Correcting, Not Judging Sinners

St. John Chrysostom had very strong words for Christians who want to convert others to Christ or who want to confront a Christian who has fallen into sin.

Do not trample, but admonish. Do not revile, but advise. Do not assail with pride, but correct with tenderness. These commandments offer great blessings to the obedient, but great evil for those who ignore them.

‘All right,’ you say, ‘if one commits fornication, may I not say that fornication is a bad thing and correct the person who fornicates?’  Yes, correct him – but as a physician providing medicines, not as an adversary exacting a penalty. Be not bitter in pronouncing sentence.

If you judge your brother, be sure to judge yourself first. Care about the one you judge, and judge him not for things you yourself are guilty of.”  (Homily on “Judge not, that you be not judged”, p. 3)

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The Gospel is Good News

Gospel, then, means words about the Word of God. Reflecting on the mystery of the Lord’s Incarnation and all the gifts arising from it, St. John Chrysostom explains why the account of it was called ‘Good News’:

‘What could ever be compared to these joyful tidings?

God on earth, man in heaven.

All became one: angels joined in singing with humans, humans communicated with the angels and the other heavenly powers.

You could truly see the end of the protracted war, reconciliation made between God and our nature, the Devil put to shame, demons in the headlong flight, death abolished.

You could see Paradise being opened, the curse wiped out, sin banished, delusion being hunted down.

Still more, you saw truth returning, the word of Christian faith sown everywhere bringing forth abundant fruit, the life of heaven planted on earth.’

That is why the evangelist called the account of Christ’s life ‘good news.’”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, The Divine Liturgy, p 168)

The Key to Evangelism: Repentance

“Today we call this cooperation with God in our lives in order to transform them synergia. The same teachings, practices, and sacraments that made new people out of pagan in the second century exist in the Church today, and they can accomplish the same thing. But for us to call others to this way, we have to be living transformed lives ourselves, or today’s pagans will not give us the time of day. As the author of the Second Epistle to Clement wrote: ‘For when the heathen hear from our mouth the oracles of God they wonder at their beauty and greatness; then discovering that our deeds are not worthy of the words we utter, they turn from their wonder to blasphemy, saying that it is all a myth and delusion.’ If we are going to evangelize successfully, we must stop making excuses for our own sins.” (Micheal Keiser, Spread the Word, p 680

 

The Church’s Mission is Mercy

 

“Just as God has reached into the heart of death and pain that is part of the human experience of being alive, and has offered its redemptive transfiguration in love through the Cross of the Lord, so too the church, following in the steps of its Lord, is called to meet human suffering with personal courage and communal philanthropy and alleviate the pains of suffering in whatever way it can: physically, morally, or emotionally. This is why the church’s involvement in the social institutions of mercy (hospital and schools) or suffering (prisons and places of enslavement) is a primary element of its mission. Relieving the suffering caused by natural disasters and chronic disease constitutes a major element of the church’s necessary response: a major way of manifesting among society its belief in the glory of the human being as the radiant image of God.”(John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church, pp 192-193)

 

Knowing Christ in the Breaking of the Bread

“…Most important for our reflection on the nature of theological discourse is to understand how the disciples came to know that Jesus is the Lord, the Son of God. Thereby, we can contemplate the coming Lord in that same way, and so remain within the apostolic tradition. As we have observed, they did not come to this knowledge through hearing reports about his birth, nor by accompanying him for a period of time.

This simply underscores the fact that the usual methods of human knowledge – scientific analysis, historical inquiry, or philosophical reflection – are inadequate when the desired object of knowledge is God. For God is not subject to human, physical, or mental perception, but shows himself as and when he will, just as the risen Christ comes and goes at his own pleasure. And, as we have seen, he disappears from sight once he is recognized, so that he does not remain as an external object for our scrutiny – even though we are to become his body, his tangible and perceptible presence in this world.

So, neither seeing Christ on the cross, nor the report about the empty tomb, nor the even the encounter with the risen Christ prompted the disciples, finally, to know the Lord: the tomb is empty, but this in itself is ambiguous, and when he appears he is not immediately recognized.

Rather, the disciples come to recognize the Lord as the one whose passion is spoken of by the Scriptures (meaning the ‘Old Testament’), and who is encountered in the breaking of the bread. Consuming Christ’s offering, they become his body. These two complementary ways – the engagement with Scriptures (understanding how Christ ‘died according to the Scriptures and was raised according to the Scriptures’[1 Cor 15:3-5]), and the participation in the Lord’s meal (‘proclaiming his death until he comes’ [1 Cor 11:26]) – specify what St Paul claims he had received then handed down, or ‘traditioned’ to later generations (cf. 1 Cor 11:23, 15:3).” (John Behr in Thinking Through Faith, pp 73-74)

The Christian Responsibility for the World

The Church is planted by God on earth to be the salt of the earth, not to be sealed perfectly safe and pure in a salt shaker.  We are to be a light to the world, not a light to ourselves, hidden under a bushel basket.

“By enclosing itself in its particularities and in its own inner life, the Church betrays its basic mission, which is to be ‘as a light and a testimony to the infinite love of God for the world.’ ‘ We should never forget that in front of us there is an immense world, a world that does not know the secret that is in it, a world whose heart sighs without knowing for what, but which, fundamentally, seeks God. A world that would want to know Him, love Him, live in Him.

We Christians have an immense responsibility toward that world. It seems to me, that if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we can no longer remain in ourselves cozily, holed up in our beautiful, great, and luminous Eucharistic communities. For, where it can, the Church must bring to the poor, the impoverished, the down-and-out, what it has received, namely the word and the love of God.’” (Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, pp 42-43)

The Church exists for the world – to bring it to salvation, to transform and transfigure lives.  We exist for the sake of sinners – not to accuse them, but to invite them into God’s Kingdom.

The Spirit Who Illumines Our Hearts

“Just as it is impossible without oil and flame for a lamp to bum and thus to give light to those in the house, so it is impossible without the divine fire and Spirit for a soul to speak clearly about divine matters and to illumine others. For every perfect gift bestowed on the devout soul ‘is from above . . . from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variableness or shadow due to change’(Jas. 1:17).”   (Nikitas Stithatos, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 37358-37363)

The Apostle’s Fishing Nets: Icons of the Gospel

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St. John Chrysostom writes a  commentary on the Gospel lesson of Luke 5:1-11 using some wonderful imagery.  Below is the Gospel, followed by Chrysostom’s comments.

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”  For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken;  and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

St. John Chrysostom says:

FishersofMen“Every time the Gospel is preached, I see no one else but Peter or Andrew and the whole choir of Apostles spread out the Evangelical Net (or the Net of the Gospel). The spectacle was strange, to see the Savior on the ocean and those who are taught standing on the beach. Really this is strange, the fish on the land and the Fisherman on the ocean. The casting out of that net into the ocean was an icon of the Evangelical Word (or the Word of the Gospel).

‘He found,’ He says, ‘the Fisherman cleaning out their nets’ (Luke 5:2), because they had been exhausted from fishing…The Savior found them exhausted from fishing, and the Master of the pursuit stood next to them. What did He do? First of all, He taught them the  Word of the Truth, and then He gives them the command to drop the net. […] The power of the One, who commanded and a multitude of fish assembled, appeared before the net. This was an icon of the Church of the Ecumene [note: civilized world]. The net tore. They waved at the partner ship to come and catch them. Two ships were needed to help in the fishing. Because, truly, if the Prophets did not stand by as helpers of the Apostles and if after the prophecies the appearance of the Apostles did not follow, the Fisherman would not have been able to catch fish. Hence, our Savior wants to show us how the catching of the fish is an icon of the Church; in order to teach Peter even more so with this example, He exhorts Peter towards manliness and says, ‘Do not be afraid; henceforth, you will be catching men’ (Luke 5:10); from now on, He says, from the moment you tried the power and you learned that even illogical things are obedient to My word and all things follow My mere nod. Enough examples, use them now during your hunt (fishing). He did not say, ‘You will fish men,’ but ‘You will catch men.’ The fish, when they are caught, are transported from life to death, but men from death to life.

‘From now on,’ He says, ‘You will catch men.’ Why does He tell him, ‘Do not be afraid?’ Let it be; the promise was brilliant. Then why did He say, ‘Do not be afraid?’ Simply, since he remembered the previous sins, He says, ‘Do not be afraid of yourself’ because you are a sinner, but consider yourself as an Apostle, who had received a command to net the ecumene with the word of the Master. ‘Do not be afraid.’ Let every sinner listen to this sentence from Christ. ‘Do not be afraid,’ but from now on show repentance. Therefore, in order to return to the logical sequence of my homily, the net is nothing else than an icon of the Evangelical teaching of the Savior.”

(Protopresbyter Gus George Christo, The Church’s Identity: Established through Images according to Saint John Chrysostom, pp. 369-370)

Jesus calls His disciples to go into the world to do their fishing – on land, with fellow humans being the desired catch.  Unlike fishing which leads to the death of the fish who are caught, the evangelical net of the Church gives life to those who enter into the net.  Why did Christ have the disciples successfully make this huge catch of fish only to then have them abandon the fishing business?   Chrysostom says it taught them that even non-rational fish obey Him, so surely humans will want to obey the Gospel.  It gave the apostles courage to take the Gospel to the world.

From the Akathist of  the Sweetest Lord Jesus:

We see most eloquent orators as voiceless as fish when they must speak of you, O Jesus our Savior.  For it is beyond their power to tell how you are and remain perfect man and immutable God at the same time.

The Reading of the Gospels

“In his description of the Eucharistic celebration, Justin  (d. ca 162AD) refers to the ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ – ‘which are called Gospels’. The Memoirs composed by the apostles ‘are read as time permits’. He does not specify how many gospels there are or which of them are included in the ‘Memoirs’, yet it is most likely that he meant the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This is the first known reference in Christian literature to the reading of the Gospels in a liturgical setting. Such readings at the Sunday worship service contributed to their canonization. Justin’s account implies that reading of the Gospels was practiced everywhere, beyond the confines of Rome as well.”  (Veselin Kesich, Formation and Struggles: The Birth of the Church AD 33-200, pp 157-158)

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The Amazing Catch

There are two different versions in the Gospels of how Jesus calls His first disciples.  In both versions Jesus calls them by changing their profession from being fishermen to becoming fishers of men.  In the Gospel according to St. Matthew 4:18-23 we find this version of the story:

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.  And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them.  Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  And he went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom.

The call of the disciples and their immediate obedience to Jesus is in itself miraculous.  We are not given an explanation as to why they so completely submit themselves to Christ, but they do.  And though they leave the boat and their father to follow Christ, we know later in the Gospels they still have a boat to use and in John’s Gospel are still clearly fishermen after the resurrection of Christ – so they aren’t abandoning the profession completely, but now additionally follow Christ after being called.

The other version of the call of the disciples, found in the Gospel according to St. Luke 5:1-11, has Jesus performing a miracle in helping the disciple make a huge catch of fish and then they are called to follow Christ.  In the Luke version the response of the disciples to Christ’s call is explained by the miracle of the catch of fish.

Sister Katrina, a nun of New Skete wrote of the response of the fishermen after the miraculous catch of fish to follow Christ:

“When we go to the depths with Christ, we learn who we really are – often by learning who we are not, and leaving that behind. It’s interesting that the choice Peter and his fishing partners make is to leave behind exactly what they thought they had been hoping for, and working so hard for. They learned something about who they really were. When they realized who they really were, the amazing catch became just a smelly heap of dead fish.” (Gospel Reflections, pps. 9-10)

Part of what Christians come to realize is that all the success in the world really does not amount to all that much when one considers that life on earth is relatively short when compared to the eternity of existence.  We can pursue all the material wealth we want on earth, but it really is only borrowed goods and never permanently ours for when we die we do not take the material wealth with us.   Our pursuit of the things of the earth proves to be a temporary illusion – a mirage on the sojourn through earth.  For earth turns out not to be paradise but despite it offering us some oases along the way, still a desert compared to the paradise of God.