Imitating Christ: One OF Us

That a Christian is one who both follows Christ and imitates Him seems pretty straightforward.  Jesus Himself told us:

“You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”  (John 13:13-17)

Today in American English we often hear the “you” of these commandments in the singular.  We are so attuned to individualism that we assume this is a command for each off us to keep individually, and yet the command is spoken in the plural and means that all of us together are to love one another.  Christ is an example to each of us personally, but then calls us to act communally as brothers and sisters.  We as parish are to serve all.  Christ gives an example to each of us, and together, communally, collectively, as a body, as a parish we are to fulfill the commandment together.

In this same discourse but a minute later Christ goes on to say:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Again he addresses himself to each of us personally but calls us to love together, collectively and communally.  We are to be recognized as disciples not just an individual disciple.  We are recognized as disciples in community.  The parish is essential for our identity and witness.  In the parish community we can and are to fulfill the commandment that we together do what Christ commanded us to do.  This is very much what the early church understood about being Christian and discipleship:  one Christian, or a Christian alone, is no Christian.  Only in community can we love as Christ commanded us to do.  Of course we each have to contribute to this communal behavior, but it is always each of us have to work together to love as Christ exemplified and commanded us to do.

The plural “you” – we, us – is also in St. Paul’s exhortation:

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  (Rom. 15:7)

Christ welcomes us and receives us.  It is as one of us that we live our Christian life.

“Let us commend our selves, and one another and all our life to Christ our God.”

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The Last Judgment: Don’t Be Surprised

When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory,  all things shall tremble and the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat; the books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed!  Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!  (Hymn of the Last Judgement)

Sounds pretty frightening – and it is meant to be.  The Church in its hymns uses these words to describe the Last Judgment:

Dreaded

Awesome

Fearful

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What most bothers us as 21st Century Christians about the Judgment Day is not the thought that sinners will be condemned to the fires of hell and damned for all eternity – in fact on that point we tend to like retributive justice for sinners because they finally get what they deserve – what actually bothers us is that WE – each of us – You and me – are going to be held accountable for every thing we said and did in this life.  We are OK with others – the sinners – being held accountable, but why should we be judged?  That God might even think about judging you or me based on our behavior, that is hard to swallow – Let Him judge sinners, murderers, perverts, terrorists, criminals, liars and the lazy, and leave the rest of us alone.

Actually many of the Jews in Jesus’ day had a similar thought.  They were anxiously awaiting the Day of the Lord, because they believed on that day God would finally and completely condemn and annihilate all of Israel’s enemies and oppressors.  On that day God would judge and condemn to hell the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Philistines, Canannites.  The Jewish people would finally be avenged!

What these folk’s ignored was that the prophets had been warning that the Day of the Lord was also going to be a day of Judgment for God’s own people, and that God would start the judgment with Israel.   All of us who think God is going to judge “someone else” – we Orthodox or we Americans – also need to take the prophets’ message to heart – judgment begins with us.

And we might begin to feel a little hot under the collar about this.  All the porn we looked, all the times we were drunk, all the times we lied, all the times we were greedy, selfish, angry, enraged, sexually immoral, jealous, envious, bickering and contentious – for all of this we are going to be judged by God.  As St. Paul says all those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.  It’s not just that we are going to have to give account for this behavior, we are going to be condemned for it at the Last Judgment.

Dreaded

Awesome

Fearful

Judgment

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But then the Lord Jesus shocked His followers when He spoke about the Last Judgment.  Jesus did not say that at the Judgment Seat all Jews or that all Christians will be declared righteous and everyone else will be condemned as sinners.

Saint and sinner will be assembled before God, and God will judge us based upon:

Our mercifulness

Our kindness

Our love for others

Our concern for the well being of others.

Jesus says we will be judged in the same way and by the same criteria we judged and criticized others.  If  we thought the poor and needy were not worthy of our time, our attention, our possessions, we will find ourselves so judged by God who will not share His time, attention and possessions – namely His Kingdom – with us.  The Kingdom belongs to Him, not to us.  Just like we think our possessions belong to us and not to some beggar.

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God’s judgment is a judgment of our hearts.  The proper defense before the dread Judgment Seat is loving others, being merciful to others, showing mercy to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

A story from the lives of the saints:

St. Martin of Tours was a Roman Army Officer who was entering a city one cold, wet, wintry day.

1012martinoftoursA beggar asked him for money, but Martin had none with him.  But seeing the man shiver with cold, Martin came down off his horse, took his sword, and cut his soldier’s cloak in half.  His cloak was like a large warm poncho.  He wrapped the beggar in this half portion of his cloak.

That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Christ standing in the wintery cold wearing an old tattered cloak. An angel approached Christ dismayed at how the Lord was dressed.  “Lord,” the angel said, “where did you get that old, torn cloak?”  Jesus responded, “My servant Martin gave it to me.”

Martin thought he gave his cloak to a beggar, but as today’s Gospel teaches us what we give to the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ, we give to the Lord Jesus Himself.

Note:  Martin didn’t give his whole cloak, he shared half of it with the beggar.  He didn’t impoverish himself, but provided for another from his means.

We each have that same chance to share what we can with those in need.  We don’t have to deprive ourselves of everything, but certainly can share some things by ministering to the Lord Himself.

There will be surprises for us on the Judgment Day as we see in the Gospel:

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?

And the wicked will say:  And Lord, when did we see you a stranger and not welcome you, or naked and not clothe you? (Matthew 25:37-41)

Both the blessed and cursed are going to be in for a surprise on Judgment day.  Don’t you be surprised!

 

Embracing the Sinner

“One of the most difficult problems faced in Christian life, and one that the desert monks experienced acutely, is the problem of our temptation to seek distance from the struggles of others, and to promote a sense of separation from the sins of the world around us. There is a certain passing resemblance to Christianity in doing so. Indeed, we certainly do not actively desire temptation for ourselves, nor do we approve of engaging in any sin. It might seem natural, on the surface, to seek distance from those struggling with such things–to set ourselves apart as more pure and more holy than others.

Yet, when we see ourselves as fundamentally different from other human beings, whether they are Christian or not, we quickly begin to resemble the foolish elder. We condemn and chastise those around us for their brokenness. Such condemnation and chastisements are, despite their outward claim to holiness, works of anger and never of love. If love is a shared commitment to purity of heart between individuals, then seeking separation from others, by its very nature, discourages love and can even make it ultimately impossible. To share the pursuit of purity of heart with another, one must share a connection with her, and in a fallen world, that means sharing a connection with a fallen person.”

(Daniel G. Opperwall, A Layman in the Desert, p. 73)

How To Prepare Yourself to Read Scripture

Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra offers a thought about how we can prepare ourselves to read Scripture.  The Scriptures are spiritual, so we have to prepare our hearts spiritually to receive the Word contained in them:

“…it requires desire, exile, interest and lack of interest. What does that mean? Can you fill up a glass that’s already full? For divine meaning to enter your mind, for divine grace to enter into you, you have to empty your heart of its passions, of your self-centeredness, your selfishness, your hate, envy, and negative feelings; you have to purify your heart of these things, and fill it with virtues.

The passions are like static. You turn on the radio to listen to a station, and all you hear is static. You don’t understand a thing the announcer is saying. If you want to hear, you’ve got to eliminate the static. And how can you hear the voice of God, when the passions are booming away and growling loudly within you? You’ve got to free yourself, because if you don’t, you’ll remain a fleshly, carnal person, and a ‘carnal person cannot receive,’ does not understand, ‘the Spirit of God‘ (1 Cor 2.14).”   (The Church at Prayer, p. 109)

The Purpose of the Liturgy

“This gets more to the heart of things,” said Father. “What does each of us do? Only we can answer that for ourselves. Doesn’t Christ say, ‘Where your treasure is, there also is your heart’? If you remain passive or a spectator, you never experience the inspiration and challenge of liturgy. You remain locked within yourself. You rate the liturgy like a TV show and grade it on the basis of how it entertains–without it ever entering your mind that the purpose of liturgy is not entertainment.”

Father’s voice grew passionate. “Liturgy truly is ‘work’ in the sense that it requires us to move outside ourselves, to prepare, study, attend, sing, and listen together in faith and love. When liturgy is celebrated correctly and with care by everyone involved, its beauty and majesty does nourish and inspire us. These become the very vehicles that enable us to meet the mystery of God, giving us the strength to live life well and deal creatively with its problems. Only then does this ‘work’ bring us to Christ. Let’s face it: Liturgy is also about energy and belief, life and death. It’s not about comfort, amusement, entertainment, and distraction. Christian liturgy is about dying, leaving behind the old self and becoming a new person, so that we may life more fully, more abundantly.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, pp. 227-228)

Sin is an Offense to God

St. Nicholas Cabasilas points out that some people only hate sin because they don’t want to be punished for doing the sin – if there was no punishment for wickedness, they would gladly do evil things. He says that our goal as Christians is to love God, which means we want to do God’s will, not to avoid punishment but because we never want to offend God or be separated from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

“Just as he who hates wicked men cannot properly be called a hater of mankind, so to feel abhorrence of sin merely because it brings punishment on its perpetrator rather than because it conflicts with God’s laws is not to shun wickedness itself but merely to flee from its punishment. It is quite clear that were it possible to sin without peril to oneself such men would not flee from evil.

But those whose affection for God exalts them to a philosophical life honour the law because they love its Giver. When they have offended God they condemn themselves and blame themselves for the sin itself and bewail it, not because they were cheated of the rewards of virtue but because their will was not in harmony with God.” 

(The Life in Christ, pp. 209-210)

 

The Publican and Me

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One of the lessons of the Gospel Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Luke 18:10-14) is that humility is a virtue needed as a precondition for further spiritual growth.  It isn’t a goal that we strive for and hope to achieve in some distant future after years of Christian maturation, but it is part of the foundation we need for further growth.

6995565225_d498f6e3a7_mThink about Moses, that mighty hero of the Old Testament who defied the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt and led a slave rebellion against the Egyptian Empire.  God speaks to Moses face to face the Scriptures tell us (Exodus 33:11)and God even backs down when challenged by Moses who intercedes for Israel.   Yet, God calls Moses the most humble man who ever lived (Numbers 12:3).  Certainly, we see in Moses that being humble does not mean lacking courage.  But it is Moses own humility which God finds so virtuous in Moses.  Moses was not arrogant, did not seek things for personal gain, and served both God and the people faithfully even when the people and God were displeased with him.  In all of this, Moses is a Christ-like figure.  But humility was the virtue at Moses’ heart.

And Jesus Himself tells the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee to extol the virtue of humility.  We’ve all been told endless times that the Pharisee in the story is the religious zealot.  He does everything he boasts of doing.  He is not lying nor exaggerating but telling the truth about his piety.  He is laying claim to the reward he assumes God must bestow upon him for his virtue.  The Publican is the notorious sinner of the parable, who admits before God that he is a sinner and begs God’s mercy.  As even St. John Chrysostom notes it is not particularly humble to admit you are a sinner when in fact you are one – you are just acknowledging the truth of the matter.  The Publican has little to commend himself to God, and yet it is he not the pious and self-righteous Pharisee that is favored by God because God rejects the pride of the Pharisee and embraces the humility of the Publican.  The Publican goes beyond admitting to the truth and accepting the judgment that is laid on him.  Therein lies his humility.  He cannot lay claim to any reward for virtue, but opens himself to the mercy and love of God.

Now we can retell the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee so we perfectly understand it by putting our self in the Parable in the place of the Pharisee and then picking whomever we consider to be the most loathsome, despicable kind of sinner for the Publican.

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Almost everyone has a kind of person or sinner they particularly despise and wish evil on.  When I visit inmates in prison, the murderers despise the child molesters.  Everyone seems able to imagine a sinner worse than themselves, someone else who is the foremost of sinners and perhaps beyond God’s grace.

One inmate I visited in a prison told me a story which really was his living out the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.  He was in prison for having been involved in the manslaughter of his pregnant girlfriend and the baby she was carrying.  One day in prison, he learned he was being assigned a new table place at meals – directly across from a child molester.  He despised child molesters.  He was seething with anger that he would now have to sit across from this pedophile at every meal.  This ruined not only that day but threatened to ruin every meal he would eat.  As he sat at table with his food in front of him, stewing in his anger and hatred, the child molester sat across from him, and not even looking up, he humbly bowed his head and quietly said grace over his food:  “God, thank you for the food you have given me and for providing for me every day though I am a terrible sinner living in prison where I deserve to be.  Forgive me, Lord, for my sins are many.”   Sitting across from this man, shame came over the inmate.  For he had started eating without giving thanks to God or saying any prayer, and found himself consumed with hatred.  He felt total embarrassment that he was being so judgmental because he felt himself to be a Christian, and yet here was this man praying and confessing his sins at the table while all he did was internally rage with anger.   It is easy to be the Pharisee.

So, now retell the Parable of the Publican and Pharisee.  Who is the Publican in your life – the liar, the murderer,  the child molester,  the homosexual, the criminal, the adulterer, the thief, the user of pornography, the drug pusher, the abuser, the angry, the greedy, the narcissist, the obese, the person who doesn’t use their turn signal, the driver using their cell phone?   Who is the kind of person you really despise?  Now tell the parable:

7305699938_68e888fb39_mTwo people went to our church to pray.  I was one, and the other was . . . (name the worst sinner you can imagine – whether by name or by sin they commit). . .

I went to the front of the church and stood before the icon and prayed:  God I thank you that I am not like those who sin against You.  I fast most of the days during Lent, I pretty often remember my prayers, I donate some money to the church and to charity.  I am especially thankful that I am not like … (name that sinner or kind of sinner you hate the most) because he/she commits the most horrible kind of sin.

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The … (name that sinner or kind of sinner you hate the most) … knelt in the back of our church, bowing his head before God, wringing his hands and quietly weeping in his heart, he prayed, “God be merciful to me the sinner.”

 

Jesus said:  “I tell you, this person went down to his/her house justified rather than the first; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:14)

The Sin of Pride

In preparation for Great Lent, we Orthodox are asked to consider the virtue of humility and the value of repentance for finding one’s way to God.  So today’s Gospel, Luke 18:10-14, gives us the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee.

St John Cassian offers us a description of how we can tell if the sin of pride is at work in us.  We can see in his description many words which describe what today we might call a narcissist, a shallow loud mouth, the stubborn uncooperative person, the bully, the incorrigible.  St. John says:

By the following indications, then, that carnal pride of which we have spoken is made manifest.

First of all, a person’s talking will be loud and his silence bitter;

his joy will be marked by noisy and excessive laughter,

his seriousness by irrational sadness,

his replies by rancor,

his speech by glibness,

and his words will burst out helter-skelter for a heed-less heart.

He will be devoid of patience,

without love,

quick to inflict abuse,

slow to accept it,

reluctant to obey except when his desire and will anticipate the matter,

implacable in receiving exhortations,

weak in restraining his own will,

very unyielding when submitting to others,

constantly fighting on behalf of his own opinions but never acquiescing or giving in to those of others.

And so, having become unreceptive to salutary advice, he relies on his own judgement in every respect rather than on that of the elders.” (The Institutes, pp. 271-272)

While we might imagine this is a description of many in positions of power, Cassian is talking about each of us.  In Lent, it is time to look at my self and my own faults, for the only person I can change is me.  Recognizing faults in others is most helpful when it teaches us about our self.

Zacchaeus, Come Down From That Tree

“’But I am in the midst of you, as He that serveth’ (Luke 22:27).

I shall not attain Jesus, if I seek him reigning in the place of honor. I have to look for Him and find Him in that place where He is hiding, in the last place, in His suffering and humiliated members. It is because they are not looking for Him there that so many men cannot believe in Him or have only a nominal faith in Him. Zacchaeus had to come down from his sycamore in order to join Jesus in the crowd.”

(A Monk of the Eastern Church, Jesus, a Dialogue with the Savior, p. 64)

The Virtue of a New Year

As we have made it through one complete week of the New Year, we can consider our spiritual renewal – whether or not we made New Year’s resolutions, the beginning of a year is a good time to reflect on our spiritual life and commitment.    Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  We Orthodox engage in evaluating our lives in the sacrament of confession, in our daily examination of conscience, in meditating upon the Scriptures and spiritual writings, in our liturgical services, in our talks with our Father confessors and with our fellow Christians.

Here is a meditation from St. Francis of Assisi  on how virtue drives out vice.  We might use this to combat both sins of commission and sins of omission.  

“Where there is charity and wisdom

There is neither fear nor ignorance.

Where there is patience and humility,

There is neither anger nor disturbance.

Where there is poverty with joy,

There is neither covetousness nor avarice.

Where there is fear of the Lord to guard the house (cf. Lk 11:21),

There the enemy cannot gain entry.

Where there is mercy and discernment,

There is neither excess nor hardness of heart.”

(Francis and Clare, the Complete Works, p. 35)