Faith as Synergy

 

The saints frequently describe the life of faith as a synergy between the human and God.  Each has their part to do which is part of the mystery of faith in an omnipotent God who grants free will to His creatures.  God does not do for us what we must choose to do for ourselves.  God warned Noah about the flood but did not build him the ark.  On the other side of that, we need so many things from God which we constantly seek, such as God’s mercy.  Our best efforts will fall short if we don’t connect with God.   I think the Virgin Mary expresses it well in her hymn in Luke 1:46-50 where though she is fulfilling the heights of being human she recognizes this is God’s wish and will for the world and not just for her life.  If there is no “God with us” our greatest miracles will be no more than a temporary delay of the universal decline into entropy.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.”

This cooperation between the Creator and human creatures is readily found in Orthodox spiritual writings.

St John Chrysostom says: ‘A man’s readiness and commitment are not enough if he does not enjoy help from above as well; equally help from above is no benefit to us unless there is also commitment and readiness on our part. These two facts are proved by Judas and Peter. For although Judas enjoyed much help, it was of no benefit to him, since he had no desire for it and contributed nothing from himself. But Peter, although willing and ready, fell because he enjoyed no help from above. So holiness is woven of these two strands. Thus I entreat you neither to entrust everything to God and then fall asleep, nor to think, when you are striving diligently, that you will achieve everything by your own efforts.”  (St Theodoros the Great Ascetic, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 11142-51)

An important point for us – even being a chosen apostle does not guarantee synergy or communion with God.  Being Apostles was no advantage to either Judas or Peter  over us in terms of cooperating with God for salvation.  If we think faithfulness is hard and would be made easier if Jesus did a bit more, we might remember it didn’t help Judas to be one of the Twelve Chosen and to walk with Jesus daily.  Faith is the willingness to cooperate with God to accomplish God’s will.  It doesn’t guarantee that were won’t be struggle or loss or sorrow or setback.  It does mean believing despite all these struggles.  It means being judged in our current circumstance, not in some better time.   “For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a man has, not according to what he has not” (2 Corinthians 8:12).  We are not told to do our best in perfect circumstances, rather we are told to be perfect in the circumstances we find ourselves.  Which means in the end we need God’s mercy.

Holding Fast to the Faith

“The faith that is in many church attendees is as much American folk religion as Christianity. Their focus tends to be consumerist (“What’s in it for me?”),

moralistic (“Live by the rules!”),

therapeutic (“I want peace of mind and happiness”)

Deism.

As I overhear God’s people talk, Christianity is almost reduced to accepting Christ as your Savior so you can go to heaven when you die, and between now and then you attend church, have a daily devotional, live a clean life, and “let” God meet your needs and attain your goals.

There may be more right than wrong in that reduction of the faith, but it is a form of Christianity with some of the heart removed, more of the mind, and most of the vertebrae. It is not a version of the Christian faith that has a fair chance of changing the world or its devotees. No ancient martyrs would have been fed to the lions if their faith had been reduced to that.

(George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, Kindle Location 1539-1547)

Prayer is God

7342515708_983ca96522_mThe purpose of prayer is to enable our union with God.  It’s purpose is not to make all our wants, needs, desires, hopes and wishes known to God.  God already knows all of those things.  We can reduce prayer to a list of wants and needs, but then we miss the very purpose of prayer.  St Gregory of Sinai leads us into an ever deeper understand of what prayer is because it becomes obvious that for the Christian prayer is everything.  St Gregory writes:

Or again, prayer is

the preaching of the Apostles, an action of faith or, rather, faith itself, ‘that makes real for us the things for which we hope‘ (Heb. 11:1),

active love, angelic impulse,

the power of the bodiless spirits, their work and delight,

the Gospel of God, the heart’s assurance,

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hope of salvation, a sign of purity, a

token of holiness, knowledge of God,

baptism made manifest, purification in the water of regeneration,

a pledge of the Holy Spirit, the exultation of Jesus,

the soul’s delight, God’s mercy,

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a sign of reconciliation, the seal of Christ,

a ray of the noetic sun, the heart’s dawn-star,

the confirmation of the Christian faith,

the disclosure of reconciliation with God, God’s grace,

God’s wisdom or, rather, the origin of true and absolute Wisdom;

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the revelation of God,

the work of monks, the life of hesychasts, the source of stillness, and expression of the angelic state.

Why say more?

Prayer is God,

who accomplishes everything in everyone (cf. 1 Cor. 12:6), for there is a single action of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, activating all things through Christ Jesus.”  

THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 41660-41675)

As in Heaven, So on Earth

The Lord Jesus taught 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.”  (Luke 6:31-36)

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Let’s imagine that we are now in heaven.  We’ve made it to the kingdom of God.  I look around at the other people who are also in God’s Kingdom.  I see some people who were always kind to me back on earth, so I try to figure out how to be kind to them here in heaven.   I see someone who forgave me in my lifetime when I really hurt them, so I walk up to them and talk to them.   Over there I see some people who I never liked in life, and they turn away from me and pretend I’m not there.  That’s OK by me as I don’t really want to deal with them.  I see someone else who betrayed me one time and told all my friends and family about something bad I had done.  They were truthful about what they said, but it embarrassed me and caused other people to condemn me.  When I see that person in heaven, I’m disgusted and decide to find people I like rather than have to be around someone who told everybody about my problems.

What is wrong with this picture of heaven?

It’s just like earth.

So we have to think what did our Lord Jesus teach us about how we are to treat people who have cursed us or despised us or hated us or wronged us or offended us?  We are to treat them as we want to be treated.

Heavenly values are not: I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.  They are not about reciprocity.  There is no retaliation in heaven.  No mutual gift exchanges either.  No treating others as they deserve.   Rather, the only principle guiding how people are to treat one another in God’s Kingdom is Love.   Treat others in the same way that you hope God will treat you on Judgement day – with mercy, forgiveness, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness.  Those are heavenly values.

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When Jesus says, if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you?  He is saying, what sort of gift is that?  Is it a gift to pay people back for the good things they do for you?   That’s not a gift, that’s just pay back.  On the other hand, God gives His gifts to us whether we are good or evil.  God gives rain and sunshine to all.  God’s gifts go far beyond what is expected, deserved, earned, because they are gifts of love.  God gives us life, and we are supposed to be pro-life, which also means we should love all who are alive (which we also know is very hard!)

From the Triads of St Paul (19th Century British Document), we do encounter a Christian thinker reflecting on what Jesus commands us to do:  “There are three ways a Christian punishes an enemy: by forgiving him, by not divulging his sin, by doing all the good in his power.”  We punish them by not behaving as they behave, and by not giving them any reason to hate us.  They’ll have that!

Jesus said: “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.”

This used to be called what?     The Golden Rule

This rule says to treat people as you want to be treated.  If you want people to respect you – what do you need to do?  Respect them.  Don’t try to buy their respect by giving them gifts or praise, that is bribery.  Don’t just do them favors so that they will think well of you.  That’s manipulation.  If you want their respect, respect them, treat them with respect.  Treat everyone as you want to be treated.  Don’t command it of them or demand it from them.  Model it.  Show them how you would like to be treated by how you behave and treat them.

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You want them to serve you?  Then serve them.

Do you want them to love you?  Then love them.

Constantly and at all times by your own behavior, attitude, words and deeds demonstrate to others how you want to be treated.

If you are self centered and selfish, you are telling others that is how you want them to behave as well, so don’t be angry when they reflect back to you how you are behaving.

Finally we remember the words of St Paul in today’s Epistle:  “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”   (2 Corinthians 4:6-8)

Darkness is what we already have, but the Gospel commands are the light which shines out of our darkness and gives us the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.  God’s commandments can make even this earth into heaven.

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Pride and Humility

“There are many disciples of Christ who can justly claim that they are indifferent to material possessions. They happily live in simple huts, wear rough woolen clothes, eat frugally, and give away the bulk of their fortunes. These same people can justly claim that they are indifferent to worldly power. They happily work in the most humble capacities, performing menial tasks, with no desire to high rank. But there may still be one earthly attribute to which they cling: reputation. They may wish to be regarded by others as virtuous. They may want to be admired for their charity, their honesty, their integrity, their self-denial.

They may not actually draw people’s attention to these qualities, but they are pleased to know that others respect them. Thus when someone falsely accuses them of some wrongdoing, they react with furious indignation. They protect their reputation with the same ferocity as the rich people protect their gold. Giving up material possessions and worldly power is easy compared with giving up reputation. To be falsely accused and yet to remain spiritually serene is the ultimate test of faith.

(St. John Chrysostom, On Living Simply, p. 33)

The Christianity of Life

At the heart of “mainstream” Syriac tradition the ascetic mode of life renounced not the physical world, but a world gone awry. Celibacy or chastity in marriage; simplicity of food, clothing and possession; care for the poor, sick, and suffering – such were the requisite features of the Christian mode of life from Christianity’s inception. In earliest Syriac literature, the body of the true believer is a body rendered chaste, healed and holy in marriage to its Heavenly Bridegroom by living a Christian life.

In turn, the condition of the believer’s body must be mirrored in the community as a whole body. Caring for others, and especially for the suffering, not only fulfilled the command to love one another, but also forged into existence a community whose life as a healed and consecrated community literally reflected Paradise regained – the image by which Edessa recalled the experience of its conversion to Christianity.

(Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Embodiment in Time and Eternity: A Syriac Perspective,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 43, No 2., 1999)

Living the Creed

“And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St. Maximus puts it, is the theology of demons. The Creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ‘Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Trinity one in essence and undivided.’

This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love him.”

(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 201)

Today and Tomorrow


“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.   (Matthew 6:34)


Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.”  (James 4:13-15)

“Do not rely on tomorrow: your business belongs to today, for our time is not a time for just words or for acquiring property, or indeed to swagger about enjoying ourselves, or to relax in idleness. No, for the discerning it is time for action; it is the time to gather in fruits; it is the time for repentance; it is the time for everyone to supplicate Christ with all his heart.”   (Babi, “Letter to Syriacus”, The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, p. 140)

Don’t worry about being good for the rest of your life – as long as you do it today.  Don’t worry about being good for the rest of the day – as long as you do it right now.

The Greatest is Love

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

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

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

Rowing Against the Wind

In Matthew 14:22-34, we learn an important lesson about being Christ’s disciples.

Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away. And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. Now when evening came, He was alone there. But the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary. Now in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.” And Peter answered Him and said, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.”

And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret.

Did Jesus promise His followers a life free from trials and tribulations?  No .  Jesus said, “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  (John 16:33)

In today’s Gospel, we see the disciples rowing against the howling wind.  But the fact that they are going against the wind doesn’t mean they are headed in the wrong direction or that they are moving away from Christ.  In this Gospel lesson, that raging wind is necessary for their encounter with Christ and for their understanding to grow.

We sense their and our powerlessness in the world – they are too far from the shore for help.  The wind might capsize their boat and sink their mission.   Not only are they being blasted by the wind but their faith is being buffeted by the winds of disbelief.  There is more than one storm raging on that lake.

I remember once when I was in Costa Rica we were trying to get out to a boat that was in the bay.  We had to climb into very small motor boat which had landed on the beach to get to our ship.  A storm happened upon us at that very second.  The wind was blowing the waves roiling.  And this little motor boat was rickety and the crew was a couple of 20 year olds with limited English.  As I climbed into the boat with my kids, I really did think we were going to be capsized and drown.  A few people refused to get on board.  The two young crew men pleaded with them, “We don’t want to drown either” but some abandoned ship and stayed ashore.  The little boat was full of leaks and we had to bail water out of it for the entire trip to our ship, while being tossed by the storm .  It was an apostolic moment in my life.

It might be piously inspiring if in the Gospel we were to see the disciples calmly praying through the storm.  Not so in the Gospel.  They are struggling against the storm and they are panicked and terrified.   Jesus comes to them in the storm, walking on the raging sea.  He doesn’t prevent the storm from happening.  We find Him in the storm and there we are to be strengthened and comforted, calmed and guided in and through the storm.  The values of the Kingdom of Heaven are so unworldly.

The Storms of life are many – violence, stress, financial, family, death, grief, personal struggles, temptations, passions, diseases .  Christ still can be encountered in the storm.  The storms are no less violent, but we can find God if we are looking and we can hold on to God just as Peter grasped the hand of Christ.

In the Orthodox Funeral service we sing:  “Beholding the sea of life surging with the storms of temptations.  And taking refuge in your calm haven I cry to you: Raise up my life from corruption O greatly merciful one.”

We are reminded that there are so many storms we have to face in life.

Just this year Dayton has survived several storms of life – the KKK rally and counter protest, the Memorial Day tornadoes and the mass shooting.

Jesus calls to us from the midst of the storm:  “Take courage! Don’t be afraid!  It is I”   Can we hear Him despite the raging wind of the storm?  Or are we of so little faith that all we hear is the roaring storm and can only imagine human solutions to worldly disasters?

We are Christ’s presence in this stormy world.  In that storm we are to be present offering our hand to those who are drowning.   God is not hidden in heaven, God is present in the midst of the storm.  Besides, as the Scriptures show raging winds are not only threatening but can be useful:

At creation:  “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit/wind of God was moving over the face of the waters.”   (Genesis 1:2)

In the great flood:  But God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided;   (Genesis 8:1)

In Exodus 15:10  after Israel crosses the Red Sea, Moses describes God’s intervention to save Israel from the Egyptian army in these terms:  You blew with Your wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters.

In Ezekiel 37:9, Ezekiel is given a vision of the resurrection and is told by God:  “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”  When the wind blew the dead came back to life.

In the book of Jonah, it is the wind which prevents Jonah from running away from the Lord, from going the wrong way:  But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. (1:4)

In the Gospel we see Jesus showing His power over nature as He walks on the storm tossed waters.  We see Peter, a disciple, being given power to imitate our Lord in the midst of the storm.  And we see how we as disciples are dependent on Christ even when empowered by Him.

Peter asked permission to walk on the water.  Christ responds not with an invitation but with a command: “Come!”  Jesus orders Peter to walk on the water!  As Peter walks on the water he and the other disciples are amazed and edified as they learn to what extent they can share in the powers of God’s Son on earth.  As soon as Peter loses sight of the fact that this miracle, that he is walking on water, is being done to edify him and the other disciples, he is sunk.  No miracle, no power of God is given to us to elevate us above anyone else.  All are given to edify us and everyone else.  Nothing is between you and Christ alone.  Everything is done in love for the benefit of all.  Sinking in the storm sea brought Peter back to his senses and he turns again to Christ.

All miracles are done to the glory of God and for the upbuilding of one another.  All miracles are done in order to increase faith and for the edification of all.  Even Peter’s failure was a lesson for all in discipleship.   Let all you do be done in love.