The Good Samaritan in a Dangerous World

[Sermon notes.  12 November 2017.  Annual Parish Meeting.]

But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.   (Ephesians 2:4-10)

“even when we were dead in trespasses” –  This refers to us in the Church, not those outside the Church!  WE were dead in our sins.  We parishioners have experienced both death in our sins and resurrection in our Christ.   God’s love comes to us while we are still sinners (Romans 5:8).   We wouldn’t need God’s love, favor, grace, forgiveness if we were sinless.   We can only be raised with Christ if we are dead.  There would be no need for a resurrection if we hadn’t died first.

“made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” –  sitting together in church, we are in the heavenly place.  The parish church is that heavenly place where we sit together in Christ Jesus

“we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” –  that is another image of the parish.  We are God’s craftmanship, built to do good works.  That is why we need an active, functioning parish community so that we an work together for the good.

Gospel: Luke 10:25-37
And behold, a certain lawyer stood up and tested Him, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” So he answered and said, “’You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind,’ and ‘your neighbor as yourself.’” And He said to him, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” But he, wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” And he said, “He who showed mercy on him.” Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Our parish – we give from our budget $1700/month to charity.  This is above and beyond all the charity projects we take on each month.  Because we are a true commuter parish, we don’t have a strong sense of a location identity.  Very few of us live in the locality of the church, so our charity work is not so locally focused, but is outreach to other peoples, areas, projects.

We as parish must never cease to be the good neighbor, the good Samaritan to everyone whose path  bring them to our community.  Or whose paths we cross in our sojourning.   Christ makes it clear that being the good neighbor is something He values in us and expects from us.

Christ does not use the parable to talk about how the government should have done more to protect the man walking down to Jericho.  He doesn’t use the parable to say more police or a bigger army is needed, nor does Jesus advocate self defense, carrying weapons, pre-emptive strikes.   His point in the parable is be neighborly, be charitable.

Ethics thought puzzle – what if the Good Samaritan had arrived just a little bit earlier on the scene, in time to prevent the crime from happening, would Christ have blessed his use of force (even lethal force) to prevent the crime?  Or are Christians only to step in to offer comfort once the crime/suffering has been inflicted?  Jesus doesn’t say.  Whatever we might think in answer to those questions, we still must be neighborly.

Today, beause of the events of mass shootings in churches, many people feel unsafe, and feel the parish needs to consider safety and security for its members.  The shepherds of old took action to protect their flocks, including attacking the attackers.  Doesn’t the church have an obligation to protects its members and make the parish a safe and secure place for its members?

We are obliged to behave as neighbors, no matter what other security or safety measures we think are necessary.

Satan’s victory comes not in killing us but in converting us to his way of thinking and behaving.  If we abandon our principles, our discipleship in order to follow the logic of he world, then we have lost the battle with evil.   We are after all disciples of the Crucified One, who rose from the dead.  Killing  us does not cut us off from Christ and rather works to the contrary in keeping us united to the Son of God.   Our being killed by others is not the greatest thing we have to fear.  Jesus said:

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.  (Luke 12:4 )

We Christians may be threatened by other people.  Yet, our warfare is not against those who do us bodily harm.  We may have to take steps too ensure the safety of our congregations, but we also have to remember that in Scripture we are told how to arm and defend ourselves.  As St. Paul exhorts us:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints  …  (Ephesians 6:10)

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Perseverance and Persecution

“’Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when men revile you, and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely for my sake’ (Mt. 5.10-11). In saying these words, Christ promised that those who would follow Him would certainly be persecuted. This is a central prediction of the Gospel and an essential condition of those who accept it.

Martyr Juvenaly of Alaska

Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.’”  If they persecute me, they will persecute you; if they have kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know Him who sent me.’  (Jn 15.20-21).

            True Christians will always be persecuted for Christ’s sake. They will be persecuted with Christ and like Christ, for the truth that they speak and the good that they do. The persecutions may not always be physical, but they will always be spiritual and psychological. They will always be mindless, unjust, violent, and “without cause” (Ps 69.4, Jn 15.25). They will always be painful and the cause of much suffering. For ‘indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3.12).

           A person embarking on the spiritual life must expect persecution and slander. He must be wary, however, of any false persecution complex, and must be absolutely certain that the suffering he meets is solely ‘for righteousness’ sake’ and not because of his own weakness and sins.”  (Thomas Hopko, Vol. 4 Spirituality, p. 50)

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Martyr and Godbearer

Today in the Orthodox Church we remember the Martyred Bishop of Antioch, St. Ignatius the Godbearer.  Below are a few words about St. Ignatius taken from an old Christian Education publication, Personalities Who Shaped the Church (pp 3-4):

It was the year A.D. 107 when Trajan, a Roman emperor, came back victorious from a war against the Dacians and Scythians. As soon as he entered the glorious city of Antioch, he let the Christians know that the persecution against them was not yet over.

One night a great celebration was given in his honor. Trajan, out of gratitude to his gods, ordered precious incense to be burned. But he thirsted for more victories and more blood.

“Roman citizens…tonight we honor our divinities, for they have deemed us worthy to gain more victories…But our victory cannot be complete until we defeat Christians, those bitter enemies of our empire who refuse to acknowledge our gods.”

Meanwhile, in some remote corner of Antioch, another message was being heard [from St. Ignatius, Christian Bishop of Antioch]:

“Keep on praying for those who persecute you. Return their bad temper with gentleness, their boasts with humility, and their violence with mildness. Never be eager to retaliate. Try to please not yourselves but God.

Toil together, struggle together, run together, suffer together, rejoice together, as servants and assistants of God. Let none of you be found a deserter. Let your baptism serve as a shield, your faith as a helmet, your love as a spear, your endurance as full armor. So be patient with one another in gentleness, as God is with you.” 

The Present Age

In every period of history since the time of our Lord Jesus Christ, some Christians have found themselves living in perilous times.  St Paul in his epistles describes the endless threats and actual suffering he endured.  Christians suffered persecution from the Roman Empire, from Persians, from Arab Muslims, Turkish Muslims, from Tartars, from communists and at times from other Christians.   Scripture scholar Richard B. Hays says St Paul actually pictured all times on this earth, as long as we await the parousia (the end of history and this world), as being a perilous time for believers.  Despite the appearance of the incarnate God in Jesus the Messiah, we still live in a world which is a spiritual battlefield, in which Satan and evil have not yet been fully defeated.  For St Paul the struggles of Israel in the Scriptures foreshadows the trials Christians face in the world.

Paul regards the present as a time out of joint, an age riddled with anomolies: despite the revelation of the righteousness of God, human beings live in a state of rebellion and sin, and Israel stands skeptical of its appointed Messiah. Under such circumstances, God’s justice is mysteriously hidden and the people of God are exposed to ridicule and suffering, as Israel learned during the period of exile. Paul’s pastoral task thus entails not only formulating theological answers to doubts about God’s righteousness but also interpreting the suffering that the faithful community encounters during this anomalous interlude.  […]  The point is not that ‘righteous people have always suffered like this;, rather, Paul’s point in Rom. 8:35-36 is that Scripture prophesies suffering as the lot of those (i.e. himself and his readers) who live in the eschatological interval between Christ’s resurrection and the ultimate redemption of the world. Thus, in this instance as in many others that we will examine subsequently, Paul discerns in Scripture a foreshadowing of the church.”(Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of St. Paul, pp 57-58)

If we follow the teachings of St Paul, we are given a framework in which to understand the current age.  The present is not more perilous than the past for Christians, it just is our time to face the perils which have always been a threat to Christians.  As Christians living in this world we must always remember that times of prosperity are as dangerous to our spiritual lives as our times of peril.   The world is not made less under Satan’s power by prosperity!

American elections do not usher in the Kingdom of God nor do they thwart God’s Kingdom.   Even in America, we live in this world, a world still under Satan’s influence, a fallen world – no matter who is president, this is our reality.  We live in the same world that all Christians have since the time of Christ: a world created as good by a loving Creator, one which has fallen under the power of sin, death and Satan, and yet which is redeemed by Christ the Savior.  This is why we have hope and joy no matter what is happening in worldly politics.

 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”  (Luke 12:32-34)

A Religion of Death Transformed into Life

“Fr. Alexander Schmemann said: Christianity is the religion of death, instantly transformed into life … ‘They counted us as dead, but lo we are alive.’ (2 Cor 6:9)  These words spoken by the Apostle Paul have resonated for all time. Throughout the Church’s history there were incredible disappointments and it often seemed that she was crushed, but by the power of God she resurrected many times …’” (A Life Together by Bishop Seraphim Sigrist, p 9)

 

New Martyrs of Russia

Bearing Patiently the Unsought Affliction

“Unless we bear with patience the afflictions that come to us unsought, God will not bless those that we embrace deliberately. For our love for God is demonstrated above all by the way we endure trials and temptations.

Martyrdom of St. Stephen

First the soul has to surmount afflictions embraced willingly, thereby learning to spurn sensual pleasure and self-glory; and this in its turn will permit us readily to bear the afflictions that come unsought. If for the sake of poverty of spirit you spurn such pleasure and self-glory, and also regard yourself as deserving the more drastic remedy of repentance, you will be ready to bear any affliction and will accept any temptation as your due, and you will rejoice when it comes, for you will see it as a cleansing-agent for your soul.

Hieromartyr Gorazd of Prague (1944)

In addition, it will spur you to ardent and most efficacious prayer to God, and you will regard it as the source and protector of the soul’s health. Not only will you forgive those who afflict you, but you will be grateful to them and will pray for them as for your benefactors. Thus you will not only receive forgiveness for your sins, as the Lord has promised (cf. Matt. 6:14), but you will also attain the kingdom of heaven and God’s benediction, for you will be blessed by the Lord for enduring with patience and a spirit of humility till the end.”

(St Gregory Palamas, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Location 45965-45975)

40 Martyrs of Sebaste

Responding to the Resurrection

Fr Dmitri Dudko (d. 2004) was an Orthodox priest during the communist reign in the Soviet Union.  He defied Soviet authority by preaching question and answer style sermons to teach the faithful the Gospel.  This eventually led to his arrest and imprisonment where he was forced by the KGB to renounce his activities for the Church.   He understood what it was to live in a place and time in which Christians were persecuted by the state.  Here are some words he spoke in a sermon before his imprisonment.  They are encouraging words to all Christians who feel threatened by changes in the world or by Islamic terrorists.   Despite our fears, we still need to witness to the Gospel and the resurrection.  The original disciples themselves hid in fear after Christ’s crucifixion.  Eventually, however, they went out into the world to proclaim the Gospel with all of them facing various torments and persecutions and executions.   Here are the words of Fr. Dmitri commenting on what Christ said to Mary Magdalene:

“‘Go to My brothers and tell them what you have seen and heard.’ What does this mean? Simply, that having recognized the risen Christ you can’t lock yourself up in your own private world. No one who tries to protect his faith by running away from all trials and tribulations knows Christ yet. Christ is the Savior of the world. He came to save each person.

Knowing this, how can we not proclaim the risen Christ to the world? Can we look on calmly as people perish, not knowing Christ – some of these, moreover, being very gifted people who could do quite a bit? We see how people stumble about with no support, enduring their earthly trials? Why – out of personal fear – are we unable to give them support? Often we’re afraid to reach out a hand to those who don’t know God, thinking that in this way we are defending, protecting our faith, though in reality we are losing it. Could Mary have left the tomb without saying a thing to anyone? Could threats have made her be afraid? After all, threats are just amusing if you know that Christ is risen. What can our personal earthly well-being mean in the face of this fact?

Anyone who knows the risen Christ has a heavy responsibility placed upon himself. He must bring to people the news of Christ’s resurrection, in whatever way he can and wherever destiny leads him If you’ve been with Mary to Christ’s tomb, if you’ve been convinced that it’s empty because Christ is risen, then go and tell everyone about it. Christ is risen! May God bless you and help you! Amen.”   (Our Hope, pp 291-292)

Like many Christians in history, Fr. Dmitri was eventually broken by threats of the KGB.  Feeling unable to endure the threats in imprisonment, he publicly denounced his activities on behalf of the Church.  After the fall of communism, humbled by his own humanness, he confessed his brokenness saying, “I thought if I didn’t agree, I wouldn’t live … Compared to the hell that I then brought into my soul, anything – even torture or execution – would have been easier to bear.”  He feared torture and death, but then found his heart and mind tortured by his choice to avoid further suffering by caving in to the KGB threats.  That he felt created a greater hell his heart than torture or execution ever would have.

Hope in the resurrection is a joyous experience which can carry us through life.  Hoping in the resurrection might also lead to our being persecuted by those who hate God.

We Orthodox honor St. John the Baptist for his willingness to suffer for truth joyously.  May we each have that same spirit and remain faithful to the Gospel even in the face of threats or terror.

October 12: Martyrs Probus, Tarachus and Andronicus

Martyr Probus
Martyr Probus

Each year on October 12, the Orthodox Church commemorates the Martyrs Probus, Tarachus and Andronicus.   These three Christians were martyred in 304AD at a time when the Roman Empire had begun it persecution of Christians.  The Empire tried to intimidate Christians, through threats of torture and death,  into renouncing their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.  Though Christianity was a minority group, the Empire began to feel threatened by this new religion and its moral values and heavenly ideals which were in opposition to the Empire’s own sense of power.

AndronicusMany Christians were willing to die for their beliefs rather than to deny Christ or worship the Emperor as God or to kowtow to the power of the Empire itself.    Those early Christians did not organize an armed rebellion against their oppressors but rather professed faith in Jesus Christ and His Kingdom, rejecting all claims that the Roman Empire made over their lives.  The Christians did not threaten bloodshed, retribution or revenge.  Rather they courageously and boldly denied the world and its values and embraced the Kingdom which is not of this world.

tarachusThe Christian Apologist Arnobius (d. 330AD) writing shortly after these martyrs deaths, explained why Christians accept martyrdom rather than taking up arms against their Roman persecutors: 

“We, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His [i.e., Christ’s] teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscious with that of another. An ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ, inasmuch as by His means the rage of savage ferocity has been softened, and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow-creature.” (Arnobius in For the Peace from Above edited by Fr. Hildo Bos, p 108)

Martyrs: The Wounded Friends of Christ

St. Ignatius of Antioch

“Since the time of the first martyr and deacon, St. Stephen, the witness of blood has been the sign of the highest and most expressive fidelity. The ideal of the martyr, of that glorious company of ‘the wounded friends of the bridegroom,’ of those ‘violent ones who take heaven by storm’ and in whom ‘Christ fights in person,’ makes the first centuries unique. On his way to his glorious death, St. Ignatius of Antioch confessed: ‘It is now that I begin to be a true disciple…do not hinder me from being born to life.’ Likewise for St. Polycarp the martyrs are ‘the images of true charity…the captives laden with venerable chains, which are the jewels of the veritable elect of God.’ This is why Origen made his somewhat harsh remark that a time of peace is propitious to Satan, who steals from Christ his martyrs, and from the Church her glory.” (Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life, pg. 133)

Called to be Witnesses (Martyrs!)

“… for you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard.”   (Ananias’ words to St. Paul,  Acts 22:15)

The first Christians understood that they were given a task to be witnesses (martyrs) to what they learned from and about Jesus Christ.  They went into the world with the message they had been given – the Gospel.  They proclaimed the Good News and through their lives witnessed to what they believed to be the truth about Christ, about the world, about all humans, about sin and death, and about God’s plan of salvation.  They carried the Gospel into all the world based on their faith in Christ with no way to know what would unfold in history as Christianity spread to new people.

Martyrdom originally meant to bear witness to Christ.  As history moved along the opposition to the Gospel and the Christians increased.  After several centuries, martyrdom came to mean being put to death for the very things one believed about Christ and for bearing witness to the Good News.  Even later in history as the Roman Empire dropped its opposition to Christianity and embraced the Church as bearers of the truth of God, the martyrs became a legendary class of heroes who by the drops of their blood had sown the seeds of Christendom in the world.

William Bixler in an article entitled, “How the Early Church Viewed Martyrs”(CHRISTIAN HISTORY, Issue 27, Vol IX, No 3) writes about the evolving and emerging idea of martyrdom in early Christianity:

“The ideal of martyrdom did not originate with the Christian church; it was inspired by the passive resistance of pious Jews during the Maccabean revolt (173-164 B.C.) .  .  .  .

The Maccabean period also, however, gave stories of avenging rebels such as Judas Maccabeus.  What prompted Christians to emulate the passive resisters such as Eleazar, rather than armed revolutionaries like Judas Maccabeus?

To answer this question one need look no further than to Jesus himself.  The church understood martyrdom as an imitation of Christ.  The Lord was the exemplar of nonviolence at his own trial and execution, declaring that his servants would not fight because his kingdom was not of this world.

Jesus’ words burned themselves deeply into the collective psyche of the Ante-Nicene church:  ‘If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other also (Luke 6:29); do not resist an evil person (Matt 5:39); blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness (Matt 5:10); if they persecuted me, they will persecute you also (John 15:20).”   .  .  .

The martyr’s nonviolent response to trial and torture was never equated with passivity or resignation.  For the early church, the act of martyrdom was a spiritual battle of epic proportion against the powers of hell itself.  .  .  .

For early Christians, such a battle was not waged alone.  The church, as G. W. Lampe notes, understood the believer’s suffering and death as a concrete and literal realization of death and burial with Christ, enacted figuratively in every convert’s baptism (Rom 6:3).”

The earliest Christian self-understanding is that the very goal and purpose of the Church is  to witness to Christ (martyria), to be His martyrs.   Only much later in history does the goal for Christians became to conquer, crusade, and colonize.  Orthodoxy is in America not to colonize or to crusade or to conquer.  We are here to witness to the fullness of the faith.   We have something to which we can witness to the world – Christ.  And we do this witness through the liturgy and spiritual life of Orthodoxy.  That certainly was the witness of Frs. Schemann and Meyendorff and of the early founders of the OCA.  It is what the gift of autocephally means to all Orthodox in America.    It is a gift we have received and are to freely offer to our fellow Americans and to the world.   We witness to beauty and truth, the mind in the heart, the cosmic dimension of the incarnation and the triumph of Christ over death and sin.   We are to  return to that earlier church model of being witnesses (martyrs). Witness is what the Orthodox did in Soviet Russia when the Church had no political, legal or military power.  Witness is what Orthodox Christians do in the Mideast who live in countries dominated by Islam.   Victory for us is found in the death and resurrection of Christ, and in our own overcoming our fears in this world to witness to the Kingdom which is to come.

Jesus rejected all of the power of this world – conquering, crusading and colonizing – when Satan tempted him (Luke 4:1-13).   His power is the power of love.   We are His witnesses in America – to that power to love, to forgive sins, and to overcome death by resurrection.