The Dangers of Discipleship

At the same time, he [Jesus] emphasizes from the start the controversial nature of this mission, which would be fulfilled in spite of the longstanding laws of both the Jewish and Gentile worlds, which would provoke anger, rejection, and malice, and which would be the cause of family strife. He does not behave at all as a Jewish rabbi of his time would, who probably would promise his disciples various blessings, predict success in other undertakings, and teach them how to achieve it. Jesus says nothing of the sort. He does not promise his disciples success, happiness in their personal life, material prosperity, or spiritual comfort. He does not promise them acceptance from their compatriots, the Gentiles, or even their close relatives.

We can only guess what sort of reaction such predictions elicited from the disciples. As John Chrysostom writes:

For indeed we have great cause to marvel, how they did not straightway dart away from Him on hearing these things, apt as they were to be startled at every sound, and such as had never gone further than that lake, around which they used to fish; and how they did not reflect, and say to themselves, “And wither after all this are we to flee? The courts of justice against us, the kings against us, the governors, the synagogues of the Jews, the nations of the Gentiles, the rulers and the ruled.”

(Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, p. 425)

The Lord Approaches to Enter Our Hearts

The Lord said to my Lord:

‘Sit at My right hand, until I make Your enemies,

a footstool for Your feet.’  (Psalm 110:1)

“… let us consider the way in which the psalmist speaks about the divinity of Christ.  He does not try to coerce us into belief.  What we believe is a matter of indifference to him.  He simply announces a fact:  the one addressed in the psalm is a priest, a king, and my God (cf Ps 145:1).  There is no need of any further  explanation.  If you so wish, believe in Him; if not, don’t believe.  In either case, He remains the Eternal King, seated upon His throne.  If you so wish, offer Him your heart, for we encounter God in faith, in the spacious freedom of the heart.  The Lord does not approach us in order to sway us with arguments and theories.  He approaches us in order to enter our hearts.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos, PSALMS AND THE LIFE OF FAITH, p 70)

God Provides What We Need

We ought all of us always to give thanks to God for both the universal and the particular gifts of soul and body that He bestows on us. The universal gifts consist of the four elements and all that comes into being through them, as well as all the marvelous works of God mentioned in the divine Scriptures. The particular gifts consist of all that God has given to each individual.

These include wealth so that one can perform acts of charity; poverty, so that one can endure it with patience and gratitude; authority, so that one can exercise righteous judgment and establish virtue; obedience & service, so that one can more readily attain salvation of soul; health, so that one can assist those in need and undertake work worthy of God, sickness, so that one may earn the crown of patience; spiritual knowledge & strength, so that one may acquire virtue; weakness & ignorance, so that, turning one’s back on worldly things, one may be under obedience in stillness and humility;

unsought loss of goods and possessions, so that one may deliberately seek to be saved and may be helped when incapable of shedding all one’s possessions or even of giving alms; ease & prosperity, so that one may voluntarily struggle and suffer to attain the virtues and thus become dispassionate and fit to save other souls; trials and hardship – so that those who cannot eradicate their own will may be saved in spite of themselves, and those capable of joyful endurance may attain perfection. All these things, even if they are opposed to each other, are nevertheless good when used correctly; but when misused, they are not good, but are harmful for both soul and body.

(St Peter of DamascusThe Philokalia: Vol. 3, p. 172)

How We Shape God’s Revelation

“God condescends whenever He is not seen as He is, but in the way one incapable of beholding Him is able to look upon Him. In this way God reveals Himself by accommodating what He reveals to the weakness of vision of those who behold him.”  (St. John Chrysostom, in Archimandrite Amilianos’s The Way of the Spirit, p. 323-324)

Chrysostom’s observation that God accommodates His revelation to the capacity of the person beholding God is fascinating on so many levels, and really does seem true to what the Scriptures present about God’s manifestations to the world.  It does mean that God takes into account each person readiness for revelation and each person’s personal abilities and adjusts the revelation accordingly so the person can understand what is being revealed to them.  It also means that no two person have the exact same perception of God.  Take for example the Transfiguration – five people besides Jesus are present, and each would be encountering something slightly different about Christ according to their differing personal abilities to comprehend the revelation.   It means that no one person’s experience of God, no matter how true or how capable they are of describing it, ever has a full experience of God.    Certainly in the case of the Transfiguration, Orthodox Tradition as expressed in iconography has each of the apostles differently able to perceive and understand the revelation.  Peter, James and John are understand as experiencing the Transfiguration differently which is shown in the icon by their different responses to the event.

God reveals Himself as love and God reveals His love to us, and each of us experiences it slightly differently based on our own capabilities of receiving the revelation.  God does not require everyone to experience the exact same thing or to understand the revelation in the same way or even to be able to express what one has experienced in the exact same way as others do.   There is a true and unique synergy which occurs between God and each person to whom God reveals Himself.

A good example of this comes from the post-Resurrection experience of the disciples found in Luke 24.  We can consider a few verses as examples.

1] Luke 24:15-16  –    While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.

Here are two disciples who are personally familiar with Jesus having been discipled by Christ directly as they sojourned with Him.   In this chapter, they are walking with Him and talking to Him and yet they do not recognize Him with their own eyes.  Apparently, not only do different people have different capacities for receiving God’s revelation, but also at different times in life any one person’s lifetime, the ability to understand God changes.  According to Chrysostom, God takes this into account and only reveals what we are capable of receiving, so while our experience of God may be true, it may also be incomplete or just beyond our comprehension.

2] Luke 24:19-26  –    And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened. Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.”

The people were able to see the mighty deeds of Jesus and to hear his powerful message, yet they did not fully comprehend either Him or His message.  The disciples admit they thought they understood who Jesus was, but their hopes were dashed.  The crucifixion of Jesus was an unexpected revelation about God which blinded them to the truth of what they were seeing in Christ.  And finally though some of the disciples were moved enough to go look into the claims about the empty tomb and resurrection, they still were not capable themselves of seeing Jesus yet.  They knew Jesus’ own teachings about the resurrection, they had the testimony of the women disciples, they saw the empty tomb, and yet still they were not ready to receive the revelation.   It takes time for them to realize and embrace what God is revealing to them.   God reveals Himself as the disciples are growing in their ability to understand the revelation.  It is a lesson for mission work as well – people may need time to hear the message and to understand it.

3] Luke 24:30-31  –   When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight.

Seeing him with one’s eyes and realizing who He is are two different experiences.  The two disciples are talking with Him and yet their eyes are not opened.  However, in the breaking of the bread, they recognize Him – their eyes are opened and in that moment He disappears!  Seeing with one’s senses is one thing, but it is not the only vision we are capable of.  Another lesson is that as we are more prepared to accept the revelation, we may find ourselves less reliant on proofs and move more into a faith mode, letting go of the “props” that helped us believe and allowing Christ to enter into our hearts.   And we see in the icon that each of the two disciples sees Christ from their own point of view, they are not seeing identical things.  And Christ in these icons hands them a broken piece of bread – each receives a unique piece broken from the whole,  they are not given identical pieces.   They are given according to their ability to receive the gift.

4] Luke 24:33-35  –   And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.

The Lord chooses to whom He will appear.  Not everyone sees Him in the same moment.  God respects those who are ready for the revelation.  Others may simply not be ready, and so God doesn’t appear to them, or He appears to them and they don’t recognize Him.  We see again Chrysostom’s point that God appears in the way and to the degree that the person is able to receive the revelation.  Peter goes to the tomb and is not yet ready to embrace the revelation, but in the right time, the Lord acts and Peter sees the Lord.

5] Luke 24:36-41  –   As they were saying this, Jesus himself stood among them. But they were startled and frightened, and supposed that they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do questionings rise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?”

The Lord chose the moment to reveal Himself at once to all the disciples.  We see their reactions – startled, frightened, doubts, thinking some ghost has appeared to them.  Not all can see as clearly, but Christ proceeds with the revelation as they are able to receive it.  So then, there is disbelief, wonder and joy.  What they experience and understand is changing and growing.  Christ accommodates Himself to the ways in which they are not yet fully prepared to see or believe or understand.    Christ is guided by mercy and empathy for those to whom He reveals Himself, taking into account their weaknesses and accommodating His revelation to them.  There is no need to admire those who understand more nor to despise those who understand less.  God is accommodating His revelation to the needs of each based on His own love for them.  There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to God’s revelation as each receives the revelation as they are able.  God entrusts to each person the revelation according to their abilities.  And there is no need for everyone to think exactly alike, because God accommodates His revelation to each.

The Pursuit of Happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (United States Declaration of Independence)

Whatever the authors of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they used the phrase “pursuit of happiness”, Americans through the years having so totally embraced the absolute value of the individual over and against society or any institution have come to think of the phrase as a guarantee that each individual should be able to pursue personal pleasure without any constraints whatsoever being placed on them.  That attitude often finds itself at odds with traditional Christian or other religious thinking and occasionally at odds with the law.

Many Americans consider our nation to be a Christian one, but sometimes find traditional Christian attitudes to be in opposition to American values.  Sometimes this has to do with changing values and definitions.  So Roman Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft points out that the understanding of “happiness” has changed greatly through time.  For example the 17th Century “mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and Catholic theologian” Blaise Pascal held to what was then the traditional understanding of happiness – a definition closer to what America’s founding fathers had in mind than is the current idea of happiness.   Kreeft writes:

Pascal uses “wretchedness (unhappiness) and “happiness” here in their deep, ancient meanings. There are three important differences:

  1. To us moderns, “happiness” connotes a subjective feeling, not an objective state, like health. To the ancients, happiness was to the soul what health was to the body. The test case is suffering: if happiness is objective, it can include suffering, as in Job and Greek tragedy; if it is merely subjective, then by definition it cannot.
  2. Our word “happiness” comes from the Old English “hap” (chance, luck, fortune: it “happens”). It comes from without and from the material world rather than from within our own souls. It comes from what used to be called “the gifts of Fortune”, who was traditionally pictured as a whore and a cheat (see, for example, BoethiusThe Consolation of Philosophy). Thus happiness is not under our own control – a terrifying and pessimistic conclusion indeed, as it is in Freud.
  3. To us, happiness is present and transitory rather than permanent: a momentary “high” rather than the quality of a whole life, as Aristotle defines it.

Like the ancients, Pascal means by “happiness” (I) a state of real perfection (2) of soul (3) in a complete life, including eternity. Aristotle’s word for this was eudaimonia: the lasting state (-id) of true goodness (eu-) of soul (daimon). That is why Pascal offers religion instead of psychology as the way to happiness; for psychology can make us feel good, but religion can make us be good.

(Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans, p. 27)

Many of the Church Fathers and Mothers thought emotions are fleeting and thus not a dependable way for making decisions.  If happiness is merely an emotion, than it too is fleeting and not worth pursuing.  However, if happiness is a state of being, not dependent on our moods or circumstances, then it is a good worth pursuing.  It is happiness as a state of being that helps us understand the martyrs and some of our hymns dedicated to the saints.  For example, the hymn for the Beheading of St. John the Baptist contains the phrase, “Therefore, having suffered for the truth with joy...”   One can suffer with joy only when happiness is a state of being rather than a fleeting emotion.

Sell All You Own and Follow Christ

Now a certain ruler asked Him, saying, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”

So Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘Do not murder,’ ‘Do not steal,’ ‘Do not bear false witness,’ ‘Honor your father and your mother.’”

And he said, “All these things I have kept from my youth.”

So when Jesus heard these things, He said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

But when he heard this, he became very sorrowful, for he was very rich.

And when Jesus saw that he became very sorrowful, He said, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

And those who heard it said, “Who then can be saved?” But He said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.”   (Luke 18:18-27)

It is often debated as to  how literally we are to obey some of the Gospel commandments of Christ.  If everyone tried to sell all their belongings and give them away, what would happen?  Well for one thing there would be no one to buy anything since everyone else was also trying to sell everything.  And if everyone gave up everything, all of civil society would soon come to an end as no one would ‘have’ anything.  It wouldn’t take long before poverty set in and then famine and disease as no one was able to do anything because they couldn’t claim ownership of anything.  So it is not too hard to see that Christ’s teachings were not always universal laws that all must obey.  Rather, He was a wisdom teacher and gives to individuals the medicine they need for their own healing and to become fully human.  The teaching to give everything away was aimed at a particular man who seemed to trust that his riches were the sign that God favored him.  In effect Christ tells the man, since God seems to favor you and has given you all these blessings, give them all away – let’s see if you love and trust God the giver of every good and perfect gift or if you really only love your blessings.  Obviously the man loved the blessings more than He loved God and he certainly wasn’t willing to trust God to provide for him if he gave his blessings away.

In the desert fathers, we find a story of one monk who decided to take the teachings of Christ literally:

One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give to the poor. (From Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 37)

Anyone person is capable to literally following this teaching of Christ – even to give away the Scriptures to fully keep the commandment.  The monk had already abandoned civil society and moved to the desert to live the harsh life there.  He had given up the comforts of society, but decides to take the teaching to the next level and even give away the scriptures which had taught him how to live.   We do not know what became of this monk, but we do learn that it is possible to follow Christ’s teachings to the limit.  It is not necessary to have an abundance of possessions in order to be a Christian.  The blessings of God are not something to be accumulated, but to be shared with others.

Ambition

The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath.  (Proverbs 11:23)

From the fruit of his mouth a good man eats good, but the desire of the treacherous is for violence.  (Proverbs 13:2)

Desire is sometimes presented in spiritual writings as a root cause of humanity’s problems.  Certainly, in Buddhism, desire is the cause of suffering, and in fact in some forms of Buddhism, desire is what brought the world that we know into existence.  Christian Scriptures on the other hand present a far more nuanced view of desire.  There is evil desire and the desire for evil, but there is also good desire as well as the desire for the good.  Desire can motivate us to seek God, to seek that Beauty, Truth and Goodness which is beyond the limits of the self.  Desire, on the other hand, can be nothing more than sinful passion – a selfishness moving one away from God or even against one’s fellow human beings.   Thus desire can lead to love for God and for the good of others, or it can bring us to total self love with a disregard for all others.

If desire becomes strong enough it can motivate us to forgo immediate gratification and instead strive for long term goals.  That we sometimes term ambition and at least at one time was connected to being willing to work hard to achieve a goal.

Ambition: a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.  (online Dictionary)

Today, however, ambition is often viewed more negatively and nefariously as self-serving:

Ambition: an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

We are warned in the New Testament about such ambition:

For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.   (James 3:16)

Perhaps because of the negative connotation of ambition, I was really struck by the Revised English Bible’s (REB) translation of 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12:

Let it be your ambition to live quietly and attend to your own business; and to work with your hands, as we told you, so that you may command the respect of those outside your own number, and at the same time never be in want.  

By contrast the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translates the text this way: “aspire to live quietly…”

I can desire or aspire to live quietly and attend to my own business.  It is easy for me personally as a person who is both an introvert and shy.  But to make it my ambition?  This is a challenge for me and maybe for all of us.  We might hope that somehow things will fall into place and be peaceful, but St. Paul says we are to make it our ambition to live quietly.  There is a seeming contradiction in terms, which is what makes the text stand out so in my mind.  We are to strive to live quietly and peacefully.  My ambition should be to live quietly!   The jarring nature of the phrase is exactly because for us ambition is viewed mostly as a self-serving pursuit of self-glorification.  It is the difference, as I heard someone say, between the explorers who were seeking knowledge about the world as versus the adventurers who are seeking fame and glory for their own name.

But ambition itself is not the sin or the problem.  The issue is what are we ambitious to do?

Our ambition as Christians is to live the values of the peaceable Kingdom.  Our ambition is to be peaceful, meek, patient, poor, humble, gentle, always putting the good of the other ahead of our own wants.

Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need.     (Acts 4:32-35)

St. Paul Living On Earth as In Heaven

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I wish to boast, I shall not be a fool, for I shall be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:2-10)

St. John Chrysostom writes about the Apostle:

“For this Paul, who stripped down to his flesh, renouncing his body, and almost naked, encircled the whole world with his soul, having exiled from his mind every passion. And imitating the apathea of the bodiless powers, and living on earth as if in heaven, and standing with the cherubim above, and taking part in their mystical song, he easily bore everything – enduring, as if he were in another’s body, imprisonment, chains, arrests, scourgings, threats of death, stonings, dunkings, and every other kind of punishment.”

(Letters to Saint Olympia, p. 78)

Cultivating vs Chaos

“Woe to the road if no one walks along it nor hears in it the voice of man, because it has become the den of wild beasts!  Woe to the soul in which the Lord does not pass along its route and from which the Lord does not drive out by his voice the spiritual wild beasts of evil!

 Woe to the house where the master does not abide!

Woe to the earth which does not have a farmer to cultivate it!

Woe to the ship without a navigator, because it is carried along by the waves and by the heaving of the sea and is lost!

Woe to the soul which does not have the true navigator, Christ, in it, because finding itself on the sea of frightful darkness and tossed to and fro by the heaving of the passions and beaten by the winter storm of evil spirits, it finally gains perdition!

Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ, cultivating it with care so as to bring forth good fruits of the Spirit; because left sterile and filled with thorns and thistles, its fruit finally is burning in the fire.  Woe to the soul when it does not have Christ as its Master dwelling in it, because being abandoned and filled with the foul odor of passions, it finds itself a dwelling place of iniquity.

Just as the farmer, when he girds himself to cultivate the soil, must take the tools and clothing for cultivating, so Christ the King, the heavenly and true cultivator, when he came to humanity made barren by evil, put on the body and carried the cross as his tool and worked the barren soul and removed from it the thorns and thistles of evil spirits and pulled up the weeds of sin and burned up with fire every weed of its sins.

And in this way he cultivated it with the wood of the cross and planted in it the most beautiful paradise of the Spirit, bearing every fruit that is sweet and delectable to God as its owner.”

(Pseudo-Macarius, THE FIFTY SPIRITUAL HOMILIES AND THE GREAT LETTER, pp 184-185)

Naked I Came Into the World

When the same Abba Macarius was in Egypt he found somebody who had a beast of burden carrying off his things. Standing beside the robber as though he were a stranger, he helped him load up the beast then sent him on his way in great hesychia, saying: “‘We brought nothing into this world and it is clear that neither can we carry anything out’ [1 Tim 6.7].

The Lord has given and it has transpired as he willed it to; blessed be the Lord in all things [see Job 1.21].”

(Give me a Word, p. 184-185)