St. Paul Apostle to the Nations

Today, June 29, we honor the Glorious Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul.   St John Chrysostom, whom many in the Orthodox world think is the greatest Patristic interpreter of St. Paul, writes that though we honor the saints, we are also confronted by the fact that the saints did not escape trials and tribulations in their own life times.  Rather, the saints learn in and from their tribulations about themselves, about the world and about God, and are thus able to find benefit even in events most of us want to avoid.

Chrysostom says:

“That tribulation served the purpose of the Saints can be heard from David the Prophet, who said: ‘It is good for me Lord, that I have been in trouble, that I might learn thy statutes.

Paul said, ‘I was caught up into the third heaven, and transported to Paradise. Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me.’

By “messenger of Satan” Paul does not refer to particular demons, but to men serving the devils: unbelievers, tyrants, heathens, all who constantly troubled him. ‘God,’ he said, ‘permitted these persecutions that I might not be too much exalted.’ 

Although Paul, Peter and others like them are holy and wonderful men, yet they are but men, and require much caution lest they should allow themselves to be too easily exalted. Nothing is as likely to cause one to presume a high state for himself than a conscience full of good works and a soul that lives in unquestioning confidence.”   (Afflictions of Man, O LOGOS Publications,  p. 4)

Chrysostom notes the holy people recognize that suffering and setbacks contribute to our own humility, and they recognize the need for this humility because they recognize themselves as being chosen and favored by God.  Chrysostom’s warning is note-worthy – who suffers the most from sinful pride?  Those whose conscience is full of good works and thus is full of confidence that God will reward them.   St. Paul admits:

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”  (Romans 5:3-4)

Rather than focusing on all the good things we do – even when done for God – godly wisdom has us focus on God’s love for us.  This reminds us of our need to love others as God loves us.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

The saints are not those whose consciences are made clean by all the good works they did, but rather are those who experienced the love of God and endeavored love God in their own lives.

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St. Nicholas Cabasilas: How to Be a Saint

St. Nicholas Cabasilas  writing in the 14th Century in his THE LIFE IN CHRIST, offers a vision for how to live as a Christian that makes discipleship accessible to all.  In his book, he does not see Christ demanding extreme asceticism from all Christians, but he does believe Christ offers holiness to every Christian.  His words might be a good framework for all of us to see how we can move the Church in America from honoring a few past Saints in North America to seeing all of us as being called to be the saints in North America.  First, St. Nicholas reminds us that all of  us have to consider what virtues we need in our particular lives to fully follow Christ in the vocation which we have chosen or to which we were called:

No one would claim that the same virtues are needed by those who govern the state and those who live as private citizens, or by those who have made no further vow to God after the baptismal washing and those who live the monastic life and have taken vows of virginity and poverty and thus own neither property nor their own selves. (p 160)

St. Nicholas recognizes that the president of the country and congressional leaders are in need of specific and special virtues to help them do their jobs properly.  Not everyone is in their positions, those who aren’t are going to need other virtues.  Same is true of those who have chosen to be monks or priests – they need to develop particular virtues to fulfill their roles.  The laity whether married or single and all non-monastics need  to cultivate particular virtues in order to live “in the world” as Christians.  In this sense the laity cannot just imitate monks to faithfully live their life in Christ.  Monastics will not always be the right role model for the non-monastics.  St. Nicholas uses the example that monastics have already given up possessing private property – so they aren’t going to be as focused on the virtue of charity as working people should be.    We, the non-monastics need to think long and hard about what virtues do we need to be faithful to God in the 21st Century world in which we live.  Which virtues do spouses need?  Which virtues do parents need?  Which virtues do we need in each profession or workplace in which we find ourselves?

If we share in His blood we must share in His will.  We cannot be joined to Him in some ways, and yet be separated from Him in others, neither can we love Him in one way and be hostile to Him in another, not be His children on the one hand and worthy of blame on the other.  . . .    It follows, therefore, that he who has chosen to live in Christ should cling to that Heart and that Head, for we obtain life from no other source.  But this is impossible for those who do not will what He wills.   It is necessary to train one’s purpose, as far as it is humanly possible, to conform to Christ’s will and to prepare oneself to desire what He desires and to enjoy it, for it is impossible for contrary desires to continue in one and the same heart.   (p 161)

While receiving the Body and Blood of Christ is essential to our weekly lives as Christians, it is not sufficient for salvation.  We have to share in doing Christ’s will.  We have to know what the will of the Lord is and figure out how to imitate Christ in our daily lives.   This isn’t simply following a bunch of rules and rituals, which might be what monastic obedience requires.  We have to read the Gospels to learn how to imitate Christ in the work-a-day world, in our homes and neighborhoods.  To be Christian is to be Christlike – but we are to be Christ like in our marriages, on our jobs, when interacting with our fellow parishioners or when being neighborly to friends and strangers.  What we need to pay attention to is the particular Gospel lessons that help us live each day in dealing with other people and with the problems we face as home owners, citizens of our country, as employees or employers.

When we thus greatly love Him we become keepers of His commandments and participants in His purpose, for as he says, ‘he who loves Me will keep My commandments’ (Jn 14:15,21).   Besides, when we recognize how great is our own worth, we shall not readily betray it.  We will not endure being slaves to a runaway slave when we have found out that a kingdom is ours.  (p 165)

We have the responsibility as Christ’s disciples to know His commandments and to fulfill them in our lives.  As we know, Christ taught that His commandments are basically that we love God with all our soul, heart and mind and that we love one another as He has loved us.  We sometimes get so focused on minutiae of ritual and rule that we lose sight that all we do is to be done in love for God and neighbor.  When we forget love, we become ritualists.  It is easy to become Pharisees once we become ritualists.

St. Nicholas reminds us of our great worth – we are created to be the children of God!  God is giving us His Kingdom.  We are not slaves, but God’s own family.  God loves us as His children.

But Christ does not regard His servants as though they were slaves, nor does He bestow on them honors fit for slaves; He regards them as friends.  Towards them He observes rules of friendship which He has established from the beginning; He shares His own with them, not merely one or another part of His riches, but He gives the very kingdom, the very crown.  What else is it that blessed Paul has in view when he says that they are ‘heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ’ (Rom 8:17), and that all those who have shared hardships with Christ reign with Him (2 Tim 2:12?  (p 167)

We are called to follow Christ in whatever circumstance we find ourselves.  No need to change circumstances, though perhaps at times repentance does call us to make major changes in our lives.  However, we can be full Christians as parents, spouses, neighbors, employees, businessmen, civil servants, soldiers, and friends.

Thus the law of the Spirit is with reason a law of friendship and consequently trains us in gratitude.  There is no toil involved in applying ourselves to this law, neither is it necessary to suffer hardship or to spend money, nor is there dishonor or shame, nor shall we be worse off in any other respect.  It makes it no less possible to exercise our skills and it places no obstacle in the way of any occupation.  The general may remain in command, the farmer may till the soil, the artisan may exercise his craft, and no one will have to desist from his usual employment because of it.  One need not betake oneself to a remote spot, nor eat unaccustomed food, nor even dress differently, nor ruin one’s health nor venture on any reckless act.  It is possible for one who stays at home and loses none of this possession constantly to be engaged in the law of the Spirit.”  (pp 173-174)

Purity of Heart: Not Just Skin Deep

“What is more, because purity is a means to be like God, it is a matter of internal disposition rather than of external ritual observance. It must rule a person’s language precisely because, as the Lord says, speech reveals the person within, the heart (Matt . 5:22; 15:18; Paed. 2.6.49). The language of the Christian is free of impurity (Eph. 4:29; 5:3ff; Paed. 2.6.50). It is wrong to be preoccupied with external propriety if the person within is impure. The Scribes and the Pharisees are whitewashed sepulchres.  They washed the outside of the cup, but left the inside dirty. It is the impurity of the soul that must be cleansed…

St. John the Forerunner

External beauty is very misleading: it does not lead to the love and beauty which are imperishable (Sir. 9:8; Paed. 3.11.83). For Clement, purity is above all a reasonable virtue, which prevents human beings from becoming like beasts and renders them capable of seeing God (Ps. 49:12, 20 [48:13, 21, LXX]; Sir. 33:6; Paed. 1.13.101ff). Many times Clement insists on the fact that only the pure of heart see God (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 2.10.50) The vision of God face to face is the vision of the Truth, and only a small number can attain to it, for only the pure of heart see God. The Savior came down in order to lead us to this purty and definitive vision.”    (Matt. 5:8; Strom. 5.1.7) (Paul M. Blowers, The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity, pp. 120-121)

Saints of North America

Expressing the Holy Trinity in Ourselves

The aim of the Christian life, which Seraphim described as the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God, can equally well be defined in terms of deification. Basil described the human person as a creature who has received the order to become a god; and Athanasius, as we know, said that God became human that we humans might become god.

The saints, as Maximus the Confessor put it, are those who express the Holy Trinity in themselves. This idea of a personal and organic union between God and humans — God dwelling in us, and we in Him — is a constant theme in the Epistles of St Paul, who sees the Christian life above all else as a life ‘in Christ’. The same idea recurs in the famous text of 2 Peter: ‘Through these promises you may become partakers of the divine nature’ (i,4).

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 225)

Being Orthodox: Spirituality and Membership

“For the Orthodox, spirituality is about moving more and more closely into communion with the source of life, with God, who has been revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the life of that relationship, which can be lived fully only in the context of the Church. The Holy Spirit was given to the Church as a whole, not to a set of individuals, and it is when the Church gathers that the fullness of Christ’s presence among us can be realized. The self becomes what it truly is only in relationship; this teaching is at the heart of Orthodox trinitarian theology.

However, here it is necessary to say something about the mysterious nature of what ‘membership’ means, when we speak of someone as a ‘member’ of the Church. Membership in a merely social sense is hardly the point. To live truly as an Orthodox means prayer, ascetic struggle, spiritual direction, and liturgical participation. And the participation must involve the whole of self: before we recite the Creed we say, ‘Let us love one another so that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit…’ Without love and reconciliation, the rest is meaningless.” (John Garvey, Orthodoxy for the Non-Orthodox, pp. 76-77)

Women Disciples of the Lord

3rd Century Christian theologian Origen commenting on Romans 16:1-2 notes that the Myrrhbearing women were not the only females to have served the Church.  Women continued serving in recognized offices in the Church throughout the early centuries of Christianity.

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you  may receive her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may  require from you, for she has helped many and myself as well.’ [Romans 16:1-2]

This passage teaches us, with apostolic authority, that women were appointed to the ministry of the church. Paul describes Phoebe, who held office in the church of Cenchreae, with great praise and commendation.   He lists her outstanding deeds and says, she has helped many, ready whenever they were in difficulty, and myself as well, in my troubles and my apostolic labors, with full devotion.

I would compare her work to that of Lot; because he always offered hospitality, he merited to receive angels as guests. Similarly Abraham, who always went out to meet strangers, merited that the Lord and his angels would stop and rest in his tent. In the same way, Phoebe, since she offered and provided assistance to everyone, merited to become a benefactor of the Apostle. This passage provides two lessons: women served as ministers in the church and those appointed to the ministry of the church should be benefactors to many and through their good services merit the praise of the apostles. The passage also encourages Christians to honor those who commit themselves to good works in the church; whether they serve spiritual or fleshly needs, they should be held in honor.” (J. Patout Burns Jr., Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, Kindle Loc. 7510-18)

Perseverance and Persecution

“’Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake’ (Mt. 5.10-11). In saying these words, Christ promised that those who would follow Him would certainly be persecuted. This is a central prediction of the Gospel and an essential condition of those who accept it.

Martyr Juvenaly of Alaska

Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.’”  If they persecute me, they will persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know Him who sent me.’  (Jn 15.20-21).

            True Christians will always be persecuted for Christ’s sake. They will be persecuted with Christ and like Christ, for the truth that they speak and the good that they do. The persecutions may not always be physical, but they will always be spiritual and psychological. They will always be mindless, unjust, violent, and “without cause” (Ps 69.4, Jn 15.25). They will always be painful and the cause of much suffering. For ‘indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3.12).

           A person embarking on the spiritual life must expect persecution and slander. He must be wary, however, of any false persecution complex, and must be absolutely certain that the suffering he meets is solely ‘for righteousness’ sake’ and not because of his own weakness and sins.”  (Thomas Hopko, Vol. 4 Spirituality, p. 50)

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).

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Martyr and Godbearer

Today in the Orthodox Church we remember the Martyred Bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatius the Godbearer.  Below are a few words about St. Ignatius taken from an old Christian Education publication, Personalities Who Shaped the Church (pp 3-4):

It was the year A.D. 107 when Trajan, a Roman emperor, came back victorious from a war against the Dacians and Scythians. As soon as he entered the glorious city of Antioch, he let the Christians know that the persecution against them was not yet over.

One night a great celebration was given in his honor. Trajan, out of gratitude to his gods, ordered precious incense to be burned. But he thirsted for more victories and more blood.

“Roman citizens…tonight we honor our divinities, for they have deemed us worthy to gain more victories…But our victory cannot be complete until we defeat Christians, those bitter enemies of our empire who refuse to acknowledge our gods.”

Meanwhile, in some remote corner of Antioch, another message was being heard [from St. Ignatius, Christian Bishop of Antioch]:

“Keep on praying for those who persecute you. Return their bad temper with gentleness, their boasts with humility, and their violence with mildness. Never be eager to retaliate. Try to please not yourselves but God.

Toil together, struggle together, run together, suffer together, rejoice together, as servants and assistants of God. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your baptism serve as a shield, your faith as a helmet, your love as a spear, your endurance as full armor. So be patient with one another in gentleness, as God is with you.” 

Icons and the Seeds Between Them

In any Orthodox Church, we are surrounded by icons of the saints.  These saints are described in Christ’s parable of the sower as the “good soil” on which when the seed, the Word of God, “grew, it produced a hundredfold.”    As Jesus teaches, the saints “are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.”

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Here is the full Gospel parable as Jesus taught it in Luke 8:5-15:

 “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” A s he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” Then his disciples asked him what this parable meant.  He said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand.’ 

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“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.

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So, if the saints are the ones upon whom the Word of God comes and they bear fruit from that Word, where does that leave us who are in the church between the icons?  Are we simply the paths in this garden which are trampled upon and because of our hardness, the seed can’t take root but is taken from us?  Or are we the rocky soil or the weed infested ground?

NO!

We are what St. Paul says in today’s Epistle:  We are “the temple of the living God.”  God lives in us and walks with us, not upon us.  We are made of the same soil as the saints and are to produce the same good fruits.  The saints are not made up of some substance different from us – they are taken from the same earth out of which we all are taken.  We all are to be saints, we all are icons of God.

In Genesis 1:26-27, God says,  “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” 

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The word “image” is the word “icon” in Greek.  We each and all are made as icons of God.  God is the first iconographer.  God made us each to be a living icon of Him!

Our task is to live so that we are icons of God, visible to any who want to see.  We are to be living icons of God.  The icons on our church walls are not meant to be lifeless caricatures of legendary heroes.  They are real people, like you and I who lived the Gospel life and who continue to remain alive in Christ.

We are not meant to be the fruitless soil between the icons on the wall but we are to be the Church, the Body of Christ.  We are each to become icons showing the light of Christ in our lives.  We are to live so that God’s Word can interact with us and bear fruit for God.  We are to live so that we understand icons of saints are real people,  they are us and we are to be them.

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“What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate,” says the Lord. “Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.” Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”  (2 Cor. 6:16-7:1)