Be a Holy Priesthood

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . .  But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  (1 Peter 2:4-9)

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It is St. Peter who tells all of Christians to be a holy priesthood and who says we are a royal priesthood.  It is where we get the notion of the priesthood of all believers.  So how can we all be priests?  We can do with our lives what priests do in the Liturgy.

We can make everything and anything we do an offering to God.  Each of us offers to God daily whatever it is we do in our lives…

Whatever we think

Whatever we say

Whatever we do

These are our offerings to God.  If we remember that every moment of our life is an offering to God and stay consciously aware of this, we can actually transfigure all we do into something holy.   Our “Christian” life is not opposed to our daily or secular life.  We have only one life we live.  Every aspect of our lives – what we do in our bedrooms, in our living rooms, in our kitchens as well as our workshops and garages – becomes our offering to God.  We can transform any minute and every minute into prayer and into a spiritual sacrifice.  The spiritual sacrifice is what St. Peter tells us we are to offer to God.  This is not some ritual act, but rather we turn everything we do into prayer and an offering to God.

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In today’s Epistle (Galatians 6:11-16), we hear the words:  “what counts is a new creation.”  That is what we are trying to do.  We come to church and see the icons, these are people, scenes and events transfigured by God into holy events and holy people.  We come here and experience bread and wine transfigured into the Body and Blood of Christ.  We come here as individuals and are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, God’s own church.

What we experience here, we can do in our own homes and lives as God’s priests.  We can transfigure and transform every moment into an iconic moment.  The icons shouldn’t just be on the walls of the church, we can make our lives iconic .  In fact we are each an icon of God – we each are created in God’s image (icon) [Genesis 1:26-27].  When we live as Christians, when we live in God’s likeness, we make each moment and each event iconic because we make God’s image present in us.

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For God so loved the world…”   (John 3 – today’s Gospel) –

Fr. Schmemann points out  it is this world God loves.  It is this life God loves.  No other.

This world and this life are to be communion with God.  God offers this to us, but we can also strive to make it so.

It is this world where there are hurricanes, and earthquakes and war and political strife and financial struggle –  this is the very world into which Christ became incarnate.  He chose to enter into this world because of His love for us.

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Mt. Saint Helens Volcano

There is something about this world which God loves and is not willing to give up on .  He wants to transform this world, not replace it with some other world.

God loves this world

God wishes to save this world

God can transfigure this world.

Even with all the problems of this world – natural disasters, human made disasters, sin, evil, human hubris, God still loves this world because He sees the goodness in it and He still sees His image in us!  God has entered into this world and share our human nature because God loves us and this world.

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We can cooperate with God by being God’s priests and transforming our lives and what we do into a daily spiritual offering to God.  We can make ourselves image bearers of God and can make our lives, our homes, our time on earth to be iconic and to reveal the presence of God to everyone.

 

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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)

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.

Images of Salvation (VII)

“Meditation on hell enables us to understand from what Christ came to save us, provided we cling with all our strength to his salvation.”  (Oliver Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 138)

This is the seventh blog in this series exploring ideas about and images of salvation.  The first blog is Images of Salvation and the previous blog is Images of Salvation (VI).

In Orthodox theology as expressed in our celebration of the Feast of the Resurrection, God became incarnate in Christ in order to liberate us from hell and deliver us from death, not to send sinners to hell to suffer.

“Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”  (Ezekiel 33:11)

“For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”  (John 3:17)

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.”  (St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Sermon)

The man who wrote under the pseudonym of St. Dionysius the Areopagite offers us the following story to help us understand Christ’s attitude toward death and hell, and what we as His disciples should think about hell and Christ’s saving us from it:

 “One day I was in Crete.  The holy man Carpus welcomed me to his home. … he told me that one day he was exasperated by the infidelity of a man … (which)… had turned away from faith in God one of the members of his church… Carpus in his goodness should have been duty bound to pray for both of them. … Instead, Carpus for the first time in his life felt grieved and indignant.  It was in this state of mind that he went to bed and fell asleep.  In the middle of the night, at the hour when he was in the habit of waking of his own accord to sing the praises of God, he arose, still prey to unspiritual irritation, saying to himself that is was not right to let someone live . . . and he begged God to hurl his inexorable thunderbolt to put an end at a single stroke to the life of two unbelievers.  At that moment, he said, the house where he was suddenly seemed to rock this way and that, then to split in two from the roof down the middle.  A vivid flame appeared which came down on him; the sky was rent; Jesus revealed himself in the midst of a multitude of angels…    

Carpus lifted his eyes and stood astonished at what he saw.  Looking down, he told me, he watched the ground itself opening to make a black yawning abyss, and in front of him on the edge of the abyss the two men he had cursed, trembling and gradually losing their foothold.  From the bottom of the abyss he saw snakes crawling up and wrapping themselves round the men’s feet trying their utmost to drag them down.  The men seemed to be on the point of succumbing, partly despite themselves, partly quite willingly, since there were being assaulted and at the same time seduced by the Evil One.  Carpus was overjoyed, he told me, as he contemplated the spectacle beneath him.  Forgetting the vision above (Jesus), he was growing impatient and indignant that the unbelievers had not yet succumbed.  Several times he joined his efforts to those of the snakes…  

In the end he lifted his eyes and saw again in the sky the same vision as shortly before.  But this time Jesus, moving with compassion, came down to the unbelievers and stretched out a hand to help them… then he said to Carpus, ‘Your hand is already raised.  It is I whom you should strike, for here I am to suffer again for the salvation of humanity…moreover you should consider whether you yourself should not stay in the abyss with the snakes, rather than live with God… ”

Olivier Clement comments:

“Carpus’s vision convinces him that to wish to damn anyone is to attack Christ himself, to annul his Passion and so to compel him to undergo it again; similarly it is to throw oneself, by one’s own actions, in the abyss.”      (The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clement, pp 300-301)

Next:  Images of Salvation (VIII)

God’s Love for the World

St. John, the beloved disciple of our Lord Jesus, penned words in his Gospel which some today claim are the most famous words found in the Bible (3:16-17):

“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. Isaac of Nineveh offers in his own writings words which help us grasp what the eternal God’s love for the world means:

In love did God bring the world into existence;

in love does He guide it during its temporal existence;

in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state,

and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things.

In love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised.”

(The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Ninevah, pg. 38)

God’s Motivation: Love or Evil?

Recently I read some email comments about the power of evil in the world.  The comments implied that it was because of evil on earth that God sent His Son into the world, and that the death of Christ on the cross was also the result of evil.  Thus, the way the story was being presented it was the existence of evil that caused the incarnation.

The corollary of attributing God’s saving action to evil would then be to say, thanks to evil, God became incarnate.  For in this thinking it is evil which motivates God to do something for His creatures.  Yet the witness of John 3:16 is clear that it is God’s love which motivates Him toward the world, not the existence of evil.

For God so loved the world

that He gave His own dear Son

that whoever believes in Him

would have eternal life.

The true motivation of the God who is love is clear in the writings of certain saints of the Church.  St. Isaac of Syria (7th Cent) attributes the entire incarnation and death of Christ to one thing only: God’s love. Whatever happened to Christ is because of God’s love, not because of the power of evil in the world.  St. Isaac, so I’ve read, does not attribute the suffering and death of Christ to sin, original sin, Satan, death or evil. In fact some scholars say you would be hard pressed to find in Isaac’s writings any such “theology of the cross”: No substitutionary death of Christ, no demand for justice, no price being paid to anyone. I’ve read similar claims about St. Ephrem of Syria (4th Cent) as well.

Some could rightfully object that neither St. Ephrem or  St. Isaac encompasses the entire Tradition of the Church. Others would say that the theology of the cross is already nascent if not full blown in St. Paul whether the patristic saints mention it or not.

Be that as it may, St. Isaac’s thought is part of the tradition of the Church, and his theology counterbalances those writings which overly credit evil with causing God to act.  Evil is not the cause of everything, especially not of the incarnation of the Word.  Some would say it can’t be the cause of anything for it doesn’t have substance.

“But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. ‘For God so loved the the world, that He gave His only begotten Son over to death for its sake.’ This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself.” (St. Isaac the Syrian THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES, p 345)

Love, not justice let alone evil, is the basis of the incarnation according to St. Isaac.  God’s love, especially for the Eastern Patristic writers,  is also the cause for Christ descending into Hades upon His death and rescuing all the dead from the power of sin, evil and death.

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev in his CHRIST THE CONQUEROR OF HELL  points out that there was a difference between Eastern and Western Patristic period writers in understanding the  descent of Christ into Hades.  The Western fathers tended to believe that Christ rescued only the righteous from Hades and left the sinners there.  The Eastern fathers thought that would not really be love but only justice.  The Eastern fathers, believing God’s motivation to be love, saw Christ as emptying Hades of everyone.  This is the triumph of God’s love over sin, death and even the limits of justice.  (Interestingly, according to St. Irenaeus,  the heretic Marcion wrote that Christ rescued the sinners from Hades – thus Cain and Lamech raced out of Hades to embrace Christ their savior when He descended into Hades, while the Jewish righteous – such as Noah – relying on Torah chose to stay in Hades thinking a graceful exit from Hades must be a trick, and that the OT righteous decided to stay in Hades until they had opportunity to show God how righteous they had been).

So the Eastern Fathers saw Christ as rescuing us from Hades and death (the both of which are our enemies), whereas the Western fathers tended to see Hades and death as part of God’s justice and so God would hardly be saving us/sinners from his own justice.  Perhaps in this Western version sin helps separate the good from the evil – the good work to overcome their sins while the evil must pay for their sins eternally.   It is all the works-righteousness idea playing (working?) itself out.

Sin and death therefore are either that which separates us from God and which must be overcome by the incarnation,  death and resurrection of Christ (a view common in the Christian East),  OR   sin and death are the very conditions necessary in order for God to be our Savior and thus can be said to cause salvation.  A number of the Eastern Patristic Saints were convinced that love alone was what caused God to act on our behalf – in the incarnation and in the crucifixion.  Evil is not the cause of God’s plan of salvation, rather God’s love destroys evil in all of its manifestations including sin and death.   Evil does not cause God to act.  The God who is love acts according to His own nature to overcome evil.  Love conquers all.

Eat and Live For Ever

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,

that whoever believes in him

should not perish but have eternal life.  

(John 3:16)

At the heart of the Christian Gospel is God’s plan for the salvation of the world which culminates in the destruction of death and the granting of eternal life to all who seek His love.

We are reminded through the season of Great Lent about why we humans don’t live in a Paradise in which immortality is normative.  We reread each Lent the Book of Genesis in which we discover there is a relationship between our eating habits and the loss of immortality.  Eve and Adam disobey the fast God imposed upon them in the Garden of Eden (the Paradise of Delight), and eat of the only fruit  God commanded them to abstain: that of the Tree of the  Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The rest is history, so to speak.

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” —  therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.  He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.  (Genesis 3:22-24)

There was a tree in the Garden of Delight of which if we ate we would live forever. There also was a fast from one food given to our original ancestors which if followed would also have led to eternal life.    In Orthodox hymnology and poetry and theology the mystical Tree remains central to God’s plan of salvation.  Ultimately, that Tree from which if you eat you live forever is identified with the tree of the cross of Christ up0n which Christ was hung, and Christ Himself is the fruit which does give us eternal life.  God does not deny us eternal life forever!  There is forgiveness with Him, and He offers us again what was available to us in Paradise:  that we might eat and live forever.

This all forms the sacramental theology which Fr. Alexander Schmemann describes so vividly in GREAT LENT  and in FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD.

As we contemplate the Genesis story of Eve and Adam’s sin against God, we read what the Patristic writer’s called “theology in the form of narrative.”   And this brings us to an understanding of the Gospel narrative as well.   Jesus Christ teaches:

I am the bread of life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.  This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”  (John 6:48-58)

The Jews on their desert sojourn were sustained by the miraculous manna, the bread of angels.  Yet this bread did not give them eternal life.  They ate of it, it sustained them, but they died, falling short not only of eternal life but of the promised land as well.  In Christ, we proclaim that we are given that food of which if we eat we will live forever.

Great Lent is a season for us to learn to hunger for this food which if eaten grants eternal life.

“Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness.  Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. (Isaiah 55:1-3)

Great Lent is our time to learn the eternal significance of food and of eating and of fasting from things which are spiritually detrimental to our journey to the Kingdom.

One’s First Love: Understanding that God Loves You

A friend, Dr. Eike, says that in medicine the physicians job is to help remove the obstacles to healing, so that God can then heal the person.  This too is the goal of  the mystery of Confession – to help remove from our hearts and minds those obstacles to true repentance which prevent us from allowing God into our lives.   We are trying to clear away that part of self which prevents God from entering into our hearts: for example being hard-hearted or stiff necked, or having a heart of stone,or allowing our anger to consume us, or our lusts and greed to blind us.

Oliver Clément expresses it this way:

The millstone

“Your first task is not to try to love God but only to understand that He loves you. If love responds to love and you are awakened in the depth of your heart, then the very life of Christ, that is the breath of the Spirit, will arise within you. Now you have only to remove the obstacles, deviations, all the stones and silt deep within you that stop up the well-spring – though henceforth that will be your desire.”   (Three Prayers: The Lord’s Prayer, O Heavenly King, Prayer of St. Ephrem, pg.23)