Is Being Good Enough?

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

He taught us to love one another.

He taught us to to serve one another.

He taught us to forgive one another.

He taught us to humble ourselves.

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

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

He taught us to sin no more.

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

He taught us the way to the kingdom of Heaven.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Scriptures: A Wealth Beyond the Needs of All

 

“As for Ephraem’s own attitude to the scriptures and their interpretation, there is a passage in the commentary on the Diatessaron which, even if it may not have come from his pen, is nevertheless an apt expression of his point of view. The text says,

 

Many are the perspectives of his word, just as many are the perspectives of those who study it. [God] has fashioned his word with many beautiful forms, so that each one who studies it may consider what he likes. He has hidden in his word all kinds of treasures so that each one of us, wherever we meditate, may be enriched by it. His utterance is a tree of life, which offers you blessed fruit from every side. It is like that rock which burst forth in the desert, becoming spiritual drink to everyone from all places. [They ate] spiritual food and drank spiritual drink. (1 Cor. 10:3-4)

Therefore, whoever encounters one of its riches must not think that that alone which he has found is all that is in it, but [rather] that it is this alone that he is capable of finding from the many things in it. Enriched by it, let him not think that he has impoverished it. But rather let him give thanks for its greatness, he that is unequal to it. Rejoice that you have been satiated, and do not be upset that it is richer than you…Give thanks for what you have taken away, and do not murmur over what remains and is in excess. That which you have taken and gone away with is your portion and that which is left over is also your heritage.”

(Sidney H. Griffith, ‘Faith Adoring the Mystery’ Reading the Bible with St. Ephraem the Syrian, pp. 16-17)

I am with You Always

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”   (Matthew 28:18-20)

O wonder! The Lord bade me stay my mind in hell and not despair. So close is He to us: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,” and “I will deliver thee; and thou shalt glorify me.” (St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 431)

O Delightful Sight

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When time began its motion, darkness engulfed the earth.

God poetically spoke His animating Verse.

Mindfully Light dawned

Before the sun ruled the day or the stars the night.

Before creating eyes to see, even Darwin would agree,

There was light.

The Voice made both the light good and the good light

To illumine all things, before there was sight

Or a sun to shine.

The first eyes could see but childishly not comprehend.

The clever serpent promised they would be opened

She would see what she now believed God had hid.

Right then darkly the eyes of her heart closed

Could Eve still see the fruit was good?

Sightless eyes delighted in the Garden Tree.

Then, Adam and Eve hid what God gloriously clothed

Hoping to blind the Omniscient’s eyes.

He played along. “Where are you?”

Like young children covering their eyes,

With certainty to watchful parents mirthfully proclaim:

“You can’t see me”  and truly believe the lie.

So Adam, so Eve hid among the trees

Covering themselves with  the leaves

Convinced the Creator could not see them or their deed.

Gospel truth: In this sunlit world a man born

Without his ancestors’ eyes to see.

Eve faithlessly believed her eyes were closed, was deaf to the Light.

The sightless man listened to the Word

As only the blind can do with heightened sense he hears.

His eyes opened.  He listened to Whom Eve would not.

The Invisible God can be seen?

With the eyes of faith 

The Blind Man saw the Word

He had obeyed.

In time, Paradise was also opened

By the Light of the World.

 

Baptism or Blindness

If we take the Gospel lesson of the Blind man (John 9:1-39) in its context within the entirety of John’s Gospel, we note that in the verses right before John 9:1 from John 8, Christ is in the temple and the Jews get angry with Christ and want to stone him, but Christ is hidden from them (John 8:59), or hides himself .

So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.  (John 8:59)

The Greek word “hid” is the same as the word used in Genesis 3:8-10 when Adam and Eve hearing God walking in Paradise hide themselves from God after eating the forbidden fruit.

And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.  But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”    (Genesis 3:8-10)

There are interesting connections between Genesis 3 and John 8, one in the temple and one in Paradise.  We know there is a relationship between the Temple and Paradise – they are interrelated realities.

In Genesis Adam and Eve are like young children covering their eyes and saying to God: “You can’t see me.”  And God even seems to play along with them in Genesis 3:9 –   But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

In Genesis 3 it is clear that though they still hear God after their sin, there is no mention of Adam and Eve seeing Him walking in the Garden.  They think they are hiding from God but it is they who can no longer see God.   The awareness of their own nakedness is directly the result of losing sight of God. – they are exposed despite their trying to hide.

In the temple in John 8 – the people are hearing God in Christ who is speaking to them and they don’t like what they hear.  They angrily want to stone Him but they can’t see Him for He is hid from their eyes.  Christ is God incarnate, standing in the temple – and the temple was to be the place where one could see God’s face (see my Jesus Christ Seen in the Temple), but the people can’t see Him because they don’t want to hear Him.  Eve and Adam were not happy when they heard God walking in the garden after they sinned, but though they still hear Him, they don’t see Him but they childishly think He can’t see them.  We can think about the blind man confronting the temple leaders in John 9:27:

He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?”  

The blind man comes to the point: the people knowingly and willfully refuse to listen to Christ.  That is why they cannot see Him for who He is.

As we move from John 8 to John 9 we read this:

So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.    As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth.  (John 8:59-9:1)

The text moves smoothly and quickly from a group of people in the temple who cannot see Him to the man born blind from birth.  He too can’t see Christ, but he too does hear Him.  The temple is the sign of God’s presence and the place to see God’s presence, but they can’t see Christ in the temple.  They all are blind but not from birth but by choice – blinded by their refusal to hear.  But there is hope – the man born blind can come to see God – he will not only hear God in Christ, at the end of the lesson he sees Christ and so sees God.  If one is born blind not by any choice or because of anything they have done, and yet can be given sight, then those who choose to be blind should also be able to give up their blindness and to see God.

It is in the midst of the people being blind to Christ, that today’s Gospel lesson happens.

Is the Gospel suggesting that this man’s blindness is different than that of the people in the temple?  This man had no choice in the matter, he was born blind – an incomplete creation but not his fault nor the fault of his parents.  Rather, we see that physical blindness is not the obstacle to knowing God that spiritual blindness is.  Spiritual blindness is a choice.   Being physically blind is not an obstacle to seeing the invisible God!

The people in the temple cannot see Christ because of their own choices.   They refuse to believe Him and so he disappears from view.  The man born blind on the other hand is willing not only to listen to Christ but to obey Him.  And once the blind man obeys Christ, he is able not only to see  but to see God!  His eyes are opened as are the eyes of his heart, and so he sees God incarnate.    He is willing to give up his blindness and doesn’t choose to remain blind.  Thus God is able to work in him.

We all need to take note – we can stubbornly hold to our own ideas and remain blind to what God is doing in the world, in the Church, in the Scriptures.  We can angrily reject things Christ says to us because we disagree with them or don’t want to do them, or don’t want to change.

OR, like the blind man we can humbly give up our opinions and choose to obey Christ.

We can take hope that even if we are suffering from some illness, whether physical, emotional or spiritual, that we have not in fact been abandoned by God but that God will work in us to His glory.   AND we can learn compassion for others who are suffering from various illnesses, even if we believe the illness is a result of their own stupid sinfulness – from lust, gluttony, greed or drunkenness – and pray for them that God will work His power in them to God’s own glory.  This Gospel lesson is totally one of hope for those suffering physical ailment, mental illness or spiritual blindness.

We come to understand that Christ works for the glory of God – in having the blind man wash in the pool, we have an image of baptism and we come to understand that we are not baptized only because we are sinners.  We don’t baptize children because they are guilty of sin.   We baptize in order to manifest the work of God in the person.  We baptize infants that they might in fact experience the glory of God and be opened to their own spiritual nature.    Baptism is not God’s reaction to human sin, but God offering to work His glory in each of us.

And note, that the man born blind did not have to know everything before washing in the pool to be freed of his blindness.  Neither do we need to know everything before being baptized – that is why we believe the baptism of infants is essential to their spiritual lives.  In the text we see all kinds of things the man doesn’t know:

He doesn’t know where Jesus is

He doesn’t know whether Jesus is a sinner or sinless.

He doesn’t know who Jesus is, even when Jesus is speaking to him.

So too we baptize children so that God’s glory can be manifested in them.  Baptism is a spiritual birthing, we grow into it.  We baptize not just because there is sin in the world, but because each of us born in this world through natural birth have the means to be born again in a spiritual birth.

As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.  (1 Corinthians 15:48-50)

Today’s Gospel lesson helps us understand the purpose of baptism which is not a reaction to past sin but a door into the future kingdom.  Baptism makes it possible for us to move beyond being merely flesh and blood, beyond being genetic beings or evolutionary beings, beyond the limits of self and society into the divine life, into eternal love, to being fully united to God.

The obstacle to our seeing and knowing Christ is not physical ailment, but spiritual blindness.  It is an obstacle that can be overcome in Christ.

Mother of All the Living Ones

The man called his wife’s name Zoe (Life), because she was the mother of all the living.  (Genesis 3:20)

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As we in America honor our mothers today, we remember that it is through women that we come into the world.  Women have a unique role to play in the life of the world and are involved in God’s life-giving nature in a way that men cannot be.  Even the life-giving incarnation of God, required a woman for our salvation.  Males had no direct role in the incarnation itself, except to be in need of it for salvation.  So motherhood itself is a necessary part of the salvation of every human being.  Males cannot be saved without a woman, which is why all Christians should also honor, Mary, the Theotokos.  As St Elizabeth shows in her own praise of Mary as  “she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?   (Luke 1:42-43)   Elizabeth was overwhelmed that the Mother of the Lord should visit her.

30107253080_7ee0ce7d69_nHowever unique and great the role of motherhood is in the continuation of the human race and in the salvation of all humans, motherhood is not the only role women play in the life of the church.  The ability to give birth is a unique role for women, but not the only role for women in the Church.  Obviously the entire history of women monastics shows us that child birth is not essential for the salvation of women.  There are many women who are saints in our Church, who were never mothers, nor even tried to be.

Women, including mothers, have the same path to salvation as men: through holiness.  There are women Disciples of the Lord such as the Myrrhbearing Women.  There are women who are proclaimed Equal to the Apostles (such Photini the Samaritan Woman and Helen the mother of Constanine).  There are women who are titled Evangelizers   (such as Nina of Georgia  but also God chose women to serve as the first Evangelists – the Myrrhbearing Women carried the message to the male Apostles).   In the Church calendar of saints there are women martyrs, confessors, ascetics, women prophets, deacons, teachers, rulers and monastics.

So while motherhood is a unique role for women in God’s creation and in the Church, it is not the only role for women.  And few women are glorified as saints just for being mothers. The women saints of the Church are generally recognized for all the other roles they played in the life of the Church.

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Mothers like all women can know the Lord.  They can be saints and disciples because they can be imitators of Christ.  Mothers give us life, but they can also be examples of how to love and live for eternal life.   Giving birth is a natural thing, which may be why it is not always the way to holiness.  We are a pro-life Church, and we honor our mothers because they show the sanctity of life in their pregnancies, in giving birth and in their rearing of children.  Mothers reveal a unique relationship between themselves and the infants to whom they are giving life as well as to the life-givingness itself.   Mothers are the human element in the birthing process.   Mothers can be examples not only to their children, but to all women and men of how to follow Christ (Titus 2:3-4), to be His disciple, to experience His presence every day in the most mundane circumstances, in the most natural way.  Jesus in fact says everyone who does the will of God becomes His mother (Mark 3:33-34).  The holiness of motherhood lies in doing God’s will.    And the children of believing mothers are considered to be holy (1 Corinthians 7:14) based on the mother’s faith.

Be blessed like Rebekah

In giving birth to us, in giving life to us, our mothers make it possible for us to experience God, to be in God’s presence.  For this alone, we should thank and honor our mothers.

The Man Born Blind is Healed by His Creator

John 9:1-38  Jesus gives sight to the man born blind

St. Irenaeus (second century) interprets “that the works of God may be manifest in him” (John 9:3) as a direct reference to the continuing work of God as Creator of the human person:

‘Now the work of God is the fashioning of man. For, as the Scripture says, He made [man] by a kind of process: “And the Lord took clay from the earth, and formed man.” (Genesis 2:7)  Wherefore also the Lord spat on the ground and made clay, and smeared it upon the eyes, pointing out the original fashioning [of man], how it was effected, and manifesting the hand of God to those who can understand by what [hand] man was formed out of the dust. For that which the artificer, the Word, had omitted to form in the womb [viz., the blind man’s eyes], He then supplied in public, that the works of God might be manifested in him, in order that we might not be seeking out another hand by which man was fashioned, nor another Father; knowing that this hand of God which formed us at the beginning, and which does form us in the womb, has in the last times sought us out who were lost, winning back His own, and taking up the lost sheep upon His shoulders, and with joy restoring it to the fold of life…

As, therefore, we are by the Word formed in the womb, this very same Word formed the visual power in him who had been blind from his birth; showing openly who it is that fashions us in secret, since the Word Himself had been made manifest to men: and declaring the original formation of Adam, and the manner in which he was created, and by what hand he was fashioned, indicating the whole from a part. For the Lord who formed the visual powers is He who made the whole man, carrying out the will of the Father.'”

(Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 38-39)

The Resurrection: Christ Renews Creation

“We have an eloquent testimony to the ultimate restoration of the world from the great Syrian poet-theologian St. Ephrem:

At our resurrection, both earth and heaven will God renew,

liberating all creatures, granting them paschal joy, along with us.

Upon our mother Earth, along with us, did he lay disgrace

when he placed on her, with the sinner, the curse;

so, together with the just, he will bless her too;

this nursing mother, along with her children, shall he who is Good renew. “ 

(from Elizabeth Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, p. 38)

That Woman at the Well

4264210180_5f21ae97a2_nThat woman was a sinner,

The woman at the well,

Not the type who talks with God

Very earthy, carnally so.

No searching her heart for things of heaven.

But for a man, she would seek

The kind sensuous women want.

Song of Songs is she, literally.

 

That woman was a Samaritan,

The woman at the well.

Wrong race, wrong morals. Them!

God would not be seeking her kind

He seeks only the holy of heart and mind. Right?

He loves the righteous, not the suspicious.

Can’t she learn her proper place?

She acts as if God speaks to her.

That woman was an outcast,

The woman at the well.

Even heretical Samaritans knew that, knew her.

Divorced! How many times? Living with some man.

A failure, a social misfit, irreligious to the max.

She came to the well at noon, shamelessly.

Decent women came together in the morning, not her.

She comes to seduce Him from His mission!

 

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That woman was shameless and bold,

The woman at the well.

Not the kind decent people care to meet.

She wants a drink, I’ll bet she does.

Flirting with a man in broad daylight,

Not just any man, a foreigner!

So alluring, so tempting, so seductive.

Is she the lover or the beloved?

 

That woman was too open,

The woman at the well.

To new ideas, and to divine love,

So ready to embrace any man.

How dare she speak of God?

He sees right through her.

Can’t she see how wrong she is

To believe, to convert, to share the Gospel truth?

 

8186718360_5b5d5d5ab4_nThe woman was a sinner, that woman at the well.

She confessed, God already knew.  It helped her see.

Very desirous, her heart was smitten,

She found what she looked for but could not see.

Rightly named.  Disciple, saint, evangelist, martyr.

Photini, pray that we may drink as deeply as you

Of the Living Water whose source He is.

I’ve come to the well, a sinner too.  “Give Me a drink,” says He wearily.

 

The Samaritan Woman: Desire Was Created for Christ

For those who have tasted of the Savior, the Object of desire is present. From the beginning human desire was made to be gauged and measured by the desire for Him, and is a treasury so great, so ample, that it is able to encompass even God. Thus there is no satisfaction, nothing stills the desire, even if men attain to all the excellent things in life, for we still thirst as though we had none of the things for which we long. The thirst of human souls needs, as it were, an infinite water; how then could this limited world suffice?

This is what the Lord hinted when He said to the Samaritan woman, “he who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst’ (Jn. 4:13-14). This is the water that slakes the thirst of human souls, for it says, “when I behold Thy glory I shall be satisfied with it” (Ps. 17:15 LXX). The eye was capable of perceiving light, the ear for sound, and each member for its appropriate end; the desire of the soul has for its object Christ alone.

(St. Nicolas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ, p. 96)

Gospel of the Samaritan Woman:  John 4:5-42