Serving Others to Be Human

St. Francis of Assisi is thought by many to be a model of humble service to others. Regis J. Armstrong writes:

“His relationship to God, to the Church, to his brothers and sisters, and to all the elements of creation is a relationship of service. The Admonitions develop the aspect of what it means to be a servant of God. Francis teaches that service is the way of undoing the sin of Adam, and it is the ‘holy manner of working’ that is the Spirit of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord always points toward the other, and thus the Spirit filled person is the true servant. Therein is the poverty and humility of Saint Francis of Assisi. As a servant of God, entrusted with the Lord’s gifts, Francis gives what he has received. The Word he has conceived in the inspiration of the Spirit is proclaimed in his life and deeds. This is his greatest gift. This work of the Spirit in him identifies him with the suffering and crucified Christ, who breathes forth the Spirit. In the total context of his writings, one can perceive Francis, the servant of God marked with the wounds of the Crucified Christ, breathing forth the Spirit that dwells within him.”Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, p 21)

Free Will

This is the 14th blog in this series which began with Adam & Sin, Paradise and Fasting.  The previous blog is The Fall from Grace.

St. Paul & St. John Chrysostom

The Eastern Christian writers of the Patristic period tended to be very strong believers in free will, which is the witness of the Scriptures themselves.    God, though omnipotent, in humility and love contains His all-powerful will, respecting the free will He has given to humans.  Generally the Eastern Patristic writers do not subscribe to any idea of predestination for humans  (see my blog Theodoret on Ancestral Sin.  The 5th Century bishop says if our nature was so tainted by sin that we are now predestined to sin, then we are not liable to judgment by God since sinning is all we can do.  He argues God is a just judge and rightfully judges us because we choose to sin, we are not predestined to do so).   We are on a path of our own choosing – even the road to hell (which Chrysostom thought was paved by the good intentions of bishops and priests) is one of our own making and its destiny our own choice.  The amazing grace of salvation is that though we have chosen death and Hades as our preferred destination, God in His love for us was willing to go there as well like the good shepherd to make our return to Him possible.   Death and Satan are not God’s tools of justice to punish us for our sins.  God works to rescue us from their grip.  Christ’s death does not satisfy some demand for justice, but rather in the very means by which God destroys death and Satan and rescues us from the consequences of our own sinfulness.

“Sin, Gehenna, and Death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances.  Sin is the fruit of free will.  There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.  Gehenna is the fruit of sin.  At some point in time it had a beginning, but its end is not known.  Death, however, is a dispensation of the wisdom of the Creator.  It will rule only a short time over nature; then it will be totally abolished.”  (THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES OF ST. ISAAC THE SYRIAN, p 133)

Sin,  Gehenna (Hades, Sheol, hell), and death all belong to time, not to eternity.  Their effects on the world, though mighty, are not unlimited.  They all pale before the righteous love and merciful power of God.  Death, St. Isacc said, is a “dispensation.”  He means by this, what many Eastern Fathers thought, that death was actually a means to curtail within each human the effects of sin.  (Again see my blog Theodoret on Ancestral Sin.  Theodoret sees death as a merciful way to prevent us from going on and sinning forever.  But also, because death is painful, it is supposed to make us hate sin, the cause of death.  Obviously that is of limited value in human experience because today people are as likely to blame God for the existence of death as they are to blame sin).  Humans do not grow in sin and evil infinitely – death was used as a means of limiting sin in any one person to a brief time.  No one’s sinfulness increases indefinitely.  Death is a merciful way of God to limit sin and evil in each of us.  Even so, death is no friend and God works to bring sin and death to an end.

“But the element of passion was introduced later on, after he was created, and in the following way.  Man was, as we have said, the image and likeness of the power that rules all creation; and this likeness to the ruler of all things also extended to man’s power of self-determination:  man could choose whatever pleased him and was not enslaved to any external necessity.  But man was led astray by deception and deliberately drew upon himself that catastrophe which all mortals now share.  Man himself invented evil: he did not find it in God.  Nor did God make death; it was man himself who, as it were, was the creator of all that is evil.  …  the first man…deliberately instituted by himself things that were against nature; in rejecting virtue by his own free choice he fashioned the temptation to evil.  For sin does not exist in nature apart from free will; it is not a substance in its own right.  All of God’s creatures are good …   So man fell into the mud of sin, and lost his likeness to the eternal Godhead.  And in its stead he has, by his sin, clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal; and this is the image we earnestly counsel him to remove and wash away in the purifying waters of the Christian life.” (St. Gregory of Nyssa, FROM GLORY TO GLORY, pp 112-114)

The goodness in humanity – being created in God’s image and likeness – is still at the heart of every single human being, despite the Fall and despite sin’s presence throughout the human experience.  That goodness has been plastered over by the “mud of sin.”  But it is external to our natural core, and it can be washed away through the tears of repentance and through baptism.

Next:  Free will and Freedom

Obedience as a Form of Godliness

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote to the 1st Century Christians, “Obey those who rule over you…”   (Hebrews 13:17).    These words were written by a believer at a time when he apparently could not imagine Christian leadership misleading or abusing  fellow Christians.   Almost 2000 years later Christians have learned through painful experience that leadership sometimes fails, sometimes sins, sometimes abuses its power.  In an age when leadership of every kind is looked at with far less trust, the unflinching and unapologetic attitude of the Letter to the Hebrews stands as a challenge to those who are jaded by skepticism toward leadership.  (In the 2008 Gallup Honesty and Integrity Poll only 56% of Americans ranked church leaders as being of high integrity).

Obedience in America is often coupled with the adjective “blind” and is most often considered the lot of enslaved people.  Think about the Star Wars movies – the federation has a presidency with some implication of free elections while the evil empire is ruled by a despotic emperor who crushes dissent with storm troopers.

On the other side of this, we Christians can see that one of the traits of the Messiah is that though He was God, He learned obedience to His Father.  

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God … emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name…”    (Philippians 2:5-9 RSV)

 In this, He showed us that obedience can be part of love and of salvation.  We don’t have to be blindly obedient to authority, but in love we can freely submit ourselves to authority in order to accomplish salvation for the world and to build up the household of God.  The  practices of asceticism – fasting and self-denial – is connected to our freely choosing to deny ourselves in order to take up our crosses and follow Christ.

Admittedly, St. Paul wrote those words in a culture which valued obedience a lot more than American culture does.  Nevertheless, if we are to be Christian, Christ-like, disciples of Christ, there is a need for us to learn some form of obedience.  Fasting is one way that we can learn this.  Submitting ourselves to a discipline is a way to become a disciple. 

“Obey!” for many Americans is a command for a dog, perhaps a child, but not for an adult.  Theologian Olivier Clement defined Christian obedience in this way:  “Obedience sets freedom free by crucifying the love of self”.     Obedience has to do with discerning God’s will, something we cannot do if we are pre-occupied with asserting our own. 

Jack Sparks in his adaptation of the spiritual classic, VICTORY IN THE UNSEEN WARFARE, writes this about the will of God: 

 “For whatever affliction comes upon them, they refuse to bend their necks to the yoke of God’s will and to trust in His secret and righteous judgments. They do not want to follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, who humbled Himself and   suffered for our sakes…We must renounce all will of our own and learn perfect obedience to the will of God…You must sacrifice everything to God and do only His will. You will meet within yourself a multitude of desires, all clamoring for satisfaction, whether or not it agrees with the will of God…Therefore, to reach our chosen aim, we must first curb our own desires, submitting them to the will of God.”

Fasting, self-denial, abstinence all have to do with learning how to freely submit our desires to the will of God.

In Hebrews we are told to “obey those who rule over you,” referring to allegiance to legitimate Church authority.  In Romans 6:16, we are reminded of another side of obedience:

Do you not know that if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?

Here St. Paul asks us to think about whom we obey for whomever that is, we become enslaved to them.   We can become enslaved to sin or to righteousness, to God or to the ego, to evil or to the self, to peer pressure or to our passions, to wealth and pleasure or to goodness and love.   Obedience in and of itself is not always a virtue: we must discern to whom we choose to become servants and whom we are to obey.

Thinking about St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas the Wonderworker

Jolly Ol’ St. Nick conjures up many images in the minds of people throughout the world, but the more Christian ones do certainly commemorate him as a bishop of generosity and charity in his dealings with the needy.

The main hymn on St. Nicholas’ Feast Day is the generic Tropar for sainted bishops.

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith,

an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence;

your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you.

Hierarch Father Nicholas, entreat Christ our God//

that our souls may be saved!

 I don’t know what century that hymn was composed but the monastic influence In it is obvious as it exalts those saints who are bishops for being teachers of abstinence and models of humility and poverty.   Two (for me) interesting questions:  1)  How many Orthodox would list poverty, humility, and asceticism as the top characteristics of the man they would want to be their bishop?   2)  How many think of poverty, humility and asceticism as being the main characteristics or the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about St. Nicholas?

At least in the lives of St. Nicholas that I’ve read charity and generosity always seem to be very evident in his life.    He did indeed followed a particular idea of discipleship – give everything away and then follow Christ.

In Psalm 146:7-9 (RSV) we are given a description of things that the Lord God does.  The Psalm says it is God

who executes justice for the oppressed;

who gives food to the hungry.

The LORD sets the prisoners free;

the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.

The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;

the LORD loves the righteous.

The LORD watches over the sojourners,

he upholds the widow and the fatherless;

but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. 

St. Nicholas of Myra

If one thinks about the life of St. Nicholas it is easy to see how he as bishop did things he believed God Himself does.   “Go and do likewise,” might be Christ’s words to us.

The Gospel reading for the feast of St. Nicholas is Luke 6:17-19 (RSV) in which Christ says:

“Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  

Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. 

Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.”

St. Nicholas shows us how to immerse ourselves in the Gospel, for he demonstrates how we as Christians can make the poor, the hungry and those who are mourning to be blessed.  We don’t just have to puzzle over how these folks could be considered blessed, we can go out and bless them by imitating the good bishop St. Nicholas in ministering to those who are hungry, in poverty or any need, or who are grieving.  We are the ones to help those who are grieving to laugh, and we are the ones who are to bring the Kingdom of God even to the downtrodden.

We Repent Because We have Been Forgiven

Archbishop Job’s letter to Mark Stokoe on and admission is a good reminder that forgiveness is not granted because it is deserved.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are grace, freely given.
St. Paul reminds us of this truth in Romans 5:6-10  –  “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
We by our lives and deeds are/were weak, ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God. Christ died for us anyway.  He didn’t wait for our metanoia, change of heart, repentance.  We are not forgiven by God because we deserve it.  God’s love toward us is His action toward us not His reaction to us.
Knowing we are forgiven, makes it possible and inviting for us to repent.  The failure to repent, to confess one’s sin and fault, to ask forgiveness, stems from a lack of faith in God’s forgiveness and mercy, as well as from an unwillingness to humble one’s self and be a disciple of the Savior.  A failure to repent stems from a failure to accept God’s forgiveness and a refusal to believe in efficacy of the Savior’s crucifixion. 
Archbishop Job’s humbling repentance and seeking forgiveness shows him to be a disciple of the Crucified Lord, and worthy of the office of bishop, a rule of faith as we sing in the tropar for a holy bishop – a model for us to emulate.
Our forgiveness is offered to the repentant Archbishop, not because he deserves to receive it, but because He admits to being weak, a sinner, ungodly and an enemy of God, and seeks our forgiveness.  He repents not to manipulate us into doing something, but only to humble himself and set the record straight.  And we who have experienced the free gift of salvation through Christ’s death on the cross, know we are to love a repentant father and brother, because we were loved while we were yet sinners, and as our Lord has loved us (John 13:34, 15:12). 

Humility VS. Justice

“It is no humility to think that you are a sinner when you really are a sinner.  But whenever a man is conscious of having done many great deeds but does not imagine that he is something great in himself, that is true humility. … That man is truly humble who does exalted deeds but, in his own mind, sees himself as lowly.  However, in his ineffable loving-kindness, God welcomes and receives not only the humble-minded but also those who have the prudence to confess their sins.  Because they are so disposed toward him, he is gracious and kind to them.

To learn how good it is not to imagine that you are something great picture to yourself two chariots.  For one, yoke together a team consisting of justice and arrogance; for the other, a team of sin and humility.  You will see that the chariot pulled by the team which includes sin outstrips the team which includes justice.  Sin does not win the race because of its own power, but because of the strength of its yokemate, humility.  The losing team is not beaten because justice is weak, but because of the weight and mass of arrogance.  So humility, by its surpassing loftiness, overcome the heaviness of sin and is the first to rise up to God.  In the same manner, because of its great weight and mass, pride can overcome the lightness of justice and easily drag it down to earth.”