A Call to Christian Service: Imitate Paul

“At the heart of Paul‘s message in the letter is his appeal to the Philippians to imitate him (Philippians 3:17), which we must read in light of his depiction of himself as being in humble and humiliating circumstances. He opens the letter by noting that he and his co-worker Timothy are ‘slaves’ of Christ, then points out that he is also a prisoner. Thus, Paul’s basis for his assurance is not arrogance or a feeling of success. Rather, his confidence emerges from the fact that in his own situation, God has used what seems to be a bad situation for a greater purpose: although Paul is in prison, the gospel has spread (Philippians 1:12-14); although some preach from impure motives, Christ is still proclaimed (1:15-18); although death seems preferable, life is necessary, but Christ is honored in either case (1:19-26). What seems to be a lowly and dangerous situation Paul upholds as an experience to be used for the greater glory of God. Paul intentionally interprets as positive circumstances that seem to indicated a loss of status: imprisonment, dissension with others, the threat of death. He reaffirms his role in God’s greater purpose in order to underscore his own character, which allows him to speak to the Philippians as he does.

He calls them to be like him- not to aspire to greatness, but rather to unity (humility) and service (Philippians 2:1-14). Instead of competing for honor, he directs them to pursue a vision that continues and strengthens a value that already exists in the community: mutuality.”  (Richard S. Ascough, Passionate Visionary, p. 38)

Christ Removes All Barriers to God

Since having Christmas in July (sales!) is popular these days, we can think what this means for us Christians.

“He did not change place, nor did He penetrate or pass over a wall, but, as He Himself showed, He left no barrier standing which could separate us from Him. Since God occupies every place He was not separated from man by place, but by man’s variance with Him. Our nature separated itself from God by being contrary to Him in everything that it possessed and by having nothing in common with Him. God remained Himself alone; our nature was human, and no more.

When, however, flesh was deified and human nature gained possession of God Himself by hypostatic union, the former barrier opposed to God became joined to the Chrism. The difference gave way when God became man, thus removing the separation between Godhead and manhood. So chrism represents Christ as the point of contact between both natures; there could be no point of contact were they still separate.”  (St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, pp. 104-105)

It is not living on earth which separates us from God – it is our own freely chosen sins which separate God from us.  Christ in the incarnation shows divinity is united to our humanity.  We are capable of bearing God in our selves, our bodies, our lives!  We are not separated from God by space or distance, but only by our wills.  God stands at the door of our hearts and knocks waiting for each of us to invite Him into our lives, our hearts and our homes.

“Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.”  (Revelation 3:19-21)

 

Called to the Abundant Light

“Whereas the old law proclaimed that God was the Maker and Lord of heaven, and laid down God-pleasing ordinances for those under the law, it did not give any promise of heavenly benefits, nor did it offer communion with God, or an eternal, heavenly, inheritance to those who obeyed it. But once Christ the King of all had visited us in the flesh ‘to call sinners,’ as He says Himself, ‘to repentance’ (Matt 9:13), there were greater rewards for those who obeyed and repented, and, through works of repentance, ordered their lives according to Christ’s gospel, keeping the holy commandments it contains.

Nor were these rewards simply greater, but also incomparably more excellent.

For what was promised was

the kingdom of heaven,

light without evening,

heavenly adoption as sons,

celestial dwellings,

and a divine and eternal way of life,

and even more than this:

for we shall be ‘heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ’ (Rom. 8:17), and ‘I am come,’ says the Lord, ‘that ye might have life, and that ye might have it more abundantly’ (cf. John 10:10).

These are not resounding but empty phrases, nor just a litany of vain words, but an account of the unchanging things actually stored up as prizes for those who believe and live according to Christ.”

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 445)

The Miracle of God’s Mercy

As Jesus sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6].  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:10-13)

St. John Damascene (d 780AD) composed an evening prayer in which he wonderfully expressed the joy and hope of Christians experiencing the grace of God’s salvation:

It is not wonderful if You have mercy upon the pure;

and it is not a great thing if You save the righteous,

but show the wonders of Your mercy upon me, a sinner! 

(II) Whom Do You Seek?

Sermon notes for 16 July 2017

See previous post: (I) Whom Do You Seek?

This Gospel lesson begins with some folk seeking Jesus – to bring him a paralytic.  The lesson doesn’t say what the people coming to Jesus were looking for, but Jesus sees their faith and pardons the paralytic of his sins.  We might infer from this that this is exactly what these folk were seeking from Jesus.  They will by the end of the story get even more – the paralytic will be healed.  But it is possible that the man wanted forgiveness more than anything else and Jesus correctly discerned this.

Gospel: Matthew 9:1-8
So Jesus got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” – then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” And he arose and departed to his house. Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.

Why did Jesus heal this man?  To prove he was not blaspheming, and that He really did have the power to forgive sins.   Jesus’ initial and prime response to their faith is to forgive the sins of the paralytic.  Jesus heals the man only as the afterthought, to prove that his words about forgiveness are real.

We often love miracles of all sorts, but in Christianity they are supposed to be signs pointing to the Kingdom of God.  They are not the main attraction.  Yet the attraction of miracles, and even magical events captures the attraction of many Christians.  In loving the miracle, they can lose sight of its importance and meaning.

Note:  In the Gospel lesson, the people marveled, not that the man was healed, but that Christ has the power to heal!  They actually are on to something important and aren’t being distracted by the miracle.

The Gospel lesson begins with some faithful people seeking Jesus out.  In response to their faith, Jesus forgives.

Last week, I asked you to think about, “What is my question for Jesus?”  The paralytic’s question may well have been, “Can you forgive me?”

Today, I ask you something Jesus asked, “Whom do you seek?”

We might think that seeking Jesus is always a good thing, and it is, except that sometimes people do seek Him for wrong reasons.  We can think back to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then Jesus, knowing all that was to befall him, came forward and said to them, “Whom do you seek?” They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When he said to them, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom do you seek?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he;  . . . So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews seized Jesus and bound him. (John 18:4-11)

The men coming to arrest Jesus were seeking Him!  And note that Jesus does not disseminate or obfuscate in His answer.  He plainly and truthfully says that He is Jesus.  He accepts all who seek Him!  He is not worried about their motives.  If they are seeking Him, they are on a right path, even if they don’t know it.  He doesn’t try to avoid them or escape them.

But some do seek Jesus to be rid of him.

Sometimes people are seeking Him and yet can’t see Him even when He is right in front of them

Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).   (John 20:15-16)

Why couldn’t she see Him?  She was looking for a dead man.  She didn’t understand yet who He is.  So her wrong understanding prevented her from seeing Him exactly as He is.

This can happen to any of us if we fail to seek out the risen Lord, but rather only want a miracle worker or a magician or a slave to clean up our messes and our lives.  If we aren’t looking for the risen Lord, we will miss Him entirely even if he stands right before our eyes.

This is also how sometimes our desire for and love miracles can blind us, for we seek the magic and the power but not He who is empowered to save us.  The Magi of Matthew 2 were able to find the Messiah, even if He was still but a young baby because they were looking for the King of the Jews – they were looking for who Jesus is rather than whom they imagine Him to be.  The stars and the angels guided them right to Jesus.

If we seek Jesus for who He is, we will find Him and be able to see Him.

A final thought based upon today’s Epistle lesson – Romans 12:6-14 –

Brothers and sisters, having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Seeking Jesus requires effort and emotion, energy and enthusiasm on our part.  Look at the Epistle – it emphasizes diligence, fervor, strength, steadfastness as well as affection, rejoicing and cheerfulness.  Seeking Jesus is not for the half-hearted or double-minded.

Note as well what St. Paul says we are to do – provide for the saints and practice hospitality.  I actually think we do these two things well.    The last point comes much harder to us –  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse!

 

Eucharist Means Communion

“As Metropolitan John Zizioulas has recently written:

It is not by accident that the Church has given to the Eucharist the name of ‘communion.’ For in the Eucharist we can find all the dimensions of communion: God communicates himself to us, we enter into communion with him, the participants of the sacrament enter into communion with one another, and creation as a whole enters through man into communion with God. All this takes place in Christ and the Spirit, who brings the last days into history and offers to the world a foretaste of the Kingdom (The Cambridge Companion to Orthodox Christian Theology, p. 181).

Sunday: Remembering Creation and Redemption

“Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; . . . And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.'”  (Revelation 21:1-2,5)

Did the Church in its history make Sunday into the Sabbath Day?  Not according to Matthew Gallatin, who makes it quite clear that the Christian keeping Sunday as a Holy Day had nothing to do with transferring the meaning of the Sabbath to Sunday.  Sunday was a special day to Christians for a very particular reason.  Sunday is the day of the resurrection and as such is the first day of the new creation promised by God.    Saturday remained in the Liturgical life of the Church as the Sabbath rest, and on Saturday, Christ rested in the tomb following His crucifixion.  When He arose from the dead, He gave new meaning to the first day of the week, which became the first day of the New Creation.

Gallatin writes:

“Here’s the truth, according to the early Church: Saturday is the Sabbath. The early Church recognized it as a holy day, in that it is the day that commemorates God’s resting after the creation of the world. Also, the Church revered it as the day on which Christ descended into hell, shattering its gates and freeing mankind forever from the bonds of death.

But the early Church also understood that the act the Sabbath commemorates–the creation of the world–has been infinitely surpassed in the continuing work of God, the new creation, which St. John describes: ‘Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away’ (Revelation 21:1). When does this new universe begin? On the day of Christ’s glorious Resurrection. For on that day, God established the foundations of this new world, a world that includes eternal life for mankind. It was on the day of His Resurrection that Christ our God rose in the flesh, forever making possible our union with Him. By the power of His resurrection, man is blessed by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and may live in oneness with the Father under the earnest of those new heavens, in that new earth.

Now, the old creation was commemorated on the day of its ending–on Saturday. But the new creation will never pass away. Thus, it must be commemorated on the day of its wondrous beginning. And that day, the day on which God chose to raise Christ and gloriously change the universe forever, is not Saturday, but Sunday. The ancient Church often referred to Sunday as the “eighth day,” the day that takes us beyond this awesome, but temporal and fading realm that the Sabbath remembers, into God’s eternal day.

The Church recognizes its first allegiance must belong to the new, everlasting Kingdom, not to the old. Thus, the faithful of Christ proclaimed Sunday as their day of highest worship. Saturday remained a day for spiritual meditation and reflection, a day to thoughtfully prepare for the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection.”  (Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells, pp. 59-60)

Me and Jesus Alone

Christos Yannaras in his book, Against Religion, offers some critical analysis of trends in how Orthodoxy is being practiced today.  He notes that in the modern world, Orthodoxy’s love of monasticism and hesychasm gets entangled with Western civilization’s apotheoses of the individual above and against everything else in the universe.  The result is a hybrid which makes the individual everything, no longer truly needing anything but the self for attaining salvation.  The modern Western Christian steeped in extreme individualism believes hesychasm is identical to individualism.  Whereas Christianity is a religion of relational beings, calling all people to love one another, and placing salvation within this matrix of loving relationships.  Being fully human means not becoming isolated from or alienated from all other humans, but learning to live in love just as the Three Persons of the Trinity live a perfect union of love.  Yannaras says the result is “religionization” – where each person works out their salvation independently of all others rather than interdependently.  He writes:

“The religionization of the Church is a facet of the individualization of faith, ascetic practice, into the morality of the individual, and worship into the duty of the individual. Correct beliefs, obedience to moral precepts, and adherence to obligations of worship are sufficient to ensure justification and salvation for the individual.”

It reduces Christianity to religious practices – whether pious, moral, liturgical, ritualistic, or dogmatic.  As long as I am doing the right thing, I don’t need anyone else for my salvation.  It neglects the main teaching of Christ to love others as He loves us because it says as long as the individual does things correctly or perfectly, they earned salvation.  One doesn’t work out one’s salvation in terms of loving others, but purely in perfecting the self.

Yet, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he taught them to pray in one mind yet as community – “OUR Father….”  And the prayers of the Liturgy are almost always in the plural:  “Let US pray to the Lord.”  Our salvation is placed within the community of the people of God.  Moses, beloved of God, totally understood himself in relationship with the people of God.  Even when the people rebelled against Moses and against God, Moses tells God that he doesn’t want to be saved apart from the people [who were, by the way, wanting to stone Moses to death].

So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” (Exodus 32:31-32)

Yannaras continues with his criticism of the individualization that results from “religionization“:

“Nothing collective is presupposed in the religious version of piety or of salvation – neither community, which is the body of relations of communion that assembles at the eucharistic meal, not participation in this assembly, nor the seeking of salvation in a change of mode of existence: the passing over from the natural urge of self-preservation/sovereignty to loving self- transcendence and self-offering.” (p. 98)

The early Church understood completely the dictum: “One Christian is no Christian.”  One can only be a Christian by loving others and working out one’s salvation in relationship to and with Christ and His fellow disciples.  Christianity is not a religion which endeavors to create isolated and alienated individuals.   One cannot be a Christian alone, but becomes a Christian by imitating Christ and washing the feet of the disciples.  Christianity restores the person to a proper relationship with God, with others, with all creation.  It is not trying to enlarge the self-centered ego to exclude all others, but to help the individual be part of that which is greater than the self – the Church, all of humanity, the cosmos and of God.  Christianity leads us away from the emptiness of self-love to the spiritual growth which occurs as a result of living in love with others.  We are never saved alone, for in the process of becoming Christian we become a member of Christ’s Body together will all other believers.  We live not for our self alone, but to bring everything together in Christ for the salvation of all. [see also my blog The Need for Christ].

We become fully human – fully Christian – only in fellowship and communion with the people of God.   We may experience in life the feeling that we alone are being faithful to God, but this does not reflect the reality of the world.

Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”  (Romans 11:2-4)

Unity in Christ

“I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”  (John 17:20-23)

“But a common faith was not the sole mark of unity; mutual love was its other and perhaps even more crucial indicator. Cyprian quotes 1 Corinthians 13:8 (“Love never ends…”) and declares:

It will exist forever in the kingdom, it will endure forever in the union of the brethren among themselves. Disunion cannot attain to the kingdom of heaven, nor can one who has violated the love of Christ by wicked dissension win the reward of Christ, who said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” [John 15:12].”

Thus schism, the fracturing of ecclesial unity, is almost always characterized as a breach of love; and as love is the greatest of virtues, so schism is the worst of the vices. At the root of schism is that pride and self-righteousness that allowed some individuals to make extravagant claims to holiness for themselves. Where do schisms come from? Augustine asks–and then answers the question: “When people say, ‘We are righteous’; when they say, ‘We sanctify the unclean, we justify the impious, we make petition, we obtain [what we ask for].’

Ecclesial unity was not something to be cherished merely for its own sake, however. Its importance lay substantially in the fact that it mirrored the unity of the Godhead itself. “God is one,” writes Cyprian, “and Christ is one, and his Church is one, and there is one faith and one people joined together by harmony into the strong unity of a body.” Despite Cyprian’s emphasis on the idea of the Church as the reflection of God’s unity, the theme is even more evident in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, who preceded Cyprian by nearly a century and a half. The concord of its members, of its people and its ministers, images the unity of the Father and the Son.

‘Just as the Lord, then, being one with himself did nothing without the Father, either by himself or through the apostles, so neither must you do anything without the bishop and the presbyters. And you must not attempt to convince yourselves that anything you do on your own account is right, but there must be in common, one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope in love, in flawless joy, that is Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is better. Come together, all of you, as to one temple of God, as to one altar, to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father and yet remained with one and returned to one.'”

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, pp.104-105)

All Saints of North America

Justification by Faith

“‘Justification’ (and related words like ‘righteousness,’ all of which come from the same Greek root) has often been understood as a legal (judicial, forensic) concept. It is associated with the image of God as a judge rendering a ‘not guilty’ verdict to the guilty. However, although there is certainly a judicial dimension to justification…, it is now generally understood as a much more relational and especially covenental concept than previously recognized (cf. Rom. 5:1-11, where it is paired with ‘reconciliation’). To be justified is to be restored to right covenantal relations now, with certain hope of acquittal on the future day of judgement (Rom. 5:9-10; Gal. 5:5).

‘Faith’ is likewise a covenantal term that implies not merely intellectual assent, but faithfulness–a total commitment of the self from the heart that is more akin to loyalty, obedience, and devotion (as in ‘love of God’) than to ‘belief’ or even ‘trust’ (though each of these must still be understood to be part of faith). A growing number of scholars–approaching a consensus–believe Galatians 2:15-21, like Romans 3:21-26 and Philippians 3:2-11, speaks not only of our faith but of Christ’s faith, understood in this covenantal way as his faithfulness. Space does not permit an argument for this interpretation, but it is recognized in the NRSV margin and will be adopted as the basis for the commentary below. Specifically, it affects two verses…. The NRSV marginal translation (our interpretation) means that Paul understands Christ’s death as his faithfulness to God in giving himself on the cross “for me” (us–Paul speaks representatively), and that it, rather than our performance of the works of the Law, is the basis of our right relationship with God.” (Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, p. 201).