There is no Christian: There are Christians

Cyprian appropriately commented:

‘Before all things the teacher of peace and the master of unity would not have prayer to be made singly and individually, as for one who prays to pray for himself alone. For we say not “My Father, which art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my daily bread,” nor does each one ask that only his own debt should be forgiven him; nor does he request for himself alone that he may not be led into temptation, and delivered from evil. Our prayer is public and common; and when we pray, we pray not for one, but for the whole people, because we the whole people are one.’ 

...Prayer is not efficacious unless the members of the community are reconciled to each other. One thinks in this connection of Matt. 5:21-26, where the religious act of sacrifice is to be put off until one is reconciled to a brother or sister. The “kiss of peace” in the traditional liturgies, a sign of reconciliation preceding communion, has been a traditional expression of this idea that religious acts without concord with others are done in vain (cf. Cyril of Jerusalem). One recalls Didache 14.2: ‘But let not anyone having a dispute with a fellow be allowed to join you (in the assembly) until they are reconciled, so that your sacrifice not be defiled.’”

(from Dale C. Allision, The Sermon on the Mount, p. 118)

The Liturgy: Another Love One Another

Bill interjected, “I don’t go to church to relate with others, I go to receive the sacrament. Receiving Christ feeds my prayer life, makes me feel closer to him. It helps me to keep up my devotions throughout the week.”

“I think part of the reason you say this, Bill, is that you’re missing a crucial dimension of what the eucharist is about,” Father answered. “The Liturgy is not a ‘me and Jesus’ phenomenon. The eucharist ushers in the kingdom of God and makes us its citizens. Here we willingly enter into a relationship with God and with each other through the command of Christ and his mediation. This transcends and supersedes every separation and division – a challenge for us all, for Christ says, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ Isn’t it remarkable that we come mostly truly who we are by giving ourselves entirely to others! That’s the only way we can become most fully ourselves. The sacraments feed our union and make it visible in the assembly where we partake of them.

Many of us still don’t understand that this worship is more than just ‘me and Jesus’; after all, no one can ‘muster up’ the eucharist alone; it’s interpersonal, ‘we together’ who are shown how expansive the mystery of Christ is. Again, it’s beyond anything we could achieve alone.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 233)

What the Kingdom of Heaven is Like

The Gospel lesson of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21-35) is fascinatingly inserted between two teachings of Jesus on forgiveness.

42177591130_2aaca87ebdThen Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.    Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like(18:21-23)

 . . . 

So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.” (18:35)

It all starts with the Apostle Peter asking a wisdom question:  At what point if someone sins against me repeatedly do I stop forgiving that person?   The question is more complicated, because Peter is not asking about just any person – a stranger or a foreigner or a rival or an enemy.  Peter asks particular about when do I stop forgiving my brother/sister?   It is an interesting question because it recognizes that even if we try to live together as brothers and sisters in Christ, we can and do annoy each other, disappoint each other, fail each other, sin against one another.

What if someone simply repeatedly fails you (sin implies “missing the mark”, but such failure can occur from a poor aim or lacking the needed skills, not just by intentionally missing the mark).  Peter wants to know what does wisdom teach us about holding someone accountable and not just enabling them to continue in failed behavior?   Jesus as He often does seems though to direct Himself to something slightly different (think about the Good Samaritan parable which is how Jesus answers the question, “Who is my neighbor?“).  Jesus turns Peter’s question into an exposition on what brotherhood/sisterhood/community means, philadelphia.  Can brotherly/sisterly love ever end?   Forgiving seven times might seem quite generous, but is not enough – if you want to quantify then think more in terms of 490 times.  However, at the end of the parable Jesus simply says when it comes to a brother/sister, you simply are to forgive from your heart.  There is no quantification, every time a brother/sister sins, you maintain brotherly/sisterly affection, concord, unity, the bond of peace or community.

In the desert fathers we find the same teaching is a story that appears in several versions.  The gist of the story is that a group of monks sets off on a journey through the desert to another monastery.  Traveling through the desert is always dangerous as the environment is inhospitable and life threatening.  As the story goes, the young monk appointed to guide the fraternity of monks gets lost, but the others continue unquestioningly to follow his meanderings, realizing their lives are at risk.  Maybe the young monk is the proverbial male and he refuses to ask for directions, but eventually he is forced to acknowledge he is lost.  “We know,” reply his brothers.  The young monk is amazed that no one complained or criticized him and realizes they all thought maintaining the fraternal unity was more important than pointing out his faults and failures or proving themselves right.

The counter intuitive nature of the story occurs because it holds love to be the highest good – even more important than being right.  Americans might dismiss the story as impractical and foolish, but the real point of the story is not to reward wrong behavior and sin (missing the mark) nor to tolerate bad leadership, but to force us as Christians to consider how important brotherly/sisterly love and the bond of peace in the community is to our Lord.

It is what the Kingdom of heaven is like.

 

You Are the Body of Christ

St Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 –

For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. 

The foundation of any parish community is laid down by the Apostles: the foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.  We the parish members build upon that foundation.  The foundation is solid, a rock that can weather any storm.   “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).

Time will test what we have built, what our parish community is  – whether what we built is gold or straw as St Paul mentioned.  The testing will come and purify the gold or burn the straw, but we will be saved.   What we built is you, the Body of Christ, our parish community.   We build up one another.  You are God’s holy temple, it is not the edifice, but the people that we have been building into a living temple.   “Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4). God’s Spirit dwells in you, in us, and it is one another that we are to love, not church buildings as beautiful as they may be.  The building is a tool for the upbuilding, the edification of us, God’s people.

St Irenaeus said, “Where Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”   We build the parish community around Christ, to be the Church, to be the dwelling place of God’s Holy Spirit.

At every Liturgy, the priest says: “Christ is in our midst.”   Christ is here in the midst of the parishioners gathered together at the Liturgy.   We gather around Him, we are built up into the Church, we are edified by Christ.  We become His Body in the world doing His ministry for the world.

Jesus said, “Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my Name, there  I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).   Christ is in our midst, and we are in Him.  We have become His Body.  It is not simply or only the consecrated bread which becomes the Body of Christ, we the members of the Church also become His Body and we pray for that at every Liturgy.  We pray that the Holy Spirit will first come upon us the parish members and then upon the offered bread so that both will be the Body of Christ.

The foundation of the parish is Jesus Christ.  We are to build upon that foundation.

St Paul never envisions the Church as a building nor as the clergy.  He always speaks in the plural:  “You (all) are the Body of Christ.

Bearing the Failings of the Weak

25210883198_a8c8ee7cb4_mIn 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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Parable of the Last Judgment (2019)

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Our life as Christians is and is supposed to be a journey.  Our life as Christians is a spiritual sojourn, which as Americans we tend to think is our personal journey, a very private one which doesn’t involve others much.  It’s just between me and God.   Yet all of the imagery and prayers of the Church portray the spiritual life as a community journeying together, like Israel did on its escape from Egypt and as it wandered the desert for 40 years.  We read the spiritual journey of that community in the book of Exodus and through most of the Torah.   Never was that a private journey for those involved, but they experienced all the events and they experienced God as a community.

You and I are part of that same community journey, we are traveling on a grand journey to the ultimate destination, the Kingdom of Heaven.  Like all journeys it can have moments that are arduous or difficult, at other times it might seem long and boring, and at times intense or exciting.  But it is meant to be experienced together as members of the Body of Christ.  From the moment we are baptized we are part of the Body of Christ – we are baptized into Christ, into His Body.   So at no time are we ever a Christian individual.  In the early Church they taught, “One Christian is no Christian.”    We only can practice the love that Jesus taught if there are others around us for us to love and serve.  Holy Communion carries the notion of community in it.  We pray “Our Father…”   We assemble together to show we are part of the community and to remind ourselves that we share a common life with all those who are in the Body of Christ.

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We are as a community approaching Great Lent, this is part of our journey together in which we especially think about our Lord’s words “to take up our cross daily, to deny ourselves and to follow Him.”

But this journey follows an unusual path, for on this sojourn we are asked to travel deep inside ourselves, to examine our own hearts and to let the light of Christ shine into our hearts, so that every part of our self can become light.  We are endeavoring to submit every aspect of our lives and every single thought of our minds, and each feeling in our hearts to the judgment and Lordship of Jesus Christ our God.  This is the journey we are about to embark on.  So this great journey to the Kingdom of Heaven which we take with all our fellow believers is also a journey into our hearts.  We each are to examine our hearts and then we open our hearts to another in confession to share what we find there, so that we can make room for Christ and to rid ourselves of all those things which separate us from God and from one another.

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We enter Great Lent together – next week on Forgiveness Sunday.  Forgiveness too shows us the journey is not individualistic for we need to forgive others and ask their forgiveness.  Being a Christian always involves other Christians.    Great Lent is not meant to be just a private journey, a free solo climb of a mountain, but rather it is a communal experience – we attend the same services, eat the same foods, say the same prayers, deny ourselves the same pleasures so that we have a common mind, the mind of Christ.

We fast to make our thoughts, our feelings, our cravings, our desires, our hearts, our minds and our bodies obedient to Christ.  Fasting is a tool to help us carry the cross of Christ and to be aware that we are in fact choosing to carry the cross of Christ.  As St Paul said in today’s epistle, “Certainly food will not bring us into God’s presence; if we do not eat we are none the worse, and if we do eat, we are none the better.”  (1 Cor 8:8)

We are learning how to sojourn together as Christian family.  We worship together, stand together, sit together, make the sign of the cross together, commune together to help us experience Christ which we can do only as the Body of Christ.

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And if we pay attention to the Gospel Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), we see it is nations which are assembled before God, not individuals.  We are judged in and part of a community, so we have a responsibility to make our community the right community for Christ for we share in the judgment that the entire community faces.

As you contemplate the Judgment as described in Matthew 25, consider these thoughts:

1]   We are going to be judged by whether we treated the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters with mercy, compassion, generosity, love.  We show love to Christ by showing love to the least of His brothers and sister.  Am I doing for others what I would do for Christ Himself?

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2]   St Basil the Great on blessings received:  “If you hoard them, you won’t have them, if you scatter them, you won’t lose them.”    Generosity is seed planting and we will benefit from the harvest.  Besides, by giving to the poor we make God indebted to us, at least so said many of the early saints.

3]  Offer hospitality and charity to the stranger in need, so that at the judgment you will not be counted by Christ as a stranger to Him, but rather He will speak to you as a cherished friend:  Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’  (Matt 25:34-36)

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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)

 

The Sins I Cannot See

We usually think of sins as actions intentionally or purposefully done, sometimes even done with malice.  But there are also sins and offenses which people commit with no malice because they are unaware of how their behavior affects others.  In this story from the desert fathers, we see exactly this latter case, two monks who are endlessly irritated by the wrong behavior of a third monk.  The third monk’s behavior is so offensive that the two monks decide the most loving thing is simply to move away from him.  But as often is the case, we have to think about what Christian love demands of us and what constraints it puts on us.

They used to say of Abba Poemen that he was staying at Scete with two of his brothers and the younger one was troubling them. He said to the other brother: “This young fellow is our undoing; get up and let us be gone from here.” Out they went and left him. Realizing that they were a long time gone he saw them in the distance. He started to run after them, crying out. Abba Poemen said “Let us wait for the brother, for he is in adversity.” When he caught up with them [the brother] prostrated himself, saying: “Where are you going and [why are you] leaving me alone?” The elder said to him: “Because you trouble us; that is why we are going away.” He said to them: “Yes, yes, let us go together wherever you like.” When the elder saw that there was no guile in him, he said to his brother: “Let us go back brother, for he does not want to do these things; it is the devil that does them to him.” They turned round and came [back] to their place.   (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, pp. 256-257)

Building the Parish Through Forgiveness

Forgiving others the hurts they inflict on us, just as we depend on those same others to forgive us the wrongs we visit on them, is absolutely necessary for successful community living. That’s the only way we can live peacefully.

When you live as closely as we do with one another, situations are bound to arise in which someone is hurt or offended. Unless we can be humble enough to speak to each other about these occasions, to communicate honestly because we trust each other – and then be willing to forgive whenever necessary, the bonds that keep us together will become strained and our love for one another will grow cold.

Living in the monastic community, we discover that none of us reaches a state of perfection in which we never hurt or offend another brother or sister. Obviously there are times when this occurs unintentionally, but unfortunately at other times, our demons drive us into behaving less nobly. There will always be situations in which we get irritated, or in which we’ve been hurtful. That’s simply part of being human. What’s more important than that these things occur is that we are ready always to apply the salve of forgiveness when they do, that the healing and mercy characteristic of God may bring about in us a bit more of the kingdom.

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 302-303)

Being the Church

The mystical body of Christ is the tangible symbol and arena of God’s presence in our midst. By virtue of our membership in Christ we are now intimately related to each other. The very definition of church, ekklesia in Greek (ek, “out of,” plus klesia from kalein, “to call” – those who have been called out of their old place and summoned together into this new reality) refers to persons, therefore, and not buildings.

This living church is the community of Christ’s disciples responding to the call to be the assembly of God in a specific place. God calls us from out of the chaos and alienation of everyday living to be a people, his people in our own day. (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 219)

The Church is the Body of Christ

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.

If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the organs in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single organ, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  . . . If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.    Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.   (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

Peter Kreeft comments on being a Christian and a member of the Body of Christ, the Church:

“I am I whether or not I am a part of a party, a club or a nation.

But this is not true of members (organs) in a body. Remove heart, lungs or kidneys from the body and they die.

A member of a group has a life outside the group; an organ in a body has no life outside the body. An eye removed from the body and put on a plate no longer lives. It is even no longer an eye. It cannot see outside the body, it loses its identity.

This is how we are related to the Church. The Church is not essentially an organization but an organism. The Church is not Christ’s society but Christ’s Body.

The Christian has no life or identity apart from Christ (and therefore apart from his Body). If I were to die and discover that there was no Christ, that Christ was dead, that Christ was not God, that I was not alive with his life in his Body, then I would not be I, I would be another person.

(Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 319-320)

Most interesting insight into being a member of the Church – “The Church is not Christ’s society but Christ’s Body.”  Each member is indispensable to the Body, and no Christian can claim that he or she does  not need the Body of Christ.   The Body is essential to the life of each Christian who can remain alive only as part of the Body.