Imitating Christ and the Transfiguration

What’s in a name?

St Gregory of Nyssa once asked a friend, “What does it mean to call yourself a Christian?”

St Gregory says a name or title needs to have substance to it.  If I call someone a rock or a tree does that make them a rock or a tree?

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Gregory argues that we name something because it has the characteristics of the things named.  The name has real substance to it.  So if we want to say we are a Christian, then there should be real substance to that claim.

What then makes a person a Christian?   Having the same characteristics as Christ – love, obedience, discipleship, truth, faith, mercy, charity, peace, meek, humble, struggling against sin and evil, pure in heart, Kingdom oriented.

Whatever are Christ’s characteristics, are to be our characteristics – both individually and collectively.  We are to be the Body of Christ.

Being a Christian means that something deep inside us is Christ like.  Being a Christian means being transfigured, shining with the Light of Christ.  It is precisely today in the Gospel of the transfiguration that we see Christ clearly, and we know that being a Christian means that our very being, our soul is transfigured, filled with light and joy, revealing God to the world, united to the Holy Trinity.  St Paul tells us this:

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  . . .   But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.  (Philippians 3:12-21)

Being a Christian means more than just coming to church on Sundays when it is convenient, or following the 10 Commandments, or believing in God.  It means transfiguration, new creation, rebirth, life in the Holy Trinity, it means that you are trying to have all the same characteristics of Christ.  It means living the transfigured life.

Clothe Yourself With Christ

“‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them…But love ye your enemies and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again and your reward shall be great and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father is also merciful.’ (Luke 6:30-36)

These words of Christ describe two ways. On the one hand, the ‘natural’ way is to do good to them that do good to us, to love them that love us. The other way, the way of the Gospel, takes us far beyond the natural way. Christ leads us to a deeper, supernatural way of life, a reflection of the perfect life of God: ‘Love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again. Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful.’ This commandment raises the human soul to great heights, for by it we are made children of the Heavenly Father and become like unto God.

The Lord’s commandment does not have a negative character. He does not say, ‘Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you’ but ‘Do unto others that which is precious to you, which so fills your soul that you would wish to receive it from them.’ Christian asceticism is ultimately meaningless unless it has a positive character. It is not simply a matter of ‘don’t do this or that’ but rather ‘do this, and be perfect’. We struggle not merely – to divest ourselves of the passions of the old man, but to clothe ourselves with the new man, the New Adam, that is, with Christ Himself.”

(Archimandrite Zacharaias, Remember Thy First Love, p. 316-317)

When We See Jesus and Say, “Crucify him!”

When they saw Jesus, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!”  (John 19:6)

The very sight of Jesus seems to have enraged His enemies.  Just seeing Him standing up front – though in chains, a prisoner, beaten, mocked for His powerlessness – was enough to get the leaders to yell in anger, “Crucify him!”   We might think it was only those people at the time of Christ, His enemies, who would scream such a thing against Jesus.  Yet, there are times when we believers are really shouting those same words.

When we think about the Cross of Christ – the instrument of His execution, but of our salvation – we realize, Christ chose His path, the way of the Cross, for us.  He died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3; 1 Peter 3:18). He bore on Himself our offenses (1 Peter 2:24).

St. John Chrysostom says Jesus accepted and endured His suffering for a reason:

“He endured all these sufferings, namely, that we might walk in His footsteps…” (COMMENTARY ON ST JOHN THE APOSTLE, p 424)

That we might walk in His footsteps….”  Chrysostom puts before us an even more difficult point – Christ died on the cross for us, for which we are grateful and give thanks to God.  But that is not the end of it.  Christ died on the cross so that we might imitate Him, and die with Him, and walk in His footsteps.  We are to die to self and live with and in Christ.   The way of self-sacrificial love, of co-suffering love is to be our way of life as Christians.  Christ died for our sins, so we don’t have to pay the price for our sins.  However, He died to this world so that we might imitate Him and die to the world with Him.  He died to the world in order that we might imitate Him.  Just consider what the New Testament teaches us:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20)

For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.   (2 Corinthians 5:14-15)

Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer by human passions but by the will of God.   (1 Peter 4:1-2)

We who have been baptized into Christ and who have chosen to follow Christ, agree to take up our cross and both have Christ live in us and to live the life of Christ.  We agree to lay aside our will, our desires, our passions and to instead live as Christ would have us live – to love as Christ loved us.

So when we fail to love others as Christ loves us, or refuse to forgive others their sins against us and debts to us, or fail to love neighbor or enemy, or decline to show mercy to Christ in the least of His brothers and sister, or won’t give up our grievances and grudges or desire for vengeance, when we allow jealousy and envy to control our emotions, we are in effect denying Christ, and yelling, “Crucify Him!”  Crucify the One who wants me to do these things which are so hard for me to do, which run counter to my passions and emotions and self-preservation.  Crucify the One who wants me to embrace love over self-love, to treat others as better than myself, to put the interest of others ahead of my own self-interest.

As it says in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

 they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold him up to contempt.   (Hebrews 6:6)

When we refuse to do what Christ teaches us, we are like those people long ago who as soon as they saw Christ, screamed, “Crucify Him!”  For we are crucifying Him by denying Him and His commandments.   We should feel that pain, and like the Prodigal come to our senses and return to following Him who loves us and died for us.

“What do you think? A man had two sons; and he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he repented and went. And he went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

They said, “The first.”

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you.”  (Matthew 21:28-31)

Imitating Scriptural Saints

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.”  (Matthew 19:16-17)

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“A brother asked one of the elders: What good thing shall I do, and have life thereby?

The old man replied: God alone knows what is good. However, I have heard it said that someone inquired of Father Abbot Nisteros the great, the friend of Abbot Anthony, asking: What good work shall I do? and that he replied: Not all works are alike. For Scripture says that Abraham was hospitable and God was with him.

Hospitality of Abraham

Elias [Elijah] loved solitary prayer, and God was with him. And David was humble, and God was with him. Therefore, whatever you see your soul to desire according to God, do that thing, and you shall keep your heart safe.”    (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 25-26)

 

 

Is Being Good Enough?

Jesus never taught us “Be good.”  He never said those words.

He taught us to love one another.

He taught us to to serve one another.

He taught us to forgive one another.

He taught us to humble ourselves.

He taught us to do as He did and wash each other’s feet.

He taught us to see our own sins and not to judge others.

He taught us to sin no more.

He taught us to see God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

He taught us the way to the kingdom of Heaven.

He taught us to deny ourselves and to take up our cross and follow Him.

He taught us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect –  in other words – He told us to be like God.

He never said, “Be good” but He did want us to see God, to become God’s people, to participate in the Divine Life which He shares with us.   As St. Athanasius would sum up the Gospel commandments:  “God became man in Christ so that we humans might become divine.

Christ did not come to be the Chief of the Moral Police.  He came to unite us to heaven.  He came so that we could participate in the Divine Life shared by the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  He came to show us how to love like God so that we would imitate God in our love for one another.  When we reduce Christ to some kind of moral detective or prosecuting attorney, we dishonor Him.  Jesus Christ is God.  God is love.  Jesus is love incarnate.  He offers to share the divine life with us, to restore all that humanity and creation has lost due to human sinfulness.

In the Desert Fathers we encounter stories showing how these early Christians imagined imitating Christ by following the Gospel commandments.  Sometimes the stories are quite counter intuitive and they do challenge our modern sensibilities.  Here are two such stories for us to ponder as we discern how to follow Christ in our lives.  Keep in mind these are lessons from people who were both maximalistic and idealistic in their beliefs about what it means to take the Gospel seriously.   They saw the Gospel commandments as what guides life in heaven – yet they were  attempting to live them in this world of the Fall.

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A monk asked a Spiritual Elder: “If I see my brother living in sin, should I despise him?”

The Elder replied: If we cover over the fault of our brother, God will cover over our sins too.  But if we reveal our brother’s sins to others, God will expose our sins to others also.”

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There was a very spiritual monk named Timothy and all the monks in the monastery admired him. One time one of the monks fell into temptation.  The Abbot came to Timothy to ask his advice on what to do.  “What shall I do with our fallen brother?”

Timothy replied:  “Expel him from the monastery.”  So the Abbot expelled him from the community.

That same day the same temptation fell on the holy Timothy, and he spent the entire night crying and weeping, saying: “I have sinned, O Lord, have mercy on me.”  And  “I have sinned, O Lord, forgive me.”

At dawn, God spoke to Timothy and said: “Timothy, this happened to you because you sinned against your neighbor in the time of his trial.”

Our task as Christians is not to be the moral police of those around us.   Our duty is to rid ourselves of all blindness so that we can first see our own sins and repent.  Then we will see clearly God’s Kingdom and walk the way of the Cross to get there, inviting neighbor, family, friend and enemy to join us on the way.

[Having had to deal with sexual abuse in the Church, I will add that the above thought applies to many of our interactions with people.  However there are cases which require extra wisdom, courage and love to discern.  We are not to be foolishly blind to evil, nor are we to ignore or enable sexual predators or abusive leaders – we have a duty to love and protect those who are vulnerable from those who would sin against them or lead them into sin.  And we have to figure out how to love the sinner as well.  Being a disciple of Christ doesn’t give us a pass from having to deal with evil or  complex problems.]

Your Friends May Never Read the Scriptures, But They are Always Reading You

Our Gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Great Lent of Mark 2:1-12 might be summarized in this way:

8186046743_7c12364a5a_nOne day, 4 men carried their paralyzed friend to Jesus.  They labored hard to get their friend into the Lord’s presence. As any of you who have ever carried another human being know – the man is literally dead weight.  He is paralyzed and can’t help the others who are carrying him.   When Jesus saw the faith of the 4 men, he pronounced that the paralyzed man’s sins had been forgiven.

Note in the Gospel lesson that neither the paralyzed man nor his friends protest when Jesus forgives the paralyzed man – none of them say, “No, Lord, he’s a good guy, he never did anything wrong that’s why we’re bringing him to you.  He deserves to be healed because of all his good deeds.”   Instead they all seem to accept that the man is a sinner and needs God’s forgiveness.

The 4 men bear the burden of their friend’s sinfulness.  They are not bringing to Christ some upright and holy man who they think deserves God’s intervention, rather they are bringing to Christ a man whose sin apparently led to his paralysis.  His sin had a visible affect and all could see it.  His paralysis perhaps the result of the man’s own choices.  I visited such a man once – he was in his  mid-30s and paralyzed from the waist down.  He told me he had been in that condition for 15 years – the end result of being a young fool who was drinking and driving.  He regretted his condition and his past choices, and he blamed no one but himself for the fact that he was in a wheelchair and in a great deal of pain.

So we can even imagine that instead of bearing the burden of their friend’s sinfulness, that the men in the Gospel lesson could have been more like Job’s friends and telling hims: “you made your own bed, now sleep in it” or “you caused your own problems, so solve them yourself.”  Or even worse, “you were such an idiot, now you got what you deserved.”  Or maybe even reminding the paralyzed man, “We are doing all the work and you don’t even carry your own weight around here because you are the burden.”

But the 4 men aren’t complaining, they are fulfilling the Gospel commandment that we bear one another’s burdens.  (Galatians 6:2)  –  “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ.

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We should have the same attitude when we do the work of God – not complaining about the burden we have to  bear nor to criticize those who don’t carry their own weight around the church.  We have a task to accomplish – to bring others to Christ, not just holy, deserving and good people, but even those who have made a mess of their lives.

We bear other people’s burdens not only in bringing them to church, but also when we decide to pray for them and when our hearts are moved by their problems and we fell the weight of their suffering.  We are called by Christ to help carry the burdens of others.

We are to lead by example.  It is Great Lent and some have rightfully set out to read Scripture during Lent, or to read more Scripture daily: God bless you for that.  Persevere!  We all know how our good intentions don’t always get fulfilled.  We start out with zeal, but then life intervenes and pretty soon we have forgotten what we promised to do.

Just remember that reading the bible is noble, but that is not the goal of the Christian life.  The real goal is to live the scriptures in your daily life.  St. Paul once said to his flock:

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.   (2 Corinthians 3:1-3)

The goal is to live in such a way that others can read the scriptures written on our hearts.  We are to be the living word, a living temple of God.  If Christians keep the Gospel commandments, others will be able to see the Word of God active and alive in us.

The stories from the desert fathers or the lives of the saints are most effective when they illustrate how to live one of the Gospel commands.  I must admit that Orthodox lives of saints are often full of miracles and magic, which to me is all inimitable and not very inspiring.  But it is when I read something that is an illustration of how a person lived one of the Gospel teachings in daily life that the saint illumines the Gospel and shows me what it is to obey Christ.

You are to be the living word of God – with the Word written on your hearts and visible for all to see in your life and life style.  Of course you first have to know the Scriptures before they can be written on your hearts, but then you have to live that Word.   Your friends, family, neighbors, co-workers may never read the Bible, but they do read you – what you say, how you live, what you do.

Be an example to others, let them see in you Jesus Christ – may they experience from you the power of living the Gospel.  The only word from God they may ever experience is the one they see in you.

In the book, THE KEYS OF THE KINGDOM, Fr. Chisholm spends 30 years as a Catholic missionary in a town in China.  The day before he is to leave China, Mr Chia, the wealthy, powerful and leading man of the town says to Fr. Chisholm:  “When you first came to our town, I was not willing to be a Christian, but then I was unaware of the nature of your life . . . of its patience, quietness, and courage.  The goodness of a religion is best judged by the goodness of its adherents.  My friend . . .  you have conquered me by your example.”           Then Mr Chia asked Fr. Chisholm to baptize him.

Great Lent is sometimes called a school for us Orthodox.  It is a time for us to practice our faith, to be an example of what it is to be a Christian.

And what is the word that we should be an example of?  St. Paul says:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)

May God bless your Lenten efforts and give growth to the seeds which are planted in your hearts so that you might bring forth spiritual fruit.

 

 

 

Imitating Christ: One OF Us

That a Christian is one who both follows Christ and imitates Him seems pretty straightforward.  Jesus Himself told us:

“You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”  (John 13:13-17)

Today in American English we often hear the “you” of these commandments in the singular.  We are so attuned to individualism that we assume this is a command for each off us to keep individually, and yet the command is spoken in the plural and means that all of us together are to love one another.  Christ is an example to each of us personally, but then calls us to act communally as brothers and sisters.  We as parish are to serve all.  Christ gives an example to each of us, and together, communally, collectively, as a body, as a parish we are to fulfill the commandment together.

In this same discourse but a minute later Christ goes on to say:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Again he addresses himself to each of us personally but calls us to love together, collectively and communally.  We are to be recognized as disciples not just an individual disciple.  We are recognized as disciples in community.  The parish is essential for our identity and witness.  In the parish community we can and are to fulfill the commandment that we together do what Christ commanded us to do.  This is very much what the early church understood about being Christian and discipleship:  one Christian, or a Christian alone, is no Christian.  Only in community can we love as Christ commanded us to do.  Of course we each have to contribute to this communal behavior, but it is always each of us have to work together to love as Christ exemplified and commanded us to do.

The plural “you” – we, us – is also in St. Paul’s exhortation:

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  (Rom. 15:7)

Christ welcomes us and receives us.  It is as one of us that we live our Christian life.

“Let us commend our selves, and one another and all our life to Christ our God.”

Be an Example to Believers

Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.   (1 Timothy 4:12)

St. Alexander Schmorell (d. 1943AD)

Abba Isaac said: “As a young man I was staying with Abba Cronios and he never told me to do a task even though he was aged and tremulous. Of his own accord he would get up and offer the water bottle to me and likewise to all. After that I stayed with Abba Theodore of Pherme and neither did he ever tell me to do anything. He would lay the table himself and then say: ‘Brother, come and eat if you like.’ I would say to him: ‘Abba, I came to you to reap some benefit; why do you never tell me to do anything?’ The elder said to them: ‘Am I the superior of a coenobium to order him around?’ For the time being I didn’t tell him [to do] anything. He will do what he sees me doing if he wants to.’

So from then on I began anticipating, doing whatever the elder was about to do. For his part, if he was doing anything, he used to do it in silence This taught me to act in silence.” (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 147)

So the Evangelist Luke writes:

A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.   (Luke 22:24-27)

When Jesus had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  (John 13:12-17)

Struggling to Love One’s Enemies

“Everyday experience shows that even people who in their inner depths accept Christ’s commandment to love one’s enemies do not put it into practice. Why? First of all, because without grace we cannot love our enemies. But if, realizing that this love was naturally beyond them, they asked God to help them with His grace they would certainly receive this gift.

Unfortunately, it is the opposite that prevails. Not only unbelievers but people who call themselves Christians are afraid of acting toward their enemies according to Christ’s commandment. They think that to do so would only be of advantage to the other side, seeing the enemy refracted through the distorting prism of hatred as having nothing good in him, that he would take advantage of their ‘indulgence’ and respond to their love either by crucifying or shamelessly crushing and subjugating them, thus letting evil, as generally personified by this enemy, triumph.

The idea that Christianity is ‘wishy-washy’ is profoundly mistaken. The saints possess a force powerful enough to sway people, influence the masses, but theirs is the reverse method – they make themselves servants of their brethren, and thus win for themselves a love in its essence imperishable. By following this course they gain a victory that will obtain ‘world without end’, whereas a victory won through violence never lasts and by its nature is more to the shame than to the glory of mankind.”   

(St. Silouan the Athonite, pp. 224-225)

St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)