When We Fail as Disciples

And when they had come to the multitude, a man came to Him, kneeling down to Him and saying, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

Then Jesus answered and said, “O faithless and perverse generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him here to Me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him; and the child was cured from that very hour. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” So Jesus said to them, “Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.” And they were exceedingly sorrowful.  (Matthew 17:14-23)

It was a tough day for the Apostles.  First, they were not able to perform a miracle and heal a boy. Worse yet, the father of the boy goes and brokenheartedly reports their failure to the Lord Jesus.  Second, Jesus seemingly piles on to their woes by lamenting having to bear with them.  Third, Jesus then tells them the real bad news – He is about to be killed by these people.  Did the Apostles even fear that perhaps they contributed to people wanting to kill Jesus because they failed to heal the boy?  The crowd is turning against their Lord because they cannot do something He promised them they could do:  “These twelve Jesus sent out, charging them, ‘Go . . . to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And preach as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.‘”  (Matthew 10:5-8)  The Gospel lesson begins with the Apostles in dismay and ends with them being filled with sorrow.

“Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and suffers severely; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. So I brought him to Your disciples, but they could not cure him.”

Like the Apostles, we who are Christ’s disciples today may not be able to heal a child, or to do other miracles for those who come to us, but there things we can that will fulfill Christ’s commandments to us.  We don’t want people coming to Christ complaining to Him about how we fail in the most basic things.    We shouldn’t let it happen that people could come to Christ and say about us:   “Lord, I came to the members of Your parish and they didn’t minister to me.  We don’t need to worry about  “I was sick, and they didn’t heal me.”  But what about “I was sick and  they didn’t even visit me or pray for me.”  These are things we as Christ’s disciples must never fail in because they really are within our power to do.  We don’t need any miraculous powers to pray for others or visit them.

There are many other complaints people might make about us to our Lord:

I came to Your disciples and . . .

They weren’t patient with me or my child.

They weren’t merciful to me

They didn’t forgive me.

I was hungry, they didn’t feed me

I was homeless or poor and they didn’t welcome me.

I was sick or in prison and they didn’t visit me.

I was naked and they didn’t clothe me.

I was thirsty but they gave me no drink.

I was a stranger and they didn’t welcome me.

Or even

…. They gave me no peace.

They brought me no joy.

They showed me no kindness.

They did not practice self-control.

I was an addict and they fed my addiction .

I was an alcoholic and they didn’t help me stay sober.

I was addicted to porn and they sent me dirty jokes.

The Lord Jesus invites all kinds of people into His Church with all kinds of needs and imperfections:

And as he sat at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus and his disciples; for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”   (Mark 2:15 -17)

As Christ’s disciples, we are to minister to them in the ways that Christ commanded us, and many of those ways are not miraculous, but simple things well within our powers.

That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.”  (Matthew 8:16-17)

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.  (1 Peter 2:24-25)

The Theotokos as an Image of the Church

It might not be surprising that the use of a virgin-mother as an image of the Church began to be paralleled at this time by the use of Mary, virgin and mother, for the same purpose. Preceded by Ephrem in the East, Ambrose was the first to develop this metaphor in the West, and in an important passage he does so in terms that recall his virgin-mother-Church metaphor. After recounting the relationship between Mary and Joseph as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he comments on its deeper meaning:

Let us address the mystery: She was truly espoused, but a virgin, because she is a type of the Church, which is immaculate but married. As a virgin she begot us form the Spirit, as a virgin she bears us without groaning. And this is perhaps why the holy Mary, although married to one person, was impregnated by another, because the individual churches as well are in fact filled with the Spirit and with grace, while simultaneously being joined under the aegis of a temporal priest.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp. 112-113)

Remaining In Peace

In peace, let us pray to the Lord.

That we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us pray to the Lord.  (Petitions from Orthodox liturgical services)

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Brethren, let us preserve this peace in ourselves as far as we can, for we have received it as an inheritance from our Savior who has now been born, who gives us the Spirit of adoption, through which we have become heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ (cf Rom. 8:15, 17). Let us be at peace with God, doing those things which are well-pleasing to Him, living chastely, telling the truth, behaving righteously, “continuing in prayer and supplication” (cf Acts 1:14), “singing and making melody in our heart” (cf Eph. 5:19), not just with our lips. Let us be at peace with ourselves, by subjecting our flesh to our spirit, choosing to conduct ourselves according to our conscience, and having the inner world of our thoughts motivated by good order and purity. Thus we shall put an end to the civil conflict in our own midst.

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Let us be at peace with one another, “forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you” (Col. 3:13), and showing mercy to each other out of mutual love, just as Christ, solely for love of us, had mercy on us and for our sake came down to us. Then, recalled from the sinful fall through His help and grace, and lifted high above this world by virtues, we may have our citizenship in heavenly places (cf Phil. 3:20), whence also we wait for our hope (cf Rom. 8:23), redemption from corruption and enjoyment of celestial and eternal blessings as children of the heavenly Father.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 484)

Jesus & the Church

Just as Christ could be described and understood by way of the images and titles that were associated with and ascribed to him, so could the Church. Indeed, since formal and extended reflections on the nature of the Church was relatively rare in patristic times-despite the obviously crucial significance of the topic–images, which sometimes appear to be used almost unreflectively, are a valuable means of capturing the early Christian idea of the Church. Three of the most important ones–namely, mother, ark, and virgin-bride–suggest the rudiments of an ecclesiology.

The Church was a mother because through baptism it bore and nourished children who formed a single family around it. It was an ark because it carried passengers saved from the flood of sin. And it was a virgin-bride because it renounced the world of carnality and was espoused chastely to Christ. In other words, the Church was a community of the saved, marked by a shared baptism, set apart from the world, and bound to Christ.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 99)

Being a Disciple

The Lord said: “Go and teach all nations.” The Church is concerned with individual souls but she also is concerned with whole nations and peoples. In the formation of cultures and civilizations, the Church has a prophetic word of witness she wants heard. She presents the transcendent in its own eucharistic reality and her paschal message of the Resurrection makes her more than relevant, for she is beyond every age. The Church proclaims that Christ has come to raise the dead who are sleeping and to awaken the living.

Every people appropriates to itself a historic mission, and in constructing itself sooner or later encounters the plan of God. The parable of the talents speaks of this normative plan proposed by God for the freedom of mankind. The ethics of the Gospel are characterized by freedom of mankind. The ethics of the Gospel are characterized by freedom and creativity. It demands all the maturity of an adult and requires infinitely more of ascetic discipline, of freely accepted constraint and of risk than any ethics of the Law. 

(Paul Evdokimov, In the World, of the Church: A Paul Evdokimov Reader, p. 206)

The Paralytic: Overcoming Obstacles

And again Jesus entered Capernaum after some days, and it was heard that He was in the house. Immediately many gathered together, so that there was no longer room to receive them, not even near the door. And He preached the word to them. Then they came to Him, bringing a paralytic who was carried by four men. And when they could not come near Him because of the crowd, they uncovered the roof where He was. So when they had broken through, they let down the bed on which the paralytic was lying. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.”

And some of the scribes were sitting there and reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this Man speak blasphemies like this? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” But immediately, when Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves, He said to them, “Why do you reason about these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise, take up your bed and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” – He said to the paralytic, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Immediately he arose, took up the bed, and went out in the presence of them all, so that all were amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”  (Mark 2:1-12)

Pope Shenouda writes:

Those who carried the paralytic offer another example of how to overcome obstacles (Mark 2.1-11). It would have been very easy for these people to make excuses to the paralytic, telling him that they could neither help him nor take him to Jesus. The house where Jesus was staying was full of people and very crowded. All the paths were blocked, there was no outlet nor entrance, and no way to get to the Lord. But they did not shrink from these obstacles, because their love of doing good was stronger than the obstacles. They carried the paralytic on a stretcher, uncovered the roof of the house and let down the sick person in front of the Lord to cure him. How great is this charitable intention, how powerful this will! Truly, as the saying goes, where there is a will, there is a way.

The strong heart finds a hundred ways for the thing it wishes to do. The fathers said, ‘Virtue asks you to desire only it, and nothing else.’ It is enough for you to desire. You will find that grace will open every door which closed before you. The Holy Spirit of God will strengthen you, and the spirits of the angels and the saints will surround you. Therefore do not let obstacles be an excuse, but think correctly about how to overcome them.”   (Pope Shenouda, The Life of Repentance and Purity, p. 124)

One Lord, One Church, One Eucharist

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.   (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Bishop Kallistos Ware writes:

As St. Ignatius insisted, “Take care to participate in one Eucharist: for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup for union in His blood, and one altar, just as there is one bishop.” The repetition of the word “one” is deliberate and striking: “one Eucharist…one flesh…one cup…one altar…one bishop.” Such is St. Ignatius’ understanding of the Church and its unity: the Church is local, an assembly of all the faithful in the same place (epi to avto); the Church is Eucharistic, a gathering around the same altar to share in a single loaf and a single cup; and the Church is hierarchicalit is not simply any kind of Eucharistic meeting, but it is that Eucharistic meeting which is convened under the presidency of the one local bishop.

Church unity, as the Bishop of Antioch envisages it, is not merely a theoretical ideal but a practical reality, established and made visible through participation of each local community in the Holy Mysteries. Despite the central role exercised by the bishop, unity is not something imposed from outside by power of jurisdiction, but it is created from within through the act of receiving communion. The Church is above all else a Eucharistic organism which becomes itself when celebrating the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper “until He comes again” (I Cor 11:26).   (The Inner Kingdom, p. 17)

St. Cyprian’s Images of the Church

Finally, again in Cyprian, the Church is the virgin-bride who lives not for the pleasure of this world, but only for Christ. “The bride of Christ cannot be defiled; she is incorrupt and chaste. She knows but one home; in chaste modesty she guards the sanctity of one couch.”

Indeed, Cyprian piles image upon image in his search to impress the importance of unity on his readers. The Church, he says, is like the sun, whose rays are many but whose light is one.

It is like a tree with many branches but with a single strength surging through one root. 

It is like a source from which flow many streams, which nevertheless maintain a unity because of their unique beginning.

It may be compared to Christ’s seamless garment, which was not divided at his death; or to the house in which the Jews ate the paschal lamb, which was not permitted to be eaten outside; or to a dove, which keeps to one cote and which is faithful to its mate.

To the early Christians, therefore, the unity of the Church had to do with nothing less than the content of the faith itself, namely, with what had been derived from Scripture and what had been handed down by the apostles or by the fathers assembled in the synod. (Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 99 & 100)

Images of the Church: The Crowd Around Jesus

In the Scriptures and in Tradition there are many images of the Church –  Body of Christ, a living temple, a holy nation, a local community, a flock, , vine and branches, a revelation, a bride, a gathering of the saints, a hospital for sick sinners, a household, a family, the Kingdom of God.       In today’s Gospel lesson (Luke 8:41-56 – synagogue ruler Jairus and the woman with the flow of blood) , the church – the assembly of those who are following Christ is envisioned as a large crowd of people.   And not a passive crowd at that but a jostling, pushing and shoving throng.   This one is perhaps my favorite image of the Church.

The Athonite Monk Archimandrite Amilianos offers a vision of the local church which is a family gathering big enough to include everyone in the world (see The Church is God’s House for Prayer).  His vision of the Church goes way beyond any legalistic “member in good standing” way of viewing Christianity.  His vision certainly incorporates the Eucharistic offering: “Again we offer to You this reasonable worship: for the whole world…”   This certainly encompasses everyone in a crowd of people, not just the “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), but “all mankind” – the entirety of the human race.

Who is in this crowd, following Jesus?               His apostles, his disciples, the sick, miracle seekers, the curious, Pharisees, synagogue attendees and synagogue leaders, men and women, those who love Christ and those who hate Him, friends and enemies, those seeking the Kingdom of God and those seeking to entrap Christ in this world.   People whose names we know (Peter, James and John for example) and the unknown.  Rich people, rulers and beggars as well.  Let’s consider the Gospel Lesson:

 And behold, there came a man named Jairus, and he was a ruler of the synagogue.

The rulers of the synagogues were frequently in the Gospel among those who opposed Jesus because He didn’t keep their rules about the Sabbath.  They are sometimes his most vocal critics, and yet they are in the crowd following Christ where He goes.  Not everyone in the church community has to agree with what I think or with what most of us think.  The Church community is big enough even to consist of people who disagree with most of us or find most of us disagreeable.

And he fell down at Jesus’ feet and begged Him to come to his house, for he had an only daughter about twelve years of age, and she was dying.

Those looking for miracles.  Desperate for help from any source. Those who loved their children.  Those who are distraught and despairing and running out of hope.  Those who socially outranked Jesus and His followers.  Those who represent groups we criticize – for the synagogue leaders like the Pharisees are among those Jesus criticizes most frequently.

But as He went, the multitudes thronged Him. Now a woman, having a flow of blood for twelve years, who had spent all her livelihood on physicians and could not be healed by any, came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped.

The socially unacceptable.  The outcast. The forsaken.  Social diseased.  The despised.  Strangers.  Foreigners.  Immigrants.   Those whose lives do not matter.  But also those with means and money – this women had spent her fortune on doctors.  Those with hope and some kind of faith even if the faith is only for some self-serving end.

And Jesus said, “Who touched Me?” When all denied it, Peter and those with him said, “Master, the multitudes throng and press You, and You say, ‘Who touched Me?’” But Jesus said, “Somebody touched Me, for I perceived power going out from Me.”

The disciples are there too.  Those who think they understand Jesus but don’t.  Those who don’t understand Jesus but who follow Him anyway.  The crowd – the great unwashed masses.  The constantly needy.  The dependent.

Now when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling; and falling down before Him, she declared to Him in the presence of all the people the reason she had touched Him and how she was healed immediately. And He said to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer; your faith has made you well. Go in peace.”    

There are also in the crowd the timid, introverts, those who wish they could disappear.  The shy and retiring.  But also those who like to be the center of attention, the extroverts and expressives.  Those commanding attention, and those who are willing to be commanded.

 While He was still speaking, someone came from the ruler of the synagogue’s house, saying to him, “Your daughter is dead. Do not trouble the Teacher.”

Those who serve others.  Those who have more important things to do in life – those on a mission.  The doubters.  Those who don’t really believe in Him.  Those who want to remain respectable.  Those who are there merely because it is their job to be there. These are the aids and spokespeople for those with power and prestige.

But when Jesus heard it, He answered him, saying, “Do not be afraid; only believe, and she will be made well.” When He came into the house, He permitted no one to go in except Peter, James, and John, and the father and mother of the girl. Now all wept and mourned for her; but He said, “Do not weep; she is not dead, but sleeping.” And they ridiculed Him, knowing that she was dead.

Unbelievers.  The incredulous.  The scientists.  The realist.  The skeptical.  The Jaded. Scorners. Those who see believers as naïve and ready to be deceived.  The Pessimist.  The Cynic.  The sarcastic.  The know-it-all.  The presumptious.

 But He put them all outside, took her by the hand and called, saying, “Little girl, arise.” Then her spirit returned, and she arose immediately. And He commanded that she be given something to eat. And her parents were astonished, but He charged them to tell no one what had happened.

Parents and children.  Families and neighbors.  Brothers and sisters.

And today, we the Church are asked to be the same, followers of Christ, one and all, no matter what the reason or attraction, we assemble to be around Christ to   have Christ in our midst.  We need to be something to all the people of the world, not just a motley crowd, but visibly to be the Body of Christ – to make the One present whom the world is seeking.

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.  (1 Corinthians 9:19)

No one person can do that, but together as the Body of Christ, the parish community can become all things to all people.   We have friends, neighbors, family who might be looking for something from Christ, we are to be those who make Christ present to them.  We are to encourage them to look for Christ and to follow Him.  There may be women seeking help from God, or people with sick children, or the needy or the lost.

 

There may be people that some of us don’t want to minister to and don’t want in our midst, but others in the Church community will be able to be Christ to them.  That is the real image of the Church.

We, the Church – all of us together – are responsible for making Christ present, for giving the crowd, the world an opportunity to be with Christ.

The Church is God’s House for Prayer

“Because we know and believe that God is our Father, we view the church, especially when we celebrate the Liturgy, as our true home.We come in and go out freely, we are happy to be here, we make the sign of the cross, we light our candles, we speak with our friends, and it is easy to see that the Orthodox feel that the church is their home. And the church is our home. Our family is the gathering (synaxis) of the church. Our family is not simply our children and relatives, however many we have. It is rather all of us, all humanity, including all those who have turned aside to the left or to the right, or who have perhaps not yet even thought about God, or dared to admit that their heart is filled with cries and groans, and that, with these, they hope to open heaven, or that God will answer them, but they are hesitant and are ashamed.

The Liturgy is our family, our gathering, our house. And what a spacious house it is! Together with us are those who are absent, along with sinners, and the wicked, and the dead, indeed, even those who are in hell, but who may yet remember something about God. And who knows how many of these will find relief, be drawn out of Hades, and even dragged up from the depths of hell, thanks to the prayers of the Church, her memorial services, and divine liturgies. This is our home. We believers have such a large house!” (Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Church at Prayer, p. 68)