Holy Communion and the Forgiveness of Sins

“It is important to realize how significant this was for Jesus and his contemporaries. For the oriental, table-fellowship was a guarantee of peace, trust, brotherhood; it meant in a very real sense a sharing of one’s life. Thus, table-fellowship with tax collectors and sinners was Jesus’ way of proclaiming God’s salvation and assurance of forgiveness, even for those debarred from the cult. This was why his religious contemporaries were scandalized by the freedom of Jesus’ associations (Mark 2.16; Luke 15.2) – the pious could have table-fellowship only with the righteous.

But Jesus’ table-fellowship was marked by openness, not by exclusiveness. That is to say, Jesus’ fellowship meals were invitations to grace, not cultic rituals for an inner group which marked them off from their fellows …”

(James G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, p. 176-177)

The Christianity of Life

At the heart of “mainstream” Syriac tradition the ascetic mode of life renounced not the physical world, but a world gone awry. Celibacy or chastity in marriage; simplicity of food, clothing and possession; care for the poor, sick, and suffering – such were the requisite features of the Christian mode of life from Christianity’s inception. In earliest Syriac literature, the body of the true believer is a body rendered chaste, healed and holy in marriage to its Heavenly Bridegroom by living a Christian life.

In turn, the condition of the believer’s body must be mirrored in the community as a whole body. Caring for others, and especially for the suffering, not only fulfilled the command to love one another, but also forged into existence a community whose life as a healed and consecrated community literally reflected Paradise regained – the image by which Edessa recalled the experience of its conversion to Christianity.

(Susan Ashbrook Harvey, “Embodiment in Time and Eternity: A Syriac Perspective,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 43, No 2., 1999)

The Blessedness of the Parish

“Let the chief pastor weave together his homilies like flowers,

let the priests make a garland of their ministry,

the deacons of their reading,

strong men of their jubilant shouts, children of their psalms,

chaste women of their songs, chief citizens of their benefactions,

ordinary folk of their manner of life. 

Blessed is He who gave us so many opportunities for good!

Let us summon and invite the saints, 

the martyrs, apostles and prophets, 

whose own blossoms and flowers shine out like themselves – 

such a wealth of roses they have, so fragrant are their lilies:

from the Garden of Delights do they pluck them,

and they bring back fair bunches

to crown our beautiful feast. 

O praise to You form the [saints who are] blessed!

(St. Ephrem the Syrian, Ephrem the Syrian: Selected Poems, p. 177)

The Liturgy: Another Love One Another

Bill interjected, “I don’t go to church to relate with others, I go to receive the sacrament. Receiving Christ feeds my prayer life, makes me feel closer to him. It helps me to keep up my devotions throughout the week.”

“I think part of the reason you say this, Bill, is that you’re missing a crucial dimension of what the eucharist is about,” Father answered. “The Liturgy is not a ‘me and Jesus’ phenomenon. The eucharist ushers in the kingdom of God and makes us its citizens. Here we willingly enter into a relationship with God and with each other through the command of Christ and his mediation. This transcends and supersedes every separation and division – a challenge for us all, for Christ says, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ Isn’t it remarkable that we come mostly truly who we are by giving ourselves entirely to others! That’s the only way we can become most fully ourselves. The sacraments feed our union and make it visible in the assembly where we partake of them.

Many of us still don’t understand that this worship is more than just ‘me and Jesus’; after all, no one can ‘muster up’ the eucharist alone; it’s interpersonal, ‘we together’ who are shown how expansive the mystery of Christ is. Again, it’s beyond anything we could achieve alone.”

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 233)

You Are the Body of Christ

St Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 3:9-17 –

For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are. 

The foundation of any parish community is laid down by the Apostles: the foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.  We the parish members build upon that foundation.  The foundation is solid, a rock that can weather any storm.   “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).

Time will test what we have built, what our parish community is  – whether what we built is gold or straw as St Paul mentioned.  The testing will come and purify the gold or burn the straw, but we will be saved.   What we built is you, the Body of Christ, our parish community.   We build up one another.  You are God’s holy temple, it is not the edifice, but the people that we have been building into a living temple.   “Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4). God’s Spirit dwells in you, in us, and it is one another that we are to love, not church buildings as beautiful as they may be.  The building is a tool for the upbuilding, the edification of us, God’s people.

St Irenaeus said, “Where Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”   We build the parish community around Christ, to be the Church, to be the dwelling place of God’s Holy Spirit.

At every Liturgy, the priest says: “Christ is in our midst.”   Christ is here in the midst of the parishioners gathered together at the Liturgy.   We gather around Him, we are built up into the Church, we are edified by Christ.  We become His Body in the world doing His ministry for the world.

Jesus said, “Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my Name, there  I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).   Christ is in our midst, and we are in Him.  We have become His Body.  It is not simply or only the consecrated bread which becomes the Body of Christ, we the members of the Church also become His Body and we pray for that at every Liturgy.  We pray that the Holy Spirit will first come upon us the parish members and then upon the offered bread so that both will be the Body of Christ.

The foundation of the parish is Jesus Christ.  We are to build upon that foundation.

St Paul never envisions the Church as a building nor as the clergy.  He always speaks in the plural:  “You (all) are the Body of Christ.

Bearing the Failings of the Weak

25210883198_a8c8ee7cb4_mIn Romans 15:1-7, St Paul offers his understanding of how Christians should deal with disagreements within the Christian community.  He offers this same teaching several times in his letters to the churches.  The framework is that we are to love one another, but he is trying to apply it practically to a situation where different opinions arise on an issue.   He wants to help the local community learn how to be of one mind even as there are disagreements about various practices.   St Paul is not here writing about doctrinal issues but about pious practices within a community.   St Paul acknowledges that some people are more tolerant of divergent practices than others.  Some people are zealous, some have a strict interpretation of what is allowed, while others think pious practices are of no real significance.  His solution is that when parishioners are uncomfortable with what others are doing, love requires that those who are strong in the faith have to lovingly be patient with those who are weak in the faith.  The strong in faith are not those who have the greatest scruples, but rather those who are not bothered by various practices and who don’t worry if not everyone measures up to a standard.  St Paul sees those who are weak in faith are much more subject to being scrupulous about every detail of the rules.  But he does not comment that strong vs weak means better vs worse or right vs wrong.  He recognizes only that there are divergent opinions about divergent practices and he hopes people can recognize that what is really important is that we learn to live in love for one another as Jesus commanded.  St Paul writes:

We then who are strong (who have power/strength, dynamis) ought to bear with the scruples/weaknesses/failings of the weak (adynamis, those without power/strength), and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.

The strong have to bear not just those who lack strength but have to bear with their failings.  The strong have to pick up the slack, even if they aren’t personally bothered by some behaviors, they have a responsibility not to offend those who have many scruples or who have a hard time keeping the faith to the full.

St Paul says the strong have to bear with the weak.   Bear – this is the same word as Christ uses in telling us to take up/bear the cross to follow Him.  It is the same word used to describe Christ bearing his own cross in John 19:17.  We can remember also that Christ bore our sins on the cross as well as bearing the cross itself!

16426634004_48a15a5332

The strong bearing with the weak is the opposite of social Darwinism – which advocates the survival of the fittest.   For St Paul, following Christ means the strong have to help the weak and wait for them and care for them, not forget about them, or leave them in their problems.  Christian love is not about competing with others to get ahead, but is about community where one works with and for everyone else.

In Galatians 6:2 St Paul says to bear one another’s burdens to fulfill the law of Christ.   We are to bring the weak to God, not leave them to their own devices or to sleep in the beds they have made for themselves.  We are to help the weak with their struggles, this is the Law of Christ.  This is the Gospel.

Throughout the Liturgy we sing “Lord have mercy!”  This is the petition of all of us, but especially of the strong for the weak.  The petitions are not time for us to sit down and take a time out during the Liturgy but exactly the times in the Liturgy when we take up the burden of others.  We come to church to do the communal work of God (the Liturgy), which means lifting up the weak and needy in your prayers.

8509412842_fa6f0c5d25

Here is a story from the desert fathers about how one saintly monk attempted to bear with the burden of a weak brother:

When the abbot of the monastery was going to start the Divine Liturgy he discovered that the priestly stole was missing.  The abbot said there would be no Liturgy until the stole is returned.  Nothing happened.  So the abbot ordered that every room in the monastery was to be searched.  One young monk immediately went to an old monk who had the reputation of being a saint, and he confessed to the old man that he had taken the stole.    The older monk told the young monk not to fear but to hide the stole in his cell.  So of course the stole is found in the old monk’s cell.  Despite his reputation as a saint, the other monks are furious at the old man and denounce him as a fraud and a thief.  They severely beat him.  The old man begs for mercy and promises to repent, but the other monks do not want a thief in their monastery and expel him from the monastery.   The monks then assemble in the church for Liturgy, but God sends an angel to the church and prevents the abbot from approaching the altar.  The abbot tells the brothers that they need to bring the old man back and be compassionate toward him.  They bring the old monk back and the angel allows the Liturgy to proceed.

The old man bore with the weakness not only of the young monk but with all the other monks.

St Paul concludes the lesson of Romans 15:1-7 with these words: Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.

We are to receive each other as Christ received us.  We are to welcome one another as Christ welcomed us.  We are to treat others as Christ treats us.  This is the rule of community which St Paul believes fulfills the law of Christ.

Christ does not require us to be in his good favor before allowing us in His presence.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us.  He came to seek and save sinners.  We are here because Christ sought us out as sinners and we have accepted Christ’s invitation to live according to His commandments.

3901940070_1d8ffb430b

A final good example of how this principle worked in St Paul’s favor.  From Acts 9:10-17 –

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Ananias had heard about Saul and how Saul totally opposed Christianity.  He wanted nothing to do with Saul and certainly did not want to help him.  If Saul was suffering, he deserved it.  Christ tells Ananias to show Saul what Christian love is.  And the rest is history.

Fellowship Hour in the Ancient Church

Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457AD) commented on what for him was an ancient practice of the Christians sharing a meal together after their Eucharistic celebration.  He saw it as a wonderful opportunity for the wealthy to share with and minister to the poor and needy members of the Christian community.  He presents this as normal and expected behavior for the local parish.

They were in the habit in the churches, in fact, after the eucharistic ritual, of eating in common, rich and poor alike, and from this practice great consolation derived for the needy; the affluent brought provisions from home, and those in the grip of poverty shared in the good cheer on account of their participation in the faith. (Commentary on the Letters of St. Paul, p. 205)

Building the Parish Through Forgiveness

Forgiving others the hurts they inflict on us, just as we depend on those same others to forgive us the wrongs we visit on them, is absolutely necessary for successful community living. That’s the only way we can live peacefully.

When you live as closely as we do with one another, situations are bound to arise in which someone is hurt or offended. Unless we can be humble enough to speak to each other about these occasions, to communicate honestly because we trust each other – and then be willing to forgive whenever necessary, the bonds that keep us together will become strained and our love for one another will grow cold.

Living in the monastic community, we discover that none of us reaches a state of perfection in which we never hurt or offend another brother or sister. Obviously there are times when this occurs unintentionally, but unfortunately at other times, our demons drive us into behaving less nobly. There will always be situations in which we get irritated, or in which we’ve been hurtful. That’s simply part of being human. What’s more important than that these things occur is that we are ready always to apply the salve of forgiveness when they do, that the healing and mercy characteristic of God may bring about in us a bit more of the kingdom.

(The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 302-303)

Christ Ascending and Descending

The Sunday after Theophany

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.    (Ephesians 4:7-13)

24277756423_a555678791

Now when Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, He departed to Galilee. And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death Light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  (Matthew 4:12-17)

5741245859_58b5806766

Our Epistle today, Ephesians 4:7-13, quoting from Psalm 68:18, mentions Christ  ascending and descending.  He ascended to God’s throne above the heavens after His resurrection, and also descended into Hades upon His death on the cross.   This Ephesians reading for the Sunday after Theophany is tying together for us several ideas that the Church wishes to emphasize in its proclamation of the Good News.   Of course there is that cosmic picture of Christ who is God the Word descending to earth to be born in a cave and laid in an animal manger  – an event we celebrate as the Nativity of Christ.  But Christ continued His descent, dying on the cross, being buried and descending into Hades to free all the dead from imprisonment and slavery to Satan.  Christ ascended from Hades to appear on earth to show us all His resurrection.  He then continued His ascent all the way to the throne of God’s Kingdom above the heavens.

And this cosmic picture of Christ ascending from Hades to the height of heaven which is also our salvation is foreshadowed in the events of Christ’s descending at his baptism down into the Jordan River and then ascending out of the River to be proclaimed God’s own son.  Baptism as we all should know is exactly an image of being buried beneath the waters and then raised from the dead to new life.   Christ foreshadows his death and resurrection with His dying and rising at his baptism in the River Jordan.

37560090535_478dfb7311

Additionally, at the baptism of Christ, the feast we call Theophany, the Holy Trinity is revealed to us as well as to the entire world.  This is the great Light which has dawned for us that is mentioned today’s Gospel lesson.

The connection between Theophany and Christ’s descent into Hades was made at one point in Orthodox history when numerous Orthodox churches took to painting on the back (west) wall of the Church, two icon frescos, one on top of the other.  The upper panel/fresco had the Baptism of Christ from Theophany in which the Trinity is revealed to us.  Beneath that icon was the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hades with those saved souls looking up to the icon of the Baptism of Christ.  They understood the Baptism of Christ was the prefiguring of His descent into Hades.  In those churches with the large fresco icons one on top of the other, the door to the church was located in Hades as well.  On Holy Saturday, the congregation in the church would watch as the newly baptized were brought into the church literally passing through their own death and sojourn to Hades where they were united to and saved by Christ.  All of that is still remembered in our Church on Holy Friday when we enter the church after our procession and all pass beneath the winding sheet and we have the ideas that we are passing into the tomb of Christ as into Hades itself where we proclaim and celebrate the resurrection!

4662496367_dbe899857a

The Epistle mentions Christ leading the captives out and bestowing on them gifts.   We understand this as our being led out of imprisonment in Hades, slaves to death.  The gifts given to us are those Christ bestows on His church as mentioned in today’s epistle.

Christ creates the Church and all the offices of the Church and gives spiritual gifts for all the personnel He needs to carry on His ministry.  He gives us spiritual gifts so that we can accomplish His will on earth.   For Christ passes on to us that we as members of the parish and as members of the Body of Christ are to be the light of the world:

46718055141_fe4d57b0f9_n“You are the light of the world.  . .  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.   (Matthew 5:14-16)

The Great light which has dawned and which people see is not Christ alone, but us as the Body of Christ.  All of us united to Christ as His Body, the Church, for as St. Paul says in 1 Cor 3:16

 – You (plural) are God’s temple.  You (people) have God’s Spirit living in us.

The Church is not a building, but the people of God.  The Church is you and I doing God’s will on earth.

When people come and see the Orthodox Church, they might come and look at the beautiful, interesting and ancient icons on the walls of the building, but they should come to see the living temple, the living icons – namely you!

It is not the building that makes us Orthodox.  It is not the building that makes the Orthodox Church.  It is you people, the parishioners, the members of this parish!

34643523071_8c2c79954b_n

We extend an invitation to others to come and see the Orthodox Church, we should also be inviting them to see

How we live

How we love God and neighbor

How we worship God.

How we love one another.

How we are like Christ.

People need to come here not only to see icons or to see the Liturgy and Orthodox worship but to see us –

To see:

24765159445_b73aee26d1_nLove               Faith

Hope              Joy

Beauty           Light

Truth             Peace

In us!

St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 –

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  . . .  For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are.

God entrusts us to make His Holiness present on earth and available to all who wish to enter into Communion with Him.  God wants us to be witnesses to the Light, but also to be that Light to the world.

26747610472_5d690f3407_n

Being the Church

The mystical body of Christ is the tangible symbol and arena of God’s presence in our midst. By virtue of our membership in Christ we are now intimately related to each other. The very definition of church, ekklesia in Greek (ek, “out of,” plus klesia from kalein, “to call” – those who have been called out of their old place and summoned together into this new reality) refers to persons, therefore, and not buildings.

This living church is the community of Christ’s disciples responding to the call to be the assembly of God in a specific place. God calls us from out of the chaos and alienation of everyday living to be a people, his people in our own day. (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, p. 219)