Opposing Racism: Commending OUR LIFE to Christ

8186735662_b91f89faa2

“Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith for ever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the sojourners, he upholds the widow and the fatherless; but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign for ever, thy God, O Zion, to all generations. Praise the LORD!”   (Psalm 146:5-10)

In many Orthodox churches, it is customary to sing the above Psalm 146 at the Eucharistic Liturgy.  The Psalm expresses an ideal for the life of the people of God and how we are to be godlike, and to act toward the stranger, the sojourner and the oppressed with the same intention as God Himself: executing justice for them all.  In fact, we are to treat them as we would wish to be treated (Matthew 7:12).  It is for this same reason, this same vision, that the Orthodox in America need to stand together with those who oppose racism and bigotry.  It is why we believers need to oppose white supremacist or neo-Nazi groups: such ideology goes against the very understanding we have of God, of what it is to be human and of Christianity.  All humans are called by Christ into a holy unity.  It may be natural to us to identify with people like us – same ethnicity, or race or social class.  These may be the people we spend the most time with, marry and live with in our neighborhoods.  Scripture itself has a great deal of “us” and “them” thinking.  We can choose to live with and marry people like ourselves, but in Christ, we are to treat all others – the stranger, the alien – as we treat people like ourselves.  St. Paul writes forcefully:

12801397374_0fe3e55abb_n“… remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.

For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”   (Ephesians 2:12-22)

Our vision as Orthodox calls us to this peace in Christ – to live at peace with those who are our neighbors.   As Christ taught, the real question is not “who is my neighbor?” but rather “how can I prove myself to be a  neighbor to those I meet?”  (Luke 10:29-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan).  We Orthodox in America need to prove we are Christ’s neighbor by standing against violence and racism and hatred, by siding with those we think of as the stranger, the alien, the sojourner.  Many of us Orthodox came to America as strangers and aliens (or our ancestors did), and many Orthodox as immigrants encountered prejudice and hatred for no other reason than our names, our languages, our Orthodox Faith.  Our message within our parish communities is to be Christ’s message of being neighbors, of love, of caring for the oppressed.  Our Communion is with Christ, not with those who practice or preach hatred and violence nor with those who teach any form of racism.

We would do well to remember our scriptures and the story of the great flood, and what prompted God to want to drown evil and send it back to the depths of the sea out of which it came:

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh; for the earth is filled with violence through them; behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”  (Genesis 6:11-13)

Those promoting violence and hatred embrace a way of life which God has hated (Isaiah 59:7-8; Psalm 11:5-6; Proverbs 6:16-19) throughout the existence of the human race.

We Orthodox Christians are called to be one race, a race united in Christ, not based on genes but on faith and holiness:

4263457299_d973374b2e_n“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that in case they speak against you as wrongdoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”  (1 Peter 2:9-12)

If we pay attention in the Divine Liturgy, we realize all of us share in the same life.  The Liturgy doesn’t speak about “lives” but life (in the singular, one life shared by all of us):

let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life unto Christ our God.

enable us to serve You in holiness all the days of our life.

May the Holy Spirit Himself minister together with us all the days of our life.

 I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come

For a Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful;

To You we commend our whole life and our hope, O loving Master.

34643523071_8c2c79954b

We all share the same life given to us by God which is why we need to stand with those whose life is threatened by those who rant and rail for violence, hatred and racism.  Life is precious and sacred.  Racism precisely denies “our life” – our common humanity which Christ took on in the incarnation – the one human life given to us all by our Creator.

[The Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America has issued a statement regarding the events which took place  last week in Charlottesville, VA.  The statement deals with racism and violence in America and a call for all of us Orthodox Christians to adhere to the Gospel commands of Christ and to the Tradition of our Church.  You can read their statement at:

A Call to Christian Service: Imitate Paul

“At the heart of Paul‘s message in the letter is his appeal to the Philippians to imitate him (Philippians 3:17), which we must read in light of his depiction of himself as being in humble and humiliating circumstances. He opens the letter by noting that he and his co-worker Timothy are ‘slaves’ of Christ, then points out that he is also a prisoner. Thus, Paul’s basis for his assurance is not arrogance or a feeling of success. Rather, his confidence emerges from the fact that in his own situation, God has used what seems to be a bad situation for a greater purpose: although Paul is in prison, the gospel has spread (Philippians 1:12-14); although some preach from impure motives, Christ is still proclaimed (1:15-18); although death seems preferable, life is necessary, but Christ is honored in either case (1:19-26). What seems to be a lowly and dangerous situation Paul upholds as an experience to be used for the greater glory of God. Paul intentionally interprets as positive circumstances that seem to indicated a loss of status: imprisonment, dissension with others, the threat of death. He reaffirms his role in God’s greater purpose in order to underscore his own character, which allows him to speak to the Philippians as he does.

He calls them to be like him- not to aspire to greatness, but rather to unity (humility) and service (Philippians 2:1-14). Instead of competing for honor, he directs them to pursue a vision that continues and strengthens a value that already exists in the community: mutuality.”  (Richard S. Ascough, Passionate Visionary, p. 38)

The Blessing of Fruit

4870853713_45d1904fb1

Many Orthodox have the practice of blessing grapes or fruit at the Feast of the Transfiguration.   We find mention of the Christian blessing of fruit already in the early 3rd Century in THE APOSTOLIC TRADITION of St. Hippolytus of Rome.   He offers no explanation as to why some things may be blessed but doesn’t allow certain things to be brought for a blessing, even though all food is to be received with thanksgiving.

34534869681_49368f00f1

Hippolytus doesn’t connect this blessing to a particular feast but writes:

Fruits indeed are blessed, this is grapes, the fig, the pomegranate, the olive, the pear, the apple, the mulberry, the peach, the cherry, the almond, the plum; but not the pumpkin or the melon, or cucumber or the onion, or garlic or any other vegetable.

10218587175_3a7d1398d5

But sometimes flowers also are offered.  Let the rose and the lily be offered, but not others.

7131987287_1e77ef4641_n

And for all things which are eaten they shall give thanks to God, eating them to His glory.”  (pp 54-55)

24382125114_988e976e14_n

Called to the Abundant Light

“Whereas the old law proclaimed that God was the Maker and Lord of heaven, and laid down God-pleasing ordinances for those under the law, it did not give any promise of heavenly benefits, nor did it offer communion with God, or an eternal, heavenly, inheritance to those who obeyed it. But once Christ the King of all had visited us in the flesh ‘to call sinners,’ as He says Himself, ‘to repentance’ (Matt 9:13), there were greater rewards for those who obeyed and repented, and, through works of repentance, ordered their lives according to Christ’s gospel, keeping the holy commandments it contains.

Nor were these rewards simply greater, but also incomparably more excellent.

For what was promised was

the kingdom of heaven,

light without evening,

heavenly adoption as sons,

celestial dwellings,

and a divine and eternal way of life,

and even more than this:

for we shall be ‘heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17), and ‘I am come,’ says the Lord, ‘that ye might have life, and that ye might have it more abundantly’ (cf. John 10:10).

These are not resounding but empty phrases, nor just a litany of vain words, but an account of the unchanging things actually stored up as prizes for those who believe and live according to Christ.”

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 445)

The Miracle of God’s Mercy

As Jesus sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6].  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13)

St. John Damascene (d 780AD) composed an evening prayer in which he wonderfully expressed the joy and hope of Christians experiencing the grace of God’s salvation:

It is not wonderful if You have mercy upon the pure;

and it is not a great thing if You save the righteous,

but show the wonders of Your mercy upon me, a sinner! 

Trust God

 

“Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?”

 

“Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? . .  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:25-27,34)

 

“If you believe firmly that God cares for you, then you do not need to worry about the body, nor need you be concerned about discovering ways how to conduct your life. If, however, you doubt God’s care, and want to look after yourself without God, then you are the most miserable person imaginable.”  (The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh, p. 6)

(II) Whom Do You Seek?

Sermon notes for 16 July 2017

See previous post: (I) Whom Do You Seek?

This Gospel lesson begins with some folk seeking Jesus – to bring him a paralytic.  The lesson doesn’t say what the people coming to Jesus were looking for, but Jesus sees their faith and pardons the paralytic of his sins.  We might infer from this that this is exactly what these folk were seeking from Jesus.  They will by the end of the story get even more – the paralytic will be healed.  But it is possible that the man wanted forgiveness more than anything else and Jesus correctly discerned this.

Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8
So Jesus got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” – then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” And he arose and departed to his house. Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.

Why did Jesus heal this man?  To prove he was not blaspheming, and that He really did have the power to forgive sins.   Jesus’ initial and prime response to their faith is to forgive the sins of the paralytic.  Jesus heals the man only as the afterthought, to prove that his words about forgiveness are real.

We often love miracles of all sorts, but in Christianity they are supposed to be signs pointing to the Kingdom of God.  They are not the main attraction.  Yet the attraction of miracles, and even magical events captures the attraction of many Christians.  In loving the miracle, they can lose sight of its importance and meaning.

Note:  In the Gospel lesson, the people marveled, not that the man was healed, but that Christ has the power to heal!  They actually are on to something important and aren’t being distracted by the miracle.

The Gospel lesson begins with some faithful people seeking Jesus out.  In response to their faith, Jesus forgives.

Last week, I asked you to think about, “What is my question for Jesus?”  The paralytic’s question may well have been, “Can you forgive me?”

Today, I ask you something Jesus asked, “Whom do you seek?”

We might think that seeking Jesus is always a good thing, and it is, except that sometimes people do seek Him for wrong reasons.  We can think back to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When he said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he;  . . . So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized Jesus and bound him. (John 18:4-11)

The men coming to arrest Jesus were seeking Him!  And note that Jesus does not disseminate or obfuscate in His answer.  He plainly and truthfully says that He is Jesus.  He accepts all who seek Him!  He is not worried about their motives.  If they are seeking Him, they are on a right path, even if they don’t know it.  He doesn’t try to avoid them or escape them.

But some do seek Jesus to be rid of him.

Sometimes people are seeking Him and yet can’t see Him even when He is right in front of them

Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).   (John 20:15-16)

Why couldn’t she see Him?  She was looking for a dead man.  She didn’t understand yet who He is.  So her wrong understanding prevented her from seeing Him exactly as He is.

This can happen to any of us if we fail to seek out the risen Lord, but rather only want a miracle worker or a magician or a slave to clean up our messes and our lives.  If we aren’t looking for the risen Lord, we will miss Him entirely even if he stands right before our eyes.

This is also how sometimes our desire for and love miracles can blind us, for we seek the magic and the power but not He who is empowered to save us.  The Magi of Matthew 2 were able to find the Messiah, even if He was still but a young baby because they were looking for the King of the Jews – they were looking for who Jesus is rather than whom they imagine Him to be.  The stars and the angels guided them right to Jesus.

If we seek Jesus for who He is, we will find Him and be able to see Him.

A final thought based upon today’s Epistle lesson – Romans 12:6-14 –

Brothers and sisters, having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Seeking Jesus requires effort and emotion, energy and enthusiasm on our part.  Look at the Epistle – it emphasizes diligence, fervor, strength, steadfastness as well as affection, rejoicing and cheerfulness.  Seeking Jesus is not for the half-hearted or double-minded.

Note as well what St. Paul says we are to do – provide for the saints and practice hospitality.  I actually think we do these two things well.    The last point comes much harder to us –  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse!

 

(I) Whom Do You Seek?

I seek not what is yours but you”

(2 Corinthians 12:14)

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” (J0hn 18:4-5)

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” (J0hn 6:26-27)

“For the early Christians, the Body of Christ is on the altar because He is among them. For the contemporary Christians, Christ is here because His Body is on the altar. It seems to be analogous, but in fact, there is an essential difference between the early Christians and us. For them, everything is in knowing Christ, loving Him. For us, everything is in the desire to be enlightened. The early Christians came to Communion to follow Christ, whereas now Christ is not the unique reason for partaking of Communion.” (Fr. Alexander Schmemman, The Journals of Father Alexander Schmemman, p. 31)

It is possible that we are far more interested in the gifts that we will personally receive than we are in the Giver of the gifts.  We come to church for what we can get out of it.  We lose interest in Christ, but want miracles in our lives.  We crave contact with the divine but don’t want there to be a Lord over  us.

“You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me; yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

Mary Magdalene turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (John 20:14-16)

Next:  (II)  Whom Do You Seek?

The Spiritual Gift of Church Administration

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues.”  (1 Corinthians 12:27-28)

“Those who bear the ministry of administration, the pastors, are also representatives of authority without which the ministry would be impossible. Authority is part of the life of the Church, which has this ministry of administration. But the ecclesial authority ought to conform to the nature of the Church and not be in conflict with it. If such authority claims to be superior to the Church then it must also be superior to Christ. This is why neither the Church nor its authority can ever be founded upon a juridical principle, for the law is external to love. Such authority cannot belong to the vicars of Christ on earth, since God has not delegated his power to anyone but has put all people in submission to Christ, ‘put all things under his feet.’ 

 In the Church, which is love, there is only the power of love. God gives the pastors not the charism of power but that of love and, through it, the power of love. The bishops who exercise the ministry of administration are the bearers of the power of love. The submission of all to the bishop takes place in love and it is only by love that the bishop submits to the faithful. All submission of one another is realized through the mediation of the love we have for Christ. The submission of all to the bishop is actualized by the love he has for all and by the reciprocal love of the faithful for him.

There can be no other foundation of power in the Church, for Christ is the only foundation of power in it. The pastors are able to have only that church Christ gives to the Church.”

(Nicholas Afanasiev, The Church of the Holy Spirit, p. 273).

What is My Question for Christ?

Sermon notes for Sunday, July 9, the 5th Sunday After Pentecost

When Hearts become flameA question that is suggested in the book WHEN HEARTS BECOME FLAME by Stephen Muse:  What is my question for Jesus?

The question I would ask tells a great deal about my relationship to Him, who I imagine He is, what role He plays in my life.

The Scripture readings for the day also have questions in them.  They however suggest wrong questions.  St. Paul (Romans 10:1-10) contrasting those who live by faith with those who try to attain righteousness through their own strict adherence to Torah suggests there are questions we should not ask because they are the wrong questions:

. . . But the righteousness of faith speaks in this way, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down from above) or, ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 

The person who believes that they can attain God’s righteousness by their own ability perfectly to keep Torah imagines that he/she can ascend to heaven, and to bring the Christ to earth.  Or, they imagine by their own ritual and moral perfection that they could even raise the Messiah from the dead.

24049955810_33de354f96_mSt. Paul says the questions are wrong.  It is not by our own righteousness that we can accomplish God’s will.  We cannot by our good works ascend to heaven, nor would we by our own righteous behavior be able to escape the depth of hell.

The questions are wrong because they reflect a total misunderstanding of the Christ, of who He is, why we need Him, what He does for our salvation.  Christ does not come from heaven to earth because of the righteousness of some on earth.  Nor does Christ rise from the dead because of the goodness of God’s people.  It is while we are sinners and because we are sinners that Christ descends to earth and becomes incarnate and then descends into Hades and rises from the dead.

So, “What is my question for Christ?”

The Gospel lesson for the day is Matthew 8:28-9:1, Christ’s encounter with the Gergesene demoniacs.   They too have a question for Christ:

“What have we to do with You, Jesus, You Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?”

23977733249_1d881d6e9b_mSt. John Chrysostom in his commentary on this Gospel notes the real difference between Christ and the demons.  The demons are terrified of Christ – they have a real fear of God.  But it does them no good, for they aren’t motivated by their fear of God to do good.

Christ, for His part, is not but gentle with the demons.  He doesn’t threaten them, though they obviously feel threatened.  Christ does not torment them, but actually grants them their request.  They want out of His presence.  Obviously they don’t even have the power to flee from Christ.  They are powerless in His presence.  They have to ask His permission to leave.  This story is used in the prayers of exorcism at a baptism.  We remind Satan, even taunt him, that he has no power when Christ is present and can only do what Christ allows him to do. Satan cannot even flee without asking Christ’s permission!

Christ treats the demons with kindness and respect, as only their creator could do.  Christ is not threatened by them and clearly not afraid of them.

The demons might have recognized the even-keeled temperament of their Creator, but they don’t.  They don’t ask the right question.  They don’t ask Christ if they could serve Him.   They may represent some kind of chaotic, uncontrolled power and evil, but they also are shown to be powerless and inconsequential by Christ.

26533703365_ea1519e686

Proverbs tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10; c.f. Psalm 111:10).   The demons have the fear of God as is shown in their attitude toward Christ.  It does them no good, as it doesn’t lead to wisdom.  They want to flee His presence rather than embrace His goodness.  Their question for Jesus doesn’t help as it doesn’t put them in a right relationship with Christ.  It is no doubt because their relationship to Christ is wrong that they ask the wrong question.

Each of us should think about what is my question for Christ?

If I say something like, “Will He help me?” – that is not a question directed to Christ but a question for our self to answer.  I need to change the question and ask it directly to Christ.  I need to talk to Him.  I need to orient my life so that I can so directly talk to Him.

If I ask, “Can you help me, Jesus?”   – the answer is yes, of course He could, but whether the help I want is in accordance with God’s will is another issue.  To ask that question seems to reflect some doubt in my heart about his ability/power or about His goodness and love.

4628462833_ef58cc97f7

To ask the right question, I need to think about who Jesus is, what His will and intention is, what is He capable of?   And who am I in relationship to Him?   Depending on who I am in relationship to Him determines what I can ask of Him.

If I am His servant, and He really is my Lord, I can ask, “How can I serve You?”  “What is your will for me?”

My ability to hear His response will depend on my relationship to Him.  I need to know who He is before I can relate to Him, or ask the right question of Him.