Living The Kingdom of God

In the book Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (page 124), Michael Plekon, building upon the writings of Paul Evdokimov, notes:

 “For every Christian, the sacraments of initiation confer the dignity of prophet, priest and king. Every profession and state in life can be a form of this universal priesthood. In the liturgy, such a priest ‘makes of everything a human offering, a hymn, a doxology’. Then, in daily life, in the ‘liturgy after liturgy’ of St. John Chrysostom, such a Christian is

‘freed by his faith from the “greater fear” of his twentieth century, fear of the bomb, of cancer, of communism, of death; [his] faith is always a way of loving the world, away of following his Lord even into hell. This is certainly not a part of a theological system, but perhaps it is only from the depths of hell that a dazzling and joyous hope can be born and assert itself. Christianity in the grandeur of its confessors and martyrs, in the dignity of every believer, is messianic, revolutionary, explosive.  In the domain of Caesar, we are ordered to see and therefore to find what is not found there—the Kingdom of God. This order signifies that we must transform the form of the world, change it into the icon of the Kingdom. To change the world means to pass from what the world does not yet possess—for this reason it is still this world—to that in which it is transfigured, thus becoming something else—the Kingdom.’ (Paul Evdokimov)”

 

Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ Loves You – No, I Mean You!

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  (Luke 7:47)

Even if there had been only one human who ever sinned, died and went to Hades, Christ would have become incarnate, died on the cross to save that person.   Jesus is the Good Shepherd and would leave the 100 billion who never sinned to find that lost sheep.  Christ would do this because He is God, and God is love.  God loves every single human being who has ever come into existence.

If you were the only one who ever sinned, Christ would die on the cross to save you from your sin and death, because He loves you.  It is true that God loves humanity, but that love is always personal.  God loves you, not just humanity.  God may love you because you are human, but God loves you personally.

The Son of God dies for you, not just for humanity, on the cross.  Christ is willing to go to hell even for one sinner.  His love is that personal.  He comes to call you by name to raise you personally from sin and death.  We may exalt Christ for dying because of the sins of the world, but He dies for my sins, even if they are the only sins in the world.

It matters little how many or how few sins others commit.  Christ’s love is for you personally, He dies on the cross because of and for your sins and to give you eternal life.

Christ seeks each sinner personally.  So in Lent when the hymns of repentance paint “me” as being the foremost or chief among sinners, or of having sinned more than David the adulterous murderer or anyone else, they are also pointing out that even if that is true, Christ still loves me and dies for me and raises me up from hell itself.

As St. Gregory the Theologian confesses about Christ: “For He pleads even now as man for my salvation . . .”  (ON THE TREE OF THE CROSS, Editors: M Baker, S Danckaert, N Marinides, p 12)

However grave or great my sins may be, Christ still loves me enough to die for me and to continue to intercede before the Father on my behalf.  The hymns which portray “me” as a great sinner are also, and more so, pointing out the greatness of God’s love for me.

I need only to accept His love, and renounce my sins and my sinfulness.

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house, and took his place at table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment.

Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “What is it, Teacher?” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”  (Luke 7:36-47)

If I feel I have sinned little or rarely, then I do not feel much need for Christ.  I will therefore love little, as Christ predicts.  Only when I see myself as the foremost of sinners will I be able to love as Christ loves me.  When I realize that even if I were the only sinner, Christ would die for me – then do I realize the depth of His love for me.  Then I realize how grave my sins really are – not compared to what sins I might commit – but the price that is paid for them:  the death of God the Son on the cross. The Son in His love continues to ask God to forgive me my sins.

 

Sunday of Orthodoxy: The Doctrinal Significance of Icons

The first Sunday in Great Lent also commemorates the acceptance by the Church of icons as theologically essential for proclaiming the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  There was a very long dispute about the use of icons that lasted more than a century, but eventually the Church declared icons were Orthodox and should be in churches and venerated by the faithful.

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes:

“The doctrinal significance of icons. Here we come to the real heart of the Iconoclast  [those who rejected the use of icons] dispute. Granted that icons are not idols; granted that they are useful for instruction; but are they not only permissible but necessary? Is it essential to have icons? The Iconodules [those who accepted icons as Orthodox] held that it is, because icons safeguard a full and proper doctrine of the Incarnation. Iconoclasts and Iconodules agreed that God cannot be represented in His eternal nature: ‘no one has seen God at any time’ (John i, 18). But, the Iconodules continued, the Incarnation has made a representational religious art possible: God can be depicted because He became human and took flesh. Material images, argued John of Damascus, can be made of Him who took a material body:

Of old God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was not depicted at all. But now that God has appeared in the flesh and lived among humans, I make an image of the God who can be seen. I do not worship matter but I worship the Creator of matter, who for my sake became material and deigned to dwell in matter, who for my sake effected my salvation. I will not cease from worshiping the matter through which my salvation has been effected.

The Iconoclasts, by repudiating all representations of God, failed to take full account of the Incarnation. They fell, as so many puritans have done, into a kind of dualism. Regarding matter as a defilement, they wanted a religion freed from all contact with what is material; for they thought that what is spiritual must be non-material. But this is to betray the Incarnation, by allowing no place to Christ’s humanity to His body; it is to forget that our body as well as our soul must be saved and transfigured. The Iconoclast controversy is thus closely linked to the disputes about Christ’s person. It was not merely a controversy about religious art, but about the Incarnation, about human salvation, about the salvation of the entire material cosmos.”  (The Orthodox Church, pp. 31-32)  

Adam, Eve and Free Will

Scholar Sebastian Brock having studied the writings of St. Ephrem the Syrian, describes Ephrem’s understanding of being human and having free will.  For Ephrem the story of Adam and Eve is the story of everyone of us.  Their story is humanity’s story, and the story of our lives is the story of Adam and Eve.  Brock writes:

Adam and Eve (humanity) had been created in an intermediary state, neither mortal nor immortal: it was the exercise of their free will (heruta, “freedom”) over the instruction not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge which would decide the matter: if they kept the command (Ephrem emphasizes how small it was), God would have rewarded them, not only with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge but also with the fruit of the Tree of Life, and they would have become immortal and been divinized. As it was, of course, they failed to obey the commandment, and as a result were both expelled from Paradise and became subject to death (which Ephrem sees as a merciful deliverance from the terrible consequences of their disobedience).

The entire aim of God henceforth has been to effect the means for Adam/humanity to return to Paradise, which still respecting the awesome gift of free will with which humanity has been endowed. But it is not just to the intermediary state of primordial Paradise that God wishes humanity to return: in the eschatological Paradise humanity is to receive the gift of divinity from the Tree of Life that God had originally intended for the primordial Adam and Eve. (The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual Wisdom of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, pp. 31-32).

 

The Sin of Envy

St. Gregory the Great, the Pope of Rome, writes about envy as an illness that eats away at the heart.  What is feeding this illness?  The happiness and good fortune of others!  The envious person sees others who have been blessed, who have been given happiness in their lives, and the envious is made sick by the blessings others have received.  Gregory says rather than eyeing and envying the good fortune of others, why not pay attention to the good deeds others do and then acquire these virtues.  That turns a negative passion into a good.   I may never have all the good things others have, but I surely can make their virtuous behavior my own.  This would be using the passion to push oneself into virtue and a blessed way of life.  One Saint who did this is the poor farmer Metrios (commemorated on June 1), who found gold lost by another but instead of jealously keeping the gold as his good fortune, returned it to the owner, thus imitating good deeds rather than envying the wealth of another.

“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing.  How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? And these same persons are anxiously afflicted and die from a plague of the heart because they witness the increasing prosperity of others. What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness?  And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”

The Book of Pastoral Rule, page 108)

Lost Innocence

A week ago this past Sunday, we had the Gospel Lesson of the Publican and Pharisee  (Luke 18:10-14) .   There were tw0 hymns from the Matins Canon that caught my attention for their theological content.   The first states a simple truth in the Orthodox understanding of what it is to be human.  Humans in this view were not created perfect, but were created with the possibility of perfection, if they chose that way of life.

Adam and Eve are seen in this theological understanding more as innocent children who did not fully understand the consequences of their behavior because they lacked real world experience with evil.  This is why Satan was able to deceive Adam and Eve.  The first two humans were not created with a fatal flaw, nor did they have evil inside themselves.  They were innocent or immature and thus easily led astray by the allurement of temptation.  So the first hymn says:

I was created naked in innocence and simplicity;

then the enemy clothed me with the garment of sin and passionate flesh.

But now I am saved, Maiden, through your intercession.

The sin of Adam and Eve was not to trust God in both protecting them from evil but also leading them toward a beautiful maturity.   Satan promised them something more immediate and they trusted that Serpent whom they hardly knew at all.  God knew the path for Eve and Adam to reach the maturity of theosis, but humans rejected God’s plan and decide to follow the Serpent’s plan to deification.

The second hymn is not actually related to the first, except that both have the the Virgin Mary as part of the plan of salvation.  In this hymn we see clearly expressed the theological interpretation of the Old Testament that Mary herself is the ladder climbing to heaven which Jacob saw (Genesis 28:10-17).  She connects earth to heaven because God descends through her in the Incarnation not only into the earth but also into the place of the dead.

You are the beauty of Jacob, Holy Virgin;

the divine ladder he saw in the days of old, stretching from earth to heaven,

for you bring down the Incarnate God from on high,

and bring mortal men up to heaven.

Mary’s role in salvation is thus foretold by the Old Testament.  God promised to give us the means by which it would be possible for God to be united to humanity and for humanity to gain access to heaven itself.  This promise turns out to be the Theotokos.  In her the incarnation takes place, thus in her is realized the salvation of the world which God had promised from the earliest days of human existence.

Zacchaeus is Us Not Them

The Gospel Lesson: Luke 19:1-10
Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Sermon notes January 2017

  • Jesus in Luke 18:31-34 had just/ already told the disciples they were headed to Jerusalem where He will be killed by the Gentiles.  In 19:1, Jesus seems to be passing through Jericho, he wasn’t planning to stop as He is headed to Jerusalem and his destiny on the cross.  Yet His sojourn is suddenly disrupted by His encounter with Zacchaeus:  for today I must stay at your house.  This is a surprise in the narrative.  Even as God’s plans are unfolding, they can be put on hold for the sake of one person!   Jesus’ own plans can be disrupted by an encounter with someone, even a sinner!  There is a message here:  It is never “too late” to seek Christ, never a waste of time, just to be curious about Him.  Even if you are merely curious, a real encounter with Him will change your life!  Zacchaeus wasn’t seeking an audience with Christ, he was just curious and just wanted to see Him.  Seeking Christ is rewarding, even for the sinner, the lost, the one cut off from God’s people, the one who chooses to be cut off from God’s people.

  • I am really struck by vs 7, “But when they saw it, they all complained…” The sudden appearance of the “they” is startling, even jarring to me.  So far the story has been about Jesus, His disciples and then Zacchaeus.  There has been no “us and them” or “we and they” in the narrative, except perhaps Jesus predicting His death at the hands of the Gentiles (Luke 18:31ff).   But suddenly there is a “they”, “them”, “not us”.   Zacchaeus though Jewish is portrayed as the outcast, the outsider, a sinner, not one of us, not a real Jew suffering at the hands of the Romans, but a collaborator – a tax collector for the Romans (the Gentiles who Jesus prophesied are about to kill Him!) .  But Jesus sees him also is a son of Abraham.  Now, suddenly, the “they” “the others” are those complaining about Zacchaeus even though they are Jews, they are not part of us, but are “them.”   The Gospel lesson is about reclamation and restoration, but also about taking sides.    Zacchaeus is restored to us, to the people of God.  But the crowd, the Jews, are no longer seen as the people of God.  “They” have suddenly rejected the way of the Messiah.  They, the crowd, like His miracles and promises, but they don’t want people like Zacchaeus to be restored to fellowship, they want Zacchaeus to be judged and rejected, as they have already done.  The crowd claims to be not like Zacchaeus because He is a sinner, but Jesus says He is a son of Abraham, even though lost, but the very thing Christ came to seek.  The people have not understood the coming of the Messiah, the promise of His restoration of Israel.  They assume He is coming to mightily overthrow their enemies, He is there to save sinners, to work with the fallen.  This is Christ’s idea of restoration, but it is an idea many aren’t interested in.  The crowd often likes that Jesus rejects the Pharisees as the Pharisees are too elitist and maximalist, but neither do they want sinners – those less than themselves, those not worthy of themselves – being restored to their number.  They want to be proven “right” to be proven worthy, especially to the Pharisees.  Of course God sees them as chosen, despite what the Pharisees might say, but they don’t want to have those they deem to be sinners included in their number!
  • Christ tells us in Matthew 25 to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Christ’s message is not just for Jews, but in this Gospel lesson, he is reaching out to a lost sheep to restore the person.  But we Gentiles were not part of the House of Israel, we are not being restored, but are being grafted in new.  There are some who need restoration, being brought back into the fold, but others have to be added new for the first time.  We are not the restored, but truly sinners made new.  Christ is not embarrassed to be embraced by sinners, by strangers, by outcast.  We “Gentiles’ suddenly find ourselves being included not because we are righteous, but rather because, as St. Paul notes in today’s epistle, God “is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”    God is the Savior of everyone, even of us, not because we are righteous but because of God’s love for us as our Creator.  We too should be careful  who we deem unworthy of being part of God’s people – we should welcome all who seek Christ even if we think they are unsavable sinners.
Prodigal son returns
Prodigal son returns
  • Today’s Epistle gives us some idea about how we are to live as a result of being called by Christ into the flock, the Church, into His body:

1 Timothy 4:9-16
My Son Timothy,
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. These things command and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

1] We are to be an example to believers – to one another:  in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”   What do each of these things mean?  How do we do it?  We are lead by example, we should be wanting people to pay attention to our lives and lifestyles.  The things we say and do are to be examples to our fellow Christians, our fellow parishioners, our family and neighbors and coworkers.   In purity – even what is in our hearts is to be an example, it is not good enough to have external behavior for we must internally in our hearts be converted so our very thoughts and feelings are an example to others!

2]  We are to give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.     We are to study, attend adult education, be life long learners in the faith.  We have an obligation as Orthodox to this.

3]  “the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”   Note God is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe, but God is the Savior of everyone.  This is the key verse which connects the Epistle to today’s Gospel.  God is the Savior of everyone, including Zacchaeus, including sinners, including people we judge unworthy of the Gospel.  No one is unworthy of the Gospel, even those who collaborate with the enemies of God.  No one is outside God’s salvation.  Christ is Savior especially to those of us who believe, but He is also Savior to all people.

The Apostle Timothy from Among the Seventy

Today in the Orthodox Church we commemorate the Apostle Timothy from Among the 70.  The Orthodox Church does accept that in our Scriptures we have letters from St. Paul to Timothy.  St. Paul writes to his spiritual son:

My Son, Timothy…

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.

Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this will be made manifest at the proper time by the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.  Amen.

(1 Timothy 6:6-16)

Following Christ: Living Beyond Ritual

“We became Christians by the grace of God; let us take care to have true Christianity within ourselves. We were baptized in the one Tri-hypostatic God and have received the gift of holiness and justification; let us take care to guard this heavenly treasure to the end.

We believe in Jesus Christ crucified ; let us take care to follow Him with faith, and having each one taken up on his cross let us go after Him. We confess and call upon the heavenly God; let us take care to please Him with a heavenly character.

We hear the word of God; let us take care and live just as it teaches us. ‘We await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come’; let us take care to conduct ourselves in this world worthily of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come; and having turned away from the vanities of this world, let us strive only for everlasting blessedness.

We approach the holy and heavenly table of the Mysteries of Christ; let us take care that this heavenly and life-creating Bread brings life, sanctification, illumination, renewal, joy and spiritual consolation.”

(St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, pp 57-58)

The River Jordan and Paradise

The prayers for the Great Blessing of water entreat God to make the blessing of the Jordan be present in the water in the church font.  In the Vespers service for Theophany, 13 Old Testament Readings are proclaimed.  Four of these reading make reference to the River Jordan:

Joshua 3:7-8, 15-17 (the ark causes the Jordan to stop flowing, so Israel can cross to the promised land on dry ground);

4[2] Kings 2:6-14 (Elisha parts the Jordan after receiving Elijah’s mantle when he ascended into heaven);

4[2] Kings 5:9-14 (Naaman is cured by washing three times in the Jordan);

Genesis 32:1-10 (Jacob reminds God that he became a rich man after crossing the Jordan).

The Jordan River has a virtual mythical quality for Israel, and takes on a mystical purpose and meaning.  Crossing the Jordan is associated with the saving acts of God on earth – with movement that brings one closer to God and God’s Kingdom.   St. Gregory the Theologian reflects on the mystical meaning of the Jordan River.

St. Gregory then comes back to the Jordan:

‘Alone among all rivers, the Jordan received the first-fruits of sanctification and blessing, and has shed the grace of baptism over the whole world, as from a source. And these things are signs of that regeneration which is effected by Baptism’.

This is a very striking definition of a type, that it is an act truly accomplished, and signifying some future action. St Gregory then alludes to the Jordan in its relation to Paradise:

‘The Jordan is glorified because it regenerates men and makes them fit for God’s Paradise’.”

(Jean Danielou, From Shadows to Reality,p 275)

The Jordan is involved in several epiphanies of God, but in Christ’s baptism there is the Theophany of the Holy Trinity. It is Christ’s baptism that gives meaning and power to all baptisms done in Christ.  The Jordan has a mystical quality that is transferred to all who participate in it.