The Sin of Partiality

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There are many opportunities in the world for us to consider our lives in Christ.  In America, the Martin Luther King Holiday gives us the chance to think about how our treatment of others is a moral issue which should be governed by the Gospel commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Loving strangers is part of our life in Christ, as Jesus teaches we will hear at the Judgment Day: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me“(Matthew 25:35; see also for example: Ephesians 2:19  or 3 John 5).  Our prejudices and fears can help us identify the stranger whom we are to welcome.  “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:1-2).

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Offering Mercy to Christ

One passage from the New Testament that we can consider when it comes to strangers, to our prejudices and to racist attitudes is found in the Epistle of James 2:1-13 –

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man with gold rings and in fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while you say to the poor man, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

10619324084_cdb99eda43If St. James says that it is evil which leads us to make distinctions between people because of the clothing they wear (whether we think them rich or poor), what would he say to us if we make distinctions based upon skin color or accents or facial features?  I think he would clearly tell us such “distinctions” (i.e., prejudices, bigotry, racism, xenophobia) were based in evil thoughts, not in godliness.  St James’ Epistle is for us  Scripture –  it has the authority of God’s Word.  St. James is not saying that we won’t have feelings of phobias or prejudices.  He tells us it is wrong to act on them and to treat others based on them.    In love we have to overcome our own sinful thoughts.

Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you, is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme that honorable name which was invoked over you?

St. James is immediately addressing the temptation of distinguishing between the poor and the rich and then treating them differently based on our sinful bias.  However, there is a principle here that applies to many other ways in which we apply our prejudices or bigotry.  We cater to the rich in our churches as we want their financial support, but St. James says it is the rich who are a threat to us Christians, not the poor.  The rich are powerful and have the legal means to threaten us legally and in other ways.

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We often fear the poor and want to keep them far from us, but St. James says it is the rich and powerful who are the real threat.  For it is the rich and powerful who will tempt us away from adhering to the Gospel commands of love – by bribes or threats.  Something to think about.    We build walls to keep the poor out of our lives, but it is the rich and powerful who have the ability to pass laws which threaten our beliefs and moral practices and who have the power to have those laws enforced against us.  Power is a greater threat to our religious freedom than poverty.

If you really fulfil the royal law, according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” said also, “Do not kill.” If you do not commit adultery but do kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.

10commadmentsSt James tells us if we commit the sin of making distinctions (of prejudice, bigotry, racism, xenophobia), we break the law of God and fall under condemnation for our sin.  Note, St. James does not say “partiality” is listed in the 10 Commandments, but he says it is every bit as sinful to show partiality (prejudice, bigotry, racism, xenophobia)  as it is to commit adultery or murder!    If we think we can commit such sins as “partiality” or “making distinctions” because there is no direct scriptural commandment  against them, just read the Epistle of James.  There Scripture clearly teaches prejudice and racism and bigotry are every bit as sinful, evil and wrong as is murder and adultery.  If we think prejudice and bigotry are somehow not as sinful or evil as murder and adultery, we need to look at the Epistle of James who will correct our thinking immediately.

For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy; yet mercy triumphs over judgment.  

Mercy is the Gospel command we are to follow to rid our hearts of the sins of prejudice, partiality, racism, making distinctions, bigotry or xenophobia.

Mercy triumphs over justice and judgment.  That is why in the Orthodox Church we constantly pray, “Lord, have mercy!”   We are not constantly saying, “God be just and judge us.”  We need God’s mercy and to receive it, we need to show mercy to others.

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“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  (Luke 6:36-38)

2019 Sanctity of Human Life Sunday

sanctity of lifeToday in the life of our church in America we are affirming our commitment to the Sanctity of Human Life.   We do this each year on the 3rd Sunday in January as we remember that in our country in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that having an abortion was a guaranteed right for Americans – a ruling that also said that the child still in the womb had no human rights.  Our Orthodox Church has lamented and protested that decision, questioning whether anyone has a right to take the life of an unborn child.

For us as Orthodox Christians, being pro-life should not be limited to mean we vote for pro-life candidates, for I think that just reduces it to a political issue which is used by political parties for their own gains.  The issue for us is a moral issue and we should not let political parties use us for their purposes. If we are to be pro-life we have to support those ideas and policies which support life.  This means it is not sufficient to think about the issue only every November at the election.   Being pro-life does not mean just trying to pass laws that prohibit abortion.  Pro-life means that we lend our lives, our resources, our energy and homes to helping families have healthy children.  Pro-life means we support mothers who choose to bring their babies into being and not only vote for laws that prohibit abortion but also vote for policies that are pro-family and pro-health and pro-children.  We need to support education and health care policies that help even the poorest of families to have access to good schools and health care.  These are moral issues to which we must always tend because we are pro-life.  Give your support to families in need, not just to political candidates or parties.

Performing abortions is an ancient practice.  And while our world has made much progress in proclaiming human rights and defending those who cannot defend themselves, the modern world has not been willing to extend those same rights and protections to the unborn child.

Writing in the 3rd Century, a Christian bishop we know as Methodius proclaimed that every baby conceived is crafted and blessed by God. Every baby conceived comes into existence as the result of the will of God.  Methodius even defended the rights and life of illegitimate children.  He wrote:

“… we have been taught by the divinely inspired Scriptures that all babies, even those from unlawful unions, are entrusted at birth to the keeping of guardian angels.  Whereas if they came into existence contrary to the will and ordinance of that blessed nature of God, how could they be committed to angels to be brought up with great gentleness and indulgence?”

Methodius is defending the sanctity of human life, all life, all babies, even unwanted and illegitimate babies have life because God willed them into being and God appoints a guardian angel for each of them.   If God appoints guardian angels even for illegitimate babies, then we as God’s people should also be willing to act as guardians for these same children.  We should be encouraging families to stay together and to work together to raise their children.   We should be helping them and supporting civil policies which give them support as well.

Bishop Methodius goes on to talk about those parents who decided to terminate the life of their children either by exposure or by abortion:

“And if they are to accuse their own parents, how could they summon them before the judgment seat of Christ with bold confidence and say: ‘Lord, You did not begrudge us this common light; but it was those who exposed us to die, they despised Thy commandment…’”  (The Symposium: A Treatise on Chastity, pp 55-56)

Methodius’ stark words are that all these children whose lives were ended abruptly will ask for justice from God.  The babies who died from exposure or abortion will on the Judgment Day remind God that He had brought them into being, but their parents chose to kill them.  The imagery is very close to what we see in Revelation 6:9-11 –

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete…

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Methodius’ image is a terrible one – for these children instead of praying for their parents, remind God what their parents did to them.

We ourselves might think of what St. Paul said in Colossians 3:4-11 –

When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. …

What we are to put to death is not the children whom we don’t want, but rather our own sins.  Instead of aborting children we don’t want we should be putting to death our passions and sinful nature.

St. Paul doesn’t even suggest that we put vile and violent sinners to death either, just our own passions.

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We are called to remember that God values life so much that God wants there to be as much of it as is possible.  In the beginning in Genesis 1:27-28 we hear these words:

So God created the human in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth …

The conceiving of children fulfills God’s plan.  But of course we believe that those children are also supposed to be conceived and raised within nurturing families.

Jesus Christ said

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”   (John 10:10)

Life is a precious gift given to us by God so that we might have communion with God and share in God’s own abundant life.

 

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Fetus at 6 months

Psalm 139 tells us that  the unborn child in the mother’s womb is formed and known by God.  Each baby is God’s handiwork even if accidentally conceived or unwantedly conceived.

Throughout the Bible God affirms His love for the poor, the downtrodden, the weak and oppressed.  This is why we lend our voice to support life and to support the parents who are willing to sacrifice for the good of their children.

In Deuteronomy 30:19-20, our God says to us:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days, that you may dwell in the land which the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.”

Salvation: Being Made Whole and Human

Then it happened, as He was coming near Jericho, that a certain blind man sat by the road begging. And hearing a multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be brought to Him. And when he had come near, He asked him, saying, “What do you want Me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.” Then Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.   (Luke 18:35-43)

Orthodox theologian Vigen Guroian comments:

Soteria is the Greek New Testament word often translated as “save.” It is a derivative of the verb sozo, which means “to heal:” The Latin equivalents are salvare (to heal) and salvus (made whole or restored to integrity). Thus, the words for salvation in New Testament Greek and in Latin denote therapy and healing. The Gospel writers take advantage of this denotative meaning when they record Jesus’ healing miracles.   An example is St. Mark’s story of Bartimaeus the blind beggar (Mark 10:46-52), who enthusiastically chases after Jesus on the road from Jericho, boldly addresses Jesus by the Messianic title “Son of David” and earnestly beseeches Jesus to restore his sight.

The New Jerusalem Bible renders Jesus’ answer to Bartimaeus as “Go; your faith has saved you:” The Revised English Bible translates this as “Go; your faith has healed you:‘ while the Revised Standard Version reads, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.”    All three of these modern translations are “accurate:”  But not one alone captures the complete meaning of the passage. The healing miracles certainly concern physical cure; but they are not limited to physical cure. All four of the Gospels emphasize that Jesus’ acts of physical healing are charged with spiritual and eschatological significance as well.

(The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 544-51)

Sin as Mud Washed Away

“God has imprinted the image of the good things of His own nature on creation. But sin, in spreading out over the divine likeness, has caused this good to disappear, covering it with shameful garments. But if, by a life rightly led, you wash away the mud that has been put on your heart, then godlike (theoeides) beauty will again shine out in you. And so it is that he who is pure of heart merits to be called blessed, since in looking at his own beauty, he sees in it its model.

Just as he who looks at the sun in a mirror, even if he does not fix his eyes on the sky itself, nevertheless sees the sun in the mirror’s brightness, so you also even if you eyes could not bear the light, possess within yourselves what you desire, if you return to the grace of the image that was placed in you from the beginning. (Gregory of Nyssa, from Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit of the New Testament and the Fathers, pp. 365-366)

Numerous Fathers accept the image of sin as being a mud which has sullied us but has not become part of who we are.  Sin can be washed away by tears of repentance, by baptism, by living a godly life, by allowing the Light of God to enter into one’s life.  Sin at worst is a parasite living on us, but we never lose our connection to God, the image of God imprinted on our hearts.    These Fathers reject any idea of the total depravity of humanity or that humans are nothing but sin deserving God’s eternal damnation.   Humans are loved by God and Christ comes to us as a healer, to take away our sins, to restore us to full health, to make us human again.  The Hope diamond caked with layers of dried mud would look like a dirty rock.  Yet, beneath the layers of mud the diamond is as valuable as ever.  This is the situation of humans in the world and why God loves us and works so hard to save us.  God sees through the mud and knows the worth of every human person.

How We Shape God’s Revelation

“God condescends whenever He is not seen as He is, but in the way one incapable of beholding Him is able to look upon Him. In this way God reveals Himself by accommodating what He reveals to the weakness of vision of those who behold him.”  (St. John Chrysostom, in Archimandrite Amilianos’s The Way of the Spirit, p. 323-324)

Chrysostom’s observation that God accommodates His revelation to the capacity of the person beholding God is fascinating on so many levels, and really does seem true to what the Scriptures present about God’s manifestations to the world.  It does mean that God takes into account each person readiness for revelation and each person’s personal abilities and adjusts the revelation accordingly so the person can understand what is being revealed to them.  It also means that no two person have the exact same perception of God.  Take for example the Transfiguration – five people besides Jesus are present, and each would be encountering something slightly different about Christ according to their differing personal abilities to comprehend the revelation.   It means that no one person’s experience of God, no matter how true or how capable they are of describing it, ever has a full experience of God.    Certainly in the case of the Transfiguration, Orthodox Tradition as expressed in iconography has each of the apostles differently able to perceive and understand the revelation.  Peter, James and John are understand as experiencing the Transfiguration differently which is shown in the icon by their different responses to the event.

God reveals Himself as love and God reveals His love to us, and each of us experiences it slightly differently based on our own capabilities of receiving the revelation.  God does not require everyone to experience the exact same thing or to understand the revelation in the same way or even to be able to express what one has experienced in the exact same way as others do.   There is a true and unique synergy which occurs between God and each person to whom God reveals Himself.

A good example of this comes from the post-Resurrection experience of the disciples found in Luke 24.  We can consider a few verses as examples.

1] Luke 24:15-16  –    While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

Here are two disciples who are personally familiar with Jesus having been discipled by Christ directly as they sojourned with Him.   In this chapter, they are walking with Him and talking to Him and yet they do not recognize Him with their own eyes.  Apparently, not only do different people have different capacities for receiving God’s revelation, but also at different times in life any one person’s lifetime, the ability to understand God changes.  According to Chrysostom, God takes this into account and only reveals what we are capable of receiving, so while our experience of God may be true, it may also be incomplete or just beyond our comprehension.

2] Luke 24:19-26  –    And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

The people were able to see the mighty deeds of Jesus and to hear his powerful message, yet they did not fully comprehend either Him or His message.  The disciples admit they thought they understood who Jesus was, but their hopes were dashed.  The crucifixion of Jesus was an unexpected revelation about God which blinded them to the truth of what they were seeing in Christ.  And finally though some of the disciples were moved enough to go look into the claims about the empty tomb and resurrection, they still were not capable themselves of seeing Jesus yet.  They knew Jesus’ own teachings about the resurrection, they had the testimony of the women disciples, they saw the empty tomb, and yet still they were not ready to receive the revelation.   It takes time for them to realize and embrace what God is revealing to them.   God reveals Himself as the disciples are growing in their ability to understand the revelation.  It is a lesson for mission work as well – people may need time to hear the message and to understand it.

3] Luke 24:30-31  –   When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Seeing him with one’s eyes and realizing who He is are two different experiences.  The two disciples are talking with Him and yet their eyes are not opened.  However, in the breaking of the bread, they recognize Him – their eyes are opened and in that moment He disappears!  Seeing with one’s senses is one thing, but it is not the only vision we are capable of.  Another lesson is that as we are more prepared to accept the revelation, we may find ourselves less reliant on proofs and move more into a faith mode, letting go of the “props” that helped us believe and allowing Christ to enter into our hearts.   And we see in the icon that each of the two disciples sees Christ from their own point of view, they are not seeing identical things.  And Christ in these icons hands them a broken piece of bread – each receives a unique piece broken from the whole,  they are not given identical pieces.   They are given according to their ability to receive the gift.

4] Luke 24:33-35  –   And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The Lord chooses to whom He will appear.  Not everyone sees Him in the same moment.  God respects those who are ready for the revelation.  Others may simply not be ready, and so God doesn’t appear to them, or He appears to them and they don’t recognize Him.  We see again Chrysostom’s point that God appears in the way and to the degree that the person is able to receive the revelation.  Peter goes to the tomb and is not yet ready to embrace the revelation, but in the right time, the Lord acts and Peter sees the Lord.

5] Luke 24:36-41  –   As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

The Lord chose the moment to reveal Himself at once to all the disciples.  We see their reactions – startled, frightened, doubts, thinking some ghost has appeared to them.  Not all can see as clearly, but Christ proceeds with the revelation as they are able to receive it.  So then, there is disbelief, wonder and joy.  What they experience and understand is changing and growing.  Christ accommodates Himself to the ways in which they are not yet fully prepared to see or believe or understand.    Christ is guided by mercy and empathy for those to whom He reveals Himself, taking into account their weaknesses and accommodating His revelation to them.  There is no need to admire those who understand more nor to despise those who understand less.  God is accommodating His revelation to the needs of each based on His own love for them.  There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to God’s revelation as each receives the revelation as they are able.  God entrusts to each person the revelation according to their abilities.  And there is no need for everyone to think exactly alike, because God accommodates His revelation to each.

Choosing Eternity

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There  was a man, could have been any one, who considered himself a decent sort of person, but who never put much thought into an afterlife.  There were too many things in life which occupied his attention, and which also allowed him to avoid thinking about the inevitable.  Unexpectedly – at least for him – his life dreamily ended.  He found himself in the place where all souls are said to be judged by God.   As it dawned on him about what had happened and where he was, he suddenly was terrified of what awaited him.

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An angel of the Lord approached him.  The angel’s appearance was awesome, and the man cringed and swallowed hard.  His mind was racing for what defense he might offer at his judgment.

The angel spoke in a harmonious voice, asking the man, “Are you now ready to choose your eternal destiny?”

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“Choose?”  The man was astounded at the question, for he had given no real thought to it in his lifetime and he couldn’t believe he had any real choice in the matter at this particular moment, considering where he was.  “Do you mean I even have a choice?”

“Of course you have a choice.” replied the angel  “You have to choose where you will spend your eternity.  Who did you think was going to do that for you?”

The man was at a loss for words, but for the first time in a long time, God came to mind.

The angel led the man to a room which had four doors in one wall.  The angel explained, “Behind one of these doors lies your eternal destiny.  But you have to choose which one you will enter.  Three of these doors open paths to heaven.  Only one of the doors leads to hell.  You have to choose what your fate will be. Choose wisely because whichever door you open is the one you must enter.”

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The man was now becoming concerned again.  “But . . . how do I know what door to choose?  Is it a trick . . .  or is it all left to chance?”

“There is no trick,”  The angel responded, “and it isn’t a matter of chance; it really is choice.  You have to decide which door you want to go through.  I’m even going to tell you a something about what is on the other side of  each of these doors.”

The man didn’t know whether to breathe a sigh of relief or whether this was going to be such a test that he would certainly fail.

“One of these doors leads to martyrdom and suffering for the Gospel, but you will find your way to heaven on that path.  One of these doors leads to people who are suffering terribly and it will require that you spend time to care for them, but it too leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Behind one door are all manners of poor people, beggars, the unwanted – and they will ask you to give them everything you own including the clothes off your back.  But this too is a path to the Kingdom.   Some of the saints thought this door with all the beggars is the easiest path to the kingdom because it requires no suffering – all you have to do is give everything you own away – let them lighten the load for you.  It is the easiest path to the kingdom but that door is the most difficult to choose.”

Then the angel said, “Only one door leads to hell.”

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The man was not a little glad that judgment was not in God’s hands. And in any case choosing heaven was three times more likely then choosing the path to hell.   His mind was whirling with his good fortune as he realized his fate was in his own hands.  He was overjoyed to hear that one door gave him easy access to heaven because he certainly assumed everyone chooses that door.

“How can I tell the doors apart?” the man asked.  “This is the trick . . . isn’t it?”

The angel again assured him that there was no trick.  “Just approach each door and listen carefully to what you hear,” the angel instructed.  The angel handed the man a well stocked backpack.  “You will need this on your journey – it will speed your on your way.”

As the man looked at the backpacks contents he noted medical supplies, analgesics, antiseptics, bandages, food, extra clothing, water, bedding, a tent.  The back pack was very heavy, but the man was feeling buoyant because of the care being shown to him and the provisions given him.  He put the pack on his back, feeling confident that he was now prepared to choose his destiny.

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The man hesitantly moved toward the first door, still fearful that maybe it was a trap.  But as he drew near to the door he could hear terrible screams from people on the other side of the door as if they were being tortured.  They cried out in horrible agony, begging for mercy.  It sounded like their bones were being snapped or as if they were being eaten alive.  Did he smell burning flesh from under the door?  The man was horrified and fearfully backed away from the door lest he somehow fall through it.  A shudder went down his spine as he moved more quickly to the second door.  At first he didn’t hear anything coming from behind the second door.  Carefully,  he put his ear to the door.  The sound on the other side of the door was the most pitiful moaning, people groaning in their suffering.  The piteous sighs of these people struck his heart with a dread – he did not want to find out what was causing their grief, nor did he feel that he wanted to deal with that suffering.   He felt oppressed by the thought of it.

He looked back over his shoulder.  The angel was watching expectantly, and the man felt encouraged.

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As he moved toward the third door, he could hear a loud clamor from the other side of the door before he got near it.   People were pounding on the door begging for help.  The man thought the door itself might burst open because of the crowd pushing against it.  There was a myriad of voices all begging for something to alleviate their need – medicines, clothes, food, water.  Amidst the din, he thought he heard someone shout out a warning  from the other side of the door – “Don’t open the door!  Those people are diseased and dangerous. You’ll unleash them on the world.”  He almost felt as if their arms were reaching through the door trying to pull him in.  His hands tightened their grip on the straps of his backpack.  He leaped back away from the door, thankful that he had escaped being dragged into that mess.

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He then cautiously moved toward the fourth door.  He stopped and listened but didn’t seem to hear anything.  He moved closer to the door.  He tentatively placed his ear against the door.  What he heard seemed so soothing to him.  For the sound was as if a running, bubbling river was passing by on the other side of the door.  There was no other noise.  The man liked the quiet, peaceful babbling.  It was so inviting, very much what he hoped heaven would be like.  He grabbed the door handle and pushed the door open and confidently stepped in.

The sound it turned out was not a river as he imagined it at all.  What was flowing past the door was a rapidly moving stream of sewage of the most foul kind.  There was no other sound because everything was quickly being swept away by the force of the flow.  The man’s back pack dragged him down into the sewage and he was carried directly to the mouth of hell.

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The man had chosen his eternal destiny.

The angel cringing, marveled at the man’s choice.

The man suddenly felt his neck snap, as his eyes popped open and his mind jolted awake as he heard the priest chanting:

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

 

 

Baptized into Christ

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” And baptism into Christ means incorporated into the diverse community of fellow baptized, co-crucified, co-resurrected, justified inhabitants of Christ”  (Gal 3:28).

. . . justification is an experience of both death and resurrection, and both must be stressed. But the resurrection to new life it incorporates is a resurrection to an ongoing state of crucifixion: I “have been” crucified means I “still am” crucified. Therefore, justification by faith must be understood first and foremost as a participatory crucifixion that is, paradoxically, life-giving (cf. 2 Cor 4:7-15). The one who exercises faith, and is there by crucified with Christ, is systauroo in Gal 2:19 – as in Rom 6:6), because he or she is animated by the resurrected Christ, who always remains for Paul (and the New Testament more generally) the crucified Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 2:2; cf. John 20:20, 27; Rev. 5:6). As Miroslav Volf says in commenting on this text, the self “is both ‘de-centered’ and ‘re-centered’ by one and the same process, by participating in the death and resurrection of Christ through faith and baptism…” Volf continutes:

By being ‘crucified with Christ,’ the self has received a new center – the Christ who lives in it and with whom it lives…The center of the self – a center that is both inside and outside – is the story of Jesus Christ, who has become the story of the self. More precisely, the center is Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected who has become part and parcel of the very structure of the self.

This understanding of faith as crucifixion is reinforced by Paul’s insistence that the believer’s experience (narrated representatively by Paul in first-person texts) is not only a death with Christ but also a death to the Law (Gal 2:19), to the world (Gal 6:14), and of the flesh (Gal 5:24). The mention of death of the flesh and to the world also demonstrates that Gal 2:15-21 should not be read only as a Jewish experience of liberation from the Law. Rather, every believer begins and continues his or her existence in Christ by co-crucifixion. Gal 2:19-21 suggests that co-crucifixion is both the way in and the way to stay in the convent.

Once again, we must stress that it is the resurrected crucified Christ with whom believers are initially and continually crucified. This is important, both christologically and soteriologically, in two ways. First, as an experience of the risen or resurrected Christ, co-crucifixion is not merely a metaphor but an apt description of an encounter with a living person whose presence transforms and animates believers: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me by giving himself for me.” As Douglas Campbell says, this is no mere imitatio Christi! For “God is not asking [believers]…to imitate Christ – perhaps an impossible task – so much as to inhabit or to indwell him,” such that “the Spirit of God is actively reshaping the Christian into the likeness of Christ.”

(Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God, pp. 70-71)

The Purpose of Theology: To Become Wise

There is in Orthodox Tradition a sense that correct belief leads to a correct way of life or that correct thinking leads to correct living.  Conversely, a wrong way of living – sinning – can often be traced to a wrong set of beliefs.  Confession and repentance in this thinking are efforts to get to the root cause of one’s sinful behavior and to aim to correct the thinking or beliefs that have allowed one to choose wrong behavior.  Correct theology then is not just a set of intellectual premises which we affirm through rational logic, but rather is the healing antidote to what ails humanity and leads us astray from God.  Correct theology is both the light that shows us the right path and the proper path itself.   As Jesus Himself said:

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”   (John 14:6)

“I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”   (John 8:12)

Protestant Theologian Jeremy S. Begbie writes:

By “the gospel” I mean the announcement that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Triune Creator, the God of Israel, has acted decisively to reconcile the world to himself. Here is theology’s raison d’etre and its lodestar – theology is not free-floating speculation, but it is disciplined by this gospel and seeks to interpret the whole of reality from this center. Just because it is so motivated, the theologian is ultimately responsible to a living God: the God of the gospel is not an inert presence but personally active, continuously at work to transform his creatures and his creation. Hence learning about God is undertaken in the context of learning from God, as God relates to us and we to God. This means, in turn, that theology is inseparable (though distinct) from prayer and worship – thinking appropriately about God means regularly engaging with God. . . .  Precisely because it relates to the whole of us and concerns the energetic, life-transforming God of the gospel, theology has a practical orientation.

One of the best ways to express this is to speak of theology fostering wisdom. In the so-called Wisdom literature of the Bible (for example, the book of Proverbs), gaining wisdom concerns much more than amassing data for the mind’s scrutiny. It is practically geared. To be wise means being able to discern what is going on in specific, down-to-earth situations and to judge what it is right to say and do in those situations in a way that is faithful and true to God. We become wise in order to live well. As “lived knowledge,” wisdom is directed toward a lifestyle thoroughly “in tune” with God – godly living – that resonates aptly with the Creator’s intentions for us and his world.

(Resounding Truth, p. 20)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.   (Colossians 3:16-17)

Christ Ascending and Descending

The Sunday after Theophany

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.    (Ephesians 4:7-13)

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Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  (Matthew 4:12-17)

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Our Epistle today, Ephesians 4:7-13, quoting from Psalm 68:18, mentions Christ  ascending and descending.  He ascended to God’s throne above the heavens after His resurrection, and also descended into Hades upon His death on the cross.   This Ephesians reading for the Sunday after Theophany is tying together for us several ideas that the Church wishes to emphasize in its proclamation of the Good News.   Of course there is that cosmic picture of Christ who is God the Word descending to earth to be born in a cave and laid in an animal manger  – an event we celebrate as the Nativity of Christ.  But Christ continued His descent, dying on the cross, being buried and descending into Hades to free all the dead from imprisonment and slavery to Satan.  Christ ascended from Hades to appear on earth to show us all His resurrection.  He then continued His ascent all the way to the throne of God’s Kingdom above the heavens.

And this cosmic picture of Christ ascending from Hades to the height of heaven which is also our salvation is foreshadowed in the events of Christ’s descending at his baptism down into the Jordan River and then ascending out of the River to be proclaimed God’s own son.  Baptism as we all should know is exactly an image of being buried beneath the waters and then raised from the dead to new life.   Christ foreshadows his death and resurrection with His dying and rising at his baptism in the River Jordan.

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Additionally, at the baptism of Christ, the feast we call Theophany, the Holy Trinity is revealed to us as well as to the entire world.  This is the great Light which has dawned for us that is mentioned today’s Gospel lesson.

The connection between Theophany and Christ’s descent into Hades was made at one point in Orthodox history when numerous Orthodox churches took to painting on the back (west) wall of the Church, two icon frescos, one on top of the other.  The upper panel/fresco had the Baptism of Christ from Theophany in which the Trinity is revealed to us.  Beneath that icon was the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hades with those saved souls looking up to the icon of the Baptism of Christ.  They understood the Baptism of Christ was the prefiguring of His descent into Hades.  In those churches with the large fresco icons one on top of the other, the door to the church was located in Hades as well.  On Holy Saturday, the congregation in the church would watch as the newly baptized were brought into the church literally passing through their own death and sojourn to Hades where they were united to and saved by Christ.  All of that is still remembered in our Church on Holy Friday when we enter the church after our procession and all pass beneath the winding sheet and we have the ideas that we are passing into the tomb of Christ as into Hades itself where we proclaim and celebrate the resurrection!

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The Epistle mentions Christ leading the captives out and bestowing on them gifts.   We understand this as our being led out of imprisonment in Hades, slaves to death.  The gifts given to us are those Christ bestows on His church as mentioned in today’s epistle.

Christ creates the Church and all the offices of the Church and gives spiritual gifts for all the personnel He needs to carry on His ministry.  He gives us spiritual gifts so that we can accomplish His will on earth.   For Christ passes on to us that we as members of the parish and as members of the Body of Christ are to be the light of the world:

46718055141_fe4d57b0f9_n“You are the light of the world.  . .  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.   (Matthew 5:14-16)

The Great light which has dawned and which people see is not Christ alone, but us as the Body of Christ.  All of us united to Christ as His Body, the Church, for as St. Paul says in 1 Cor 3:16

 – You (plural) are God’s temple.  You (people) have God’s Spirit living in us.

The Church is not a building, but the people of God.  The Church is you and I doing God’s will on earth.

When people come and see the Orthodox Church, they might come and look at the beautiful, interesting and ancient icons on the walls of the building, but they should come to see the living temple, the living icons – namely you!

It is not the building that makes us Orthodox.  It is not the building that makes the Orthodox Church.  It is you people, the parishioners, the members of this parish!

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We extend an invitation to others to come and see the Orthodox Church, we should also be inviting them to see

How we live

How we love God and neighbor

How we worship God.

How we love one another.

How we are like Christ.

People need to come here not only to see icons or to see the Liturgy and Orthodox worship but to see us –

To see:

24765159445_b73aee26d1_nLove               Faith

Hope              Joy

Beauty           Light

Truth             Peace

In us!

St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 –

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  . . .  For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.

God entrusts us to make His Holiness present on earth and available to all who wish to enter into Communion with Him.  God wants us to be witnesses to the Light, but also to be that Light to the world.

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