Neither a Cross Nor Consolation

And getting into a boat he crossed over and came to his own city. And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.” And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.”

But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he then said to the Paralytic — “rise, take up your bed and go home.” And he rose and went home. When the crowds saw it, they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men.  (Matthew 9:1-8)

A most interesting Gospel lesson.  This is another miracle in which Jesus is able to see the faith of the people who bring a paralyzed man to Him.  He is not just looking at their behavior, but really into their hearts.  Faith is something that is visible to those who have the eyes to see.  Our behavior should allow people to see our faith, to reveal what is in our hearts and souls.  The opposite of this is Judas who greets Jesus with the kiss of peace in order to conceal the treachery in his heart.

Note also, it is not the paralyzed man’s faith that Jesus notices, but the faith of those who brought the paralyzed man to Christ.  Here we see the nature of intercessory prayer – when we ask God for help for others, our faith becomes visible through our love.  God takes notice.

And yet in the Gospel text, this crowds asks nothing from Christ they are completely silent.  They lay the paralytic before Christ hoping that He sees the need and knows what to do.  They are not asking for a particular outcome but trusting that Christ will give love to the paralytic.  Their motivation is not mentioned, no details are given about whether the man is worthy of Christ’s attention.

One can imagine that these people with faith are bringing their friend to Christ in love hoping Christ can help.  A good story of faith and love.  But the Gospel doesn’t tell us this, so one can also easily imagine these people are bringing someone to Christ who neglected Torah,  destroyed his life through sin, ended up paralyzed because of his own bad behavior and then complained bitterly about his fate.  They are bringing the paralyzed man to Jesus the Prophet for Jesus to pronounce judgment on the man to get him to shut about his bitterness and to force him to face his predicament is the result of his own sinfulness.  The faith Jesus sees in them is their belief in their own righteousness as keepers of Torah.   Jesus astounds them by forgiving the man and then healing  him.  That would better explain the reaction of the scribes in thinking Jesus blasphemes and the reaction of the crowd – fear.  Why were they suddenly terrified at the healing when they are the very ones who brought the man to Jesus?  Possibly because they suddenly saw themselves – not the paralytic – as condemned for their behavior.  But then marveling at the amazing love of God as they begin to hear the Gospel instead of Torah.

This interpretation sees this lesson as being like John 8:1-11, the woman caught in adultery who the crowd wants to stone but they bring to Christ for Him to pronounce judgment on her, but instead He says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  One by one the shamed people drop their stones and walk away until Christ is left alone with the adulteress.  The woman sees their is no one left to judge her, and Christ says to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

Christ forgives the sin of the paralytic and tells  him to take heart.  The paralytic has not asked for forgiveness nor has he offered repentance.   Jesus, however,  offers comfort, encouragement and hope to the man.  Christ offers what He knows the man needs.  As one of the prayers in our tradition says:

I know not what to ask of You: I ask for neither a cross nor consolation for You alone know what my true needs are.

This crowd brings the paralyzed man to Jesus to see what Jesus will do, not to ask for what they want or hope.  Their prayer is complete trust in God’s will.  Lord do you see what we see in this suffering man?   What is Your will Lord?

It is a holy way to pray for God.  We intercede for others by offering up their names and needs in our daily prayer but then trusting God to respond as God wills even if God’s response astounds us, terrifies us or disappoints us.

Your will be done.

Many people wonder how to pray and for what they should pray.  This Gospel lesson teaches us one aspect of prayer – just present the names of those you care about to God.  Let God decide what they need.  You don’t have to ask for anything, just care about others and offer them up to God in prayer.  Prayer isn’t necessarily about you knowing everything you need to say and knowing how to say it perfectly.  It is you placing before God those you care about, asking God to consider them.  In as much as God is love, let God decide what to do with those for whom we pray.  Don’t tell God what to do, ask God to note those you are concerned about.  In this way we can pray for everyone whether we think they deserve mercy or judgment – place them all in God’s hands and then let God do God’s own will!

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus does not ask the man to repent, He does not expose the man’s sins or denounce his misdeeds.  Instead, Christ simply forgives the man without asking anything in return.  No moral injunction is given  to the man  and no moral change is demanded from the man.  Jesus does not call the healed man to become a disciple.  Rather Jesus sends him home.  The man obeys and goes home, he doesn’t even thank Jesus or ask to become his follower.  Christ gives expecting nothing in return.

Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. “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, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.  (Luke 6:30-36)

Christ’s miracles in the NT are often done for the poor, for sinners, for outcasts – we should look for such opportunities among all types of people to minister to them – freely give to them, expecting nothing in return.

Who can we bring to Christ – either to the Church or in our prayers?  Those in need of spiritual, physical, moral or emotional healing.

The crowds will not be praising God because we get a new convert, a new member for the parish.  They will praise God when they see lives which are changed or different, when they see something different in us.

The entire Gospel lesson calls to mind the Psalm we regularly sing as an antiphon at most  Liturgies:

Bless the LORD, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. … The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.   (Psalm 103:1-14)

The Acts of the Apostles and Evangelism

The Gospel lessons for the Post-Paschal Sundays are wonderfully rich and deep and give us a treasury of inspired ideas to contemplate.  The “other” readings we do each Sunday,  called the Apostolos or reading from the Apostles (which we frequently refer to as the Epistle reading) is also Scripture, the Word of God and so essential to our understanding God’s own revelation.  We might get the idea that since the Gospel lessons give name to each of the Post-Paschal Sundays (for example, the 5th Sunday of Pascha is called The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman), that the reading from the Acts of the Apostles is somehow of secondary importance, but not so!   “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”   (2 Timothy 3:16).

Acts 11:19-30 begins by noting that the first Christians concentrated their evangelistic efforts exclusively on their fellow Jews even after Stephen’s death at the hands of the Jews.  Being persecuted by their fellow Jews did not detour them from trying to convince the Jews that Jesus is Lord, God and Messiah.  However, some of these early Christians, fleeing  the persecution that began in earnest after the martyrdom of Stephen, went to the city of Antioch starting a successful mission to the Gentiles.  It is in Antioch that the name “Christian” is bestowed on those who believe Jesus is Messiah. The Antiochian Christians are direct descendants of this original mission work of the early Church.  The Antiochian mission is the oldest of the Christian missionary endeavors.

Note that in Acts 11, it is nameless Christians who are doing the evangelism not the apostles!

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus.  And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord.

The text only identifies these evangelists only as “some of them” but they are not the Apostles.   This evangelism is not intentional church planting but rather the result of the Christians being persecuted and scattered through the countryside.  Fleeing persecution, they go into the city of Antioch and find people receptive to their message.  They are being persecuted and fleeing and yet they are proclaiming Good News!   What seemed so good to them that despite being persecuted, running for their lives and becoming homeless refugees, that they still believed they had a message from God to offer to others?   Today prosperity Gospel people try to sell others on the notion that “faith” will lead to prosperity and good times.  But the early Christians had to acknowledge the truth that belief will lead to persecution – as Jesus had warned – and despite this others still join them.  The Kingdom of Heaven was desirable even though one had to suffer for it.  We should be so faithful!  We are not to be fair weather Christians – claiming to be Christians because it brings us prosperity, because times are good.  We need to be Christians even if we are living in poverty or in persecution.  That is true faith.

Note also, the faith is spreading ahead of or beyond any organized missionary outreach of the apostles.

And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.

The Apostles aren’t doing the evangelism, they hear that the faith is spreading and have to catch up with what the Holy Spirit is doing!  The Apostles are themselves learning what the Holy Spirit is doing throughout the world.  Rather than being led by the Spirit, the Apostles are following what the Spirit is doing elsewhere in the world.  Despite the fact that the Holy Spirit is leading evangelism far beyond the reach and knowledge of the Apoostles, the efforts of evangelism had to be approved of and endorsed by the apostles – already there is church structure and hierarchy, a recognized leadership – the apostles don’t accept that everyone can do and teach what they know to be the truth.  The Apostles insist on correct doctrine and church unity.  The apostles have the power to recognize which Christian communities are legitimate and they insure that correct doctrine is being taught.  They  are determining who is in communion with them.  On the other hand, the believers don’t wait for the apostles to tell them what to do, they are not looking to Jerusalem or Constantinople  to tell them when and where to start new missions.  All the believers are both living the faith and sharing it with others.  The Apostles however maintain the right to determine who is teaching the true faith.  The Apostles do send their representatives out to ensure there is correct doctrine and also that the new Christian respect apostolic authority.

Barnabus, the Apostle’s appointed delegate, looking at the new missionary effort and Christian community, “saw the grace of God”  – grace can be seen, it is visible.  He was able to see with his own eyes what the Holy Spirit was accomplishing.  The work of  the Holy Spirit in our own lives should be so visible to us, to the saints and to non-believers.

When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord.

Barnabus’ response to this new unplanned mission is joy and gladness.  He offers encouragement to these new believers.   He doesn’t feel threatened by or worried about the fact that new people are embracing Christianity even though the disciples themselves are not responsible for this church growth.  He exhorts these new disciples to continue with the Lord, to remain loyal, for discipleship is a continuous process of devotion.  Being a Christian is not a one time conversion but is a lifetime process of living the Gospel.

Note also when the Christians in Antioch learn of the impending famine threatening their fellow Christians, they don’t wait for fund raising letters from the Jerusalem or the Apostles, they take action themselves – they know what their response should be as Christians.  They understand their role in the church is to practice love.

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world; and this took place in the days of Claudius. And the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea; and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

May we too be inspired to live the Gospel, to do what we know we should be doing as God’s people in terms of evangelism and charity.  Bringing both the Good News of eternal life to all as well as the love of God in the form of charity.

This brings us to the Gospel of the Samaritan Woman (John 4:5-42).  First though I remind you of the words of our Lord Jesus:

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.   (John 15:16-17)

Jesus goes into the land of the Samaritans – into a foreign land which belongs to those who consider the Jews their enemies.  Christ is showing us we are to have a relationship with the world – with those who don’t know the Gospel, who don’t understand God as, with those whom we may be suspicious about or consider them to be dubious people.  What should our relationship be with old friends and family who aren’t Orthodox?   The Samaritan woman shows us the way – she goes to them and talks to them about her encounter with Jesus.  She doesn’t tell these others how wrong they are in beliefs and practices, rather she extols Christ.

For His part, Jesus doesn’t judge the Samaritan woman for her life/lifestyle – she has been in multiple relationships with men, serial monogamy some would say.  He is irenic toward her, and calmly, wisely and gently leads her way from a worldly perspective to the truth.  But note first he asks her for help – give me a drink.  He helps bring her to the faith by first showing his own vulnerability, his own dependency, and that He needs the Samaritan woman to help Him.  That even becomes the basis of their conversation, for the woman quite rightfully can see the obvious – you can’t even get yourself a drink of water, how are you going to give me “living water“?     Jesus uses his obvious weakness and need to lead her into a conversation about the Kingdom.  He does not rebuke her sinfulness, but leads her to the kingdom.  Jesus fulfills what He has taught:

I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.   (John 10:14-16)

The Scriptures today show us two ways that we Christians might respond to strangers, to non-believers, to those we don’t like, and even to our enemies.  1) We might find that others reject our message and lifestyle, that others not only reject us but want to persecute us to change our minds or to drive us out of their towns.  We might have to find a new place to live and new people with whom we can share the Gospel.  Or,  2) We can show our humility by asking others for their help, showing our own vulnerability and humanness, recognizing that we are in need of and share their resources.  Only then, when we have established a human relationship do we  share with others the Good News of salvation as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman.  Instead of doing imperialistic evangelism (where we wrongly show our superiority and proclaim our triumphalism), we are to establish relationships with others first by showing we need them to be our neighbors.   [By the way, the Samaritan Woman is not anonymous, for in tradition we know her name as Photini.]

Whether we encounter people who are non-believers or are hostile to us, we are to respond as Christ did and as His disciples.  As St John Chrysostom once said, “Our warfare is to make the dead to live, not to make the living dead.

Why Did the Early Church Grow So Fast?


In those days Peter stood up among the brethren (the company of persons was in all about a hundred and twenty)…  (Acts 1:15)

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.   (Acts 2:41)

But many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to about five thousand.   (Acts 4:4)

St. John Chrysostom writes:

Did you not hear that, in the time of our forebears, the number of those who believed was one hundred and twenty? Rather, before the one hundred and twenty believed, there were only twelve. And not all of the twelve persevered, but one of them, Judas, perished. And then eleven were all that were left. Still, from the eleven came the one hundred and twenty and from the one hundred and twenty came three thousand, and then five thousand. And then they filled the whole world with the knowledge of God.

The reason for this growth was that they never left their gathering, They were constantly with one another, spending the whole day in the temple, and turning their attention to prayers and sacred readings. This is why they kindled a great fire, this is why their strength never waned, this is why the drew the whole world to them. We, too, must imitate them.   (On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, p. 283)

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)

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)