A Call to Christian Service: Imitate Paul

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

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

Be An Example

“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Matthew 23:8-12)

“A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘I am living with some brothers. Do you want me to be in charge of them?’ The elder said to him, ‘No. Do your own work first, and if they want to survive they will provide what is needed themselves.’ The brother said to him, ‘But it is they themselves who want me to be in charge of them.’ The elder said to him, ‘No. You must become their example, not their legislator.’”

An example like that does not draw attention to himself. Only those who wish will follow.

“A young man came to see an old ascetic to be instructed in the way of perfection. But the old man said not a word to him.

The other asked him the reason for his silence. ‘Am I your superior to give you orders? Do what you see me doing if you like.’ From then on the young man imitated the ascetic in everything and learned the meaning of silence.” (Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pp. 145-146).

 

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!

Zacchaeus is Us Not Them

The Gospel Lesson: Luke 19:1-10
Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Sermon notes January 2017

  • Jesus in Luke 18:31-34 had just/ already told the disciples they were headed to Jerusalem where He will be killed by the Gentiles.  In 19:1, Jesus seems to be passing through Jericho, he wasn’t planning to stop as He is headed to Jerusalem and his destiny on the cross.  Yet His sojourn is suddenly disrupted by His encounter with Zacchaeus:  for today I must stay at your house.  This is a surprise in the narrative.  Even as God’s plans are unfolding, they can be put on hold for the sake of one person!   Jesus’ own plans can be disrupted by an encounter with someone, even a sinner!  There is a message here:  It is never “too late” to seek Christ, never a waste of time, just to be curious about Him.  Even if you are merely curious, a real encounter with Him will change your life!  Zacchaeus wasn’t seeking an audience with Christ, he was just curious and just wanted to see Him.  Seeking Christ is rewarding, even for the sinner, the lost, the one cut off from God’s people, the one who chooses to be cut off from God’s people.

  • I am really struck by vs 7, “But when they saw it, they all complained…” The sudden appearance of the “they” is startling, even jarring to me.  So far the story has been about Jesus, His disciples and then Zacchaeus.  There has been no “us and them” or “we and they” in the narrative, except perhaps Jesus predicting His death at the hands of the Gentiles (Luke 18:31ff).   But suddenly there is a “they”, “them”, “not us”.   Zacchaeus though Jewish is portrayed as the outcast, the outsider, a sinner, not one of us, not a real Jew suffering at the hands of the Romans, but a collaborator – a tax collector for the Romans (the Gentiles who Jesus prophesied are about to kill Him!) .  But Jesus sees him also is a son of Abraham.  Now, suddenly, the “they” “the others” are those complaining about Zacchaeus even though they are Jews, they are not part of us, but are “them.”   The Gospel lesson is about reclamation and restoration, but also about taking sides.    Zacchaeus is restored to us, to the people of God.  But the crowd, the Jews, are no longer seen as the people of God.  “They” have suddenly rejected the way of the Messiah.  They, the crowd, like His miracles and promises, but they don’t want people like Zacchaeus to be restored to fellowship, they want Zacchaeus to be judged and rejected, as they have already done.  The crowd claims to be not like Zacchaeus because He is a sinner, but Jesus says He is a son of Abraham, even though lost, but the very thing Christ came to seek.  The people have not understood the coming of the Messiah, the promise of His restoration of Israel.  They assume He is coming to mightily overthrow their enemies, He is there to save sinners, to work with the fallen.  This is Christ’s idea of restoration, but it is an idea many aren’t interested in.  The crowd often likes that Jesus rejects the Pharisees as the Pharisees are too elitist and maximalist, but neither do they want sinners – those less than themselves, those not worthy of themselves – being restored to their number.  They want to be proven “right” to be proven worthy, especially to the Pharisees.  Of course God sees them as chosen, despite what the Pharisees might say, but they don’t want to have those they deem to be sinners included in their number!
  • Christ tells us in Matthew 25 to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Christ’s message is not just for Jews, but in this Gospel lesson, he is reaching out to a lost sheep to restore the person.  But we Gentiles were not part of the House of Israel, we are not being restored, but are being grafted in new.  There are some who need restoration, being brought back into the fold, but others have to be added new for the first time.  We are not the restored, but truly sinners made new.  Christ is not embarrassed to be embraced by sinners, by strangers, by outcast.  We “Gentiles’ suddenly find ourselves being included not because we are righteous, but rather because, as St. Paul notes in today’s epistle, God “is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”    God is the Savior of everyone, even of us, not because we are righteous but because of God’s love for us as our Creator.  We too should be careful  who we deem unworthy of being part of God’s people – we should welcome all who seek Christ even if we think they are unsavable sinners.
Prodigal son returns
Prodigal son returns
  • Today’s Epistle gives us some idea about how we are to live as a result of being called by Christ into the flock, the Church, into His body:

1 Timothy 4:9-16
My Son Timothy,
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. These things command and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

1] We are to be an example to believers – to one another:  in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”   What do each of these things mean?  How do we do it?  We are lead by example, we should be wanting people to pay attention to our lives and lifestyles.  The things we say and do are to be examples to our fellow Christians, our fellow parishioners, our family and neighbors and coworkers.   In purity – even what is in our hearts is to be an example, it is not good enough to have external behavior for we must internally in our hearts be converted so our very thoughts and feelings are an example to others!

2]  We are to give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.     We are to study, attend adult education, be life long learners in the faith.  We have an obligation as Orthodox to this.

3]  “the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”   Note God is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe, but God is the Savior of everyone.  This is the key verse which connects the Epistle to today’s Gospel.  God is the Savior of everyone, including Zacchaeus, including sinners, including people we judge unworthy of the Gospel.  No one is unworthy of the Gospel, even those who collaborate with the enemies of God.  No one is outside God’s salvation.  Christ is Savior especially to those of us who believe, but He is also Savior to all people.

First Among Sinners

The conversion of St. Paul
The conversion of St. Paul

 St. Paul the Apostle writes to his spiritual son, Timothy (who is one of the 70 Apostles):

The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners; but I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.
  (1 Timothy 1:15-17)
St. Isaac the Syrian says:
“Love sinners, but hate their works; and do not despise them for their faults, lest you be tempted by the same.”  (Orthodox Prayer Life, p. 160)

Living Forgiveness

“Let us continue in oneness of mind, bound together by peace one towards the other, and abstaining from that rage which delivers bodies and souls unto destruction. I beseech you brethren, if anyone has a complaint against another, let us forgive one another as Christ forgave us, that we may always be peaceful, not only in God’s churches but at home and in the market place, and with one mind and one mouth glorify our Father in heaven.” (St. Gregory Palamas: The Homilies, p 264)

St. Gregory Palamas: The Gospel is Innate to Us

Though I have heard many arguments in favor of a literal interpretation of Scripture, rarely have I found biblical literalists to focus their read of Scripture on Christ’s commandments in  Luke 6:31-36 :

Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

This teaching of Christ is very straightforward and lends itself well to a literal interpretation.  And yet it is a literal reading of the text which is so hard for us to abide by. And this is true even though the Gospel lesson starts with Christ commanding us what to do.  The teaching is not a parable, but commands us to imitate God.  St. Gregory Palamas surprisingly doesn’t think obeying this commandment of Christ should be difficult for us to accomplish since he believes God wired us humans exactly for this type of behavior!  He  comments:

“When He said, ‘As you would that men should do to you, do you also to them likewise’ (Luke 6:31), the Lord was demonstrating through this summary of His counsel that every gospel commandment was not only innate in human nature, but also just, easy and to our advantage, readily comprehensible to all and self-evident. What do I mean? Surely you are aware that it is bad to be angry with your brother and pour abuse on him, especially without cause, and that you yourself are unwilling to be the object of his anger or rebuke? Nor is this an opinion that you reach after some thought; rather, you are immediately vexed when anger and insults are directed at you, and you try to avoid them in any way you can, refusing to accept them because they are obviously evil, wrong, and unprofitable. You feel the same when another man looks at your wife with passion and curiosity, or when someone tells you a lie, not only to harm you, but on any subject at all.

In short, we feel the same about everything the gospel commandments forbid. What needs to be said about those sinful acts which the ancient law had already prohibited: murder, adultery, breaking oaths, injustice and the like? Or about their opposite virtues and our satisfaction with people who practice them towards us? Do you see that you know for yourself each one of the commandments, and consider it just and beneficial? Not only that, but you also deem it to be easy. Otherwise you would not think that anyone who was angry with you, told lies or schemed against you in some way, deserved much blame, if you really did suppose that it was difficult or impossible for him to abstain from each of these evils.” (The Homilies, pp 354-355)

St. Gregory’s bottom line is we get angry when we see sinful or evil behavior in others because, apparently,  we assume it is easy, or rather it is natural, for us to control such behaviors.  We think the others deserve blame because they simply aren’t making the effort to do good or choose the right.  If we really assume it is easy to choose the good, if we assume others easily ought to be able to avoid offending us, then why don’t we ourselves always avoid sin?

On the other hand, if we recognize how hard it is for we ourselves to do good and avoid sin, then why aren’t we compassionate toward and empathetic with others when they offend us?

“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”  (Romans 7:14-25)

Finding Christ in Failure

In Luke 5:1-11, we see the apostles encountering Christ in the midst of their business failure, but then leaving their success in order to follow Christ.

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken;  and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

St. Mark the Ascetic writes that affliction and failure can open our hearts and minds to discover there is at work in the world a will and a way which are not ours. Problems can help us look beyond our limited self to look for meaning, purpose, to seek God.

“If Peter had not failed to catch anything during the night’s fishing (cf. Luke 5:5), he would not have caught anything during the day. And if Paul had not suffered physical blindness (cf. Acts 9:8), he would have not been given spiritual sight. And if Stephen had not been slandered as a blasphemer, he would not have seen the heavens opened and have looked on God (cf. Acts 6:15;7:56). As work according to God is called virtue, so unexpected, affliction is called a test. God ‘tested Abraham’ (cf. Gen. 22:1-14), that is, God afflicted him for his own benefit, not in order to learn what kind of man Abraham was – for He knew him, since He knows all things before they come into existence – but in order to provide him with opportunities for showing perfect faith.

Every affliction tests our will, showing whether it is inclined to good or evil. This is why an unforeseen affliction is called a test, because it enables a man to test his hidden desires. The fear of God compels us to fight against evil; and when we fight against evil, the grace of God destroys it. Wisdom is not only to perceive the natural consequence of things, but also to accept as our due the malice of those who wrong us. People who go no further than the first kind of wisdom become proud, whereas those who attain the second become humble.” (The Philokalia: Volume 1, pp 142-143)

No one can put together what has crumbled into dust,
but You can restore a conscience turned to ashes;
You can restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope.
With You, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed.
You are Love;
You are Creator and Redeemer.
We praise You, singing: Alleluia!

(Akathist, GLORY TO GOD FOR ALL THINGS)

Being Disciples of Christ

Women Disciples of the Lord

“The character of our earthly life is constant expectation of God’s call from this life to the other. We are not our own; we are the servants of God, as the Church so rightly calls us; and servants ought to hourly await their Lord’s call. He will knock, and you must go; ‘that they may open unto him immediately’ (St Luke XII 36).

But meanwhile, how do we live? We have entirely forgotten that we are servants of God; we think that we belong to ourselves, and order our lives not in accordance with God’s commandments, but in accordance with our own will; we live as we like. And it is owing to this that our life is full of numberless sins.

Look upon human life, and you will see that it is full of ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’ (Ecclesiastes I. 2): fashions, theatres, card-playing, dancing parties, masquerades, luxurious furniture, pictures and so on. Everything for ourselves and nothing for our neighbor; he may go naked, or die from hunger and cold.” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, p 277)