Sunday, July 22, 2007


What follows is nothing of my own, except that I’m offering it as an example of a good Orthodox sermon. When I returned to Orthodoxy at the age of 37, there were many good Orthodox sermons like this one—we heard them almost all the time.
They were fervent, faithful and spoken as from one loving heart to another. They did not excel in eloquence. They were simply true.
This sermon was preached by Fr Gerasimos ‘Jerry’ Markopoulos a week ago today. If you aren't an Orthodox Christian, but want to learn what Orthodoxy is at its best, Fr Jerry tells it in brief and challenges the ‘Orthodox’ to practice it. This is a ‘good Orthodox sermon’ as we used to hear before the world got hold of us. After the service, I blessed Fr Jerry, kissed him and thanked him for speaking to us what the Lord spoke to him, for passing on ‘the message’ exactly as he heard it. Whatever community has him for their pastor will have a treasure.

Matthew 9:1-8

Our Gospel reading this morning is about a man who couldn't walk at all until he had an encounter with Christ God. As I reflected on this, I wondered what the man's first steps looked like after Jesus had healed him with a word. I pictured a small child learning to walk but couldn't really connect the two images. It sounds like the man just rose and went home. In but an instant, God had transformed this man's life as well as the lives of the multitude who witnessed the restoration of the paralytic. God transformed the man's life when He saw their faith. There was something about their collective “walk” that touched Jesus.

The Holy Prophet Micah wrote, “…He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Just as when a child is born, and that child must grow and eventually learn to walk, the Christian must also learn to walk humbly with God. Now, just the mention of the words “walk with God” emphasizes to us that the Christian faith is about having a relationship with God. Orthodox Christianity is not about a list of do's and don'ts, but rather it's about growing in a loving relationship between the Creator and His creation, a Father and His child. And the term “walking” implies also that this is to be a relationship that is constantly moving forward. As we continue down the path, we should be walking closer and closer to God and maturing spiritually as a result. We wouldn't call a two-year-old immature when he plays with his food—that's what toddlers do! However, by the time that youngster becomes an adult his behavior should have changed as dramatically as his body. He should have made continual progress toward maturity.

And God wants to transform our life. The more we walk with God, the more our hearts will change. A person cannot walk with God, be growing in communion with God, and remain unchanged.

But in reality, walking with God requires a choice. A lot of people are not better spiritually because they don't want to make the choice required to get better. They don't want to choose to repent of their sin because they're enjoying it too much. They don't want to let go of that grudge against someone, even though they know it's hurting them more than it's hurting the other person. They want to get well, but they don't want to take the steps that would bring about healing.

A lot of people are hurting spiritually. They don't feel close to God, they don't feel like praying, they feel empty. They say that they want to be closer to God, they want to be growing in union with God, but if we want to walk closer and closer with Jesus Christ, then it means that we need to change. We need to lay down the things that hinder our walk with Christ.

It also means that we have to choose to walk with God instead of doing our own thing. That's a difficult choice because we don't like for others to tell us where to go or what to do. We don't like for others to have authority over us, but the Christian life is one of complete submission to the lordship of Christ God. And it's only when we can say, “Not my will, but Yours, be done,” that we will find peace and joy in Christ.

Now, this choice to follow Christ also involves getting rid of any excuses we may have.

Do we want to walk with God, or not? There's nothing prohibiting our growing in union with God except our own choices.

Now, the second thing here about walking with Christ God is that in order to walk with Him, it requires obedience on our part. If our walk with God is going to be productive, if we're going to grow closer to Him and in union with Him, then we need to do what He tells us to do.

Isn't it interesting how many times the working of God is linked to obedience?
Christ told the man with the withered hand to stretch forth his hand, and when he did, he was healed. (Matthew 12:9-14)
He told the blind man to go wash in the pool of Siloam, and when he did, he received his sight. (John, ch. 9)
He told the disciples to feed the crowd of 5000 with 5 loaves of bread and two fish, and when they did, the miracle happened. (Matthew 14:13-21)
He told the lepers to go and show themselves to the priest, and when they went, they were healed. (Luke 17:11-19)

Many people want God to work in their lives, but He's waiting on them to start acting in obedience to what He's already told them to do. God has told us to forgive those who have hurt us, but have we been obedient, or are we still holding a grudge? God has told us to love one another and to even love our enemies, so why is it that we're filled with hate? We cannot walk with God and experience His working in our life unless we place our trust in Him and are obedient to Him. God wants what is best for us, and He wants to walk with us, but He asks us to walk obediently with Him.
How does our collective walk appear to Christ?
Have we made that choice?

Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, and practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
(Romans 12:9-14)

…Whoever keeps His Word, truly the love of God is perfected in him. By this we know that we are in Him. He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked.
(1 John 2:5-6)

Now, let me ask this question.
What if, for one day, Christ became YOU?
Nothing changed about you. You still lived in the same house, same job, same family, same health. The only difference is THIS:
His heart becomes YOUR heart.
What would it be like? Do you think people would notice a change? Do you think He would keep the same schedule you would keep?
the same commitments?
and the same priorities?
How do you think you would feel?
Would you still be stressed out over the things in your life?
Would you still hold that grudge against that person?
What would change?

As Orthodox Christians we have within us the heart of Christ God.
So we need to ask ourselves: Is that heart showing?
Are we truly “walking the walk” or are we paralyzed?
As we walk with God, can others tell?
Will God see us and be touched by our faith?

How is your walk with Christ this morning?
Have you made that choice?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

What's important about church?

I was visiting the blog of a Christian brother in Australia, and I left a comment on his post entitled Expositional preaching, why I prefer it. You can follow the link to read his post. The comment I left was my response to his questions: In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of your church? Is it the style of worship, the music, preaching on current social issues, or something else?
I decided to post my comment on my blog (slightly edited) for your consideration. I didn't exactly respond to his question, because this is how I think things should be, not how they are. This is where my thinking is right now. Excuse the folksy style please; this is not a formal piece of writing, just some scratches on the wall…

Hey brother, here's a possibly off-the-wall comment, but I hope you won't consider it un-intelligent.

In your post you asked what we thought was the most important focus of the service in our home churches. Your own answer seems to be "the pulpit." Of course, in a "Bible church" or in any congregation which finds its roots in the evangelical (Protestant Reformation) faith, I would agree… to a point.

My home church is an Orthodox Christian congregation… Aghia Trias (Holy Trinity) Greek Orthodox church. Officially, the focus of our church is on worship, namely the Divine Liturgy. The pulpit in an Orthodox church normally does not take center stage. In my congregation it's starting to try, because our proistamenos (head pastor) is a former Baptist. His preaching, however, is so full of worldly and trendy "New Age" allusions, that when he preaches (actually just talks) I generally either pray or pray and read my Bible (which I never go anywhere without), so as to avoid hearing his "message." (God save us from his preaching as soon as possible, the sooner the better!)

Anyway, what I want to say is what I think of preaching in church, and also what I think the main focus of "church" should be.

I don't mind the Orthodox services at all. They're almost entirely sung a capella, and consist almost entirely of Bible texts strung together by the ancient fathers. That's why a non-Biblical sermon stands out so awkwardly. Anyway, I don't mind the long services. They keep filling you up with the Word of God, without human manipulation or interpretation. They leave it to the individual worshipper to take in and digest. That's the "temple service" for you.

But what I really think the prime focus should be in any congregation, even among the Orthodox Christians, is constant, consistent, intense scripture STUDY combined with prayer. This is what it is like in the Jewish synagogues, especially in the conservative, the Orthodox, and the Hasidic ones. The Jews really know the Word of God, at least in the Tanakh (Old Testament part), and the average synagogue-going Jewish male puts most Christian church-going men to shame. And they don't even know the identity of the Messiah!

So, that's what I think should be the focus. And also, the men should study together (no women allowed), with male elders. And women should study together (no men allowed), with female elders. The usual Christian Bible study night, with men and women together, does not allow for real study to take place, because of female competition against males. It wears us down with wrong concerns. Women study for one set of reasons, and men for another. This was always the procedure of the ancient Church, used to be the way the Orthodox Christians were until the last 30 or 40 years (in America), and this is the way the Jews do it.

So there you have it.

I'm not saying the church should not do other things, but you asked about what the main focus should be. The church building (sanctuary) for liturgical (temple) worship. The parish halls for Bible study (every evening, not just on one or two evenings). The other parish facilities for poor relief and neighborhood outreach. This is for the church to do as a group.

What about evangelism? This should be the primary focus of the INDIVIDUAL Christian (working two by two, ideally), and NOT something the church does as a whole. You can have a revival or preaching crusade once or twice a year (or in the case of the Orthodox, four times, each correlating to our four yearly fasting periods), but most spiritual outreach is the responsibility of the people of a parish as individuals and as families. I don't believe that "church roundups" and expensive, flashy evangelism services do anything except build up the egos of the church "leaders" who put them on. Very few people get saved that way. Many do find real salvation in Jesus just by the lovingkindness of a Christian neighbor, friend or relative. That's how ancient Christianity spread. That's how Orthodoxy works. That's how the church should be today. Anyway, that's my take on a few things.

The Lord is coming back soon. Amen.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Why do we love the fathers?

Because the fathers of the Church love the Word of God, receive everything they have from it, give everything they give from it. Because they live in it, making the Word their home. Because they feed on it, becoming what they eat. Because they know and believe that the words of Jesus are Truth and Life. That's why we love and honor the fathers of the Church, because they love and honor the Word, and keep reminding us of it in their every encounter with us. Here's an example sent me this morning by Presbytera Candace.

What does it mean to take up your cross? It means the willing acceptance, at the hand of Providence, of every means of healing, bitter though it may be, that is offered. Do great catastrophies fall on you? Be obedient to God's will, as Noah was. Is sacrifice demanded of you? Give yourself into God's hands with the same faith as Abram had when he went to sacrifice his son. Is your property ruined? Do your children die suddenly? Suffer it all with patience, cleaving to God in your heart, as Job did. Do your friends forsake you, and you find yourself surrounded by enemies? Bear it all without grumbling, and with faith that God's help is at hand, as the apostles did.
Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

We are not alone…

…but in fact, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2), the invisible Church, that extends throughout time and space, in the past as well as in the present moment, that bends no knee to Baals (cf. Romans 11:4), no matter what form they take, church, state, class or family, and knowing the one unchanging Truth of the Gospel, Jesus Christ risen from the dead, we can do nothing other than witness to it, against all the proud, man-centered doctrines which have infected the visible church in this final period of history (cf. 2 Timothy 3:1-9, 4:3-4).

As I began to read the reply of the Orthodox patriarchs to the solicitations of Pope Pius IX which they wrote him in 1848 and which is linked in my previous post, I remembered how good it always is to feel their brave words falling on my mind. In case my warning that the letter is long deterred any of you from following the link to its target and reading the letter, I just want to provide an excerpt to whet your appetite and encourage you, especially the Christ-loving evangelical brethren whom the pope say are "not a church," to read what the spokesmen of our ancient faith took upon themselves to patiently but firmly explain to him and to the whole world. Here's how they start their letter…

“The holy, evangelical and divine Gospel of Salvation should be set forth by all in its original simplicity, and should evermore be believed in its unadulterated purity, even the same as it was revealed to His holy Apostles by our Savior, who for this very cause, descending from the bosom of God the Father, made Himself of no reputation and took upon Him the form of a servant (Phil. ii. 7)…”

“But the Prince of Evil, that spiritual enemy of man's salvation, as formerly in Eden, craftily assuming the pretext of profitable counsel, he made man to become a transgressor of the divinely-spoken command. So in the spiritual Eden, the Church of God, he has from time to time beguiled many; and, mixing the deleterious drugs of heresy with the clear streams of orthodox doctrine, gives of the potion to drink to many of the innocent who live unguardedly, not giving earnest heed to the things they have heard (Heb. ii. 10), and to what they have been told by their fathers (Deut. xxxii. 7), in accordance with the Gospel and in agreement with the ancient Doctors; and who, imagining that the preached and written Word of the LORD and the perpetual witness of His Church are not sufficient for their souls' salvation, impiously seek out novelties, as we change the fashion of our garments, embracing a counterfeit of the evangelical doctrine.”

Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs, 1848 — A Reply to the Epistle of Pope Pius IX, "to the Easterns".

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Be on your guard against false gods

I posted this briefly last August but then withdrew it as possibly too polemical. While doing some upkeep work on my blog, I ran across it and decided to publish it again, at the risk of offending many folks by my collage as well as my words. My intentions are not to offend but only to warn. These are perilous times…

Totalitarianism is always an attempt by an outside power to subvert the purpose for which God created Man, to have free and full communion with the Father.

The human world is always and from every angle being accosted by an outside power which daily invents new forms of totalitarianism. These can have a multitude of names, depending on the context of the attack. When most people hear the word totalitarian, they think political, they think of Naziism, Fascism and Communism. Now that these have been replaced by better ideologies for the most part, some believe that humanity is finally at the threshhold of "peace at last," and they dreamily subscribe to the words of John Lennon's new world hymn, "Imagine there's no heaven, it's easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky, imagine all the people, living for today... "

But no, unfortunately, as we are beginning to realise, even in the political context, a new totalitarianism has arisen, and it's worse than all others of modern times, because it combines its aim of enslaving humanity to an ideology with a form of piety—Islám. Even the Lennonists have to wake up from their dream. Too bad! …and just when they thought that we were "home free," though not as a modern apostle cried out, quoting an old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Last night my wife Anastasía went to an orientation meeting presented by a health product company that operates on the classic pyramid scheme model—you get people enrolled under you, they do the same, and gradually you get elevated higher and higher, richer and richer, happier and happier… A friend, Irína, whose family are recent immigrants from the same Carpathian village that my wife's ancestors came from over a century ago, and who is like us Orthodox in faith, invited her. Irína is a beautiful, flashy woman, who really can make use of her natural communication talents (she mainly markets the product within the Russian community) and also her natural empathy with others, to achieve success. Anastasía says that this company has brought out all of Irína's best personal features. The downside, of course, is that the product, the company, has completely taken over Irína's life. She knows that, but seems to be happy with it. Though she is a Christian, believing the truths of faith, she has become, as Anastasía says, "an evangelist for [product name withheld]". We do see her in church occasionally, and considering she grew up in a militantly anti-Christian environment, Soviet Russia, she has preserved her faith remarkably well. She's never understood that a life of discipleship is a possibility for her—she thinks, that's what the monastic life is for—and she sees her new job with all its perks as a reward for her dedication to family and faith. Anastasía's final take on it, though she is herself now in sales, and though the product seems good, it's not for her. This is an example of economic totalitarianism that most of us have encountered. In terms of the damage it does to the individual (without them realising it), it's every bit as bad as political totalitarianism, because you must give it your entire life.

"Wait a minute!" you say, "no one is forcing people like Irína to do this!"

True, that's part of the deception, part of the angle. Satan is a "shape shifter", as the church fathers teach. Within the context of political freedom we enjoy in America, a host of "lesser evils" arise, "closed circuit" totalitarianisms, like pyramid schemes. Opening the door to economic slavery is nothing new in any human society, so pervasive that it comes up in the gospels many times: "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." (Matthew 6:24 NIV)

I exhort the brethren to continue living in the Word of God, to make the Word your home, and escape the world system, that imaginary world Lennon sang about so sweetly. Don't be "caught like birds in the fowler's net" (Psalm 124:7 JB).

"Be on your guard against false gods." (1 John 5:21 JB)

Keep your eyes on Jesus.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Only Christ Saves

Here is a brief, innocent account taken from the life of Elder Ieronymos of Ægina (+1966), which was emailed to me this morning by Presbytera Candace Schefe of Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church in Anchorage, Alaska. I'd like to share it with my readers, to let them know I'm still alive, though myself, I have nothing much to say right now.

One time a Turk visited the Elder in his humble cell. He said that his master, a judge, invited him to his house. The Elder was somewhat worried. He was not used to invitations for social visits, and he thought that something bad must have happened, a new test. He prayed to God however, and then he followed the servant.

When they arrived at the Turkish Judge’s mansion, the judge himself received him with great cordiality. They sat in the living room and the judge began the conversation:

‘Your Reverence, I am a Turk, a Moslem. But from the salary I take, I keep what is necessary for me and my family, and the rest I spend in charities. I help widows, orphans and the poor, I give dowries to destitute girls who are ready to get married, I assist the sick. I keep strictly the fasts, I pray, and generally I try to be conscientious in my faith. Also when I judge, I try to be impartial. I am not bought by anyone, no matter how high of a position one might have. Do you think that these things that I do, are sufficient to gain for me paradise, as you Christians call it?’

Fr. Vasilios was impressed by what the Turkish judge had told him, and his mind went immediately to the Centurion Cornelius (Acts 10). He discerned in them both parallel lives. He understood that he had before him a righteous and good-willing man, and perhaps his mission was the same with that of the Apostle Peter toward the Centurion. He therefore decided to give testimony to his faith.

‘Tell me, your Honor, do you have children?’
‘Yes I do.’
‘Do you have servants?’
‘Yes, I have servants also.’
‘Who obeys better your commands, your children or your servants?’
‘For sure my servants, because my children sometimes, with the confidence they have, disobey me and do whatever they want, but my servants do always whatever I tell them.’
‘Tell me, your Honor, when you will die, who is going to inherit you: Your servants, who obey faithfully your commands, or your children, who disobey you?’
‘My children of course. Only they have inheritance rights, not my servants.’
‘Well then, whatever you do, your Honor, is good, but it only puts you into the category of the good servant. If you want to inherit paradise, the kingdom of heaven, you must become a son. And this is accomplished only through baptism.’

The Turkish judge was impressed by the example that Fr. Vasilios related to him. They talked about many other things, and in the end he asked him to instruct him in the faith and to baptize him. Some time later the Turkish judge was baptized and became a Christian.