Friday, August 28, 2015

Living, or dying, for Christ

Since the beginnings of Christianity, its adherents have made enemies in the world by being unwilling to conform to the practices, and belief systems, of the society around them. The Roman authorities, ignorant of the true nature of Christian faith, and insisting that everyone (except the Jews) conform to an official cult (offering incense to Caesar as to a god), as a means of creating a sense of social cohesion in their utterly diverse empire, persecuted believers even to capital punishment for their refusal to cooperate. Even then, not every Christian was willing to give up all, even life, for Christ. There were martyrs, and there were apostates.

Then and now, the most common justification for martyrdom in the face of anti-Christian enemies has been the very word of Jesus, who says, ‘Every one, therefore, who shall confess me before men, I also will confess him before my Father who is in the heavens; and whoever shall deny me before men, I also will deny him before my Father who is in the heavens’ (Matthew 10:32-33). People tend to think in very simplistic ways when what Christ is saying is not simple, and when what He is saying is simple and direct, they tend to ‘muddy the waters’ by overthinking what He says, thereby excusing themselves from action, or explaining away His commands.

Confessing Christ before men, or denying Him, has more to do with how we live our lives than how we die. The words of Jesus are not spoken to provide a template for behavior in one specific situation to be applied to everyone. They are there to confirm for us a general principle that derives from the will of God, not to establish a law binding on all to disobey which is to disobey God and bring down divine punishment. In the gospels we have two examples of denying Christ with different endings. Judas denies Christ by leading His enemies to Him, and he hangs himself. Peter denies Christ after His arrest three times, repents, recovers, and lives.

During the ‘cold war’ era when atheistic communist governments tried to stamp out religion in predominantly Christian, even Orthodox, societies, there were many martyrs, many confessors who lost their property and civil rights and even their lives, by refusing to deny Christ in the manner required by the authorities. There were many more, however, who denied Christ, albeit passively, so as to keep what little they had, and live, even in very narrow and restricted conditions, so that when the time of oppression passed, they would be there to resurrect the Church, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. But did the latter really deny?

We are now faced with a menace that has emerged from the pit. It is not a new menace. It was always there, but it was chained, and now it has been let loose to ravage and despoil the earth and put its inhabitants to the sword, at least those who will not submit to it. I think we know who I am talking about. Since it began its terror, our lives in almost every country have been changed, our liberties curtailed for reasons of security, yet our governments in a show of exaggerated humanism and a false sense of fairness, open the door to this evil on one hand, and close it on the other. Not only Christians, but other faithful people as well, are put at risk.

For us Christians, if we find ourselves captured by this hellish horde that will kill us if we do not submit to their lying religion, we are instantly put on the spot to deny Christ and possibly be let live, or to confess Him and be joined to our holy ancestors. Our response, however, is no simpler than the words of Jesus, ‘Every one, therefore, who shall confess me before men…’ but we have been given the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate whom Christ sends us from the Father at all times, especially at extreme moments, and that wisdom, not any simplistic sentiment, must guide each of us on an ‘as they come’ basis. There is no ‘one template fits all.’

The recent martyrs of Libya—may they reign with their Lord forever—did the right thing, and they have taken the reward of their faith and their confession in Christ’s confession of their names before His heavenly Father. Yes, what else could they do? Even the one among them who was not a Christian but, seeing their faith, confessed ‘their God is my God,’ did what the wisdom of the Holy Spirit inspired. Without being baptized, without being instructed, he did what was right. Again, what else could he have done, or any of them? There are situations when we just know that there is no alternative, when confessing Christ means giving up our lives.

But in other situations, such as when terrorists break in on a crowd gathered in a shopping mall, or in a school, or in any confined area where they are not in control of the region, but only invaders, what then? How does confessing or denying Christ before men apply here? We have seen, here in America, when a deranged student has entered a school and held classmates hostage, how a young girl, when asked if she was a Christian answered that she was, was shot and killed. Did she die for her faith, for Christ? Of course, she did. Was it absolutely necessary? I think not, but at her age and following her understanding she did what she thought was right, and died.

That took courage, and yes, she is a martyr, and yes, God allowed it, but did He will it? There is no answer to a question like this, because the question cannot now be asked, but we can ask the question, whether faced with a similar situation, is there no other possible response? Are we denying the faith and Christ if we are forced to do something ceremonially despicable, such as trampling a crucifix or bible, or slashing an ikon, to save our lives? Or if we hide our Christianity (something we can and maybe must do if we live where satan is enthroned) by reciting a religious formula that denies our Nicene faith, so that we will be let go and allowed to live?

To be sure, the static view is to regard such acts as dissimulation and even apostasy, but though they may be the first, if they are the second they are only temporarily and provisionally so. Dissimulation (pretending to not be a Christian) is happening all around us every day, and even within ourselves. In Christian countries like America it happens so reliably that non-Christians can confidently claim that America is not a Christian land and never has been. Apostasy (falling away from the faith, actively denying Christ) is, I hope, less prevalent, but I know for certain that it is not constituted by words spoken or acts performed under threat of death.

Back to the example of Peter, who followed Christ after His arrest at a distance, wanting to keep close enough to see what was going on, but far away enough not to be captured with Him (in spite of his rash confession ‘I will die with you’), he denied Christ by spoken words three times, exactly as Jesus predicts, who also says, ‘after you recover, strengthen the others.’ It is evident from this that Christ knows all about people, all about Peter, all about each one of us. He knows who will go to their deaths for Him in what circumstances and why. He knows who will outwardly deny Him and for what reasons as well. He knows who really do deny or confess Him as well.

The Church, just like Christ, is ‘the same yesterday, today, and forever,’ but this neither implies a static, literalist conservatism (which is legalism no matter how it is disguised), nor does it mean that there can be no further developments in faith and practice in the Church’s encounter with the world in every age and place. Just because we may believe or live the faith in a different way than our holy and God-bearing ancestors does not mean that we have changed anything about the faith or about Christ. Our response to persecution, for example, can match that of the ancients, or not. The Holy Spirit, not any protocol, guides us and provides for us what to say and do.

The Church in Roman times was faced with the problem of what to do with those who had apostatized, believers who offered incense to Caesar, or who bought forged certificates saying that they had, or clergy who had delivered to the authorities sacred scriptures or other holy things. The problem even split the Church for awhile into factions of those who were for pardoning them and those who were against it. The faction for pardoning them won out, but the ‘apostates’ were given very stiff terms to be readmitted to the Church. Was the Church right in doing this? How can we judge them by the standards of the Church today, or how can we judge the contemporary Church by the standards of earlier times?

It seems impossible, and impious, to judge the decrees of the earlier Church; some would say, blasphemous, as well. I don’t think so, but neither do I think we can judge them. Neither do I think we must slavishly copy them either, even though we usually do. Neither do I think we must hold the modern Church to every standard of the Church in prior ages. Actually, we don’t, not in actual practice, though we don’t like to admit it. We like to think that the Church’s unchanging nature means that our faith and practice are absolutely identical to that of the fourth century, itself exactly the same as that of the first generation, both comfortable myths.

Part of the maturity of Christianity is to literally accept as true what Jesus tells us in the gospel, ‘I have yet many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth’ (John 16:12-13). The wonderful thing about John’s gospel is that it reveals how in just one lifetime—that of the beloved disciple, who was also the guardian and adopted son of the Theotokos—the message delivered in the narrative of the synoptic gospels has ripened and matured in the mind of the Church to the extent that the words of Jesus begin to be understood in their universal aspect, dimensionally enhanced by the Holy Spirit.

The words ‘I have yet many things to tell you’ have been repeatedly used by every heretic and false prophet almost from the day they were made public, and yet the Church has never been deceived, at least not for long. We know almost instinctively (I say ‘almost instinctively’ because it is not by instinct, but by the Spirit) when it is the Lord speaking in our time and place beyond the pages of the Book, because the ‘eternal Gospel’ is not dead letter, not containable even in the Book. ‘There are also many other things which Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that not even the world itself could contain the books that would be written. Amen’ (John 21:25).

By writing ‘also many other things which Jesus did’ the evangelist confirms the very words of Christ he records earlier in his gospel, ‘whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father’ (John 14:12). It is sayings like these that reveal how much the Lord has bestowed upon us, how much freedom to be used with wisdom He has granted us, making us the bearers not only of His uncreated words but of God Himself, proving for ever that ‘He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world’ (1 John 4:4). By this, not by any other standard, do we confess Him or deny, by this do we live for Him, or die.

1 comment:

Sasha said...

Great post, brother, on a "difficult" topic.