Refusing God’s Invitation to His Wedding Banquet

And Jesus answered and spoke to them again by parables and said: “The kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who arranged a marriage for his son, and sent out his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding; and they were not willing to come. Again, he sent out other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner; my oxen and fatted cattle are killed, and all things are ready. Come to the wedding.”’ But they made light of it and went their ways, one to his own farm, another to his business. And the rest seized his servants, treated them spitefully, and killed them. But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city.

Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy. Therefore go into the highways, and as many as you find, invite to the wedding.’ So those servants went out into the highways and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to see the guests, he saw a man there who did not have on a wedding garment. So he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you come in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the servants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, take him away, and cast him into outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”  (Matthew 22:1-14)

John A. McGukin comments:

The God of Jesus Christ, on the contrary, was a God very near, not far away; a God who needed no persuading at all to have mercy but who poured out his mercy with an almost reckless prodigality. This forgiveness of sins, freely given, freely received, in the wedding feast of God’s return to his people, was the heart of Jesus’ evangelion or “Good News.” It consequently must have struck him as perverse that many of his follows rejected this theology, and thus opposed his personal insight into religion and his claims to prophetic authority in preaching it.

These he characterized as the ones who refused to join in the celebration, those who would not come to the feast: “Tell the guests the banquet is all prepared: my oxen and fattened cattle have all be slaughtered. All is ready. Come to the wedding. But they were not interested.” The reaction of the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Father who was too incensed at the “easiness” of forgiveness granted to his dissolute brother to be able to come to the celebration is a typical illustration of the case in point. (Witnessing the Kingdom, pp. 21-22)

Thinking about Suffering

August 29 is the date one which we Orthodox commemorate the Beheading of St. John the Forerunner.   [A trivia note: It also is the date of King Herod’s birthday, but in any case the day is stained by by the King’s notorious decision to murder the Forerunner of the Lord as part of the king’s own birthday celebration.]  St. John is granted eternal memory in the Scriptures and festal Tradition of the Church while Herod is remembered only for murdering a great man.  One sign of the significance of St. John the Baptist in the early church is that he is mentioned in all four gospels.

The hymn for this feast notes that St. John joyously suffered for the truth:

The memory of the righteous is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord’s testimony is sufficient for you, O Forerunner. You were shown in truth to be the most honorable of the prophets, for you were deemed worthy to baptize in the streams of the Jordan Him whom they foretold.  Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy, you proclaimed to those in hell God who appeared in the flesh, who takes away the sin of the world, and grants us great mercy.

In honor of the St. John, as we commemorate his death, here is a poem from Scott Cairns.

Come, together we will press

to enter the camel’s eye

that narrowest of gates.

Observe the trees. Just as they

must endure the winter’s storms

before they can bear fruit, so it is

with us. This troubled age is our own

destructive storm. Enduring

its trials and temptations, we obtain

our inheritance, our flowering, this new

fruitfulness, and also enter heaven’s kingdom.

(Love’s Immensity, p. 42-43)

Teaching as a Ministry of the Church

One can learn to play the piano by oneself, but one cannot deny the obvious value of a knowledgeable teacher if one really wishes to excel. Books don’t talk back to us – a teacher very often will, and this makes all the difference. In some respects, the teacher is like a coach, spurring the athlete to run more efficiently. “Wake up!” “Pay attention!” Though the coach cannot do the running for the runner, the runner achieves his best when the coach does his job. So it is with us – if we are open and unthreatened enough to listen and hear.

…Certainly there will always be those who teach us skills and provide us with facts, but here we are speaking of a relationship in which someone can point out something about ourselves that we are blind to, who is experienced enough in life to see where we are going and to provide firm, effective guidance in the wilderness. Sometimes what they tell us will pierce us to the heart. We think of the arrogant monk who never listened or took to heart anything his abba taught him. One day, in the midst of a crisis of faith, he went to the abba and said, “Abba, give me a word.” The abba replied, “No.” The brother, shocked, retorted, “Why not?” The abba looked at him calmly. “‘No’ is not good enough?” And the brother repented.

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 54 & 55)

Jesus Himself had a relationship with His disciples – He taught them, he modeled behavior to them.  But He never wrote any kind of manual for them to cover every contingency they might encounter.  At the Ascension, Jesus doesn’t drop a book from heaven answering all questions or giving rules for every occasion.  Jesus told His disciples to go into all the world and live the Gospel and proclaim the Gospel through their own lives.  He never told them to write a book and hand out directions to people.

Jesus taught us to love which requires us to enter into every situation and every relationship with a heart united to His.  Some mistakenly think Christianity is just some information that is to be handed on from one generation to the next, unsullied by those receiving it.  But that isn’t what Jesus taught – for ultimately the faith is lived in the heart and is founded on the blood of the martyrs.  It is messy.  It is not law but wisdom and love. The Gospel has to be lived in new situations and requires us to constantly and continually interacted with, like salt on food.  The faith is not meant to be kept pure and pristine in a salt shaker.

Obeying the Gospel When Life is Complex

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
when it is in your power to do it.
Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again,
tomorrow I will give it”—when you have it with you.

(Proverbs 3:27-28)

There was a certain brother who lived a life of very strict seclusion, and the devils wishing to lead him astray appeared to him when he was sleeping at night in the form of angels.  They woke him up to sing the Psalms and pray and they would show him a light.  So, he went to an elder and said unto him, “Father, the devils come to me with a light to wake me up to sing and pray.”   The elder said unto him, “Don’t listen to them, my son, for they are devils – if they come to wake you up, say to them, “When I wish to rise up I will do so, but I will not listen to you.” And when they came to wake him he said to them what the old man had told him, and they immediately said to him, “That wicked old man is a liar, and he has led you astray. For a certain brother came to him and wished to borrow some money promising to pay it back, and although he had the money to lend, he lied and said, “I have none”, and he gave him nothing. Learn from this that you can’t trust his word.  Then the brother rose up early in the morning and went to the elder and related unto him everything which he had heard.  The old man said to him, “This is what happened. I did have some money, and a brother came and asked to borrow money from me.   I would not give him any because I saw that if I did so we would both lose our souls. So I made up my mind that I would treat with contempt one of the commandments, rather than the Ten.  Thus, we came to enmity with each other.  However,  don’t believe the devils who wish only to lead you astray.”  When he had been greatly confirmed by the old man, that monk departed to his cell.

(adapted from The Paradise of the Holy Fathers Vol 2,    Kindle Loc 1150-61)

The above story from the desert fathers shows just how complex the spiritual life can be.  Even a monk who strictly keeps the ascetical life can be bothered by demonic thoughts.  This monk, though having committed himself to living alone, knows enough to talk to an elder when the demons are bothering him.  He does not rely on his own mind to solve his problem, but humbles himself and turns to his brother for help.  The elder gives him sound advice, but then the demons tell the monk that the elder himself has been involved in scandal and failed to be honest and do the right thing (as according to the Proverbs quotes at the beginning of this post).  The demons endeavor to plant mistrust between the brother monks by pointing out that the elder has faults and is not himself perfect.  Still, the story shows it is better to trust a fellow Christian with known faults than ever to listen to demons or demonic thoughts.  The elder admits the truth of the accusation against him but also has an explanation for why he chose to do what he did.  He admits he had to choose between evils, and had to ignore what he believes to be a godly commandment.  He felt to give the money would produce even worse spiritual results than to withhold the money.  Nevertheless, his decision ended badly as he and the other part parted in enmity.  Even when we do what we believe to be the best thing in a difficult situation, there can be some negative consequences.

Still, he tells his younger brother in Christ, no matter how you judge me for what I did, never listen to demons.   The monk agrees with that wisdom.  We are to rely on one another for wisdom, but that doesn’t mean that our brothers and sisters in Christ will be without fault in some matters.  And because someone may have done something wrong in one thing, doesn’t mean they are wrong about everything else.  We always have to practice discernment as Christians.  But discernment also requires us to make difficult judgments – we might not know the whole story, we have to consider the motives of those who tell us the faults of others, we might have to choose between the lesser of evils, we might have to make a choice even without having all the information we need to know.   Remaining faithful to Christ and His teachings are what we always need to do, but sometimes life is complex and we have to discern as best we can what we need to do to fulfill the Gospel.

From, Through and to God

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?”

For from him

and through him

and to him

are all things.

To him be glory for ever.

Amen.

(Romans 11:33-36)

Peace in the Epistles of St Paul

Previous Post:  Christ Proclaims Peace. Christ is Our Peace.

Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the LORD…  (Isaiah 57:19)

“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 2:14-22)

Willard Swartley (COVENANT OF PEACE: THE MISSING PEACE IN NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY AND ETHICS) contends that some modern biblical scholars and ethicists do not treat “peace” as prominent  a  theme as it deserves based on how frequently the word “peace” occurs in the New Testament.  These scholars fail to see how “peace” is a lens through which we need to read the New Testament.  In this  the last post in this series we will look at a few things which Swartley notes from the epistles of St. Paul the Apostle.    As mentioned in the previous posts, the word “peace” occurs 44 times in the  greater Pauline corpus,  while  ‘God of peace’ occurs seven times in his writings.  Paul never uses  ‘God of wrath’ or ‘God of judgment’ as titles for God.  Says Swartley: “Paul, more than any other writer in the NT canon, makes peace, peacemaking, and peace-building central to his theological reflections and moral admonition” (p 190).   Just in the above quote from Ephesians 2:14-22, Paul uses the word peace 4 times and also uses the word reconciliation – this is Paul’s understanding of who Jesus is and what salvation He brings to the world.  In Christ God is reconciling the world to Himself, as well as reconciling and bringing to peace both Jews and Gentiles.  Additionally, Paul in using Isaiah 57:19 in his theology  clearly ties the Messiah to the promise of peace which God made through the prophets.

In Ephesians 2:14-17 Paul draws on Isaiah, just as Jesus and the Gospel writers also did.  Paul sums up Jesus’ life and work by joining two Isaiah texts, 52:7 and 57:19.  Christ proclaims peace is from the rich Isaiah declaration, ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace’ … This oracle continues by describing further this messenger as the one ‘who announces, who says, to Zion, “Your God reigns.”’  It concludes with the universal vision: ‘all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God’ (52:10b).  (p 200)

As noted in Ephesians 2:14-22, for St. Paul not only does Christ proclaim peace, He is our peace.  It is in Christ that we are reconciled with God – made one with God, ending our enmity with God due to our sin, making us at peace with God – and also ending the division between Jews and Gentiles, making us all into one people again.  We are all united to one another in Christ and made into the people of God who turn out to be a living temple for God.  Salvation is thus for St. Paul not just something individualistic – something that happens between “me” and God – it is social and relational in its full dimension, establishing a proper relationship between each human and God, but also between every human with each other as well as with all humans and the rest of creation itself.  God’s peace brings an end in each of us to personal desire which is opposed to the good of all because God’s peace also means loving everyone as well as all of God’s creation.  The denial of self that Christ taught is so that we can love everyone else and live at peace with them.  In this we imitate Christ who is our peace.

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called the uncircumcision by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 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.   (Ephesians 2:11-13)

If we live in Christ, we live in Christ’s peace, because He is our peace.  St. Paul describes what this means for us –

Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.    (Romans 12:17-21)

As with the idea of shalom in the Old Covenant, we the people have to live this peace.

…in Philippians 2:1-12 … (v.12) exhorting recipients of Christ’s salvation-work to ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling.’  God’s gift of salvation-peace is thus matched by the human responsibility to ‘work it out,’ to do those things that manifest the new life of peace with God and peace with one another.  (p 211)

 

Quote of M.L. King

We are to work out our peace with God, with neighbor, with enemy and with all of the created order.  Thus being in Christ changes everything for us.  No longer are we to live for the self, but rather we live in love for all and everyone which and whom God loves.  St. Paul’s ideas of salvation are thus opposed to ideas that “I” am to be concerned about my salvation as opposed to everyone else’s.  The Church isn’t set up for me to work for my salvation with no regard for anyone else.  I am to work out my salvation in love for others and for creation itself.  I am saved with others and with all creation.  The “us vs them” thinking which sometimes almost seems to be a defining mark of various Christians denominations is thus not the life in Christ which St. Paul imagines.  All dividing walls come down in Christ, which makes is possible for all to be reconciled in Christ.  I am to live in peace with everyone and everything, not become disinterested, neglectful or indifferent toward others.  Nor is it correct for me to see myself working out my salvation as disconnecting me from the rest of humanity.   “I” work out my salvation with the rest of humanity.   The freedom Christ brings us is not freedom from others, but the freedom to work out my salvation with all others.  “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another.”  (Galatians 5:13; see also 1 Peter 2:16).  The Church opted in its history for a “catholic” vision rather than a sectarian one – for the life of the world (John 6:51) as Fr. Schmemann so famously proclaimed .  As Swartley points out:

The aim of atonement is redemptive solidarity, not penal substitution. (p 193)

Christ dies for our sins not mostly to fulfill some legal demand by a wrathful God that someone has to suffer for our sins, but in order to end the walls of enmity that pitted us one against the other and against God Himself.

Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.   (2 Corinthians 5:17-21)

Not only are we reconciled to God in Jesus Christ, but we are to be actively reconciling the world to God.  This is the very vision, mission and purpose of the Church.

God’s act in Christ reconciles humans to God (not God to humans by pacifying divine wrath) and that reconciled-to-God humans are then enlisted into the ministry of reconciliation.   . . .  Christ, who knew no sin, but became sin for us in dying on the cross, ‘so that we might become the righteousness of God’ (cf 1 Pet 2:24).  (pp 203-204)

Salvation in Christ does not pit us against others – “we” are saved but “you” are not.  Rather, in Christ, we work to be reconciled with all others in the world, so that we might bring all to Christ.  Those tendencies in Christianity which cause us to want to run away from the world and not be tainted by the world, fall short of St. Paul the Apostle to the Nations vision of what it means that Jesus is Messiah and Savior of the world.  Christ Himself proclaimed that His Body given as food is not just communion for the faithful few but is given as life for the world.

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  (John 6:51)

We are to go into all the world, for the life of the world and to make disciples of all nations (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:19).  We are not called to withdraw into the salt shaker, but to be the salt of the world.  We are not blessed to hide our light under a bushel, but rather to be a light to the world (Matthew 5:13-16)

In Christian terms, a prayer for world peace is a prayer that Christ will prevail – not only in the world but especially in our hearts and minds.  We pray constantly in Orthodoxy “in peace”, for the peace of the whole world, for the peace from above, that we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance.  This peace we pray for is Christ.   If the words of our prayers are not to be emptied of all meaning, then WE have to live in peace with each other, with God, with neighbor, and even with our enemies.  Peace is not something God will impose upon us, but rather something we must  choose and we must will, for the kingdom of God is within us.

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, Jesus answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”   (Luke 17:20-21)

Christ Proclaims Peace. Christ Is Our Peace.

You know the message, [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is the Lord of all. (Acts 10:36)

For he [Christ] is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility…   (Ephesians 2:14)

Because I thought Willard Swartley’s book, COVENANT OF PEACE: THE MISSING PEACE IN NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY AND ETHICS , was such an excellent look at “peace” in the New Testament as well as a superb scripture study, I decided to comment on the book in a couple of posts, hoping to encourage others to read the book.  The previous post is The Covenant of Peace.

Swartley argues that peace – shalom – is a central theme of the Covenant that God made with Israel.  That peace/shalom comes from God for His people, but the people have to uphold their part of the covenant by living the peace that God commands.

… shalom is a gift of God, but the people must actualize that reality by living in accord with the righteous and just statutes that God gives and prescribes in the covenant (Ps 119; Exodus 20; Deut 18:16-18).  (p 30)

Thus the New Testament use of peace is not introducing something to people of God which didn’t exist in the first covenant, but rather expands upon it and fulfills it.  Swartley offers many examples of the New Testament building upon and expanding the theme of peace found in the Old Testament.  The New Testament often focuses on a peace theme that may not be mentioned directly in an Old Testament text but which the New Testament writers draw out of the text.  So, for example, Genesis 14:18 reads:

And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.

Hebrews 7:1-2 making use of  this Genesis text in reference to Christ makes a clear connection between Melchizadek  and peace:

For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God… is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. 

Swartley notes:

Heb 7:1-3 is plainly Christological in its use of eirene.  As commonly recognized, it is a midrash on Gen 14:18-20.  (p 254)

In another instance Swartley looks at Acts 10:36 –

You know the message, [God] sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is the Lord of all. 

Swartley points out:

The key phrase in [Acts] 10:36, ‘preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all’ … Its significance is …  First it is a quotation from Isaiah 52:7 (LXX)… This is one  of the Isainic texts announcing that God’s good news of peace will be heralded to and embraced by those at ‘the ends of the earth.’ (Isa 52:10; cf Acts 1:8).   (p 161-162)

What the New Testament does is link God’s good news promised through the prophets with Jesus the Messiah.  Jesus heralds the coming of God’s peace.  The notion of peace/shalom is part of the covenant with Israel, but the New Testament fully connects this peace to Jesus Christ and expands upon the ideas presented in the first covenant.

Jesus as the Messiah shows Himself to be the King of Peace.  Unlike earthly kings he does not rely on weapons of war to establish His Kingdom.  He does not rely on threats of violence, on revenge, on self preservation or self defense.

When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly.  (1 Peter 2:23)

He shows Himself to be the Son of God precisely by acting in humility, willing to suffer for and because of humanity.  Commenting on Mark 15:39, Swartley notes:

  For this is the treasure of the Gospel: the One who did not retaliate against the evil plots of the leaders, but willingly offered himself as suffering servant, in accord with God’s purpose… is the true Son of God. (p 115)

Swartley says this same idea of the suffering Messiah – the One willing to suffer but not afflict suffering on His enemies shows Himself to be from the God of Love.  Even in the Book of Revelation, Swartley claims the same theme is evident.

The theology is similar to that of John’s Gospel, in which death and exaltation are viewed as one: in being ‘lifted up’ Jesus fulfills his commission to glorify God.  The drama of Revelation is of the same moral fabric: through the Lamb’s suffering and the suffering of the believers God’s victory over evil is won. (p 334)

The paradoxical image of victory through suffering love forms the heart and soul of Revelation’s Christology.  Suffering love marks the authentic followers of the Lamb.  (p 343)

The up-side-down Kingdom of Heaven is inaugurated by a King whose weapon against evil is humility, suffering and the cross.  Indeed as we sing in Orthodoxy, “the cross is the weapon of peace.”  The incarnate Son of God chooses to suffer as his weapon and warfare.  He teaches his followers to deny themselves and to take up the cross to follow Him.  We are to stand our ground against evil, but not with weapons which can kill, but by laying down our lives because we completely trust God and see ourselves as belonging to His Kingdom more than to this world and its way of war.

As Swartely nicely states it:

Rather than thinking first and foremost about peace with security, the exposition leads one to think about peace through repentance.  (p 2)

The Gospel is a challenge to how we want to deal with evil through self preservation and self protection rather than through self denial.  Many an Orthodox saint thought self-preservation did not prevent evil but rather was the cause of much evil – making us think that killing and harming others is a good.

Finally, Swartley points out that in the Tradition we have received from the people of the First Covenant, that the use of war and military weapons to achieve one’s goals is introduced to humanity by those angels who themselves rebelled against God and God’s Kingdom:

It is striking that the various conceptualizations of evil in and behind biblical thought link war and military weapons to evil itself: in the ‘Watchers Myth’ (Azazel) gives to humans the knowledge of weapons for war (1 Enoch 8:1) (p 107, n 35)

“And Azaz’el taught the people the art of making swords and knives and shields and breastplates . . .”  (1 Enoch 8:1)

Death entered into the human condition as a result of sin.  “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— ” (Romans 5:12).  It was humans who then used this sin caused death to inflict further death on other humans.  but it is Christ who uses death – His own – to defeat death and bring peace with God to all humans.

But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.  (Romans 5:8-10)

Instead of death stopping us from sinning, we humans used death to stop other people from living.  In so doing we made ourselves enemies God who is the Giver of life.  Christ undoes all of this by using death – His own – to conquer death, to give life to all, and to reconcile all of us to God.  No longer are we at war with God, but in Christ we are at peace with God.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  (Romans 5:1-2)

Next: Peace in the Epistles of St. Paul

The Covenant of Peace

I recently finished reading Willard Swartley’s book, COVENANT OF PEACE: THE MISSING PEACE IN NEW TESTAMENT THEOLOGY AND ETHICS  , which I thought was an excellent read.  The book takes a serious look at the idea of peace in the New Testament as well as looking at the New Testament through the lens of peace.  The chapters which look at different books in the New Testament are in themselves a superb bible study.  Swartley posits that peace is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the life of all Christians who are to live at peace with each other as well as with all others in the world.

Swartley comes from a peace tradition denomination, the Mennonites, and while that certainly was an inspiration for his study, his content is valuable for all Christians to consider.  As the book’s subtitle suggests, he is concerned that current work in scripture scholarship and ethics underplays the role that peace has in the Gospel and entire New Testament.   For example, biblical scholar James Dunn’s monumental 734 page book THE THEOLOGY OF PAUL THE APOSTLE, has only one listing in the subject index for peace, but the word “peace” (Greek: eirene) occurs 44 times in the  greater Pauline corpus of writings.  Says Swartley: “Paul, more than any other writer in the NT canon, makes peace, peacemaking, and peace-building central to his theological reflections and moral admonition.” (p 190)

Swartley contends that peace not only is frequently mentioned in the NT but the theme of peace is central to understanding reconciliation and salvation. Christ is bringing peace between God and humans, between Jews and Gentiles, between believers and between humans and the rest of creation.

When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together; and he said to the man that did the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow?”  (Exodus 2:13)

And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and would have reconciled them into peace, saying, ‘Men, you are brethren, why do you wrong each other?’  (Acts 7:26)

Swartley notes that for whatever reason there is a tendency to downplay the role of peace in the New Testatment.  He points out or example that Acts 7:26 – is a reinterpretation of Exodus 2:13 in which Moses intervenes between 2 Jews who were fighting.  St. Luke, the author of Acts, adds a motivation for Moses not mentioned in the Exodus text – Moses tries to be a peacemaker and reconcile the two men.  Swartly points out that Acts 7:26 reads in Greek literally that Moses “appeared to them as they were fighting and sought to reconcile them into peace”  BUT then he notes that almost no English translation includes the phrase “into peace” (eis eirenen).  Most English translations simple say Moses sought to reconcile them but eliminates any reference to peace  (p 156).    Swartley says the Greek mentions both reconciliation and peace which is trying to put emphasis on what Moses did, and yet English translators ignore the emphasis and even don’t bother to include the words  “into peace” in their translations at all.  This for Swartley is part of the evidence that “peace” is missing from much of modern biblical and ethical scholarship.

Additionally, Exodus 2:13 indicates that Moses ‘said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?”’    Moses only addresses the one who was attacking the other.   However, in Acts 7:26, St. Luke has Moses addressing both men as culpable, ‘Men, you are brothers.  Why do you wrong each other?’   Swartley notes: “By these differences Luke takes this event and portrays Moses as a peacemaker among his fellow Hebrews.  Moses is thus presented as reconciler between hostile parties and works to bring unity between two men fighting with each other”  (pp 156-157).  Luke reinterprets the Moses narrative, adding to it a peace dimension, making Moses into a peacemaker (and then strangely, the English translations of Acts drop the very idea that Luke emphasizes in his text!).

Even the New Testament English translators focus on Moses reconciling the two Jewish opponents, yet as Swartley notes ” the word peace appears one hundred times in the New Testament, and reconciliation four times” (p x).  With this overwhelming New Testament emphasis on peace more than reconciliation, it is amazing that the English translators of the New Testament still focus on reconciliation rather than peace.  Brothers being reconciled is a good thing, but for them to live in peace with each other demands a great deal more self-denial and taking up the cross.  Reconciliation is important when relationships are broken, but living in peace requires from us to strive not to break relationships in the first place.

Other “statistics” Swartley notes:

… the phrase, ‘God of peace’ … occurs seven times in Paul, once in Hebrews, and only once outside the NT, in Testament of Dan 5:2.  . . .   Paul’s frequent use of the appellation ‘God of peace’ is most significant … ‘God of hope’ occurs only once (Rom 15:13) and ‘God of love’ only once—in conjunction with ‘God of peace’ (2 Cor 13:11).  . . .  Note also that nowhere does ‘God of wrath’ or ‘God of judgment’ occur as titles for God in Paul.  In light of the prominence of “God as Warrior” in the OT (Exod 15:3), it is striking that no such appellations for God are found in Paul or any other NT writer. . . .  the notion that the God of peace is also the God who delivers/rescues… believers from divine wrath (1 Thess 1:10), from evil (2 Tim 4:17-18), persecution (3:11), and ‘wicked and evil people’ (2 Thess 3:2) lies at the heart of Pauline theology.  (p 208-210)     (n 59 – It is striking that the verb (syntribo) in Rom 16:20 is the same as in the LXX translation of Exod 15:3, where ‘God of war’ in the Hebrew text becomes ‘God crushes war’—an astounding reinterpretation.)

It is pretty amazing that St. Paul who gives warnings about the wrath of God does not declare Him to be the God of wrath, but does proclaim Him to be the God of Peace.  I also found it so intriguing that St. Paul only refers to God as the God of Love once, yet in the Johannine writings that God is love is central to the Gospel.  On the other hand, Swartley also notes: “Nowhere in the Johannine writings (Gospel, Epistles, and Revelation) are Jesus’ followers commanded to love their enemies.  Nor is there an explicit emphasis on reconciliation of enmity relationships  (p 276).”

So while we find in the New Testament both that God is love and that we are to love even our enemies, these two teachings are proclaimed by different New Testament authors.  Both are part of our Tradition, and it helps us to see why we need the diversity of writings and voices found in the New Testament.  It is a good indication as to why efforts to harmonize or homogenize divergent scripture texts are misguided.  The Scriptures do not represent one monolithic human viewpoint, but give us humans insight into the omniscience of God.

One other “statistic” which I found interesting in the book: “The specific term ‘kingdom of God’ is virtually absent from the OT” (p 15).  When we come to the New Testament, the New Covenant, we enter into a new creation as well.   The text of Isaiah 40:9, ‘Here is your God!’ is translated in the Isaiah Targum as ‘the kingdom of God will be revealed’  (p 94).  In Christ indeed God’s Kingdom is finally revealed, for Christ is Emmanuel, and where God is, there the Kingdom is for God comes in His kingdom.

“I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My dwelling place shall be with them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I the LORD sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary is in the midst of them for evermore.”  (Ezekiel 37:26-28)

Swartley says:  “Ezekiel prophesied that God would make a new covenant, a covenant of peace (p xiii).   His contention is:  “The (new) covenant that Jesus makes with his disciples also fulfills Ezekiel’s prophecy, where the Lord God says, ‘I will make with them a covenant of peace’ (34:25; 37:26; cf Isa 54:10)   (p 177)

For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the LORD, who has compassion on you.  (Isaiah 54:10)

Next: Christ Proclaims Peace. Christ Is Our Peace.

 

God’s Love Means Our Salvation

“If a genuine righteousness were required of human beings, then only one in ten thousand would be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, continues Isaac. This is why God gave people repentance as a remedy, for it can heal a person from sin in a short time. Not wishing human beings to perish, God forgives everyone who repents with his whole heart. God is good by nature, and he ‘wishes to save everyone by all sorts of means’.

Isaac resented the widespread opinion that the majority of human beings will be punished in hell, while only a small group of the chosen will delight in paradise. He was convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time necessary for their repentance and remission of sins:

By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God’s holy nature is so good and so compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right: how he can forgive human beings their sins—like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer or like the case of a woman with two small coins or the man who received forgiveness on the cross. For God wishes our salvation, and not reasons to torment us.

Earthly life is given to everyone as a time of repentance. It is enough for a person to turn to God to ask forgiveness for his sins immediately to be forgiven. The token of this forgiveness is the Incarnation of the Word of God, who, when all creation had abandoned and forgotten God, came down to earth in order to redeem humankind and the whole universe by his death on the cross.”

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, pp. 294-295)

The Feast of the Dormition (2018)

the Virgin’s pivotal role as the second Eve in the healing transformation of human nature damaged by the sins of the first Eve was already recognized by such Church fathers as St. Irenaeus as early as the second century. This recognition combined with the sifting of a very long oral tradition resulted by the late sixth to early seventh centuries in the establishment and celebration of the solemn Feast of her Dormition throughout the Christian Roman empire. With the addition of this feast to the Church calendar, later Church fathers began to offer rhetorical homage to Mary as the Theotokos in the form of sermons in honor of the Feast of her Dormition. Her death, after all, represented the completion of her mission as the second Eve. By grace, she experienced a reciprocal transformation, the deification of her humanity (and by extension, all human nature) as she offered her humanity to the divine presence within her womb.

In effect, her life and death represent the fullest flowering of the hope of all Christians: union with God in theosis. In contrast to the good thief, the second Eve, in the entirety of her life and death, is the confirmation of the very real possibility of an ever-expanding relationship between creature and Creator that transcends any conceivable earthly human hope, which can begin in this life well before the eleventh hour.

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 126)