Saturday, March 31, 2012

Simple

Just read your bible as if it were the only book in existence.
It's good for you.

Don't worry about being good.
Just keep talking to the God your eyes can't see.
Your heart will cover for you.

Smile like you've just inherited a million dollars,
and go out of your way to start giving it away.

When you go to church, remember that it's just another room.
Don't forget to go outside for some fresh air.

Finally, remember, exercise and sleep are good for you,
and when you shower, don't forget to wash the soles of your feet.

No waiting

As mankind comes to the threshold of the most amazing scientific accomplishments, his cruelty and self-destructive behavior escalates as well. We cannot be trusted, in our natural state, with our own 'perfections', which are not perfections at all but only more liabilities.

No matter where I look, there is no hope, no love, no wisdom, no accomplishment, no perfection outside of Christ, only death, death, death. They say we are escapists to have faith in the only-loving God, and that salvation is a mercenary incentive, that if God were loving and good, He would accept us all as we are, perfect and imperfect.
Do they really know what they are saying?

Only human perfection could be that incredibly stupid, not to know that heaven, or hell, is in our pockets, depending on which we have put there.

This is one of those moments for me where with Isaiah I want to cry out, 'Oh that You would tear the heavens open and come down…'
but I must confess that I cannot.

Isaiah could cry out because the Christ had yet to appear.
As for me, He is standing outside my door daily, knocking to be let in.

Always, and already, here. No waiting.
No one in the line ahead of me, only the old man.

Why can't he just get tired of waiting and leave the line.
Then, I would be next.
And the One at the wicket would not put up a sign,
'Next window please.'

The only possible future


Although as an ‘Orthodox Christian’ I am also a convert, I almost always trust the native Orthodox, experienced ones, that is, over any convert, when it comes to most things of the faith, but there are exceptions.

Those who have inherited their Orthodox faith more readily accept and go along with all kinds of customs which, if they only stopped and applied to them their knowledge of Christ and the gospels, they would easily see are quite worthless to achieving their stated aims.

The benefit of this ingrained attitude and these customary practices is not what one expects, but something unrelated. They keep the flock together and safe from the world. This was how it was done hundreds of years ago, and for hundreds of years.

What we Orthodox are slow to understand is, we now have bibles readily available, we are all able to read both the scriptures and the fathers, and all of us have been trained in critical thinking by our educational system. Thus equipped, we can better achieve the same goals of unity and safety by cultivating a serious devotion to the Word of God, and applying what we learn there to the making of disciples not only of ourselves, but of the whole world, beginning with those around us.

This is true whether we live in the old or the new Orthodox nations.

I have hope for Orthodoxy when those who espouse it really grasp that what it means is the following of Jesus Christ in everything, the remolding of our hearts and minds by the words of holy and divine scripture, the integration of our lifestyle with the Word of God, taking His exhortations literally and fulfilling them intentionally.

When we have this attitude, then everything done in the Orthodox Church falls into place. It becomes obvious what services, customs, traditions and practices are truly Orthodox and eternal, and which were only temporary fixes prescribed for conditions local as to time and place. When the brethren seek God’s Kingdom first and His righteousness, as Jesus Christ exhorts, then all these other things are given as well.

All what other things?
Everything that we really ought to have, everything and only everything that God Himself gives us, and not and never those things we have given ourselves, those that will pass away, for ‘Behold,’ Jesus Christ says, ‘I make all things new.’

Rather than appearing as a crusty, old and legalistic religion, Orthodoxy will emerge, will come out into the light, where it can be seen for what it really is, what it has always been in every age, the New and Everlasting Life that only Christ can bestow, the Victory in Him over every adversary, the Liberation of all mankind from every form of bondage, even unto sickness and death itself.

In every age and every place, people have lived and continue to live this life in Christ which we call ‘Orthodox,’ many without even realizing it because for them it is nameless, but when we meet them, we rejoice, and we recognize them, we recognize each other. This is the only possible future of Orthodoxy, for to have any other kind of future is to depart from Orthodoxy itself, to become a statue, to cease being an ikon, to affirm the ‘dead faith’ of the living, to deny the ‘living faith’ of the dead.

Who are these dead?
They are all who have gone through the Great Tribulation and washed white their robes in the Blood of the Lamb. They have followed, they are following, and they will yet follow the Lamb wherever He goes, Him who was, who is, and who is to come, the Pantokrator.

Why the image of the Last Judgment at the head of this testimony?
On this Day of His coming as Messiah Son of Joseph, the Suffering Servant, let us remember that the time that is granted us to follow His commandments is finite, and another Day, when He comes as Messiah son of David, the Anointed King and Judge, is indeed close. Let us prepare ourselves now, and willingly, in this world which is like a foyer leading into the world to come, that we may be welcomed into the Inner Chamber.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Cleanse

“Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?” He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.” “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.
These are what defile a person…”
Matthew 15:12-20

We take such great care to keep ourselves undefiled by outward conformity to what we consider standards of righteousness in action and in thought. It doesn’t matter whether these standards are those of our own invention or those based on our reading of scripture. Our behavior before God is in His sight as well as those of other men, and He sees the motives of the heart. It isn’t what we say of ourselves, that we are sinners and unworthies saved by grace, and the like, that has any bearing on the reality of our salvation, but what we say of others. This is heard not only by men, but by God, who hears what fills the heart before we ever speak. No one has to tell Him who is speaking; He knows whether the words are His, or the enemy’s.

Whether we speak or remain silent, it is what fills the heart that cannot be hidden forever. A good testimony within us can’t help but get out; so it is also with a bad testimony. Who it is that we have enthroned in the heart, that is whom we really obey and serve, whatever we might profess outwardly. We have good reason to fear, not only for the Day of Judgment in the future, but for the Day of now, for what the prophets spoke they still speak, and their words are not for the dead, but for the living: ‘In the pride of your heart you say, ‘I am a god; I sit on the throne of a god in the heart of the seas.’ But you are a mere mortal and not a god, though you think you are as wise as a god. Are you wiser than Daniel? Is no secret hidden from you?’ (Ezekiel 28:2-3).

Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
Matthew 12:33-37

Yes, it is true, ‘For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person…’

Where are we, Lord? Where have we placed ourselves? At the foot of Your throne in heaven? At the foot of Your cross on earth? What offerings do we bring You, our Lord and Savior? Is it the blood of goats and rams, our wicked and our righteous brothers, like the priests of old? Or is it our own blood, following the example of Your Son? Is it the sacrifice You require? Or is it that which we feel it is our right to offer You, the fruits of our soil. We think ourselves innocent farmers and envy our shepherd brother, as Cain envied Abel, and where does that envy lead us? Save us, O Lord, from ourselves! Cleanse us, since we have no soap to wash our hearts clean. You alone can purify us. Have mercy, Lord!

Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy holy Name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Collect for Purity, Book of Common Prayer (1662)

Our sure destination

Christ is the Master of all of us, and He is the one who keeps us standing in Him, regardless of our condition, knowledge, devotion, lifestyle, opinions, even beliefs.

All beliefs are nothing compared to just standing in the Presence and adoring Him. They were never meant to be anything but placeholders for that experience, and we can stand in the Presence even now, but how much more fully when we finally become alive.

People talk about the saints as if they were dead
and about themselves as if they were alive, but the opposite is true.

Only those who have died are really alive, and that is where Jesus is going as He walks ahead of us, and that is our sure destination too, as long as we keep following Him.

Who do we think we are, and whose?

Jesus Christ is the reason for the existence of the Church. We are His bride, hidden in Him from before the beginning of the universe, and revealed to the world when they pierced His side, and we emerged as Eve did from the gash in Adam’s side.

Set your hearts on God’s kingdom first, and on His righteousness, and all these other things will be added as well.

If you make my Word your home, you will be my disciples, says the Lord Jesus Christ, and He adds, Whoever loves me keeps my commandments.

The institutional Church can exist from generation to generation by promoting itself, by tantalizing us with hope of salvation if we dedicate ourselves to participating in churchly activities. It is satisfied with us if we just show up on Sundays, and if some of us lend a hand in running its earthly functions.

In that institutional Church, however, is the actual Church in which live the apostles, the prophets, the martyrs—in brief, the saints—those who follow Jesus and who know Him and are known by Him. They do what He says, not for show, not for authority, not for reputation, not for money—just because He commands them, and they obey.

Only the obedient believe.
If anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me, says the Lord Jesus.

If we promote religion, we can worry about church statistics, and busy ourselves with trying to figure out why the youth, or any segment of the baptised members, are becoming less and less interested in “church,” and we can try to devise ways to stop this emigration of saved souls back to the world. We do this to no avail, because we are ourselves still part of this world to which they are slowly escaping, and we are using the world’s methods, thinking in a worldly way, and haven’t ourselves left this world.

If we promote Jesus Christ and the Gospel, who He really is, the living One who is in our midst, and live in His Word, making our home there, placing all our trust in Him on a moment-by-moment basis, learning of Him and taking on His yoke, then we ourselves have left this world behind and live already by faith in the new world that He has prepared for us. Then our lives become living words, testimonies of the Gospel in our very flesh, so that not only the youth of the Church, but even those we meet outside, are confronted by a new reality that invites them into itself. We become and are a city set on a hill that cannot be hid. We become for the world either the sweet fragrance of salvation or the stench of death, depending on their response to Christ, who lives in us.

The Church exists because it is in Christ and will always exist because He is in our midst. The question really is, who do we think we are, and whose?

Once we give the right answer, we will no longer have to be anxious for anything, because it is not we ourselves, but Christ in us, who does everything.

We will know the truth, and the truth will make us free.
And who doesn’t want that kind of freedom?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Draw near

There is no struggle in the Church for us, if we just keep our eyes on Jesus, and take care not to walk ourselves into trouble.

Ecclesiastes says, ‘When you go to the Temple, be on your guard. Go near so you can hear. The offering is more valuable than the sacrifice of fools, even if they are unaware of doing wrong.’

In other words—and this is from King Solomon in the pre-Christian days, how wise!—don't let anything the pious and God-fearing Christians do in church or out, good or bad, wreck the work of God in you, or for you in them.

Just go near, whatever that looks like to you or anyone. Just go near, so you can hear. He is always there for us, and when we ‘draw near’ as the deacon announces while holding up the Divine Mysteries of the Body and Blood, we are not just physically coming up to partake bodily of a spiritual food. We are drawing near to His eternal presence, out of which we can never walk, without walking into nowhere.

To the Word co-eternal

To the Word, coeternal with the Father and the Spirit,
born of the Virgin for our salvation,
let us, the faithful, give praise and worship.
For he willed to be lifted up on the cross in the flesh,
to suffer death and raise the dead
by his glorious resurrection.

Ton Synanarchon Logon, Resurrectional Apolytikion, Tone 5

First of all, the bible is not technically God’s Word. Christ, the Divine Logos, is God’s Word. That’s what Logos means, as everyone knows.

Second, the bible is the written icon (or image) of the Word of God. It no more fell out of the sky from God’s lips than did Jesus. Jesus had to be born into the human world as a man through a woman’s body. The bible had to enter the human mind as a body of literature written by a multitude of seers. You already know this too. I’m just organizing the thoughts.

Third, every limitation voluntarily accepted by the Christ when He incarnated as a man is applicable in its own frame of reference to the written icon of the Word of God. Both suffer a diminution or reduction in the process of being translated from heaven to earth. In neither case does this veiling of glory diminish or dilute the absolute Truth of the Word of God in any way.

Fourth, the bible is infallible in its unity and infallible in its parts, but the application of this infallibility always depends on the intervention of the Holy Spirit, who alone knows how, when and where to apply it. Without the intervention of the Holy Spirit, the bible cannot be known as infallible, indeed cannot be known at all for what it is.
A medicine may be infallibly effective, but if it is not applied or ingested in the right way, at the right time, and in the right place, it can have even the opposite effect, possibly becoming lethal. Only the physician knows how to apply it in every case.

The Holy Spirit lives in the Church,
and the Church lives in the Word of God.

At this point, we introduce the concept of the use of proof texts and the like, which can be applied in sometimes disastrous ways by persons who have not ingested the whole of scripture by constantly and daily feeding upon it without mixing it, but who rather begin to teach their partial understandings (some of which may be wholly true, others wholly false) without being first built upon the sure foundation of faith. It is not how educated and learned one is that qualifies one for understanding and interpreting the written icon of the Word, nor is chronological age a criterion. Spiritual maturity rather than chronological age, practical application, even incarnation, of the scripture’s tenets rather than academic prowess or a prodigious memory, these are what put a man in the place where the Word of God can employ him as an agent of divine Truth.

Remember who the Word of God is, and do not trifle with the arguing spirits. Rather apply yourself to knowing and living the Word, who is alive and active, and in so doing demonstrate on the battlefield of your own body the victory of Christ, who is Truth come unto His own in you, and by thus receiving Him, receive also the power to become the son or daughter of the Most High.

The incredible God

Perhaps it is, as I have often thought, that people dismiss the very idea of God as incredible because it is claimed that He does impossible things, what we would call miracles and—of course—the idea of ‘miracle’ itself is inadmissible to the modern, scientific mind.

It is easy to dismiss a God who, it is claimed, creates the universe in six days, causes a universal flood that drowns all air-breathing life except for a few humans and animals in a paltry, primitive ark;

who, it is asserted, afflicted ancient empires with unidentifiable plagues to release a tribe of wayward ethnopaths, opened a passage through the waters of the sea for them to escape, kept them alive in a trackless waste with a mysterious airborne nutrient that tasted like whatever one wanted to eat;

who, not satisfied with creating a world and peopling it with predatory races, keeps coming in and out of history at intervals, speaking and acting by means of possibly deranged individuals who are taken to be prophets or even gods;

who, to crown all, is said to have entered the created order through a woman's womb and become one of His own creatures, yet not a creature, born as a man yet not as other men, who, it is believed, never sinned, never did an immoral deed, thought a sinful thought, or spoke a destructive word.

Yes, it is easy to dismiss such an incredible God, even when, it is recorded that as a man He was slain and rose again to life, and not just to ordinary life and to die again, but to a different kind of trans-mortal life, knowing no death, but a life which could not be lived on the planet as it is.

Yes, it is easy to dismiss this God, because nothing but nothing can be proved—scientifically; nothing verified through analysis; nothing counted, weighed, measured, because the whole story is a complete sham, a delusion, a pious fiction. Easy to dismiss a lie so obvious.

People are proud to not believe, to be indifferent, to prove they are too intelligent, sophisticated, judicious, wise to believe in the incredible God, and they think all the evidence is on their side.

But really, they dismiss the Only True and Living God for none of these reasons: That would be too easy, but they make it sound difficult, so they can be congratulated, adulated. What they want to avoid is looking bad, to themselves, and to others. What makes this God incredible to them is—that He forgives.

An early Church Father, Peter of Damascus, writes,
Even if you are not what you should be, you should not despair. It is bad enough that you have sinned; why in addition do you wrong God by regarding Him in your ignorance as powerless? Is He, who for your sake created the great universe that you behold, incapable of saving your soul? And if you say that this fact, as well as His incarnation, only makes your condemnation worse, then repent; and He will receive your repentance, as He accepted that of the prodigal son (Luke 15:20) and the prostitute (Luke 7:37-50). 
But if repentance is too much for you, and you sin out of habit even when you do not want to, show humility like the publican (Luke 18:13): that is enough to ensure your salvation. For he who sins without repenting, yet does not despair, must out of necessity regard himself as the lowest of creatures, and will not dare to judge or censure anyone. Rather, he will marvel at God’s compassion, and will be full of gratitude towards his Benefactor, and so may receive many other blessings as well.
No other god, or rather, no other human idea of God, is so incredible as this, ‘working wonders among His saints’—and these wonders are not primarily the supernatural miracles recorded in scriptures and even in secular histories, but the constant and effervescent miracles of unconditional, and ever-loving mercy with which He treats the sicknesses of mankind.

It is easy to dismiss a God who does what no one else does or can do, but hard to dismiss one who does what everyone can and should do—forgive, restore and love—not yesterday, far away, but now, here.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thinking

Yes, thinking. Thinking about unity. Thinking about the Church. You know I am an Orthodox Christian, a Greek. You may also know that I really love this ‘flavor’ of Christianity because it keeps alive the language of the Greek Bible. Yes, I am ‘an original languages Bible man,’ and I am always on the lookout for anyone else who can find inspiration and spiritual strength from going into the storehouse of God's Word, to bring out things new and old.

Why am I thinking about unity? Well, because the Orthodox Church in America thinks that it needs to be united. United? In what way that matters is it not united? Εις κυριος μια πιστις εν βαπτισμα, one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5), isn't that enough for us? And what's more, we are millions of Christians who with the rest of the Orthodox world confess One God in a Triad of Persons: heavenly Father, only-begotten Son, and Spirit holy.

Then, there's the Symbol. What symbol? The Symbol—yes, I know, most Christians call it the Creed, but I prefer ‘Symbol.’ Why? Because ‘creed’ instantly cages in one's thoughts and makes one a prisoner of ‘religion,’ but this is no mere religion. It's not about what I believe, but in Whom I trust—πιστευω, I trust—which includes but goes beyond mere belief. It is the Person of Jesus Christ, not ideas about Him, that saves. Well, He saves those who trust Him.

So what is this unity that we lack? I am at home in my Greek church, and receive the Holy Mysteries there. And I am at home in the American church, and receive them there too. And when I worship with the Eritreans, swaying and praying with them as they beat drums and shake sistrums, I am at home, and if I am prepared, there too I partake of the Mysteries. I am at home in the church of Antioch, and the Serbs, Romanians, Ukrainians also welcome me among them. Everywhere I go, He is there, and we break bread together.

Home is home, and there is only one Church, and within her the many mansions manifest even in this world that the Lord promises to prepare for us in the world to come. I think sometimes that bishops, priests and deacons think that the unity of the Church depends on them. Well, in a way it does. They are ikons of our unity. They provide a focal point for our meetings in the Lord, for worship, for instruction, for philanthropy, for mercy. But they cannot add anything by pronouncement or jurisdiction to that which Christ already provides to those who trust Him.

‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight… But now my kingdom is from another place,’ says Jesus Christ to those who like Pilate would ask Him if He is a king. ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me’ (John 18:36-37). Sometimes I think Christians feel they must present a ‘united front’ to the world, so that they can make an ‘adequate response’ to the challenges the world throws at them. Yet Jesus says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight…’

Human nature, even when it is tamed and has begun to change into the Image that it reflects, still labors in a weed-ridden field. None of us is infallible or beyond failure to grasp the most obvious truths. The more we exalt ourselves or let ourselves be exalted, the greater the danger that we may fall prey to illusions. Having received in full measure the grace of God in His abundant mercy, we think we have to strive and labor to purchase for ourselves what He has given us free of charge. Unity in the Holy Triad is one of these gifts. Not recognizing Divine Unity we may overlook it as we hurry to achieve human unity.

There is nothing systematic about unity. When it is real, it just happens. The Church stays together because it wants to be together, and it does not do this to please, or to threaten, the world. How will the world know—and know for sure—that the Orthodox Church in America is united, is one? Not because we are all under a single hierarchy in chain-of-command jurisdictional formation. Not because our ‘spokesmen’ can pronounce and pontificate on current events and issues. No, the world will know that we are one in the way that Jesus Christ says it will.

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
John 17:22-23

We are the Message

Εις Μίαν, Αγίαν, Καθολικήν και Αποστολικήν Εκκλησίαν
In One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church
THE SYMBOL OF NICÆA

So, who or what is this ‘apostolic’? Of course, we know that in the Symbol of Nicæa the Church is called ‘apostolic’ and that this means the Church founded by the holy apostles of Jesus Christ and continued from them until today by their successors. And who are these successors? They are those who from the beginning were ordained to carry on their work in the same unity of faith and practice. And how were they ordained? They were ordained, each succeeding generation by its predecessor, by the laying on of hands with prayer. Only those qualify by this definition to call themselves ‘apostolic’. It goes without saying, then, that these ordained and the congregations in which they live and to which they minister, are the Church. This is the definition of ‘apostolic’ held by the ancient Church up to modern times. The Eastern Orthodox claim this means them. So do the Oriental Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, the Anglican, some Lutheran and other ‘Protestant’ churches, usually to the exclusion of the others. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Others, knowing that they cannot lay claim to a literal pedigree of ordinations as these ‘historic’ churches, claim to be ‘apostolic’ by virtue of following what Christ and the holy apostles laid down. According to them, this qualification needs no literal pedigree, only a ‘spiritual’ one. They do what Christ and the holy apostles did, as evidenced in the Holy Scriptures. Aside from all arguments pro and con, it’s not hard to sit down and compare what churches and their leaders do with what we find in the Bible. Now that ‘the secret’ is out—the Word of God in everyman’s language and in everyman’s hands, every ‘church’, ‘ministry’ and teacher is on the witness stand, like it or not, and we the people sit in the judgment seat. That is, until the real Judge appears. Hence, the tree of disunity and argumentation in the Church has borne bitter fruit which all of us must eat, whether we like it or not.

Still, this is true, this is the only rational approach, taught us by the Word of God Himself, in the holy gospels and in the letters of the holy apostles.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.
Matthew 7:15-29 NIV

And this is prefaced by a saying of Christ even more astonishing, even more dreadful.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
Matthew 7:13-14 NIV

And the holy apostles, following their Master and doing and saying what they saw Jesus doing and heard Jesus saying, write to us with the mind of Christ.

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God's name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’

Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. If those who are not circumcised keep the law's requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.
Romans 2:17-29 NIV

And this is prefaced by a saying of the apostle even more astonishing, even more dreadful.

For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God's sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous. (Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)
Romans 2:13-15 NIV

Who can stand up and declare themselves ‘apostolic’ to the exclusion of others who reads these words? Who would want to be ‘apostolic’ if they could not share this title with others who may be more worthy than they to claim it?

For, looking past the designation ‘Jew’ and replacing it with a word that to us means the same as Jew, whatever it be, and looking past ‘circumcision’ and replacing it with a word that to us means a ceremonial sign, we can see and understand for ourselves what the holy apostle Paul is saying in his letter to the church at Rome. From the words of Christ in the holy gospel, speaking as He was to those who were literally Jews, we can see the same message.

We cannot rely on our pedigrees to be anything, but our following of Christ and His holy apostles is what makes us ‘apostolic’ in the eyes of the Judge of all the earth.

The pedigrees have their usefulness when used as intended, but that has little to do with the reality, only with the form. They are like the basket that holds the sacred scrolls of the Word of God gone out to all the nations, but ‘everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice’ are the scrolls themselves, ‘the requirements of the law… written on their hearts’.

Whatever else we believe or say we know to be true, we simply cannot put aside what the Holy Scriptures have bequeathed to us, the true written account of the Word of God, and it is up to us if we are ‘apostolic’ to be devoted ‘to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer’ (Acts 2:42), that is, to be the Word of God as it unfolds in daily life, today.

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.
John 21:25 NIV

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
2 Corinthians 3:2-3 NIV

Let me reiterate.

The pedigrees have their usefulness when used as intended, but that has little to do with the reality, only with the form. They are like the basket that holds the sacred scrolls of the Word of God gone out to all the nations, but ‘everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice’ are the scrolls themselves, ‘the requirements of the law… written on their hearts’.

We are the Message.

Simply ambassadors


The fathers say, ‘Love all men, but be familiar with very few.’

The work of Christ, the work of His love for all men, that He desires to do in us and through us, is facilitated when we pay little or no attention to denominational details as we confront the world of both other Christians (many of whom are not really Christians yet) and non-Christians. Actually, it is not up to us to divide sheep from goats confessionally or morally.

When encountering other Christians, we treat them in the same loving way as Christ has treated us, welcoming them without argument (in case their faith is weak or their doctrinal understanding incomplete or erroneous), and making it known to them that if they are followers of Jesus, then they belong to the Church, and that is Orthodoxy, not denominationally (since it is no denomination), but existentially.

If a man is called to follow Jesus, and he answers that call, regardless of his understanding of it, then he is ipso facto a member of the Church, and the Spirit in us bears witness to that fact, and we must accept it. The Church in its protocols and structures will do all it can to separate the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the chaff, but that is not what the disciples do.

We are simply ambassadors, telling and demonstrating to others that the Church is love, mercy and forgiveness existentially, that it is safety, that it is welcome into the Kingdom of God, so that sensing no tollgates or border crossing officials, they can enter the court of the Gentiles where the Lord Himself can begin ministering to their inner man, bringing them gradually into the mind of Christ, being able to use us whom He has already redeemed and is fashioning into images of Himself, to transform them, adding them to our number.

This He does in spite of the Church's external forms and protocols, not because of them. The real value of the Church's constructs is demonstrated only after the genuine conversion to Christ has occurred, and the new disciple really joins us in that school of righteousness that is not an external rule forced on us from the outside, but the content of our thankfulness to the God whom we now know has really saved us.

We no longer pretend to be sinners so as to pretend to be saved. We finally know the truth, and that sets us free: free to serve the living God not according to a written law, but according to a spiritual law that is now written in our hearts and is expressed every time we do what we see Him doing.

Not by us, Yahweh, not by us, by You alone is glory deserved,
by Your love and Your faithfulness.

Psalm 115 Jerusalem Bible

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Follow behind Jesus

Miracles are not seen. The human eye is not large enough to ‘see miracles.’ What the religious person thinks of as miracles are sometimes not miracles at all, but the effect that the presence of the miraculous has on people and things. For example, what is miraculous in a weeping ikon?
Is it the mysterious liquid that oozes out of the wood (or even out of the paper) of the ikon’s eyes? Or is it the opening of a unique doorway to a moment of real faith?


Some Orthodox Christians want to venerate every ‘miracle-working ikon’ that comes their way. Some want to pray before it as well. Some want a miracle in their lives. Some just want to be there, in the presence of the miraculous; for them, that is enough, not even their eyes could ask for more. Others don’t go; they don’t find anything to add to what they already have. For them, the present moment and the place they are standing seems enough.

‘I think I could stop here myself, and do miracles.’
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Song of the Open Road

As for Christians in general, history writes no tall tales about miracle when it writes the truth. Hoping to force God to mimic His mighty acts in the book of Exodus by their ‘faith,’ the children’s crusaders waited in vain for the Adriatic sea to part so they could walk dry-shod to Jerusalem. Compliant helpers were found to transport the infant armies in sea-worthy ships to the slave markets of North Africa, whose harems for decades heard French folk songs sadly sung.

And today, we have faith healers, but to what avail? Do they heal men’s bodies, their minds, or just their souls, or none of these? I have known enough healed, and heard enough testimonies from them of miraculous healing by the likes of these. One sister told me confidently that her extreme nearsightedness was instantly cured when she placed the palms of both her hands against the television screen, while an Oklahoma faith healer cast out the demon in her.

Not long after this, she was also instantly killed along with her innocent daughter, in a head-on collision with a dump truck on the narrow coast highway. Their Pentecostal sisters sang beautifully and in strange tongues over their coffins at the cemetery the morning their bodies were consigned to the earth. She called her instant healing from nearsightedness a miracle. What would she call this?
Yet the Lord was fully present in both moments, all His acts.

Yes, I too want miracle in my life. I want my faith to move the hand of God. I used to pray with the pleading father in the gospels, ‘I believe. Help my unbelief,’ but I pray so no longer. For me, the miracle is to trust God to act according to His will, which is always the best for us. If He should ‘tear the heavens open and come down’ as Isaiah pleads, I am content, no, more than content, for that means it is the end of all things. That, to me, would be the greatest miracle.

Because the end of all things is the end of sin and death, for that is what we are, by our weakness and our bad choices. Miracle springs from the beginning and the end of God’s work in us, and between the First and the Last, all time is filled with His presence. If we do not in fact ‘stop here… and do miracles,’ in whom have we doubted? Of whom have we been afraid? ‘I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more…’

The miracles we seek will always proceed from the miracle that eyes cannot see, that ‘two of you on earth agree about anything…’ That is the hurdle to get over. That has more to do with love even than with faith. That is where all true and permanent healing comes from, from that love, because that is the source of all miracle from beginning to end. By love the universe was made out of nothing. By love, what was lost in the First Adam was restored in the Second.

‘Miracles’ that do not begin in love and end in love are no miracles at all, only magic. The faith that moves mountains is nothing less than the confidence that God can do all things, and that everything He does is for the best.

‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’
(1 Corinthians 2:9). Yes, we walk by faith, not by sight, and yet miracle follows us and precedes us wherever we go, because we follow behind Jesus.

You too can be Christ

Ferdinand Hodler, The Good Samaritan

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew 28:19

Who is Christ talking to? Surely, not to me, I’m just an ordinary Christian layman. I can’t baptize anyone. He must be talking to the apostles and their successors, the bishops and priests of the Church.
I wouldn’t know how to make disciples. I hardly know how to be one myself. He can’t possibly be talking to me. This is the Church’s responsibility.

Well, then, who or what is the Church?

Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.
Matthew 7:24-27

Does it really matter, then, to ask who or what is the Church when we have words like these from the Son of God Himself? Can anyone put Christ’s words into practice for us? Can anyone be blamed if we ourselves do not put them into practice? We may not all be called to be apostles, that is, bishops, priests, deacons, evangelists and other professors of the Word. What is there left for us to do? Have all the important works been taken away and given to these men who are so much closer to Christ?

Jesus said: A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?

The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’

Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
Luke 10:30-37


So, we are not bishops, priests and deacons. They’ve been given the all important work of going out and making disciples of all nations, and baptizing them. That’s not our call. We can’t be expected to go out of our way and do such extraordinary things. But what about the people that we don’t go out to, but who come to us, or who are placed in our path?

The Church fathers take the parable of the Good Samaritan, quoted above, and they tell us some of its meanings. They don’t tell us who the priest and the Levite are, but they do tell us the identities of the Samaritan, the traveler, the innkeeper, and the inn.

The Samaritan, they say, is Christ. The traveler beaten and robbed and left on the road to die is every man in need of salvation. The inn is the Church, and the innkeeper is the ministers of the Church.

Christ is he who does not pass by on the other side, avoiding the inconvenience of helping the wounded man placed in his path. We may not be innkeepers—clergy—that is true. But anyone of us can minister to the one God has placed in our path.

You may not be a priest or Levite either.

But you too can be Christ.

Just preach Christ

Tissot, Abraham and the Three Angels
The follower of Jesus does not proselytize; he evangelizes.
He does not preach Church,
he preaches Christ.
In this he follows His Master, who in the gospels does not seek converts, but seeks that which is lost.

Never do we find that Jesus in His earthly ministry went after people. Never do we see Him arguing a philosophical point to win over an opponent. Never does He proselytize, but He does have words for those who do.

Ουαι υμιν γραμματεις και φαρισαιοι υποκριται οτι περιαγετε την θαλασσαν και την ξηραν ποιησαι ενα προσηλυτον και οταν γενηται ποιειτε αυτον υιον γεεννης διπλοτερον υμων.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert,
and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.

Matthew 23:15 NIV

What do we find instead? Two disciples of a Jewish prophet, John the Forerunner, are directed by him, pointing to Jesus walking by and saying, “That is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

What did the two disciples do? They followed after Jesus. Why? Because they believed the word of the prophet. How did they approach Jesus? They asked, “Rabbi, where do you live?” How does Jesus respond? He says, “Come, and see!”

The encounter with the Truth is gentle. There is no compulsion exerted from the outside. Everything is accomplished inwardly. All movement is internal first, in the heart. Then, it is manifested by the feet, running after the Lord.

This is why the follower of Jesus does not argue semantically to win over an opponent. He does not preach Apollos. He doesn’t preach Paul. He doesn’t preach himself. No, he preaches Christ, and Him crucified, and risen from the dead.

People want to draw us into arguments, wrangling over words, but it is precisely this tactic that the evil one used when he wanted to entrap Christ. To every argument, Jesus responded not with human reason, but with the plain words of scripture.

The Word of God does not need to defend Himself.
He simply is what He is.

In the same way, brethren, all who follow Jesus, all who believe and stand on the Word, who preach, like the angel of the last days, the eternal gospel, just preach Christ, to yourself by submitting all your thoughts to the Word of God, to others by proving on the battlefield of your body that you follow Christ the Victor over sin, and to all those whom the Lord places in your path by your courtesy and generosity, and by always having a spirit of welcome, for men have welcomed angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:2).

Monday, March 26, 2012

Till we have faces

A Christian is a Christian no matter what happens in the Church: Orthodox faith is defined by the ordinary faithful Christian, not by the hierarchy of any Christian community. Fortunate are we when our community is served (not ruled) by faithful hierarchs who sum up the faith of the Body of Christ in their lives and words. Unfortunate are we when those who are placed over us gradually (for they rarely suddenly) apostatize, and we are left feeling sometimes betrayed by what we thought was the Church, but of course, it isn't and it wasn't.

The further a Christian community departs from the holy and divine scripture, the stupider they become, and even the most basic of concepts become untenable to them. Those who pull bible verses out of thin air to support what they want to do are doing precisely nothing. They will do what they will, as all of us do, when we are confident of the rightness of our cause.

But only One is right, and He is planted as the Cornerstone in the foundation of the temple of God, and all the stones in that temple are aligned to that Stone. Those comprise the building; others are scattered about in purposelessness, even if they merely lean against the Cornerstone.

People tend to oversimplify what God has made complex, and make complicated what God has created simple. In the Body of Christ there is every opportunity to show hospitality, brotherly love and welcome to those who come to us, being outside the faith yet not wanting in. And for those who share with us the Cross of Christ, there are other traditions of community that are rooted in that sharing which cannot be distributed to those who will not enter the Gate of Repentance but linger in the world.

It isn't that we won't share with them; it is that they cannot receive what we share inside the Temple of Christ's holy and unified Body. They have no way to hold what we would give them if we could. The externals can be shoveled down people's throats as so much supper, but the Lord's Supper can only be partaken of, only eaten, by those who have mouths to receive it and stomachs to digest it.

The psalmist says, 'You have only to open your mouth for me to fill it,' speaking for the Lord as He invites His disciples to be fed, but those who haven't yet discovered their mouths to open them, how can they be fed?

To find your mouth and to open it is to declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, and to live in that confession of the Truth. Then we not only have mouths to open and be fed, but faces as well, so that at last 'face can look upon Face' and yet live. And how can we hope to face the Lord of Life and receive Him
till we have faces?

Who needs eternal life?

The institutional manifestation of the Church that pretty much all Christians experience is essentially stuck in a world view that is completely anachronistic; hence, rendering their witness to the world of marginal effect.

We have all inherited a form of church that comes from a world where everyone was "Christian" except the Jews and a few marginal unbelieving types or groups. That world has completely vanished, yet we cling to church structures (forms of ministry and real estate), activities (worship services and other programs), and modes of belief (religiosity, denominationalism) that allow the world of the present to marginalize us; hence, the supposition that we are in a post-Christian age.

None of this is to say that there are not churches or ministries that are alive in Christ and effective vehicles of the good news, but unless you set your expectations very low, such churches are few and far between. The majority of churches maintain their congregations and do next to nothing in terms of the commission to "make disciples of all nations." They just don't know how to do it, as institutions.

In my experience, it continues to be the individual Christian who is following the call of Jesus on a daily basis who is the primary witness for Christ. In the Orthodox Church, that is more or less how it is expected to be, but there is still a disconnect that often undercuts our personal evangelism: the growing attitude of clergy professionalism.

Once upon a time, and in some place even today, the thing that distinguished Orthodox clergy from those of other churches was their complete abandonment to Christ. This gave them the power and effectiveness to really anchor their churches, corporately and individually, in the Lord. Now, in the Greek church anyway, it is vanishing.

The Christian world has disappeared, and the world that has replaced it seems indifferent to the call of Christ, the need for salvation, and the claims of the institutional Church.

Just as modern man cannot face the fact of death but disguises it and distances himself from it as much as he can, he does the same with Christ, whom he knows about, sometimes knows a great deal about, and with the Church, which he cannot possibly understand from the outside. Yet human beings continue to be the same, in spite of their higher educational and cultural levels, their various attainments, and so on.

And while we debate, discuss and develop "new" and "relevant" ways to reach the lost of the new world, they are slipping away into the abyss, rejecting what, or rather Who, will give them eternal life, because they no longer even want it.

What price, salvation?

There is a strange disconnect between what people say they want and what they really want, and yet they claim to be honest in their convictions. They declare their intentions and then go about laying down plans that cannot possibly bring them to their destination. What is wrong with us? Why do we try so hard to live up to our built-in law of failure?

We all know what the Church is, at least we ought to know, if we read our bibles, if we pray, and if we try to follow Christ in everyday life.

When we are honest with ourselves, how much of what we experience in the church ‘we go to’ is like what we know the Church is?

True, that may be an unfair question, but only in minor respects. We are used to massive failure in human society at large, and in human relationships up close. We have learned to adapt, ‘to roll with the punches,’ to be forgiving and indulgent, to accept the fact that ‘nobody’s perfect.’

We’ve taught ourselves not to expect the best, even when our faith in Christ keeps telling us to expect, not just the best, but ‘the resurrection of the dead,’ as we used to say in the Symbol of Nicaea before they ‘retranslated’ it to conform with modern churchly ‘norms’—it is now, ‘I look for,’ instead of, ‘I expect.’

Hey! I don’t look for the resurrection of the dead, I expect it! And it’s not my human pride, my ego or my flesh telling me to expect this: it’s the Spirit of the living God, living in me, who teaches me to expect it, and not merely look for it.

What do we find in church, then? They say that the Church is a hospital, that it is a place where the sick go to be healed. A nice metaphor, coming from the Orthodox East where sin is considered not so much a crime to be punished as it is a sickness to be cured. This is not an unhealthy attitude. It gives hope and relieves us somewhat of our natural instinct to blame and guilt-trip ourselves.

So we’re sick, that’s all it is!
Well, that means we can slow down, take it easy, follow instructions, take our medicines, and presently we will be well again. Not only that, we have this beautiful hospital, with beautiful procedures, we are simply surrounded by beauty, and we’ve been told, ‘Beauty will save the world,’ so we can be comfortable and content, as we wait to be made whole. This is the view from the patient’s bed.

We are told to be patient and follow instructions, and everything will right itself, almost magically, and we will be well again. But how long have we been lying there? Do we even know what being healthy feels like? And most importantly, do we really want to be made well?

A church says that they follow Christ, that He alone is Holy, that He alone is Lord. They say that they have seen the Light, that they have found the true faith, and that the Trinity has saved them. That’s great! But what of the others, those who can’t say these things? Those who don’t even know these things are possible? Who is supposed to tell them? Who to show them? We already know the answer to that—‘Here I am, send me!’ (Isaiah 6:8)

We go to church, and we hear the priest or deacon say—if they are good preachers—that we are the Church, not just the priests, and that ‘the great commission’ to ‘make disciples of all nations’ is our responsibility, not just theirs.

Fine rhetoric, this exhortation, very evangelical, but nothing more than fine rhetoric if it is not backed up by actions.

What happens if some of us take this responsibility to heart, and go forth two by two into the world to fulfill it? Are we supported by these same preachers? What preparations are they willing to take on behalf of our ‘mission’ and our ‘ministry’? Do they even know what preparations to take? Can it be, that all we have to offer the outside world looking in on us, is a once or twice yearly lecture series on such things as the history of the Church or its teachings ‘in our tradition, we…’, an invitation to come and ‘help us to get ready for the next festival,’ and of course, ‘just come and worship with us’?

I used to think the last one—just come and worship with us—was the best, and that it was enough, but honestly, it isn’t. We are not medieval Eastern Europe, where illiterate, barbaric people can come and be ‘awed by the beauty’ of our liturgical services. For them, perhaps, this wall of beauty was a real window into the Eternal, because they had little other possibility of access. For us today, it really can become just a wall.

Why? Because we have advantages, yet we don't make use of them. We can read. Bibles can be picked up in any language or dialect. Among us are experienced and knowledgeable ‘lay’ people, as well as clergy. If we rely on just the services to somehow magically inform and transform people, we are not giving them their true value, and we are lying to ourselves.

Christ came to make an end of magic, as holy father Ignatios of Antioch wrote to the church at Ephesos, “…every kind of magic was destroyed, and every bond of wickedness disappeared; ignorance was removed, and the old kingdom abolished, God Himself being manifested in human form for the renewal of eternal life. And now that took a beginning which had been prepared by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death” (Ignatios to the Ephesians, ch 19).

If this was true and well-understood in the time of the early fathers, before the onslaught of the ‘dark ages’ submerged the Hellenic and Christian spirit, and continuing from the gospels and the apostles, how much more true today, when we have finally overcome those ‘dark ages’?

Where does this leave the churches?
Back to the statement made at the outset, there is a strange disconnect between what people say they want and what they really want, and yet they claim to be honest in their convictions.

What does the Church exist for?
Whom does it exist for?

They say it is a hospital for the sick, and that Christ is the Physician. Well and good.
Have they removed all obstacles to that purpose?
Have they laid out plans that facilitate it?
Have they got the priorities right?
Are the sick able to meet the Physician?
Are the instructions and medicines they are being administered working?
Are people being made well?

Or are secondary needs taking priority?
Are people being allowed to develop addictions to the medicines, dependence on the clinical staff, and diverted from getting to know their Physician personally?
Are the patients being administered cosmetic solutions to their real ailments, making them ‘look good’ to themselves and each other, while their critical illnesses remain untreated, because there’s no time for that, and no need?
Is a kind of spiritual homeopathy being applied, smaller and smaller doses of the same poison that created the symptoms, until these very ‘medicines’ have become nothing more than placebos, and health and recovery are redefined as ‘what the doctor tells you’ is healthy—not the Physician, but those who say they represent Him?


We are told that salvation comes through Christ. It doesn’t matter what church or denomination is speaking, the Message is the same, because we all use the same Book. “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15), and “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Isn’t this what the whole mission of the Church is about, salvation through Jesus Christ? And isn’t this mission accomplished by following the simple command, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? (Matthew 28:19).

Go, make disciples, baptize.
Can it be acceptable that churches do anything above and beyond these three things? Can it even be possible? Can we really think that we can add to the mission that Christ has already given us? Can we set priorities of our own that supersede what the Word Himself commands?
Go, make disciples, baptize.


A church says that we want the salvation of all, that we are offering the fallen world around us the gift of eternal life, vouchsafed to everyone who comes to Jesus and believes in Him.

Well, why aren’t they coming? Is that really how the Message entrusted to us works? Does the church go, do we make disciples, do we baptize, in that order? What have we put ahead of what we say we want? How can we have failed to realise that if we really want something, we remove all obstacles, and pursue it relentlessly?

We understand priorities in lesser things. How have we failed to apply the same principle to what we say is most important to us?
If we have to, what are we willing to give up to accomplish our mission? Have we really considered the question?
For there is really only one:

What price, salvation?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Dignity of the thrones

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”
Mark 10:35-40


Christians, like James and John, have a request to make of their Lord. They want to be near Him, but they think that this means to be enthroned at His right and left. After all, they know the scripture which says they have been given an unshakable kingdom, and that Christ has gone to prepare a place for them in His Father’s house, a mansion in fact. That is the glory and reward of following Jesus, they believe: to reign with Him. They never think past the dignity of the thrones, their ideas of what that really means. It becomes a picture for them of what their devotion to Christ deserves, their heavenly reward.

James and John had faith in Jesus. They knew who He was, that He was the Anointed One, the true King of Israel, and the Holy One. They could have no other idea of His role but what they had been brought up believing about Mashiach. They were excited beyond measure, they were willing to risk everything, because they knew for sure that He was the One sent by God to redeem Israel, and they had been chosen by Him as companions. They were special. Being confident of this, of their closeness to the Redeemer, they felt emboldened to ask Him for a favor.

Surely, the Christ can grant whatever He wants to anyone He likes. After all, He has said, ‘As the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so the Son gives life to anyone He chooses’ (John 5:21). If He can give life, surely there is nothing He cannot give. Why not ask Him this, to sit enthroned at His right and at His left? Why wouldn’t He do that for us? He loves us more than anyone, and He can do anything. Forgetting that the Son is not the Father, we ask Him for what it is not His to give. Is it our faith that prompts us, or something else?

But it is not Christ’s to say ‘yes and no’: for with Christ it is always ‘yes’ (2 Corinthians 1:19), and so He prefaces His ‘yes’ with a simple warning, ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ and then asks them a simple question, ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?’ This is the same question He asks us when we go forward to meet Him in baptism. We think it over quickly and rush to respond, ‘Yes, Lord, whatever is necessary, I will do it’ and we mumble a proviso, ‘if I can.’ Like James and John, we know who it is we’ve believed in, and what He can grant us. We are already counting on it.

Real life breaks in on our dreaming of heaven, and the crowns and thrones we imagine in our spiritual infancy grow stranger as they begin to materialize before our lives. Do we really want to be at His right and left? What if that means we will be seen and treated as criminals? What if that means we will be accused, judged and condemned? And for things we may not even have done? What if that means desertion by a husband or wife? Or betrayal by our closest friend? What if it means being cast out of the family, being shunned, despised, left for dead?

‘You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.’ Now, we realize that His ‘yes’ means more than we ever thought possible. Now we grasp what He meant when He asked us if we could down the cup and endure the baptism that He did, and we wonder how we could not have noticed where all this was leading us. Discipleship to Jesus, following the greater commandment to love God and neighbor, leads to this?

It is true, my brothers. Don’t be surprised if it happens to you. Don’t be astonished if Christ really answers your prayer and grants your request. It may not look like what you were expecting. It doesn’t have to conform to your reading of scripture, or to what your pastor told you yesterday. The promises of God are not man’s promises, but something better: God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, yet we are held, we are lifted up in His thoughts to a place on high with Him, to share in the high priesthood of His Son, whose kingdom is the Cross, by which joy has come to the whole universe.

Living words

The word of Jesus is not something He spoke once so that it could be written down and then turned into stone tablets with which we could judge the world. No, the word of Jesus is such a word that it takes what is stone and turns it into something alive. When we go forth to meet men in the world with the word of Jesus, we don’t go forth in judgment, but we meet them, all of them, in the company of Jesus, who walks with us, and who walks among men to save them. It is not the day of judgment yet. It is still the day of mercy.

When Jesus sent them out two by two, He instructed them to go to every town and preach the word, and if they receive it, peace be with them, but if they reject it, then the disciples leave that town and wipe its dust from their soles, and depart. What men reject when they reject the word is not a doctrine but a person, as the Lord says, ‘whoever rejects you rejects Me, and whoever rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.’ It is all about personal encounter, of Life with death, seeking to bring the dead to life, not about standards of right and wrong.

The world is well aware that it is living in sin, that is to say, that it is dying in its sins. It already knows the bad news, which is so well-known that it needs no one to announce it. People are imprisoned in their own wickedness and they know it. Sometimes, even when the Gatekeeper comes with the keys and opens the door for them to escape, they dare not depart from the safety of the cage, despite its stench and filth, because they are afraid of the unknown. Why do their eyes hurt? Because they have never used them before. Light hurts at first.

The people who dwell in darkness have seen a great light, on them who live in the land of shadows a light has shown. Though we have responded to the call and come out from among them, they are part of us and we are part of them, a living Body with dead limbs, that someday will be amputated if they cannot be reinvigorated with the life of the Body. But ours is not the scalple or the ax, but rather the ointment and the bandage gauze, ours is the medicine that quickens souls and brings life to the dying. The Physician is among us, not the Judge.

Come, brethren, and speak the living word to your neighbors, not what can be written with paper and ink, but the word in person, as the beloved apostles write, not words of condemnation, but words of encouragement, not to quench the smoking flax, but to blow on it till it becomes a fire, that same fire of which the Lord Jesus says, ‘I have come to bring fire to the earth. How I wish it were ablaze already!’ He is not dead, brethren, and neither are we, but alive. His ascension has revealed who He is and where He lives, not for thirty-three years and in one body, but for ever, and among us.

The word of Jesus is not living words turned to stone, but words that turn stone statues into real men. Just as He spoke it at the beginning to create all things, He speaks it in us, with us, and through us, to keep renewing the world, even unto its last day. As He told His holy apostles, ‘I am with you until the close of the age.’ Between His first and His second coming, there is nobody here but us, living words.

Evangelismós

Just as the year can be conceived as beginning on various days—January 1st (civil), September 1st (religious), March 21st (spring begins)—so can various days in the Church calendar be conceived as the beginning of the Gospel.

I like to think of September 1st, “Indiction,” commemorating the Christ’s inauguration of His earthly ministry by reading the prophecy of Isaiah in the synagogue service, as the “beginning” of the Gospel.

Holy evangelist Mark is much simpler and more direct, The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God—It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ” And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins…

But another “beginning” of the Gospel, the Good News, is today’s feast-day, commemorating the annunciation to Mary the virgin, of God’s will that she become the mother of His Son, the Messiah. This feast is called in Greek, Ευαγγελισμος, Evangelismós, ‘announcing the Good News.’ And for Mary, just as for us, it was God’s Word coming to her, personally. His Word could have been met with deaf ears or ears hearing but not receiving. She, just as we, could have said, can say, “No thanks!” to God. That would have gotten her, and us, “off the hook.” Instead, she said “No” to her fears and doubts, and “Yes” to what God had chosen her for from before the foundation of the world. And it’s always just the same for us.

God has foreknown us from before the foundation of the world, and ever since we were born into it by His will (and it’s the only act He has done to us without asking our permission, creating us), He has been announcing to us, personally, the Good News, at every moment asking us to say “Yes” to His decrees concerning us.

His Word is clearly written large and small, in the Bible, in the universe He created, and in the intangibles and indescribables of our personal being. As for Mary saying “Yes,” what He has in store for us will give us cause to say, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.”

Evangelismós. Announcing the Good News. Called since before the foundation of the world. Brethren, let us rejoice with the Theotokos, for “He that is mighty hath magnified me, and Holy is His Name,” will be the song of each one of us, if we only say “Yes”.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Honestly

Honestly, I used to have a saying, ‘Under the Roman Empire, the Christians were persecuted for their faith; now, since the Empire is no more, we have the Church to do the job.’

That’s how it sometimes feels. But there are other times when we have found ourselves in a perfect moment in the Church’s history, when pastors and people were full of love, respect, evangelical zeal, self-sacrifice, love for the lost, generosity for the needy. Those moments we wished would last forever, but they didn’t last long. Whose fault was that? Did the Church change, or did we? It is with the eyes of the Spirit that we look upon the Church with faith and declare to our souls, ‘This is the Body of Christ,’ and at other times, after ‘placing us on a peak impregnable’ the Spirit ‘turns away His eyes, and we are terrified’ (Psalm 30).

But without a doubt, the follower of Jesus knows who is speaking when he hears the preacher’s words, whether it is the Good Shepherd he is hearing, or just the hired man. And without a doubt, the disciple of Christ knows what is happening when he sees the Church’s works, whether it is the making disciples of all nations, or just lavishing itself in applause. It is then that the believer is tested: In Whom has he believed? In whom has he trusted? For whom does he live, in whom does he move and have his being? And finally, is it for what, or for whom, that he lays down his life?

We see around us the field white for harvest, yet stand our ground pulling up tares. We do the work reserved for the angels at time’s end, and let lie acres of dry bones waiting to be clothed in flesh, and live. There is only one Bridegroom, and only one Bride, yet we wander through the harems of our minds seeking under which veil she hides, and fail to see she is happily unveiled and seated beside her Lord. There is nothing to do now but plant the seed, because as soon planted, it springs up into the reaper’s hand, by the Lord of the harvest who alone gives increase. We have nothing else to do.
‘Come, labor on, claim the high calling angels cannot share.’

The people among whom Christ appeared continue, as Pascal writes, to deny Him, and for our sakes, otherwise they would be suspect witnesses, owning both the Kingdom and the King, that we might be slaves only, and not sons as they. And so they persist, and wisdom has still not abandoned them, for they guard and treasure her words. Their rabbi Tarfon says, ‘The day is short, the work is abundant, the workers are sluggish, the reward is great, and the Master of the house presses.’ He would also say, ‘It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to absolve yourself from it.’

For me there is no male or female, Greek or barbarian, freeman or slave, catholic or protestant, priest or layman, sophisticate or simple, rich or poor, black or white, straight or gay, friend or enemy, in short, no pairing of opposites to adulate one and outcaste the other, that is, if I am a follower of Jesus, who defended even those whom He knew to be unworthy, by human standards, of mercy and love. Every foundation of judgment has been shattered and scattered to make way for the only foundation that can be and has ever been laid: Jesus Christ, in whom there is no variation, no shadow of change, whose love is infinite, whose mercy boundless, who raises to life all the dead, yes, who raises even me.