Seeing One’s Own Sins

Love and wisdom are two energies that are to guide us Christians in our decisions and behavior.  Neither can be learned from a book of rules.  Both require the help of the Holy Spirit to know when, how, where and to what degree we are to actor speak.

An Elder was asked by a brother, “If I see the sin of my brother am I to despise him?” And the old man said, “If we hide the fault of our brother God will also hide our faults; and if we expose our brother’s faults, God will also expose ours.”

An old man was wont to say, “There was a brother whose name was Timothy, and he used to lead a life of silent contemplation in a religious house; and a temptation came upon one of the brethren of that house, and the head of the house asked Timothy, saying, “What shall I do to this brother?” Timothy said unto him, “Expel him.” When he had expelled the brother, the temptation of that brother was sent upon Timothy, and he cried out to God, saying, “I have sinned, O my Lord, have mercy upon me.”

He passed the whole night in a grave of dead men, crying out and saying, “I have sinned, O my Lord, forgive me.”  The temptation was upon him until he was greatly exhausted. And a voice came to him saying, “Timothy, do not imagine that these things have happened to you for any other reason than because you offended your neighbor in the time of his trial.”

(adapted from  The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, p. 225)

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Remaining In Peace

In peace, let us pray to the Lord.

That we might spend the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us pray to the Lord.  (Petitions from Orthodox liturgical services)

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Brethren, let us preserve this peace in ourselves as far as we can, for we have received it as an inheritance from our Savior who has now been born, who gives us the Spirit of adoption, through which we have become heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ (cf Rom. 8:15, 17). Let us be at peace with God, doing those things which are well-pleasing to Him, living chastely, telling the truth, behaving righteously, “continuing in prayer and supplication” (cf Acts 1:14), “singing and making melody in our heart” (cf Eph. 5:19), not just with our lips. Let us be at peace with ourselves, by subjecting our flesh to our spirit, choosing to conduct ourselves according to our conscience, and having the inner world of our thoughts motivated by good order and purity. Thus we shall put an end to the civil conflict in our own midst.

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Let us be at peace with one another, “forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you” (Col. 3:13), and showing mercy to each other out of mutual love, just as Christ, solely for love of us, had mercy on us and for our sake came down to us. Then, recalled from the sinful fall through His help and grace, and lifted high above this world by virtues, we may have our citizenship in heavenly places (cf Phil. 3:20), whence also we wait for our hope (cf Rom. 8:23), redemption from corruption and enjoyment of celestial and eternal blessings as children of the heavenly Father.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, p. 484)

Keeping the Apostle’s Fast

“This fast,” he said, “is very good, if you keep the commandments of the Lord. So observe this fast which you are going to keep in this way: First of all, guard against every evil word and every evil desire, and cleanse your heart of all the vanities of this world. If you observe these things, this fast will be complete. And here is what you will do: when you have finished the above-mentioned, on that day when you are fasting, you will taste nothing except bread and water, and you will be aware of the amount of the cost of your food you would have eaten on that day which you are going to keep. Having set it aside, you will give it to a widow or an orphan or someone else in need, and in this way you will be humble minded, so that from your humility the one who receives may fill his soul and pray to the Lord for you.

Offering Mercy to Christ

If, then, you complete the fast in this way, as I command you, our sacrifice will be acceptable before God [cf. Phil. 4:18; Isa. 56:7; 1 Pet. 2:5], and this fast will be recorded, and the service done in this way is good and joyous and acceptable to the Lord. This is the way you shall observe these things, with your children and all your house; if you observe them, you will be blessed and as many as hear them and keep them will be blessed, and whatever they ask from the Lord they will receive.”

(Shepherd of Hermas, The Apostolic Fathers, p. 213)

Is Being Good Enough?

Jesus never taught us “Be good.”  He never said those words.

He taught us to love one another.

He taught us to to serve one another.

He taught us to forgive one another.

He taught us to humble ourselves.

He taught us to do as He did and wash each other’s feet.

He taught us to see our own sins and not to judge others.

He taught us to sin no more.

He taught us to see God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

He taught us the way to the kingdom of Heaven.

He taught us to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and follow Him.

He taught us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect –  in other words – He told us to be like God.

He never said, “Be good” but He did want us to see God, to become God’s people, to participate in the Divine Life which He shares with us.   As St. Athanasius would sum up the Gospel commandments:  “God became man in Christ so that we humans might become divine.

Christ did not come to be the Chief of the Moral Police.  He came to unite us to heaven.  He came so that we could participate in the Divine Life shared by the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  He came to show us how to love like God so that we would imitate God in our love for one another.  When we reduce Christ to some kind of moral detective or prosecuting attorney, we dishonor Him.  Jesus Christ is God.  God is love.  Jesus is love incarnate.  He offers to share the divine life with us, to restore all that humanity and creation has lost due to human sinfulness.

In the Desert Fathers we encounter stories showing how these early Christians imagined imitating Christ by following the Gospel commandments.  Sometimes the stories are quite counter intuitive and they do challenge our modern sensibilities.  Here are two such stories for us to ponder as we discern how to follow Christ in our lives.  Keep in mind these are lessons from people who were both maximalistic and idealistic in their beliefs about what it means to take the Gospel seriously.   They saw the Gospel commandments as what guides life in heaven – yet they were  attempting to live them in this world of the Fall.

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A monk asked a Spiritual Elder: “If I see my brother living in sin, should I despise him?”

The Elder replied: If we cover over the fault of our brother, God will cover over our sins too.  But if we reveal our brother’s sins to others, God will expose our sins to others also.”

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There was a very spiritual monk named Timothy and all the monks in the monastery admired him. One time one of the monks fell into temptation.  The Abbot came to Timothy to ask his advice on what to do.  “What shall I do with our fallen brother?”

Timothy replied:  “Expel him from the monastery.”  So the Abbot expelled him from the community.

That same day the same temptation fell on the holy Timothy, and he spent the entire night crying and weeping, saying: “I have sinned, O Lord, have mercy on me.”  And  “I have sinned, O Lord, forgive me.”

At dawn, God spoke to Timothy and said: “Timothy, this happened to you because you sinned against your neighbor in the time of his trial.”

Our task as Christians is not to be the moral police of those around us.   Our duty is to rid ourselves of all blindness so that we can first see our own sins and repent.  Then we will see clearly God’s Kingdom and walk the way of the Cross to get there, inviting neighbor, family, friend and enemy to join us on the way.

[Having had to deal with sexual abuse in the Church, I will add that the above thought applies to many of our interactions with people.  However there are cases which require extra wisdom, courage and love to discern.  We are not to be foolishly blind to evil, nor are we to ignore or enable sexual predators or abusive leaders – we have a duty to love and protect those who are vulnerable from those who would sin against them or lead them into sin.  And we have to figure out how to love the sinner as well.  Being a disciple of Christ doesn’t give us a pass from having to deal with evil or  complex problems.]

Christian: What Does It Mean to Be Successful?

 The cross of Christ is central to our spiritual lives and to the glory we will obtain from God.

Taking up the cross to follow Christ is essential to our discipleship.  We cannot be Christians unless we do what Christ commanded:  Take up our cross and follow Him.

This week as you fast, pray and prepare yourself to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, focus on the cross bearing we are called to do.

It is not easy to follow Christ – every day in the most mundane and simple ways we see how hard it is to do the right thing.  We struggle with patience, sloth, forgetfulness, greed, envy, jealousy, anger, being thankful, not getting our way, with disappointment, with having to share the world with others.   And all of that can occur just in the morning before we go to church!

We must die with Christ in order to live with Him.  As St. Paul writes:

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.   (Romans 6:3-8)

But we do have to die with Him if we want to live with Him. This dying to self is hard because we so want to get our way always.

To be a Christian is to live for the kingdom of God, which means denying ourselves in this world.  We are not Christians in order to become more prosperous in this world, for as Christians we claim citizenship in God’s Kingdom.  We may experience blessings in this world, but we aren’t to live for them, but must live with a willingness to give up the things of this world for life in the world to come.  We receive blessings from God so that we might share those blessings with others.

There is an account in the lives of the Orthodox missionaries to Alaska of an event that happened in 1796.  There was a certain Aleut Indian chief who was notorious for his bad behavior – drunkenness, fighting, stealing, rape and adultery.  His villagers sought out an Orthodox missionary to try to convert their chief to Christianity as they wanted to improve his behavior.  The missionary priest came to the village and saw the evil going on and did his best to present the Gospel to all the people in the village.  Surprisingly the chief demanded to be baptized at once, threatening harm to the priest if he refused. The priest reluctantly baptized him.   The chief however did not undergo any conversion and continued his evil ways.  The villagers were furious at the priest for having failed them.  They told the missionary priest: “You lied to us.  You told us that if we or the chief converted to Christianity that we would be better people.  Our chief was baptized and is as bad as ever.”  In a rage they took the priest and killed him on the spot.  This is the story of St. Juvenaly, whose icon we have in our church.

My point in telling you this story is that those Aleuts only thought of Christianity as making their life on earth better.  They wanted to improve their material lot in life.  They did not accept the Gospel as a call to set aright their own lives with God, nor did they intend to follow Christ in suffering for truth and righteousness.  They in fact rejected the Gospel and in bitter disappointment became murderers.  They were not able to see beyond life in this world.

We follow Christ not for material gain in this world but in order to give our life to Him.

What does it profit someone to gain the whole world but to lose their life?  (Mark 8:36)

In the Service for Receiving Converts into the Faith, one of the petitions we say in the litany for the new convert is this:

That grace may be given to him/her through anointing with the all-holy Chrism, so that boldly, without fear and unashamed, he/she may confess before all people the Name of Christ our God, and that he/she may be always ready for Christ’s sake to lovingly suffer and to die, let us pray to the Lord.

Yes, as Christians we commit ourselves to always be ready to lovingly suffer and die for Christ!

To follow Christ is to take a new look at the questions: “What does it mean to be successful?”   and   How do I measure success?

For Christians success can only be measured in terms of whether or not we are following Christ.

In the Gospel lesson today, we could paraphrase Jesus as saying: “If any wants to be my disciple  and enter into eternal life, then say no to your self, say no to your desires, say no to your self interest, say no to your self preservation.”

We live in a country full of over weight people, people with porn addictions, binge drinkers, and drug addiction partly because we refuse ever to say no to our selves.  We confusedly think abundance means over indulgence is blessed.  Great Lent says precisely because there is such abundance we need to learn self control and how to say no to all that abundance which surrounds us so that we don’t literally become buried in over indulgence.

You want to be a Christian?  Then take up your cross and deny yourself and follow Christ.  Great Lent is given to you and me as a gift – an opportunity for us to seriously and literally fulfill the teaching of Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

Fasting: To Cleanse the Heart

“I beg and entreat that each one of you reckon up in his conscience the results of his fasting. If he discovers that he has gained much, let him reckon it to his hard work; but if he has gained nothing, let him use the remaining time to gain goods through diligent fasting. As long as the festival lasts, let us not leave before we have exerted ourselves and acquired great gain, so we will not leave with empty hands. In this way we shall not forsake the reward of fasting, since we have endured the toil of fasting. For it is possible to endure even the toil of fasting and not receive the reward of fasting. How? When we abstain from food but do not abstain from sins; when we do not eat meat but devour the homes of the poor; when we do not get drunk from wine but become intoxicated by wicked desire; when we continue without food for the entire day but pass all of it a wonton spectacles. Recognize that we can endure the toil of fasting but not receive the recompense of fasting, when we attend the theaters of lawlessness.

What does the divine law say? “You have heard that God said to the ancients, ‘You shall not commit adultery!’ But I say to you that everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Have you seen an adulterer perform? Have you seen a sin fulfilled? And worse yet, the adulterer who is not convicted and condemned by a human court for his adultery is held accountable by the divine tribunal, whose retributions are eternal. Everyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart.Fasting eradicates not only the disease but also the root of the disease, and the root of adultery is wonton desire. For this reason, Scripture punishes not only the adultery but also the desire, the mother of adultery.”

(St. John Chrysostom, The Fathers of the Church: St. John Chrysostom on Repentance and Almsgiving, p. 70 & 73)

Imitating Christ: One OF Us

That a Christian is one who both follows Christ and imitates Him seems pretty straightforward.  Jesus Himself told us:

“You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”  (John 13:13-17)

Today in American English we often hear the “you” of these commandments in the singular.  We are so attuned to individualism that we assume this is a command for each off us to keep individually, and yet the command is spoken in the plural and means that all of us together are to love one another.  Christ is an example to each of us personally, but then calls us to act communally as brothers and sisters.  We as parish are to serve all.  Christ gives an example to each of us, and together, communally, collectively, as a body, as a parish we are to fulfill the commandment together.

In this same discourse but a minute later Christ goes on to say:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Again he addresses himself to each of us personally but calls us to love together, collectively and communally.  We are to be recognized as disciples not just an individual disciple.  We are recognized as disciples in community.  The parish is essential for our identity and witness.  In the parish community we can and are to fulfill the commandment that we together do what Christ commanded us to do.  This is very much what the early church understood about being Christian and discipleship:  one Christian, or a Christian alone, is no Christian.  Only in community can we love as Christ commanded us to do.  Of course we each have to contribute to this communal behavior, but it is always each of us have to work together to love as Christ exemplified and commanded us to do.

The plural “you” – we, us – is also in St. Paul’s exhortation:

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  (Rom. 15:7)

Christ welcomes us and receives us.  It is as one of us that we live our Christian life.

“Let us commend our selves, and one another and all our life to Christ our God.”

Who Can Be a Christian?

What does it take to be a Christian?  Follow the law of Love, says St. Nicholas Cabasilas:  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

“The ‘law of Love’ is the basis of his spirituality as [Cabasilas] writes in the sixth book of The Life in Christ.

‘This law demands no arduous nor afflicting work, nor loss of money; it does not involve shame, nor any dishonour, nor anything worse; it puts no obstacle in the pursuit of any art or profession.

The general keeps the power to command,

the labourer can work the ground,

the artisan can carry on with his occupation. There is no reason to retire into solitude, to eat unusual food, to be inadequately clothed, or endanger one’s health, or to resort to any other special endeavour;

it suffices to give oneself wholly to meditation and to remain always within oneself without depriving the world of one’s talents.'”  (Boris Bobrinskoy, The Life in Christ, p. 290)

Do You Unite Yourself to Christ? Have You United Yourself to Christ?

In 2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1, St. Paul writes:

And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.” Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

The Word of God became incarnate as a human to unite earth to heaven and reunite humanity to divinity.  Christ by becoming incarnate makes the salvation of the human race possible because He unites us to the Holy Trinity.  This union of God and humanity already occurred in history.

For us Christians – our response to the incarnation – life consists mostly of removing from our own lives all and any of the obstacles to our union with God.  Repentance, prayer, self denial, virtue, worship, participating in the sacraments, charity, forgiveness – all are the ways in which we remove from our selves those things which prevent us from experiencing God’s love and the life in God.  God became incarnate to unite humanity to divinity. Salvation consists of our union with God – our accepting that union which God offers us in Jesus Christ.

In God’s plan for salvation, Mary, the mother of Jesus is the person in whom all obstacles to the union of God and humans are removed.   God finds the way to unite God’s own self to us and this reunion occurs within the Theotokos.  She is the person in whom salvation takes place.  God’s plan for salvation is to unite humanity to God’s divinity, and this begins within Mary’s womb at the incarnation.  God cannot unite Himself to humanity without a human person to whom God can be united.

We respond to God’s salvation – the restoration of communion between God and ourselves by embracing the Gospel.  Baptism is part of the process by which we remove all obstacles to our union with God – by which we remove all obstacles to salvation.   1]  First,  the person hears the Gospel and moves towards God, to embrace God’s love and to be embraced  by it.  The person goes through catechism, to prepare themselves for union with God.  They prepare themselves to lay aside those things which separate them from God, and they embrace all those words, actions and thoughts which make union with God possible.  2]  Then the  catechumen comes to confession and renounces their sins and repents of them – renounces all of their behaviors and thoughts which had separated them from God.  Repentance is a stage in the process of turning away from those things which separate us from God in order that we might experience God’s embrace of us.  3] When the catechumen is ready for baptism, they come to church, and at the door of the church they renounce Satan and all his angels and all his service and all his pride.  They reject everything in the world that separates them from God.  This is the exorcism – expelling the darkness and all those thoughts and deeds which had in fact separated us from God.    4]   Then before they are baptized, they remove their clothes, again removing anything which separates them from God – all that they have clothed themselves in from the world is left behind.  And their clothes do symbolize all that they have taken on themselves from the world.  They show in leaving behind those clothes that they are ready to embrace a new life.

5]  Then in the baptismal font, they are washed of their sins, not so much a physical washing but a spiritual one, again cleansing them of anything which separates them from God , and making them capable of being united to Christ and of receiving the Holy Spirit.   Everything in their life which separated them from God is now left behind – the way of the world in their discarded clothing and their sins in the baptismal font.  Now God enters into them and they put on Christ – clothe themselves in Christ.  Nothing comes between them and God.  They are purified and sanctified and are holy and wholly united to God.  6]  It is no longer they who live but Christ who lives in them.  They now are chrismated, receiving the Holy Spirit as gift, the Spirit of God who comes to abide in the newly baptized Christian.

When we hear the Gospel we realize that just living a better life is not sufficient for salvation.  If it were, then Christ would not have been needed.  The Jews already had God’s law,  if simply keeping Torah was enough for God to unite Himself to humanity, Christ was not needed.  The Gospel itself tells us something more is needed by humanity than simply doing more good deeds.  So in Luke 6:31-36, Jesus teaches us:

And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise. But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.

Just doing good is not even all that special – even sinners know how to be good, especially when that behavior benefits them.   God, for His part, loves expecting nothing in return.  God gives rain and sunshine and all manners of blessing to the entire world, not as a response to us humans or as a reaction to us but purely because God is love.  If we want to live in communion with God, we need to lay aside all those behaviors and thoughts which separate us from God, and to behave as God does – being merciful and generous and kind.  We need to work on remaining fully united to Christ Jesus our Lord.

St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)