “Yes, yes, let us go together wherever you like.” When the elder saw that there was no guile in him, he said to his brother: “Let us go back brother, for he does not want to do these things; it is the devil that does them to him.” They turned round and came [back] to their place.   (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 256-257)

Praying, “Lord, have mercy!”

In Orthodox liturgical services, we constantly pray, “Lord, have mercy!”  In the Gospel, Jesus Himself never refuses to grant a request made to Him seeking mercy.  Paul N. Harrilchak comments on this foundational prayer of the Christian people:

Not a sentimental plea or cry for pity; rather, an acknowledgement of the Father’s lordship – his sovereignty, power and faithfulness – and of our own sinfulness. We ask the Father of mercies, 2 Cor. 1.3, to remember his covenant with us and deal with the needs of all, not in accordance with our sins but in accordance with his mercy, Heb. 8.8-12. (Something of the scriptural meaning of mercy – hesed in Hebrew – can be gleaned from the RSV rendering, steadfast love.)

The Liturgy: OCA Texts Revised, Annotated and Set to the Melodies, p. 31)

Replacing Vices with Virtues

 

“As the other passions come to birth, we must curb them and make our minds tranquil; we must banish anger, passion, grudges, enmity, malice, evil desires, all licentiousness, all the works of the flesh, which, according to St. Paul, are adultery, fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, jealousies, drunkenness and carousingings.

It is fitting, therefore, to force out of our souls all these vices and to be eager to acquire the fruit of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, modesty and continence. If we shall thus purify our minds by constantly chanting the lessons of piety, we shall henceforth be able, by preparing ourselves beforehand, to make ourselves worthy to receive His gift, great as it is, and to guard the good things which are given.

(St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions, p. 36)

Strangers to Sin

“But if sin and death entered into this world and inhabit this world, it is certain that those who are dead to this world through Christ, or rather with Christ, are strangers to death and sin. Having been raised with him, they have even merited to sit with him in the heavenly places. Their citizenship is no longer in this world but in heaven…” 

 (Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, p. 312)

Jesus, Your Servant

 Jesus said: For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.   (Luke 22:27)

We consider Jesus Christ to be our Lord, God and Savior.  Yet, Jesus also came as a servant – certainly some ancient prayers from the early Church speak to God as Father about “Your servant, Jesus.”   And Jesus both declared Himself to be a servant and demonstrated He was a servant in the washing of His disciples’ feet.

You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.   (John 13:13-15)

Jesus comes as a servant.   He behaves like a servant and tells us in this we are to imitate Him as servants of one another.  He never tells us that we are to lord it over anyone.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”   (Matthew 20:25-28)

Was he tempted to use His power to feed the crowds in order to make them indebted to Him or so that they would have to cower before Him?   The crowd apparently was so enamored with Him – but Jesus fled this scenario:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.    (John 6:15)

Was he tempted to gain popularity by doing miracles to win admiration and to inspire awe?   The crowd was apparently tempting Him with this kind of power, but Jesus rejected it.

Was he tempted to subject people to His authority as a mighty king?  Certainly during the crucifixion he was taunted with a claim of being the King of Israel.  The people said they would believe in Him if He proved He was king:

“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”    (Matthew 27:42)

And though Christ came that all might believe in Him, He does not come down from the cross to claim authority over these people or demand that they cringe before Him.

He told His disciples at His arrest, that He had the ability to appeal for power from on high, yet He chose not to do so:

Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?    (Matthew 26:53)

Was he tempted to keep others in obedience to Himself by threats of force or bribes of food?  Again, it seems to have happened on several occasions:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”  (Mark 8:11-12)

Jesus did not come to impose like a dictator, but to purpose like a servant.  We who follow Him should do the same.

He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.   (Matthew 23:11-12)

And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.  (Luke 22:25-27)

God Provides What We Need

We ought all of us always to give thanks to God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual.

These include wealth so that one can perform acts of charity; poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude; authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue; obedience & service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul; health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God, sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience; spiritual knowledge & strength, so that one may acquire virtue; weakness & ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility;

unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms; ease & prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls; trials and hardship – so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection. All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

(St Peter of DamascusThe Philokalia: Vol. 3, p. 172)

The Sin of Partiality

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There are many opportunities in the world for us to consider our lives in Christ.  In America, the Martin Luther King Holiday gives us the chance to think about how our treatment of others is a moral issue which should be governed by the Gospel commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Loving strangers is part of our life in Christ, as Jesus teaches we will hear at the Judgment Day: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me“(Matthew 25:35; see also for example: Ephesians 2:19  or 3 John 5).  Our prejudices and fears can help us identify the stranger whom we are to welcome.  “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:1-2).

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Offering Mercy to Christ

One passage from the New Testament that we can consider when it comes to strangers, to our prejudices and to racist attitudes is found in the Epistle of James 2:1-13 –

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

10619324084_cdb99eda43If St. James says that it is evil which leads us to make distinctions between people because of the clothing they wear (whether we think them rich or poor), what would he say to us if we make distinctions based upon skin color or accents or facial features?  I think he would clearly tell us such “distinctions” (i.e., prejudices, bigotry, racism, xenophobia) were based in evil thoughts, not in godliness.  St James’ Epistle is for us  Scripture –  it has the authority of God’s Word.  St. James is not saying that we won’t have feelings of phobias or prejudices.  He tells us it is wrong to act on them and to treat others based on them.    In love we have to overcome our own sinful thoughts.

Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name which was invoked over you?

St. James is immediately addressing the temptation of distinguishing between the poor and the rich and then treating them differently based on our sinful bias.  However, there is a principle here that applies to many other ways in which we apply our prejudices or bigotry.  We cater to the rich in our churches as we want their financial support, but St. James says it is the rich who are a threat to us Christians, not the poor.  The rich are powerful and have the legal means to threaten us legally and in other ways.

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We often fear the poor and want to keep them far from us, but St. James says it is the rich and powerful who are the real threat.  For it is the rich and powerful who will tempt us away from adhering to the Gospel commands of love – by bribes or threats.  Something to think about.    We build walls to keep the poor out of our lives, but it is the rich and powerful who have the ability to pass laws which threaten our beliefs and moral practices and who have the power to have those laws enforced against us.  Power is a greater threat to our religious freedom than poverty.

If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “Do not kill.” If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.

10commadmentsSt James tells us if we commit the sin of making distinctions (of prejudice, bigotry, racism, xenophobia), we break the law of God and fall under condemnation for our sin.  Note, St. James does not say “partiality” is listed in the 10 Commandments, but he says it is every bit as sinful to show partiality (prejudice, bigotry, racism, xenophobia)  as it is to commit adultery or murder!    If we think we can commit such sins as “partiality” or “making distinctions” because there is no direct scriptural commandment  against them, just read the Epistle of James.  There Scripture clearly teaches prejudice and racism and bigotry are every bit as sinful, evil and wrong as is murder and adultery.  If we think prejudice and bigotry are somehow not as sinful or evil as murder and adultery, we need to look at the Epistle of James who will correct our thinking immediately.

For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.  

Mercy is the Gospel command we are to follow to rid our hearts of the sins of prejudice, partiality, racism, making distinctions, bigotry or xenophobia.

Mercy triumphs over justice and judgment.  That is why in the Orthodox Church we constantly pray, “Lord, have mercy!”   We are not constantly saying, “God be just and judge us.”  We need God’s mercy and to receive it, we need to show mercy to others.

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“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  (Luke 6:36-38)

Choosing Eternity

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There  was a man, could have been any one, who considered himself a decent sort of person, but who never put much thought into an afterlife.  There were too many things in life which occupied his attention, and which also allowed him to avoid thinking about the inevitable.  Unexpectedly – at least for him – his life dreamily ended.  He found himself in the place where all souls are said to be judged by God.   As it dawned on him about what had happened and where he was, he suddenly was terrified of what awaited him.

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An angel of the Lord approached him.  The angel’s appearance was awesome, and the man cringed and swallowed hard.  His mind was racing for what defense he might offer at his judgment.

The angel spoke in a harmonious voice, asking the man, “Are you now ready to choose your eternal destiny?”

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“Choose?”  The man was astounded at the question, for he had given no real thought to it in his lifetime and he couldn’t believe he had any real choice in the matter at this particular moment, considering where he was.  “Do you mean I even have a choice?”

“Of course you have a choice.” replied the angel  “You have to choose where you will spend your eternity.  Who did you think was going to do that for you?”

The man was at a loss for words, but for the first time in a long time, God came to mind.

The angel led the man to a room which had four doors in one wall.  The angel explained, “Behind one of these doors lies your eternal destiny.  But you have to choose which one you will enter.  Three of these doors open paths to heaven.  Only one of the doors leads to hell.  You have to choose what your fate will be. Choose wisely because whichever door you open is the one you must enter.”

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The man was now becoming concerned again.  “But . . . how do I know what door to choose?  Is it a trick . . .  or is it all left to chance?”

“There is no trick,”  The angel responded, “and it isn’t a matter of chance; it really is choice.  You have to decide which door you want to go through.  I’m even going to tell you a something about what is on the other side of  each of these doors.”

The man didn’t know whether to breathe a sigh of relief or whether this was going to be such a test that he would certainly fail.

“One of these doors leads to martyrdom and suffering for the Gospel, but you will find your way to heaven on that path.  One of these doors leads to people who are suffering terribly and it will require that you spend time to care for them, but it too leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Behind one door are all manners of poor people, beggars, the unwanted – and they will ask you to give them everything you own including the clothes off your back.  But this too is a path to the Kingdom.   Some of the saints thought this door with all the beggars is the easiest path to the kingdom because it requires no suffering – all you have to do is give everything you own away – let them lighten the load for you.  It is the easiest path to the kingdom but that door is the most difficult to choose.”

Then the angel said, “Only one door leads to hell.”

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The man was not a little glad that judgment was not in God’s hands. And in any case choosing heaven was three times more likely then choosing the path to hell.   His mind was whirling with his good fortune as he realized his fate was in his own hands.  He was overjoyed to hear that one door gave him easy access to heaven because he certainly assumed everyone chooses that door.

“How can I tell the doors apart?” the man asked.  “This is the trick . . . isn’t it?”

The angel again assured him that there was no trick.  “Just approach each door and listen carefully to what you hear,” the angel instructed.  The angel handed the man a well stocked backpack.  “You will need this on your journey – it will speed your on your way.”

As the man looked at the backpacks contents he noted medical supplies, analgesics, antiseptics, bandages, food, extra clothing, water, bedding, a tent.  The back pack was very heavy, but the man was feeling buoyant because of the care being shown to him and the provisions given him.  He put the pack on his back, feeling confident that he was now prepared to choose his destiny.

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The man hesitantly moved toward the first door, still fearful that maybe it was a trap.  But as he drew near to the door he could hear terrible screams from people on the other side of the door as if they were being tortured.  They cried out in horrible agony, begging for mercy.  It sounded like their bones were being snapped or as if they were being eaten alive.  Did he smell burning flesh from under the door?  The man was horrified and fearfully backed away from the door lest he somehow fall through it.  A shudder went down his spine as he moved more quickly to the second door.  At first he didn’t hear anything coming from behind the second door.  Carefully,  he put his ear to the door.  The sound on the other side of the door was the most pitiful moaning, people groaning in their suffering.  The piteous sighs of these people struck his heart with a dread – he did not want to find out what was causing their grief, nor did he feel that he wanted to deal with that suffering.   He felt oppressed by the thought of it.

He looked back over his shoulder.  The angel was watching expectantly, and the man felt encouraged.

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As he moved toward the third door, he could hear a loud clamor from the other side of the door before he got near it.   People were pounding on the door begging for help.  The man thought the door itself might burst open because of the crowd pushing against it.  There was a myriad of voices all begging for something to alleviate their need – medicines, clothes, food, water.  Amidst the din, he thought he heard someone shout out a warning  from the other side of the door – “Don’t open the door!  Those people are diseased and dangerous. You’ll unleash them on the world.”  He almost felt as if their arms were reaching through the door trying to pull him in.  His hands tightened their grip on the straps of his backpack.  He leaped back away from the door, thankful that he had escaped being dragged into that mess.

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He then cautiously moved toward the fourth door.  He stopped and listened but didn’t seem to hear anything.  He moved closer to the door.  He tentatively placed his ear against the door.  What he heard seemed so soothing to him.  For the sound was as if a running, bubbling river was passing by on the other side of the door.  There was no other noise.  The man liked the quiet, peaceful babbling.  It was so inviting, very much what he hoped heaven would be like.  He grabbed the door handle and pushed the door open and confidently stepped in.

The sound it turned out was not a river as he imagined it at all.  What was flowing past the door was a rapidly moving stream of sewage of the most foul kind.  There was no other sound because everything was quickly being swept away by the force of the flow.  The man’s back pack dragged him down into the sewage and he was carried directly to the mouth of hell.

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The man had chosen his eternal destiny.

The angel cringing, marveled at the man’s choice.

The man suddenly felt his neck snap, as his eyes popped open and his mind jolted awake as he heard the priest chanting:

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

 

 

Baptized into Christ

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And baptism into Christ means incorporated into the diverse community of fellow baptized, co-crucified, co-resurrected, justified inhabitants of Christ”  (Gal 3:28).

. . . justification is an experience of both death and resurrection, and both must be stressed. But the resurrection to new life it incorporates is a resurrection to an ongoing state of crucifixion: I “have been” crucified means I “still am” crucified. Therefore, justification by faith must be understood first and foremost as a participatory crucifixion that is, paradoxically, life-giving (cf. 2 Cor 4:7-15). The one who exercises faith, and is there by crucified with Christ, is systauroo in Gal 2:19 – as in Rom 6:6), because he or she is animated by the resurrected Christ, who always remains for Paul (and the New Testament more generally) the crucified Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 2:2; cf. John 20:20, 27; Rev. 5:6). As Miroslav Volf says in commenting on this text, the self “is both ‘de-centered’ and ‘re-centered’ by one and the same process, by participating in the death and resurrection of Christ through faith and baptism…” Volf continutes:

By being ‘crucified with Christ,’ the self has received a new center – the Christ who lives in it and with whom it lives…The center of the self – a center that is both inside and outside – is the story of Jesus Christ, who has become the story of the self. More precisely, the center is Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected who has become part and parcel of the very structure of the self.

This understanding of faith as crucifixion is reinforced by Paul’s insistence that the believer’s experience (narrated representatively by Paul in first-person texts) is not only a death with Christ but also a death to the Law (Gal 2:19), to the world (Gal 6:14), and of the flesh (Gal 5:24). The mention of death of the flesh and to the world also demonstrates that Gal 2:15-21 should not be read only as a Jewish experience of liberation from the Law. Rather, every believer begins and continues his or her existence in Christ by co-crucifixion. Gal 2:19-21 suggests that co-crucifixion is both the way in and the way to stay in the convent.

Once again, we must stress that it is the resurrected crucified Christ with whom believers are initially and continually crucified. This is important, both christologically and soteriologically, in two ways. First, as an experience of the risen or resurrected Christ, co-crucifixion is not merely a metaphor but an apt description of an encounter with a living person whose presence transforms and animates believers: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me by giving himself for me.” As Douglas Campbell says, this is no mere imitatio Christi! For “God is not asking [believers]…to imitate Christ – perhaps an impossible task – so much as to inhabit or to indwell him,” such that “the Spirit of God is actively reshaping the Christian into the likeness of Christ.”

(Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, pp. 70-71)