One in Adam, One in Christ

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6)

St Paul came to the realization that God willed the salvation of the human race, not just the Jewish race.  He came to understand that the Law given to help humans do God’s will had not accomplished its goal and had in fact divided humanity with Jews believing they were to have nothing to do with Gentiles.  St Paul came to the startling conclusion that God was saving all humans and in so doing reuniting them all into one people, no longer two separated by the Law.  However, realizing this truth was one thing, actualizing it in community life proved to be quite a difficult challenge.  For St Paul was telling Jews to embrace Christ’s love and sit and eat with the Gentiles because all the rules for keeping Torah or keeping Kosher were not the way to salvation.  Salvation is love for God and neighbor which the Law cold never realize.

What drove Paul to see that Jew and gentile now constitute one people of God was not his own imagination or sense of social justice, and it certainly was not his “straight” reading of his Bible. If anything, putting Jew and non-Jew on the same level cuts against the Old Testament grain. What drove Paul to this revolutionary, countercultural conclusion was the reality of the resurrection of Christ.   (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 2989-92)

What St Paul came to understand is the importance of Adam: Christ restores all humans to the one undivided humanity which existed before the Fall.  Adam is not mostly the 1st historical human but the type of all prefallen humans.  Adam is not about biological origins but truly falls to that level of a mere biological being through sin.   Christ comes to restore the full nature of humanity, to reunite the physical and the spiritual, created and Creator, humanity and divinity, the living and the dead, Gentile and Jew.

In [Romans] 1:14 he announces his universal focus when he states his obligation to both Greeks and non-Greeks (v. 14), claiming that the gospel is for the Jew first, but then also for the gentile (v. 16). This is not just a polite way to begin a letter, but an announcement of the letter’s focus: one gospel for two heretofore distinct peoples.  (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3008-11)

The sin of Adam and Eve led to the giving of the Law which resulted in a division in humanity between Jew and Gentile.  However, the Law was meant to give life to all humanity.  The fact that it had caused division rather than bringing about wholeness is in fact the limit of the Law.  The healing of humanity, the end of all separation and divisions, begins in Christ.

St Nicholas the Wonderworker

St Nicholas the Wonderworker is commemorated on December 6 each year.  He is one of the most beloved saints of the Church and has a popularity far beyond Orthodoxy.

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I’ve often wondered why or how he became so popular as a saint when in many ways his actions seem to me to be what I would expect of any Christian bishop.  He showed mercy to many, kindness to the poor, and is noted for his charity.  Is it the case that there really were so few bishops who did these things that Nicholas stands out as such an exception?   In the mid-9th Century when St. Methodius wrote a life of St. Nicholas, he noted that hardly anyone had heard of him.  In the 11th Century his popularity is noted through much of Europe.

Since St Nicholas is noted for his acts of love and mercy, here is a portion of a sermon by St Gregory Palamas on love of neighbor, which is an appropriate theme as we honor St Nicholas of Myra.  St Gregory is actually talking about St John the Theologian:

As he [St John] was amongst the foremost apostles, was particularly dear to Christ, and was called the beloved disciple, he speaks to us of the chief virtue, namely love (cf. Gal. 5:14), saying that God Himself is love, and anyone who has love has God, and he who dwells in love dwells in God, and God dwells in him in whom love dwells (cf. 1 John 4:16). He shows that love’s energy within us is twofold, and divides it, without destroying its unity, into love for God and love for our neighbour, teaching that these two depend on one another for their existence, and calling anyone who thinks he has one without the other a liar (1 John 4:20).

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The sign of our love for God, he tells us, is that we keep His word and His commandments (cf. John 8:31, 1 John 5:3), as the Lord Himself taught, saying, “He that loveth me will keep my commandments” (cf. John 14:15, 21). “This is my commandment”, He said, “that ye love one another” (John 15:12), and “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35). Do you see how love for God is inseparable from love for each other? That is why the beloved disciple says, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (1 John 4:20).      (On the Saints, Kindle Location 830-843)

Charity vs Coveting

“In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'”   (Acts 20:35)

As we move through the Nativity Fast, or as it is better known in America, the Christmas shopping season, it is good to remind ourselves of our Christian faith, for in fact the season is supposed to be preparation for our Christian celebration of the birth of our Lord, God and Savior.  As advertisements bombard us with images of what we should want, request, desire, feel we can’t live without, or get in order to be one up on our neighbor, we can remind ourselves that coveting and greed are sins that don’t lead us to God.  St Gregory Palamas writing in the 14th Century reminds us:

You shall not covet anything belonging to your neighbor’ (cf. Exod 20:17), neither his land, nor his money, nor his glory, nor anything that is his. For covetousness, conceived in the soul, produces sin; and sin, when committed, results in death (cf. Jas. 1:15). Refrain, then, from coveting what belongs to others and, so far as you can, avoid filching things out of greediness. Rather you should give from what you possess to whoever asks of you, and you should, as much as you can, be charitable to whoever is in need of charity, and you should not refuse whoever wants to borrow from you (cf. Matt. 5:42).

Should you find some lost article, you should keep it for its owner, even though he is hostilely disposed towards you; for in this way you will change him and will overcome evil with good, as Christ commands (cf. Rom. 12:21). If you observe these things with all your strength and live in accordance with them, you will store up in your soul the treasures of holiness, you will please God, you will be rewarded by God and by those who are godly, and you will inherit eternal blessings. May we all receive such blessings through the grace and compassion of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom with His unoriginate Father and the all-holy, bountiful and life-quickening Spirit are due all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and through all the ages. Amen.     (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 46520-46535)

Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  (Luke 6:30-36)

 

One Self, Many Selves (II)

This post is a continuation of a reflection on Nikolai Leskov ‘s short story, “Figura.”  The previous post is One Self, Many Selves (I).  Leskov presents in the story a man, named Figura, of 19th Century Russian nobility and an army officer who is assaulted by one of his soldiers.  Figura wrestles with what Christ tells him to do with someone who has struck him on the cheek because he knows what the military will demand of him as an officer and what his social rank requires of him.  He decides to follow the teaching of Christ and forgive the soldier who acted not in malice but because he stupidly had gotten drunk while on duty.

What Figura wrestles with internally is a significant part of being a Christian, and yet he is not a Christian alone.  Figura is part of a society which is segregated by status as well part of the military which has an established hierarchy.  He is part not only of the Church but also of a nation which considers itself to be Christian.  His individual decision is thus subject to evaluation by the society around him.  Russia and Russian Orthodoxy did not embrace the individualism created by the Western Europe’s Enlightenment of the 18th Century.  Figura does not reject society and the military’s right to judge his actions.  He accepts that they must, but he decides he also will live according to his conscience and accept the consequences of his own behavior.

Figura’s superiors learn of the event and call him to give account for what happened.  They react to Figura’s narrative as if he has become a religious fanatic (which also was common at that point in Russian history).  They remind Figura that as nobility and an officer he is obligated to enforce discipline.  And though even the Russian army was considered a Christian army, he is told, “You had no right to forgive him!”   His commandant forcefully reproaches Figura about forgiving a drunk and disorderly soldier who had assaulted him: “You only yourself to blame, and whoever put such ideas into your head.”

This Figura knows.  It is Christ who has put the idea of forgiveness in his head.  Christ is to ‘blame’ for forgiveness which his fellow officers see as a weakness.  Figura is not blaming Christ, however, but embracing Him.

His commandant reminds him: “A military man must get his Christian principles from his oath of allegiance, and if you weren’t able to make something agree with it you should have gone to get advice from the priest.”  We see the many worlds a Christian must live in and the many ‘selfs’ each of has or must have.  Figura certainly hasn’t learned his Christianity from the military any more than someone can learn science from the book of Genesis.  He does see there is a conflict in values, even if the army is said to serve Russian Orthodoxy.  [Which in the very modern world raises the serious theological issues as to how the Russian Orthodox Church can bless nuclear weapons, which it has done.  Is the Russian Church getting its Christian principles from the oath of allegiance to the military and to its nation?  How could anyone who claims to follow Christ bless weapons of mass destruction?  Does the Church really have any justification to do so?  Can it really believe that the Lord Jesus Christ blesses such a thing?  or has the Church lost its moral compass and simply become a department of state?  The questions we face today are the same as Leskov did in the 19th Century.]

We also see in the story a sense that the clergy can by some magical power relieve moral contradictions or prohibitions.  The commandant believes that an Orthodox priest can somehow make it OK for an Orthodox Christian to follow the military oath of allegiance over the Scriptures or can somehow soothe the conscience so that one can violate Christ’s teachings because one has made an oath of allegiance to the state.  Not only can the priest do this but apparently a Russian Orthodox priest is under obligation to eliminate by some trickery of logic any ethical problems Russian military orders might create for an Orthodox Christian.   The priest either is able to absolve anything or use sophistry to declare an evil good.  In this way, the Church is not there to uphold Christ’s teaching but rather, more to shore up Christian society and help enforce appearances.  The Russian Church as institution in this instance serves the demands of the state – at least it appears Leskov is making this criticism.  Well did the Prophet Isaiah proclaim:  Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!  (Isaiah 5:20)

Figura is told that his fellow officers now refuse to serve with him because they see him as a coward.  Others had heard that Figura had tried to keep the assault a secret.  They thought he did so only so he could stay in the military with honor since he had been dishonored by a peasant soldier.  Figura’s many ‘selfs’ struggle with the opinion of his peers and he finds that to be the worst of all – that they misunderstood his rationale and judged him harshly.  He realizes what was really important to himself is that others think well of him – so though he had done something for noble reasons, he felt a dismal failure since others had a low opinion of him.  Looking good was better than being good, except Figura knows he can no longer live by that lie.

Figura is called before his general, who is portrayed in the story as almost fanatically Orthodox.  The general assumes he understand Figura – that Figura wants to become a monk and that is why he didn’t care about his nobility or rank. But Figura tries to explain, “I had never run across anything in the Gospels about any kind of pride in nobility, but had read only about the pride of Satan which was an offense to God.”   Although there is nothing wrong with the General’s ears, he is hard of hearing because he believes he already understands Figura and ignores what Figura tells him.  The general is Russian Orthodox to the core and offers ‘friendly’ advice to Figura: “The Bible is dangerous – it’s a worldly book. A person with ascetic principles ought to stay away from it.

Here we encounter another issue about Christianity which is very pronounced in Orthodoxy.  On the one hand Orthodoxy has believed it can ‘baptize’ entire cultures, nations, empires.   On the other hand, there is the sense that if you really want to take Christ seriously, you have to withdraw from society (even Orthodox Christian society) and become a monastic.   The question is can someone live in society if he or she wants to follow Christ to the full?  Even if  in the world you personally could live a life of self-denial, taking up the cross and martyrdom,  you still have to deal with family, spouse, children, boss, neighbors, employees.  Is it possible to live the Gospel and please all of these people as well?  Is it possible to live the Gospel and want “the best” for your spouse and children?   Orthodoxy has tended to resolve this by upholding monasticism as the only true way to follow Christ.  Figura however makes it clear he has no inclination toward monasticism.  He believes he can live as a Christian with a personal conscience in the world.  For Leskov it appears that he has a Romanticized idea of the individual who can live in the world and yet not be part of it.  It is a similar idea that we see in America’s Thomas Jefferson and his romantic ideal of the yeoman farmer – everyone can live an idyllic life given enough land and resources to live independently from all others.  It is the ideal upon which limited government is based.   Yet even Adam and Eve alone in the vast expanse of Paradise could not live this idyllic life and fell into the self-love of individualism.

In Leskov’s story, the general assumes Figura’s Christian idealism with his rejection of monasticism means Figura has become some kind of non-Orthodox religious nut.  However, in the story he is not unsympathetic to Figura as he himself is a religious maximalist and he wants to help him find a position in society. Figura declines his offers.  The General tells Figura he has no choice but to dismiss him from the military for his failures.  This is exactly what Figura has decided for himself and tells the general as much.  There is humorous exchange as the General denies Figura can leave the military by choice and insists that he is ordering Figura to leave and Figura must realize he has no choice but to obey.

At the end of the story, we see Figura wishing to bring his many ‘selfs’ into his one Christian self. “…what I valued most of all was my freedom, the possibility of living by one code and not by several, without arguing, without betraying myself, and without trying to prove anything to anybody if he had not already appeared to him from above.”  The realization that his conscience might bring him into disagreement with the Church is a problem in societies in which cultural Christianity predominates.  The state tames the church and makes sure the church produces good citizens who obey the dictates of the state.  Figura can no longer accept the cognitive dissonance of his mind  which is created by being a cultural Christian.  He wants to follow Christ and not just follow rules and regulations for appearance sake nor to accept a sophistry which claims the power to declare the good evil and the evil good.

It is this oneness of self which Orthodox spirituality would say is the goal of following Christ.  Instead of there being a church self, a family self, a neighborhood self, a racial self, an ethnic self, a work self, or a self with any other loyalties, there would be one self who was consistent in every situation – the self which is united to God and devoted to doing God’s will.   Only then can a harmonious symphony emerge within one’s self.  Christ says:  “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”   (Luke 16:13)     Leskov’s character realizes he cannot serve God and state because that is serving two masters which Christ said cannot be done.  Leskov presents the notion of the individual self who must choose to follow Christ even in a ‘Christian” nation and to accept the cross which this will lay upon him or her.

One Self, Many Selves (I)

Neuropsychologist Nicholas Humphrey writes on how the “self” emerges in the life of a baby.  Immediately after birth the baby’s brain is receiving stimulation from all of its senses even without an “I’ yet existing to process the information.   Somehow a self emerges which makes sense of the sensory perceptions which are constantly streaming in to the brain.  Humphrey asks, does the baby experience the different sensations at first as many distinct “selfs” each experiencing something but not yet as a whole or unified self?  Humphrey compared this experience to watching an orchestra before a concert as each musician tunes his or her instrument – there are only individual musicians tuning instruments and we watching them cannot make sense of them as a unit, nor do we hear yet the symphony.  The conductor must take the stage to form the unified symphony.

A unified “self” does emerge eventually taking in all information the various senses send to the brain and sorting it out realizing “I” exist.  “I” am distinct from all the sensory perceptions.  “I” not only make sense of them, but can act toward them and upon them for “I” am not a mere object being acted upon, but a subject capable of choice and actions myself.   Time passes, we mature and move into the world  where we come to experience our ‘self’ as many ‘selfs’ again.  I am young, a boy, white, I speak only one language.  I am different from others.   I experience the world through gender, race, nationality, language or member of a clan, family, nation, ethnic group.  Each of these ‘selfs’ make up my one self, and at times one of the ‘selfs’ emerges to the forefront as I relate to others or they relate to me.  This may be the self I consider myself to be or that others think is me.   However, no matter who I think I am, I realize others do not necessarily perceive me as I think of myself.  I may see myself as human, they as black or poor or dangerous or friendly or intelligent or fat.  I become part of other groups and there is my self as military, teammate, loyal fan, Southerner, educated, Democrat, Christian.  I an choose to fit in, blend in to community rather than stick out.  Or, I can become a leader, advocate for one of my many ‘selfs’.

Life becomes a balancing act of these various ‘selfs’ as we realize the selfs we identify with shape our worldview and shape the world’s view of us.  We have to make choices in contexts in which peer pressure is real.  I allow what others think of me to shape my ‘self’.  It is possible for my ‘self’ to be amorphous at times as I cope with uncertainty, ambiguity, ambivalence, opportunity or danger.

For Christians, there is the hope that one self emerges as we grow spiritually and grow in Christ – that believing self which is consistent with the teachings of Christ.  This we understand is part of the healing that comes in Christ.   The many ‘selfs’ are a result of the splintered, broken and fallen world.  A whole self is wholesome.   But, oh, how difficult it is to be consistent in every single circumstance one finds one’s self in.

These are some of the themes that Russian writer Nikolai Leskov  (d. 1895) explores in his short story, “Figura.”  It is a story that has stood out in my mind for decades since I first read it.   It isn’t the best short story I’ve ever read, nor does it resolve all of these issues.  For me, it just helped make clear as a Christian the cutting edge of one’s ‘self’ as well as how individual conscience relates to society, even a society in which conscience is essential such as the church.

The story takes place in 19th Century Russia, Figura is an army officer from nobility in Orthodox Russia.  The story introduces ideas of regionalism (Russian vs Ukrainian, the Cossacks), class and social status (human divisions especially in the context of 19th Century Russia), which play into the many ‘selves’ of Figura.  The story ends up focusing on his Christian identity, which is part of what Leskov wrestles with: individual conscience when one is a member of an institutional church and cultural Christianity.  Figura is an officer over 42 soldiers and 6 cavalry men (who are Cossack’s, another social distinction).  On Pascha night he is feeling his humanity and decides to try to do something nice for his men as he realizes how hard their lives are.  He is struck by what it is to be human and the struggles this brings for each of us.  He spends all the cash he has on hand to buy them tea and sweet treats so they can celebrate the Feast even though they are on guard duty.  He has decided as soon as the “Christ is risen!” is proclaimed after Pascha midnight, he will treat his men.  Unfortunately, the very thing that makes Figura feel compassion for his men – their humanity – will become the thing that confronts his compassion and his ‘self.’  His 6 Cossack soldiers get drunk and just about midnight, in the dark, one of the drunken Cossacks assaults Figura, striking him on the face and tearing the epaulette off his uniform.  The Cossack then passes out.

Figura who had started the night off feeling his shared humanity with his soldiers and wanting to do something special for them because he realized their lot in life was hard, is assaulted by one of them, someone of lower rank than himself and also not from nobility.  For the second time in the story he is struck by the soldiers’ humanity – this time though in a literal and painful way as he is assaulted by the rawness of fallen humanity.  His emotions roil and boil, but then his Christian self comes into the forefront and he has to decide what to do.  The soldiers have witnessed the event and his uniform is torn, so he can’t hide what has happened.  The soldiers know there is dire consequences for a peasant to assault an officer and nobleman.  They are prepared to deliver their fellow soldier over to justice which might include corporate punishment which could result in the offending soldier’s death.

Figura however is overwhelmed by his Christian sense of what to do if someone strikes you on the cheek. He hears Christ saying to turn the other cheek. He knows as nobility he must defend his honor.  He knows as an officer he has to maintain discipline and order in the troops.  He knows he is part of a military hierarchy and so has no choice about what to do.  He is a man, a male, who must defend his personal honor in a society which would admire his willingness to use violence to defend himself.   He feels the pressure that he has to set an example for all the other soldiers standing around him as well as for his fellow officers.  He feels the weight of the expectation that he must defend the prestige of all those of his rank and class.  The issue is not only a personal assault and insult, for he must defend the order of society itself.  All the soldiers around him recognize what Figura ‘must’ do.

Yet, he forgives the soldier recognizing it was his drunkenness not malice that led him to this point.  He is moved by the soldiers tearful begging for mercy and tells all the soldiers to just forget what happened.  He has no heart to see his soldier punished to death for a stupid act.  As Figura says, “I couldn’t remember Jesus and at the same time go against him in the way I treated people.”   Figura’s ‘selfs’ have come in conflict and he has to deal with the cognitive dissonance.

Figura remembers an Orthodox prayer from the First Hour which he begins to recite, “O Christ, You are the True Light, instruct and enlighten every man that comes into the world…”  As the translator notes the Russian word for world and peace is the same and Figura’s mind hears both meanings – “I interpreted this to mean that He would enlighten every one who came from enmity to peace.  And I called out in a still louder voice: ‘May the light of Your countenance shine upon us sinners.’”  Liturgical prayers that he recited all his life suddenly took on meaning in a non-church context, and Figura suddenly desires to live and embody the things he prays.  All his soldiers are moved by his faith and prayers.  They all understand the demands on Figura of social and peer pressure but are moved by his desire to practice his faith.

One self has emerged in Figura as his true self.  This however is not the end of the story.  While Figura comes to peace with God and his neighbor, with the world and himself, he will now be put to the test as his fellow officers and commanders proceed to judge his case.  What he has come to peace with, society still has a say in.  He will again have to weigh his decision.

Next: One Self, Many Selves (II)

 

Double Vision: God and Human

St. Ephraim the Syrian, poetically captures the mystery of the incarnation of God which we celebrate at Christmas.  Look at Christ, then look again.  We can see Him as both God and human, but also as either God or human.  It is, as I’ve noted before for me as a photographer – I can pay attention to the big picture, the landscape, only at the expense of the smaller details.  My lens widens my view.  Or, I can use the macro-lens and focus on the detail, but only at the expense of losing sight of the big picture.  My lens through which I see the world won’t let me view fully both at the same time.  Both views can be beautiful and worth capturing in pictures, but I need to switch between lenses and so can only really view one at a time.  My mind knows both views exist and appreciates both, but isn’t able to picture both simultaneously.

St Ephrem lyrically expresses the theology of Christ:

We come to see You as God,

and, lo! You are a human:

we come to see You as human,

and there shines forth the Light of Your Godhead!

(adapted from Hymns and Homilies of St. Ephraim the Syrian, Kindle Loc 3039-40)

The mystery of the incarnation is that we see the God-man Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human.  It is also true though that in most encounters with Christ people tend to focus on His divinity or His humanity.  We do this not because we can’t accept the truth but because the truth is beyond comprehension.  If we know the theology of Christ, we can only marvel at how it is possible for Jesus to be both God and human.  The mystery and marvel of who Jesus caused many to wonder whether His mother gave to birth to God or to a man.  Holding the truth together was the constant challenge in early Christian theology.  God in the flesh – God becomes that which is not God.  God able to do what seems impossible.

Keeping All the Commandments

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'”

And he said, “All these I have observed from my youth.” And when Jesus heard it, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard this he became sad, for he was very rich. Jesus looking at him said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”  (Luke 18:18-27)

St Peter of Damaskos (12th Century) comments:

Again, to the rich young man He said ‘If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and come and follow Me’ (Matt. 19:21). It is with reference to this incident that St Basil the Great observes that the young man lied when he said that he had kept the commandments; for if he had kept them, he would not have acquired many possessions, since the first commandment in the Law is, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your soul’ (Deut. 6:5). The word ‘all’ forbids him who loves God to love anything else to such an extent that it would make him sad were it to be taken away. After this the Law says, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Lev. 19:18), that is, ’you shall love every man’.

But how can he have kept this commandment if, when many other men lacked daily nourishment, he had many possessions and was passionately attached to them? If, like Abraham, Job and other righteous men, he had regarded those possessions as the property of God, he would not have gone away sorrowing. St John Chrysostom says the same thing: the young man believed that what was said to him by the Lord was true, and this was why he went away full of sorrow, for he had not the strength to carry it into effect. For there are many who believe the sayings of the Scriptures, but have not the strength to fulfill what is written.”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc 29316-39)

The Crowded Church

When I think about images of the Church, I often think about the scenes in the Gospel where there is a crowd around Jesus.  These are the people following Him.  But that crowd is a very mixed group for in it are not only disciples but women, political zealots, nationalists, the sick, sinners, the insane, the possessed, the curious, the deformed, the blind, the hopeless and the hopeful, doubters, rebels, the irreligious, the establishment as well as the enemies of Christ.  Just think about two passages in the early part of Mark’s Gospel – Mark 1:23-34 and Mark 2:1-17.

It is the Sabbath Day in the first passage.  Jesus and his disciples have entered a synagogue.  And there in the synagogue is a demon possessed man.  Apparently, synagogues allowed even demoniacs to enter the community, to hear the scripture lessons, to pray and to seek rest from their affliction {that is something parish communities should think about, especially when we feel justified in judging the synagogues in Jesus day!}.  Jesus came to seek and save the lost, the possessed, the sinner.  He wants to be in their presence and wants them to come into His presence.  The man screams: Have you come to destroy us?   But Jesus is there on a peace mission.  He is not there to destroy sinners or the demon possessed.  Rather, He is there to save them.  Jesus commands the demon to be silent.  ‘You don’t know what you are talking about.  I am God but I am not here to destroy life or cast anyone into hell.’ The thief may come to kill and destroy, but Jesus claims, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).   Jesus does not seek a crowd of perfectly well behaved and obedient followers.  He would not be able to accomplish His mission or God’s will if that is all who came to Him.  Really, the righteous, well behaved and those who are healthy don’t even really need Him at all.

Jesus then heals Peter’s mother-in-law at the home of Peter and Andrew.  “That evening,” according to Mark’s Gospel, “at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered together about the door.”   Again, we see a crowd coming to Jesus, not fleeing from him, of people who are variously sick, wretched, needy, insane, maimed, demon possessed.  Jesus ministers to them.  This is His crowd, the Church.  It is not just respectable people or believers, the moral and the pious, priests and monks.

Jesus then travels to Capernaum, to His home.  Again, a crowd assembles where he is.   Four men are desperate to get help for their friend.  Jesus forgives the paralytic’s sins.   But then, look, who is sitting with Jesus?  The scribes! “Now some of the scribes were sitting there…”    Jesus’ rivals and enemies are sitting next to Jesus and criticize Him in His own home for healing someone.  It is the scribes who seem to have the seats of honor in Jesus own home.  They don’t even have to crowd into the room – they get to sit next to Jesus.   Imagine a parish letting the enemies of Christ and the critics of Christianity sit in the front pews, closest to the altar.  That’s what Jesus did!

Jesus then goes to the house of Levi, a hated tax collector.  Mark says: “And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him.”   Table fellowship with sinners!  Jesus doesn’t condemn them and kick them out, rather He sits down with them at table and eats with them.  This of course gets disapproving comments from the scribes, those opponents of Jesus.  If Jesus invited sinners to His table today or sat with sinners at their table, who would be raising their voice in disapproval today?   Probably the same kinds of people as the scribes.  Why in the world would Jesus eat with sinners when there are decent people, upright, godly who would rather sit with Him?  Yet that is what Jesus did.

And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.’

The crowd, the church – if it is following Christ – has sinners in it.  In fact, the church should be inviting them in and having table fellowship with them, as Christ did, for these are the very people He seeks and calls.  These are the very people who need to be forgiven and given the spiritual nourishment to be able to follow Christ.

If the Church saw itself as the crowd which followed Christ, it would be a crowded Church.  It’s not the righteous who need Christ, nor did He come to seek and save them.  If churches are losing membership, perhaps they are hanging out with the wrong crowd.

The Sabbath Rest


Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And there was a woman who had had a spirit of infirmity for eighteen years; she was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her and said to her, “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity.” And he laid his hands upon her, and immediately she was made straight, and she praised God. But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the sabbath, said to the people, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the sabbath day.” Then the Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his ass from the manger, and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” As he said this, all his adversaries were put to shame; and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.  (Luke 13:10-17)

New Testament scholar N. T. Wright comments on how ‘the Law’ could be misunderstood or misapplied in life.  Torah was not meant to oppose ritualistic law to virtues – compassion, mercy, love.  One however could find oneself in the troubling position of having to choose to help someone (show mercy) on the Sabbath but the very thing you need to do would violate the Law of Sabbath rest, and would be so interpreted by some Jewish leaders.  Mercy should win out in such cases.  This is what Jesus taught – there is no conflict with the Sabbath rest if someone needs your mercy.  Mercy is not opposed to rest for it gives rest to the one in need.  Wright comments:

Within this, a major theme emerges in which the sabbath principle and command find a new focus, though with echoes of the Deuteronomy principle (sabbath as liberation for the slaves). The sabbath becomes the sign of God’s justice and care for the poor, and even for slaves and animals. Thus, in Exodus 23:11, the sabbath is the chance for the poor to rest; this includes slaves and animals too. This principle blossoms, importantly, into a theme which looks quite different to begin with but actually belongs very closely with the sabbath: the Jubilee.   (Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today, Kindle Loc 2108-12)

The Sabbath was given as a day of rest for all including slaves and animals from their labors, troubles, burdens.  This is the principle to which Jesus appeals in the synagogue:  You are supposed to give rest to slaves and animals on the Sabbath, does not this apply to relieving any human in need as well?   In Luke 13:10-17, Jesus is being very specific about one person: does not this woman, a faithful Israelite, deserve rest from her burden on the Sabbath as well?  If my action of mercy gives her rest from her burden on the Sabbath, is not my action righteous?

 “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your bondmaid, and the alien, may be refreshed.”  (Exodus 23:12)

Healing on the Sabbath thus fulfills the law not violate it according to Jesus.  Note in Luke 13:10-17 the way the ruler of the synagogue words his criticism – he aims it at the woman (“come on those days and be healed) not at Jesus the Healer.  He blames her for violating the Sabbath not Jesus.  He criticizes the one who now has rest, not the one who has given her rest.  Maybe he felt he could not criticize someone who had just performed a healing miracle in the synagogue.  Or maybe it was just a misogynistic comment and had nothing to do with miracles at all.  In any case, Jesus not only heals the woman but defends her as a daughter of Abraham.  She is not just some foolish or troublesome woman, she is part of the chosen ones of God!  The people in the synagogue should be honoring her, not criticizing her.  Jesus will not accept a “good ol’ boy” comment from the synagogue ruler.  He rebukes the patriarchal paternalism of religious leadership.

Furthermore, we can see in Mark 1:23, a demon possessed man is in the synagogue – for all we criticize the Pharisees, we can see that they had sinners in their assemblies.  Even the demon possessed came into the synagogues where Jesus is.  We should think about that in terms of our Sunday Liturgies.  Do we exclude sinners from coming to Christ for healing?  Which assembly is Christ most likely to attend – the one with demoniacs, sinners and the sick, or the one which excludes such people from their assembly?

St. Mark the Ascetic offers an interpretation of the Sabbath commandment which moves away from a literal understanding of it.  For St Mark the six days of work simply means to do works of kindness, charity and mercy – that is the normal labor of Christians in our daily lives.  A Sabbath rest from such work comes when you follow the command of Christ to give all your possessions away to follow Christ.  Only then are you no longer obligated to do works of charity since you now own nothing and have nothing to give away.

The Law figuratively commands men to work for six days and on the seventh to rest (cf. Exod. 20:9-10). The term ‘work’ when applied to the soul signifies acts of kindness and generosity by means of our possessions – that is, through material things. But the soul’s rest and repose is to sell everything and ‘give to the poor’ (Matt. 19:21), as Christ Himself said; so through its lack of possessions it will rest from its work and devote itself to spiritual hope. Such is the rest into which Paul also exhorts us to enter, saying: ‘Let us strive therefore to enter into that rest‘ (Heb. 4:11).   (The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 3886-94)

Apparently for St Mark it is those of us who aren’t in monasteries who are obliged to fulfill the Gospel commandments to love, give in charity, show mercy, kindness, compassion and care for the poor and needy.  Those who enter the monastic life can rest from those labors as they have given everything away – they can then devote themselves to prayer and fasting.  Those of us committed to the married life and to our families have the additional obligation, responsibility and work of caring for the poor and needy.  It is through acts of charity, almsgiving, mercy, kindness and  generosity that we follow Christ and live as the holy ones of God.

As St. John Cassian notes:

And fasting, as beneficial and necessary as it may be, is nonetheless a gift that is voluntarily offered, whereas the requirements of the commandment demand that the work of love be carried out. And so I welcome Christ in you and must refresh him.” (The Institutes, pp 132-133)

For St. John Cassian fasting is a voluntary labor, but hospitality is commanded by Christ in the Gospels.  Not everyone can fast but everyone can be merciful.  St Gregory the Great says:

My friends, love hospitality, love the works of mercy. Paul said: Let the love of the brotherhood remain, and do not forget hospitality; it was by this that some have been made acceptable, having entertained angels hospitably; and Peter told us to be hospitable to one another, without complaints; and Truth himself said: I needed hospitality, and you welcomed me. And yet often we feel no inclination to offer the gift of hospitality. But consider, my friends, how great this virtue of hospitality is! Receive Christ at your tables, so that he will receive you at the eternal banquet. Offer hospitality now to Christ the stranger, so that at the judgement you will not be a stranger but he will accept you into his kingdom as one he knows.” (Be Friends of God, pp 62-64)

The Son of God Became the Son of David

St. Irenaeus (d. 202AD) wrote a great deal about salvation and from him we can understand just how theologically minded they were in the early Church.  We also see how early in Christian history he writes for when Irenaeus says “the fathers,” he still means the Jewish Patriarchs of the Old Testament, not the church fathers.  Irenaeus himself is destined to become one of the church fathers quoted frequently by future generations of Orthodox theologians. But in the nascent church when they spoke of the scriptures they might still mean what we today call the Old Testament.

Writing about Jesus, he says:

Thus then He gloriously achieved our redemption, and fulfilled the promise of the fathers, and abolished the old disobedience. The Son of God became Son of David and Son of Abraham; perfecting and summing up this in Himself, that He might make us to possess life. The Word of God was made flesh by the dispensation of the Virgin, to abolish death and make man live. For we were imprisoned by sin, being born in sinfulness and living under death.   But God the Father was very merciful: He sent His creative Word, who in coming to deliver us came to the very place and spot in which we had lost life, and brake the bonds of our fetters.

And His light appeared and made the darkness of the prison disappear, and hallowed our birth and destroyed death, loosing those same fetters in which we were enchained. And He manifested the resurrection, Himself becoming the first-begotten of the dead, and in Himself raising up man that was fallen, lifting him up far above the heaven to the right hand of the glory of the Father: even as God promised.  (The Proof of The Apostolic Preaching, Kindle Loc 616-24)

For St Irenaeus there are two births of Christ.  First He, the timeless and pre-eternal Word of God, is born of the Virgin as Son of David, a human yet God, in the flesh.  Second Jesus becomes the first born of the dead in His resurrection. Christ does this in order to give us a new birth as well.  We too are born in the flesh but also because of the flesh we are mortal and die.  In being united to Christ in baptism we are born again.  Christ thus both redeems our first birth in the flesh and gives us the new birth to eternal life.  Just as Christ has two births and sanctifies them both, so He as our Creator has given us two births, the first into this world and the second into eternal life in the world to come.