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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Learning Even from Those Who are Least

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

“But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,’ they became angry and said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Yes; have you never read,
“Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” ‘” (Matthew 21:15)

St. John of Kronstadt reminds us that we might hear the truth spoken to us from people we would never even imagine had anything significant to teach us.  Sometimes we resent the person for being so presumptuous as to tell us something we don’t want to hear or acknowledge precisely because it’s true.

“Sometimes  younger people, or those of equal station, or older ones, teach you by means of hints which you cannot endure, and you are vexed with your teachers. We must endure and listen with love to everything useful coming from anyone, whoever he may be. Our self-love conceals our faults from us, but they are more visible to others. This is why they remark them to us. Remember, that “we are members of one another” (Ephesians IV. 25), and are thus even obliged to mutually correct each other.

If you do not bear being instructed by others, and are vexed with those who teach you, it means that you are proud, and this shows that the fault of which others hint that you should correct yourself is really in you.” (My Life in Christ, pp. 303-304).

Sin: Consenting to Temptation

St. Seraphim of Sarov

Many wonder what it is they should confess when they come to the sacrament of repentance.  Some are not clear about the difference between a sin and a mistake, or between sin and bad judgment.  The monk Evagrius Ponticus writing in the 4th Century gives us some clarification.  Many “warped” thoughts can run through our minds, some of them disgusting, some persistent and pernicious, some of them tempting.  Evagrius notes that we don’t always have control over what thoughts enter into our heads, or how we react to various stimuli from the world around us.  What we have control over is how we deal with those thoughts.  It is only the things that we can control that can actually turn into sin.  When we know something is wrong and do it, we are committing sin.  Thoughts and feelings in and of themselves are not necessarily sinful even though we might recognize them as being bad.  We may have no control over them. Our control begins with what we decide to do about the thoughts or feelings that enter into our minds.

Whether or not all these thoughts disturb the soul does not depend upon us. However, whether they linger or do not linger, arouse our passions or not, that depends on us.  What turns these “thoughts” into passions and then into sins is the voluntary consent of the human being, who gives way to evil within himself. Temptation in a monk is a thought that arises through the passionate part of the soul (that is, anger and desire) and darkens the intellect.  A sin for a monk is the [free] consent [of the will] to the forbidden pleasure of the thought. . .

In order to prevent consent we need the virtues, and, to be precise, above all we need these two, which keep a tight rein on the passionate part of the soul: love as a bridle for anger, and self-control as a rein on desire.  If both of these rule in the soul, the sensory impressions will not trigger the passions.  (Gabriel Bunge, Despondency: The Spiritual Teaching of Evagrius Ponticus on Acedia, Kindle Loc. 748-58, 765-68)

In confession we admit to those things we chose to do which we know are wrong, even if we feel we had little choice but to act in a particular way in a given situation.  Sin lies in knowing that one is doing is wrong or evil, but doing it anyway.  The cure for the soul, what we need to cultivate as a result of going to confession, according to Evagrius is love and self-control.  Fasting, self-denial, asceticism can be a way to learn self-control.  But that is not enough to follow Christ.  To be a Christian is to learn and study the Lord Jesus Christ’s love for us, and then to imitate Him.

“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)

A Christian Understanding of Death

Only through and in the human person will the whole world come into a relationship with God.

The fall of humanity alienated the whole creation from God. It destroyed the cosmic harmony. Through the Fall, humanity became subject to the course of nature. This ought not to have happened. In the life of animals death is an expression of the power of procreation rather than of frailty. Through the fall of humanity, death also receives in nature an evil and tragic meaning. To the animal’s death means only the end of individual existence. Among humans death strikes at the personality; and personality is something more than mere individuality. The body is dissolved and subject to death because of sin. But the whole human person dies. The human person is composed of body and soul; therefore, the separation of body and soul means that the human person ceases to exist as a human person. The image of God fades. Death reveals that the human person, this creature made by God, is not only a body…The fear of death is only averted through the hope of resurrection and eternal life.

Death does not only mean that sin is revealed; it is also an anticipation of resurrection. God does not only punish fallen human nature by death, but also purifies and heals it.

The death on the Cross was not efficacious because it was the death of an innocent man, but because it was the death of the incarnated Lord. It was not a human being who died on the cross but God. But God died in His own humanity. He was Himself the resurrection and the life.  (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, pp. 145-146, 148-149)

Being Orthodox Means Having a Relationship With God

The Orthodox Church is not primarily an institution. Orthodox Christianity is not a series of rules to live by, nor is it a particular structure of church government. Orthodoxy is not a theological system, nor is its fullest expression limited to any particular period of history or cultural environment.

Orthodoxy is nothing less than a relationship with God. Orthodoxy is the expression of the way God interacts with His people. In other words, Orthodoxy is the way God relates to the Church as the Body of Christ, the way He relates to each individual within it, and conversely, a way by which people may interact and interrelate with God.

Orthodoxy begins at or before birth, and it does so as an impersonal relationship between a Creator and His creature. However, when the person participates in the Mystery of Holy Baptism, that relationship enters a new dimension: it becomes personal. In a personal relationship, each person has a name and is recognized when called by that name. Jesus talks about this when He says that He, the shepherd, calls His sheep by name, and they recognize His voice. In the Mystery of Baptism, just as the person dies and rises again in the water, God’s name is revealed, but so too is the name of the person being baptized. God now has a way of getting our attention: He can call us by name.  (Archimandrite Meletios Webber, Bread, Wine & Oil, pp. 29-31)

For the Peace from Above

For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls . . . . For the peace of the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God, and for the union of all, let us pray to the Lord. (Petitions from the Divine Liturgy)

St. Tikhon, the Enlightener of North America comments:

Therefore the angels at His very birth already sing “on earth peace, good will toward men.” But perhaps you might ask — where is peace on earth, since from the coming of Christ until this day we see conflicts and wars; when at the present time one nation rises against another and one kingdom against another; when even now discord, hostility, and animosity are seen so often among people?

Where are we to look for peace, which was brought and left by Christ (cf. John 14:27)? “It shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains”; “all nations will stream toward it” “and beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” “and they will not train for war again” (Is. 2:2, 4); “every man shall sit under his own vine undisturbed” (Mic. 4:4). This kingdom of peace on earth, which was foretold by the Prophets of the Old Testament, is indeed the Church of Christ; and it is in it [the Church] that peace should be sought. Here man is given peace with God, since in the mysteries he is purified from sin and becomes a child of the Lord, pleasant to Him. Here also in the services offered to God, in the mysteries, in the order and life of the Church, a Christian draws peace and delight and calmness for his heart.

The nature of man is transformed and renewed, and into his meek, gentle, truly humble, merciful, and loving soul comes the God of peace and love. And a Christian then experiences the heavenly bliss of which there is nothing higher on earth. No troubles or sufferings of any kind can overshadow this blissful peace in a Christian. On the contrary, we know from the history of the Church of Christ that holy men even rejoiced in suffering and boasted in sorrows, captivity and prisons, deserts and dens of the wicked. Amidst all deprivations they were placid and calm, perhaps more so than people who live with all the comforts and prosperity ever feel. They are not afraid of death itself; they calmly expect its approach and depart to the Lord in peace. Peace is dispersed everywhere in the Church of Christ.

Here people pray for peace in the whole world, for the unity of all; here all call one another brethren, and help one another; here everybody is loved, and even enemies are forgiven and cared for. And when Christians listen to the voice of the Church and live according to its commands, then they truly have peace and love.  (St. Tikhon of Moscow: Instructions and Teachings for the American Orthodox Faithful (1898-1907), Kindle Loc 453-471)

What Communion Has Light with Darkness?

For what partnership have righteousness and iniquity? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? . . .  And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”  (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)

Coptic Pope Shenouda III  offers thoughts on what repentance really is:

If sin is separation from God, then repentance is returning to God. God says: “Return to me and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:8). When the prodigal son repented, he returned to his father (Luke 15:18-20). True repentance is a human longing for the origin from which we were taken. It is the desire of a heart that strayed from God, and finally felt it could go no further away.

For just as sin is conflict with God, so repentance is reconciliation with God. This is what our teacher Saint Paul stated about his apostolic work, saying: “Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading by us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). But repentance is not confined to reconciliation. Through repentance, God returns and dwells in the human heart, transforming it into a heaven. As for the unrepentant, how can God dwell in their hearts while the sin is dwelling therein? As the Bible says, “What communion has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14).

…Repentance is resurrection for the spirit, because the death of the spirit is separation from God. As Saint Augustine said: “Repentance is a new pure heart, which God gives to the sinners to love Him with.” It is a divine act performed by God inside the person…

…Not every forsaking of sin is considered repentance. Repentance is the forsaking of sin because of the love of God and the love of righteousness. Other reasons for forsaking sin include fear, embarrassment, inability, preoccupation (with the remainder of love for this sin in the heart), or the consequences of unsuitable situations. These reason are not considered repentance. True repentance is the discarding of sin practically, mentally, and from the heart, which springs out of love for God, His commandments, and His kingdom, and the care of the repentant person for his or her lot in eternity. (The Life of Repentance and Purity, pp. 17-18)

Human: Created for God

“God did not create man in order for him to feel pain, but rather to know pleasure, which is why he placed him in the garden of Delight (Gen. 2.15).

We were not brought into the world to be deprived of God, but rather to become gods ourselves, to share in the perfection of the image of the Trinity. Man was created to become a vessel and temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 4.7; 1 Cor 6.19).

In his sermon on the humility, St. Basil says that “from a state of nothingness, man has expanded into the heavens.” (Archimandrite Aimilianos, The Way of the Spirit: Reflections on Life in God, p. 203, 248, 311)

The Baptism of Infants

Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.  (Acts 18:8)

One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to give heed to what was said by Paul.  And when she was baptized, with her household…  (Acts 16:14)

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The Orthodox Church, like most of the ancient traditions of Christianity have interpreted passages like those above to mean that everyone in a household was baptized, and that would include the children of all ages.  Those traditions which have a strong sacramental  and incarnational dimension, understand that God works salvation in and through the things of this world because God is interested in the entire human God created – not just their souls, but bodies as well.  This thinking finds support in some other scriptural passages.

For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy.  (1 Corinthians 7:14)

The children, even of a mixed marriage between a believer and non-believer, are claimed to be holy, purely by being the child of a believing parent.  We baptize such children in recognition of their holiness – not to make them holy.  We are simply recognizing what God is bringing about in the world.

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At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” [2] And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, [3] and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [4] Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. [5] “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; [6] but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.   (Matthew 18:1-6)

Whoever receives one such child in Christ’s name, receives Christ!  So in the Church we do receive such children and thereby receive Christ in our midst.  The child brings Christ to us.  The child is for us an example of greatness – the greatest in the kingdom of heaven according to Christ.  The child shows us the way to enter the Kingdom.  Thus when we baptize the child it is not only that we bring the child to Christ, but the child brings Christ to us.  We not only lead the child to the kingdom, but that child leads us to the kingdom.  The baptism of children is also for our salvation!

 And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. [14] But when Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God. [15] Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  (Mark 10:13)

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The Kingdom of God belongs to the children who are brought to the Church to be touched by Christ.  The child teaches us how to receive the Kingdom of God.  We have much to learn at and from every infant baptism.

St. Gregory the Great: Renouncing Desires to Inherit the Kingdom

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So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat. When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”

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And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid. From now on you will catch men.” So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him.   (Luke 5:1-11)

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St. Gregory the Great comments:

“You have heard, my friends, that at a single word Peter and Andrew left their nets and followed Jesus. They had not seen him perform any miracles yet, and they had not heard him saying anything about eternal recompense, but at a single command from the Lord they forgot all their possessions.

You may be thinking that these two fishermen possessed almost nothing, and so you ask how much did they have to give up? In this case, my friends, it’s the natural feelings and not the amount that we have to weigh. Those who have kept back nothing for themselves have left a great deal; those who have abandoned everything, no matter how little it may be, have left a great deal. We are attached to what we have and hold on to it; we long for what we do not yet have and try to get it. When Peter and Andrew renounced their desire to possess, they gave up a great deal; along with their possessions they renounced even their craving to possess. Those who imitate them give up as much, then, as those who do not imitate them crave to possess.

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Don’t ever say to yourselves, when you think of people who have given up a great deal, “I want to imitate them, but I have nothing to give up.” If you renounce your desires, you are giving up a great deal. No matter how little they may be, our external possessions are enough for God. He weighs the heart and not the substance, and measures the effort it costs us and not the amount we sacrifice to him. If we consider only the external substance, we see that these astute businessmen, Peter and Andrew, traded their nets and their boat for the fullness of life!”  (Be Friends of God, pp. 26-27)