We Are Responsible for Our Neighbor’s Salvation

“Knowing as we do that we are responsible both for the salvation of our neighbors and their loss, let us so regulate our life as not only to be sufficient for ourselves but also to prove an occasion of instruction to others, so that we may draw down on us here and now the favor from God, and may in the future enjoy God’s loving kindness in generous measure, thanks to the grace and mercy of his only-begotten Son, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be glory, power and honor, now and forever, for ages of ages. Amen.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom Homilies on Genesis, Homily 7, p. 104)

We are responsible for our own salvation and should live the life that corresponds to what we believe.  We are also responsible for our neighbor’s salvation which means we must live a life that witnesses to Christ in such a way that the neighbor will want to embrace what we have found in Christ.

The Gospel is Good News

Gospel, then, means words about the Word of God. Reflecting on the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation and all the gifts arising from it, St. John Chrysostom explains why the account of it was called ‘Good News’:

‘What could ever be compared to these joyful tidings?

God on earth, man in heaven.

All became one: angels joined in singing with humans, humans communicated with the angels and the other heavenly powers.

You could truly see the end of the protracted war, reconciliation made between God and our nature, the Devil put to shame, demons in the headlong flight, death abolished.

You could see Paradise being opened, the curse wiped out, sin banished, delusion being hunted down.

Still more, you saw truth returning, the word of Christian faith sown everywhere bringing forth abundant fruit, the life of heaven planted on earth.’

That is why the evangelist called the account of Christ’s life ‘good news.’”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, p 168)

The Present Age

In every period of history since the time of our Lord Jesus Christ, some Christians have found themselves living in perilous times.  St Paul in his epistles describes the endless threats and actual suffering he endured.  Christians suffered persecution from the Roman Empire, from Persians, from Arab Muslims, Turkish Muslims, from Tartars, from communists and at times from other Christians.   Scripture scholar Richard B. Hays says St Paul actually pictured all times on this earth, as long as we await the parousia (the end of history and this world), as being a perilous time for believers.  Despite the appearance of the incarnate God in Jesus the Messiah, we still live in a world which is a spiritual battlefield, in which Satan and evil have not yet been fully defeated.  For St Paul the struggles of Israel in the Scriptures foreshadows the trials Christians face in the world.

Paul regards the present as a time out of joint, an age riddled with anomolies: despite the revelation of the righteousness of God, human beings live in a state of rebellion and sin, and Israel stands skeptical of its appointed Messiah. Under such circumstances, God’s justice is mysteriously hidden and the people of God are exposed to ridicule and suffering, as Israel learned during the period of exile. Paul’s pastoral task thus entails not only formulating theological answers to doubts about God’s righteousness but also interpreting the suffering that the faithful community encounters during this anomalous interlude.  […]  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 as in many others that we will examine subsequently, Paul discerns in Scripture a foreshadowing of the church.”(Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of St. Paul, pp 57-58)

If we follow the teachings of St Paul, we are given a framework in which to understand the current age.  The present is not more perilous than the past for Christians, it just is our time to face the perils which have always been a threat to Christians.  As Christians living in this world we must always remember that times of prosperity are as dangerous to our spiritual lives as our times of peril.   The world is not made less under Satan’s power by prosperity!

American elections do not usher in the Kingdom of God nor do they thwart God’s Kingdom.   Even in America, we live in this world, a world still under Satan’s influence, a fallen world – no matter who is president, this is our reality.  We live in the same world that all Christians have since the time of Christ: a world created as good by a loving Creator, one which has fallen under the power of sin, death and Satan, and yet which is redeemed by Christ the Savior.  This is why we have hope and joy no matter what is happening in worldly politics.

 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  (Luke 12:32-34)

The Parable of the Rebellious Tenants

Jesus taught:

“Hear another parable.

There was a householder who planted a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country.

When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them.

Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?  (Matthew 21:33-42)

Jesus tells this parable in the context of asking some of the religious authorities what they thought about certain situations and what judgment they would render.  These same officials had been putting Jesus to the test with their questions, but then Jesus reversed the process and asked them to render their own judgments and opinions.

Jesus set the scene – the owner of a vineyard knows harvest time has come and he wants to collect some of the reward from having a vineyard.  But the tenants working for him rebel and decide to keep the profits for themselves.   Jesus asks the religious leaders, what do they think the owner of the vineyard should do with his rebellious tenants.  The leaders come down on the side of retributive justice, declaring the rebels are to be rightfully put to death.

But if we go back and think about the parable, is there any indication that the vineyard owner is at all a man of retribution and punishment?  None.

The owner’s initial reaction to his servants being killed and beaten, is not retribution nor punishment.  He simply decides to send more servants.  The larger group of servants is also not shown any respect by the tenants but rather are treated the same, some being murdered, others being physically driven away.

But again, the owner does not react with anger or revenge, rather he now sends his own son to the tenants, still looking for and hoping for a good response from his tenants.  The owner continues to treat the rebel tenants with respect.   But the tenants do not respond in kind, but rather become irrational declaring if they kill the heir, the inheritance will be theirs.  That claim makes no sense at all.  No just law would give the inheritance to the murderers of the heir.   The bloodthirsty tenants have lost their minds and proceed to murder the owners son.

No where in the parable does Jesus ever give us the sense that the owner of the vineyard is cruel and terrible, or that he is vengeful, or would seek retributive justice.   The rebellious tenants of the parable may have deserved such treatment, but note it is not Jesus who ever says this, but rather it is the conclusion of the opponents of Jesus.

Jesus is using the parable to reveal to his opponents what is in their hearts and on their minds.  They think in terms of retribution and punishment.  But if that is their idea of God, then why don’t they live accordingly?  Why don’t they live in total fear of the God who they think is nothing but perfectly just and exacting?  If they believe God is so absolutely just as to punish every sinner, why don’t they themselves see their own need for repentance and the need for their own salvation?   The measure they give is the measure they will get – at least that would be consistent thinking.  Why then are they so unafraid to reject God’s prophets and God’s word?

It is a questions we might ask ourselves.  Are we exactly like those opponents of Jesus who teach and demand absolute retribution and punishment for all other sinners (except ourselves, of course!)?   Do we condemn the rebel tenants exactly like those opponents of Christ did and feel righteous indignation at the rebels behavior?  Do we find ourselves agreeing with Christ’s enemies?

Then whose side are we on?

What do we need to do to rethink our position in order to be more like Christ?

Or, do we too reject the stone which is the head of the corner and favor the position and teachings of the enemies of Christ?

Do we, like Christ’s enemies, believe in retribution and justice only for others but not for ourselves?

Is Christ offering us a different idea about our Creator, the God who so loves the world?

Sharing the Good News of the Resurrection

“The next step must be to determine what in the way people speak and think in our world can be appropriated in order to convey our message, without perverting the message. That can be tricky, because it is easy to cross the line into someone else’s thought while trying to communicate in a way they can understand. The evangelist must be well rooted in the Faith before attempting this, no matter how skilled he is.

Preaching and teaching in the twenty-first century means consuming a lot of contemporary media, from internet blogs to magazines to novels, as well as the Scriptures and the Fathers, in order to communicate one to the other. If, to give only one example, Stephen Hawking and other representatives of the new atheism are allowed to keep the field of contemporary thought to themselves without any response, we have only ourselves to blame if non-believers simply assume this is the only way an intelligent modern person can think. Don’t assume faithful, pious Orthodox will not be affected by contemporary thought: they will simply compartmentalize their minds, keeping piety and thought separate, becoming schizophrenic Christians who assume the division between sacred and secular is perfectly normal. The reason-endowed sheep will cease to reason as Christians, whatever they may do when they show up on Sunday morning.” (Michael Keiser, Spread the Word, p 132-133)


After the New Testament: Proclaiming the Resurrection

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

This blog continues our consideration of Brian Schmisek’s book, Resurrection of the Flesh or Resurrection from the Dead and the development of Christian theology about the resurrection. The previous blog is The Immortal Soul and the Resurrected Body.

517l9p5ZBPL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The New Testament adhering to the Old Testament anthropology rather than to Platonism speaks of the resurrection from the dead, not of the immortality of the soul.  The soul-body dualism enters into Christian thinking as Christianity takes its evangelical message beyond its Jewish origins into the world of Hellenic philosophy.  As new adherents are converted to the faith, they begin to ask new questions about how to understand the meaning of the resurrection within the worldview of Hellenism and the Platonic assumptions which were so prevalent in the ancient world.   Schmisek writes:

“we find that neither “resurrection of the flesh” (anastasis sarkos) nor “resurrection of the body” (anastasis sōmatos) appears in the New Testament. Church fathers introduced each of those terms. Instead, in the New Testament one finds the term “resurrection of the dead” (anastasis nekrōn). Or even as some would translate: resurrection “from/out of the dead ones” (ek [tōn] nekrōn).”  (Kindle Loc. 1260-63)

Schmisek rightly notes the New Testament does not use the phrases the resurrection of the flesh or of the body.   However, clearly in John’s Gospel in the story of the Apostle Thomas (John 20:19-31), the resurrected Jesus invites Thomas physically to touch His body and to explore His wounds with his fingers and hands.  The Orthodox Church has certainly noted this Gospel lesson as teaching the resurrection of the flesh.  In Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:36-43), the risen Christ goes out of his way to show His disciples that He is not some ghostly apparition but that He has returned in bodily form and can be touched and is able to eat solid food.  So while the exact phrases about the resurrection of the flesh or of the body do not occur in the New Testament, the ideas for them are clearly there.  The Church Fathers simply applied phrases to describe what the Scriptures portray, they did not conjure up the idea of the resurrected flesh or body from thin air.

And, the Christian message was not frozen in the past.  The Christians weren’t even proclaiming that “Christ WAS risen…” but rather that “Christ IS risen…”  The Christians speaking in the present (in the present tense, as well as whatever contemporary time and place they found themselves in) continued to develop their understanding of the resurrection as well as the appropriate language (vocabularly) for preaching the Good News.   The proclamation that Christ is risen from the dead reflects the Old Testament understanding of the human being, the human body and the role of mortality.   It is not a proclamation of the immortality of the soul, nor does it accept a soul-body dualism.  The person who died is risen – a restoration of the person has occurred, and yet the Risen Christ manifests physical characteristics different than a “normal” human body.

“One sees the development that has taken place up to this point. Paul spoke of the resurrection in terms of “spiritual body.” The Apostolic Fathers stressed that Christ was in the flesh. Since he was in the flesh and rose in the flesh, Christians too will rise in the flesh. Tertullian began to read Paul as one who taught the resurrection of the flesh, even though the term appears nowhere in the Pauline corpus.

‘But when he calls Christ “the last Adam,” recognize from this that he works to establish with all the force of his teaching the resurrection of the flesh, not of the soul.’

It appears that an understanding of a fleshly resurrection arose because Gnostics and, perhaps, other non-Christians were denying the resurrection … ”  (Kindle Loc. 393-99)

In a dualistic world in which the body was deemed superfluous if not evil, Christians wanting to emphasize both the incarnation of God in Christ and the goodness of creation itself, began to emphasize more the resurrection of the flesh.  This message was understood as being consistent with the Gospel and necessary for refuting dualism.  So St. Augustine trying also to affirm the rational and reasonable claims of the resurrection writes:

“Therefore this earthly material, which becomes a corpse when the soul leaves it, will not at the resurrection be so restored that as a result those things which deteriorated and were turned into various things of different kinds and forms, although they do return to the body from which they deteriorated, must necessarily return to the same parts of the body where they originally were. Otherwise, if what is returned to the hair is that which repeated clippings removed, and if what is returned to the nails is that which frequent cuttings have pared away, then to those who think, the image becomes gross and indecent, and for that reason it seems to those who do not believe in the resurrection of the flesh to be hideous. But just as if a statue of some soluble metal were melted by fire, pulverized into dust, or mixed together into a mass, and a craftsman wanted to restore it from the same quantity of matter, it would make no difference with respect to its integrity what particle of matter is returned to which part of the statue, provided that the restored statue resumed the whole of the original. So God, the craftsman, shall restore wondrously and ineffably the flesh and with wonderful and ineffable swiftness from the whole of which it originally consisted. Nor will it be of any concern for its restoration whether hairs return to hairs, and nails to nails, or whether whatever of these that had perished be changed into flesh, and be assigned to other parts of the body, for the providence of the craftsman will take care lest anything be indecent.”    (Kindle Loc. 600-611)

Obviously even in the ancient world they wondered about how  “scientifically” the resurrection could restore a body that had decomposed to its various elements.  The resurrection needed to make sense to all and had to be defended in philosophical (read “scientific” for the ancients) terms.  In what manner the elements composing a body were related to the person (mind, soul, self) and how they would all be recomposed in the resurrection were thus essential questions being asked of Christians proclaiming the resurrection.  It wasn’t enough for the Christians to preach the Gospel, they had to be able to defend and explain the philosophical and scientific implications of the resurrection to people whose anthropology was different from the assumptions of the biblical texts.

“Augustine claimed that had Adam obeyed God, he would have inherited a spiritual body as a reward for that obedience: ‘however, the first man was from the earth, earthly. He was made into a living being, not into a life-giving spirit, for that was saved for him as a reward for obedience.’ Thus, at the resurrection human beings will not have the body of the first man before sin, because the first man did not have a spiritual body. Augustine cited 1 Corinthians 15:45 to prove that Adam was a living being, while Christ, possessing a spiritual body, was now a life-giving spirit. The spiritual body is a priori, not the body Adam possessed before the Fall. We are not at all to think that in the resurrection we shall have such a body as the first man had before sin; nor is that which is said, ‘As the earthly one, so also those who are earthly,’ to be understood as that which resulted by the commission of sin. For it must not be considered that prior to his sin he had a spiritual body, and that because of the sin it was changed into an animal body. For if this is thought to be the case, then the words of so great a doctor have been given scant attention, who says, ‘If there is an animal body there is also a spiritual, as it is written, The first man Adam was made a living being.’”   (Kindle Loc. 563-73)

The proclamation of the Gospel, that Jesus is risen from the dead, thus raised many significant philosophical and scientific questions which the Christians had to be able to answer to convince their fellow citizens of the truth of Jesus Christ.  Witnessing to the resurrection was one thing, but the Christians had to convince their pagan neighbors that the resurrection was possible, reasonable and rational.  So too, we Christians must be able to speak about the resurrection to people who embrace a modern, scientific understanding of a human, of the body, of the role of death.

“We live in a postmodern era; we know more about the world and how it works than the ancients did. Yet the theological task, like that of our ancient forebears in faith, is to express Christianity in terms the modern culture can understand and find meaningful. Clement did this when he likened resurrection to a phoenix rising from its ashes. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and the apologists did this when they cast Christianity in terms of Greek philosophy and thus wedded body-soul anthropology with Christian faith. Augustine did this when he expressed Christian faith in terms of neoplatonic philosophy. Aquinas did this when he recast Christian faith in light of Aristotelian philosophy and the science of the thirteenth century. This is the enduring theological task: to cast Christian faith in the language, terms, and culture of the day. … It is not sufficient merely to quote ancient formulas to modern people who do not share the philosophical presuppositions of the ancient world. We must tap into the fundamental beliefs of our forebears in faith and express that faith in language intelligible to our generation.”  (Kindle Loc. 2241-52)

Believing Christians today may be so awed by the miracle of the resurrection that they forget others can view these claims not from the point of view of divine intervention, but purely from the point of view of secular materialism or from some other philosophical point of view such as that of the Eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism.  These people will want to know how our claims make any sense from what is known about the world, or how they help us make sense of this world.  And if they can’t make sense of our claims about a resurrection they will not even give Christianity another thought, and might, as our Christian ancestors discovered, rather turn such claims into a topic of derision among the intellectually astute.

“Ultimately, questions about the appearance of the resurrected body do not contribute to the profundity of the resurrection; rather, they drag it into the mire of the ridiculous, as Jerome (d. 420AD) himself experienced:

And to those of us who ask whether the resurrection will exhibit from its former condition hair and teeth, the chest and the stomach, hands and feet, and other joints, then, no longer able to contain themselves and their jollity, they burst out laughing and adding insult to injury they ask if we shall need barbers, and cakes, and doctors, and cobblers, and whether we believe that the genitalia of which sex would rise, whether our [men’s] cheeks would rise rough, while women’s would be soft and whether the bodies would be differentiated based on sex. Because, if we surrender this point, they immediately proceed to female genitalia and everything else in and around the womb. They deny that singular members of the body rise, but the body, which is constituted from members, they say rises.”  (Kindle Loc. 2683-91)

Teaching a literal resurrection of the body can raise questions of ridicule as is recorded in the Gospels themselves.  So we read in Luke 20:27-38:

There came to him some Sadducees, those who say that there is no resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the wife and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and died without children; and the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” And Jesus said to them, “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die any more, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection. But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living; for all live to him.”

On the other hand, a metaphorical interpretation of the resurrection can cause people to doubt its truth and consider it pure worthless speculation.  A purely materialistic understanding of the resurrection will be confronted with the atheistic claims of  secular materialism.

Christianity has always known it must be bilingual – able to teach and proclaim the message of the Gospel AND to do it within the philosophical and scientific framework which governs the thinking of each different culture and generation.  The Church has shown itself able and willing to undertake this evangelical task and has handed on to us Orthodox today that continued task.

Sunday Themes for Great Lent

Typikon DecodedWhile there is a popular notion about the unchanging nature of Orthodox liturgical practices, any study of history shows that Orthodox liturgical practice has undergone numerous and significant changes over history.  One area where we can note significant change is the themes assigned to the Sundays of Great Lent.  The big change in Sunday lenten themes begins in the 12th Century when Sundays of preparation were introduced into the liturgical practice.  This somewhat further lengthened the time of Great Lent and these additional pre-Lenten Sundays found their way into the Triodion, the Liturgical book guiding Great Lent.  According to Archimandrite Job Getcha in his book, THE TYPICON DECODED (p 38), The Ancient Triodia of the Orthodox Church had the following themes for the Sundays of Great Lent:

1]  Sunday of the Holy Prophets

2]  Sunday of the Prodigal Son

3]  Publican and Pharisee

4]  Good Samaritan

5]  Rich man and Lazarus

6]  Palm Sunday

The themes were all based in Scripture.   At some point, maybe about the 12th Century, the Gospel lessons associate with these themes were moved, some to the Sundays before Great Lent.  In their place, a lectionary taken from Mark’s Gospel became the determining factor for the Gospel lessons each Sunday of Lent.

Evangelist Mark

The Lenten Triodia apparently underwent further change so that by the 14th Century new themes emerged to form the Contemporary Triodia.   For one thing a pre-Lenten Preparatory Period was added to the Church Calendar.  These are, for those in the Orthodox Church, the now familiar pre-Lenten Sunday themes:

1] Sunday of the Publican & Pharisee

2]  Sunday of the Prodigal Son

3]  Meatfare Sunday

4]  Cheesefare Sunday

The Meatfare and Cheesefare themes are not Gospel themes, but, of course, there are Gospel lessons on these Sundays (Last Judgment and fasting).  The themes seem to reflect a more monastic development.  One might say the Church began emphasizing more Lent and fasting as themes in their own right.  Some modern critics would say the emphasis moves away from Christianity to churchianity.   The practice of the religion is being emphasized more in the Church’s message.

The ancient themes of the Lenten Sundays which were displaced to before Lent, were replaced by the following themes in the contemporary Tiodia:

1]   Sunday of Orthodoxy

2]   St. Gregory Palamas

3]  Veneration of the Cross

4]  St. John Climacus

5]  St. Mary of Egypt

6] Palm Sunday

One can see what is happening:  the expansion of Great Lent by creating the Preparatory Sundays, and then transferring what were the original and ancient Lenten themes to the Preparatory Sundays.  What in the ancient church were the main themes and emphases of Great Lent get moved to before Lent, as they are seen as really only preparing the faithful for Lent.  Lent is about something else which the ancient themes no longer reflected.  Scriptural/ Gospel themes for Great Lent are replaced by new Lenten themes which are mostly monastic.

It could be argued that the first two themes (Sunday of Orthodoxy/ Icons and Gregory Palamas) represent theological issues/ triumphs, but these were theological issues which had heavy monastic support.    The replacement of the original Scriptural themes after the 12th Century with monastic themes is consistent with other liturgical changes that take place at the same time in Orthodoxy reflecting the ever increasing monastic influence over Orthodox liturgical practice.

The use of the Markan lectionary in Great Lent strikes me as in some ways being more catechetical.  The focus of them is on teaching, “who is Jesus?”    That seems to me to be what the question both the Epistle and Gospel lessons is answering.  But the monastic Sunday themes reflect the dominance monasticism had over Orthodox liturgical life, Orthodoxy spirituality and the Church itself at this point in Orthodoxy’s history.  The ancient “cathedral” rite and the liturgical practice which governed the non-monastic churches will disappear, and monastic practice will come to dominate the Orthodox Church.

There may be pastoral reasons why this occurred, but I don’t know exactly why the changes occurred.  Archimandrite Job’s book explains the changes but doesn’t tell us completely why the changes occurred.  What is clear is that the unchanging nature of the Orthodox Church isn’t its liturgical practice.  One would hope the liturgical changes were done to try to preserve the unchanging theology and Gospel of the Church.   What might be interesting for some future Great Council of the Church is to discuss the reasoning behind all of the liturgical changes which occurred beginning in the 12th Century that led in the next couple of centuries to the monastic take over of church life and practice.  It would be good to discuss the disappeared cathedral rite and the “secular” parishes which once predominated in Orthodoxy.  How can we best serve the contemporary membership of our Church?  The Church’s liturgical life has undergone great changes over time so there should be no reason why we can’t discuss today what liturgical practice is best for the catechetical and evangelical work of the church in the 21st Century.


Orthodoxy and the Salvation of the World

“We have to say that if Jesus was not the redeemer of all human beings, then he redeemed no one. The gospel is for all human beings. It is sometimes said that Orthodox Christians do not proselytize, and if that means that we do not apply coercive pressure on people to join us – that is true – or it should be. But it is our duty as Christians to let others know what we believe to be a matter of life or death and leave them free to respond. Here we must take some personal responsibility: it is one thing to preach the gospel and another to live it. When our lives contradict what we preach, we should not be surprised that those to whom we preach are not impressed by what we say. We do not know, or claim to know, God’s will for those who do not accept the gospel, except to say that God is a merciful and loving God who draws all people toward eternal life, and we can leave it to God to do that, in God’s own way. But we are obliged to bear witness to the gospel by living it and by preaching it.” (John Garvey, Seeds of the Word: Orthodox Thinking on Other Religions, p 19)

Parables, Evangelism and Planting Seeds

“It is impossible to convert or persuade by mere dogmatizing or ranting. No amount of mere statement, no ‘spoon-feeding’ (as every teacher knows) will achieve this end. There is nothing for it but to sow ‘seed-thoughts’ – to set something germinating in the hearers. If they respond, they begin to be ‘inside’, they ‘come for more’; if they pay no heed – or for as long as they pay no heed – they are self-excluded. Hence the use of parables.” (C.F.D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament, pp 150-151)

Fighting for Unity

The Gospel Lesson of John 4:5-42 presents to us Jesus leaving his homeland and entering a Samaritan village where He engages in a theological conversation with people whom the Jews considered religious enemies.

The Gospel lesson of the Samaritan woman touches upon a topic that has plagued Christians from the very onset of the faith.  How can one bring together diverse peoples who are not just strangers but rather are even enemies one of another  and unite them into one church?  The New Testament shows us how difficult it was for the first Christians – all of them Jews – to reach out to Gentiles and to include them in the table fellowship.  The Jews had many prohibitions about eating with Gentiles.   Their religion as practiced called them to be different and separate from all the other peoples around them.   It was virtually the basis for their entire spiritual discipline to keep themselves separated from the non-Jews in order to keep themselves pure.

It was a difficult transition for Jews to believe it was good and right to welcome Gentiles as family at the same table.    We see in the epistles of St. Paul him wrestling with these issues.   And in Acts 15, we see the Apostles struggling with whether converts to Christianity had first to become Jews following Jewish dietary laws, circumcision and other Jewish practices in order to become Christians.   The Apostles decided that becoming a Jew was not the prerequisite for believing in the Messiah.  So Christianity morphed from a Jewish religion into being a form of Judaism that welcomed Gentiles into the faith.  The dividing walls between races were brought down.

The pattern has continued to repeat itself through time, so that as Greek speaking Gentiles began to dominate the Church, then the Christians again had to wrestle with whether it was required to become a Greek in order to be a Christian.  Converts!

The Samaritan Woman, Photini is her name in tradition,  places before Jesus exactly what separates Samaritans and Jews:

“Sir, I   perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.”

Let’s talk about what separates us.  Who is right?  For we have nothing to talk about until we know who is right on this essential issue which has separated our peoples for centuries.

Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 

Jesus takes a Judeocentric viewpoint in that debate but then changes the terms of the debate.  It is not a matter of worshipping God in only one place or the other.  It is not a matter of geophysical location.  The issue is worshipping “in spirit and truth.”   That which has divided Jews and Samaritans theologically and made it impossible for these people to get along or worship together is irrelevant.  True, spiritual worship is not a matter of place but of spirit and truth.  The Messiah, Lord of the Sabbath, declares other religious ritual to be for humans and to serve our religious needs.  We are not meant to serve the Law, but the Law was meant to serve our religious growth.

When the disciples return to Jesus and see Him speaking with the Samaritan woman, they are obviously uncomfortable with what Jesus is doing.  Social barriers are being crossed, religious differences are being ignored.  Suddenly a multitude of Samaritans are coming to see Jesus.  The disciples were probably pretty quickly overwhelmed by the  events and their understanding of Christ.

From the time of the Apostles, Christianity has struggled with incorporating new peoples into the church.  The same goes on in our parishes today.  New people enter the church with diverse perspectives, and parishes struggle with how to maintain the unity of the faith.  How do we bring together people who are rivals or even enemies?  In America, civil culture wars enter into the church threatening to divide people whose common unity is Christ.  Liberals and conservatives find it hard to agree on anything, but in the Church, Jesus Christ is Lord and Christians have to figure out how to love one another.  How do we welcome strangers into our communities?   How do we bring the Gospel to people who do not believe God has any interest in them or worse that God could love them?  How do we overcome in Christ that which divides us so that we can serve God?

Christ in reaching out to the Samaritan woman and her townspeople, modeled a way.  We have to know what is universal in the Christian message.  We have to  know what it means to love others as Christ loves us.  And we have to believe the oneness Jesus envision in John 17 for the Church is not an impossible ideal but rather fundamental to the Body of Christ.  So essential that we each have to deny ourselves and take up the cross in order to follow Christ.