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

The Prayer of Elder Paisios

“In the abundance of your mercy, O Jesus, You called publicans, sinners and unbelievers.  Like them, despise me not, but as precious myrrh accept this song…”    (Akathist to the Sweetest Lord Jesus)

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:9-13)

A friend sent me the following Prayer of St Paisios  (d. 12 July, 1994).  It is a beautiful prayer for the needs of all the people of God.

Our Lord Jesus Christ:

Do not abandon your servants who live far away from the Church. May your love convict them and bring them back to you.
Lord have mercy on your servants who are suffering from cancer.
On your servants who suffer either from small or serious ailments.
On your servants who suffer from physical infirmities.
On your servants who suffer from spiritual infirmities.

Lord have mercy on our leaders and inspire them to govern with Christian love.
Lord have mercy on children who come from troubled homes.
On troubled families and those who have been divorced.
Lord have mercy on all the orphans of the world, on all those who are suffering pain and injustices since losing their spouses.

Lord have mercy on all those in jail, on all anarchists, on all drug abusers, on all murderers, on all abusers of people, and on all thieves. Enlighten these people and help them to straighten out their lives.
Lord have mercy on all those who have been forced to emigrate.
On all those who travel on the seas, on land, in the air, and protect them.

Lord have mercy on our Church, the bishops, the priests and the faithful of the Church.
Lord have mercy on all the monastic communities, male and female, the elders and eldresses and all the brotherhoods of Mt. Athos.

Lord have mercy on your servants who find themselves in the midst of war.
On your servants who are being pursued in the mountains and on the plains.
On your servants who are being hunted like birds of prey.
Lord have mercy on your servants who were forced to abandon their homes and their jobs and feel afflicted.

Lord have mercy on the poor, the homeless and the exiled.
Lord have mercy on the nations of the world. Keep them in your embrace and envelope them with your holy protection. Keep them safe from every evil and war. Keep our country in your protective embrace day and night. Embrace her with your holy protection defending her from all evil and war.

(BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Lord have mercy on those who have been abandoned and have suffered injustice. Have mercy on families that are going through trying times. Pour your abundant love upon them.
Lord have mercy on your servants who suffer from spiritual and bodily problems of all kinds.
Lord have mercy on those who are despairing. Help them and grant them peace.
Lord have mercy on those that have requested that we pray for them.

Lord grant eternal rest to all those who have passed on to eternal life throughout the ages.

The Acts of the Apostles and Us

In the 7 weeks following the Great Feast of Pascha, we read in the Church daily from the Acts of the Apostles.

Biblical scholar N.T. Wright describes the significance of the Book of Acts for the Church:

“Acts begins by saying that in the first book (i.e., the gospel of Luke) the writer described “everything Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The implication is clear. The story of Acts, even after Jesus’s ascension, is about what Jesus continued to do and teach. And the way he did it and taught it was–through his followers.

But of course it doesn’t stop there. When the church does and teaches what Jesus is doing and teaching, it will produce the same reaction that Jesus produced during his public career. A good deal of what the church has to do and say will fly in the face of the “spirit of the age,” what passes for “received wisdom” in this or that generation. So be it. The day the church can no longer say, “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29), it ceases to be the church. This may well mean suffering or persecution. That has been a reality today. Some of the most profound passages in the New Testament are those in which the church’s own sufferings are related directly to those of Jesus, its Messiah and Lord. Kingdom and cross went together in his own work; they will go together in the kingdom work of his followers. (Simply Jesus, p. 220)

We Christians not only live in and for Christ, we suffer with Him – in fact, we die and rise with Him.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Romans 6:3-11)

The Holy Eucharist: In Remembrance of Christ

The Holy Eucharist is given by the Lord “in remembrance of me(1 Cor. 11:25). First of all, in sensu realissimo, the Eucharist is the power of the Incarnation, the realized and abiding Divine-humanity, including all the faithful: “we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (10:17). The Divine Eucharist is the abiding of Christ in the world, His connection with the world, despite the ascension: “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:20) by the Holy Spirit, sent by Him into the world from the Father: “and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever…I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:16, 18).  

Communion with the body and blood is therefore not yet all that the Eucharist signifies as the divine “It is finished” (John 19:30), as the sacrificial and abiding Incarnation. It is the sacrament of sacraments, the foundation of all the sacraments, and its accomplishing power is the Pentecost, the coming into the world of the Holy Spirit, who “shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you“ (14:26). “In remembrance of me [anamnesin]” and “to bring…to your remembrance [hypomnesei]” are closely connected, which is expressed in the fact that the “breaking of the bread” appears in the life of the Church only after the Pentecost, as the accomplishment of Divine humanity.

Thus, originally, in the apostolic age, the Divine Eucharist as the basis of all the sacraments was exclusively that which it is as the realization of the body of the Church as the body of Christ. Its essential character was not hierarchical but koinonic. That is, its character was one of sobornost, but this character was replaced as early as the second century by hierarchism, which, of course, did not completely eliminate it, but was capable of obscuring it. How this happened has to be explained by church history.” (Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb, pp. 286-287).

In the Church We Live in Christ

“Hence the Church, in the Orthodox Tradition, is identified with the Sacrament of the sacraments, the Lord’s Supper or the Holy Eucharist. She is a Sacramental Body of Christ and not a hierocratic institution. The eastern Church Fathers consider the nature of the Church as primarily and essentially a priestly mission of her divine Bridegroom (cf. Exod. 18:; 1 Pet. 2:5,9; Rev. 5,10). In the Eucharistic service, the whole Church is associated with the sacrifice of Christ, united essentially with His flesh and blood, and transformed into the very body of Christ, Who is her Heart and Head (cf. 1 Cor. 12, 27)

‘When the Church partakes of them (the holy mysteries)’, John of Damascus and Nicholas Cabasilas write, ‘she does not transform them into the human body, as we do with ordinary food, but she is changed into them, for the higher and divine element overcomes the earthly one. When iron is placed in fire, it becomes fire; it does not, however, give fire the properties of iron; and just as when we see white-hot iron it seems to be fire and not metal, since all the characteristics of the iron have been destroyed by the action of the fire, so, if one could see the Church of Christ insofar as she is united to Him and share in His sacred body, one would see nothing other than the body of the Lord.’

Commenting on Saint Paul’s expression: ‘You are the body of Christ and members in particular’ (1 Cor. 12.27), Cabasilas adds:

If he called Christ the head and us the members, it was not that he might express…our complete subjection to Him…..but to demonstrate a fact – to wit, that from henceforth the faithful, through the blood of Christ, would live in Christ, truly dependent on that head and clothed with that body (1 Cor. 12.27).’” (Constantine N. Tsirpanlis, Introduction to Easter Patristic Orthodox Theology, pp 100-101)