The first teaching given to us in writing is, “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth” and all the other statements about creation. By faith we understand that the ages were brought to completion by the word of God so that what is seen might be made from what is invisible (Hebrews 11:3): the body’s eye did not recognize the God of all as creator; instead, faith instructed us that God, who has always existed, created what did not exist. There is, after all, no example of this among human beings; yet though learning nothing of the kind from nature, we have in faith a teacher of the unexpected. Human beings, of course, make something out of something, whereas the God of all produced what exists out of nothing.
“How Moses struggled! He asked God to be allowed to see Him, face to face, but God showed him only His back parts (Ex 33.20-23). Many centuries had to pass before Moses was granted a face-to-face encounter with God, and it occurred, not on Mt. Sinai, but on Mt. Thabor, on the day of the Transfiguration (Lk. 9.30-31). Are you better than Moses? Are you able to ascend the mountain of theology, endure the blasts of the trumpets, and withstand the terror of the fire and the lightning? Even if you could do all that, you wouldn’t be satisfied. At some stage, you’ll have to get to Mt. Thabor – which is the mountain of the heart – for only there will you see God as he is (1 Jn 3.2).”
What’s in a name?
St Gregory of Nyssa once asked a friend, “What does it mean to call yourself a Christian?”
St Gregory says a name or title needs to have substance to it. If I call someone a rock or a tree does that make them a rock or a tree?
Gregory argues that we name something because it has the characteristics of the things named. The name has real substance to it. So if we want to say we are a Christian, then there should be real substance to that claim.
What then makes a person a Christian? Having the same characteristics as Christ – love, obedience, discipleship, truth, faith, mercy, charity, peace, meek, humble, struggling against sin and evil, pure in heart, Kingdom oriented.
Whatever are Christ’s characteristics, are to be our characteristics – both individually and collectively. We are to be the Body of Christ.
Being a Christian means that something deep inside us is Christ like. Being a Christian means being transfigured, shining with the Light of Christ. It is precisely today in the Gospel of the transfiguration that we see Christ clearly, and we know that being a Christian means that our very being, our soul is transfigured, filled with light and joy, revealing God to the world, united to the Holy Trinity. St Paul tells us this:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. . . . But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:12-21)
Being a Christian means more than just coming to church on Sundays when it is convenient, or following the 10 Commandments, or believing in God. It means transfiguration, new creation, rebirth, life in the Holy Trinity, it means that you are trying to have all the same characteristics of Christ. It means living the transfigured life.
The Transfiguration of Christ (Matthew 17:1-9) is not so much that Christ was somehow changed, but that the apostles themselves were changed enabling them to see Christ as is always is. The limits of seeing only with one’s eyes was lifted in that moment and the Apostles saw with the eyes of their heart who Jesus is.
“He was transfigured, then: not taking on what he was not, nor being changed to what he was not, but making what he was visible to his own disciples, opening their eyes and enabling them, who had been blind, to see. This is what the phrase means, “He was transfigured before their faces”; he remained exactly the same as he was, but appeared in a way beyond the way he had appeared before, and in that appearance seemed different to his disciples.” (St John of Damascus, Light on the Mountain, p. 221)
“To speak of a ‘transfiguration of creation’ in such cases is clearly to speak from the viewpoint of human experience. Just as the transfigured Christ does not change in himself, but simply allows his disciples to briefly perceive him as he is, so it is with creation’s praise of God: it becomes perceptible only when humans have ears to hear.” (Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, pp. 144-145)
In Romans 15:1-7, St Paul offers his understanding of how Christians should deal with disagreements within the Christian community. He offers this same teaching several times in his letters to the churches. The framework is that we are to love one another, but he is trying to apply it practically to a situation where different opinions arise on an issue. He wants to help the local community learn how to be of one mind even as there are disagreements about various practices. St Paul is not here writing about doctrinal issues but about pious practices within a community. St Paul acknowledges that some people are more tolerant of divergent practices than others. Some people are zealous, some have a strict interpretation of what is allowed, while others think pious practices are of no real significance. His solution is that when parishioners are uncomfortable with what others are doing, love requires that those who are strong in the faith have to lovingly be patient with those who are weak in the faith. The strong in faith are not those who have the greatest scruples, but rather those who are not bothered by various practices and who don’t worry if not everyone measures up to a standard. St Paul sees those who are weak in faith are much more subject to being scrupulous about every detail of the rules. But he does not comment that strong vs weak means better vs worse or right vs wrong. He recognizes only that there are divergent opinions about divergent practices and he hopes people can recognize that what is really important is that we learn to live in love for one another as Jesus commanded. St Paul writes:
We then who are strong (who have power/strength, dynamis) ought to bear with the scruples/weaknesses/failings of the weak (adynamis, those without power/strength), and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.
The strong have to bear not just those who lack strength but have to bear with their failings. The strong have to pick up the slack, even if they aren’t personally bothered by some behaviors, they have a responsibility not to offend those who have many scruples or who have a hard time keeping the faith to the full.
St Paul says the strong have to bear with the weak. Bear – this is the same word as Christ uses in telling us to take up/bear the cross to follow Him. It is the same word used to describe Christ bearing his own cross in John 19:17. We can remember also that Christ bore our sins on the cross as well as bearing the cross itself!
The strong bearing with the weak is the opposite of social Darwinism – which advocates the survival of the fittest. For St Paul, following Christ means the strong have to help the weak and wait for them and care for them, not forget about them, or leave them in their problems. Christian love is not about competing with others to get ahead, but is about community where one works with and for everyone else.
In Galatians 6:2 St Paul says to bear one another’s burdens to fulfill the law of Christ. We are to bring the weak to God, not leave them to their own devices or to sleep in the beds they have made for themselves. We are to help the weak with their struggles, this is the Law of Christ. This is the Gospel.
Throughout the Liturgy we sing “Lord have mercy!” This is the petition of all of us, but especially of the strong for the weak. The petitions are not time for us to sit down and take a time out during the Liturgy but exactly the times in the Liturgy when we take up the burden of others. We come to church to do the communal work of God (the Liturgy), which means lifting up the weak and needy in your prayers.
Here is a story from the desert fathers about how one saintly monk attempted to bear with the burden of a weak brother:
When the abbot of the monastery was going to start the Divine Liturgy he discovered that the priestly stole was missing. The abbot said there would be no Liturgy until the stole is returned. Nothing happened. So the abbot ordered that every room in the monastery was to be searched. One young monk immediately went to an old monk who had the reputation of being a saint, and he confessed to the old man that he had taken the stole. The older monk told the young monk not to fear but to hide the stole in his cell. So of course the stole is found in the old monk’s cell. Despite his reputation as a saint, the other monks are furious at the old man and denounce him as a fraud and a thief. They severely beat him. The old man begs for mercy and promises to repent, but the other monks do not want a thief in their monastery and expel him from the monastery. The monks then assemble in the church for Liturgy, but God sends an angel to the church and prevents the abbot from approaching the altar. The abbot tells the brothers that they need to bring the old man back and be compassionate toward him. They bring the old monk back and the angel allows the Liturgy to proceed.
The old man bore with the weakness not only of the young monk but with all the other monks.
St Paul concludes the lesson of Romans 15:1-7 with these words: Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.
We are to receive each other as Christ received us. We are to welcome one another as Christ welcomed us. We are to treat others as Christ treats us. This is the rule of community which St Paul believes fulfills the law of Christ.
Christ does not require us to be in his good favor before allowing us in His presence. While we were still sinners Christ died for us. He came to seek and save sinners. We are here because Christ sought us out as sinners and we have accepted Christ’s invitation to live according to His commandments.
A final good example of how this principle worked in St Paul’s favor. From Acts 9:10-17 –
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Ananias had heard about Saul and how Saul totally opposed Christianity. He wanted nothing to do with Saul and certainly did not want to help him. If Saul was suffering, he deserved it. Christ tells Ananias to show Saul what Christian love is. And the rest is history.
In Matthew 9:27-31, we encounter Jesus and two unusual followers:
When Jesus departed from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out and saying, “Son of David, have mercy on us!”
I call them unusual followers because these two men are both blind and yet are able to follow Jesus. Apparently it is not hard even for these two humans who can’t see Jesus to find Jesus and to follow Him! Why is it that we who have eyesight find it difficult to find Him let alone follow Him? The Gospel really is for us who can’t see Jesus – Jesus calls blessed those who haven’t seen and yet believe.
Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:28-31)
The Gospels were written for those of us who cannot see Jesus. We have opportunity to believe in Him through the experiences of others who did see Him.
Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8-9)
The New Testament and the Church both exist to give new people opportunity to hear about Jesus, believe in Him, to receive eternal life from Him, and to obtain salvation through Him. But we are not required to see Him, and as becomes obvious in the Scriptures many who saw Him gained no advantage from that experience for only in the resurrection, in the proclamation of the Good News and in the Eucharist did they come to believe in Him. The two blind men of the Matthew 9 follow Christ without being able to see Him. They believe in Him without being able to see Him. They pray to Him even though they can’t see Him. Jesus shows to everyone that you don’t have to see Him to believe in Him.
And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him. And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” Then He touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith let it be to you.” And their eyes were opened.
Jesus asks the two blind men if they believe He can give them sight – even though they can’t see Him or see what He does. Jesus responds by really saying, “well, let’s see if you believe it or not.” The issue isn’t whether Jesus can give them sight or not but if they believe he can or not. Jesus puts the onus on them – let it be according to what you really believe. Only because they have faith in Jesus are their eyes opened and they see Jesus.
And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, “See that no one knows it.” But when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country.
What is it that Jesus wants them to keep secret? That Jesus healed them? That they could now see would become obvious to anyone who knew them. Was Jesus telling them not to boast about their own faith – as if they had the power to heal themselves? Or not to boast about having been favored by God for healing as if they were more righteous than those not healed? In any case they do go forward to tell everyone about Jesus, not about themselves. Now that they can see who Jesus is, they don’t talk to Him, but rather they tell others about Him.
Those two people who followed Jesus when they were blind, no longer follow after Him once they can see, for after being given sight, they go out to proclaim what they know about Jesus Christ the Son of God. Because they now can see they do not have to live where they can physically see Jesus, for now they know who He is.
And Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” (Mark 8:29)
Martha said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” (John 11:27)
Even if we cannot see Jesus today, we can find Him, follow Him, and pray to Him for mercy. We can do all the same things that those described in the Gospel did and we too can proclaim the Good News about Christ to everyone we know.
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10-11)
“Let no one, therefore, who is living in vice despair of himself, know that, as agriculture changes the properties of plants, so the diligence of the soul in the pursuit of virtue can triumph over all sorts of infirmities.” (St. Basil, The Fathers of the Church, p. 78)
Do nothing at all without the beginning of prayer. With the sign of the living cross, seal all your doings, my son. Go not forth from the door of your house till you have signed the cross. Whether in eating or in drinking, whether in sleeping or in waking, whether in your house or on the road, or again in the season of leisure, neglect not this sign; for there is no guardian like it. It shall be unto you as a wall, in the forefront of all your doings. And teach this to your children, that heedfully they be confirmed to it.
(St. Ephrem the Syrian – d. 379AD, from Let Us Attend: Reflections on the Gospel of Mark for the Lenten Season, p. 77)
So God created man 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 and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
“… there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28 )
The Martyr Julitta at Cesarea (ca 304AD) is remembered on July 31.
Julitta was a wealthy woman and because of the on going persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire, secretly a Christian. Her life and martyrdom were written by St Basil the Great who offered this account of her martyrdom:
A wealthy man trying to take advantage of the fact that she was a woman wrongfully seized a good deal of her property. When Julitta took him to court to regain rightful possession of her property, the man exposed to the court that Julitta was a Christian. The judge told her if she wanted to regain her property she would have to deny Christ and offer incense to an idol. Julitta refused and was sentenced to be burned to death. According to St Basil the Great, the Martry offered her final words to some other women standing nearby: “We are made of the same stuff as men. We are made in the likeness of God just as they are. The woman is made by the Creator to be just as capable of virtue as men. How is this so? Are we not related in every way? For not only was the woman made by taking flesh from the man, but also bone from his bone. Do we not then have the same obligation to the Lord as men, to be as constant in courage and patience?”
St Basil concludes with this exhortation: “I say to you men: Do not fall short of the example of this woman in your piety! And women: Do not prove yourselves weaker than her example, but hold fast to your piety without excuses, through hearing her story. Do not permit a soft nature to hinder anyone from doing good.”
(St Basil the Great, ON FASTING AND FEASTS, pp 110-111)
“And as St. Augustine reminds us in the following reflections, sand is thrown in the eyes of the heart not only by a multiplicity of images, not only by association of ideas, but also by the refusal to serve one’s neighbor in practical ways. To be too busy filling the coffers prevents one from emptying one’s heart so as to make it attentive to the ‘interior Master’. For ‘where your treasure is,’ says Jesus, ‘there will your heart be also.’
To purify yourself, have faith. You would like to see God. That desire is good, it is noble, and I challenge you to make trial of it. You would like to see him? ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ (Matthew 5.8). Think first of all about purifying your heart…You believe that God is evident to the eyes like a light…But if your eyes were clogged with sand, would you not have to wash them out before you could see the light?
Your heart is defiled also. And avarice spreads its murkiness there…Do you not realize that by hoarding in this way you are covering your heart with mud? How then will you see him whom you desire?
You say to me, ‘Show me your God.’…
I answer you, ‘Take a look at your heart. Everything you see in it that might sadden God, remove. God wants to come to you. Listen to Christ your Lord: “My Father and I will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14.23). That is God’s promise. If I were to tell you I was coming to stay with you, you would clean your house. Now it is God who wants to come into your heart. Do you not hasten to purify it? How could he dwell with avarice? God has commanded you to clothe the naked. But avarice induces you to strip the one who is clothed…I am looking at your heart. What do you have in it? Have you filled your coffers but thrown away your conscience?…Purify your heart.’ (Augustine of Hippo)”
(quoted in Roots of Christian Mysticism, p. 166-167)