Embracing the Sinner

“One of the most difficult problems faced in Christian life, and one that the desert monks experienced acutely, is the problem of our temptation to seek distance from the struggles of others, and to promote a sense of separation from the sins of the world around us. There is a certain passing resemblance to Christianity in doing so. Indeed, we certainly do not actively desire temptation for ourselves, nor do we approve of engaging in any sin. It might seem natural, on the surface, to seek distance from those struggling with such things–to set ourselves apart as more pure and more holy than others.

Yet, when we see ourselves as fundamentally different from other human beings, whether they are Christian or not, we quickly begin to resemble the foolish elder. We condemn and chastise those around us for their brokenness. Such condemnation and chastisements are, despite their outward claim to holiness, works of anger and never of love. If love is a shared commitment to purity of heart between individuals, then seeking separation from others, by its very nature, discourages love and can even make it ultimately impossible. To share the pursuit of purity of heart with another, one must share a connection with her, and in a fallen world, that means sharing a connection with a fallen person.”

(Daniel G. Opperwall, A Layman in the Desert, p. 73)


Prayer for the Peace of the Whole World


Almighty God and Creator, You are the Father of all people on the earth. Guide, I pray, all the nations and their leaders in the ways of justice and peace. Protect us from the evils of injustice, prejudice, exploitation, conflict and war.


Help us to put away mistrust, bitterness and hatred. Teach us to cease the storing and using of implements of war. Lead us to find justice, peace and freedom.  Unite us in the making and sharing of tools of peace against ignorance, poverty, disease and oppression.


Grant that we may grow in harmony and friendship as brothers and sisters created in Your image, to Your honor and praise. Amen.

(My Orthodox Prayer Book, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Kindle Location 824-834)


The Salvation of the World

Christianity does not exist just for Christians.  Rather Christianity – the Church – exists to be a light to the world and to be the salt of the earth.  Christianity exists for the salvation of humankind.  In the Church we need to consider all of those lines in the Liturgy which speak in one form or another about “all mankind” or “on behalf of all and for all.”

“How can Christianity relate to culture when Christians are supposedly ‘in the world but not of the world’? Certainly the dismissal of any ecclesiastical attitude towards humanity that might emanate from an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality would be a step in the right direction.  [Archbishop Lazar] Puhalo’s entire theology of culture rests upon the premise that Christ did not come to create barriers but to remove them.

Co-suffering love knows no boundaries and this very fact alone demonstrates that the Gospel ‘is about the fate of all mankind (and) not just about Christian and their institutions. That the Son of God took on an earthly life and interacted with the world around him means that this is the only possible path for the Orthodox Church as well. According to Leonid Ouspensky, Christ’s own example to the Church means that ‘the Church will continue until the consummation of the ages to collect all authentic realities outside of itself, even those which are incomplete and imperfect, in order to integrate them into the fullness of the revelation and allow them to participate in the divine life. In the North American context, this has been demonstrated best through the Orthodox encounter with native cultures.

Matthew 11:28

Puhalo’s own emphasis of the pre-existence of the Church in the pre-eternal will of God must certainly mean that it would be inconceivable to think of the Church as a reality existing only on the periphery of humanity. According to Maximos the Confessor, since man’s very creation implies salvation, the very possession of the human nature also implies incorporation of man and his activities into God’s plan, i.e., his Church. The road for mankind to deification can only pass through life on this earth and all of the struggles that accompany that life. Creation in God’s image already signifies an ecclesial identity. As Puhalo puts it, ‘All mankind is born with the grace to know that God exists and also, with the grace to know that one must seek God.’” (Andrew J. Sopko, For a Culture of Co-Suffering Love, pp 134-135)

Orthodox Chapel at Dachau

God’s Love

John 3:16-17, the Gospel Lesson for the Sunday before the Elevation of the Life-Giving Cross

 For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

St. Irenaeus of Lyons (d. 202AD) writes:

“God created Adam in the beginning, not because he needs the human race, but so that he might have a recipient of his generosity. Moreover, God commanded us to follow Christ, not because he has any need of our service, but because he wants to give us salvation. To follow the savior is to share in salvation, just as to follow the light is to gain the light. People who are in the light do not themselves provide the light but are illuminated and made bright by it; they do not contribute anything to it but, by being illuminated, they receive the benefit of the light. Similarly, to serve God does not mean giving him any gift, nor has God any need of our service. On the contrary, it is he who gives to those who serve him life, immortality and eternal glory. He rewards those who serve him without deriving any benefit himself from their service: he is rich, he is perfect, he has no needs. God requests human obedience so that his love and his pity may have an opportunity of doing good to those who serve him diligently. The less God has need of anything, the more human beings need to be united with him. Consequently, a human being’s true glory is to persevere in the service of God.” (Drinking from the Hidden Fountain, p 27)


The Churching of Life

“We like it when the ‘churching’ of life is discussed, but few people understand what it means. Indeed, must we attend all the church services in order to ‘church’ our life? Or hang an icon in every room and burn an icon-lamp in front of it? No, the ‘churching of life’ is the realization of the whole world as one great church, adorned with icons – persons who should be venerated, honored, and loved, because these icons are true images of God that have the holiness of the Living God within them.” (Michael Plekon in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly:Vol. 49, Nov. 3, 2005, p 313)

Wishing to Stay in Safety: It is Good to Be Here

Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord, reading the account from Matthew 17:1-9.

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellingshere, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) reflects on the  Apostle Peter and his recorded reaction to experiencing the Transfiguration.

“What, then, does rash Peter say? ‘It is good for us to be here!’ For since he has heard that Jesus had to depart for Jerusalem and to suffer, but fears and trembles still for his sake, even after Jesus’ rebuke, he does not dare to approach him and say the same thing again, ‘Far be it from you!’ But speaking from that same fear, he again hints the same thing in different words. For since he saw the mountain, its great remoteness and its deserted character, he got the idea that there was a strong prospect of safety here, due to the place itself – and not just from the place, but from his never leaving it to go to Jerusalem. For he wanted Jesus to remain there always, that is why he mentions tents. For if this were to happen, he is saying, we shall not go up to Jerusalem, and if we do not go up, he will not die, it is there, after all, that he said the scribes would attack him. But he does not dare say this outright. Wanting to bring it about, however, he says with assurance, ‘It is good for us to be here,’ where Moses and Elijah are present: Elijah, who drew fire down on a mountaintop, and Moses, who entered into darkness to speak with God – no one will have any idea where we are![…]

Then, to make clear that they were seized by great fear, both Peter and the others, Luke says: ‘They were heavy with sleep; and when they woke, they saw his glory.’ By ‘sleep’ here he means the heavy drowsiness that had come over them as a result of that vision. For they experienced something like what we feel, when our eyes are dimmed by overpowering brightness. It was not night, after all, but day; and the excess of splendor weighed down the weakness of their eyes.[…]And Peter said, ‘Let us build three tents,’ but Jesus himself revealed the tent not made by hands. Therefore we find earlier smoke and mist, but here ineffable light, and a voice.” (Light on The Mountain: Greek Patristic and Byzantine Homilies on the Transfiguration of the Lord, pp 74-77)

St. John Chrysostom portrays St. Peter as still trying to protect Christ from any threat of death.   Peter’s interest in staying on the mountain is that it is a safe place, and they are hidden from the world.  Chrysostom thinks Peter has learned his lesson from an earlier rebuke from Jesus, and so is wise enough not to say directly what he is thinking.  Peter wanted what many Christians wish – not to be struggling in a world which is hostile or in which there is suffering and sorrow.  Peter wishes to be in Paradise, but the Transfiguration occurs in this world and gives us the strong indication that Christ intended to save the world, not save us from the world.  We are called by Christ to be a light to the world, while still in the world rather than shining some spotlight down on earth from a safe heavenly place.  It is a much more difficult calling than simply becoming some angel in heaven.

To Love As God Loves and Who God Loves

In preparation for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, on the Sunday before the Feast the Gospel lesson is John 3:13-17 .

Moses SerpentThe Lord said, “ No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.


Alexandre Kalomiros writes:

“God is love. If we really believe this truth, we know that God never hates, never punishes, never takes vengeance. As Abba Ammonas says,

‘Love never hates anyone, never reproves anyone, never condemns anyone, never grieves anyone, never abhors anyone, neither faithful nor infidel nor stranger nor sinner nor fornicator, nor anyone impure, but instead it is precisely sinners, and weak and negligent souls that it loves more, and feels pain for them and grieves and laments, and it feels sympathy for the wicked and sinners, more than for the good, imitating Christ Who called sinners, and ate and drank with them. For this reason, showing what real love is, He taught saying, “Become good and merciful like your Father in Heaven,” and as He rains on bad and good and makes the sun to rise on just and unjust alike, so also is the one who has real love, and has compassion and prays for all.’ ”

(The Ikon as Scripture, p 109)

Compassion vs. Pity

A leper: a contagious threat, yet we can choose to love them.

“‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8). Time and time again in Scripture, in our hymns, and in the writings of the church fathers and mothers, God’s love means that God is merciful and compassionate. Recall from St. Gregory that ‘nothing else is more proper to God’ than being merciful and, we can add, being moved with compassion. Compassion is not simply a feeling. Compassion is quite different from pity, from feeling sorry for others, or even feeling empathy for others. We can have all of these feelings and remain unmoved to connect with others or do anything for them. We can feel pity for people and feel quite superior to them.” (Fr. John D. Jones in In Communion:Spring Issue/April-June 2012, pg. 6)

Learning to fulfill Christ’s Gospel teachings that we love one another is not to be equated with simply feeling pity for others, though feeling pity could be based in Christ-like love.  The love which Christ commands is not a feeling, but something we choose; in other words, it is not a reaction to others, but a course of action we choose to follow.  Love, compassion, mercy are things we willfully choose, no matter what we feel.

Police officers and other first respondents are trained not to rely on their emotional reaction to a situation, but to follow their training and to do what needs to be done.   Later they often have to emotionally decompress.

St. Maria of Paris

Christians can through the practice of discipleship learn to practice mercy, compassion and love toward others as a conscious choice.  This does not deny the emotional life and its significance to our being human.  The emotions are another way of knowing the world, and are essential to our being human.  But at times we have to choose not to follow our emotions and to do what we know is right, godly, proper, correct, good, even if our emotional reactions to a person or situation don’t want us to go there.

Christ died for us while we were sinners (Romans 5:8). This is not God reacting to us, but choosing to act toward us.  God chooses to love us despite our being sinners.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”   (John 3:16-17)

That is the love of God: not to react toward sinners, but to choose to love them.

A Christian Vision: Symbol vs. Diabolical

“How sadly Christians have misinterpreted the words of Christ that we are in the world but not of the world (cf. John 17:14 and 16). The two verses from John’s Gospel should not be detached, still less are they to be divorced, from the middle verse which is a clarification of Christ’s prayer:

I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from evil. (v. 15)

Whenever we fail to seek the cosmic vision, we narrow life to ourselves, our concerns and our desires, and neglect the vocation to which we are called to transform the creation of God. Just as whenever we reduce religious life to ourselves, our concerns and our desires, we forget the calling of the Church to implore God – always and everywhere – for the renewal of the whole polluted cosmos. For the Church is a unique symbol. And I use the term symbol not as a way of perceiving reality, but as a profound way of realizing and reconciling (the literal translation of the Greek symbolon is bringing together) two distinct, though not unrelated realities: divinity and creation, God and world. The Church brings to God the world, for the life of which God gave his only Son; and the Church also brings God to the world, which God so loved (John 3:16). This reconciliation is the essential function of the Church. The direct opposite of the symbolical is the diabolical worldview. Also the diabolical Greek (Greek: dia-bolos meaning the one who disperses)  heresy of the ecological crisis is the exclusion of the reality of the kingdom of heaven, as well as the dispelling of the intuition that everything is a unique manifestation of that kingdom.” (John Chryssavgis, Beyond the Shattered Image: Insights Into an Orthodox Christian Ecological Worldview, pgs. 11-12)

Designer Religion

American religion pollster George Barna ‘s  new book on U.S. Christians, Futurecast, tracks trends in the religious attitudes of Americans from 1991 through 2011. A main finding is reported in the 14 September 2011  USA TODAY article More Americans Tailoring Religion to fit Their Needs .

Barna notes that more Americans now count themselves among the unchurched than did in 1991 – 37% today vs. 24% then.   The trend is not that fewer Americans consider themselves Christian, it’s that they no longer consider church membership essential to being a Christian.    To some extent it is Americans living out their extreme individualistic attitudes.

 “We are a designer society. We want everything customized to our personal needs — our clothing, our food, our education,” he says. Now it’s our religion.

Buddy Jesus

I commented on this same idea in Which Christ do We Believe In? referring to the movie Talladega Nights, in which every character has their own personal Jesus.  No longer are we Christ’s disciples conforming ourselves to His teachings, now we shape Jesus into whatever we want or need Him to be.  Christianity is not a revealed truth but a putty whose plasticity we shape to fit our personal opinions.   For a growing number of Americans Christianity maybe informational but certainly is not formational.    In fact now the attitude is we are to form Christianity into whatever we want it to be.   No longer is there the Lordship of Christ, what remains is how we exert our lordship over Christ to make Him conform to what we need from Him and His Church.  Barna reports:

When he measures people by their belief in seven essential doctrines, defined by the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith, only 7% of those surveyed qualified.

Barna laments, “People say, ‘I believe in God. I believe the Bible is a good book. And then I believe whatever I want.'”

Of course this trend isn’t something totally new.  To some extent the very reason the American revolutionaries hung together was that following the ideals of the Enlightenment, they placed denominational differences as unimportant as versus the cause of a united American front against England.  The particular beliefs of each denomination were made relative and unimportant.  People could accept a general notion that they were all Americans, believers, even Christians as the bond which held them together as long as what they actually believed (their theology) was marginalized.   It is a great compromise that Americans made in order for America to emerge.  It is similar to the compromise the founding fathers made regarding slavery – ignore it because the issue was potentially too divisive.

It may be that the very partisanship which now paralyzes politics in America is the same issue:   all the compromises, looking askance, winking and nodding, knowing smiles, avoidance and all other ways we used to pretend we were a united people  no longer work as the glue to hold us together.   The differences are emerging and we realize we are not such a united people after all.  There are huge theological differences and diversities within the family of beliefs known as Christianity.

And since the differences are real, and since we have not created any open forums in which theological or philosophical differences can be discussed, people personalize religion and create their own.  This of course is not going to help keep the nation united.  It may for some mean the issue cannot be discussed since there is no point of agreement, but underneath the fissures in basic assumptions by Americans are widening.  (In American politics we never seem to have an exchange of ideas, just mutual hurling of false accusations against each other in negative ad campaigns).

Sociologist Robert Bellah wrote:

“The bad news is you lose the capacity to make connections. Everyone is pretty much on their own,” he says. And all this rampant individualism also fosters “hostility toward organized groups — government, industry, even organized religion.”

When any one church makes its appeal to be “we are different” from all the rest and that all the rest are wrong and we alone are right, it actually feeds the problem.  For that church begins to attract those people whose “designer religion” ideas say I want a church just like that.  It is the individual which now affirms the “truthiness” of the church.   The church appeals to the most individualistic thinkers who are happy to discover a church which conforms to their beliefs.  It is the heart of sectarianism and the mind of cults.

The countervailing need is for Christians/ Christianity/ the Church to understand the cosmic nature of its truth.   “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) – not just individuals, believers, the super-righteous, Christians, or Americans.  The Christian message is for the entire cosmos.  The Christian message is universal, a message for every single human being on the planet.  The Christian message is meant to help us engage the world, not flee from it.   Our task is to be a light to the world, not the fire that destroys everything in its path.  It is in this universal as versus individualistic understanding that Christianity invites people to become part of the Body of Christ – become part of something greater than one’s self.  Become part of something whose unifying bond is love, not alienating individualism.

None of this means people are to mindlessly believe and live a life of warm fuzzies.  All of it demands great intellectual exploration and discovery.  Are the claims of Christianity true?  How are we to live if they are?  What does it say about what it means to be human?   What is the human role in and responsibility for the world?  For one another?  How do we deal with our differences – in perspective, in theology, in ethics, in science?

The test of love and faith is whether we can in fact discuss our theological differences and can overcome them in Christ. “Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said (Mark 8:34).   The embrace of extreme individualistic thinking is in many ways a rejection of the love which Christ lived and was the very basis of His willingness to die on the Cross.  The opposite of the (self sacrificing) love of Christ is the self love of individualism.