The Greatest is Love

If there is no love, other blessings profit us nothing. Love is the mark of the Lord’s disciples, it stamps the servants of God, by it we recognize his apostles. Christ said: “This is how all will know you for my disciples.” By what? Tell me. Was it by raising the dead or by cleansing lepers or by driving out demons? No. Christ passed over all these signs and wonders when he said: “This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another.

For the power to perform those other wonders is a gift which comes only through a grace from on high. This gift of love must also be achieved through man’s own earnestness and zeal. A man’s nobility does not usually stamp the gifts which are given from above in the same way as it marks the achievements which come from a man’s own efforts. Therefore, Christ said that his disciples are recognized not by miracles but by love. For when love is present, the one who possesses it lacks no portion of wisdom but has the fullness of complete and perfect virtue. In the same way, when love is not there, man is bereft of every blessing. This is why Paul exalts love and lifts it on high in what he writes. Still, for all he may say about love, he never fully explains its true worth.

(St. John Chrysostom, On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pp. 52-53)

Opening the Eyes of the Blind

In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.  (Isaiah 29:18-19)

Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”  (Luke 10:23-24)

St Ephrem the Syrian reflecting on blindness (physical and spiritual) and on Christ healing us writes:

“Great is the gift which is cast before our blind eyes:

for even though we all have a pair of eyes each,

few are those who have perceived that gift,

[who are aware of] what it is and from whom it comes. 

Have mercy, Lord, on the blind, for all they can see is gold!

O Jesus who opened the eyes of Bartimaeus,

You opened his eyes that had become blind against his will;

open, Lord, the eyes that of our own will 

we have rendered blind; thus shall Your grace abound. 

The mud [that You made then], Lord, 

Tells us that You are the Son of our Maker. 

(Select Poems, p. 109)

The Work of the Church

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 14:14-22 :

And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick.

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Who is in this crowd upon whom Jesus has compassion/mercy?  Some who are sick, lost souls, some seeking God, the walking wounded, those who have lost their faith, the downcast and the outcasts.   But also, there were curiosity seekers, non-believers, some who are hostile to Christ – His enemies.  Throughout the Gospel His enemies follow Him everywhere, listening to His words, gathering evidence against Him – but they are in the mix and often very near Christ for they engage Him in conversation.

Christ ministers to all of them.  His grace, love, mercy, compassion is not limited to His disciples, but extends to all whom He sees.  Jesus teaches us by His own example to love and commands us to love one another in the same that that He loves us.  He is moved by compassion when He looks on us.   We have to be aware of how Christ loves us and to see the world through the eyes of Christ.

How are we to judge others?  With compassion.  Any who come to Christ, who seek Christ for any reason are to be welcomed by us and blessed by us.  This is how the Lord Jesus loves us.  He expects us to love as He loves us.  Is it hard? Yes.  Is it impossible?  Hardly.

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When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.” But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” And they said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.” He said, “Bring them here to Me.” Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass.

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And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children. Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away.

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Jesus does not simply make their hunger go away by divine magic.  Rather, Christ feeds them.  He blesses the only food they had, and feeds 5000 men besides women and children from this food.  The food doesn’t miraculously appear on each plate, but rather the disciples distribute it.  The disciples have to work to make sure the people are fed.  Christ receives from His disciples the food which some people had worked to make possible – bread and fish.  He takes this human made food and blesses it.  There is synergy between the disciples and Christ, working together for the good of all the people.  This is the Church.

Christ entrusts some problems to us His disciples and asks us to deal with the problems.  He doesn’t miraculously make the problems go away.   He says to us: I am not taking hunger away, but I empower you to do the work necessary for these people to feel cared for and to be fed.   The disciples themselves had to provide the food and distribute it.

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We obey Christ not by having problems go away but by dealing with them.  The Gospel lesson began with Jesus seeing the crowd and feeling compassion for them.  The Gospel lesson ends with Jesus feeding them.  It is the work of the Church.

The Deacon in the Parish

“In addition to serving as their bishops’ factotums, deacons played an important liturgical role. As early as the middle of the second century, we learn something of this from Justin Martyr, who relates that, after the Eucharist was concluded, deacons would bring it to those who had been unable to attend. Other sources tell us that deacons maintained order in the church, guarded the doors, recited or chanted certain prayers, instructed catechumens, and proclaimed the Gospel. This last function came to be particularly associated with them. At the same time it was recognized that the deacon had a special relationship to the eucharistic chalice. An anonymous fifth-century Gallic work tells us that, according to what must have been a local custom, a bishop might not even lift the chalice from the altar unless it had first been handed to him by his deacon. Deacons also assisted at the baptism of men, while in some places, especially in the East, there were women deacons to assist at women’s baptism and to perform other services on behalf of women. 

…Clearly the diaconate was a position of high importance in early Christianity, and the list of those who as deacons (whether or not they were later promoted to the presbyterate or the episcopate) engaged in significant enterprises on behalf of their bishops or the Church at large includes not only such figures as Callistus and Laurence but also Ephrem, John Cassian, and Gregory the Great. Toward the end of the patristic period, however, the diaconate began to lose its status, and it would eventually turn into a perfunctory step in preparation for ordination to the priesthood. It is interesting to  note that, over the course of the centuries, as the responsibilities of the diaconate decreased, those of the presbyterate increased.”

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 122-123)

Seeing With the Eyes of Faith

The first teaching given to us in writing is, “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth” and all the other statements about creation. By faith we understand that the ages were brought to completion by the word of God so that what is seen might be made from what is invisible (Hebrews 11:3): the body’s eye did not recognize the God of all as creator; instead, faith instructed us that God, who has always existed, created what did not exist. There is, after all, no example of this among human beings; yet though learning nothing of the kind from nature, we have in faith a teacher of the unexpected. Human beings, of course, make something out of something, whereas the God of all produced what exists out of nothing.

(Theodoret of Cyrrus, Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, pp. 181-182)

God’s Provision

Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me, men who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches? Truly no man can ransom himself, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of his life is costly, and can never suffice, that he should continue to live on for ever, and never see the Pit. Yea, he shall see that even the wise die, the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others.  (Psalm 49:5-10)

“Give yourself up entirely to God’s providence, to the Lord’s Will, and do not grieve at losing anything material, nor in general at the loss of visible things; do not rejoice at gain, but let your only and constant joy be to win the Lord Himself. Trust entirely in Him: He knows how to lead you safely through this present life, and to bring you to Himself — into His eternal Kingdom. From want of trust in God’s providence many and great afflictions proceed: despondency, murmurings, envy, avarice, love of money or the passion for amassing money and property in general, so that it may last for many years, in order to eat, drink, sleep and enjoy;

from want of trust in God’s providence proceed in particular afflictions such as arise, for instance: from some loss of income through our own oversight, from the loss of objects, specially valuable and necessary, as well as immoderate joy at recovering some objects, or at receiving some large income or gain, or some profitable place or employment. We, as Christians, as ‘fellow citizens with the Saints and of the household of God,’ (Ephesians 2: 19) ought to commit all our life, together with all its sorrows, sicknesses, griefs, joys, scarcities and abundance unto Christ our God.”

(St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp. 251-252)

Repentance: So God Can Enter My Heart

“’My victory is Your victory,’ David says to the Lord, ‘and my defeat, which is my sin, is likewise a loss for Your glory, for it interrupts the advance of Your glory in the hearts of men.’  It follows, then, that when we don’t repent, when we have no awareness of our sin, when we are without tears, when we are content to lie in the muck of our sins, we implicate God Himself in our fall. Have we sinned? Do we remain in our sin? If so, then He cries out: ‘They cast me out, the beloved, as a corpse to be despised.’

When I reject the way of repentance, I reject God. When I choose to remain in sin, I expel God from my heart. But as soon as I turn from my sin, God enters my heart. And when He does, I discover my place in the Church, which is His body and His bride.” 

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, Psalms and the Life of Faith, p. 221)

The Lord Requires Effort More Than Accomplishment

“If, according to the maxim of heavenly truth, we have to render an account of every idle word uttered (cf. Matt 12:36),

 or if, like the timid investor or the greedy hoarder, every servant who was entrusted with a large sum of spiritual grace and then hid it in the earth will incur no little blame on the master’s return  since it was to have been distributed among the moneylenders, and so be multiplied by the increase of interest payments (cf. Matt. 25:14-30); then, very rightly have we grounds for fear lest a return be demanded for our gift of speech, we, to whom has been allowed a modicum of ability, yet having a pressing necessity to lend out to the minds of the people, the eloquence of God entrusted to us; especially since the Lord requires of us the effort rather than the accomplishment.

(St Ambrose of Milan, Early Christian Spirituality, p. 82)

The World and I

For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.   (Ephesians 6:12)

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.   (2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

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The Gospels as well as the entire Bible gives recognition at times to a spiritual warfare of cosmic dimensions which is ongoing within the created universe.  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became incarnate and entered into the world exactly to engage in this warfare on our behalf.  Oftentimes in our daily lives we are not aware of the ongoing spiritual warfare, though some people, monks for example are consciously engaged in the warfare on a daily basis.

That Christ came into the world to enter into the fray on our behalf is obvious in today’s Gospel lesson:

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?”

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Now a herd of many swine was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of swine.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the swine; and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and perished in the waters. The herdsmen fled, and going into the city they told everything, and what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, all the city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.  And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city.  (Matthew 8:28-9:1)

The Gospel lesson shows Christ active in the world, not enthroned in the comfort and safety of heaven, and not just piously praying in the temple.  It is a lesson about Christ engaging evil face to face in a desolate place where most humans have decided not to go.  Christ is God’s presence and power in the world casting out the forces of Satan from the lives of two rather unsavory men.

Whether we think in these terms or not, we ourselves come to church in order to personally experience that presence of the Kingdom in our lives, to commit ourselves to the Kingdom of God and to show our own rejection of all that is evil.  Our presence at the Liturgy is not withdrawal from the world, nor fleeing the real presence of evil in the world, but rather adding ourselves to the spiritual war against Satan.  Throughout the Liturgy we are praying for and about the world and all that is in the world.    We unite ourselves to Christ in order to defeat Satan in our own lives so that we can be what Christ expects of us:

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men. You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:13-14)

In the Gospel, it is obvious that Christ does not just talk to those who are holy, sinless, without problems.  He engages everyone in the world, even those possessed by Satan.

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Compared to life in Biblical times, we have many modern advantages that help relieve suffering, pain and sickness.  The medical progress and social welfare  we experience are a direct result of Christian efforts to help the needy and to relieve suffering.  The impetus was the mercy and care that Christianity advocated for the poor and needy.  It was the Christians who established hospices and hospitals and famine relief and care for orphans and widows throughout the Roman Empire.  That was the seed for the development of medical science and social concern for those in need.   This was a real response to the evil they could see everywhere and which most people simply tried to avoid.

War of the Worlds 2It is interesting that science fiction often portrays the earth being invaded by an alien army which attempts to destroy life on earth or tries to turn everyone into inhuman possessions of the aliens.  Science fiction really is just borrowing the narrative of the Gospel.  Science fiction turns Satan into an alien invader, but the story is the same.  The world is at risk and we need to repel the invasion.  The Scriptures tell us the alien invader is Satan  and Christ came into the world to drive back this alien invasion and to overcome the spreading corruption of the Evil One.  That is what Christ does in the Gospels, and whether we see it or not, it is what we are doing in the Church through the exorcism at Baptism and in our becoming the Body of Christ.

Throughout the Gospel Christ is present in the world seeking lost sheep, injured lambs, the sick and the possessed.  Christ freely went even to places and people who had forsaken God.    We attend the Liturgy to make Christ present in our lives, because we agree and believe that there is real evil in the world and we want it defeated.  We unite ourselves to Christ to expel evil from our lives.  We receive the Body and Blood of Christ to strengthen ourselves in the spiritual warfare so that we can go back into the world to defeat evil and witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  We accept the risk of what spiritual warfare means – including martyrdom.   Our task is not simply to come to the church to receive Christ and be united to Him.  Our task is to go back into the world to get Christ out of the Church and into the entire world, to claim our lives for God and be God’s servants daily so that evil is crushed because we are oriented to God.  We don’t need to orient ourselves toward evil to defeat it, we defeat evil by completing orienting our lives, our hearts and minds to God.  If we keep our eyes and hearts on Christ, Satan and evil are automatically defeated.

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The Liturgy in the Church orients our lives toward the Kingdom of God, it helps us always keep our face toward God.  In the Liturgy we are always facing in one direction toward God, with our backs toward Satan because we have left evil behind us.  That is the symbolism of the Liturgy and why we stand and orient ourselves this way in the Liturgy rather than sitting around in circle with the altar at our center.

Our spiritual struggle is not just against our personal sins and passions, it is part of the cosmic warfare against Satan and all evil powers.    This is why it is so difficult to overcome our personal sins and failings.  Our struggle within ourselves immediately puts us into the conflict with Satan and his forces.  When you desire to stop any sin or passion within yourself, lust, greed, anger, lying, etc, you are at once engaged in the spiritual warfare which is raging through the entire world. One difficulty in overcoming our sins, temptations and passions is we are not prepared to engage in the full spiritual warfare against Satan, and we fail to think of ourselves as part of the world or part of a greater whole.  We tend to see our self as isolated and in a lonely struggle and that we just have personal problems, but the reality is we really are part of a bigger war.  Christ came into the world to take on Himself the sin of the world, to directly confront and defeat Satan.  But we have to keep ourselves united to Christ to benefit from His power.  We keep ourselves united to Christ in the Communion of the Saints, in the Church, through confession, communion , prayer, the Liturgy, bible study, in practicing charity and forgiveness.  We learn to love in and through community and that keeps us in the Body of Christ.

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How do we keep Satan from influencing our lives?    A willingness to listen to God’s Word, listening to God’s word, heartfelt prayer, a devout fear of God, true Christian love for God and for one another, a desire to serve God, humility, self-denial, seeking truth, doing God’s will as revealed in the Gospel commandments.

Condemned for Not Believing?

Mark 16:9-20 presents to us an interesting dilemma to consider.  Are unbelievers condemned for all eternity?    The text begins:

Now when Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

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The text indicates that the eleven remaining Apostles are twice told that Jesus has risen from the dead.  First Mary Magdalene, who in this text of Mark’s Gospel is the very first person to hear the Gospel of the resurrection, directly encounters the Risen Lord Himself.   She goes and tells the Apostles, but they refuse to believe.  Then two others encounter the Risen Christ and they too go to the Apostles to tell them that Jesus is alive.  Again the Apostles refuse to believe. What happens next is that Jesus Himself appears to the eleven Apostles:

Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.

Jesus chastises them for their unbelief – the Apostles had not believed the witness of those three people who had talked with Him after He had risen.  The Apostles were not a people unprepared for the Good News – they had spent the previous three years in intense personal training under the tutelage of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  They were the most prepared people in the entire world to hear the Gospel, and yet they didn’t believe the Good News.

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.

Now, comes the dilemma.  Jesus says those who do “not believe will be condemned.”  The Apostles themselves did not believe.  So do they stand condemned?   Their repentance for initially not believing is not recorded.  They eventually do go into the world and do as Jesus commands.  Their initial unbelief is not held against them.

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”   So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.

The Apostles who were hand-picked and discipled for three years by the Lord Jesus Himself, did not believe the Gospel when they first heard it proclaimed.  They even heard it twice and still disbelieved.  It is only when Jesus appears to them directly and upbraided them that they apparently believed.  They did not remain condemned forever despite twice disbelieving the Gospel proclaimed to them.

This is a great message of hope for the world that Jesus’ first reaction to disbelief will not be eternal condemnation, but a tongue lashing from the Lord.  If His hand-chosen disciples after three years of living with Jesus did not believe the message of the resurrection when they heard it proclaimed, perhaps it is reasonable that others who never met Jesus also disbelieve us and the Gospel.  Maybe they all will be given the same chance as the Apostles – to personally encounter the Risen Lord before any judgment or condemnation is actually pronounced.  The Apostles were shown great mercy despite failing after all the advantages they had by being personally trained by Jesus.  We can hope that Christ will be even more merciful to those who never met Him, let alone being discipled by Him, and who disbelieve.

When the Apostles heard the Good News, they were not people who had never heard of Jesus or the Gospel.  They were the best trained Christians on the planet, and yet they disbelieved.  Jesus still chose patience and mercy toward them.  Giving them power and opportunity to serve Him.