Telling the Secrets of the Kingdom

Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”  Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”  (Luke 8:10)

In the 4 Gospel accounts, the word “Kingdom” (of heaven or of God) appears some 115 times.  The Evangelist Matthew uses “Kingdom” the most – 52 times, while the Evangelist John only mentions it twice.  Depending how you count the sayings, Matthew uses parables, metaphors or pithy statements thirteen times (25%) to compare the Kingdom of Heaven to something more familiar to his listeners: a sower of seeds, good seeds, a grain of mustard seed, leaven, a treasure, a merchant in search of fine pearls, a fishing net, a householder and his treasure, a king settling accounts with his servants, a householder hiring laborers for his fields, a king and the marriage feast for his son, wise and foolish maidens and their lamps, a man entrusting his property to  variously talented servants, and the separating of sheep from goats.

These comparisons give us a sense that the Kingdom may be different than we imagine – for all parables require some interpretation, but Jesus does not tell us exactly how the Kingdom is like these many different common scenarios.  The Lord leaves their interpretation open ended, for his disciples to hear and and grasp the hidden meaning.  Yet, He says the secrets of the Kingdom are given to them. The meaning of the ambiguous parables and enigmatic aphorisms are the secrets of the Kingdom of God which Christ is gifting to us.  The parables, metaphors and apothegms often defy common logic or our sense of “justice” causing us to have to lay aside an earthly sense of correctness in order to see or hear the hidden meaning.  They are like photos of a common object, taken from an unusual perspective – it can take us a long time before we realize what we are looking at, if we ever figure it out.

By describing the Kingdom in terms of parables, Christ moves us away from thinking about the Kingdom purely in terms of commandments, rules, regulations, or rubrics.  Christ uses the comparisons paradoxically – the Kingdom of heaven is like… – to give us a sense that it is like nothing we can imagine.  The parables and metaphors of the Kingdom turn out to be an apophatic way of thinking about the Kingdom exactly because Christ doesn’t explain how the things mentioned are able to enlighten us  about the Kingdom.

The parables of the Kingdom have been proclaimed by Christians for nearly 2000 years.  They are the true teachings of Christ, timely in every generation and situation, for the Kingdom of Heaven is not itself changing.  Whether the Faith is prospering or being persecuted, whether the listener is rejoicing in blessings or surviving through suffering, the Kingdom of God remains the same.  It is a reality not affected by our times or by our mental state.

St. Paul whom God chooses to proclaim the Kingdom, discovers that being faithful to God can leave one in perplexing circumstances.  If one believes faithfulness to God is going to automatically yield prosperity, just read 2 Corinthians 11:31-12:9, in which Paul describes soldiers hunting him down to arrest and kill him, and then also suffering personally some “thorn in the flesh” – an affliction he attributes to Satan, perhaps a serious, disfiguring illness which God will not take away from him.  Despite these setbacks, he remains faithful to that Kingdom which can be compared to seeds and sowers, talented servants as well as sheep and goats.

Even in the face of such terrible recent disasters – hurricanes in Texas and Florida, earthquakes in Mexico, wild fires in California, and a mass shooting in Las Vegas – the Kingdom of God remains the same reality revealed to us in the Gospel lessons.  Despite our worries about health care, and divisive politics, policy turmoil, soaring drug related deaths, the Church calls us to remember the Kingdom of Heaven, so that we can remain properly oriented in an uncertain world.   The mystery of the Kingdom, helps us to keep our feet on firm ground, even as the sands shift and the water rises against the house.

The Gospel does give us an answer to current worries – it gives us a vision of the Kingdom of God.  It is just that this insight is not necessarily the answer we think we need to solve all our problems.

The Lord Jesus taught this parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”  (Luke 8:5-9)

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A Separation of Church and State

The state is, to be sure, wholly  of “this world.” It belongs to the level of the reality which in the light of the Kingdom “fades away.” This does not mean, however, that it is either evil or neutral, an enemy to be fought or an entity to be ignored for the sake of “spiritual values.” On the contrary, it is precisely the experience of the Kingdom that for Christians gives the state its real meaning and value. The fall consisted primarily in the disconnection of “this world” from God and in its acquiring therefore a pseudo-meaning and a pseudo-value which is the very essence of the demonic, the Devil being “the liar and the father of lies.” To redeem the world, or anything in the world, is then to place it in the perspective of the Kingdom of God as its end and ultimate term of reference, to make it transparent to the Kingdom as its sign, means and “instrument.”

…The essence of all that exists is good, for it is God’s creation. It is only its divorce from God and its transformation into an idol, i.e. an “end in itself,” that makes anything in this world evil and demonic. Thus, as everything else in “this world,” the state may be under the power of “the prince of this world.” It may become a vehicle of demonic lies and distortions, yet, as everything else, by “accepting” the Kingdom of God as its ultimate value or “eschaton,” it may fulfill a positive function. As an integral part of “this world,” it exists under the sign of the end and will not “inherit the Kingdom of God.” But its positive and indeed “Christian” function lies in this very recognition of its limit, in this very refusal to be an “end in itself,” an absolute value, an idol, in its subordination, in short, to the only absolute value, that of God’s Kingdom.

It is well known that from a purely legal point of view the crime for which Christians were condemned and denied the right to exists (“non licet vos esse”) was their refusal to honor the emperor with the title of Kyrios, Lord. They did not denounce, reject or fight any other “defect” of the Roman Empire be it, to use our modern “fixations,” injustice (slavery), colonialism (the regime of imperial versus the senatorial provinces), or imperialism (expansion at the expense of other states and nations). Yet what they denounced and fought by denying the emperor the divine title of Kyrios implied in fact much more than all this, for it challenged once and for all the self-proclaimed divinity of the state, its claim to be an absolute value, a divine “end in itself.” And it implied therefore not only a negation, but also an affirmation. (Alexander Schmemman, Church World Mission, pp. 30-32)

Living The Kingdom of God

In the book Living Icons: Persons of Faith in the Eastern Church (page 124), Michael Plekon, building upon the writings of Paul Evdokimov, notes:

 “For every Christian, the sacraments of initiation confer the dignity of prophet, priest and king. Every profession and state in life can be a form of this universal priesthood. In the liturgy, such a priest ‘makes of everything a human offering, a hymn, a doxology’. Then, in daily life, in the ‘liturgy after liturgy’ of St. John Chrysostom, such a Christian is

‘freed by his faith from the “greater fear” of his twentieth century, fear of the bomb, of cancer, of communism, of death; [his] faith is always a way of loving the world, away of following his Lord even into hell. This is certainly not a part of a theological system, but perhaps it is only from the depths of hell that a dazzling and joyous hope can be born and assert itself. Christianity in the grandeur of its confessors and martyrs, in the dignity of every believer, is messianic, revolutionary, explosive.  In the domain of Caesar, we are ordered to see and therefore to find what is not found there—the Kingdom of God. This order signifies that we must transform the form of the world, change it into the icon of the Kingdom. To change the world means to pass from what the world does not yet possess—for this reason it is still this world—to that in which it is transfigured, thus becoming something else—the Kingdom.’ (Paul Evdokimov)”

 

Blessed is the Kingdom

“The first exclamation of the Divine Liturgy reveals the key to the entire celebration:

Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.

With these words the celebrant announces the source and the goal of the divine service of the People of God, the very context and contents of the entire liturgical action. It is the Kingdom of God brought to the world by Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and mystically reigning already in the faithful disciples of Christ by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom of God is eternal life in communion with God in loving obedience to his divine will. It is life in union with the Blessed Trinity; life lived toward the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. It is the life which Christ has given to men by his incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and glorification. It is the life to be lived already in this world by the People of God. To bless the Kingdom of God means to love it as one’s most precious possession. The response of the people to the proclamation of blessing by the priest is with the word Amen, which means so be it. This is the solemn affirmation that indeed the blessing of God’s Kingdom is fitting and proper. It is the official confirmation that this Kingdom is indeed the ‘pearl of great price’ for the faithful, which once having found it, they will love it and serve it and desire to have it forever (Lk 13.14).” (Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith: Worship, Vol. 2, pp 152-153)

St Paul & the Kingdom of Heaven

When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape.  (1 Thessalonians 5:3)

“Paul understood that God’s messiah was not to be the exclusive king of the Israelites, but he was meant to be the world’s king, a light to the Gentiles, and as such his kingdom must include Gentiles from throughout the empire.  […]  In 1 Thessalonians 5:3 Paul seems to be making a scathing critique of those whose hope is in the peace (pax, eirene) and security (securitas, asphaleia) of Roman rule.” (Aristotle Panaikolaou, Thinking Through Faith, pp 33 & 35)

 Interesting that at a time when Christians were an insignificant minority in the Roman Empire that they might have been relying on the stability of the Empire to give them peace and security.  It was this very Empire that had crucified the Lord Jesus and would eventually turn its imperial power against the Christians.

But through the centuries Christians have often relied on worldly power to be the sign of God’s Kingdom on earth and to insure that there would be stability on earth.  The Byzantine Orthodox certainly did it with their Byzantine Empire.  Russian Orthodox in the old Russian Empire had a similar hope.  Some think Russian Orthodox today are looking to Putin and the Russian state to again provide stability to the world for Christians.  Even a few American Evangelicals have apparently thought modern Russia might be the last defender of Christian family values.  Certainly some American Christians have believed the United States, up to this point in history, has been the guarantor of peace, prosperity and stability in the world for Christians.  They fear that changes in American culture will mean God will no longer protect America or Christians.

St. Paul would probably still have the same message for us today as he had for Christians in the first century – beware of putting your trust in worldly rulers, empires and powers for providing you peace and security.

Put not your trust in princes, in sons of men, in whom there is no salvation. When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish. (Psalm 146:3-4)

For no worldly power is defending the Kingdom of God and none can prevent the Kingdom from coming.

Jesus answered, “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.”  (John 18:36)

Jesus apparently wasn’t a proponent of God and country.   All worldly empires and nations belong to the world which is passing away and which will be replaced by God’s kingdom.

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.”  (Matthew 25:31-33)

All of this is why we pray at our services for our nation, our president, all civil authority and the armed forces.  It is our nation which needs the protection of the Kingom of God not the Kingdom which needs the nation to protect it.

Feeling the Presence of God

 “But the Kingdom of God already exists: In the beauty of the earth

and where good is victorious among people, in the Lord’s true disciples, in saints and heroes, in those who want to follow Him, who did not desert Christ amid the difficult trials of His Church….

Grant us, divine Teacher, the strength of their faith, their unshatterable hope and the fire of their love for you.

When we, lost on life’s path, stop, not knowing where to go, grant that we might see Your face in the gloom.

Through the howling and thundering of this technological age,

at once so mighty and so poor and powerless, teach us to attend to the silence of eternity and let us hear in Your voice, Your courage-instilling words: ‘I am with you always, to the close of the age.’” (Fr. Alexander Men, Son of Man, pp 219-220)

Charity: Meeting Needs, Giving Hope

I have been reading off and on Fr. Thomas Hopko’s  The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture.  Chapter 30, “The Bread of Life”, got me thinking a little beyond the text. Fr.  Hopko writes:

Prophet Isaiah

“The Jews at that time believed that, when God’s Kingdom came, there would be no more hunger. This is a classical teaching of the Old Testament: God opens the eyes of the blind; God takes care of the widow and the orphan; God sets the prisoners free; God feeds those who are hungry. In this world are many hungering people who do not know the truth, but it is the Christian conviction that these things will be fulfilled in the age to come. In this life, we have a foretaste of the coming Kingdom in what Christ did when He was on earth. Those who belong to Christ are those who care for the poor, the orphans, and the widows. They do it because God does this for all of us, and He will do it in the age to come. In imitation of Christ, we have to feed those who are hungry when we can.”   (Kindle Location 3460-3465)

My thought building upon what he writes is that it is the actions of the members of the church which can give others (the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the lost, sinners, the sick…) some hope in something beyond this world.  We may meet people’s needs in this world, but we do so because we want to share our hope with others who may be without hope, without faith, without any reason to believe in or trust in God (and thus doubt the value of any life beyond the grave).  When we give charity of all kinds (including sharing the Good News), we are not just trying to help the needy in this world (though we are doing that), for we are also endeavoring to gear them toward the future life in which we hope.  We willingly share our blessings from this world because we know these blessings are temporary, belonging to this world.  We share from our blessings to help others experience the blessings as well, but also to help orient them (and ourselves!) to the world to come.  The blessings in this world are needed and important, but are of relative value.  It is their consummation in the world to come for which we really live and share our life in this world.

And, though popular wisdom says “you can’t take it with you” when you die, as noted in other of my blogs, the Fathers frequently commented that when we give of our possessions to the poor in this world, it is actually the Lord Jesus Christ who receives that charity as an offering and who blesses us in the world to come with the same generosity with which we helped others.

Some of the needy feel abandoned or forgotten by God in this world.  Some may feel it is their own fault, others may feel it is because God is harsh or doesn’t exist at all.  Our feeding the hungry, the poor, the needy, the homeless, the immigrant, is our way of sharing the blessings of this world with them so that they too can believe God is merciful and forgiving, and so that they can rejoice in and hope in the God of love.

It is also true that in parish community, we share with one another the sacraments as well as the blessings of this world in shared meals and fellowship hours.  We prepare the food and share it with those with whom we also hope to share the blessings in the world to come.  Our generosity to others in this world, our giving in charity to those in need, is a witness to our faith in God’s own mercy and goodness toward us.

The next day, the people who remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat and that Jesus had not entered the boat when His disciples went away. Then it says, “However, boats from Tiberias came near the place where they ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks” (v. 23). This is a eucharistic overtone. In the Divine Liturgy, in a dialogue with the congregation prior to Holy Communion, the priest says, “Let us lift up our hearts, let us give thanks unto the Lord.” It is the Eucharist, eucharistia, “thanks.”  (Kindle Location 3492-3496)

We know in this Gospel lesson that the people are looking for Christ for more bread in this world, but Christ constantly attempts to get those around Him to look beyond this world to the Kingdom not of this world.  As Christ’s followers, we too are to be looking for things beyond this world – not just what satisfies on earth, for which we can give thanks, but to seek that which makes us look beyond this life, to hope in something greater than this world, even the world at its very best.  Christ was not just trying to make people satisfied with life on earth.  He was aiming us at the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom not of this world.  We do have to minister in this world, and to people who have needs in this world.  We share from our blessings, because we hope in life in the world to come.  We want others to do the same.

The greatest problem is not feeding the masses, for this can be accomplished in love.  The greater problems is helping people to understand that charity in this world is a sign of the kingdom to come.  Our goal is not to create paradise on earth, but to give all hope that paradise is real and yet to be.

And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:3–4)  (Thomas Hopko, The Names of Jesus: Discovering the Person of Christ through Scripture, Kindle Location 3548-3550)

There is a temptation for Christ to change the things of this world into that which would make us want more of this world.  Christ, however, reminds us that there is something wrong with this world, even when there are things in this world which we love and for which we are thankful.  The temptation for Christ and Christians is to imagine this world is all there is and to live for this world alone.  We do that when we constantly pursue the things of the world.  We need food, shelter, clean water, clothes and human dignity, among other things.  But just as Jesus is being tempted to live in and for this world alone, we too can be so tempted.  When we share what we have – what we have been given, been blessed with or even earned – we show that we really do live for the kingdom which is to come.  We don’t deny our needs in this world, nor the needs of others.  We share from our blessings to give others a foretaste of what we believe in – so that they actually see and experience our hope and faith, so that they too will orient themselves with hope in Jesus Christ and His coming Kingdom.

The Divine Liturgy is the Kingdom of God

“The Divine Liturgy is the Kingdom of God, and the food at the Supper of the Kingdom is love. Through repentance and fear of God, we traverse the sea of this life and arrive at love.

‘Repentance is the ship,

fear is its helmsman and

love is the divine harbor.

So fear places us in the ship of repentance, conveys us across the sullied sea of life and brings us to the divine harbor which is love, to which all those who are weary and heavy laden attain through repentance [cf. Matt. 11:28]. Once we arrive at love, we have arrived at God.’”

(St. Isaac the Syrian in The Divine Liturgy: A Commentary in the Light of the Fathers  by Hieromonk Gregorios, p 294)

Palm Sunday (2015)

“We are so used to the idea that Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, that we forget that he was in fact recognized as King, even if only on one day and for a few hours. And although his kingship is hidden from the world now, we still acknowledge him as our King.

We made this confession in baptism: that everything in our life and in the world belongs to him; that there is nothing over which he is not, for us, the true ruler; that we subject every area of our lives to him, to save and redeem. Taking up the palms and making this proclamation is a renewal of our baptismal pledge: that Christ and his Kingdom is our only reality. . . .

This is what happened to all those who today greet Christ with palms and the Hosanna. When they realize that his sight is not set on their goals, it only takes a few days before they begin to clamor for his death.

We know that this is the tendency or the momentum of the world, the world which lives in us, too; and we know that the death of Christ is not only the result of our sin and insanity, but it is, more importantly, God’s answer to that insanity—that this is what divine love looks like.

We know this already; we knew it when we were baptized—we were, after all, baptized into the death of Christ, in order to rise with him. Knowing this, we must make sure, as we once again follow Christ to Golgotha, the Passion, to his crucifixion and exaltation, that it is this Jesus that determines for us what is good, true, beautiful, and gracious. We need, as it were, to allow our notion of what is good to be crucified with him, to take a new shape in what he reveals to us about truth and love.” (John Behr, THE CROSS STANDS WHILE THE WORLD TURNS, pp 54-55)

It is the God incarnate who dies on the cross who determines what is good and true and beautiful.   The world showed its hatred for Him. It still does. ISIS hates Christ and still wishes to crucify the God who is love. It is however, the God who voluntarily submits Himself to crucifixion whom we follow to death, not only in baptism, but whenever it comes to our own will. In Holy Week we reaffirm our faithfulness to this Christ, the one who dies on the cross for the salvation of the world rather than summoning armies of angels from heaven to save Himself from the evil of the world.

Christ the Healer

The Gospel lesson of Matthew 9:1-8 –

At that time, the Lord Jesus got into a boat, crossed over, and came to His own city. Then behold, they brought to Him a paralytic lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, be of good cheer; your sins are forgiven you.” And at once some of the scribes said within themselves, “This Man blasphemes!” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, “Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Arise and walk’?  But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins-then He said to the paralytic, “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  And he arose and departed to his house.  Now when the multitudes saw it, they marveled and glorified God, who had given such power to men.

 St. John Chrysostom (d. 407AD) compares how Jesus heals to how a doctor normally goes about healing a patient:

“Not as in the case of a physician, for it is enough that Christ merely utters a command and all distress ceases. And the wonder is not only that He effects the cure with so much ease, but also without pain, causing no trouble to those who are being healed… Christ represses first of all the source of the evil. For the source and root and mother of all evil is the nature of sin. This it is which deprives strength of our bodies: this it is which brings on disease: therefore also on this occasion He said, ‘Take heart, my son your sins are forgiven.’ And on the other He said, ‘See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befalls you,’ intimating to both that these maladies were the offspring of sin. And in the beginning and outset of the world diseases as the consequence of sin attacked the body of Cain. For after the murder of his brother, after that act of wickedness, his body was subject to palsy.”  (Christ’s Power to Heal the Paralytic, O LOGOS PUBLICATION, pp 7-8)

Of note in St. John Chrysostom’s comments is that St. John wants to be clear about the miraculous nature of Christ’s healing.  Jesus is not just skillfully using the implements, methods and elixirs of doctors and pharmacologists.   Christ heals without causing any further illness, pain, or discomfort to the sick – no pungent or bitter astringents, no bleeding, no cutting of limbs or piercing of wounds.  Christ says the word, and the healing takes place.  It is much like the Genesis 1 creation story in which God speaks and creation takes form and it is all beautiful, and painless.  And the cures are instant, not requiring long periods of  recovery, recuperation or rehabilitation.

But note also that St. John is willing to attribute this illness, and all disease to sin.  He mentions a common idea in the Patristic period from Genesis 4:12.  In the Septuagint version of the story, Cain “trembles” as part of the consequence of killing his brother.  The Fathers generally understood this to be a disease (palsy) that came upon him as the result of committing murder.  Chrysostom like all the ancients did not know of any germ theory of disease.  So in general the ancients did not see disease as simply occurring in nature.  For the Fathers, what is natural is what existed before the Fall – and in Paradise there was no mention of disease.  All disease of the body only occurs after the Fall and thus is the result of sin.  Disease is thus a sign of the World of the Fall – the world we live in is not Paradise, it is not the natural world that God originally created or intended for humans to live in (see Genesis 3:14-20).  Healing, on the other hand, is a sign of the Kingdom of God.  So both illness and healing point to realities beyond the self, and show our connectedness to all of creation and all of history.   There is no such thing as a completely independent individual.  We all share a common human nature, a common human history.  We all live in the same world and experience the effects of sin, and of the love of God.  The “miracles” of Christ are most significant because they are signs of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Their importance is not that one person 2000 years ago got healed, or that someone today can be healed, but that they are signs to help us realize the mystery of creation and of salvation.  They are to make us aware of God.