St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)

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Christian: To Be Christ’s Friend

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”  (John 15:15)

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”   (Luke 12:29)

“What a sight – to see a countless multitude of luminaries above the clouds, an incomparable company of men exalted as a people of gods surrounding God! The fair ones surrounding the Fair One, the servants surrounding the Master! He does not begrudge His servants if any of them share in His splendor, nor does He regard it as diminishing aught from His own glory were He to receive many as partakers of His kingdom. Those among men who hold others in subjection, even if they give their subjects everything, would not bear even to dream of them sharing their rule. But Christ does not regard His servants as though they were slaves, nor does He bestow on them honors fit for slaves; He regards them as friends.

Towards them He observes rules of friendship which he has established from the beginning; He shares His own with them, not merely one or another part of His riches, but He gives the very kingdom, the very crown. What else is it that blessed Paul has in view when he says that they are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17), and that all those who have shared hardships with Christ reign with Him (2 Tim. 2:12)?”  (Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 166-167)

Why Do We Suffer In God’s World?

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:34-39)

The time between Christ’s Ascension into heaven and His second coming to earth is the time of the Church.  The Church really is that interstice between the two comings of Christ – participating in both this world and that world which is to come.  So while Christians are called to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), we find ourselves in a world in which there still is great sorrow and suffering and we still must wait for that world in which sickness, sorrow and suffering have passed away (Revelation 21:4).  Biblical scholar Richard B. Hays comments on how St. Paul deals with the current age, the time of the Church awaiting Christ’s return:

Paul reads the Psalm [44] as a prophetic prefiguration of the experience of the Christian church, so that the text finds its true primary meaning in Paul’s own present time. The point is not that ‘righteous people have always suffered like this’ rather, Paul’s point in Rom. 8:35-36 is that Scripture prophesies suffering as the lot of those (i.e., himself and his readers) who live in the eschatological interval between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate redemption of the world. Thus, in this instance . . . Paul discerns in Scripture a foreshadowing of the church.

This psalm raises plaintively the issue that we have already seen to be the central theological problem of Romans: the question of God’s integrity in upholding his promises to Israel. Paul is struggling to vindicate God from the suspicion of capriciousness in choosing to ‘justify’ Gentiles who do not observe the Torah. Is God a fickle god who has cast off Israel (cf. Rom 3:1-8, 3:21-26, 3:31, 9:14, and all of chapters 9-11)?

The psalmist raises a question precisely analogous to the one that Paul is seeking to answer: does the community’s experience of suffering indicated that God has abandoned them?

But there is still one more significant overtone to be heard in Paul’s quotation of Psalm 44. The psalmist’s main point in verses 17-22 is that the suffering of Israel cannot be construed as a punishment for unfaithfulness or idolatry; on the contrary, God’s people suffer precisely because of their faithfulness to him.”  (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, 58-60)

The Salvation of the World

“we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25)

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

St. Paul uses several different images of the Church – the Body of Christ.  In them it is always clear that to be a Christian is to be integrated into something greater than oneself – a body, a temple.  We cannot be a Christian without being part of this greater whole, which is the Church.  As the early Christians noted, “one Christian is no Christian.”

When we think of Christianity purely in individualistic terms, we lose sight of what it is to be a Christian.  We end up with a wrong idea about what salvation is.  Many “Christians” today think salvation is to “die and go to heaven.”  Yet numerous New Testament scholars point out that idea is not really found in the Gospel proclamation.  Salvation is about liberation from death and is about the redemption of the world.  Just as the New Testament envisions Christianity always being a Body of members, so too it understands salvation to be for the entire world, not just for a few individuals.  The incarnation of the Son of God brings salvation to the world and to humanity for it heals human nature.

Orthodox Theologian Christos Yannaras notes the negative effects of an individualistic understanding of Christianity:

“In our days, a mistaken religious upbringing has led many people to consider the Church as a means or instrument to ensure individual salvation for each of us – and when they talk of ‘salvation’ they mean an unlimited kind of survival after death in some ‘other’ world.  But in reality the Church entrusts to everyone the enormous honor to be responsible for the salvation of the whole world, of this world whose flesh is our flesh and whose life is our life.  And salvation for the Church is the liberation of life from corruption and death, the transformation of survival into existential fullness, the sharing of the created in the mode of life of the uncreated.”  (ELEMENTS OF FAITH, p 48)

The salvation of the world includes individuals, but is always about the entire creation – it is about uniting together that which sin divided, separated, alienated.

“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 219-22)

Testing the Patience of the Lord

When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O men of little faith, why do you discuss among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?

How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.    (Matthew 16:5-12)

O Lord, though we wish to be Your disciples, and wish we could be just like Your Apostles, help us so that we will not imitate their wooden literalism!  How often they misunderstood You!  Open our hearts and minds to Your Gospel teachings.  We have the advantage that the Apostles did not have – we clearly know who You are, and we already know the lessons they had to learn.  You have revealed to us Your teachings through them.  We see their mistakes and what they learned from those errors and lessons. Their lack of perception becomes for us a lesson in enlightenment, and yet, how we are just like them in not understanding Your love.

Holy Apostles, pray to God for us!  You gathered us into the Church through your preaching.  We have you as examples of discipleship to emulate.  We have learned both from your correct teachings and your mistakes.  Ask God to take away from us the blindness of failing to see the deeper lessons He intended for you and us.  Pray that the Holy Spirit will heal our hard hearts, our stiff necks, our darkened minds, our failure to bend the knee, our closed hands, our eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear, and our mouths that fail to give thanks or speak the truth.

Lord, forgive us when we don’t want to understand but instead want rules and regulations because we don’t want to love others as you love us.   We fear judgment and so want to bury the talents you give to us because we too often think you are a harsh judge rather than a loving God.   Do not abandon us to our blindness and desire for an easy way.  Let Your light shine even into the darkness of our hearts and minds.  Stay with us until we understand You!

The Effects of Addiction

Many have said that when the Church is being the organism in which we practice loving one another, it is a hospital for sinners.  It is the community in which we are able to acknowledge our spiritual wounds and failures in order to remove all the obstacles to spiritual healing.

(Photo by Rob Stothard/GettyImages)

Church communities, however, being made of sinners, fallen human beings, are also subject at times to all of the ills that impact humanity living in the fallen world.  Sometimes we fail to acknowledge our own fallibleness as well as our fallenness.  We all, including leadership, can fall into denial about our true state of affairs.   Fr. John and Lyn Breck write:

Just as addictive nuclear families are plagued with denial, so too is the church family. Denial is a powerful defense mechanism that allows people to go through life without considering how their thoughts and actions are at odds with the call to holiness. This leads to a moral dilemma. As A. W. Schaef and Diane Fassel write in The Addictive Organization, “Ethical deterioration is the inevitable outcome of immersion in the addictive system. It easy to understand how this happens. If your life is taken up by lying to yourself or others, attempting to control, perfectionism, denial, grabbing what you can for yourself, and refusing to let in information that would alter the addictive paradigm, then you are spiritually bankrupt.” (Stages on Life’s Way: Orthodox Thinking on Bioethics, p. 181).

Denial is not merely a psychological state – it leads to “ethical deterioration”.  Right thinking yields right behavior.  Unfortunately, distorted thinking, wrong thinking leads to wrong behavior.  Healing restores us not only to physical health or mental health, but also to spiritual health.

Me and Jesus Alone

Christos Yannaras in his book, Against Religion, offers some critical analysis of trends in how Orthodoxy is being practiced today.  He notes that in the modern world, Orthodoxy’s love of monasticism and hesychasm gets entangled with Western civilization’s apotheoses of the individual above and against everything else in the universe.  The result is a hybrid which makes the individual everything, no longer truly needing anything but the self for attaining salvation.  The modern Western Christian steeped in extreme individualism believes hesychasm is identical to individualism.  Whereas Christianity is a religion of relational beings, calling all people to love one another, and placing salvation within this matrix of loving relationships.  Being fully human means not becoming isolated from or alienated from all other humans, but learning to live in love just as the Three Persons of the Trinity live a perfect union of love.  Yannaras says the result is “religionization” – where each person works out their salvation independently of all others rather than interdependently.  He writes:

“The religionization of the Church is a facet of the individualization of faith, ascetic practice, into the morality of the individual, and worship into the duty of the individual. Correct beliefs, obedience to moral precepts, and adherence to obligations of worship are sufficient to ensure justification and salvation for the individual.”

It reduces Christianity to religious practices – whether pious, moral, liturgical, ritualistic, or dogmatic.  As long as I am doing the right thing, I don’t need anyone else for my salvation.  It neglects the main teaching of Christ to love others as He loves us because it says as long as the individual does things correctly or perfectly, they earned salvation.  One doesn’t work out one’s salvation in terms of loving others, but purely in perfecting the self.

Yet, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he taught them to pray in one mind yet as community – “OUR Father….”  And the prayers of the Liturgy are almost always in the plural:  “Let US pray to the Lord.”  Our salvation is placed within the community of the people of God.  Moses, beloved of God, totally understood himself in relationship with the people of God.  Even when the people rebelled against Moses and against God, Moses tells God that he doesn’t want to be saved apart from the people [who were, by the way, wanting to stone Moses to death].

So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” (Exodus 32:31-32)

Yannaras continues with his criticism of the individualization that results from “religionization“:

“Nothing collective is presupposed in the religious version of piety or of salvation – neither community, which is the body of relations of communion that assembles at the eucharistic meal, not participation in this assembly, nor the seeking of salvation in a change of mode of existence: the passing over from the natural urge of self-preservation/sovereignty to loving self- transcendence and self-offering.” (p. 98)

The early Church understood completely the dictum: “One Christian is no Christian.”  One can only be a Christian by loving others and working out one’s salvation in relationship to and with Christ and His fellow disciples.  Christianity is not a religion which endeavors to create isolated and alienated individuals.   One cannot be a Christian alone, but becomes a Christian by imitating Christ and washing the feet of the disciples.  Christianity restores the person to a proper relationship with God, with others, with all creation.  It is not trying to enlarge the self-centered ego to exclude all others, but to help the individual be part of that which is greater than the self – the Church, all of humanity, the cosmos and of God.  Christianity leads us away from the emptiness of self-love to the spiritual growth which occurs as a result of living in love with others.  We are never saved alone, for in the process of becoming Christian we become a member of Christ’s Body together will all other believers.  We live not for our self alone, but to bring everything together in Christ for the salvation of all. [see also my blog The Need for Christ].

We become fully human – fully Christian – only in fellowship and communion with the people of God.   We may experience in life the feeling that we alone are being faithful to God, but this does not reflect the reality of the world.

Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”  (Romans 11:2-4)

Unity in Christ

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”  (John 17:20-23)

“But a common faith was not the sole mark of unity; mutual love was its other and perhaps even more crucial indicator. Cyprian quotes 1 Corinthians 13:8 (“Love never ends…”) and declares:

It will exist forever in the kingdom, it will endure forever in the union of the brethren among themselves. Disunion cannot attain to the kingdom of heaven, nor can one who has violated the love of Christ by wicked dissension win the reward of Christ, who said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” [John 15:12].”

Thus schism, the fracturing of ecclesial unity, is almost always characterized as a breach of love; and as love is the greatest of virtues, so schism is the worst of the vices. At the root of schism is that pride and self-righteousness that allowed some individuals to make extravagant claims to holiness for themselves. Where do schisms come from? Augustine asks–and then answers the question: “When people say, ‘We are righteous’; when they say, ‘We sanctify the unclean, we justify the impious, we make petition, we obtain [what we ask for].’

Ecclesial unity was not something to be cherished merely for its own sake, however. Its importance lay substantially in the fact that it mirrored the unity of the Godhead itself. “God is one,” writes Cyprian, “and Christ is one, and his Church is one, and there is one faith and one people joined together by harmony into the strong unity of a body.” Despite Cyprian’s emphasis on the idea of the Church as the reflection of God’s unity, the theme is even more evident in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, who preceded Cyprian by nearly a century and a half. The concord of its members, of its people and its ministers, images the unity of the Father and the Son.

‘Just as the Lord, then, being one with himself did nothing without the Father, either by himself or through the apostles, so neither must you do anything without the bishop and the presbyters. And you must not attempt to convince yourselves that anything you do on your own account is right, but there must be in common, one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope in love, in flawless joy, that is Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is better. Come together, all of you, as to one temple of God, as to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father and yet remained with one and returned to one.'”

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp.104-105)

All Saints of North America

The Church According to St. Paul

“The second reality that Paul engages is the assembly (Greek ekklesia) of the Greco-Roman city (Greek polis). The ekklesia was something like the city council, a group of male elders who met to deliberate about local issues and to ensure that the polis was faithful to its heritage and values. The ekklessia had the additional duty–especially if the polis happened to be a Roman colony and/or home to the imperial cult (e.g., Corinth, Philippi, Thessalonica, Ephesus)–of dutifully and creatively expressing its loyalty to Rome and to its lord and savior, the reigning emperor.

Paul uses the term ekklesia for “the church” as a term of both continuity and discontinuity. On the one hand, it designates the assembly of believers who affirm Jesus as Lord and constitute the renewed “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). On the other hand, this assembly exists as an alternative ekklesia and even an alternative polis, since it incorporates not just a few leaders but an entire believing community. It exists as a counterculture to embody the values of its true savior and lord, Jesus the crucified and resurrected Messiah.

The church, therefore, is a visible, even a “political” reality rather than just a group with invisible “spiritual” bonds, whose mission it is to be a living commentary on the gospel it professes, the story of the Lord (Jesus) in whom the church exists and who lives within the assembly. (See especially Phil 2:1-15.)   As such, the church reflects the character of the God revealed in Christ. This countercultural community is not produced by human effort, nor does it occur to perfection overnight; it is a process of divine activity and communal and personal transformation (e.g., Rom 12:1-2; I Thess 3:11-13; 5:23-28). To be holy is to be different, different from those outside the church and different from the way we used to be, changed from what was “then” to what is “now” (Gal 4:8-9; I Cor 6:9-11; Eph 2:1-6; Col 3:1-7).” (Michael J. Gorman, Reading Paul, pp. 133-134)

Appearance is Deceiving

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

“Furthermore, we have given ourselves a very serious problem our ancient ancestors did not have. In our own time, in which we jog and diet and generally believe that there must be an intimate connection between virtue, physical beauty, health and a person’s worth, we make outcasts of those among us who do not measure up: the old, the fat, the young but unattractive, the handicapped. That we have discovered that there is no real physical basis for believing in a ‘body-soul dualism’ provides us with a reason to value people in terms of what they look like and what they are able to do physically. Our churches are as guilty of this amazing confusion as any other group. This is a theology of ‘wholeness’ that benefits the strong and ignores the weak. It certainly stands in opposition to the Christian way of life … (Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 65)

St. John the Forerunner