Salvation and Slavery

St. Nicholas Cabasilas  writing in the 14th Century turns to the imagery of slavery to explain what it is to become a Christian.   Building upon the images and metaphors of St. Paul’s epistles, St. Nicholas explains both how becoming a Christian is like becoming a slave, and simultaneously how this activity is totally different than the idea of slave and master which was known in the world.

“The blessed Paul makes all things clear in a brief saying, ‘you are not your own, you were bought with a price’ ( 1 Cor 6:19-20).  He who has been purchased does not regard himself but Him who has purchased him, and lives according to His will.

A slave is purchased by a master to accomplish the master’s will.  The slave’s purpose for existence is to serve the will, and even the whims of the master.  Slaves are property, chattel, not human beings.

In the case of men, the slave is bound to the wish of the his master, but only in body; in his mind and reason he is free and can use them as he pleases.   But in the case of him whom Christ has bought it is impossible for him to be  his own.  Since no man has ever bought a complete man, and there is no price for which it is possible to purchase a human soul, so no one has ever set a man free or enslaved him save with respect to his body.

St. Nicholas says slavery is about enslaving the body, for no one can enslave the soul – the person’s inner self and thoughts.  The slave may not be free to express those inner thoughts, but the master can never completely control them.  Christ pays a price for others that includes their souls.   Those for whom Christ pays the price are owned body and soul by Christ, for Christ is not interested only in getting bodily work from someone. Christ in love wishes to share His wealth, His life with those He buys.  And the price Christ pays is not a finite sum of money, but rather He pays with His own blood, He spends His entire being in order to take possession of those who would be His slaves.

The Savior, however, has bought the whole of man.  While men merely spend money to buy a slave, He spent Himself.  For our freedom He surrendered body and soul by causing the one to die and by depriving the other of its own body.

Not only does Christ the Master, pay in His own blood, He dies to give freedom to His slaves – freedom from sin and death.  Christ liberates those held captive by Satan and Death.  He does this by His own sacrificial death.  He gives His entire being to purchase His slaves in order to set them free!

His body suffered pains by being wounded; His soul was troubled, and that not merely when the body was slain, but even before it was wounded, as He said, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death’ (Mt 28:38).  . . .  Because of the fact that it was our will which He was seeking, He did not violence to it nor took it captive, but He bought it.

Christ does not forcibly impose His slavery on us.  He pays the full price for our redemption, in order to allow us the freedom to accept or reject the salvation He offers.   He dies to liberate us from death, but makes it an offering, that we are free to accept or reject.  We have to use our wills to chose to embrace what Christ offers for us and to us.

 . . . He who spent money for a slave did not spend it with the aim of conferring benefits on him who he has bought, but rather that he himself might derive benefit by exploiting his labors.  The slave is, as it were, being spent for the profit of those who have acquired him and through whom he suffers misery, and gathers pleasures for them while he himself is subject to constant sorrows.

Slavery in the world is not done for the benefit of the slaves, but purely for the benefit of the masters.  The slave himself or herself is then spent, exhausted for the good of the master.  The slave benefits nothing and is tasked with always benefiting the master who owns him or her.  Not so with the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the case of the slaves of Christ the opposite is true, for everything has been accomplished for their benefit.  He paid the ransom, not in order to enjoy  anything from those who have been ransomed, but in order that what is His might belong to them, and that the Master and His labors might profit the slaves, and that he who has been purchased might himself wholly possess Him who has purchased him.

Slavery to Christ means possessing Christ!  Christ pays the price of our redemption with His own blood in order that we might possess Him!   After paying for us with His own blood, He then gives us His Kingdom.  He holds nothing back from us but gives us everything, even eternal possession of His Kingdom.

 . . . Among men the law makes the masters lords over their slaves and possessions unless they renounce their domination or release them from servitude.  In this case, however, the slaves possess their own Master and inherit that which is His when they love His yoke and regard themselves as bound by His act of purchase.  This is why Paul commanded, ‘Rejoice in the Lord’ (Phil 4:4), meaning by ‘the Lord’ Him who has purchased them.”  (THE LIFE IN CHRIST, pp 220-222)

Heavenly Delight

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  (Matthew 5:4)

Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.”  (Luke 6:21)

“God does not demand or desire that someone should mourn out of sorrow of heart; He wants him to rejoice in love for him with the laughter of the soul. Take away sin and then the sorrowful tears that flow from the eyes will be superfluous. Why look for a bandage when you are not cut? Adam did not weep before the fall, and there will be no tears after the resurrection when sin will be abolished, when pain, sorrow, and lamentations will have taken flight.”  (St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, 7.49, 50, from Matthew the Poor, Orthodox Prayer Life, p. 227)

Appearance is Deceiving

For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

“Furthermore, we have given ourselves a very serious problem our ancient ancestors did not have. In our own time, in which we jog and diet and generally believe that there must be an intimate connection between virtue, physical beauty, health and a person’s worth, we make outcasts of those among us who do not measure up: the old, the fat, the young but unattractive, the handicapped. That we have discovered that there is no real physical basis for believing in a ‘body-soul dualism’ provides us with a reason to value people in terms of what they look like and what they are able to do physically. Our churches are as guilty of this amazing confusion as any other group. This is a theology of ‘wholeness’ that benefits the strong and ignores the weak. It certainly stands in opposition to the Christian way of life … (Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 65)

St. John the Forerunner

A Greatly Troubled Heart

And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Genesis 6:6)

The Scriptures and Orthodox theology are clear that God is not just a super human being – God is not merely an omnipotent and omniscient human writ large.  God is totally other, and whatever words we might apply to us humans – being, nature, person, existing – cannot then rightfully be applied to God.  Or, conversely, if we use words like being, existence, nature for God, then we can’t also use them for humans or any part of creation.  God is clearly a transcendent being, not limited by space and time, but rather we all exist within God (Acts 17:28).

And yet . . . Scriptures also contain images of God which are quite anthropomorphic – in which God is quite humanized.  Or, at least our experience of God and our description of the encounter with God is put purely in human terms.  For the transcendent God is also immanent and in God’s closeness to us we experience God in ways we understand – as Father and mother, as love and lover.   We come to realize that when God says that we humans are made in God’s image and likeness, we are closer to God than we imagine, and God is much closer to us than dogmatic theology can ever reveal.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)

Praise the LORD! For it is good to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious . . .   He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.  (Psalm 147:1-4)

The same God who creates the heavens and the earth, the stars and the entire universe, is also near the brokenhearted.  And, there may be good reason for God’s being near the brokenhearted, as we see in the opening Scripture verse of this blog: for God experienced grief from, through and in the humans God had created.

Some probably are not much impressed with a God whose reaction to human sin and violence is inner grief and brokenheartedness.   “Why doesn’t God just fix what’s wrong with humans and creation!?!”

The God who not only loves creation but Who is love, suffers because of and with and in creation.  The transcendent God who lives in all eternity who is incomprehensible, ineffable and indescribable, still reveals Himself in terms that we can relate to and experience.   This is all part of the great mystery of God.  God doesn’t have blood vessels or a stomach or a throat or a blood-pumping heart, and yet God’s reaction to fallen creation is described in visceral terms.   God knows our pain and still loves us.  God is willing to suffer pain because of us and with us and for us.  Jesus, the incarnate God, experiences this pain and brokenheartedness.

And they went to a place which was called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:32-38)

Jesus wished that the hour of His death might be avoided and was troubled to the heart of His being.  Yet in love, He knew He would endure such heartbreak to deliver humanity from slavery to sin and death.  He took upon Himself the sin of the world, and suffered.  Yet, He said to His disciples:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  (John 14:27)

Even though Christ experienced pain in His own heart, brokenheartedness, grief and distress, He tells us not to let our hearts be troubled.   We are to trust in Him . . . which we find on a daily level to be very difficult to do because we do not see how that trust will alleviate the pain and suffering and problems we must endure.  Christ did not tell us that our lives would be trouble free.  Rather, He promised us tribulation – that tribulation which grieved God at the beginning of creation and which distressed Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.

I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world. (John 16:33)

When we grieve and are brokenhearted because of the world, God is near to us.  And God’s promise is that the pain and sorrow of this world are not the last word, for God promises us Good News.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”  (Revelations 21:3-4)

The Holy Spirit at Work in Us

“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. . . . But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:4-5, 9-10;  emphases not in the original text)

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Every baptized Orthodox Christian receives the Holy Spirit in and through the sacraments of baptism, chrismation and the Eucharist.  How do we show that the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives?

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Each Orthodox Christian is called to be part of the holy priesthood.  Priests in general consecrate things – to make them into an offering to God.  In the Church, Bishops consecrate Chrism and men to serve as priests and deacons in the church.  Priest in turn consecrate believers in baptism and also bread and wine to be shown to be the Body and Blood of Christ.   But all believers share in a priesthood in which we each are to consecrate the things in our life – our homes, families, children, jobs, hobbies, meals, friendships, thoughts, words, feelings – everything great and little can be consecrated.  We can make everything we do into a holy offering to God.  The meals we cook, the things we build, or memorize, or sing, or think about – all can be consecrated, offered to God.  If we think we can’t offer it to God, perhaps we shouldn’t be doing it.  But what we choose to do, all of these things we should offer to God, consecrate them to God and for God’s own use so that God will deify them.

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Everything we have is a gift from God including our lives, our possessions, our blessings, our talents, knowledge, wisdom, the work of our hands.  So what can we offer to God that is truly our own?  What is truly ours are our wills and our decisions.  We can freely opt to co-operate with God.  We can present ourselves to God  in order to serve Him.  Our free wills belong to us and we can work in synergy with God to accomplish God’s will.  Thus every decision, the countless ones we make in our daily lives are each an opportunity for us to serve God – to offer that moment in our lives to God, to direct our energy toward God.  Our choices are a true offering to God –  not something God predetermines in our lives, but what we can freely offer to God.  Our love is something we can choose to offer to God.  It is something God truly values in us and from us.

The Acts of the Apostles and Us

In the 7 weeks following the Great Feast of Pascha, we read in the Church daily from the Acts of the Apostles.

Biblical scholar N.T. Wright describes the significance of the Book of Acts for the Church:

“Acts begins by saying that in the first book (i.e., the gospel of Luke) the writer described “everything Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). The implication is clear. The story of Acts, even after Jesus’s ascension, is about what Jesus continued to do and teach. And the way he did it and taught it was–through his followers.

But of course it doesn’t stop there. When the church does and teaches what Jesus is doing and teaching, it will produce the same reaction that Jesus produced during his public career. A good deal of what the church has to do and say will fly in the face of the “spirit of the age,” what passes for “received wisdom” in this or that generation. So be it. The day the church can no longer say, “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29), it ceases to be the church. This may well mean suffering or persecution. That has been a reality today. Some of the most profound passages in the New Testament are those in which the church’s own sufferings are related directly to those of Jesus, its Messiah and Lord. Kingdom and cross went together in his own work; they will go together in the kingdom work of his followers. (Simply Jesus, p. 220)

We Christians not only live in and for Christ, we suffer with Him – in fact, we die and rise with Him.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Romans 6:3-11)

The Afterlife

“Brethren, I may say to you confidently of the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.”  (Acts 2:29)

“…have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”  (Matthew 12:26-27)

In the Scriptures, belief in the resurrection of the dead is not common.  When a person died, they remained dead throughout time – the tombs of the dead are still with us reminding us those folk are still dead. And yet, Jesus challenges His contemporaries to look again at their scriptures, for they do in fact witness to life after death and to the resurrection of the dead.  It is Christ who makes this belief and teaching possible.

“Still, the notion of an ‘afterlife with God,’ following death, is entirely alien to the Hebrew Scriptures. Indeed, it is also alien to the New Testament, unless a person has died in the redemptive faith of Christ. It is Christ alone who delivers man from death, including the saints of the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Bible is there an afterlife apart from Christ. Whatever afterexistence there may be apart from Christ, it is certainly no real life.” (Patrick Henry Reardon, The Trial of Job, p. 54

Lifting Adam From Earth to Paradise

In one of the hymns from the Feast of the Ascension we catch sight of the theological importance of this Feast of the Lord in God’s plan for the salvation of humanity.  Christ the incarnate God refashions human nature, lifting humanity up from the depths of sin, bringing human nature to the throne of God.

After the humans sinned, they were driven from Paradise and returned to the earth from which they had been fashioned.  Christ becomes incarnate on earth to restore humanity to God.

The hymn  in part reads:

O GOD, YOU HAVE REFASHIONED THE NATURE OF ADAM WHICH HAD FALLEN INTO THE DEPTHS OF THE EARTH.  YOU HAVE LED IT UP TODAY ABOVE EVERY PRINCIPALITY AND POWER, FOR IN YOUR LOVE FOR IT, YOU HAVE SEATED IT TOGETHER WITH YOURSELF!  SINCE YOU HAVE TAKEN COMPASSION ON IT YOU UNITED IT TO YOURSELF AND HAVING BEEN UNITED WITH IT, YOU SUFFERED WITH IT. AND A PASSIONLESS ONE, YOU SUFFERED PASSION TO GLORIFY IT WITH YOURSELF!

Salvation is the restoration of humanity in our relationship with God.  We experience a reunion with our Creator.  In the Ascension, however this event is to be understood historically and factually, God fully accepted human nature and reunited us humans to Himself in Christ. God suffers in the flesh to redeem human nature and to bring us back, body and spirit into God’s presence.  God redeems human nature to save each of us – body and soul.

Wiggle Room: Wisdom and the Two Ways

“Thus says the LORD: Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death.”  (Jeremiah 21:8)

“Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  (Matthew 7:13-14)

The notion that there are two ways through the world – the way of life and the way of death – permeates the Scriptures.  They are sometimes dramatically pitted one against the other, and we humans must choose which we will follow.

“O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?”   (Acts 13:10)

And yet the same Tradition which is the Two Ways also is the Wisdom Tradition.  Wisdom is not law, but rather is the Spirit guiding us in how, when and where, with whom and to what degree we can keep the law.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: …  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing…”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-5)

The Tradition which says there are only two ways also provides that we have to know what to do when we are in a grey area, when things are not and aren’t supposed to be black and white.  Between black and white there exist gradiation and degrees, some better than others in terms of doing God’s will.  All or nothing thinking has its limits and sometimes causes problems and even evil.  It can lead people to abandon a good way because of a mistake or sin which causes them to think all is lost.  Something is better than nothing is also wisdom.  I may not be able to be perfect but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to do as much good as I can.   There always is repentance and a spirit of humility which confesses persistent spiritual failure.  We fall, and we get up.

We see this Wisdom often in the ascetic literature of the Church.

“Be as eager as you can to love everyone, but if you cannot do this yet, at least do not hate anyone.”    (St. Maximus the Confessor, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 6835-36)

“If you are able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect. But if you are not able, then do what you can.”  (Didache, A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 645-46)