We Are Responsible for Our Neighbor’s Salvation

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

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

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

St. Elizabeth the New Martyr

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In the Winter 2017 issue of THE WHEEL there is an article about St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, one of the members of the Russian royal family who was murdered in 1918 by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution.  After the assassination of her husband, Elizabeth committed her energies and her wealth to establishing an order of sisters of mercy – nuns dedicated to the service of the needy people of Moscow and Russia.   Her goal was to establish women’s monasteries not based in what had become the traditional form of women’s convents in Russian Orthodoxy, but rather an order which was far more active in ministering to the poor.  She felt her order of women would far better attract educated women to serve the Church.  She conceived her ideas at a time when some in the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church were also for the first time in centuries beginning to rethink the role of women in the Church.  In fact as the Russian Orthodox Church began to envision a separation of the Orthodox Church from the tsartist state at the beginning of the 20th Century, many ideas were being considered for the Church to fulfill its role in society and to shake off the shackles which had been imposed on the Church since the time of Peter the Great.

The article in THE WHEEL is written by Elena and Nadezhda Beliakova, “St. Elizabeth the New Martry: The Quest to Restore the Order of Deaconess.”  Despite the article’s title, the Beliakovas point out:

It should be noted in passing that Elizabeth was against the restoration of the liturgical function of deaconesses that existed in the early church because, as she put it in an explanatory note on the purpose of the convent:

“The conditions of Church life have changed. The consecration of the ancient deaconesses was necessitated by their participation in the baptism of adult women, the announcement of the baptized, and the old ritual of Communion, when a woman could enter the altar area.  Today, this is no longer needed, but there is a need to preach the Christian faith and help others following the example of the ancient diaconate on behalf of the Church and for the sake of Christ.”

St. Phoebe the Deaconess

I find a couple of things interesting in St. Elizabeth’s comment.  One thing is she acknowledges that changing historical conditions in the world as well as in the Church necessitate that the Church itself has to change, adapt, evolve to deal with these changes.  The reality of historical change had, at least in St. Elizabeth’s understanding, changed the needs of the church and its ministries.  Women deacons were less necessary since the baptism of adult women had virtually disappeared from the Church.  That would seem to mean that in our current day where the baptism of adults has become more frequent again and necessary because there are many adults who were never baptized as infants or in the Orthodox Church, the time is here for the church to again adapt to the changing historical realities.

Another point is that St. Elizabeth comments that there was a time in Orthodox Church history when women approached the altar to receive Holy Communion.  A practice of excluding women (and lay men for that matter) from approaching the altar for Communion is a change that happened in the Church.  It is not the oldest Tradition of the Church.  The received Tradition reflects changes that occurred in the life of the Church – the received Tradition, at least liturgically speaking, is not part of the unchanging nature of Orthodoxy.  Piety and practice have changed over time for many reasons.  The Church can always examine those changes and those reasons and decide that for its current mission – for its catechism and evangelism – that liturgical practices need to change again.  This may mean going back to the older way of doing things, or altering the received Tradition to better reflect the nature of the Church and its mission and message to the world.

Another comment in the article that I found interesting came from Metropolitan
Vladimir (Bogoyavlensky), Chairmen of the Department of Church Discipline.   In a report which was written specifically about the restoration of the order of the deaconess, Metropolitan Vladimir notes:

Even though we know from church history that in ancient times deaconesses mostly served as members of the clergy, we also know that the nature of women’s ministry has always conformed to the needs of the Church in each historical period.

His comment that deaconesses served as members of the clergy in the early church stands out to me.  There are many today who deny that very point and say the women deacons in the early church were exactly not part of the clergy of the Church.  Metropolitan Vladimir does see them as being part of the ordained clergy of the Church.  His comment that “the nature of women’s ministry has always conformed to the needs of the Church in each historical period” is also fascinating.  It would indicate that any discussion about women’s ministry in the Church should focus on what the current need of the Church is.  If we have need of specific women’s ministry in the 21st Century Church, which I think we do, then we should be able to establish it without much resistance from the Church.  The role of women in 21st Century Western society is very different than it was in traditional Orthodox cultures and in the past.   Women today are educated, have careers and take common leadership roles throughout society.  This in itself seems to necessitate that the Church open not only the discussion but the opportunities for women’s ministries today.

Community and Communion


Georges Florovsky recalls the words of Tertullian: ‘Unus christianus, nullus christianus,’ that is, ‘an isolated Christian is not a Christian.’ A person who enters into the life of the Church thereby enters into the Body of Christ, which is the Church, in the mystery of communion. In his Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul develops this important concept. The Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of communion, incorporates us not only into Christ as Person, but into the totality of the Body of Christ, which is inseparable from the Head. This new life includes our communion with the Body of Christ, where we are nourished by His Body, quenched by His Blood, and vivified by the Spirit who unites us into one body. This ‘Body’ contains not only the eucharistic assembly ‘here and now’, but the Church of all times, of all places – the communion of saints.

This point is crucial to our understanding of theology. My theology is not my theology, not even that of the group to which I belong, Rather, my theology has been formulated through living experience: the life and suffering of the saints since Pentecost – and even before Pentecost by the patriarchs and the prophets – in communion. The communion of the saints implies a communion of faith. This explains why the Orthodox Church does not accept intercommunion, which would make light of this profound unity, what Fr. Florovsky calls ‘ecumenism in time’. Communion of faith entails not only attempts to create unity with the dispersed members of churches in our world today, but also constancy in maintaining unity with our church fathers.”

(Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, pp 128-129).

Refugees or Refuse?

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. . . .    we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.  (1 Corinthians 4:1, 13)

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The current kerfuffle about refugees being a threat to America exploded when President Trump carried out a campaign promise to close our borders to terrorists by forbidding people from certain Islamic countries to enter into the United States.

And while many are in agreement with what the President endeavors to do to protect the country from terrorists, there are many who are troubled by the way in which it is being carried out.  It judges broad swaths of people guilty even if they have done nothing and are themselves trying to escape the very Islamic extremists our country has proclaimed as its enemies.   It consigns the innocent and some victims to further suffering, even though they did nothing wrong, and may have in fact followed all the rules and jumped through all of the hoops that were placed before them on their road to freedom in the United States.

In the refugees we begin to understand how St. Paul felt when he wrote the words above to the Christians at Corinth.  He knew what it was to be treated as refuse, garbage.  Most likely when he made his escape from Damascus, he was lowered in a basket used to dump garbage over the city wall.  He was speaking literally when he said he was refuse!

For many immigrants now living in America and for the descendants of immigrants, the whole current American effort is very troubling because many know there are people in the world who desperately need our help and need to get out of war torn areas of the world for the sake of their children.  Some Americans have taken to the streets to protest President Trump’s mandates – the protesters may not all have the same motives for coming out, but at least some immigrants and children of immigrants know what it is like to be unwanted in the world.

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(Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Certainly, as Christians, we should never cease praying for these refugees, even if our country won’t let them in.  Praying for the suffering of the world is our task – it doesn’t matter whether or not we agree with what the President is trying to do.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.  (Hebrews 13:2-3)

We do need to remember that our fellow Christian people from the time of the apostles were often rejected by society and made to suffer with little hope of rescue, as St. Paul himself notes.  Our prayers and sympathies should be with the current refugees of the world.  We may feel uncertain about what our role as Christians should be – on the one hand we sympathize with the refugees, on the other hand we want to stop terrorists from coming into the country, I am reminded of a story from the desert fathers:

Certain brethren came to Abba Anthony, and said unto him, “Speak to us a word whereby we may live.” The old man said to them, “Behold, you have heard the Scriptures, and they are sufficient for you.”  The brethren said, “We wish to hear a word from you also, O father.” Abba Anthony said to them, “It is said in the Gospel, ‘If a man smites you on one cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Luke 6: 29). They said to him, “We cannot do this.” Abba Anthony said unto them, “If you cannot turn the other cheek, at least allow yourself to be smitten on the one cheek.”  They said to him, “And this we cannot do.” The old man then said to them, “If you cannot do even this, do not pay back blows in return for the smiting which you have received.” They said, “We cannot even do this.” Then the old man said to his disciples, “Make then for the brethren a little boiled food, for they are ill,” and he added, “If you cannot do even this, and you are unable to do the other things, prayers are necessary immediately.”   (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 770-77)

We Christians may be far from behaving perfectly toward the refugees, but we still can do something for them – prayer at the very minimum.  [Though I am not down playing the importance of prayer.]   Even if we can’t give them maximal love through our charity, we can offer to these refugees some love, as noted in the story from the desert fathers above.   It is not an all or nothing situation for us.   We aren’t to say since we can’t help them, forget about them.  NO!   Perhaps if we prayed for these suffering people at every Liturgical service, our hearts as the Orthodox living in America would be open to what God would have us do.

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Again we pray for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, and visitation for the servants of God the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of their teeming shore, the homeless and for the pardon and remission of their sins.

We might also think of some words that St. John Chrysostom said while he was sent into exile.  As he was on the forced march, he commented that if Christ says in Matthew 25 that those who did not give nourishment to Christ when he was hungry are condemned to the fires of hell, what will happen to

“those who have not only not welcomed strangers but have chased them away; and those who have not only not cared for the sick but have afflicted them yet more; and those who have not only not visited the captives but have cast into prison those who had been free of chains?  Imagine what torments they will suffer!”  (LETTERS TO ST OLYMPIA, p 77)

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All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)

It is not just the State Department than needs ambassadors.  St. Paul says we are the ambassadors for Christ to the world.  We bring Christ to everyone, and our mission is the same as that of Christ’s – to reconcile the entire world to Him.

Charity Transforms the World

A common theme in the post-Apostolic and Patristic writers is that Jesus Christ in His various works, reverses the deeds of Adam, thus restoring humanity to its rightful relationship with God.  Christ obeys the Father, whom Adam disobeyed.  Christ obeys the Father even to death.   Christ’s obedience leads to the resurrection of Himself and all humanity from the dead.

And while every action of Christ was seen as undoing Adam’s disobedience and sin, we who are united to Christ become part of that saving process.  So when we obey God, when we love our fellow human, when we give food to the poor for example, we are using food for what is was created and  intended – a means of expressing love and communion.  When we give in charity to feed the needy, we undo Adam’s treacherous use of food for self gain.  When we remedy the hunger of another, we return to Paradise and make all food again to be love.  So, St. Basil the Great, writes how the most simple of human gestures – sharing food, can also be the undoing of original sin so that we can participate in God’s love and salvation.

“For Basil, giving food does more than cover sin: it redeems the cosmic flaw. . . .  he asserts that ‘as Adam brought in sin by eating evilly, we we ourselves if we remedy the necessity and hunger of a brother, blot out his treacherous eating.”     (Susan R. Holman, The Hungry are Dying, p 83)

In giving food to the hungry, we blot out Adam and Eve’s turning away from God for selfish reasons.  We participate in salvation, in the work of Christ, in making the Kingdom of God present on earth.

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Seeing the Invisible God: The Need for a Pure Heart

The Gospel Lesson – Luke 18:35-43

At that time, as Jesus 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.

[Sermon notes, January 2017]

1]  The blind man already knew something of Jesus for although he cannot see what is happening, when he hears Jesus of Nazareth is coming by he begins shouting for Jesus’ attention.   He knows Jesus has no money to give him, but he has obviously heard of the miracles of Jesus.  It is obvious that the blind man could see who Jesus was based on what he knew about Him and what he believed about Him.  The blind beggar not only never saw Jesus before he never saw anything Jesus had done.  But he had the eyes of his heart to see, and there was purity enough in his heart for him to see God!

color-of-paradise2]  The Iranian movie, THE COLOR OF PARADISE, has a scene in it  in which a blind carpenter takes on as an apprentice a blind boy whose poor father sees only as a terrible burden which he wants to be rid of.  The boy explains his sadness to the blind carpenter – God doesn’t love him for He made him blind.  No one wants him, not even his own father.  The blind carpenter points out that God is invisible, eyes will not help you see God.  In fact those with eyes think they can see things about God which they cannot.   Eyes will not help you see God.  To be born blind is a gift from God for those with eyes keep trying to use their eyes to see God, while the blind already know this is not possible and so skip that deception and immediately use the eyes of their heart to seek God.  Seeking God is a matter of faith not sight.  Seeing is believing?  In the Gospel lesson, believing is seeing.

3]  St. Paul reminds us that God is invisible from the day’s Epistle –

“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.”  (1 Timothy 1:17)

This is why Jesus spoke about those with a pure heart seeing God.  You can’t see the invisible God with your physical eyes!  You need to work on your inner self, your soul, the eyes of your heart to see God.  Clearing away all manners of impurities from the heart is needed to see God.  Even if you have 20/20 vision, without purity of heart, you won’t see God.

4]  The blind man already sees that Jesus can give him sight before Jesus does anything!  Jesus gives to the blind man what the blind man already believes.  Jesus doesn’t even claim to heal the man, he tells the blind man, “your faith has made you well.”   The fact that the man could see with the eyes of his heart enabled his eyes to be opened.  As St. Paul says, “for we walk by faith, not by sight”  (2 Corinthians 5:7).

5]  The people in the Gospel lesson are interesting as well, for they see the miracle and praise God.  None of them benefitted from the beggar being given sight and yet they praise God.  They were able to see and rejoice in the good fortune of another even though they themselves did not benefit from what Jesus did.  In fact they had just a few minutes earlier tried to prevent the blind beggar from disturbing Jesus.   But their hearts are good as they were able to see what God is doing.   [I think we Christians don’t always have that ability to rejoice in the good fortune of others.  We are often selfish and self-centered, jealous and envious.  We more often rejoice in the misfortune of others.  What the Germans call Schadenfreude.  We seem more likely to take pleasure in the misfortune of others than to find pleasure in the good fortune  of others from which we don’t personally benefit].  We would do well to learn from this crowd – even if we don’t experience a miracle in our lives, we need to be thankful for every blessing others receive, even the dispised people whom we often want to shun and push aside.

 

Seeing the Sinner: Yourself

…The only way in which you know the seriousness of separation from God is in your own experience of yourself. Moses writes to Poeman,

‘If you have sin enough in your own life and your own home, you have no need to go searching for it elsewhere’.

And, more graphically, from Moses again,

‘If you have a corpse laid out in your own front room, you wont have leisure to go to a neighbor’s funeral.’

This is not about minimizing sin; it is about learning how to recognize it from seeing the cost in yourself. If it can’t be addressed by you in terms of your own needs, it can’t be addressed anywhere – however seductive it is to say, ‘I know how to deal with this problem in your life – and never mind about mine.’ The inattention and harshness that shows we have not grasped this is from so many of the desert monks and nuns the major way in which we fail in winning the neighbor. Poeman goes so far to say that it is the one thing about which we can justly get angry with each other.

A brother asked Abbas Poeman, ‘What does it mean to be angry with your brother without a cause? [The reference is obviously to Matt. 5:21]. He said, ‘If your brother hurts you by his arrogance and you are angry with him because of this, that is getting angry without a cause. If he pulls out your right eye and cuts off your right hand and you get angry with him, that is getting angry without a cause. But if he cuts you off  from God – then you have every right to be angry with him.’

To assume the right to judge, or to assume that you have arrived at  a settled spiritual maturity which entitles you to prescribe confidently at a distance for another’s sickness is in fact to leave them without the therapy they need for their souls; it is to cut them off from God, to leave them in their spiritual slavery – while reinforcing your own slavery. Neither you nor they have access to life. As in the words of Jesus, you have shut up heaven for others and for yourself. But the plain acknowledgement of your solidarity in need and failure opens a door: it shows that it is possible to live in the truth and go forward in hope. It is in such a moment that God gives himself through you, and you become by God’s gift a means of connection another with God. You have done the job you were created to do.” (Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert, pp 30-31)

 

Strengthening Hope

“Hope:

The means to confirm and strengthen Christian hope are

prayer, especially frequent and sincere prayer,

confession of our sins,

frequent reading of the Word of God, and above all,

frequent communion of the holy and life giving Sacraments of the Body and Blood of Christ.

If you indeed call God your Father, then trust and hope in Him, as a Father most merciful, all powerful, most wise, ever-loving, ever perfect. Trust in Him in respect of the blessings of this temporal life, but above all in respect of the future blessing which shall be granted you in Christ Jesus.”     (St. John of Kronstadt in Through the Year With the Church Fathers, p 53)

 

Love: The Power of Christian Leadership

popeIn Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” from his book, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, we encounter contrasting and conflicting images of religious power.  There is Archbishop who is the Grand Inquisitor, with his majestic robes which inspire terror  in the population.  He and his entourage armed with all the legal power of the state cause the people to cower and kowtow before him because they know he has power over their lives – to rule and to even take life from them.

On the other hand, Jesus comes humbly and unassuming, no threatening retinue around him.  He is almost unrecognizable (at least as God the Lord) and blends into the crowd of the poor and powerless.  He raises to life a little girl who has died.  His power is love and life.  Yet, He submits to the authority of the Inquisitor who casts Him into prison.    There it is the Inquisitor who does all the talking to explain and justify his power on earth.  Jesus remains totally silent in the face of all accusations but reveals His power – that of love.

This contrast played out in Jesus’ own lifetime, as Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor where Pilate seems to be the one who is trapped and forced to act, while Jesus the condemned man seems to speak with power.

The Jews answered Pilate, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; he entered the praetorium again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” Upon this Pilate sought to release him…”  (John 19:7-12)

Christian leadership involves power, but it should be the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit, not that of Pilate or the Grand Inquisitor.  The Church’s power is not that of an empire’s army or police, but of love.  Henri J.M. Nouwen says:

“I am speaking of a leadership in which power is constantly abandoned in favor of love. It is a true spiritual leadership. Powerless and humility in the spiritual life do not refer to people who have no spine and who let everyone else make decisions for them. They refer to people who are so deeply in love with Jesus that they are ready to follow him wherever he guides them, always trusting that, with him, they will find life and find it abundantly.”

(In the Name of Jesus , pp 63-64)