Embracing the Sinner

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

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

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

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Love for Another and the Effects of Sin

“…we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”  (John 4:42)

“Your own, of Your own, we offer to You, on behalf of all and for all.”

“And all mankind.”   (From the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

Anyone who does not want the same things for his fellow human beings or pass the same judgement on them as he wishes for himself, is certainly foolish, particularly as this judgement and this wish are an inherent part of our nature. For it is a natural impulse in all of us to want to be loved and well treated by others as much as by ourselves. The will to do good and to be as well disposed towards all as we are towards ourselves is therefore also inborn in us. We were all made in the image of Him who is good. Then when sin entered and multiplied, it did not extinguish our self-love, since it was not at all opposed to that, but it cooled down love for one another, the crown the virtues, changed it and rendered it useless. As a result, He who renews our nature, recalling it to the grace of His own image and putting His laws, as the prophet tells us, in our hearts (Jer. 31:33), says “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31), and “If ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? For sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:32, 34).

In this passage, He refers to those who are not called by His name and those who do not order their lives according to the gospel, as sinners, including them all in the same category, for it is of no benefit to us to be called Christians if we act no differently from the heathen. Just as the great Paul told the Jews, “Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision” (Rom 2:35), so now Christ tells us through the Gospel, “You who are Mine will find grace in My presence if you keep my Commandments, but if you do nothing more than sinners do, loving those who love you and doing good to those who do the same to you, you will have no confidence towards Me on that account.” He does not speak like this to deter people from loving or doing good or lending to those who will repay them, but He shows that such acts do not earn a reward, so they have their recompense here and now, and do not bring any grace to the soul, nor cleanse it from the ingrained defilement of sin.” (St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 355-356).

Me and Jesus Alone

Christos Yannaras in his book, Against Religion, offers some critical analysis of trends in how Orthodoxy is being practiced today.  He notes that in the modern world, Orthodoxy’s love of monasticism and hesychasm gets entangled with Western civilization’s apotheoses of the individual above and against everything else in the universe.  The result is a hybrid which makes the individual everything, no longer truly needing anything but the self for attaining salvation.  The modern Western Christian steeped in extreme individualism believes hesychasm is identical to individualism.  Whereas Christianity is a religion of relational beings, calling all people to love one another, and placing salvation within this matrix of loving relationships.  Being fully human means not becoming isolated from or alienated from all other humans, but learning to live in love just as the Three Persons of the Trinity live a perfect union of love.  Yannaras says the result is “religionization” – where each person works out their salvation independently of all others rather than interdependently.  He writes:

“The religionization of the Church is a facet of the individualization of faith, ascetic practice, into the morality of the individual, and worship into the duty of the individual. Correct beliefs, obedience to moral precepts, and adherence to obligations of worship are sufficient to ensure justification and salvation for the individual.”

It reduces Christianity to religious practices – whether pious, moral, liturgical, ritualistic, or dogmatic.  As long as I am doing the right thing, I don’t need anyone else for my salvation.  It neglects the main teaching of Christ to love others as He loves us because it says as long as the individual does things correctly or perfectly, they earned salvation.  One doesn’t work out one’s salvation in terms of loving others, but purely in perfecting the self.

Yet, when the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he taught them to pray in one mind yet as community – “OUR Father….”  And the prayers of the Liturgy are almost always in the plural:  “Let US pray to the Lord.”  Our salvation is placed within the community of the people of God.  Moses, beloved of God, totally understood himself in relationship with the people of God.  Even when the people rebelled against Moses and against God, Moses tells God that he doesn’t want to be saved apart from the people [who were, by the way, wanting to stone Moses to death].

So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people have sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” (Exodus 32:31-32)

Yannaras continues with his criticism of the individualization that results from “religionization“:

“Nothing collective is presupposed in the religious version of piety or of salvation – neither community, which is the body of relations of communion that assembles at the eucharistic meal, not participation in this assembly, nor the seeking of salvation in a change of mode of existence: the passing over from the natural urge of self-preservation/sovereignty to loving self- transcendence and self-offering.” (p. 98)

The early Church understood completely the dictum: “One Christian is no Christian.”  One can only be a Christian by loving others and working out one’s salvation in relationship to and with Christ and His fellow disciples.  Christianity is not a religion which endeavors to create isolated and alienated individuals.   One cannot be a Christian alone, but becomes a Christian by imitating Christ and washing the feet of the disciples.  Christianity restores the person to a proper relationship with God, with others, with all creation.  It is not trying to enlarge the self-centered ego to exclude all others, but to help the individual be part of that which is greater than the self – the Church, all of humanity, the cosmos and of God.  Christianity leads us away from the emptiness of self-love to the spiritual growth which occurs as a result of living in love with others.  We are never saved alone, for in the process of becoming Christian we become a member of Christ’s Body together will all other believers.  We live not for our self alone, but to bring everything together in Christ for the salvation of all. [see also my blog The Need for Christ].

We become fully human – fully Christian – only in fellowship and communion with the people of God.   We may experience in life the feeling that we alone are being faithful to God, but this does not reflect the reality of the world.

Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? “Lord, they have killed thy prophets, they have demolished thy altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.” But what is God’s reply to him? “I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.”  (Romans 11:2-4)

Enmity, Discernment

Each day when I enter the church, I see these words on an icon:

John 13:34
John 13:34

Those words have been part of my life, week in and week out for 20 years.  I cannot get to my office without passing by them.  Some days they seem to jump out at me and cause me to stop in my tracks.  Sometimes if I mindlessly walk by them, they call me back and I have to stop in front of them and remember.

Jesus’ only new commandment is that we are to love one another as He loved us.  Christ commands me to love others as He loves me.  That is a tall order for sure.  And every day I struggle with what it means and how I might do it, or even if it is possible for me to do it.   Of course, I can find ways to make the text more palatable and doable.  Since Jesus speaks to us (in the plural) he means that when we are gathered with other like-minded Christians who are all committed to Christian love, then we are to love them in that context since they will equally be loving us back.  But then, of course, Christ taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), so our Christian love isn’t limited to those who love us.  If it is, how are we any different than unbelievers?  (Luke 6:27, 35)

“We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.” – St. John Chrysostom

“Prayer for our enemies is the very highest summit of self-control.” – St. John Chrysostom”

“Praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of the law [of the Gospel].” – St. John Chrysostom

Christ’s Gospel commandments are hard.  Sometimes they seem obscure, for how can we do them?  Is it humanly possible?  Perhaps, Christ just was a utopian idealist, and some day, in heaven or paradise or some distant place, a pie-in-the-sky La La land, things would be so very nice and polite.

However, we live in this world, in which there really are enemies, and people we don’t particularly like or want to be around.  What are we to say to Christ when He commands us to do something that seems too hard, or maybe even not possible?

“Yes, sir!”

He is our Lord, God and Master, and we are His servants.  So before every service I light a candle before this icon which portrays Christ’s commandment, and I have to lay aside all excuses, and say, “Yes, Lord!”  Bowing my head in humility, I also have to say, “Forgive me.”  Forgive me for doubting it is possible, for not even trying, for not being willing to deny myself in order to follow You, for wanting to sit at your right hand but not being willing to stand with you at the Cross.

“It is a fearful thing to hate whom God has loved. To look upon another – his weaknesses, his sins, his faults, his defects – is to look upon one who is suffering. He is suffering from negative passions, from the same sinful human corruption from which you yourself suffer. This is very important; do not look upon him with the judgmental eyes of comparison, noting the sins you assume you would never commit. Rather, see him as a fellow sufferer, a fellow human being who is in the need of the very healing of which you are in need. Help him, love him, pray for him, do unto him as you would have him do unto you.” – St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

(Quotes of the saints are from For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, pp 114-115)

 

Triumph Over Hatred

kronstadt“You hate your enemy? You are foolish. Why? Because if your enemy persecutes you, you also inwardly persecute yourself; for say, is it not persecution, and the most cruel persecution, to torture yourself by your hatred towards your enemy? Love your enemy, and you will be wise. O, if only you knew what a triumph, what blessedness it is to love your enemy, and to do good to him! So did the Son of God, so did God in the Holy Trinity, triumph, and still triumphs, through His love, over the ungrateful and evil-natured human race; so also did God’s saints triumph over their enemies, by loving them and doing good to them. ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…If when we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life‘ (Rom 5:10).” (St. John of Kronstadt, My Life in Christ, pp 62-63)

The amazing thing about God is that God reconciled Himself to us while we were still sinners.  God did not wait until we had repented or changed before working to establish peace with us.  If we are to love others as Christ loved us (John 13:34), then we aren’t to wait until others repent or change before forgiving them or being reconciled to them.  That is to love as Christ loved us.

Loving as Christ Loves Me

As I am able, I do Matins three times each week, as I have for the past 30 years.  I am a morning person and do appreciate morning prayers for orienting me throughout the day and through the week.  As I do Matins, I include the prescribed daily Scripture readings during the service, followed by a few minutes of silent meditation.  Matins now begins at 8:30am, as a result of my illnesses and the ongoing chemo, and the fatigue that comes with them.

Some mornings I am alone for Matins, but I never feel alone there.  Never feel like chastising parishioners for not showing up.  I enjoy Matins because it is a blessing for me.  I assume people will come if it is a blessing for them.

One morning, there were 3 parishioners present.  I have always felt blessed by my parish and the good people whom God has called together.

As we sat for the silent meditation I looked around and thought how I loved each of these three for different reasons and in different ways. The young mom is cute with her matching 4 year old daughter.  She seems to me always kind and friendly despite her suffering with an autoimmune illness. The one man is a good friend and intellectual equal with a very level headed attitude about everything.  I enjoy talking with him.  The other man suffers from mental illness and is an addict, and I feel great compassion for him and his many struggles.  He wants to be normal, and yet it escapes him as he escapes reality.

I think that I really do love them each for different reasons.  But then, into my head comes Christ’s words, “love one another even as I have loved you…” (John 13:34). Although I imagine that I really do love each of these my fellow parishioners, I realize I’m reacting to them, sympathizing and empathizing with them.  Yet this is still not how Christ loves me.  Christ is not merely empathetic and sympathetic to me.  He empties Himself for my salvation.  He dies for me, forgives me and restores my humanity to me.  He leads me to the kingdom of heaven.

I have to transfigure what I think of as my love so that I love them as Christ loves me. The love is not based in my emotions or assessment of each of them.  Rather the love is found in Christ.

I realize how far short I am of loving them as Christ loves me.  My love is imperfect, and more a feeling noun than an action verb.   I realize how far short I am from Christ’s teaching, and from His example.  Yet, He still takes time to speak to me.

I have to call to mind how Christ loves me, so that I can know how to rightly love them.  St. Paul puts it in these terms:  “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).  To love others as Christ loves me means to be crucified with Christ and to have Christ live in me.  Again, St. Paul says: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (Ephesians 5:1). I still have a long way to walk before I do that.  Yet I realize,  these days my walks are so much shorter than they used to be.

Love One Another

And so when the Lord said, This is my commandment, that you love one another, he added immediately, just as I have loved you.

He means that we must love for the same reason he has loved us. My friends, when the devils draws us to take pleasure in passing things, he also stirs up a weak neighbor against us. This neighbor may plot to take away the very things we love. In this case, our enemy is not concerned with doing away with our earthly possessions; he wants to destroy our love. We may suddenly begin to burn with hatred, and while we try to be outwardly invulnerable, inwardly we are gravely wounded. As we defend our few external possessions we lose our great interior one, because when we love something passing we lose true love. Anyone who takes away one of our external possessions is an enemy; if we begin to hate this enemy, our loss is not of anything external, but of something insides ourselves. And so whenever we suffer anything from a neighbor, we must be on our guard against the enemy hidden within. Our best way of overcoming this inner enemy is to love the one who is attacking us from without. The unique and supreme proof of love is this: to love a person who opposes us.

15507959496_ffb4ed8d0f_nThat is why Truth himself bore the suffering of the cross, and even bestowed his love on his persecutors. He said, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Should we marvel that his living disciples love their enemies when their dying Master loved his? He expressed the extent of his love when he said that no one has greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends. The Lord had come to die even for his enemies. He said that he would lay down his life for his friends to show us that we are able to win over our enemies by our love for them, then even our persecutors are our friends. But no one is persecuting us to the point of death, and so how can we prove that we love our friends? In fact there is something we ought to do during times of peace to make clear whether we are strong enough to die for the sake of love during a time of persecution. John, the author of the gospel I have been quoting from, says in his first letter: Those who have this world’s goods and see a brother or sister in need, and who close their hearts, how does God’s love dwell in them? And John the Baptist says: Let one who has two coats give to one who has none. Will those who refuse to give up a coat for the sake of God during a time of peace give up their lives during a persecution? 

You must cultivate the virtue of love during times of tranquility by showing mercy, and then your love will be unconquerable in a time of chaos. First you must learn to give up your possessions for almighty God, and then yourself. You are my friends…  How great is our Creator’s mercy! We were unworthy servants, and he calls us friends! How great is our human dignity, that we should be friends of God! Now listen to what this dignity costs: if you do what I command you. And we have already heard that this is my commandment, that you love one another.”  (Spiritual  Readings from St. Gregory the Great, Be Friends of God, pp 48-50)

For the Love of God

“Love does not depend on time, and the power of love continues always. There are some who believe that the Lord suffered death for love of man but because they do not attain to this love in their own souls, it seems to them that it is all an old story of bygone days. But when the soul knows the love of God through the Holy Spirit, she feels without a shadow of a doubt that the Lord is our Father, the closest and dearest of fathers, and there is no greater happiness than to love God with all our mind, with all our heart and with all our soul, according to the Lord’s commandment, and our neighbor as ourself.

And when this love is in the soul, everything rejoices her, but when it is lost sight of, man cannot find peace, and is troubled, and blames others as if they had done him an injury, and does not realize that he himself is at fault: he has lost his love for God and has accused, or conceived a hatred for, his brother. Grace proceeds from brotherly love, and by brotherly love is grace preserved; but if we do not love our brother, then the grace of God will not come into our souls.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, p 372)

Adam and Eve

 

 

The Icon of Unlimited Love

We do know what unlimited love looks like.  People saw Him.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:12-14)

“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)

“But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth. By this we shall know that we are of the truth ”   (1 John 3:17-18)

 

The First Will Be Last

St.  Nikolai Velimirovic commenting on Matthew 20:25-27 addresses an issue crucial to how Jesus apparently envisioned Christians relating to each other in community.   Our Lord Jesus Christ taught that in community the issue for Christians is not power over others, or hierarchy in relationships, but rather focused on service to one another.  That is to be the distinguishing mark of Christians in community: how we love one another.   St. Nikolai writes:

But Jesus called them to Him, and said unto them: ‘You know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority over them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister; and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. […]

He who knows how much evil has been brought into the world, and is still brought, by the struggle for pre-eminence, will understand that this teaching of Christ’s creates peace. By it, the greatest and most blessed revolution in human society – since human society came into being – is begun. Ponder on what it would mean to men if equality and rank depended on service and love, instead of on force, wealth, luxury or a semblance of learning. Oh, how many of those who consider themselves to be first would suddenly find themselves last; and how many who think themselves last would be first! Oh, what joy would fill men’s hearts – and what order, peace and harmony there would be! All would compete in serving others rather than ruling over them. All would hasten to give and to help, rather than to take and to hinder. Every -heart would be filled with joy and light in place of malice and darkness.” (Homilies, pp 181-182)

St. Nikolai reminds us of a Christian ideal rarely lived or even attempted: “…if equality and rank depended on service and love, instead of on force, wealth, luxury or a semblance of learning.”   Imagine a community based on service and love for one another.  It is hard to imagine because it has so rarely been attempted let alone successfully done.  And even when tried, humans living in the world of the Fall have shown how hard it is to do.  Over time, even monasteries, which started off by trying to live the Gospel and rejecting the need for state authority or a state church, found that hierarchy served a purpose, and in large monasteries they even had the equivalent of jails.  Humans will be humans even in Christian community.  Nevertheless, there is an ideal for us to strive for: live in love and service of others.   Don’t live for your own interests but for the good of others.  Love as Christ loves you.

St. Mark the Monk writing in the 5th Century offers this advice:

“If someone is not under obedience to you, do not accuse him of some fault to his face; this would suggest that you have authority over him and are not just giving advice.”  (Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 2719-2720)

When we behave as Christians, we can offer brotherly or sisterly advice to help others, but we are not to act as if we have authority over everyone else in the church community.   Too often Christians are not willing to live at peace and in love with those with whom they disagree.  We are not willing to pray for, love and serve others unless they conform to our ideas of how they should behave.   We are not willing to love those who reject advice we offer.  As soon as someone does not take our advice, we want them to leave the community or we bolt to search for a community where people will obey our ideals.

Service and love.”   

Lord, grant me to see my own sins and not to judge my brother or sister.   Teach me to love them and serve them.