Maintaining the Unity of the Community


“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”   (Isaiah 55:6-9)

The rise of desert monasticism occurred because some Christians hoped they could live a communal life based solely on the Gospel commandments of Christ rather than on the wisdom and power of the world.   They rejected the success of imperial Rome and the “Roman Peace” based in worldly power and might.  They understood the ways of the world could be more efficient but they believed the means must be consistent with the end rather than that the ends justified the means.  They were not willing to sacrifice their morality based in the Gospel commands to achieve their desired goal.  Or rather, they saw living in this world according to the Gospel commandments as the goal, not the means to the end.  They were not trying to earn their way into the Kingdom of Heaven, rather they were trying to live the up-side-down values of the Kingdom of Heaven while on earth.  As they prayed – as in heaven, so on earth – so they tried to live.

These Christians developed an entire literary genre firmly based in these values of the Kingdom – the apophthegm, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers.  These sayings are part of a wisdom literature of the people of God.  They are not rules and rubrics, but wisdom based in experience.  Sometimes they are simply stories  which show how they tried to live together with the only rules being those of the Gospel.  What we see in these stories is sometimes even humorous.  Today, we might look at them and say how ridiculously impractical for we can see easy solutions to their problems – correct the mistakes and move on.  They however wanted to live in the unity of love, and believed they must never ever break that bond of mutual concord.  So for example we read this sagacious aphorism:

Once when Abba John was going up from Scete with other brothers, their guide lost his way and it was night. The brothers said to Abba John: “What shall we do, abba, for the brother has lost his way; maybe we will wander off and die?” The elder said to them: “If we tell him he will be grieved and ashamed. But look here: I will pretend to be sick and will say: ‘I cannot travel [further] so I am staying here until dawn,’” and so he did. The rest of them said: “Neither are we going on; we are staying with you.” They stayed [there] until dawn and did not offend the brother. (John Colobos, Give Me a Word, p. 135)

Our pragmatism would smile and say, “just tell the guide he is going the wrong way.”   Their dilemma is that they must not break the unity of love between themselves, and so rather than point out the fault or failure of the guide, the one elder feigns illness to stop the guide from going further astray, rather than embarrass the guide by pointing out his fault.  They looked not for the most straightforward and pragmatic solution to their “problem” –  that they are lost.  For them, the real problem was: knowing they are lost, how do they stop the guide from making everything worse without shaming him.

“Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins.”   (1 Peter 4:8)

The values of the Kingdom must be lived, and so without ever pointing out the guide’s error, they found a way to stop and wait for daylight to see where they were.  The Light of Christ would shine on them, but they had to find the way to get to that point without offending the guide.  And in this story, everybody else except the guide knew they were lost.  It isn’t majority rule in the Kingdom, it is majority love.

Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.   (1 Corinthians 16:13-14)

The Unexpected Gospel: To Unstop our Blocked Ears

Then the disciples came and said to Jesus, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.”   (Matthew 13:10-11)

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It can be hard for us to feel excitement about the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven, for we hear about it all the time in church, and it loses its newness and attraction to us.  Year after year we listen to the same Gospel lessons and they come to sound so familiar, so ordinary, that we forget how totally unexpected, how original, how startling and exciting was the message of St. John the Forerunner and Jesus Christ and His apostles : “The kingdom of Heaven is at hand, repent!

To get some sense of the newness of the Gospel, let us consider the phrase “the Kingdom of Heaven.”

We’ve all heard that phrase in church and it seems like that is just common fare from the Bible.  And yet, the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” never occurs in the Old Testament.    Not even one time.  And how about the phrase “the Kingdom of God”?     That occurs one time in the  Old Testament, in the Wisdom of Solomon.     A book Protestants don’t even have in their English bibles.

So when the Evangelist Matthew has St. John the Forerunner and then Jesus proclaim, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2, 4:7), the people were hearing a newly worded message for the first time.    This Gospel belonged to the New Creation for it was new and renewing.  It is no wonder that the apostles didn’t always understand Jesus.  They would not have learned about the Kingdom of heaven growing up or  in any scripture classes they took at their local synagogues.  Jesus was proclaiming a new idea, something strange to their ears, to get their attention.  What is more surprising is that the people don’t ask more often, “What’s the kingdom of heaven?  We’ve never heard of it.  What are you talking about?

And do you think the phrase, “the kingdom of Heaven” permeates the New Testament?     The Evangelists John, Luke and Mark  and the Apostle Paul never use the phrase “the kingdom of Heaven”?    Not once.  None of them.

We hear the phrase Kingdom of Heaven and we think, O that’s what the bible is all about  or that is what the New Testament constantly talks about.  But no, there is only one author in the New Testament who uses the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven” and that is St. Matthew.  He uses the phrase 31 times .   But He is the only writer in the entire Bible to use that phrase.  It seems as if he coined a phrase and an idea that he wanted us to hear.  He made the Kingdom of Heaven a central idea to the Gospel.  And he was quite the evangelist, for now we think that phrase occurs throughout the Bible from beginning to end.

However, for us already the newness of the Gospel and the Kingdom of Heaven has worn off.   We’ve heard about it so much that our senses are dulled.   We are at risk to become like the people of the Gospel who turned against Jesus, as St. Paul says in the Acts of the Apostles:

The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people, and say, You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’   (Acts 28:25-27)

We Christians today need constant spiritual renewal to restore in our hearing and in our hearts just how new, exciting and unexpected the Kingdom of Heaven really is.  It is light shining forth out of the darkness.

And in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus used many images to try to convey to His followers what the Kingdom of Heaven is.   He needed to do this because the constant was new, perhaps even foreign to those listening to Him who had heard the Torah taught as a book of Law.     We are not unlike them, for we Orthodox every summer read through Matthew’s Gospel, learning about the Kingdom of Heaven – repeated 31 times for as many years as we follow the Orthodox lectionary.  It becomes hard for us to hear it as new each year.

Jesus gives us parables to tell us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  He doesn’t explain to us how the Kingdom of Heaven is like these common experiences, nor if the parable speaks only about the beginning of the Kingdom being like these things, nor if the Kingdom will be like these things but not like any other things, nor if the Kingdom will never change.  Here are His images:

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.

The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field;

“The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. “

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad   (Matthew 13:24-52)

Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents   (Matthew 18:23-35)

For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  (Matthew 20:1-16)

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come.  (Matthew 22:1-14)

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.   

“For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.    (Matthew 25:1-30)

When we realize that His disciples and followers never learned about the Kingdom of God from the Torah or the Tanakh, we realize why Jesus spent so much time explaining ideas about this coming Kingdom.

In the parable found in Matthew 22:1-14, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son, but the invited guests refuse to come to the feast.  Ultimately, the king commands his servants to bring in what amounts to the dregs of society to fill his banquet hall.  Yet, when the king comes into the banquet hall he sees one man who had no wedding garment.

While the parable is about this unexpected and surprising Kingdom of Heaven, it has one more surprise in the lesson itself – the wedding garment.

Many homilists  assume Jesus must have been referring to a practice that was known in his day so they assume it is true, but most scholars agree that there is absolutely  no known practice of a wedding garment in Israel.  Jesus was telling a parable and may have made up this detail about the wedding garment for the purpose of His parable.  It helps us understand Jesus is using story, not historical fact, to teach us about the Kingdom.  [Another clue that the parable is pure story and not presenting something factual – just think about the time frame it would have taken.  The food is all prepared and sitting on the banquet tables.  The king  sends out his servants initially to bring in the guests, they are rejected, he sends more servants, they are abused and killed.  Send the arm to burn down the city.  Then send more servants to gather all the undesireable – from the thoroughfares, yet the city was burned down! –  then the king finally gets to go to the banquet and the food is still hot on the tables.  All in a few hours apparently.  This could only happen in fiction.]

My “practical” thinking says it is not likely that people provided a wedding garment to everyone who came to a wedding.  The cost would be exorbitant!  Where would people store such garments?  The poor (most of the population) would not have money to purchase their own wedding garments, nor would anyone have had room to store such a garment to be worn only at weddings.

What is possible is that St. Matthew himself wanted us to experience what the disciples experienced when they first heard the parables from Jesus – the parables had details in them which are unexpected and which are not obvious at all and make us say, “What?!?!?”.  They require us to think about them, study them and interpret them.  Maybe St. Matthew wanted us to experience this newness of the Gospel, so that our ears wouldn’t be dull but rather we would hear about this Kingdom of Heaven, and not sure of what it is ,  would want – or more likely, need – to learn more and to seek it out.  The parables are inviting us to seek, not giving us pat answers.

So maybe Jesus or St. Matthew wanted us to think about these mythical or mystical wedding garments – to unstop our ears and to open our hearts and minds to the Gospel.

Maybe because the king had brought in the dregs of the earth to his banquet he provided a wedding garment – not customarily, but especially because everyone was poor and in need.  So the man without the special garment may have refused the special garment or for whatever reason intentionally bypassed accepting the garment and certainly that rejection of the king’s hospitality was noted by the king was already aggravated by his illustrious, invited guests who had jilted him and killed his servants.

In the early church we note how frequently and with great comfort and confidence the Fathers noted any biblical passage may have more than one meaning and the listeners had to decide for themselves which meaning applied to them.

During Holy Week when we pray the Bridegroom Matins, we sing these words:

Your bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.

There we make use of the wedding garment imagery.  We use it to remind ourselves that we are not worthy of this blessed Kingdom of Heaven – we can’t enter it by our own goodness.  We realize our own nakedness – even if we are splendidly clothed in posh frocks!  Our chosen clothes from this world, no matter how expensive and tailored, leave us completely undressed when we try to enter the banquet hall without the God-given festal garments.    We are in need of God’s mercy and grace.  And we ask Christ to “enlighten the vesture of my soul“.  We want Christ the Giver of Light to change the garment of our soul into light so that we can enter Paradise.  We are speaking of a spiritual garment here, not a physical one.    “Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”   (2 Corinthians 5:2)

Maybe Jesus in His parable reference to the wedding garment reminds us that when we are baptized, we put on a new garment, a white baptismal garment which has a particular symbolic meaning.  For it was the belief of many Jews and Christians in the ancient world that Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden were given beautiful garments to wear by God.  Garments made of light. They all believed that when Adam and Eve sinned, these beautiful garments of light were taken away from them.  Some also believed that Satan then covered us with dark robes of sinful thinking to help prevent us from seeing the image of God in each other, so that we would forget about the Kingdom Heaven and live only for this world.  Something in which Satan seems to have succeeded quite well.  Satan’s garments blind us, while baptism gives us a new garment which enlightens and illumines us.

Perhaps the wedding garment parable reminds us of that special garment which God gives to us – which we receive at baptism.  A spiritual garment, not a physical one.   The white baptismal garment is but a symbol of the reality.  The prayers of baptismal service say we will have to give account to God for the baptismal garment we received, and how we treated it and what we did with it:

That he/she may preserve his/her baptismal garment and the earnest of the Spirit pure and undefiled unto the Day of Christ our God, let us pray to the Lord.

So if you don’t know where your baptismal garment is – I’m not talking about the physical clothes, but the spiritual garment, or if you don’t even remember this garment at all, maybe it is time to look for it so that you can enter the Kingdom of Heaven and remain there for all eternity as the King’s invited guest.   You have to start thinking about the garment that adorns your soul, not the garments you buy at the mall.   “Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”   (1 Peter 3:3-4)   What St. Peter advised women in his day, becomes Christian advice for all in the modern age – don’t be so concerned with appearance, rather pay attention to the substance of your inner self.

 

 

 

God’s Kingdom is a Kingdom Not of This World

“It’s just what Christ was trying to say. If his aim had been to rule the world here, to rule this dust which he created, he would have fought. He would have brought armies to fight against those who crucified him. And as he apparently didn’t fight and as he apparently was defeated, he was actually fighting back and winning the battle, but not here, not over this dust, but over the kingdom, the eternal kingdom of peace.

…We might die and our families might die and our culture and civilization might die, but if we die in the name of Christ, we have won. Whereas, if we win, abandoning Christ and his commandments, if we win and rule this dust at that expense, we have, in fact, lost.

…The world does not need more soldiers; the world needs more saints. There is no question whether you or I should fight, because we are fighting, even against our will. We are all involved in this battle. We are all soldiers, but we can be the type of soldier that fights for a kingdom over dust and become a warrior, a terrorist, who [is] any kind of person who kills another person; or we can become the kind of warrior that fights for the kingdom to come, that fights for the kingdom of love, that fights for the kingdom of peace, which Christ promised to all those who make peace. Let’s pray for peace, for all of us, everywhere. Amen.”    (Fr. Seraphim Aldea, In Communion , Summer 2017, p. 8-9)

Created in God’s Image for the Sake of Virtue

For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for any one to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.    (Romans 14:17-21)

In the Church, we are in the season of the Nativity Fast.  In our culture, we are in the midst of the Christmas holiday rush.   St. John Chrysostom offers us some thoughts about being Christian in a secular world – what important things do we need to remember to remain faithful to Christ?  Can fasting help us be more Christ-like?  Does eating make us more godly?

“So let us not grow tired until we reach the end; this, after all, was why we were made, not to eat and drink and wear clothes, but to avoid evil and choose virtue by adopting the divine value system. For proof, in fact, that we were not made for eating and drinking but for other far greater and better things, listen to God himself explaining the reason why he made the human being: at the time of its creation he spoke this way, “Let us make the human being in our image and likeness” [Genesis 1:26]. 

Now, we become like God not by eating and drinking and wearing clothes – but by practising righteousness, giving evidence of lovingkindness, being good and kind, showing mercy to the neighbor, pursuing every virtue;

eating and drinking we have in common with the nature of brute beast, and in that regard we are no better than they. But what is the basis of our superiority?

Being made in God’s image and likeness.”   

(Old Testament Homilies, pp. 13-14)

Understanding Seeds and Parables

Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?”  (Matthew 13:8-10)

“This tension is present as well in Jesus’ use of conventional proverbial sayings, using ambiguity to involve hearers and reader-learners in interpreting their meaning and to evoke something radically new. For example, Jesus used a familiar farming image of planting seeds that grow: “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come” (Mark 4:29).

The farmer does not make the seed grow but must use his judgment to discern when it is ripe, a judgement learned from his own farmer-father and his previous experience. But here the image is applied to the coming of the Kingdom! The reader-learner is invited to see the kingdom as growing seeds and ripening plants, but how does one judge that a kingdom is ripe?

If it is ripe, a harvest requires cutting down and threshing. What does that expect of reader-learners?”  (Charles F. Melchert, Wise Teaching, p. 244)

The Baptism of Infants

Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.  (Acts 18:8)

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul.  And when she was baptized, with her household…  (Acts 16:14)

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The Orthodox Church, like most of the ancient traditions of Christianity have interpreted passages like those above to mean that everyone in a household was baptized, and that would include the children of all ages.  Those traditions which have a strong sacramental  and incarnational dimension, understand that God works salvation in and through the things of this world because God is interested in the entire human God created – not just their souls, but bodies as well.  This thinking finds support in some other scriptural passages.

For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy.  (1 Corinthians 7:14)

The children, even of a mixed marriage between a believer and non-believer, are claimed to be holy, purely by being the child of a believing parent.  We baptize such children in recognition of their holiness – not to make them holy.  We are simply recognizing what God is bringing about in the world.

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At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” [2] And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, [3] and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [4] Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. [5] “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; [6] but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.   (Matthew 18:1-6)

Whoever receives one such child in Christ’s name, receives Christ!  So in the Church we do receive such children and thereby receive Christ in our midst.  The child brings Christ to us.  The child is for us an example of greatness – the greatest in the kingdom of heaven according to Christ.  The child shows us the way to enter the Kingdom.  Thus when we baptize the child it is not only that we bring the child to Christ, but the child brings Christ to us.  We not only lead the child to the kingdom, but that child leads us to the kingdom.  The baptism of children is also for our salvation!

 And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. [14] But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. [15] Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  (Mark 10:13)

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The Kingdom of God belongs to the children who are brought to the Church to be touched by Christ.  The child teaches us how to receive the Kingdom of God.  We have much to learn at and from every infant baptism.

Living The Kingdom of God

In the book Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (page 124), Michael Plekon, building upon the writings of Paul Evdokimov, notes:

 “For every Christian, the sacraments of initiation confer the dignity of prophet, priest and king. Every profession and state in life can be a form of this universal priesthood. In the liturgy, such a priest ‘makes of everything a human offering, a hymn, a doxology’. Then, in daily life, in the ‘liturgy after liturgy’ of St. John Chrysostom, such a Christian is

‘freed by his faith from the “greater fear” of his twentieth century, fear of the bomb, of cancer, of communism, of death; [his] faith is always a way of loving the world, away of following his Lord even into hell. This is certainly not a part of a theological system, but perhaps it is only from the depths of hell that a dazzling and joyous hope can be born and assert itself. Christianity in the grandeur of its confessors and martyrs, in the dignity of every believer, is messianic, revolutionary, explosive.  In the domain of Caesar, we are ordered to see and therefore to find what is not found there—the Kingdom of God. This order signifies that we must transform the form of the world, change it into the icon of the Kingdom. To change the world means to pass from what the world does not yet possess—for this reason it is still this world—to that in which it is transfigured, thus becoming something else—the Kingdom.’ (Paul Evdokimov)”

 

Blessed is the Kingdom

“The first exclamation of the Divine Liturgy reveals the key to the entire celebration:

Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

With these words the celebrant announces the source and the goal of the divine service of the People of God, the very context and contents of the entire liturgical action. It is the Kingdom of God brought to the world by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and mystically reigning already in the faithful disciples of Christ by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom of God is eternal life in communion with God in loving obedience to his divine will. It is life in union with the Blessed Trinity; life lived toward the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. It is the life which Christ has given to men by his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification. It is the life to be lived already in this world by the People of God. To bless the Kingdom of God means to love it as one’s most precious possession. The response of the people to the proclamation of blessing by the priest is with the word Amen, which means so be it. This is the solemn affirmation that indeed the blessing of God’s Kingdom is fitting and proper. It is the official confirmation that this Kingdom is indeed the ‘pearl of great price’ for the faithful, which once having found it, they will love it and serve it and desire to have it forever (Lk 13.14).” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith: Worship, Vol. 2, pp 152-153)

RSVP: The Messianic Banquet

Eaeh year in the Orthodox calendar during the Nativity Fast the Gospel lesson from Luke 14:16-24 is proclaimed on a Sunday a few weeks before Christmas.  The parable is often interpreted as one of the parables of the Kingdom of God, this one referring particularly to the Messianic Banquet to be experienced at the end of this age.

At that time, the Lord Jesus said, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.’  Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.’ Another said, ‘I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.’ Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.’”

Fr. John Behr comments:

“Coming together now, to get ourselves ready, we hear a familiar but very striking parable from Christ. A man is ready to give a great banquet, and sends out his servant to call the invited guests. But they all make excuses – and how familiar these excuses are: some need to work their fields or look after their animal, they need to take care of their business; while others are now married and need to look after their families.

The host doesn’t simply abandon the idea of having a banquet; he instead changes his guest list. He invites all those who had absolutely no expectation whatsoever that they would ever be invited to such a feast. He invites the maimed, the blind and lame, all the outcasts of society who live on the streets and in the lanes begging for their food.

Then, as there is still more room, the net is cast wider, this time going outside the city to the country roads and fields, so that, he says, the house will be full; and then he adds, full that ‘not one of those who were formerly invited shall taste my banquet.’Clearly, the point of the parable is to question the confidence of those who think that they will be present at Christ’s own messianic banquet when he comes again in glory. All those who were assured of a place turned out not really to want it. So, we need to ask ourselves, do we really think that, when we are called, we will act any differently from those in the parable? Why should we think that we will have the conviction and the strength to act differently, when even the disciples of Christ didn’t?” (John Behr, The Cross Stands Still While the World Turns, pp 107-108)

The Goal of the Christian Life and of the Church

St. John Cassian  (d. 435AD) offers us straightforward advice on how to stay focused as a Christian on what is important.  There are so many things we might imagine that each of us Christians individually are to do,  or collectively as Church are to accomplish.  Cassian reminds  us that it is easy to lose sight of the goal and then all of our spiritual activities will be aimless.  This is as true for each of us in our spiritual as it is for a parish council or an entire parish or any committee or institutional assembly.  We have to know where we are going in order to know if we are getting close to our destination or to know if we have arrived.   St. John would want to remind us that before we begin any deed to keep in mind the goal of Christians is the Kingdom of God.  Before we begin any activity or meeting, we might ask ourselves how this activity or meeting moves us toward that goal.

“In the same fashion the objective of our life is the kingdom of God, but we should carefully ask what we should aim for. If we do not look very carefully into this we will wear ourselves out in useless strivings. For those who travel without a marked road there is the toil of the journey – and no arrival at a destination. Seeing our amazement at all this, the old man resumed: ‘As we have said, the aim of our profession is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. But our point of reference, our objective, is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach our target. If we keep to this point of reference we will proceed with all assurance, as though along a carefully drawn line. If our minds wander a little from this we can come back to it again and keep our eye on it, using it as a standard by which to give ourselves sure guidance.” (Conferences, pg. 39)