Servant of God vs Slave of Sin

7474538216_118f8705be_nAs he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, beseeching him and saying, “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, in terrible distress.” And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.” But the centurion answered him, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard him, he marveled, and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; be it done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment.  (Matthew 8:5-13)

In Matthew 8:5-13, we learn a little bit about being a servant. This Roman army officer, a commander of 100 soldiers, who is used to giving orders and being obeyed, comes to Jesus not as a commander but as a servant himself to beg for mercy from Christ for one of his slaves. And this Centurion gives a good description of what being a servant means. “I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” A servant is meant to do what he is commanded to do by the master.

A servant serves others and doesn’t demand his own way. That is what the centurion models as he humbles himself before Christ.   This should cause us to ask ourselves:  am I not supposed to be a servant of God? Then, what should I be doing?  If in relationship to God, I am God’s servant, how am I to behave?

Certainly, not demanding God do what I want, but rather I should be studiously trying to figure out what God wants me to do.

7811283412_2b464de92a_nAt some point in my life I decided to follow Jesus Christ, to be His servant. I must admit that being a servant was a concept that was nebulous to me as I never grew up around anyone who had servants. But I had this vague sense that I was supposed to obey God in my life. I’ve found it to be very difficult to be a servant of God because at times I forget that I am the servant and God is the master. In my prayer life I demand things from God instead of standing before my master to clarify what I am supposed to do to serve Him. I sometimes forget (and other times ignore!) some of the commandments that Christ gave to me through the scriptures. More embarrassingly, I occasionally even forget about my master – namely God. I get involved in life and lose awareness of His existence. Even worse, I have strong feelings and passions and opinions which make me want to act in a way that I know is contrary to God’s will. So I have to struggle with these questions – do I really want to be a servant of God? What price am I willing to pay to be God’s servant? Am I willing to put aside my wants and my will to serve God? AND to serve others as God commands me?

The centurion in the Gospel lesson understood well what it is to be under command and also to command others.  He knew how to obey and serve as well as give orders.  As a Christian, I need to understand Jesus is Lord, and I am to be his servant.

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Also note in the Matthew 8 that Jesus first talks about the kingdom of God before healing the Centurion’s servant. “Truly, I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…” The centurion’s humility and faith speak to Christ about the Kingdom of God. Christ recognizes the presence of the Kingdom in the centurion – who also happened to be an officer in the army oppressing Israel!  When Christ sees the Kingdom present in the centurion, then He declares the servant healed. He recognizes the Kingdom in this Roman soldier because the soldier showed himself willing to be a servant of God. Christ will also see in us His Kingdom anytime we willingly serve others and do God’s will.

Being a servant of God is a blessed thing.  St. Paul in Romans 6:17-23 talks about another issue related to being a servant: being slaves of sin.  Here we see the negative side of being a servant.

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. I am speaking in human terms, because of your natural limitations. For just as you once yielded your members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification. When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 6:17-23)

39348295742_6827d42f96_nSt. Paul shows us sin is not merely disobeying a rule, sin enslaves. It controls our behavior and our way of seeing the world. Christ comes to deliver us from slavery to sin so that we can love God and love one another.

Sin is an attitude which shapes everything we do or think or say. To sin is to miss the mark or completely miss the goal, to fail to do and be what we are supposed to do and be.  On the other hand, “Good” as a word meant to do or be what you are created by God to do or be. Being good means to do what God wants you to do. A story from the desert fathers to illustrate that sin is more than breaking a law or that sin is complete lawlessness:

There was a wealthy Christian man who was known for being a great philanthropist. One day the abbot of the monastery came to visit him. It happened that a poor widow also came to the rich man and asked for a little wheat. The man told her to bring a cup and he would fill the cup for her. The woman came back with a pot. The man chided her, “This pot is too large. You are a greedy woman.” The widow blushed and was shamed by her benefactor. After she left, the abbot said to the man, “Were you selling the wheat to the widow?” The man said, “No, I was giving it to her in charity.” The monk replied, “If you gave her the wheat in charity, why did you speak harshly to her and measure the amount of wheat you gave her and put her to shame?”

Maybe we even sympathize with the rich man, but the story shows us that sin distorts our view of everything, even charity. Sin is not just disobeying a law, it is a failure to love and act in accordance with the commandments of our Lord Jesus.

Sin is death because it separates us from God, and from God’s love.

Union with Christ means salvation from sin. Generally we seem to want salvation to mean we are saved from sin’s consequences such as the bad results from what we do, or from sin’s guilt,  or from punishment for sin and from hell. Salvation means far more than this – for it means the possibility of living for God and overcoming sin in our life so that guilt and fear of death no longer have any meaning for us.  Salvation means we can actually serve God and receive God’s love.

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It is also true at times that if we suffer as a result of our own sins, the suffering can be a form of mercy – it warns us to change our life, it warns us that sin leads to death and that it is time to change our minds, our hearts, our direction in life.

Christ comes to free us from enslavement to sin, so that we can be united to God. Being united to God, being God’s servant, requires of us to be willing to love God and one another.   It is only by being united to God that we can fulfill our task to be God’s servant.  Salvation is not simply from the consequences of sin but from slavery to sin.  We regain our humanity by being re-united to God.

Jesus, Your Servant

 Jesus said: For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.   (Luke 22:27)

We consider Jesus Christ to be our Lord, God and Savior.  Yet, Jesus also came as a servant – certainly some ancient prayers from the early Church speak to God as Father about “Your servant, Jesus.”   And Jesus both declared Himself to be a servant and demonstrated He was a servant in the washing of His disciples’ feet.

You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.   (John 13:13-15)

Jesus comes as a servant.   He behaves like a servant and tells us in this we are to imitate Him as servants of one another.  He never tells us that we are to lord it over anyone.

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”   (Matthew 20:25-28)

Was he tempted to use His power to feed the crowds in order to make them indebted to Him or so that they would have to cower before Him?   The crowd apparently was so enamored with Him – but Jesus fled this scenario:

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.    (John 6:15)

Was he tempted to gain popularity by doing miracles to win admiration and to inspire awe?   The crowd was apparently tempting Him with this kind of power, but Jesus rejected it.

Was he tempted to subject people to His authority as a mighty king?  Certainly during the crucifixion he was taunted with a claim of being the King of Israel.  The people said they would believe in Him if He proved He was king:

“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”    (Matthew 27:42)

And though Christ came that all might believe in Him, He does not come down from the cross to claim authority over these people or demand that they cringe before Him.

He told His disciples at His arrest, that He had the ability to appeal for power from on high, yet He chose not to do so:

Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?    (Matthew 26:53)

Was he tempted to keep others in obedience to Himself by threats of force or bribes of food?  Again, it seems to have happened on several occasions:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”  (Mark 8:11-12)

Jesus did not come to impose like a dictator, but to purpose like a servant.  We who follow Him should do the same.

He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.   (Matthew 23:11-12)

And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.  (Luke 22:25-27)

Be an Example to Believers

Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.   (1 Timothy 4:12)

St. Alexander Schmorell (d. 1943AD)

Abba Isaac said: “As a young man I was staying with Abba Cronios and he never told me to do a task even though he was aged and tremulous. Of his own accord he would get up and offer the water bottle to me and likewise to all. After that I stayed with Abba Theodore of Pherme and neither did he ever tell me to do anything. He would lay the table himself and then say: ‘Brother, come and eat if you like.’ I would say to him: ‘Abba, I came to you to reap some benefit; why do you never tell me to do anything?’ The elder said to them: ‘Am I the superior of a coenobium to order him around?’ For the time being I didn’t tell him [to do] anything. He will do what he sees me doing if he wants to.’

So from then on I began anticipating, doing whatever the elder was about to do. For his part, if he was doing anything, he used to do it in silence This taught me to act in silence.” (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 147)

So the Evangelist Luke writes:

A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.   (Luke 22:24-27)

When Jesus had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  (John 13:12-17)

Serving Others to Be Human

St. Francis of Assisi is thought by many to be a model of humble service to others. Regis J. Armstrong writes:

“His relationship to God, to the Church, to his brothers and sisters, and to all the elements of creation is a relationship of service. The Admonitions develop the aspect of what it means to be a servant of God. Francis teaches that service is the way of undoing the sin of Adam, and it is the ‘holy manner of working’ that is the Spirit of the Lord. The Spirit of the Lord always points toward the other, and thus the Spirit filled person is the true servant. Therein is the poverty and humility of Saint Francis of Assisi. As a servant of God, entrusted with the Lord’s gifts, Francis gives what he has received. The Word he has conceived in the inspiration of the Spirit is proclaimed in his life and deeds. This is his greatest gift. This work of the Spirit in him identifies him with the suffering and crucified Christ, who breathes forth the Spirit. In the total context of his writings, one can perceive Francis, the servant of God marked with the wounds of the Crucified Christ, breathing forth the Spirit that dwells within him.”Francis and Clare: The Complete Works, p 21)

Be Godlike: Be a Helper

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethzatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”

The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who was cured, “It is the   Sabbath, it is not lawful for you to carry your pallet.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk.'” They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your pallet, and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place.  Afterward, Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him.  (John 5:1-15)

Let us consider just one phrase from the Gospel lesson:

The Paralytic tells Jesus,  “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool…” 

Some of you know that throughout Great Lent we sang hymns which describe God as being to us “a helper and a protector.”   The words come from our Scriptures.  God is our helper in life.  We are not alone in the world or when we are in crisis, God the Lord of the universe is also helper to each of us.

The Gospel of the Paralytic brings to mind, what if God is not there to help us?  The Paralytic was lying amid invalids for 38 years the Gospel says, and the paralytic laments that in all this time, there was no one to help him.

In Genesis 2, we know that God created the 2nd human being for a purpose – to be a helper to the first human being.  Adam too had no one to help him, but God decided to fix that situation by creating a 2nd human being to help the first.

Some unfortunately conclude from the creation of the 2nd human being, who also is a woman, that God intended all women to be subservient to men, but the narrative only addresses an issue of being left alone and being a helper.  The next human being is to help those who exist before them.  Each human being comes into existence to be a helper, not just women.  For God in Scripture as we already noted is said to be a helper to us.  We each are created to be God like which implies we too are to help one another. Being a help is not subservient, but being god-like.   No human being should ever truly be left with no one to help them – if we each were being fully human.

After creating the 1st human, God says in Genesis 2:  “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Now I am by nature a true introvert and very shy.  So whenever I read that verse in which God says, “It is not good for man to be alone”…..  I always think, I don’t know God, maybe you should have let that experiment run a little bit longer.  It may be that being alone wasn’t good, but I know where the story is going, and what happens with the creation of the 2nd human being and subsequent human beings does not bring about even more goodness!

 But the aloneness of the first man is the first thing that God ever determines is not good.  In Genesis 1, after everything God created the Scriptures repeats the refrain, And God saw that it was good.”  All this goodness abounding, but then God sees that being alone for a human is not good, and that humans need helpers for one another.  God sees what is not good for humans as well as what is good for us.

So besides God being our helper, God creates for each of us helpers other beings to be just like God.  Our fellow human beings are created so that we each might help one another.  God saw the goodness in this.

God commands us:  “Be fruitful and multiply –  God wishes to have a world full of helpers, of His people whom He loves, all willing to serve and help Him as well as each other.

Our Scriptures totally envision a universe full of helpers.   The Old Testament Scriptures do not envision God living alone in the vastness of any empty heaven.     That idea of a God all alone unto himself is a particular image of a pure and perfect oneness, a monad lost in mental monologues completely detached from His creation comes from the imagination of philosophers.   It is not the God of Scriptures.  For the God of Genesis too digs into the mud of the earth to create humans, as well as trees and everything else.  Our God is not OCD when it comes to messiness!

The Scriptures envision a heaven, God’s Kingdom, full of all kinds of beings – angels, bodiless powers, invisible and spiritual beings, even gods.  All are to be God’s helpers.  The kingdom of Heaven is bustling with the activity and life of a multitude of beings.  God is not alone, dwelling in solitude thinking soliloquies.  God is not an introvert.  Christianity – never envisioned this monad God living within His own oneness and singularity.    Rather in Christianity God is always imaged as a Trinity of Persons.  Perfect relationship, three divine Persons loving not only one another but creating an entire universe with whom to share their divine life and love.

We Christians understand that God created us to be relational beings, sharing in God’s life and love but also sharing life and love with one another.  To be human is to be a helper to others, including to God.

If we think about the Gospel of the Paralytic, we can ask:

Is the paralytic truly alone?  Is there truly no one to help him at all?

How long can a human live without food or water?  Maybe a month.

How long was the man laying with invalids?  38 years.

So someone was giving him food and water.  He has basic bodily functions and needs.  To be there for 38 years means someone was caring for him.  Maybe no one met his expectation of helping him to be healed, but the Gospel surely suggests that there is someone, or maybe several someones who have helped him survive for 38 years. These are all invisible care givers in the narrative.

Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us we are to be helpers to one another.  We are to help each other so that we can live in this world until that day that we meet Christ Jesus our Lord.

And then we have to help each other continue to live. It is not enough just to be opposed to abortion, for example.  We need also to care enough to help people to continue life, to continue living, even if in difficult circumstances.  We have to be the invisible people of the Gospel lesson who helped the Paralytic to live 38 years despite his problems, challenges, illness, differences.  He is not alone.  It is not true that there is no one to help him.  There is us and we are to be helpers to every such person in our lives.

Of course there is a problem in the Gospel lesson:  the paralytic is in basic competition with the rest of the invalids trying to get into those healing waters first when a miracle might occur.   All the others humans at this pool, including all the other helpers have become competition to this one man.  He sees none of them as his helpers, as his fellow human beings.  They are only competitors whom he has dehumanized.

Again, we can think about God’s words in Genesis 2, “It is not good for man to be alone…”        Really?  Wouldn’t this one paralytic be better off if there were no others around him?  No one to compete with him?

And the answer is no, for it is only this great crowd of people which draws Christ to that location, to that one person.  And now God truly becomes the helper to this one human being, not by lifting him up, but by telling him to raise himself up.  Christ does not say to this person, “let me help you up”.  No, rather he shows the person that he is capable of doing things, and so shows him that he is totally capable of helping others.   God turns this man into someone capable of helping others, Christ turns this one person from a pathetic paralytic into a full human being.  Christ totally recreates this one person into a true human being.

And what do you think, did he become a helper to others – to one other at the pool?

The man who complained with such great self-pity, “there is no one to help me”, do you think he simply walked away from that pool and all those suffering people?  Or do you think he became a Christ to even one someone else and ministered to them?

As hear the Gospel proclaimed, we are to think not just about past history, but about who am I in this Gospel lesson?  Am I the paralytic before the encounter with Christ, full of self-pity and always wanting someone else to help me?  Or am I the healed person capable of coming back and helping others?  Am I the invisible helper who works quietly and silently behind the scenes for 38 years, helping even one someone else to survive?

In the Liturgy of St. Basil we pray to God saying:

For You, O Lord, are the Helper of the helpless, the Hope of the hopeless, the Savior of the bestormed, the Haven of the voyager, the Physician of the sick. Be all things to all people, O Lord Who knows each of us, and our request, our home and our need.

Indeed, we pray that God will be a helper and a protector to us.  And then we hear Christ say, “love one another as I have loved you.”  We are to become and be that helper to each other.

If You Love Christ: Feed His Sheep

St. John Chrysostom speaking about the Apostle Peter writes:

“That he was deemed deserving of this office by a great grace of God is a strong proof of his virtue. How strong? Listen to the words Christ spoke to Peter after the resurrection. Christ asked him: ‘Peter, do you love me?’ And Peter replied: ‘Lord, you know I love you.’ What did Christ then say? He did not say: ‘Throw away your money. Fast from food. Live the hard life. Raise the dead. Drive out demons.’ Christ  did not bring forward or command any of these things or any other miracle or act of virtue. He passed all these by and said: ‘If you love me, feed my sheep.’ Why did Christ say this? Because he wished to show us not only what is the strongest sign of love for him but also to point out the love which he himself shows for the sheep. So now he makes this the strongest proof which Peter can give of his love for him.

For Christ’s words practically mean: ‘He who loves my sheep loves me.’ And look how many things Christ endured for his flock. He became a man, he took upon himself the form of a servant, he was spat upon, he was slapped in the face, and, finally, he did not refuse to die the most shameful death. For he poured forth his blood on the cross. Therefore, if a man wishes to win esteem in the eyes of Christ, let him show his concern for these sheep, let him seek what is helpful for all, let him be anxious to care for his brothers.  God holds no virtuous act in greater esteem.[…] And so it was that Paul, too, said: ‘Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.’ And how, Paul, did you become an imitator of Christ?  ‘By pleasing all men in every way, by not seeking my own benefit but the benefit of all men, so that they might be saved.’ Again, in another place, Paul said: ‘Christ did not please himself but please many.’ Therefore, nothing could be so great a mark or sign of the man of faith who loves Christ as would be his care for his brothers and his concern for their salvation. ” (St. John Chrysostom on the Incomprehensible Nature of God, pgs. 170-172)

Holy Week: A Lesson in Ministry and Service to Others

While there are many and diverse themes running through the hymns of Holy Week, one theme that may get lost because we focus on the events in Christ’s last week of life on earth leading to His crucifixion is the call to us to imitate Christ in service to others.  While we find emotionally powerful meditating on how Christ’s suffering saves ME, the hymns speak to us about what it means to be a disciple, a Christian, a follower of Christ, namely to love the other.  The crucifixion is not about self love or saving myself, it is about self sacrifice for the salvation of others.   Christ actually said very little to us about forming sentimental or emotional attachments to or fixations on His life or His suffering.  He does however at the Last Supper wrap himself in the towel of a servant, wash His disciple’s feet and then tell us to imitate Him in serving others.  This is a major part of Holy Week, and at one point some considered foot washing to be a sacrament in the Church.  It is a sacrament, which like baptism, is lived out daily far beyond the bounds of the liturgical ritual.

Consider for example the Holy Tuesday Aposticha hymn:

COME, FAITHFUL,

LET US WORK ZEALOUSLY FOR THE MASTER,

FOR HE DISTRIBUTES WEALTH TO HIS SERVANTS.

LET EACH OF US ACCORDING TO HIS ABILITY

INCREASE HIS TALENT OF GRACE:

LET ONE BE ADORNED IN WISDOM THROUGH GOOD WORKS;

LET ANOTHER CELEBRATE A SERVICE IN SPLENDOR.

THE ONE DISTRIBUTES HIS WEALTH TO THE POOR;

THE OTHER COMMUNICATES THE WORD TO THOSE UNTAUGHT.

THUS WE SHALL INCREASE WHAT HAS BEEN ENTRUSTED TO US,

AND, AS FAITHFUL STEWARDS OF GRACE,

WE SHALL BE ACCOUNTED WORTHY OF THE MASTER’S JOY.

MAKE US WORTHY OF THIS, CHRIST OUR GOD,

IN YOUR LOVE FOR MANKIND.

The hymn calls to mind Christ’s Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) in which the servants are expected to do something with the gifts, wealth and resources the master gave them.  The hymn also ties in St. Paul’s discussions on the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:11-14).  Thus in the midst of Holy Week, we are reminded of our responsibility as Christians to serve one another, the Church and the world itself. We are not called merely to contemplate the life and work of Christ – we are called to imitate Christ through the work that we do to His glory.  We are called to use the gifts and wealth that God has bestowed upon us in service of others.  That is a lesson of Holy Week that can be lost while we are so busy thinking about what Christ has done for me. (We would do well also to remember Christ’s parable of the Last Judgment which we read as part of our preparation for keeping Lent).   Consider the Holy Thursday Matins hymn known as the IKOS:

Let us all approach the mystical table in fear

and receive the Bread with pure souls;

and let us stay with the Master so that we may see

how He washes His disciples’ feet and wipes them with a towel. 

Let us do as we have seen Him do,

submitting to one another and washing one another’s feet,

for Christ Himself thus commanded His disciples.

But the servant and deceiver Judas did not take heed.

[Take special note:  Judas did not take heed to the lessons being offered by Christ at the Last Supper!  Certainly we are being warned not to  be like or imitate Judas.  We are to imitate our LORD Jesus Christ and be a servant instead of being self-serving.]

The liturgical commemoration of the Mystical Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet in the hymns does not just focus on the historical events but calls us to imitate Christ in becoming servants one to another.  The hymns remind us not to get lost in the beauty of the services or in contemplating past history, but to learn the lessons offered to us by Christ about being servants and to get up and imitate Him in our relationship to the Church and our fellow Christians.  [Unfortunately, in current Orthodox liturgical practice and in many Orthodox parishes the commemoration of the Mystical supper and the foot washing (done at Holy Thursday Vespers) is given secondary status as the pious focus has become the crucifixion of Christ as commemorated in the Holy Friday Matins service – a piety which seems more Western and Protestant than Orthodox.  It is Western piety, particularly Protestant, which places almost exclusive emphasis on the crucifixion of Christ as being the act of salvation.  This emphasis is true to Western Christian theology’s focus on justification and the substitutionary death of Christ, but totally downplays the incarnation and ignores salvation as the union of God with humanity.  It turns a blind eye and deaf ear to the theology of the incarnation, to sacramental theology and to salvation as deification.  But I digress.]

One final hymn from the Aposticha of Holy Thursday:

INSTRUCTING YOUR DISCIPLES IN THE MYSTERY, LORD,

YOU SAID TO THEM:

MY BELOVED, SEE THAT NO FEAR SEPARATES YOU FROM ME.

THOUGH I SUFFER, IT IS FOR THE SAKE OF THE WORLD.

LET ME NOT BE A CAUSE OF SCANDAL TO YOU.

I CAME, NOT TO BE SERVED, BUT TO SERVE,

TO GIVE MYSELF FOR THE REDEMPTION OF THE WORLD.

IF YOU ARE MY FRIENDS, THEN IMITATE ME.

LET THE FIRST AMONG YOU BE THE LAST.

LET THE MASTER BE LIKE THE SERVANT.

ABIDE IN ME AND BEAR FRUIT, FOR I AM THE VINE OF LIFE.

Christ the True Vine

The hymn calls us to imitate Christ in servant leadership, in humility, in bearing spiritual fruit (see also my blog Hierarchical Power: Self-Appointed Tyranny? Which likewise looks at some hymns from Holy Week).   The hymns do discuss the historical events of Holy Week, but don’t direct our attention to the past, but rather tell us Holy Week teaches us how to live in the present: as imitators of Christ.  Sometimes Orthodox are tempted  always and only to look to the past, or to look to the future Kingdom of Heaven.  But our hymns tell us not to be so heavenly minded so as to be of no earthly good, as Oliver Wendell Holmes quipped.  Rather we are to live the divine presence today in our lives as we related to others.  We are called not just to meditate on Christ’s life, but to imitate it.  Tradition is not a focus on how things were done in the past, but is a living Tradition – it tells us how to live in the present to prepare ourselves for the future.

Serving God Not Just the Parish

Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote: “And the parish as parish, i.e., as Church has no other task, no other purpose but to reveal, to manifest, to announce, this Living God so that men may know Him, love Him and then, find in Him their real vocations and tasks.” He also wrote: “The parish is the means for men of serving God and it itself must serve God and His work and only then is it justified and becomes ‘Church’. And again it is the sacred duty and the real function of the priest not to ‘serve the parish’, but to make the parish serve God – and there is a tremendous difference between those two functions. And for the parish to serve God means, first of all, to help God’s work wherever it is to be helped.” (Robert T. Osborn in St. Vladimir’s Seminary  Quarterly Vol. 9 Number 4, pgs.187-188, 190)

To be Ruled Well is Typical of the Wise Person

St. John Cassian (d. 435AD) wrote:

“Therefore no one is chosen to rule over a community of brothers, unless, before he himself exercises authority, he has learned by obedience how he should command those who will be subject to him and has understood from the institutes of the elders what he should pass on to the young.  For they declare that to rule well and to be ruled well is typical of the wise person.”

St. John was writing about choosing the leader of a monastic community, but in the church his thoughts apply well to the selection of a bishop as well.  Abbots and bishops are commonly thought of as the ordained leaders of Orthodox communities; persons to be obeyed by virtue of their office.

According to Cassian we learn to command through the humble practice of being obedient.  If we haven’t spent years in the church experiencing that humble obedience, we are not prepared to become Christian leaders.  St. John says NO ONE is chosen to rule over a community who has failed to learn by obedience the wisdom of discipleship.  Obviously in the modern age such wisdom is seen as an ideal for indeed men are put in leadership positions – as abbots, priests and bishops – who have not had the years of experiencing learning the wisdom of discipleship.  We ask them to lead when they don’t understand the very people they are to lead – disciples, because they didn’t spend sufficient time in that role.

Cassian’s wisdom is that before someone can be put in a position which demands obedience of others, they must first learn to live in obedience and learn the value of obedience.  A failure in Christian leadership is often the chosen leader has not in fact ever lived for years in obedience learning the wisdom of that life.  Instead they are put in positions of power and demand obedience without any understanding of how obedience is an act of voluntary love and a way to follow Christ – to be His disciple.  The Christian leader is first of all a servant, imitating Christ’s washing the feet of His disciples, and fulfilling the life of self-sacrificial love as well.

Without living for years in obedience as an act of love, no Christian leader will be able to imitate or exhibit the love Jesus had as leader, Master, Messiah, God’s Son.  It seems in America at least monks can start monasteries and live as abbots without ever having spent years voluntarily serving others.  So they have no sense whatsoever about what Christian leadership means because they have never learned what constitutes being a disciple.  Some in fact seem to be self appointed abbots, starting monasteries without having lived in them.

Both ruling well and being ruled well are signs of the wise person say St. John.

Cassian had it right that the wise man knows how to be ruled – knows the importance of the other brothers and sisters in Christ, and as St. Paul says, that person must do whatever they do in love.    For St. Paul at least such love means  taking into account “the weaker ones” no matter how correct the leader might think he is.

St. John Cassian laments that men “declare ourselves abbas before we profess ourselves disciples.”

That is of course the path of unpreparedness for any who want to be bishops.

Before many a man ever lived as a parishioner, he wants to be bishop over parishes.  Before he has learned to be a disciple, he wishes to be master, despot.

Remember the Twelve, they too jockeyed to sit at the right hand of Christ, and debated which of them was the greatest.  Their concerns earned them serious rebuke from the Son of God.

There is a reality about the Church which is sometimes forgotten.  To enter the Kingdom of Christ, we must be Christian.  One can enter the Kingdom without being a bishop.  But in the Kingdom all must be Christians – disciples of the only Master and only Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.    When one shows that he has not learned to be a disciple, has not learned the wisdom of obedience, then not only is he no real bishop, his own salvation is put at risk.  It is far more loving and merciful for the church to take away the title of bishop from someone so that they can learn to be a disciple, than to try to preserve their episcopacy but cause them to lose entrance into God’s Kingdom.

See also my blogs:  Adventures in Wonderland and Metropolitan Council: What Were You Discussing?

St. John Chrysostom (C)

This is the 7th blog in this series which began with The Goals of Teaching in the Early Church.  The immediately preceding blog is St. John Chrysostom (B).   This series is a preliminary look into some of the ideas, theory or theology of education that we can glean from the early church fathers.   This is the third blog dealing with St. John Chrysostom.

The basic method of teaching which St. John Chrysostom advocated was the careful and creative use of biblical stories. First the parents take turns telling the child a biblical story on several different occasions. The story can be used to address a specific problem in the child’s life or behavior.  Then the parents tell the story asking the child to fill in details or asking them questions about the story’s details. Then, the child should be asked to tell the complete story in his or her own words. Then the lessons begin to focus on the story’s meanings for daily living.

Beside the use of story and repetition, Chrysostom relentless advocated teaching by example.  He believed that many things that Christ did as a human being were done as an example to us for how we are to behave as humans. Prayer and fasting were not “needed” by the Son of God, but as the perfect man, he shows us the way to perfection.

But, as I was going to say to prevent you from suspecting that Christ had a lowly nature because of the lowliness of what he did, listen to what he said to them after he washed their feet. “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.  If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”  Do you see that he did many things so as to give an example.  A teacher who is full of wisdom stammers along with his stammering young students.  But the teacher’s stammering does not come from a lack of learning; it is a sign of the concern he feels toward the children.  In the same way, Christ did not do these things because of the lowliness of his essence.  He did them because he was condescending and accommodating himself to us”   (St. John Chrysostom,  On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, p. 248).

As teachers, we are to imitate Christ and be examples to our students.  As St. Peter wrote to church leaders, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).  This is as true for bishops as for priests, teachers or parents.

Next:  Conclusion